Episode #50 Breaking the Rules to save the world: How to be More Pirate, with Alex Barker
The concept of radical, renegade, revolutionary insurgency based on the model created in the Golden Age of Pirates was given wings by Sam Conniff’s best selling book, BE MORE PIRATE.
In the wake of its success, Sam needed to find ways to help the many people the book inspired. And for that he needed help. Enter Alex Barker, Primary Pirate, visionary, breaker of rules and maker of gatherings on and offline. Alex and Sam between them have steered Pirate groups from industries as far apart as car manufacturing (Mercedes), Social Media Mega-Giants (Google) and nationally owned health care providers (the UK’s NHS).
But we can go deeper than simply breaking the old, fossilised structures of industries… we can change the entire system. Because, as Sam says, ‘problems will not be fixed by fixing the problems… what’s really needed is an overhaul of the engine that’s causing the problems. In other words, the business model.’
And, as Alex says, ‘I want to see many more new crews forming outside of formal structures, so that while the old models fall, new ones are already emerging.’
Accidental Gods seeks to be part of that emerging eco-system of new ways of being. And to get there, we need new ways of thinking – and ways we can each break out of the moulds that have cast us. Alex Barker offers a map to the treasure of change. Follow us!
As we said at the end of the podcast, Mike Raven and Ross Thornley of AQAI have kindly agreed to let Accidental Gods subscribers and members access their Adaptability Quotient test.
The link is here:
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Manda: First of all, I want to read you a bit of the start of Alex’s book ‘How To Be More Pirate’. Sam Conniff wrote the introduction then Alex wrote the rest. Sam describes how at the beginning of his own book ‘Be More Pirate’, he put a dedication to his elder daughter. She is one of the first people to get the book. She picks it up and starts to flick through it and her face falls and falls and falls and eventually she says, “Daddy, how did you manage to write a book about pirates with absolutely no pictures in it?”, which is fair because she was five years old. He says his answer to her went something like this: “Well my love, you see the thing is your Dad thought he spent the last 20 years trying to save the world until he realised that the well-meant movement of game changers was inadvertently often perpetuating problems by allowing identity politics and big ideas like social enterprise to fill the space of solution finding. This means that we didn’t ever get to the heart of the matter, which is to say that problems will not be fixed by fixing the problems because what’s really needed is an overhaul of the engine that is causing the problems, in other words, the business model.” I read that and how could I not invite the people who create that onto Accidental Gods? Because if you gain anything from these podcasts, it’s that we don’t change the world by painting different colours on the wheels of the bus. We need to change the bus. We need to stop the bus. We need to get off. We need to look at the road. We need to look at where we’re going, why we’re going there, and crucially, how we are going there. This is what Alex Parker is looking at with ‘How To Be More Pirate’. So Alex Barker, pirate extraordinaire, welcome to Accidental Gods. Thank you for taking time out of what sounds like a totally hectic post book launch existence.
Alex: Thank you very much for having me.
Manda: You’re very welcome. So we are here today because you have recently launched ‘How to be More Pirate’, which is the sequel to ‘Be More Pirate’. We both agree that we don’t want to talk exclusively about those but for people who are not familiar with these, we ought to at least give a bit of a framing background. So starting with ‘Be More Pirate’, can you give us the real elevator pitch of that, which you can probably do in your sleep.
Alex: Yes, I hope so by now. ‘Be More Pirate’ was originally a book published in 2018. It’s written by Sam Conniff, who is a social entrepreneur who ran a youth marketing agency called Liberty, in which he spent 20 or so years working with young people, mainly in South London. ‘Be More Pirate’ was a sort of love letter to those young people. In them he found the leadership that we need, which he wasn’t seeing in the upper echelons of government and in traditional leadership. He found inspiration in this more entrepreneurial, more agile, purpose-driven generation. ‘Be More Pirate’ was also, I guess, a venting of frustration in the two years post Brexit, feeling like everything was fracturing. So that’s where the ideas came from but he always used to describe young people as pirates but didn’t really know why.
So he started to do some research into ‘What do I mean when I say pirates?’. Then he ended up really getting into the history and found, if you look back to the golden age of piracy, this really short period of time about 300 years ago when a group of young professionals, mainly in the UK but ended up joining up with other nomadic pirates around the world, decided to rebel against the establishment. They decided that the rules of the day were not serving them, it was incredibly self-serving and the existence in the Royal Navy and on merchant ships, which was the primary means of employment at the time, was so brutal. They quite literally jumped ship and formed their own crews, went off and in doing that, pioneered lots of new ways of working and living that have become hallmarks of civilisation. But pirates are never credited for any of this because they’ve been tarnished with this reputation of being evil villains for so long.
And yet, actually they were really innovators, they were pioneers, they were much fairer than we give credit for. We assume because, you know, they did steal that they are therefore completely immoral but it’s much more nuanced than that. Pirates pioneered things like fair and transparent pay for their crews. They had equal say, they had democracy on board. They formed a system of dual governance so that the Captain and the Quartermaster shared the power. That’s something that we rely on in government today, this two house system to prevent corruption. And they even have same sex marriage. So they worked with the limits and the realities of human nature, but did so in a way that valued each individual, far more than was so at the time in the broader society, where the lower classes were there to really serve the needs of the establishment and the elite.
