It’s holiday season for us here at Negcap, but soon we will have for you an interview with one of our favourite political economists. It’s shaping up nicely. It will not be anything like what passes for economic commentary in the mainstream, but rather an in-depth discussion that goes to the root of capitalism’s eternal problem: the reproduction of the working class through the wage system. Also, a report from a Corbyn rally, and is Putin a threat to the West? This and much more soon. Stay tuned…
From the moment we opened our eyes on the dawn of 24 June, our minds were thrown. It has taken from then till now to reach a place of equanimity. A reckoning is in order – what happened, and was our reaction wise or just?
What happened in the outside world we have sketched already and we see no reason nor has anything materialised to change our minds about our analysis of it. In short, an irresponsible, unserious, unscrupulous and stupid section of the ruling elite has taken power, or is in the process of taking power, based on a campaign of lies designed to whip up the fears and emotions of the poor and bewildered. The result has been just as predicted by those denigrated during the campaign as “experts” – so not Project Fear at all, but Project Reality. The brains were for Remain. But the brains lost. Project Hate is taking the reins of government and the lid that had been kept on racism and social divisions in recent decades has been lifted off, with explosive and ugly consequences. Can there possibly be a bright side to any of this?
The best that we can be
There might well be, but to get there we need to look a bit more closely at our reaction to the news – to what happened internally. As we said, our minds were thrown. We were angry, and depressed, and sought people to blame. Having picked a scapegoat, the one we believed to be most immediately and obviously responsible, we picked up hot coals of anger and thew them – burning our own hands in the process. That this is understandable and (we hope) forgiveable should be derivable from our honest and we believe factual assessment of what had happened. But never mind the justifications – was it right? Was it just? Was it wise?
At times like this, full of anger, of sorrow, of confusion about the best way forward, we turn for guidance to those who are more highly evolved than we are. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master. That means he is a master of his mind and his emotions and is therefore more capable than we are of making wise decisions in the heat of the moment. When he first came to America from Vietnam during the war there, his country too was in crisis. And, it should be needless to say, a much more severe crisis than we are facing. Thich’s country was being destroyed, his friends, family, loved ones and fellow countrymen slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. When the gentle monk stood up in a meeting to speak for peace, an audience member interrupted and asked what a kook like him was doing over here in his country, giving lectures. If things were so bad, why didn’t he go back home where he belonged and put his attention there? Thich remained completely calm and gently explained that his country was on fire. Given that the cause of the fire was over here in America, he’d come over to see if he couldn’t help put it out. Later, after the talk, Thich was found by his friends standing outside, trembling and shaking all over and breathing deeply. He explained to those who asked him what was wrong that anger had arisen in him as that man had spoke. Then why not express that anger, he was asked. Surely the fool who had asked the question deserved it – surely Thich was justified in expressing it. Maybe so, said Thich, but I am not here for myself. I am here to represent my fellow countrymen who are suffering so badly. I must show people here in America the best that we can be.
I can never relate that story without choking up. And the lesson from it is clear. We failed to be the best that we can be. Following the path of peace and wisdom is a hard one that takes many years of training to yield success. We do not beat ourselves up for our failure, but we do bow in gratitude for the lesson – it is humbling to the ego to know how far one yet has to go. It inspires us to begin anew and try again.
Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher from a different tradition and inspired by Gandhi, says that anger is not a problem as long as you have trained your mind to be slow. If your mind is slow, you can see and watch gently as anger arises, take steps to calm yourself, not feed your anger with thoughts, and drive the energy of anger instead into wise and compassionate action and kind speech. If your mind is fast, there is no hope for any of that. You will have no chance of taking hold of and transforming your anger – your anger will tear off and drag you in its wake. You won’t use it, it will use you.
That is what happened to us when we learnt of the EU referendum result. Our minds raced off and anger and fear fed greedily on the thoughts. Social media made it worse – as social minds they are faster even than newspapers and TV and are therefore, unwisely used, poisons. Drunk on thought and poison and anger, we started wars with all around us. Thank God, the war of words has not yet escalated into a real war – though how easily that happens should now be obvious to all who are paying attention to the predictable and predicted rise in racist and xenophobic violence. We happily (or rathe unhappily) started wars of words with friends and family. In the country, others are starting literal wars of hatred with their neighbours. How desperately and urgently we need to slow and calm down and begin to make peace!
Drive all blames into one: the only revolution that will work
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a system of slogans to help you with daily living known as lojong. One of the slogans forms the subhead to this section: drive all blames into one. What this means is that when things go wrong or aren’t to your liking, when disaster or dissatisfaction in whatever form strikes, whether in big ways as in wars or in small ways as in irritation with your neighbour, what you can do is to take all the blame for the situation onto yourself. This is not the normal way of proceeding, of course. Normally we start looking for someone to blame. To reverse that normal way of behaving is to begin the only revolution that will ever work. It doesn’t mean to turn yourself into a doormat for other people or to ignore or tolerate bad behaviour in others. It simply means to take full responsibility for every situation you find yourself in. If you look deeply, you will see that you personally always bear, or at the least share, responsibility for creating the situation you are in.
