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A discourse of discontent

By John Atkinson “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York” – William Shakespeare, Richard the Third. Those of us who lived in Britain through the 70s and early 80s will be familiar with the phrase ‘winter of discontent’. It was adopted by the media to describe the ongoing fractious relationship between the Callaghan government and unions, characterised by strikes, rubbish piling up in the streets and power cuts. Going to bed by candle light is a childhood memory from rather more recent times than might be imagined by those who didn’t experience it. So in one respect, there has always been a discourse of discontent between those vested with social power and others who wish that power were used differently. Yet today something feels different. It feels as if Western society as a whole has a growing unease with the direction we are heading and who gets to influence that. It feels as if for all the benefits that have arisen from the way we have organised ourselves, there is an increasing question as to what extent this is sustainable. What might we really choose to do about this? Who is the ‘we’ who get to choose and how will we decide? There has long been a suspicion of Government from the ‘working population’. Almost by definition government is an environment for elites. You can trust your elite to act with benevolent munificence or see them as acting in their own naked self-interest. Either way you have separated ‘us’ from ‘them’ and with it undermined the true notion of democracy. The origins of democracy are found in smallish groups of people who chose known individuals (historically usually male, land-owning and wealthy) from among their number to act on their behalf. The duty of the citizen is to be a good citizen, to contribute to civic life, enrich the debate about what we might do together and how to contribute. At small and local levels, villages and small towns, this can still be found. You find the best and worst of democracy here from wonderful self-regulation to exploitation of self-interest in the name of the whole. The unintended consequence of the wonderful success of democracy has been the distancing of the ‘demos’ (populace) from the function of democracy. Access to decision making has become shrouded behind veils of bureaucracy, only the rich can buy the bypass that gets the ear of those at the top. Decisions arise from closed conversations between those who know each other well, think alike and have very similar experience of the world. As concern grows about the direction we are heading there is a reaction to this that has an at times revolutionary zeal. So deep is the concern or frustration that it emerges often as hatred. People are vilified and attacked, usually verbally and sometimes physically and horrifically. There is no political divide on this; both left and right have their perpetrators. Deeply convinced of the merits of their position, they use this as justification to go outside of the way we have agreed over the years to work together. If only for a while, until their ‘common sense’ has prevailed. Revolutions, despite the popular commentary, have not had a great history. Most are brutally crushed and cause only a hardening of the state’s power against the individual. Those that succeed tend to do exactly the same thing. Or worse. The Gulags and the Cultural Revolution were hardly an expression of a higher discourse. The proponents of ’Social Movements’ as bodies of change have stopped lauding the ‘Arab Spring’ as example of what can be achieved as the result has become one military authoritarian regime replacing another. Slowly people realise that the ‘bad guys’ are on social media too. It isn’t utopia, simply another setting for the same conversations. In the absence of deep connection between populace and government, ‘the media’ increasingly fills the space. As positions polarise and discontent grows, people from their various positions seeks to utilise the media for advantage. This may be the owners of that media or political parties or activists seeking to discredit sources other than their own. This is sadly and vividly visible in the UK at present where both sides of the political divide seek to undermine the BBC through accusations of bias. Every story inevitably has a position and comes from a history. Many will contradict your world view. To not hold all of them in totality before holding forth on perceived bias is simply crass manipulation. Criticising others for exactly what you are doing yourself is always the mainstay of the demagogue. When we do not accept that others may hold different but potentially valid views, and instead present them as dangerous and evil we destroy the discourse necessary to find a way forward. If we are to seriously address the challenges of food availability, migration or climate change, all of which are self-evidently inter-dependent, we need a space for different and competing voices to be heard. We need it desperately to avoid suffering. We need people with the skills and presence to hold their calm as emotions rise and things turn nasty. And what of the corporate world? After all, most of us, most of the time are not engaged in the expression of government. We manufacture cell phones or dog food or stitch shirts. It is in the world of work that people spend much of their social lives. Here we meet with our fellow humans and make sense of the world around us. Often these are work conversations, how will we improve quality, what is our next market, why are sales down in SE Asia? And also they are very human conversations. We share news of our families, our football teams and sense of what is going on in the world. Without changing the discourse in the commercial world little changes. Dismissing global corporations as evil empires is simply bizarre. They have arisen, in symbiosis with their environment over decades. They are a product of our modern world as much as they are shaping it. We can no more ignore them than regulate them. The discourse needs to be different. We need to change our discourse from one of ‘discontent’ to one of ‘glorious summer’. That means getting really practical and working with and through existing organisations and structures rather than concentrating our efforts outside of them. There is a place on the fringes for the creation of new, bold and visionary thought yet if it stays there, unnourished by our everyday discourse, it dies. Change is not something that happens necessarily from the top down or the bottom up. It needs no more happen from the outside in than the inside out. Examples of all can be found if you wish to hold a particular point of view. Instead, if change is to really happen, if we’re to find a gloriously sustainable summer, lots of things have to move all at once. That means lots of people all engaging their energetic efforts in a similar direction. The more connected they are the better, yet the act of connection is only part of the work. The important thing is a dawning realisation that neither governments, nor media, nor global corporations are in control. For any society, control is an illusion. That these amorphous bodies exist is through our creation. We together made them and they have only the power we choose to vest in them. If we wish to evolve something new in them it is in our grasp to do just that. All it takes is for us to become more conscious of how we are really connected, to be more honest about not just what we want, but what we are actually prepared to do for that. Small groups of people, all around the world, each acting to make things different in their own environment, changes the environment. It’s time to stop ceding so much authority to others to change our lives and the world. It’s time to change the way we change. (This blog first appeared on

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