Sam’s book is written as a business book so it’s really about what we can learn from pirates about culture and organisational structure and also mindset, like the courage and the conviction to go off and decide to rewrite rules, of thinking that there is a better way of doing this, there are better systems, there are better means of being together as people. That’s what pirates did and that’s where we take inspiration from. So it’s really busting a lot of those myths. And the book sparked quite a big reaction from people, so much so that Sam couldn’t really manage it all himself, so I came on board.
Manda: It became a bestseller and obviously stretched right around the world.
Alex: Yes, it did. That was due to a few slightly daring publicity stunts that he did at the time, flyposting the outside window of the publishers and they didn’t like that, but he was trying to live the values of the work. He was trying to rebel a little bit in a tongue in cheek way to test the limits of what Penguin were willing to tolerate.
Manda: Yeah, to be fair, that’s how I found it, because we share a publisher and my publicist sent it to me and said, “I think you’re really going to like this”. In my experience they’re not the most piratical of publishers, but there are people within who clearly got it. So the rest is history, it became a bestseller and then you came on board to help with the overwhelming workload that arose.
Alex: Yes, I think it was a moment where it could have become nothing or it could be something. So the workload was what we decided it should be. I guess as an author you probably know this, you can choose to respond to people or you can choose not to have the capacity to do it. That’s not always a bad thing, people have their priorities, some people are just researchers. But Sam very much felt that this is about action, and both of us were very clear that we were sick of sort of just talking shops, that we want to see action so we had better act. So I came on board to turn it into a community, but I asked him the question at the beginning, “What do you think your community is at the moment?” He said, “I have absolutely no idea, it’s just a group of people who’ve written to me.”
Manda: Right, you had to build the community first or find out who it was.
Alex: Yeah, I like to think that the community builds itself more than I build it, in that people have agency. I wanted to see where the swell of momentum was rather than impose structure on people immediately. I didn’t want to say “This is where we’re going to be talking to each other, we’re going to have monthly meet ups…”, I wanted to see organically where the energy was amongst all these people who’d emerged. So I just started to follow that really. I’d email people back, I’d talk to them, we started to build relationships and it all flowed from there.
It’s such a variety of people that you can’t just say, “You’re all in a network”, that doesn’t work either. I think, as I say in the book, it more emerges like a fleet of a lot of people with very, very strong agendas and ideas about what they’re doing and the actions that they want to take. And ‘Be More Pirate’ acts as a central hub, something to hold all of those ideas or manifestations of the principles in the book. Occasionally they come together and we’ll discuss but it’s really about what people have capacity for, it’s just holding space in a way.
Manda: And it’s a holding space that is held within a set of coherent values that arose out of the book, but it felt to me as if they had been refined or morphed a bit by the time you were beginning to build the capacity to bring a community together that then has led into writing ‘How To Be More Pirate’. So what would you say were the underlying tenets, belief systems and values that when you came on board gave rise to everything else?
Alex: Totally, and I think it’s very clear in the book that you have these five R principles of: rebel (stand up to the status quo), rewrite the rules, reorganise yourself (which is really about scaling the impact, not just growth, so being quite anti-growth), redistribute power (so fight for fairness is a core principle) and retell your story or weaponise it, to give more power to small voices. I always wanted to explore those ideas in a bit more depth to see how they how people could really apply them. It’s not quite as clear-cut as his five principles that you can follow in a framework.
I was waiting to see what would emerge from the reality and application. Actually the first thing was the pirate code, which isn’t really any of those things, it is something slightly different altogether. I suppose once you’ve thought through all those principles, it is what emerges as a result. So what your specific principles are and the foundation of your values is actually really what emerges from that question in the first book: what will you fight for, what will you stand up for? That’s at least a starting point, although there are lots of different ways you can approach creating a pirate code. And I think for me, on a practical level, it’s not just about principles, because anyone can say, “I believe in X, Y, Z”. It’s about how are you translating them into your day to day behaviours, closing the gap. Because if we don’t do that, we just end up with a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of people saying they stand for something and then not doing it. And that’s where so much frustration in society lies, I feel.
Manda: Yes. And we see it all around us in our existing governance structures of people who say one thing and do something completely different. And we know by now that when there is a disparity between those two and the cognitive dissonance that arises, it’s what do you do that counts every time.
So because I want to move to the question of, “Where do we go from here?”, can you tell us just a little bit about your own background of what made you the Alex, the person who could join with Sam to do this? And then a little bit about how you came to write the second book, ‘How to Be More Pirate’, and that’ll maybe give us a launching pad for talking more deeply.
Alex: Yes. So I always do this, I always explain Sam’s backstory for him, which is really important and integral to the whole story. But I came to it after I’d worked my whole career up until that point in the charity sector. That was because I’d identified that I wanted to do something that would be beneficial to the world, or what I thought would be. I thought charity seemed to fulfil that function in society so that seemed like an obvious place to go. I graduated in a financial crisis, so I was pushed and pulled quite a bit in terms of what I wanted to do versus what I could do with a skill set. I ended up working at the RSA, which is the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
Manda: Yes, of which I was once a member, which they call a fellow, briefly, until I think I discovered what I think you discovered. What was your experience of the RSA?
