Abandoning the political slot machine
A subtotal after 15 years on the German political playfield
“We cannot prioritise this right now.”
“I support this idea, but most of my colleagues are not there yet.”
“Now is not the right time.”
Looking back at my past years on the political playing field, I see me feeding coins into a slot machine. The coins I throw in are ideas, energy, time. The results I get are sentences like the ones above. I keep on playing, hoping to get lucky and crack the jackpot: a “Let’s do it” instead of the Nos, Maybes and Laters I heard, played in many different tunes.
Political Berlin is like a gambling hall, full of players like me. People who risk their capital, who keep on playing despite the miserable odds they face. Players who are like those guys you see at the slot machine in bars and casinos around the world. They establish a routine that, seen from the outside, is hard to comprehend. Yet there is a certain thrill in being with this machine, hoping for the jackpot. You hope to create a positive impact, to be heard, to successfully influence.
But let’s rewind a bit.
A look from the inside
In my early professional years, starting around 15 years ago, I worked in politics full-time, on the low decks of the federal political ship: as staffer for MPs in the German Parliament, as a campaigner for the Social Democratic headquarters, and so on. Roles of minor importance: yet they put me amid the messy, hectic, and complex realities of German federal politics.
I learned a lot in that time. I gained respect for the societal impact even minor policy decisions can cause; for expertise, required and existing, both in Parliament and the government. And I learned to understand some of the unwritten rules by which the political game is played, creating a political and human reality quite far from the dry, structured descriptions you find in the study books of political science.
Which also meant that I learned things I shouldn’t have learned: how to sacrifice the innocent and powerless for defending the guilty and powerful. How to bend the will of the majority in favour of what the leadership wants. How to permanently deprioritize the things that are ethically and strategically right, but tactically disadvantageous.
After a few years, I decided to quit working full-time in the political sector. The organisational and political realities I was part of had chafed my soul. I was distorted from the cynicism, the overtly flexible ethics, the open disdain towards anyone who believed that politics could be a lever for transforming this world.
An era of wilful ignorance
I left these jobs, but not the playing field. While starting to build my business as a organisational developer, I accepted a honorary role as Fellow in a Berlin-based political think tank, Das Progressive Zentrum. Today, Das Progressive Zentrum is a well-established, diverse, international and quite progressive organisation with an impressive network both in and beyond Germany. Back then, it was different: broke, small, fairly German, very much “Third Way” Social Democratic.
Over the course of the following eight years, we both developed. Yet the fundamental trajectories were different. During the Merkel era, the think tank became a well-established bridgehead between institutional politics and civil society. At the same time, I grew more and more alienated with the paradigms, values, principles, structure, and culture of German federal politics.
In retrospective, I experienced the past two legislatures as an era of systematic political denial and wilful ignorance. Federal politics in Germany treated the transformative issues of our times — the climate crisis, first and foremost — like any other incremental policy issue. The overall paradigm of the so-called Grand Coalition was that reality must adapt to the scope and pace of the political world, not the other way around. Whatever went beyond it got ignored, denied, or delayed.
The endless hope for the silver bullet
Since 2016, I focused my think tank work on how democracy itself — its paradigms, culture, logic, structures, and processes — must transform to be able to effectively respond to climate change, and tackle the global social crisis. This work gained the interest of many like-minded researchers and practitioners. Yet, it lacked a professional political audience. While the political sector hectically tried to extinguish one fire after the next — the rise of populist nationalists, rising pressure to implement effective climate policy, etc — there was very little interest in understanding and tackling the root causes of these fires.
When there were opportunities to talk with the powerful, I often felt like the court fool: part of the overall hubbub, allowed to speak and irritate, as long as I didn’t expect these words to be translated into political action.
What frustrated me most was the short-term driven, transactional logic of 99% of these encounters. Most politicians I talked to had an endless hunger for silver bullets: isolated policy measures that would seemingly help alleviate the political pain-points of each given moment.
