CtrlShift: An emergency summit for change

Jay Tompt talks about a forthcoming festival to foment radical change.

March 24, 2018
8 min read

Photo: Sean P. Anderson. Flickr.

Let me begin with a broad and possibly controversial statement: we don’t have an effective movement for positive change in this country. True, there are many of us working for a new economics, or a new politics, or still struggling to make progress for ‘the environment’. We may self-identify as being part of the ‘progressive movement’, ‘environmental movement’, ‘new economy movement’, ‘new politics movement’, etc. But these disparate strands have yet to converge.

Are there any among us who believe that now we have May, or the Tories, or ‘the neoliberal capitalist system’ right where we want them? That the tide is turning and our time is right around the next bend? Actually, yes there are. But we’re as susceptible to confirmation bias and cognitive illusion as those with whom we fundamentally disagree. And amongst ourselves, we can be as territorial about our work and sources of income as any other primate species. Of course we should have hope, but we must be honest with ourselves if we’re to meet the enormous challenges we face.

The lessons of history teach us that 40 years of ‘neoliberal’ deindustralization have brought economic and social upheaval in our big manufacturing centres. Fertile conditions for movement building, one would have thought. But let’s also remind ourselves that before Thatcher was no golden age. The gray and oppressive concrete Brutalist architecture stands as an apt metaphor for that era.

In more recent times, war in the Middle East, based on obvious lies and corporate greed, launched despite millions protesting in the streets. We tell ourselves that the financial crash of 2008 ‘discredited’ capitalism. The massive bailout of the banks and the mean austerity imposed since, again created fertile ground for a counter movement. But if anything, we’re even deeper in thrall to this system. And while we were looking the other way, the referendum happened.

People in those places where a movement for positive change could have been thriving felt, perhaps, they had nothing to look forward to and therefore nothing to lose. Certainly, there are people in these places working for positive change, but there was no collective ‘movement’ – or at least, not one effective enough to be visible and persuasive. That so many of these deindustrialised cities voted Brexit surprised the left-wing urban intellectual elite is, in itself, surprising and telling.

The ‘Brexit surprise’ illustrates the disconnect between London and the rest of the country. One might argue that London is the first of five nations comprising the UK, with it’s own priorities, culture, and orientation to the world. London is where the politics and campaigns of ‘systems change’ are presumed to happen. It’s the source of funds for the ‘charitable-industrial-complex’ powering the programmes that would bring change making new ideas and models to the hinterlands, but too often missing opportunities to connect with what’s already happening on the ground or to leave a legacy beyond the funded work.

This isn’t the whole story. There was surprise in other parts, too. And wherever we are, we’re all guilty of working away in our siloes. We clamour for funds, put our heads down to deliver results, and repeat. The renewable energy people here, don’t talk to the food sovereignty people over there, who don’t have time to engage the ‘new economy’ people next door, or the many other disparate streams of transformative work that would make a whole. There are some who’s theory of change hasn’t delivered in 40 years but now, for some reason, expect a different result. On the other hand, there are many initiatives that are working, but these exemplar projects are still too few and disconnected to represent a strong political voice. They’re fetishized but not replicated. And too often, funders are attracted to the bright, shiny novelty, rather than the boring but effective.

The massive, complex challenges we face cannot be met by continuing as we are and expecting a different result. A win by Corbyn and the ‘New Old Labour’ would be welcomed but won’t nearly be sufficient. The chaos of Brexit may reverberate for years or even decades. Meantime, climate change, destruction of biosphere, depletion of fishing stocks, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility, disintegration of community life – Britain is arguably the worst place to raise children in the OECD countries. If we are to meet these and other challenges effectively, those of us who would self identify as being part of a movement for positive change have got to be honest about what really works, what doesn’t, and be willing to change, ourselves.

Granted, the above is a bit harsh, but honest. There are many reasons to have hope, and there is a massive opportunity to make change, but only, I would argue, if we’re willing to work differently, find low-cost ways of aligning and collaborating, and develop diverse, heterogeneous networks at appropriate scales.

This is the rationale for ‘CtrlShift: an emergency summit for change’, (Mar 27-29 in Wigan), a space for a diverse collection of people from a range of organisations, networks, initiatives and campaigns, to begin a process that might result in new collaborations and the beginnings of a renewed, more joined up movement for positive change. It’s being organised by just such a collection of people from diverse geographies, representing diverse analyses, theories of change, and lines of work. And so, CtrlShift won’t be a ‘conference as usual.’ Participants will collectively identify opportunities for alignment, further collaboration and agree practical next steps.

Perhaps this will be the first of several more such events – there are already similar regional events, such as the Devon Convergence, where diverse actors in this proto-movement meet, collaborate, build relationships, identify opportunities to spread innovations that are working, share know how and resources, practice solidarity, and create the conditions for a wider movement to emerge. These are just the sorts of outcomes we might hope for from CtrlShift, as well, so creating additional such spaces would be good for movement building.

Other strategies and models around which our budding movement might align:

  • Bringing natural monopolies like railways, energy, telecommunications into public-cooperative ownership. Models put forward by John Restakis, Go-Op and others may be a path forward. This includes massive support for decentralised ownership and production of clean, renewable energy – redirecting fossil fuel subsidies, fixing planning laws, would help.
  • New national, regional and municipal political projects, inspired by non-party parties like Alternativet in Denmark, the ‘New Municipalism’ of En Comú in Barcelona, and at smaller scales, Flatpack Democracy.
  • Regional economic development led by and accountable to citizens. This includes the ‘community wealth building’ of the Preston example, as well as numerous models of pro-social endogenous investment and entrepreneurship. This implies an overhaul or replacement of the Local Enterprise Partnership regime.
  • Addressing the land question by identifying ownership, ‘re-commoning’ and ‘re-appropriating’ historically enclosed and appropriated land, and making the Community Land Trust model a cultural norm, supported by reformed legislation and an overhauled planning system.
  • Food – we need to invest heavily in our small, agro-ecological producers and develop alternatives to the EU and global supply chains upon which we are utterly dependent.

These are areas where there is already good work being done but could be advanced further if a broader movement recognised them as common objectives. There are other important initiatives, too – these are just some examples of what might be prioritised by CtrlShift participants. We’ll see.

So, we can continue as we are, arguing about the 10% upon which we disagree, competing for funded work and greater mindshare of policy makers, and hope things will change. Or we can find ways to come together and build a joined up, diverse movement and actively shift power by our deeds. CtrlShift will just be a first step in a long journey, but we can go far if we go together.