Alex: I want to be balanced on this point, but also give some pushback. It gave me a lot of skills, there’s some absolutely brilliant people who work in the RSA, who I treasure as friends, but as a whole it doesn’t do what it professes to do, in my opinion. It’s not a beacon for real social change because it is too institutionalised. It harnesses people who’ve gone through the same kinds of experiences – universities, think tanks and the civil service – and essentially breeds the same kind of thinking, I think. You can’t get radical change that way, you need actually radical experiences and radical ideas. It’s an odd thing because it takes you quite a long time to understand it. But what that manifests in is, “we always do things in a certain way”. It is a kind of very quiet clamping down on pushback. It’s not open and transparent. I would fundamentally say that a lot the values that are put down are just not what are enacted and a lot of people silently believe that and I know that they do. Yet there’s this is a weird sort of the blanket of silence over these things.
Manda: So there’s a group think that says “we are here making a difference in the world”, whereas in fact what they’re doing is shoring up the status quo by providing a slightly different voice to the mainstream voice.
Alex: Yeah, I’d say so. I want to be fair and say that there are good projects that do have some impact like the funding that is handed out to social enterprises and things like the student design awards that help students to really think up some different ideas and solutions to a variety of problems. But the backbone of the culture is bad and it’s not moving the needle on the really big stuff. As I was there, I thought “well, the things that matter the most seem to be getting worse so can we not re-evaluate our role in all of this?
Where ‘Be More Pirate’ came into it for me is that an answer was that fundamentally, people need to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable and they need to be able to challenge more. And we don’t focus on helping people develop their skill sets and it’s not even acceptable within the culture to do that. I would want to really push back on government, to really challenge the leaders of this organisation on what they’re doing, but there’s all this kind of stuff around “we have to be politically neutral as a charity and then the RSA is a ‘Royal’ Society, we have Princess Anne come every year to give the President’s lecture.” But the point is, what does that serve in the long term? If the rhetoric says that the challenges are so big that we’re going to have to do something bigger, we can’t just be writing blogs, we can’t just be writing reports. I just don’t think that is good enough. We should be having more honest conversations about the transition between stability and instability. I don’t think it’s acceptable to have millions of pounds in reserve money and then tell people that there’s not enough for these potentially ground-breaking activities.
Manda: Yeah, especially not now when we’ve discovered the magic money forest, as long as we’re giving it to our friends to produce plastic bin bags and pretend that they’re PPE.
Alex: Right, there’s absolute nonsense about what there is money for and what there isn’t. It’s so clear that it is political will and my values fell out of line with what I was seeing. Whilst I’m open to being challenged on this, I also know that this is the experience of many, many of my colleagues, not just in the RSA but across the kind of charity and social innovation sector. It is just becoming too much of the status quo when the goal is to try to uproot it.
Manda: So you moved from the RSA directly to working with Sam?
Alex: Yes, well, I took a sabbatical in between. At that point I had got to the end of a big GDPR project at the RSA and it was exhausting. I decided to take a break and to just re-evaluate, really, because I thought “I don’t know what what I’m doing”.
Manda: Yeah, because if you’re asking a pirate question of what will you fight for, GDPR is probably not top of the list.
Alex: I did it because it was my function, it was my role. The absolute truth is, there are lots of reasons why we do these things, and I’m fascinated in this in general because I do work about around organisational culture and identity. I did that job because it made me feel good as a person and it made me feel valued and appreciated in that organisation for my skill set because I was the only one who could operate certain pieces of software.
Manda: That must be quite cool actually.
Alex: It was yeah, I actually found the problem-solving element of it really great, which is why I did it. But when I look at what it stacked up to in terms of values, actually I was putting a lot of red tape around the way that the fellows, the members, could interact with each other. That was all I was doing. I was making it more difficult for them, and yes the law says it, but with hindsight realistically we could have probably done less because actually if you ask the members what they want to do, it is connect. We should have put the minimum amount of red tape around it.
And so that’s where I was, I was doing GDPR. And I also had a bit of a personal moment where I ended a long term relationship, and that was quite difficult, obviously. So it was a lot of change in a quite short period of time. But also I now see, doing ‘Be More Pirate’, that it was going through a moment where I had to do something that was really, really hard. The relationship thing was much harder than anything else I’ve had to do, because personal relationships are. That moment of finding my own courage, enough to push through to the conclusion, changed me. So by the time I got to ‘Be More Pirate’, which is really just at the end of it, I realised that that experience had prepared me in a way that just transitioning from one job to another wouldn’t have done.
Manda: Yes, as a kind of a rite of passage. And you were saying earlier that we need to learn to push into our discomfort, which is something also that Mike Raven of AQai was saying, that we’re all busy heading for comfort and sometimes we need the discomfort to shift us into a new way of being. And it sounds like that’s exactly what you had. So you came to ‘Be More Pirate’ at a point when Sam also was undergoing a transition because the book had taken off and he was presumably watching his email intray, just scrolling down at the rates of hundreds-per-hour-ish. And between you, you took this concept to the pirate code, which is almost Dominic Cummings “move fast and break things” but it’s a “do it with integrity and grounding and an understanding of the values that you bring to what you’re doing”.
I’m really interested in that you’ve got a concept that’s out there in the world that’s written down and people can read, and yet what people want more than anything else is agency and connection. How did you, Alex, go about giving people the connectivity and the sense of tribe that I think, and you may say that I’m wrong, is at the core of what gives people the courage to make the changes that need to be made to undo the groupthink that tends to hold us in our linear patterns?
