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A Crisis of Agency
Don't let them tell you it's not possible
Last week I interviewed Indra Adnan author, political entrepreneur and founder of The Alternative UK political platform. She joined me to discuss the problem with narratives peddled by mainstream media, the power of story, and how to reimagine the story of now in order to get people excited about building a new future together.
The most critical message that came from our discussion was the importance of highlighting possibility. We must keep reminding ourselves, and our communities, that change is fundamentally possible, and the one coherent through-line of history. Stasis is not a societal norm, transformation is.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome
Our ignorance towards the past makes the future invisible. Environmentalists are now investigating Shifting Baseline Syndrome, a psychological and sociological phenomenon which sees people’s accepted thresholds for environmental conditions be continually lowered. Not only do we get used to things being worse, but we essentially perceive the new standard as normal.
This “new normal” is a world with a high risk of pandemics, extreme weather events, displaced populations, species extinction, and melting ice caps. This new normal is made up of increasing wealth gaps and monopolistic power. This new normal is built on the back of that which has always been normal: exploitation, extractivism and inequality.
Everything is at risk, and everything must change. We cannot win the fight against the climate crisis with the new normal, and we can’t win it with the old normal. But the past is a crowbar in a time of crisis.
During the Second World War, the highest marginal tax rate for top earners in the USA was 94%. This was, of course, to help fund the war effort—but even after the Allies won, the USA’s top rate remained at 91% into the 1960s. In fact, high taxes were the norm in capitalist countries like the United States until the reign of Thatcher and Reagan, who cut the top rate from 70% to 28% by the time he left office.
Despite a 70% tax rate being the norm just four decades ago, suggesting anything close to that would leave Americans on both sides of the aisle frothing at the mouth. Sweden now boasts the highest tax rate in the world at a mere 53%. And not only are we under-taxing our wealthiest around the globe, they also now exploit tax havens and legal loopholes to ensure their money is kept out of the public purse. Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, two of the world’s wealthiest men, have successfully avoided paying income tax throughout the years. The UK alone lost an estimated £35 billion in tax last year to avoidance, fraud and non-payment. All sense of justice and equity has been lost to history; the Left may ask for more from those who have the most, but even mainstream parties seem to have lost sense of what constitutes a fair share.
Everything is Possible
Things must be able to be different because things have always been different, and they have always been becoming different. Indra and I discuss this idea of becoming in the episode, and it made me think of the etymology of the word, which is to move towards. To become a thing is to move towards; it is, by definition, evolutionary, directional, fluid.
Becoming is a word and an action full of movement. It is not about arriving at the destination, but attempting to navigate towards the destination. One becomes the thing by trying and, eventually, one day, one simply is; the world becomes a new thing by the very truth of possibility, by the very act of experimenting.
We suffer from this illusion that a whole new world order must spring up from the ground fully formed, and I wonder if that is because capitalism seems so entrenched in every single part of our lives, from how we relate to one another, to ourselves, to the state. It dictates and manages every aspect of our relationships and seems impossible to overcome. Following on, it is impossible to think that the world could be any other way because, in order for the world to be any other way, it would have to spring up fully formed; if capitalism has its grip on the very fabric of our being in the world then a new world order would have to appear from the thin air of something else.
But there is no something else, and capitalism’s grip does not detract from experimentation nor possibility, it simply makes the struggle harder. Despite its grip, people are experimenting all over the world building feminist economies, circular economies, care economies. Communities are creating their own currencies, restructuring their local governance, even daring to rewrite constitutions. People are launching their own nonprofit media platforms, running broadcasts, trying to spread different stories. Even in the most neoliberal countries in the world, unions are striking against the continuation of the strangled status quo.
There is wiggle room, and in the very movement of that wiggle room is the act of becoming.
Part of the fallacy of our hegemony, and likely every historic hegemony, is that things simply cannot be different. This is a deliberate oppression of people’s agency, undoubtedly playing on some underdeveloped part of our neuropsychology that, for all our innovation, falls prey to tunnel vision.
But perhaps even our concept of agency has been marred by decades of neoliberal, individualist culture. Can we find another word that highlights interpersonal agency? The agency of relationships? Does the idea of a co-agency undermine the very limitations of imagination thrust upon a people coerced into competition?
What agency can we find in being honest with one another in? In collaborating together? That, fundamentally, is what agency is, because no individual exists within a vacuum, no thing exists within a vacuum. Everything is relational, from quantum physics to international politics. The fact that we don’t build our politics around our human relationships, but rather around the relationships between financial institutions and state apparatus is absurd.
The agency of the individual must lie within their relationships. How do you find the language to bring that forth? To highlight the in-between-ness of everything. Everything only exists in in-betweenness, in becoming, in relation.
It is the space in-between in which things flourish and are, in the hyphen of possibility, a platform for a new world.
We falsely identify A and B as individual entities, perhaps conjoined by a linearity of direction, but A and B are made fluid by their relationship to one another, and therefore by definition fluid entities. It is in that very fluidity, the movement of those relationships of being between A and B, that possibility and potential arises.
We must almost stay away from the poles of A and B, fixed identity, fixed beliefs, fixed anything in order to have that wiggle room to become, or to bring something else into existence. But, far from the poles, uncertainty reigns.
Yet, uncertainty should be the principle with which we understand life as a human being, and the existence of life more broadly speaking. Nothing is certain—not even our continued survival on this planet. Of course, that feels too precarious in a modern world which institutionalises precarity in order to drive its citizens towards obedience in order to provide for the economy.
Uncertainty, however, is less frightening when we understand that it is between two things which you are already in relationship with.
We are each in relation with 2, 3, 10, 100, 1000 things—that’s why we can be in-between, and that’s why we can be uncertain and still held together by the world. We are all held by these relationships, balanced on the web of their connection, even in uncertainty. It is connection which keeps us safe, and it is in the safety of this uncertainty that we can create wiggle room.
Uncertainty is a mode being safe and keeping one another safe because it highlights the strengths and the needs of our relationships, rather than moving towards one pole or another. It is heterogenous, it is complex, like an ecosystem, and, very much like an ecosystem, it highlights the dimensionality of being alive, rather than this entrapped stasis that our economy would have us believe is the only way of existing.
We must keep telling ourselves and each other that things are possible because things will only ever be possible if we are willing to move towards that space. We must also remind ourselves that that space, of in-betweenness, is where they will most feel their relationships, where they will most feel connected to every other thing.
The in-betweenness is an epicentre, in a sense. It is the centre of a circle: whole, between, apart, together.
Facing uncertainty demands and understanding and appreciation of holism, and holism can only be understood with an acceptance of the uncertainty of not knowing everything.
It is in the very not knowing that possibility emerges, and it is only possibility that will see us through.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it. To support the project, become a paid subscriber.