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Transition Politics

As a member of Transition City Lancaster I've sometimes thought provocatively of starting a Politics Group. Such a proposal wouldn't find Steering Group agreement, of course, because Transition is non-political. But in the course of making our 2030 vision of a peaceful post-oil world a reality can we avoid politics? I think not. So when active TCL member Caroline Jackson, in her Transition determination, joined the Green Party, campaigned and won election to the City Council it prompted me to reflect further on a movement trying to side step the contest of politics.

 our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matterI wish it was true that we could somehow self-organise our way through change, allowing those who are political and those who think they are not to each do their bit for the good of all. Unfortunately, this experiment tried over the last half century has failed. There is no virtue in the voluntary sacrifice of power. It just makes life more difficult and dangerous for those who remain politically active. Corporate and/or hereditary power is an elite preserve. For the rest of us safety lies in numbers - democracy! If the Transition Movement fosters ideas that undermine those numbers then 'transition' will move in a direction that most of us (I hope) do not want to see - transition further to the Right. Before BNP popularity was absorbed by UKIP the far right was very enthusiastic about the need for relocalisation and used transition and peak oil to give political thrust to its own purposes. If the Transition Movement does not get political on its own terms others will be more than happy to step in with theirs.  

riot police attack students in city streetSome historical perspective would help with the 'to be or not to be' of politics. The 1960's Student Movement was soon met with brutal repression and turned instead to a softer target than the state. People set about changing themselves. The guiding belief was that if enough people could change then the system would inevitably change too. Thus the Commune Movement arose among disaffected and defeated former political activists. Alongside them many more joined who had no connection, experience or understanding of the authoritarian rule compelling this turn within. To later followers it just looked like fun. If it didn't look like a dance party they weren't interested. It was not self organised groups but the organised self interest of elites that won the 60's revolution and continued business-as-usual politics creating an even more unequal and damaged world - the one we live in today.

young people on painted busPositive thinking became the popular ideology. The despair out of which this thinking had emerged was forgotten. Like a kind of Ghost Dance movement, people desperate for hope surrendered politics and sought the power of positive thinking. A more sober spirit would have kept its eye on elite interest groups working lawfully within existing structures of power. The only challenge to those cabals comes from voiced, mobilised political consensus focused on policy. Any movement that lacks political will is easily tolerated, even welcomed by the status quo; let people exhaust their time, talent and energy on anything other than politics. 

At a local and national level the question of Transition/politics matters because one piece of legislation has the power to counter the good intentions of a million people doing good and kindly acts. Turning off the tap is preferable to constantly mopping up. And the Transition Movement is in danger of becoming handmaid to elite power, duly mopping up the mess left by cuts to welfare and public services. The Green Party is the only political and parliamentary organisation that gives radical voice to social justice and ecological sanity. Being political isn't about 'party politics' - that common putdown by the confused and disingenuous - it's about policies. And thanks to the hard work and foresight of the Green Party those policies are worked out and waiting to be voted for. The Transition Movement is still in its infancy. As it matures it must connect veggie boxes with ballot sheets.


Illustrations:  Martin Luther King Jr(taken from thedowningstreetproject), 1968 Paris student protests(Google image - unknown), 1970s psychedelic bus(unknown)

Mark Rotherham is a member of Transition City  Lancaster, an independent film maker and radio broadcaster. He created Lancaster's own Transition film based on the launch event.


Peter Martel's picture

Response to Transition Politics

I understand, and I agree we have to be active politically, but in my humble opinion ;-), we can and I think need to do that outside of Transition, for many reasons.

1) Political power corrupts all kinds of organizations as they compete for funds and attention, both from the "system" and from supporters, so those at the top of their organizations can get salaries to continue to finance their organizations, to promote their cause. That is not the mission nor I hope the process of Transition groups. Local and grassroots will help keep Transition humble I hope.

2) There is absolutely nothing keeping anyone from joining or forming a political group outside of Transition groups.

3) Today it is maybe the Green's who want to co-opt Transition, and tomorrow it might be the liberals (or the Democrats in the US). As you suggest, even the conservative parties might try to boost their image by embracing Tramsition. Of course this is potentially good and bad, depending on perspective and many variables. Not worth the risk.

4) I think the greater cause of Transition requires it to continue to be apolitical. We need more than the Greens involved in our communities to make Transition and similar efforts work. We need to welcome and embrace all members of society to the activities we initiate and support. In fact I think it is the common purposes that Transition offers, apolitically, that has perhaps the best hope of bridging divides, bringing people of different persuasions together, helping them to find the common grounds, and perhaps fostering more understanding and less divisiveness.

By identifying ourselves as Greens, Liberals, or Democrats, or even liberals, we immediately cut our possible numbers in half. Best I think that we simply keep doing what is good for all. I encourage the groups I'm involved with to specifically invite their conservative friends and neighbors to be involved in efforts that might appeal to them, and keep the political rhetoric and comments, especially the ones that alienate, to themselves, for another time or group.
We can all be political outside of Transition, and should be, but the mission of Transition, I think and hope, is apolitical, and needs to be.
Gandhi helped change his world by trying to be apolitical and embracing all religions and people.
Ann Owen's picture

It's complicated!

I think Mark Rotherham makes a very valid point. If your council decides to do away with the library and transition volunteers step into the breach and run it for free, does that mean it makes it easier for a right wing government to keep on cutting public services and shrink the state? And what about those librarians losing their job?

Would a transition movement have given women the vote, workers their rights and social security to the poor? Or would they just have run "nicer" workhouses? Could a transition initiative take a political stand, based on it's ethos, without aligning itself with a political party or would that just dilute the green vote even further?