Alex: Yes, I’ll try to answer the first bit, which is what gives people the sense of agency and connection that I did differently. Because I thought about it in my experience at the RSA of a network and what I could do differently, and the first was that you just really have to acknowledge people. You talk about connection and it isn’t about communication in the sense of just the channels that you’re using. I think we tend to focus on the logistics of it, such as what platforms are we going to use. I was very careful about how I did it and this is, again, a big theme that comes up in the book, I think ultimately all that matters is how you go about things.
Manda: So the how as much as the why.
Alex: Yes. I’m going to call ‘how’ the new frontier of real change because we’ve done ‘why’, we know why. I think the purpose-driven organisation is something that is talked about a lot. A lot of people understand that necessity but I’m concerned with how. So, for example, when I respond to an email, if I haven’t got time to take the time to really speak to that person properly, I don’t bother. I think it’s better to not do it than to do it sort of half-arsed way. A lot of people would disagree with me and probably say that that’s why I end up feeling a bit overworked at times. But I think when you’re building something up in the beginning, and you can’t do it for everyone, of course, but when people have put significant investment into the idea that you believe in too, you invest back. So I’ll put the time to talk with people properly, to listen to the full story and even to date now I see responding to people in a considered way as a really important part of my work in a time when we need connection. You can’t do it all the time and I have over time established limits around that.
Manda: Yeah, because otherwise you just end up answering emails all day, every day and you have to have boundaries.
Alex: Actually what you said about agency connection, they’re almost like two sides of the coin because you want to give people connection but in order for them to have agency, they’ve got to take responsibility for what they’re going to do. I can provide some sense of “I’m here and I am with you, but I’m not doing it for you”. What responsibility and agency are you going to have in this process? And that’s so key to pirates. That’s again the concept of a network. Having it all from a central brand or nucleus of some kind that “I feed you stuff”, to an extent it’s “feed yourself” as the only way we’re going to be sustainable.
Manda: Yes. As pirates, as you and Sam, and also as a whole collective worldwide culture, people are going to need to take the why and translate it into a how. But you did have actual physical gatherings in the days before COVID. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And then what I’d really like to get into is how can we give people help with their own ‘how’? Now in the world that we’re in at this moment of recording, which is November 2020. Tell us a little bit about the gatherings that you had, because they sounded quite inspiring.
Alex: Yes, there were a few smaller ones in between the two big ones that I mention in the book. There was the first initial one, Sam was very keen to have an event in the first month of me starting as right hand pirate. I pushed him to shift it because he wanted to do it at two weeks after, and I thought, we better start off on the right foot, you’re not going to dictate to me how we do this, because I need my agency. So we moved it to February and we held it on the Golden Hind, the replica of Francis Drake’s Ship by London Bridge. So we thought, “let’s get the pirate thing fully established and get everyone on a boat”. It was really, really brilliant. We had a really gorgeous, freak sunny day and everyone was out on the deck and then we were underneath in the gun decks and it really feels like you’re a pirate because it’s dark and cramped. They’ve got barrels and we put the candles everywhere, rum bottles. It was fun and I’d love to do it again, if we have got some resources I’ll 100% be doing that because the team on the Golden Hind are lovely too. Then we gave people two minutes to pitch a rebellion that they wanted to start and actually that was the genesis of some of the stories in the book and the crews that have formed since. It really did make a difference. So that was really fun, that was just a great kick off to the movement.
And then we had another big one six months later, which I go through as a story at the beginning of ‘How To Be More Pirate’. There were lots of things about that event which felt very poignant to me. It was a really hard time, actually, for me and Sam, he was going through some stuff and that obviously impacted on our work and it impacted on me. I was starting to step up, I was doing a lot of public speaking and events, but not really feeling ready for it so I just felt a bit exhausted by the burden of upskilling myself very, very quickly and still holding the community.
I trekked around lots of buildings in London to try and find a space that would be a piratey, but not a ship, because we’d done that. I really had a clear sense in my mind, but I just didn’t know where it was. So I just did lots of Googling and then I found this warehouse in Bermondsey. I went to visit it and then the initial space that they took me to was this horrible grey building that was a car park, basically, but three floors up. So then he said there’s another place at the back, maybe try that instead. Funny that they didn’t try this place first. And it was this amazing, again similar space in that it’s a warehouse, but there were pictures on the walls, there were sofas, a little kitchen. It was more of a community space, you could see that. But it also had this big graffiti on the wall that said ‘LOVE’ but the ‘O’ was a skull and it was just a sign.
Manda: Yes, all you have do is to put cross bones underneath it and you’re there.
Alex: I know, I was like, “this is a done deal”. I thought “right we have our speakers, which will do against that wall and that will be perfect”. There was a slight error in that it’s quite hard to find the space and the instructions weren’t very good so less people than were invited turned up but we still had a nice crew. It was more intimate, the atmosphere was different because things were difficult at the time. The climate protests were really peak and Brexit was a bit mad. I mean, it pales in comparison to this year now, but at the time it felt quite big. I think everyone was really, really open and quite vulnerable in what they said at that event and it gave the feeling of a movement in a different kind of way for me. It was more emotionally charged, and maybe that was a reflection of also where Sam and I were at at the time. We were at various conversational cross-points of where this was all going and it really reaffirmed the power of pirates as a language to unite people and, exactly what you just said, the combination of connection and agency that people need so I’d love to do some more.
