5 January 2021

Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator. She worked on community arts with very vulnerable people, co-founded Scotland’s first Transition town and networked to inspire the Transition movement across Scotland. Co-founded Starter Culture and Heartpolitics, co-convened the Transformative Conflict for Transition Network summit, supports sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation in many contexts including XR Scotland.


Justin Kenrick is an anthropologist working on community land rights in Kenya and Congo for Forest Peoples Programme, and on land reform in Scotland. He chairs Action Porty which undertook Scotland’s first successful urban community right to buy, is on XR Scotland‘s Political Strategy circle, co-founded Heartpolitics, writes extensively, and is a Quaker committed to peaceful direct action.

More politics …

Transforming toxic power relations

Part 1, Theory

In the first of two articles, Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick argue that an effective politics needs to understand why emotions are so important

NEOLIBERAL capitalism is just the most recent expression of systems of oppression and domination which have to exclude an emotional understanding from politics in order to persist. In contrast, a relational approach,* based on sharing power equally, is founded on empathy.


This goes much deeper than saying that politics should be nicer. Every reform of our political system has been prised from the grip of those with power, but none have successfully shifted the fundamental power dynamics which always revert to favour those who already hold power. In order to build a fair society and address our now critical environmental and social crises, we need a new way of doing politics, one which understands and mitigates the most challenging aspects of our human condition and supports the best.**


To see why emotions are so important, we need to understand trauma: the way our body-mind deals with events which we experience as physically or emotionally overwhelming. These are stored, not as memory, but are patterned into the nervous system: the unconscious. These patterns can “triggered” when we are reminded of the initial experience. Because this triggering happens instantaneously and unconsciously, we rarely even notice that we have been plunged into an emotional state which now has little to do with what’s going on in the present.


We all accumulate some level of trauma during our childhood. We are all aware of parts of life, for example public speaking, standing up for ourselves, managing our anger or coping with rejection, where we know we tend to act differently to how we’d like. Dig a little into these uncomfortable feelings and the roots always lead back to childhood within a dominating system. Every single one of us experiences our own versions of this, but the underlying reasons are rarely acknowledged. The socially condoned view is that because we largely forget them, these early experiences are over. In fact, unaddressed, they continue to shape our lives.


Imperialism, colonisation, class, patriarchy, racism and capitalism are culture level traumas: legacies of past damage that continue to re-inflict it. Similarly to personal trauma, the root causes are obscured, making what is essentially a break with reality seem absolutely normal, at least to those experiencing it. At whatever level it occurs, when we’re operating from trauma, we’re not able to feel empathy for others. The implications of this collective blind spot for our capacity to create collaborative, rather than dominating, cultures and social infrastructure is monumental: if we can’t name it, we can’t change it.


The casualties of power by domination include those currently at its apex, many of whom have been through a traditional ruling class upbringing of distant or proxy parenting, separation, physical punishment and/or emotional denial, sometimes with visibly crippling results, but intended to result in the smooth, controlled and controlling presentation of the elite. These child-rearing practices are designed to cauterise empathy in the next generation of the ruling class. This vicious cycle of unacknowledged intergenerational personal and cultural trauma, combined with a hereditary system of domination turbo charged by the neoliberal agenda over the past 40 years, is now running close to costing us everything.


It is impossible to transform toxic power relations without venturing into the emotional realm. Without understanding and working to heal the unconscious drivers which suppress our empathy, we inevitably end up disempowering ourselves or others, and often unintentionally replicate that we are trying to change. Empathy for those outside of our social group is a prime requisite for democratic decision making: when we can’t feel for others, we should not be involved in making decisions that affect them.


All of which is not to say that politics should necessarily involve people digging into their historic pain (useful though such processes are). There would only need to be an acknowledgement that when we become unable to care, to be empathic, we have stumbled across one of our early hidden patterns. At those times, we need to reflect on why this has happened, on what’s going on for us that means we’re not able to be open hearted. This wouldn’t dispense with disagreement or even conflict over what good collective decisions look like, but if processes to decide on this began with genuine care and self reflection on all sides, the debate would be very different. There are a host of techniques, from those fairly recently developed like Nonviolent Communication or Dynamic Facilitation, to those based on traditional practices like Way of Council which have a huge amount to offer this kind of collective process.


Grassroots to Global are beginning work on the second of a four-stage process to explore how decision making based on these principles could work in practice. We’re currently connecting with communities across Scotland who want to run people's assemblies that can engage with local issues while also building a picture of how these connect at a systemic level.


We are also reaching out internationally towards a gathering in May 2021 to share learning from bottom up democratic processes from across the world, and explore if and how to join up in a more concerted way, potentially towards a global democratic process following the likely failure (in human and environmental terms) of COP26, a failure which needs to be used to encourage the millions who have utterly lost faith in our current political system to build their own.


This relational approach is deeply counter cultural and therefore very challenging personally and institutionally – but given the precipice we are now teetering on the edge of, it’s worth considering whether we have reached the point where we need to make such fundamental change. Could a move towards bringing our whole selves into our collective decision making hold the key, not only to greater happiness and integration at an individual level, but also to addressing the fundamental issues driving the climate and social crises we face? If so, is it worth tolerating the inevitable discomfort for a while, in order to explore how we could develop decolonising pathways out of the trauma of the win-lose paradigm, to regenerate a world where my well-being is recognised as depending entirely on ensuring, not denying, your well-being?

NOTES

* We have written more on how we’ve ended up in our current predicament and what a relational politics might include in a piece titled ‘Politics, Trauma and Empathy’.

** Some basic principles are outlined here.