At the same time, there was a shocking lack of awareness regarding the real challenge and responsibility. Which was to develop a systemic understanding of the crises of our times, and a strategic approach to co-creating political strategies that fit these challenges.
Therefore, I shifted the focus of my political activities. Instead of ploughing the fields of the powerful, I decided to help cultivate new fields, for people who hopefully will become increasingly impactful and powerful in the coming years. People who think about politics and democracy in transformative terms; who understand that we need systemic solutions, and that political incrementalism — small-scale change within the given parameters of the system — has reached its absolute limits.
Building a field of transformative practitioners and thinkers
In 2017, I co-hosted the first Innocracy Conference in Berlin, aiming to provide a space for such people to connect and collaborate. Over the years that followed, Innocracy increasingly focused on democratic transformation and explored its “inner dimension”. How can democratic societies and their citizens develop an ability to consciously steer and shape transformation in times of fundamental ecological, social, and economic rupture? How can we unlearn the destructive paradigms and auto-pilots that, so far, keep us from doing what needs to be done?
To my knowledge, there is no other conference with such a focus. In the past years, we welcomed guests from all over the globe (check out Uffe Elbaek’s keynote from 2019, for instance). Innocracy became a platform for transformative practitioners and thinkers from all societal sectors to meet, collaborate, and learn from each other. Personally, the Innocracy experience strengthened my belief in the transformative potentials of civil society: its networks, ideas and real-life laboratories.
At the same time, the attempt to convince today’s political players of the need to change the political scope seemed more and more futile. With each passing year, the lack of transformative theory and practice within the established political space became more obvious — just as the disconnect between institutional politics and civil society kept growing. The fundamental paradigms, the inner place that both sides speak and act from, are so fundamentally different.
Towards a different game
Since the first Innocracy Conference, I have grown increasingly impatient with this status quo. I do not believe friendly political advice from outside stakeholders, like think tanks, will bring the fundamental change we need. This is not the time to lobby the established field to change perspective. This is the time to transform the field itself.
Obviously, conferences that last a day or two can contribute to this goal in very minor ways at best. Which is one of the reasons why, on the last day of this year’s Innocracy Conference, I officially let go of my role as Policy Fellow, and thus made space for a different kind of political activism.
Over the past months, I have thought — and still am thinking — very intensely about which kind of political project has the potential to systemically change the political field. And I guess that our best shot is to push for the creation of two different kinds of spaces:
Firstly, we must create a well-funded and well-connected organisation that enables future-oriented activists from all parts of society
- to consolidate shared paradigms and visions
- to develop a common language, and express it clearly and in positive terms
- and to deeply connect these people with each other
The overall aim must be to shape, connect and recruit a critical mass of different people into politics: people with a systemic and transformative mindset, and a determinedness to use politics to rewrite the ground rules of society and the economy. To my knowledge, such an organisation does not yet exist in Europe.
Secondly, and in my eyes as importantly, we must more systematically curate spaces that enable established politicians and civil society representatives to access a different quality of dialogue, far beyond the spaces of debate and proselytizing they usually are invested in.
These spaces must enable its participants to truly listen, unlearn, and collaborate. They must become transformative fractals, making people experience themselves and their context in different ways. To me, this is a sine qua non. Only if we change the ground rules for how humans encounter each other in politics can something new emerge from it.
My hope is to meaningfully contribute to such projects. Which also means abandoning the political slot machine. I guess it is time to co-create a different kind of game. One that is a shared endeavour: more joyful, a lot more strategic and long-term, and certainly more visionary. I’m looking forward to it.
Hanno is author of the recent book Unlearn. A Compass for Radical Transformation, out with Perspective Press. He works as organisational developer all over Germany and Europe. You can learn more about his writing and political work here. The original version of this text appeared at The Alternative UK – a movement that has been part of Innocracy since its start in 2017.