Manda: And before COVID is over, at the moment you’ve got a lot of online courses and workshops and things that people can do, which we will put links to in the show notes. I don’t really want to head down that rabbit hole at the moment. I really want to look at what you said about shifting from the the why to the how. If anyone is listening to this podcast they know we’re heading for the sixth mass extinction, we’re heading for climate tipping points. They will probably have read the Deep Adaptation paper and be familiar with Jem Bendell and you said in some of our earlier conversations that you’d done a workshop with Jem Bendell. What I think we need, within business and without business, is for people to begin to find the ‘how’ to make change.
I want to read a little bit that you wrote right at the end of ‘How To Be More Pirate’ to take us forward: “Sam and I will strive to provide a platform for aspiring pirates, we will create more resources to support creative rule breaking and continue to gather the community together so that ideas can be sourced and shared.” And clearly, you are doing that. But you go on to say, “but my ambitions lie beyond this. I want to see many more new crews forming outside of formal structures so that while the old models fall, new ones are already emerging.” And I have that highlighted and highlighted and highlighted and underlined and exclamation pointed. Because it seems to me that now we’re post the American election, the existing President has not yet conceded at the time of recording, our political governance structures are quite clearly crumbling, the old models are falling. But it seems to me that we have not yet built the really amazing, generative, new, connected mycelial growth that I keep seeing in my vision of the oak log that Accidental Gods listeners will be familiar with.
So very briefly, I have a vision of oak log in the forest that comes up in some of my Shamanic work and it’s a huge, big, solid oak log. At at some point an elk comes along, I have no idea why it’s an elk, I’ve never seen an elk in my life. But anyway, it jumps over the log, big log and it’s right-hand leg clips it and the oak log dissolves into dust. In that moment it looked solid and then it’s just dust. But inside is this extraordinary, vivid, vibrant mycelial growth that’s been growing all the time. And it lights up in the forest and it’s so beautiful and so different to the oak log in its connectivity and its resilience and its capacity to share. And I am holding that as a vision of what we’re doing and what really drew me to your work is that you are making this happen in the business world. You’re talking to Google and Mercedes and the NHS and big, big structures that look from the outside to be monolithic. And yet I feel that the existing structures, the tapping of that log seems to be in real time, and the dissolving into dust, however hard the establishment clings on. How do we build that mycelial growth? How do we make the connections in business and outside of business in the world, in our narratives, in the ways that we communicate so that the new structures are in place when that dust settles?
Alex: Oh, wow. Is it’s such a big question.
Manda: But you can handle it, you’re Alex.
Alex: Yeah I can, and I want to just go off on a tiny tangent about what you said about your vision of the elk. It just reminded me of the first recording we did for our ‘Be More Pirate’ podcast, forthcoming, was with Chressie Westling, who’s an environmental entrepreneur, Sam writes about her in ‘Be More Pirate’. I asked her what was the moment that is etched in her mind that pushes her on this journey to absolutely zero waste, that waste is unacceptable. She talks about her experience when she was a kid growing up in Canada. She says it’s this moose that she saw in the forest looking after its baby and she said it just ingrained in her that debt she has to the natural world. I won’t say any more on that.
Manda: We want to listen to the podcast when it comes out.
Alex: Yes, that almost talismanic vision of a symbol of the natural world. Some people in my pirate crew have been talking about octopuses because of ‘My Octopus Teacher’ and also because of Cat Duncan-Rees, who is one of the pirates in the book, her symbol for her business that she’s had since two years ago, since I met her, Curators of Change, has always been an octopus. We could talk about using animals just as an aside.
But anyway, how, how do we do this, how do we build new structures? It’s challenging and I’m often in a back and forth between, can you build them from within or do you have to do it without? There are different examples of people forming, let’s call it back-channel crews inside organisations, city councils, the NHS, and corporates. This is where you’re essentially meeting on the sly and going “real culture change isn’t going to come from this scheduled meeting, is it? If we’re really going to challenge, for example, why is all of our profit still going to the shareholders or different ways in which our proposed values don’t actually meet our real values, how are we going to really change that?” So I think that is possible, to bring together a few allies within an organisation. I’ve seen that happen, to really form a strong challenger group. Because ideally you want to see both happening at the same time, you want to see alternatives emerging in a way that perhaps social enterprise has challenged what business should look like, probably not enough, but at least provides a sort of example alongside seeing that change happen within. Does that makes sense?
Manda: It does, but these behind back-channel crews, are they creating enough change or are there things that those of us not in business can do on the outside to support that?
Alex: Yes, I think with business it’s harder. I think where I’m seeing it more effective is in kind of alternative democracy movements.
Manda: Ok, let’s talk about that. That sounds really interesting because democracy is broken.
Alex: Yes, I think in business there’s not enough of a swell of it being probably the level of radical that we need yet in my opinion, I’ll just park that for a second. Whereas I think what I’ve seen in different democracy movements is that you’re seeing a very clear way of building a different system, especially as the current one is really failing on so many accounts. Although it feels as though there’s lots of different deliberative democracy ideas around citizens’ assemblies, people’s assemblies, participatory budgeting, almost at this point maybe not working in collaboration with each other enough and slightly in competition. The fact is that more and more people are putting energy and time towards trying to build these.
