The Prime Minister says, “Brexit means Brexit,” and the critics guffaw and ‘mansplain’ the nonsense of it. But surely, its meaning is precisely what’s being contested in this historical moment. All the forces are at work, jostling to fill the media with their frames, theories, and policy recommendations. Who knows what boardroom schemes are being hatched behind the scenes? Land, food, new economics—these budding movements cannot sit on the sidelines and wait to see where the chips fall. It’s the titanic struggle to put the stamp on what’s next. It makes for exhilarating times. Hegel would be peeing his pants.
By now, the slogany neologism already represents much and on many levels. Perhaps, for the PM, Brexit means leaving the EU and nothing more. Pundits counter that Brexit has revealed a previously ‘hidden’ and polarising dynamic in British society—immigration. But the underlying causes of attitudes around immigration, as well as predictors of the leave vote, have more to do with deprivations of income, employment opportunity, and education. At least according to a recent study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities.
These deprivations are a result of de-industrialisation and a 40-year full-body embrace of a globalising neoliberal economic system dominated by a shrinking number of powerful corporations and banks, supranational organisations, and governments armed with corporate trade treaties and other weapons of massive consequence. And so there is another meaning, that Brexit represents both an explicit and implicit, (and perhaps, ironic,) repudiation of globalisation and neoliberalism. Right now, this is finding its vilest expression in a rising far-right populism, scapegoating, and violence. These same dynamics are clearly at work in Europe and the United States.
The Brexit referendum stands for democracy in it’s purest expression, some argue, but for many it is the bitterest irony. Real democracy in the UK, Europe and US seems to be rapidly diminishing, while government institutions, political systems and mass media are openly influenced by money, corporate power, and demagogues. Inequality is getting worse. Injustice is on a winning streak.
But Brexit also represents a system rupture. Dominant political and social energies are fragmented, confused and chaotic. There’s fear of the known unknowns of what leaving the EU will entail: the end of Common Agricultural Policy, negotiating new subsidies and new trade agreements, status of EU residents, and so on. The list is so long it will take years to resolve all of the technical implications. More interesting are the resulting shock waves set to reverberate through the hard and soft tissues of the British body politic. Consider: the UK is only 61% food self sufficient, according to DEFRA. But over two thirds of the entire country is owned by just 6,000 landlords, mainly the Crown, Church, and the landed artisticracy, according to author Kevin Cahill. Meanwhile, the planet is warming at an unprecendented rate and we’re likely to blow past 1.5°C, and probably 2°C, according to NASA. Our movement is full of systems thinkers and complexity theorists and so we know to expect more ruptures and surprises — the unknown unknowns. And we know that in the current chaos and uncertainty, this is our opportunity to make progress and maybe even profound change—could Brexit actually mean something good?
It’s possible, but we, as a movement, have to understand and adapt to new conditions. We can’t continue working as we have done over the last decade and expect a different result, can we? We need more practical action, preferably together and in more joined up ways. This means busting out of professional silos and cultural bubbles to explore adjacent possibilities. As a committed, if imperfect, systems thinker, I confess immediately that I don’t claim to have the answer, but I argue for three adjacent possibilities that might get us started.
The first possibility is to build an aligned and joined up movement comprising those working to create alternatives to neoliberal economics at all scales, increase access to land, grow sustainable agriculture, build affordable housing, generate green and clear energy, mobilise community-led development, build local resilience. This is beginning to happen already, which is cause for optimism.
Several ‘convergence’-style events this autumn are modelling a smart new pulse of movement building. In the ‘new economy’ arena, the Institute of Solidarity Economy are hosting folks from a number of somewhat isolated strands of the ‘new economy’ movement, with connectivity and collaboration the main topics of conversation. Another two events co-organised by Local Futures, Economy for the Common Good, and Greenhouse seek to do the same. On a related front, Land For What?, is co-organised by a diverse group of activists and organisers, including Shared Assets, The Land Worker’s Alliance, Radical Housing Network, and others working on land-use, food production, affordable housing, inequality, new economics and community building. It aims to spark more joined up thinking and activity among these strands. There are similar convergences springing up in the hinterlands, such as the Devon Convergence, which aims to connect activists and organisers in that region. It’s planned for March 2017 in Torbay, a coastal urban area with characteristics typical of those that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU.
Permaculture Association has been thinking about this, too, and is about to launch a new initiative that aims to weave these kinds of diverse and interconnected networks in a different way. They’re launching an ambassador programme, which will mobilise young activists across the country to build local networks and connect the dots at the cellular level.
During our conversation, Ryan Sandford-Blackburn, the project organiser, made the case for more horizontal, collaborative and diverse networks, as opposed to more meta-structures and hierarchies. Acquaintance creates the conditions for relationships, collaboration, cross-pollination, resource and knowledge sharing, innovation and replication of what works. “We need to accelerate the process,” he says.
This is spot on. For me, this also means working at human scale—local, multi-local, and regional—in ways that deliver high ‘EROEI’, so to speak, for participants. It makes no sense for people working in the same geographic space on green energy, climate change, new economics, food sovereignty, land access, housing to work in isolation. Connections can begin simply through meeting people for coffee or attending each other’s events. Regional convergence events make sense, too. Fluid, connected, and diverse, these networks of relationships create fertile conditions for innovation and productivity to emerge and thrive—the conditions for rapid change. This is about aligned and collaborative action not more meetings; my friend, Maria Llanos, calls it ‘leadership in complexity’. And anyway, it leads to more ambitious regional-scale collaborations.