In the wake of the EU referendum result, we started to blame those most responsible. The Leave campaign. The people who voted for it against all the advice of the experts. The social situation that led the working class to so distrust the political class – the fact that they had been shat on from a great height and ignored or taken for granted by both sides of the political divide. And so on and so on. But we are to blame too. We failed to mount a successful enough campaign – in the first place against holding such a stupid and undemocratic referendum, in the second for the right result. We failed to get out there and connect with and educate the ignorant. We have failed to inspire confidence in the left project. We didn’t work hard enough to support those being shat on by the elites – the fact that they no longer trust them is our fault too. Our behaviour and conduct and thinking as socialists has inspired precisely how many people to follow our good example? Would zero be too cruel an answer?
This is our task now as our country slips into crisis. To drive all blames into one and act.
There is another Zen story that is relevant here. It goes something like this. A man comes into a great inheritance and is given a ton of money. You are so lucky! say his friends and family. Maybe, he says. With his windfall he goes out to buy himself a new car and drives it into a tree on the way home. At his hospital bed, his friends commiserate with him. You were so unlucky, they say. Maybe, he replies. While he is in hospital, a mudslide destroys his house. How unlucky, say some of his friends. How lucky you were not in the house at the time! say others. Maybe, he replies…
The point of course is that we cannot see all ends and must work well within the situation as it is, whatever it is. The vote for Brexit struck us as a complete disaster – and, of course, in so many ways it is. But might there be a bright side? Maybe.
For a start, Brexit may not even happen. The odds that it will and the political feeling that it must are against such a conclusion, but the possibility of EU fudge, a new deal, a general election, a feeling of Bregret when Brexiteers realise they’ve been sold a pup and cannot have the best of all worlds and that the costs of Brexit will be severe, means that a Breversal, as The Economist puts it, cannot be ruled out.
But more optimistically still, we have the situation in the Labour Party. The Blairites may have miscalculated here. They took Jeremy’s lukewarm endorsement of Remain and his supposed footdragging in the campaign as the excuse they’ve been desperate for ever since Jeremy was elected leader to launch a coup – flavoured, as might be expected, with shameful, even evil attempts to break Jeremy on a human level, a brew seasoned with lies and Machiavellian plotting and backstabbing. They have done everything in their power to unseat him – except, of course, to trigger a leadership challenge that they must surely lose. (The membership remains firmly behind Jeremy.)
Could, then, this crisis lead to a final reckoning in the Labour Party? Picture the scene – Jeremy wins a renewed mandate for his leadership. The movement that supported him gradually steps up to the challenge; MPs deselected, the PLP and shadow cabinet filled with Corbynistas. Come election time, a highly energised Corbynista Labour Party is able to connect to the least bigoted of the Leavers, thanks in part to Jeremy’s well known euroscepticism, winning back Labour’s core vote. The very fact of Jeremy’s survival and likely victory so discredit the mainstream narrative about his lame leadership that the aspirational middle class begin to see that there is little to fear in the Corbynomics plan to grow the economy. Following Corbyn’s victory, the very fact of Brexit gives the new Labour Party the freedom to pursue economic goals that would have been problematic under EU rules, and a moral power to renegotiate access to the single market with freedom of movement combined with protections for the sections of society that lose out most from such deals. In other words, from the jaws of Brexit defeat, we snatch a social democratic victory beyond present imagining.
That this scenario is almost ludicrously optimistic from the point of view of the intellect and of political and social realities we would be the last to dispute. There barely seems to be time for it to be realised, let alone the will. But there is a final spiritual lesson to learn from this ongoing disaster – and it is perhaps the most important of them all. It is that pessimism of the intellect and objective realities can hold no power over a fully developed, undiscourageable, ever-renewed optimism of the will. So if our scenario is in the slightest bit appealing to you, don’t just sit there – and certainly don’t just criticise or sneer. Join the Labour Party – join Momentum, the movement that supports Jeremy. Do it today.
Regardless of the prospects for our utopian scenario, at the present time Jeremy remains the great hope for a progressive outcome for this crisis. He is also something of a model when it comes to political conduct. He may not have mastered his mind as Thich Nhat Hanh has, but he is a pretty remarkable operator nonetheless – committed to a politics of kindness, honesty, seriousness and straight-talking that even the right finds refreshing to behold. Jeremy doesn’t do personal. But he does do tireless political work for peace and socialism and compassionate action. Let Jeremy be our role model. Let’s get behind him now.
No forgiveness without contrition, no democracy without responsibility.
The first thing to say of course is that democracy has been served, that the people have had their say, and that we respect the result. Except that would be a complete lie.
Democracy and politics
Anyone who knows the first thing about democratic organisations or has participated in them will know full well why this is the case. But I suspect that will be a vanishing minority of the people who voted so confidently for Brexit, so let’s spell it out. Democracy is a process whereby all the people who need to make or are affected by a decision come together to make it collectively. The very coming together implies an ethos of mutual respect and an agreement to play by the rules. The rules of the democratic game include the idea that everyone can have their say, that everyone will do their best to understand the arguments on all sides and put aside their own narrow interests or prejudices in order to participate in the discussion and come to an agreement. That agreement will take care to find consensus where possible, decide by majority vote where necessary. The minority agree to accept the decision of the majority; the majority to respect the rights of the minority and do their best to not outrage their fundamental beliefs or trample on their interests. Anyone who thinks this describes the process that led to the recent referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union is a deluded fool.