To give you more tangible examples, I’ll talk more specifically about two groups that I’m involved with, which do have a relationship to Extinction Rebellion, although they’re more like now very end tentacles. I participate in a group called Trust the People, which is a pro-democracy grassroots movement. It’s essentially a six-week programme where anyone can come on board and by the end of it, become a kind of community transformer. The idea is that you are in a position by the end of the course to be skilled enough to start really generating some kind of grassroots community democracy project. And we give a lot of options for how you might want to do that. It might be that you want to get involved with movements like Incredible Edible, which is all around food but starting to move more into democracy. Or it might be that you want to run a people’s assembly, a kind of gathering, I’m sure your listeners know what that is.
Manda: Is this linked to Flatpack Democracy?
Alex: Yes, Flatpack Democracy is one of the other movements that is connected to Trust the People and an option for people. Once they’ve gone through the course, we would point them towards Flatpack Democracy and say, if you’re really revved up and want to transform democracy in your local community, one thing you can do is potentially stand as an independent local town councillor. The idea of Flatpack is to get a real groundswell of people standing as independents so that you essentially eradicate party politics so that we don’t have this in-fighting system of, Labour versus Conservative versus Greens, when actually what we want is what’s best for the community. Rather than sort of saying, “Labour owns that policy so therefore we have to stand against it” when actually that’s not in their best interest.
Manda: Yes, so broken. For people who haven’t heard of Flatpack Democracy, can you tell us a little bit about how it started?
Alex: Absolutely. The secret weapon of democracy, let’s say. So it was started in Froom in Somerset with Peter Macfadyen, who began the campaign. He was fed up of that situation of infighting and a very dysfunctional local council that wasn’t working for the local community. So he got a group together and said, let’s all stand as independents, but almost like a united group, under no banner. They made it fun. And this is a really cool pirate of a point about activism: make it fun. They put up spoof signs with things spelt wrong. So they had fun in the process and that’s a key thing about how. When we make things fun, they’re actually usually more successful than when we make everything like a massive chore, which is the way we’re used to understanding work.
Manda: Because the energy you put into things changes how they happen.
Alex: It really, really does. And we miss that out of a lot of action-orientated projects, which is why we need to change the how and that’s why I think it’s so important. So Peter did that really well and then it became it became a bit of a movement. This is back in 2011 and other councils started to do it, started to reclaim democracy for them. At the low level, that gave them just a lot more agency. And there’s all kinds of things that Peter did within Flatpack that I think changed how politics works fundamentally. He talks about how he made sure that there was a facilitator in those town council meetings so that there wasn’t the room for one person to dominate. It’s just these little structural interventions that really matter. He ensured that they had deep listening practices. He’s talked before about having a more feminised politics without it being about men and women, but just practices that maybe aren’t the usual for political spaces.
Manda: And not just based on teenagers in Eton and how they behaved, which seems to be how our politics is predicated. As I understand it, when they first stood, they said “we all have very different political views”, I think they were the local transition town group, and “we’re not going to tell you our policies, we’re going to tell you how we’re going to solve the problems, these are the principles we will use”. And in the first election, they got something like nine out of 17 so they just had the balance of power. Four years later at the next election they swept the board, 17 out of 17 of their local town councillors were the Flatpack Democrats and they did it. Froom sounds extraordinary now as a place where politics works because it isn’t tribal anymore, which seems to be really, really core, the tribalism is destroying us and is pointless.
Alex: You summarised it far better than I did. That is exactly it.
Manda: So how does that come with you then? You’ve got Trust the People. You said there were two things that you were involved with.
Alex: That was what I meant, Flatpack, which is a separate campaign because it has quite particular aims whereas Trust the People is more of a course. It’s just that at the end of Trust the People we would point people towards it. I see that those two things fit ‘Be More Pirate’ so well because they are manifestations of the principles of reorganise yourself and redistribute power. And one other thing I’d like to mention at the end of this, actually, because I want to do credit to the amazing pirates in the book as well, rather than just going off on tangents. They fulfil those principles, they are challenges to the established way of doing things, and they will uproot the system at the root because it’s not just about tinkering on the surface. And actually I was so pleased when my dad read the book he said that his first thought was that I should stand for politics now, and then he thought but that would just be the old way of thinking, wouldn’t it? You’ve got to create the new and that would be playing into the old system.
Manda: Oh, well done, your dad.
Alex: Yeah, one of the things I wanted to mention was the the amazing work that Dina and Ian do in Coalville in the Midlands. They they set up a community benefit societies. They’ve set up one there, but they are also hoping in the future to train more people to do this, which is another vehicle that is underutilised that will give people and communities agency to own decision making and even local assets and that is an alternative, I think. It’s a bit like a co-operative, but there are a few more benefits to it.
