New Ways #1: The future is….?

On the evening of January 31st 2020, to a backdrop of constant storms, dire forecasts and flood warnings, I went to the pub nearest my parents’ house. I wanted to commune in some way with others, to make some kind of ritual observance of the passing of our collective European identity. Staring into the murky ale, I tried to negotiate a strong sense of having become untethered, and drifting into dark, unmapped waters. Three days previously, I had done something similar. Sitting through the night in front of an open fire at my parents’ house, I quietly put one log after another on until dawn, with some loosely formed idea of sitting in vigil over my father’s safe passage to another realm. Having lived my life up to this point as both a European and my father’s son, within the space of days, I found myself adrift from both of those anchors.

Skip forward ten weeks. Untethering has become a theme. We have become untethered from the future itself.

Ostensibly, this piece of writing is the first blog post for ‘New Ways’, a project I was going to spend much of this year on — ‘a 220 mile pilgrimage on foot, collecting and sharing acts towards and visions of a positive future society.’ I started writing it in late February, came back to it mid-March, scrapping large portions of it that had become irrelevant in the intervening weeks. I came back to that draft a week ago, and scrapped most of it again, since the world and its future has changed immeasurably since then.

The phrase ‘Another Future’ emerged out of my preparation for the project, a catch-all banner for anyone lost at sea or raging against the tide in Johnson’s post-Brexit Britain. On the basis that ‘the sharing of possible futures is a first step towards bringing them into being’, I intended the phrase as a point of convergence for the disaffected, the disillusioned and the dissenters, those with other ideas. Dougald Hine, co-founder of the influential Dark Mountain Project and A School Called Home, wrote about the project:

“What could be more urgent, in these shadowed times, than the need to slow down? We need storytellers with feet on the ground, moving from place to place, weaving a human thread between all the pockets of hope that often seem too small and fragile to put our faith in. This pilgrimage feels like an act of weaving, stitching together the torn fabric, starting from where we find ourselves.”

All of that still stands, and the walking pilgrimage itself will still definitely happen, but the question of where we find ourselves is even more unclear than it was four months ago. And wherever we are, what does the future look like from here?

image credit: Laura Page photography

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, an asylum seeker in Sheffield for twelve years and counting. We talked about his response to his situation. During the conversation he told me that he has no future, a statement I found shocking at the time. But to be in the limbo of asylum is to be completely at the mercy of forces beyond your control, and therefore, to be denied the opportunity to imagine your future. I’ve found myself coming back to that conversation in recent weeks, finally able to appreciate from my own perspective the impossibility of imagining a future, because of the vast unpredictability of a current situation. The future, it seems, is a privilege.

So what does it mean to be in this moment-of-no-future? What can we take from it? The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is not infact a government department, but ‘a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging’. In their COVID-19 statement, they suggest that ‘This is a moment for us to recognize our collective interdependence and to strengthen our practices of collective care.’ (thanks to Sophie Hope for drawing my attention to USDAC)

If we take that on, then the most obvious and widespread manifestation of ‘collective care’ to be found in these moments is in the networks of Mutual Aid groups that have sprung up across the country and the world in the face of Coronavirus. The writer and activist D Hunter writes that ‘despite a decade or twenty of propaganda by the owning and ruling class, a large number of us maintain a level of recognition that we aren’t just individuals, that our entanglements with one another matter, and that we are both reliant on each other and responsible for one another.’ As Hunter also recognises, these groups have and continue to have their problems. Sheffield Transformative Justice Learning Group note that ‘mutual aid groups, as activist groups, are susceptible to reproducing abusive power dynamics.’ A friend recently told me how they suffered racial abuse within the context of a mutual aid group, to such an extent that they were contacted afterwards by the police, to see if they were alright. So careful consideration of STJLG’s question ‘How can we best respond to the harm and abuse that unfolds in mutual aid groups?’ is hugely important, especially at a time when the vast majorities of these interactions take place online, and the targets of attacks are much more likely to be isolated and alone.

While keeping those questions at the forefront, it feels equally important to recognise the value and implications of the emergence of these groups, and consider how they might continue to be important beyond the current situation. To illustrate that, lets go back to the tail end of 2019.

Many of my friends were out campaigning for the Labour party. I felt conflicted because I didn’t join the Labour party in support of Corbyn, despite all of the good reasons to get involved. I couldn’t and cannot see it as anything but an irretrievably rotten institution, incapable of anything other than a hovering state of looming implosion. In the soul-destroying aftermath of the election, what was most clear was that the huge door-to-door campaign had disastrously failed to connect. It had in no way persuaded those it needed to persuade that the Labour party is the party of the people. The best commentators on that from within the organisation were of the opinion that it was too little too late. If anything had been learnt, it was that you can’t tell people what to believe if you’re not already enacting those beliefs alongside them.

In a sense, the pandemic has achieved in this country what the Labour party has failed to, in bringing large groups of the population together with a common purpose at grassroots level. Back to D Hunter: “Mutual Aid is about acknowledging our dependency on one another, that our strength and ability to respond to structural violence are reliant on us working together. It starts with a collective response to each of our basic survival needs, but it builds towards more than just the basic, it builds towards equity, towards agency and autonomy for those of who aren’t a part of the economic and political elite. It builds towards the end of Capitalism and the State.”

So, while we are in this untethered state, if it is possible to hope for the future , if there is a ‘what if?’, then here is mine: What if the mutual aid networks of people all over the world, connected by shared endeavour, struggle and interdependence, could manage their inherent problems enough to collectively realise that the structures they have formed could reduce or one day remove the need for central government? In short, what if this is the moment for a re-wilding of politics?

I want to finish by returning to the question of how to reframe my call for ‘Another Future’ for these times. The reason for setting out on this project remains as a point of gathering for people with ideas for how things might be better in the future. We must now add to that the question of ‘better than what?’. Through one lens, we are more free than in living memory to imagine positive futures for ourselves and the planet, so let’s try to collectively inhabit that space.

So here’s how you can help me do that. In response to the prompt ‘The future is…?’, I’d love you to engage your imagination in these moments; to send your thoughts, hopes, fears, utopian dreams, dystopian nightmares, and projected realities to me. If you do have a scanner and printer, I’d love you to use this template but don’t worry if you can’t, or, indeed, can’t be bothered:

I’d encourage formats that will work on paper i.e text and images, as submissions may ultimately form part of a journal or publication. Existing work is welcome, and although I’m writing this from a UK context, I’m equally interested in global responses. I’d really love handwritten responses but only if you can scan, please don’t send anything in the post right now. I’m at info@iannesbitt.co.uk.

Art: iannesbitt.co.uk / Film: outsidefilm.org.uk / Food Activism: openkitchensocialclub.com / Writing: here

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