How can we safely collapse systems of domination, and so, flourish?

September 8, 2021

Climate chaos is symptomatic of a system of domination—an expression of the violence of inequality. The climate chaos that we are witnessing makes it inescapably clear that dominating others harms oneself, and that this system of domination will inevitably end—whether through ecological disasters or our collective action.

The current global temperature rise is 1.2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and already, climate impacts are multiplying exponentially. To aim and limit global temperatures increase to 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C is to aim at runaway feedback loops. We need to get back as close as possible to the safe pre-industrial levels. This will be impossible if we continue with the same system that is destroying biodiversity and human lifeways (as it tries and fails to reduce our emissions). We need to rapidly abandon the current system which is based on the exploitation of others.

How do we rapidly and safely abandon this system of domination?

This isn’t a matter of needing new technologies or new policies, persuading politicians or identifying culprits, dreaming of utopias or imagining that realism means trying to tweak the system we have.

We need to start from somewhere else entirely.

This system has sold us a dream of a utopia that can never exist.

‘Utopia’ means non-place, and that is exactly the deception our current system is based on—exploiting others and dumping our waste in out-of-sight non-places. Of course, there are no non-places—all places are real and impacted, including the invisible atmosphere.

Recently, US climate envoy John Kerry said that 50 percent of the carbon emission reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technology not yet invented. The shiny new policy ‘Nature Based Solutions’ translates into realpolitik as ‘appropriate indigenous lands as emission dumps so we can continue business as usual’. It is clear that the system’s solutions are utopian. Meanwhile, its impacts are being faced by real people—the poorest are hit first and hardest.

The rapidly narrowing path to retaining and regaining a liveable earth starts from real places and from deepening the connections between them: To resist, subvert and compost the non-place utopianism of the ‘global’.

Grassroots to Global (G2G) assemblies emerged in Scotland out of our experience of trying to enable change within the current system. That engagement has taught us a lot about why the dominant system is incapable of making the changes so urgently needed, and also about how change really takes place.

Start from where you are: Scotland and Extinction Rebellion

We are writing from the perspective of our ‘place’, Scotland, and specifically from the small town of Portobello, long swallowed up by the city of Edinburgh but lately starting to reassert its autonomy.

For a couple of decades, we championed the Transition Town movement trying to help communities wean themselves off oil, as a contribution towards a society- and planet-wide transition. However, after realising over time that governments wouldn’t even recognise the emergency (let alone act), we were delighted to join others to form Extinction Rebellion (XR) Scotland. We took to the streets with our own democratically-decided demands for the Scottish Government to (1) tell the truth about the climate crisis (“and commit to enabling a rapid and just transition to a sustainable and fair society”), (2) reduce emissions to zero by 2025 (“including by replacing a system based on accelerating consumption with one based on ensuring the wellbeing of all”) and (3) create a Scottish climate citizens assembly to decide the changes (“as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose and a society that cares for all”).

Perhaps, unlike XR United Kingdom, which saw climate change as an existential threat that required buy-in from across the political spectrum, the three demands of XR Scotland were focused on utterly transforming the system.

And, to some degree, we were very successful.

Despite all other parties voting down a Scottish Green Party call for the declaration of a climate emergency in March 2019, the school strikes and XR Scotland’s April actions led to the Scottish Government declaring a climate emergency soon after. We campaigned for a climate citizens assembly, including by occupying the Scottish Parliament debating chamber, and in September 2019 we secured Government backing for the same.

Change from within? The Scottish Climate Citizens Assembly process

Between March and October 2020, two G2G organisers were the XR Scotland reps on the stewarding group shaping the Scottish Government’s Climate Citizens Assembly. We joined because we had agreement from the civil servants that the assembly would be able to listen to the science, decide what level of response was needed, and would be able to decide for themselves on the causes and solutions. We pulled out of the assembly in October 2020 as it became clear that assembly members were not going to be allowed to neither assess the science nor assess the economic drivers.

However, we still tried to have an impact from the outside—occupying the roof of the parliament to try and draw assembly members’ attention to our ten minute video summarising the evidence they had heard. In the end, their recommendations were a scattering of dozens of good ideas, rather than coherently directed at system change (as they might have been with a more enlightened process). This was no surprise, given that the Assembly was, in effect, shaped and chaperoned by civil servants and their advisers who—however well-meaning—are committed to upholding, rather than transforming, the status quo. In an interview after the assembly process was finished, the academic in charge of deciding what evidence the assembly should consider remarked that he was surprised they had only given members 10 or 20 minutes to assess the science (when we had been absolutely clear that they needed a full weekend of a seven weekend process); this reminded us just how deeply unconscious that bias towards retaining rather than challenging the status quo can be.

In contrast, climate scientist Kevin Anderson remarked on his experience of the assembly that, unlike experts, ordinary citizens are not biased towards one line of expertise, and so, is far better at assessing policy options. What became clear was that 100 ordinary citizens (a randomly selected representative sample of the population) were far better at deciding policy than experts and better at reaching agreement than politicians, albeit within the limits imposed on them:

“The fact that it’s random means you break the link with vested interests… If you choose people that aren’t the usual suspects, who aren’t typically politically engaged, what we find is that people are aware of their own lack of information and take their role very seriously. They’re really willing and open to change their minds and change their opinions.” – Brett Henning

The assembly process confirmed to us that (1) putting democracy back in the hands of ordinary people is the way forward, and (2) that the new democracy has to emerge from the people and not be controlled by the government.