Manda: Yeah. And oddly enough, it exists within the existing system. We’re trying to start one up here to do with local regenerative farming. And how can we bring people together who grow things with people who want to grow things with people who have land that they’re not growing things on, and then the people who want to eat stuff that’s been grown locally and a community benefit society, it’s astonishing. It’s like this little mole that someone has snuck into a system that’s otherwise wholly designed to destroy people and give them no agency. And actually, you get quite a lot of agency with the community benefit society. Before we we head back to talking about wonderful people in the book, I understand from from your book the ‘How to Be More Pirate’, that quite a lot of people came to the original ‘Be More Pirate’ book through Ed Miliband’s podcast, ‘The Reasons to Be Cheerful’. So therefore we know that it has penetrated the armour of the existing political system. And I wonder, have you got any reason to believe that it’s dragging any kind of emotional literacy into our existing governance system?
Alex: Well, yes, I think that the fact that it was on Ed Miliband’s podcast is indicative of it penetrating the system. But I’d say that we see it in some of the stories in the book and in the people that we’ve managed to work with who are what you would consider quite status quo. Perhaps not the political system, but in terms of enterprises like Google and Mercedes, the idea that they would even consider the concept of piracy and really change their strategy as a result.
Manda: Yes, but Ed had read it. He’s still an MP. He’s still presumably fairly highly regarded inside one of our two major parties. I’d done a bit of a study on his podcast. His second podcast was talking about citizens’ assemblies, and it seemed to me was pretty much wholly responsible for the setting up of the various citizens’ assemblies that happened within Westminster. And they may have turned out to be desperate damp squids, but at least they tried. So I’m guessing that if nothing else, a number of people involved in the existing political process at least know that ‘Be More Pirate’ exists as a concept. But but what I’m hearing from you is that it’s not really then acted out, there are no pirate crews within Westminster that we know of.
Alex: So I’d say that there is a big difference between awareness and sort of asset support for concept and a willingness to put it into action. Because lots of people say, “Oh this sounds sounds cool, sounds fun”. This is why the stories and the case studies are so much more important because you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. I think it’s great that some politicians might have thought, “yeah, I like this idea” but it’s got to be done. And there have been a few people who’ve written to me from inside the Navy in recent weeks. I thought you might want to hear about this, we are pirates in the Navy. Then there’s another chap who recently wrote to me off the back of a session we did and he is doing a big piece of research on constructive disobedience in military settings. And I’m really fascinated in this. I’m starting to design an online course. This is where we’re really going to get into the benefits of disobedience, challenge and rule breaking within especially high risk or very regulated environments, because we’ve got to get it in and I think you need to provide those kinds of people with their mindsets the real evidence and research and logic behind why this matters.
Manda: Yes. And also, there’s a huge history of that. In my last novel I wrote about the Special Operations Executive, and they issued books to people behind enemy lines of constructive disobedience, of how to resist in a way that will not get you put up against a wall and shot, but will make sure that basically nothing happens. I’ve read so many books in the last few days, but I think it was in your book that they just hold more meetings. If in doubt, stop everything and hold a meeting because that will guarantee that nothing happens. And so I also have sent this book to a friend of mine who’s a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, who is also I think very much on board with with the ideas here.
So we’re going to have to close soon because your podcast is 45 minutes, and ours is around an hour and we’re heading towards that. But there’s something in the little bit that Sam wrote in his introduction to ‘How To Be More Pirate’. At the end of the first bit he said, “So if we want some kind of capitalism to remain the vehicle for human development, it needs a new engine.” And my question is, do we want some kind of capitalism to remain the vehicle for human development? Do we have a choice? And if not, then what? Because I noticed when it looked like Biden may have been elected as president of the United States, a friend of mine wrote me an email saying, “same bus, different driver”. And it is true that Trump is the driver who is veering across the road trying to run people down and at least Biden will drive on the correct side of the road roughly in a straight line. But it’s not going to get us to where we need to be if Deep Adaptation is real. We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. I genuinely can’t see the structures that we have solving that problem. And it seems to me that capitalism is structurally part of the problem. I loved the fact that, for instance, Mercedes and Google are picking up ‘How To Be More Pirate’ and they have pirate crews, but they’re working out how to sell people more vans and that’s not going to solve the problem.
Alex: Yeah. On that last point, Sam and I have an ongoing conversation about this, of meeting people where they are versus dragging them into the future. He has had those conversations about diesel vans but in order to persuade anyone to do anything, you have to have a relationship with them, which means you have to really gauge how hard you push, which is why I think this role of, whatever you might want to call it, facilitator, broker, mediator between, this is going to be an increasingly important role in the future. The other point about capitalism as a means for the vehicle for human development, I think, first of all, there’s a lot of misnomers about what capitalism is and what it contains within a word. There are elements of it that I would always want to keep, which is enabling people to flourish and realise their dreams and their capacities. I think people think that communism keeps people down at a capped level. There’s a big kind of misnomer and thinking therefore there’s only these two binary options when actually it’s perfectly possible to have a system that enables human flourishing that is also fairer. And I’ve been reading this paper called ‘Rethinking Humanity X’, which is what Sam described to me when he first read it as the antithesis in a way to Deep Adaptation in that essentially acknowledges that the mass extinction and the the possibility of breakdown, but also offers a different option of breakthrough. And it talks to all the technologies that are being built in a way that will enable a breakthrough, that will distribute power, essentially, and ensure that manufacturing and everything is done at local level.
Manda: Ok, I need to talk to the person who wrote this. Who’s it by?