It's hard to see how we could make the changes we want in our countries the traditional electoral way, with the choice of politicians we currently have all singing from the same growth forever hymn sheet. There's little I can disagree with in the green manifesto, but if you have a look at Labour's, that's pretty cool too, it's just that none of their MP's seem to have read it. Could transition lead the way to something different, more honest and realistic perhaps? Only if we are prepared to wrestle with where we stand, politically.

It is very hard for someone, who f.i. has to work two jobs to meet the rent at the end of the month, to give time and energy to their local transition initiative, so is their voice one that is heard there at all? Is there a good overall "social class" representation in your TI, accepting that the vast majority of people in your community will be working class? Or is it a rather more genteel affair? It is hard to "simply do what is good for all", even impossible, I'd say. Just think about it in the context of minimum wage versus living wage, you can't please all of the people all of the time, sometimes you have to take a stand for what's right and there you are: politics.

Jay Tompt's picture

Transition is deeply political

Transition is not "party political" - it isn't a political party and it endorses no party.  But it is deeply political.  It is premised on the recognition that elected leaders are failing to act responsibly to confront climate change, fossil energy dependence, and an inherently unjust economic system. It encourages people to step into their own responsibility as members of their communities and as citizens and take action themselves.  This is the kind of thing that would get you arrested some countries - maybe even our own, someday.  This is political, albeit subtle and at the grass roots, but it isn't "apolitical”.  (By the way, Gandhi was deeply political - read your history books!)

As the post suggests, a politically unsophisticated transition movement may provide cover for harmful government policy and potentially sap energy from more effective grass roots and party political action. On the flipside, a politically unsophisticated movement will miss opportunities for creating lasting positive change. Part of the problem rests with people who persist in spreading the mistaken idea that Transition is somehow disinterested in policy or governance.  It's time this confusion was cleared up once and for all.  The Transition narrative as expressed in video, books, websites, and trainings could do a better job at articulated a more sophisticated and clearer stance on this issue.  In other words, the political nature of this work should be more explicitly recognised and the implicit linkages with what might be called "grass roots democracy movements" should be strengthened. 

Diana Korchien's picture

We need to think, the time has come

Suddenly Transition has come of age and there seems to be an opening of the ways. It is vital to come together and discuss all the issues commented on here: what is politics, where do we stand vis a vis governments, what do we mean by political/apolitical ? I actually think it should be one of the guiding themes of an urgently convened Transition Conference. We won't have many chances to get this one right.

Mandy Meikle's picture

Go with your strengths

Thought-provoking stuff and I agree with the need to sort out this 'opening of the ways'. But let's not take away from the vital REconomy-type work. Too few activists, too much to do. Interesting that Labour and Green manifestos both sound great - easy to say what you'll do when you're not in power. Almost impossible to achieve it when in power. Transitioners should vote for who they want (in local elections it's often the known individual, not their party, which decides the vote) and be as involved in party politics as they feel inclined. I wonder where this will go...

Joe Duggan's picture

I have never interpreted

I have never interpreted Transition to be non-political, rather it does not allign itself to one political party. In Crystal Palace we have attracted people by a positive message that is not a message of protest, but of action. Interestingly, in terms of the reference to the closure of a library, a good number of our members actively supported the campaign to save the local library. We didnt do it as an open Transition Town campaign at the time, but since then our discussions would suggest if it happened again we would see it as an important community asset and be more overt in our fight for it.

 - But -  There is another practical problem in campaigning politically as a local transition town: we have not set up as a political party and our intention is to engage as wide a number of people in the community with our activities and with our reasons for being- the "broad church" that I see as one of the great strengths of Transition Towns. We have succeeded in drawing in people from right across the political spectrum. How can I, as co-chair, make political statements on their behalf? And I have been asked to and refused. The people involved have a 100 different reasons for being involved. Even our steering group has a wide range of political perspectives. We could hold ballots or a more consensus version of ballots? Two years into our group's  growth I think that would be a mistake and be divisive.- solidifying our position into a rigidity and probably not achieving very much politically, or representing that many people. However ! The more people that hear about Brixton Energy down the road from us or our new community solar panel project, the more people who are going to question this present government's negativity towards renewables. The more people who get the local economy argument and enjoy our food market, the more people who are going to question blind support for corporates.   And the more local councillors who are getting the arguments as well.

Thank you, I do think this article is a good provocation though, especially the last two paragraphs and I do think that people directly involved in transition do need to look at the bigger political arena and why not get political at every level, from local council right up to global campaigns? What does the author think would  be the lobbying mechanism best suited? What would be the political next step best suited? A direct alliance with the Green Party could be quite divisive?


Joe Duggan's picture

BTW - the campaign was to

BTW - the campaign was to save the library and its staff - not for us to staff it - and I agree with the importance of not being a "cover" for cuts.


Another important question thats came to mind : as our group gets a bit bigger - what is the healthiest model for inclusive community decision making?

healing-toolbox's picture

"Green Spirituality" is a likely direction for Transition politi

Hi Mark, I'm thinking "Green Spirituality" is the mix of politics, no-politics and spirituality, no-spirituality organizers and thinkers like us have been looking for.  

GS is a useful catch-phrase here, even if Chris Philpott's book is not so useful. "Green spirituality" is a big improvement over its predecessor, "ecumenical spirituality."

I believe Green Spirituality can only become sustainable, and spread by word of mouth, thru live local meetings, featuring hands-on exercises, supporting people working thru their own immediate problems, at their own pace. This has elicited much response from interested locals living around the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens at the "Spa Days" in Los Angeles, CA.

A great deal of group process technology exists for facilitating supportive exercises with live groups of strangers. The most harmless are dyad exercises and milling exercises.

Anyone can email me for a doc with many sample exercises to use, modify and adapt to your needs.

More group process tech can be found in Games Trainers Play. Find best price on copies worldwide thru

steve007's picture

Tips For Politics


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