De-traumatising Politics through Engaged listening

So, G2G emerged out of our experience in Scotland of making demands of government and finding them incapable of changing their ways. Alongside the Climate Assembly process, we were developing an approach to politics that is trauma-aware: Aware of the ways that our system traumatises those who become wielders of power as well as those on the receiving end of the violence that power wields.

Instead of seeking change within this trauma-driven system, and instead of reacting to it in a way that replaces it with yet another trauma-driven set of players, how can we create the safety to dismantle the system, and to decolonise our politics? Here, we are using ‘decolonisation’ to refer to the need to acknowledge and dismantle the ways a system of domination operates between us and within us.

This approach was encapsulated in an article ‘Politics, Trauma and Empathy: Breakthrough to a politics of the heart?’ Politics needs to meet our real needs and bring out the best in us, not be in thrall to a traumatised impotence wielding a fantasy of power. To enable this, we need to develop ways of meeting with each other and deciding together—ways that are not only anti-oppressive but trauma-aware.

To that end, in early 2020, we put our climate focus to one side, and reached out to understand how others experience the systemic crisis we face. We planned to reach out to others in all manners of unlikely ‘non-political’ spaces (including outside football grounds) to undertake an ‘engaged listening’ process. We did this in order to better-shape the invitations to local or city-wide Peoples Assemblies on our way to building towards an international Fractal Assembly just prior to COP26 (there’s a toolkit if you want to do your own here).

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Then, COVID-19 swept in and we decided to preface the three questions we had intended to ask with one about what people would like to keep from the COVID-19 period, and what they would never like to experience again. The three questions we asked were “What are the biggest challenges facing us? Why are they happening? How can we tackle them?” The responses were profoundly honest about the crises, about inequality, about what work matters, about vulnerability, and about how fast society can change. The team we developed interviewed over a hundred people, a cross section of society in Scotland, and what was clear was that the early COVID-19 and lockdown period enabled peoples to see three things:

  1. The inequality of a system where key workers are paid a pittance,
  2. That health, care, community, and nature matter far more than excess money and status, and
  3. That unimaginable change can happen overnight (even if lockdowns were badly handled).

Reworlding Gathering: assembling a politics of wholeness

While retaining our feet on the ground here in Scotland, we have reached out to learn from others struggles, including through developing strong links with Global processes such as Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA), and participating in GTA’s excellent events at the 2021 World Social Forum. From September 2020, we interviewed a huge range of people engaged in transformative politics, building international connections and developing a powerful methodology which shaped the ‘Reworlding Gathering’ (May 2021) on ‘assembling a politics of wholeness’. These brought together enduring indigenous and emerging transformative approaches, focused on how and why deliberative democracy can transform representative systems, as well as oppose authoritarian ones.

The learnings from the Reworlding process were at two levels: Process and Substance.

Process: In contrast to a normal activist, academic, campaigning or political conference gathering, where there are parallel sessions for people to choose between, punctuated by ‘more important’ single plenaries, the process and shape of Reworlding was 15 sessions (or ‘streams’) over 5 days, feeding into the 2-hour daily reflective sessions (the ‘river’) which received and processed the learning from the streams. Participants could attend everything, but if they were to attend the ‘river’ they needed to commit to attending it for all 5 days. So, instead of the crucial aspect being ‘important’ people only having the time to make it to the plenaries they are presenting in, the crucial aspect was determined simply by commitment to reflecting on the streams and deeply listening to each other.

Substance: Even over a month after ‘Reworlding’, it is very hard to summarise the multifaceted nature of the core extraordinary learning from both indigenous enduring and emerging experimental experience, which is that a politics that works is way simpler and more challenging than we had realised. A politics of wholeness is about:

  1. Presence, patience and proximity: Not passing power to anyone else to decide for us, but instead gathering in place to deeply consider the issues, (i) being willing to bring our whole complex selves, gathering as whole human beings, not as representatives of anyone else—let alone a movement or party; (ii) having the patience to listen deeply to each other, to prioritise voices that are usually marginalised, to out-listen or work to defuse the trauma of those who seek to dominate, and to be aware of impacts on non-present others, until (iii) a clear and coherent response/way forward surfaces that everyone (except those generating division for their own ends) is in agreement with.
  2. Place and Peoples assemblies: Recognising the importance of embodied experience, that the personal is utterly political, that everything happens in place, that locality is reality, and globalism is often a move to appropriate power. Key here was hearing about the anti-patriarchal struggle and peoples assemblies in Chile, and how when Chile voted earlier in May to elect members of a constitutional convention to decide the post-Pinochet constitution, so many of those elected came to prominence through the assemblies, and the majority were pro-feminist.
  3. Time and making molten moments: One huge unexpected theme was the crucial role of time. For example, a seven-generations awareness of ancestors and future generations in indigenous decision-making can enable decisions to be made in the context of a far broader sweep of human experience. At the same time, the emerging focus on precarious future generations in historically colonizing societies opens up a similar awareness of the need and possibility of enabling a decision-making molten moment where protest against a politics of theft becomes a proactive replacement of it. This molten-ness of time is experiential: Each word and action resounds and aligns, and a vast amount can be achieved in an objectively short period. We will continue to explore the potential impacts of different experiences of time in assemblies.
  4. Navigating Power: Stories of how success within the current system turns to dust the ability of the ‘successful’ to sustain real relationships (instead retreating into shrunken ego-based ones) abounded. In terms of navigating power within failing representative democracies, one strategy that emerged was to develop peoples assemblies at the local level that are built around genuine need-meeting (maintaining public services that are being closed, ensuring food or energy production and sharing, ensuring safety, child care or elderly care etc.) that may link with others to create city-wide or region-wide alliances. These assemblies also create parallel de-trauamatizing power structures that engage existing ones only in order to draw on the healthy aspects within them and to eventually replace them. Such processes within failing representative democracies could also help provide the leverage and support to those navigating power in increasingly authoritarian contexts. In the end, we cannot get through our current and near-future emergencies unless we all get through, by enabling a molten moment of decision making that ends a system based on the exploitation of others. There is no future for anyone without it being a future that takes care of everyone.

Next Steps: Local, city wide and international assemblies

Scotland: COVID-19 meant a delay in organising the face-to-face Peoples Assemblies we had planned, but ground-level preparation for these are now well underway as we enter an experimental phase with very different peoples assembly processes in parts of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and in an exploratory way in Glasgow. The enforced delay has allowed us to further develop a facilitation approach that is anti-oppression and trauma-aware, and a decolonisation approach to meetings. In relation to navigating power, one possibility is that this experience might inform the creation of a Scottish Peoples Assembly in 2022, possibly in the run up to the May 2022 local elections.

International: During the clearances, vast swathes of communities in Scotland were cleared from their lands so that the powerful could make a bigger profit from the land. This often led to such poverty that the powerful could then use the same displaced people to clear other indigenous peoples from their lands in the Americas, Africa, Australia and Asia. There is now a strong movement in Scotland seeking to take back land into community ownership, and over 75 percent of the population of the Western Isles now lives on community lands. This position as colonised and coloniser gives Scotland a crucial resonance with everyone’s experience across the world when it comes to COP26 being held in Glasgow. By now, we all know that the 25 previous COPs have been very successfully used to delay any meaningful action on the climate, and we expect nothing else from this one.

Fractal Assembly: However, the world’s focus being on Glasgow and the climate makes Glasgow a perfect place to take our next step after the Reworlding gathering: an international Fractal Assembly. This Assembly aims to bring together frontline communities from the Global South and Global North (including those facing severe repression in eastern Europe) in an Autonomous Territory beside the River Clyde in Glasgow just prior to COP26 (27th to 30th October 2021).

It may include many of those who participated in ‘Reworlding’ (from Rojava, Zapatista, First Nations, rural and urban India, Kenya and Papua, as well as Municipalist movements in Europe and South America, and specifically Chilean resistance) bringing their experience of resisting colonialism and capitalism. All of them highlight the need to move from trying to impact a representative democracy (that becomes captured) to needing to enable direct democracy by the people (through peoples and citizens assemblies).

Part of the preparation for the Fractal Assembly involves a core group from GalGael, FPP, Centre for Human Ecology, Scottish Communities Climate Action Network and Enough who are focused on resourcing and developing effective, decolonial and detramautised intra- and inter-community decision-making. The shape of the Fractal Assembly has yet to emerge, but may involve holding a regenerative gathering of indigenous and other place-based communities: Rejoicing the life-giving places, grieving the destruction, and connecting to reimagine the future.

Instead of opposing and thereby strengthening the ‘disembodied global’, we are seeking to enable a reverberating, expanding and interconnecting meeting place. Instead of a ‘disembodied global’ non-place that steamrolls over our real places, we are seeking to enable meeting places where communities share what’s going right (learnings, innovation, rituals, creativity etc.) and what’s going wrong (intractable conflict, imposition of domination etc.) so that we help each other to not fall back into a dominating paradigm but prefiguratively model a politics of wholeness from the grassroots to the global.

We can crack the concrete with our blades of grass but we still need a molten moment to switch off the bulldozer’s engine. As one small part of a vast creative uprising—when the time is right—our ‘prefiguring’ needs to become a ‘replacing’. In such a molten moment, where time and events become fluid, we can collectively reclaim our world, so that the many worlds this world is made of can flourish and enable all others to flourish too. It needs to come soon, but it also needs deep preparation in place. To reclaim the future we need to relearn how to be fully present to each other.


Teaser Photo by Ray Harrington on Unsplash

Justin Kenrick

Justin is an anthropologist and activist from Edinburgh. He is a member of Extinction Rebellion Scotland. Since 2009, has worked with the Forest Peoples Programme, supporting communities to secure their community lands and determine their own futures.

Tags: building resilient communities, climate change responses, cultural transformation, decolonization, transforming systems