My Ancestors tell me: We are in an emergency. We have to slow down. – Bayo Akomolafe
Telling someone to ‘Relax!’ rarely has the desired effect. ‘Be spontaneous!’ fails for similar reasons. Injunctions have limitations. It is foolish to demand what should be invited, or force what can only be elicited. Emerge is the name of our platform and gathering. There is no hidden exclamation mark, nor a rallying cry. When we attend to the interplay of all the complex systems within us, between us and beyond us, some epistemic humility should arise. We don’t know what is going on. We are not in control.
There is power in this provisional surrender. Political vision is often tempered by unpredictability, but it can also be inspired and directed by it. Emergence emerges, in its own sweet time and way. And because we are part of it, how we choose to respond to the experience of what is emerging will make all the difference in the world.
Emerge, you say? Forgive me if I would rather act.
But is the world not on fire? Is this not a time of nuclear hurricanes, vanishing islands and drowning refugees? Did I not feel that toxic cocktail of anger, fear, disbelief and powerlessness again? Do we not watch in despair as man-child plutocrats close our parliaments, cage our children and burn our forests?
Emerge, you say? Forgive me if I would rather act. Let me get arrested for blockading a bridge, let me create a new online currency, let me build a different kind of political party, invest in solar technology; something, anything, where I can feel the results of my actions.
Go ahead. Such actions are necessary, but others are acting with perspectives, interests and intentions that may never align with our own. Fossil fuel barons, data kleptocrats and proto-fascists also have action plans, and they are usually more single-minded and better funded than those who would resist them.
Normality is mostly something unconsciously given, not consciously created.
And when we call for action, we should not ignore the provenance of the jeans we are wearing and the coffee we are drinking, and all the other daily affordances we take for granted in our privileged and globalised lives; peer into those supply chains and see how much is done for us, to us, with our presumed consent. The point is not that we are guilty or hypocritical, but that we’re confused. We are ethically entangled in the props of social life and unreasonably complicit in their untold stories.
The Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously said that we are suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun
. The ‘we’ in question may be a lingering shadow of decades long since gone. Our sense of how we should act is profoundly shaped by history, and a grounded but limiting sense of who we are and what is possible. We are more than our governance structures, political economies, technologies and cultural circumstances, but not that much more – we have to fight for the difference, and education
plays a key part in that. Unless we can combine our agency and our imagination, our visions for a better world will remain, as Sting once put it, like butterflies trapped in a spider’s web.
Our sense of what is normal is mostly constructed for us, not by us. Whether we call it our collective imaginary, our sacred canopy, or simply our culture, normality is mostly something unconsciously given, not consciously created; something we are, not really something we have. Our sense of what is normal – the political spectrum, consumerism, the working week – such things can be deconstructed and recreated, and they have to be, but it cannot happen easily or quickly. That realisation that reimagining the world is both necessary and difficult; that’s part of what is emerging.
Our eagerness to act is understandable, but it leads to unintended consequences. In Angels Fear
Gregory Bateson writes:
“I have very little sympathy for these arguments from the world’s ‘need’. I notice that those who pander to its needs are often well paid. I distrust the applied scientists’ claim that what they do is useful and necessary. I suspect that their impatient enthusiasm for action, their rarin’-to-go, is not just a symptom of impatience, nor is it pure buccaneering ambition. I suspect that it covers deep epistemological panic.”
Epistemological panic. It’s not just that we don’t know what to do, but that our sense of what to do is driven by cultural reactivity grounded in emotional compulsion, rather than clear perception or deep understanding.
So what, then, is emerging? One answer is that the world is becoming less intelligible. The cognitive function that drove the enlightenment and reigned supreme is now humiliated
like ‘climate change’, ‘inequality’ and ‘AI’. The prevailing notions that shape political understanding are beyond our cognitive and emotional capacity to grasp fully, and yet they are thoroughly implicated in our daily experience and presumed political agency. This dissonance between what we feel expected to understand
and what we actually feel
, and actually understand
, confounds our capacity to make sense, or act with conviction.
We no longer have a print media where messages can be carefully spun for mass consumption; people are ‘prosumers’ of information now.
There was a time, before globalisation took hold, before digitalisation changed our political sensibilities, before the climate crisis became palpable, before 9/11 and all that followed, when we could at least imagine planning a coordinated action plan or social change programme. The apotheosis of this approach was the Mont Pelerin Society which began through Friedrich Hayek’s initiative in 1947, whereby leading academics, journalists and politicians met in response to threats of collectivism and state coercion. Through writings and policy design and support for political leaders they built the infrastructure for what we now call neoliberalism, elegantly summarised by Will Davies as ‘The state-led remaking of society along the model of the market.’
Many view neoliberalism as a nightmare from which we must awake, driving socially corrosive inequality and climate collapse, but the Mont Pelerin society see themselves as heroes and liberators, not villains; and from a strategic perspective they were phenomenally successful in achieving their aims. Mont Pelerin matters as a counterpoint to Emerge, because progressive organisations sometimes speak of narrative and policy and movement building as if they were trying to replicate the strategy. As a guide to action the top-down approach of creating a story and building a policy programme around it is what the French call un faux ami – a false friend – something resembling a right answer that is actually off the mark.