In many years working at Parliament, I used to get immensely frustrated when people told me “politics is the art of the possible”.
But, after years of thinking it through, I’ve realised it’s true. It’s just utterly misinterpreted.
It doesn’t mean (as most campaigners, think tanks, lobbyists, journalists and commentators think it does) that we should temper our demands to make them more politically palatable. It doesn’t mean we should couch our campaigns in values and terms that fit into current political priorities.
If we do that, we buttress and support the existing system — a political and economic system that is skewed against us; a system that sees private profits as more important than people and planet; a system that entrenches inequality, that holds back action on climate change, that keeps us divided.
But neither does it mean we can just baldly declare we are going to do the impossible. Bashing our head against that wall is why so many of us have headaches so much of the time.
What it means is that we have to change what is possible.
As good as a holiday
The only way we can create a world in line with our four pillars — green, peaceful, equitable and democratic — is by changing the system. For example, the only way we can tackle climate change — and ensure that communities are resilient enough to withstand the climate change already locked in — is by shifting the culture, changing what is possible.
If this weren’t enough, it’s becoming increasingly clear that change is on its way regardless. While signs have been pointing in this direction for some time, the phenomena of Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Pauline Hanson and more show that the neoliberal consensus our system rests on is rapidly disintegrating. Troublingly, the far right is doing a much better job of recruiting people left behind by this disintegration than us.
This is no surprise. It is far easier to convince alienated, disconnected people to turn against a scary ‘other’ than to come together. It is far easier to convince disenchanted, disenfranchised people not to trust ‘experts’, ‘science’, or ‘elites’. In a very real sense, the racism, sexism, violence and denialism now so prevalent in our politics is the predictable result of two generations of corporate-led hyper-individualism.
But we have a better story to tell to overcome alienation — a story of compassion rather than hate, optimism rather than revenge, cooperation rather than splintering. Because the right’s solutions appeal to our baser instincts, they can never make life better for most people — frankly, it’s not their intention. Our solutions are designed to improve people’s lives in a fairer, greener world.
So, what’s the Green Institute going to do about all this? As a tiny organisation, we obviously cannot deliver massive systemic change.
What we can do is stimulate others. We can create the space for others to move into, provide tools and forums for discussing new ideas, and develop close links with other organisers and organisations with the capacity to reach many more people.
We are carefully selecting strategic points of intervention, looking to work on issues which, by being raised and prosecuted, stretch the bounds of our current political discourse, call into question the political and economic system, and tell a powerful, inspiring story.
The success of the neoliberal reality-shaping campaign rested on strategic interventions which both made it difficult for governments to roll back their actions and began to alter the way people think about politics. Reducing taxes, for example, is about both undermining governments’ capacity to invest in social programs and infrastructure as well as crafting a new political reality in which tax is an imposition to be relieved and individuals are better placed to know how to spend their money than we as a society are collectively.
From the opposite direction, working towards a Universal Basic Income is about reversing punitive approaches to welfare, but it’s also about rebuilding the ideal of universalism, rewriting the relationship between employers and employees, and preparing for a future where there is less work to go around. Campaigning for ad-free zones and removing the tax deductibility for advertising is about reducing corporate subsidies, but it’s also about reclaiming public space from corporate colonisation and reducing the barrage of messages to consume which deliberately alienate us and make us unhappy. Enabling the establishment of tool libraries and repair cafes is about reducing waste and consumption, but it’s also about revitalising communities, reconnecting people, repairing the damage caused by 50 years of capitalist individualism.
As well as carefully choosing issues to work on, we can work in ways which build social and political engagement — being the change we wish to see in the world.
We’re not going to be about publishing research papers and releasing them into the world. We want to stimulate discussion around our work, use it to engage people more deeply, and bring more people into engagement with political ideas. If the problems we face are driven by disengagement, disenfranchisement and alienation, the solutions have to bring people together.
That’s why we’re currently recruiting a community organiser and an online communications specialist whose jobs will be all about engaging people in new and interesting ways. The organiser’s role will be to implement a discussion groups program, inspiring people to get involved in conversations about ideas over meals. They’ll translate papers we publish into discussion guides and work with people and communities across the country to facilitate conversations. The online comms specialist will help us build positively engaged communities through our website and social media.
Want to be part of changing what’s possible? Come and work with us at the Green Institute!
Tim Hollo is the Executive Director of The Green Institute, and is a highly respected environmentalist and musician. He served as Communications Director for Christine Milne until 2013.