Alex: Two guys, James Arbib and Tony Seba. It’s quite dense and it’s written as part of a think tank, but it definitely shows a way through in many ways. There are parts of it that I have written lots of question marks over around if whether enough thought has been given to the culture of the new operating system. It is very technology focussed. They think if the technology is there then the culture will almost flow and I’d say that’s probably not going to happen, but the nature of it, the distributedness of it will change.
Manda: Ok, if you were to pull out a thing that listeners could take from that, that you have taken from that, because as we’re heading to a close, what I really want to do is offer people agency and direction. And once they’ve worked out their own why, which one hopes by now they have done, how can they work out their how? It sounds like that paper might be a way to doing it. But how do you, Alex, work out your how and what can people take away as ways that they can work out their how? How do we make things different?
Alex: There’s not a simple answer, I start people with that concept of nailing down their values and their pirate code in the sense of what matters to you? What are you standing for? What do you really believe in? Having a level of honesty because you absolutely can’t go anywhere from there. And I think most of us haven’t done that work, not to be dismissive of people who have, but it’s not something that is taught as an essential thing to do because you just can’t work out your way through all this future that is coming, whether we like it or not. It’s important to know what you believe in, I think. I’d say with this, on a practical level, that we are going to have to be more resilient and resourceful at a more local level. So the thing that I find most helpful to do is, finding the places that you could really get involved with a local project that is A) fun and B) gives a skill for the future. So maybe it’s around growing or making in some way or even things like I said, those roles around facilitating and being a mediator, a connector of people, I really believe in that. I guess this is the main takeaway, as the paper talks about, that we are heading towards a more network system rather than a system with a central operating model where things are concentrated from the centre so building networks and relationships is so fundamental. Doing that work and going much further beyond maybe your current bubble or circles of what we call active socialising so deliberately and intentionally finding people that you wouldn’t usually connect with.
Manda: I am feeling another podcast going on, if you’re ever up for it, this might be something to give a whole hour to – intentionally moving outside your own circle and building those connections.
Alex: Yeah, I always include that in ‘Be More Pirate’ because it expands your imagination, which we’re going to need and we don’t give enough time to. It will give you different perspectives, which again you really need. It is that edge of the map thing I talk about in the book of getting into a level of uncomfortability maybe, that is good for you rather than too scary, but also building new networks, which is the future.
Manda: Yeah. OK, so one last question. I am endeavouring to live this in so far as I can, starting every day with “what do you want of me?” to the world and then “how do I do that?” and I find that my bandwidth is pretty much used up. The idea of going even further to the edge and making even more networks leaves parts of my soul shuddering in a corner in foetal position, trying to look for a cave to crawl into because I haven’t got the headspace. I am also totally aware that we’re in lockdown too and some people are sitting at home watching reruns of ‘The Great British Bake Off’, getting really, really bored. So I do live in a slightly odd experience. But do you get to the point where you are saturated in terms of your capacity to make more networks, or am I just not doing it right? That’s a genuine question.
Alex: So there’s a few things I’d say. First of all, when I say do something, it’s about finding the thing that you find joyful.
Alex: Yeah, precisely. I think you probably have to realise that firstly you already are playing enough of a role that you need to, I’m probably talking a bit more to people who might not have considered what they could do yet, whereas you clearly are already a connector and a broadcaster. I would then also say that in the book we talk about this idea of small, bold actions. This is part of the problem why so many good intentions go to waste because we think too big and go “oh, my God, I have to form new networks”, but actually just find one person who you can easily connect with and have a conversation with them. That’s literally one goal.
Manda: Yeah, one new person a week is 52 new people a year.
Alex: Even not thinking like that, I mean, this is again the antithesis of ‘Be More Pirate’. It’s not growth, it’s not about knowing I’ve got 52 people. When we did the Trust the People workshop on Monday night I met a young man who’s a refugee who had participated in the Egyptian revolution. And my God, the conversation and what he could bring, what he said about his experience of community and being excluded from communities and being in and out. That was enough, that gave me a whole new understanding that I will then bring to other people in my networks. So it’s almost like it’s just it’s like rewiring, isn’t it? So I will then bring that to my pirate group and I’ll probably mention it at the opening of one of our network things. So it doesn’t matter if it’s just the one person, make it real, make it matter and make it human and you’re good.
Manda: Magic. What a way to end, thank you. That is utterly perfect. We will call it a day there.
So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Alex for living the change that we need to see in the world, for creating connections and asking questions and exploring answers and for opening spaces where we can begin to build the generative future that we all need. Do read the books, ‘Be More Pirate’ and ‘How To Be More Pirate’, I will put links in the show notes.
I will also put a link in the show notes to an offer from Mike Raven, who we interviewed on the podcast a couple of weeks ago in podcast number 47. Mike too spoke about the need to lean into discomfort and to grow our adaptability. He pointed out that there was no way to measure adaptability, which is essential to everything that we want to do. We need to know where our baselines are if we want to change them. So he and his co-founder, Ross Thornley of AQai, had to build a whole system for measuring adaptability so that we can see if our ways of trying to enhance it are working. And now Mike and Ross have really kindly offered listeners of Accidental Gods the chance to explore their new system for free using the discount code AccGods. This is so aligned with the piratical work of Alex and Sam so really do make the most of it. I will also put it on the original page from Mike’s podcast under Episode 47.
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