The second adjacent possibility is making regional, community-led economic development a priority. The kind that creates abundant opportunities for people to meet their needs, is ecologically benign or regenerative, inclusive, accountable, just, and so on. And especially in regions where it’s needed most. Too many people lack opportunities to meet their basic needs. That’s not just. When people’s needs are being met, there’s more wellbeing and less space for xenophobia and far-right politics.
This kind of development would provide real alternatives to carbon-intensive goods and services, produce new livelihoods, begin de-coupling from global supply chains, improve ecological health, meet needs outside market exchange, and improve community wellbeing. It could also begin to decentralise economic power and create spaces for new politics and democratic practices to emerge.
This isn’t utopian—we can only do what we can do. There’s a huge stock of working examples to follow, but we have to stop talking about these exemplar models and start implementing them—widely and deeply. Therefore, we need more of the new kind of entrepreneur/permie/activist/organiser who are mobilising local social and financial capital to start community land trusts, new farms and community supported agriculture schemes, land-based enterprises, renewable energy co-operatives and other kinds of progressive enterprises.
Community groups, ‘convergence networks’, and local authorities can create supportive conditions that encourage new enterprises to form and become self-sustaining, such as incubators and co-working spaces, local investors clubs and entrepreneur forums, hacker spaces and design labs, mentoring, workshops and training programmes. There are projects afoot to organise co-operatively-owned regional banks. All of these elements working together could create productive, enterprising and regenerative ‘new economy’ ecosystems. The new story becomes self evident, holistic and persuasive. This is the right kind of ambition. If there are 10 such ‘new economies’ in the UK, why can’t there be 100?
If we add resilience building to the criteria, then land use and local food production must be key areas of focus. As a nation, we import 40% of our food. Food prices and supply chains will likely be dramatically affected by Brexit or extreme weather events. The National Farmers Union is making food security an issue, although they’re not necessarily advocating more sustainable agriculture. According to the Soil Association’s 2016 annual report, certified organic farmland has shrunk by 28,000 hectares. Sustainably farmed soil can be a carbon sink, industrially farmed soil can be an emitter. Increasing sustainable and regenerative food production is an obvious priority. But there are challenges: gaining access to land, training and education for new farmers, buildings and equipment, finance, and distribution. And, of course, stopping the march of industrial and genetically-modified agriculture.
In their work, Shared Assets are trying to create new pathways to ‘common good’ land-use. Kate Swade, a co-director at the nonprofit, says that getting access to land for food production and land-based livelihoods doesn’t necessarily have to include ownership. For example, they’re working to build partnerships with local authorities to free up council-owned land for these kinds of projects. This could be an opening for more urban agriculture and other unexpected partners, such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England or the National Trust, perhaps. But, she says, a number of barriers remain, including high land prices, the tax system, and the planning system.
This leads to the third shift we need to make: engaging in a new kind of regional politics. Planning is just one of many live issues politicising people in the cities, districts and shires – housing, hospital closures, transport, fracking, flooding, and so on. The kind of ‘common good’ development discussed above can provide better solutions to these problems, so we’ve got to make a strong, and persuasive, case for it. In fact, we must. Right now, UK and EU funded regional development quangos are set to invest hundreds of millions of pounds into growth-as-usual, top-down, unaccountable projects. The Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for Devon and Somerset has made Chinese- and French-owned Hinkley Point nuclear plant the centre-piece of their development agenda. In fact, this is laid out clearly in the devolution bid they submitted to combine Devon and Somerset into a new sub-national political unit a seemingly undemocratic, obscure process that few citizens know is happening. Hinkley gets planning permission but not your community-owned wind turbines? Is this like a domestic version of TTIP?
This suggests we engage with local and regional actors—mayors, councillors and their key supporters—and strongly advocate for policy that supports community development priorities. It also suggests the urgent need to develop and spread alternative political models that put progressive new candidates in office. One such model is Independents for Frome, where independent candidates stood together on a common platform and won. In Spain, regional and municipal platforms also went beyond traditional party politics and won in Barcelona and Madrid. This might work in the UK. In Devon, there are murmurs of a similar movement stirring, Devon United, inspired by the Alterntivet Parti of Denmark and the possibilities of a ‘progressive alliance’. In any case, more and better democracy will better meet the enormous challenges we face than what’s currently the case.
Building a more aligned and collaborative movement of the many ‘new economy’ strands, from land to banks, food sovereignty to new enterprise ecosystems, is surely the necessary first step. Building out ‘bioregional’ economies and developing complementary political movements will be more challenging, but achievable. The models are there. How can we create the conditions for them to be put into practice? A lively movement with these priorities and practical actions will complement progressive politics at the national level, whether an ‘alliance’ materialises, or not. It will surely deliver more local inclusion, wellbeing and resilience. It may even influence the course of historical events in this Brexit moment. Who knows?
And so, it is probably also cliché to say that ultimately the meaning of Brexit is up to us. But it is true. Everything that drives progressives, and everyone working for positive change whatever banner you fly, is that whatever the analysis and prognosis, we act because we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s from this ground beneath our feet that we make meaning for ourselves and our own life histories.
Originally published in STIR Magazine, Autumn 2016. Buy a print copy here.