Roughly what happened is this. In the last general election, David Cameron offered a sop to his lunatic fringe. Back me in this election, he said, and I’ll give you an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Cameron did not expect to have to honour this – he expected to have to do another deal with the Lib Dems to form a government, and his stupid promise would be the first to go in the horse trading. Alas, the Tories won a majority and he was stuck with his pledge. Cameron went ahead with it in the expectation that he would win anyway because leaving the European Union would be such an obviously insane and reckless thing to do.
Alas again, Cameron did not bank on the ignorance of the population. The Leave campaign played its hand well. How to sell a lunatic idea to an ignorant and ill-informed population? Well, play on their fears and prejudices of course. So, pick a problem, any problem. The root causes of that problem will be some combination of the structure of the capitalist economy, the nature of the globalised political order, including the perceived necessity of imposing austerity to rescue the economy from the effects of the financial crisis, and the lack of clout and nous on the part of the working class to figure out what its own interests are and fight for them. Leaving the EU will solve none of these problems. And the latter is at least partly the fault of the working class itself. Defeat and economic changes and the fact that it has been left behind and shat on for decades are of course partly responsible. But the working class is morally culpable. For all its hardships, it lives in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and benefits from welfare states and educational and employment opportunities our forebears could only dream of. Except that they didn’t just dream – try got off their arses, educated themselves and fought for them. What are we doing? Moping around and blaming brown people for our woes. It’s pathetic. We have become too fat and lazy and selfish to be worthy of anything better than the austerity imposed on us. The working class was once the salt of the earth, they say. But if the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is henceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.
In case anyone is wondering, the brute truth of the present situation is this. The British elite has suffered a coup at the hands of another section of the same elite. The ascendant elite took power on the back of a mendacious campaign led by liars, fools and fascists who whipped up emotion and fear in that section of the population too stupid and supine to know what the fuck was going on except that it hurt and someone somewhere should be made to pay for. Brown folk and the EU were somehow made to appear as an identity in their booze-addled, cholesterol-soaked minds, and off to the polls they went to vent their hate. A young mother was gunned down in the street, but what of that? A national and global political and economic crisis has been sparked. Racism and xenophobia have been given a spur. We will all pay the price for this in the years to come.
The spiritual dimension
As the foregoing comments might possibly make clear, this whole process has made me furiously angry. Followers of our blog will know that we are aspirants on the spiritual path. Now, what are the teachings of that path on anger? Have I not failed badly in recent days by venting my anger instead of keeping it under wise control and developing compassion for the downtrodden instead?
Partly the answer is yes. I have in at least some respects failed to live up to the wonderful example of the spiritual masters and my sorrow at that will only deepen as my anger subsides, I am sure. But there are other teachings about anger that are relevant here. Firstly, anger is not in and of itself a problem. Anger is a motivating emotion that gives us the strength and power to act courageously in a just cause or to defend ourselves when under attack. It is only problematic when we can’t control it wisely (and which of us can?). Secondly, anger is a teacher. When we are angry with others, it is usually because we see in them something of ourselves, or we are deflecting attention that would be better directed at our own character flaws and wrong actions onto the failings of others.
So, what I am really most furiously angry about is myself. I have struggled for many years to educate myself and participate in political activity – not always I’m sure with the noblest of motives, but certainly not with entirely base or self-interested ones either. And yet, who really would know it? In most social situations, my ego character is such that it would rather stay quiet when political issues are raised. I’ll let it go rather than raise a voice of protest for the sake of social peace. I might convince myself that this is noble – that I’m just trying to be kindly and friendly. But that is what Buddhism calls Idiot Compassion – action that has the appearance of kindliness, but is motivated by the ego’s desire to avoid being bothered or disturbed, of fear of conflict or of being wrong, of (pathetically) a desire to be liked and approved of.
This is wrong action, and if I have learnt anything from this referendum result it is that I must learn to be less likeable. It is only possible to stay out of political action or discussion if you suffer from the delusion that it doesn’t affect you. Political action IS you – it’s the water you swim in. If you object to a politics that treats you like a stupid piece of shit to be used and abused by the ruling class at will – well, then, you’d better pick yourself up and be worthy of a different kind of politics, of a different kind of society. All those problems you moan about? They’re YOU’RE fault. They’re my fault. Let’s work on our faults together.
So, I come out of this grotesque referendum campaign with a new determination. I will no longer put my need to be liked or my selfish desire for peace and quiet ahead of speaking the truth. I will renew my commitment to learning about the issues that affect us and putting what I have learnt into political practice. I will write about all that more regularly on this blog – not because I care about winning readers, but because writing about things is the way you learn about them. I will continue my spiritual practice and learn to develop sympathy and compassion for all, including those who disagree with me or who hate me – or who are deeply ignorant or aggressive. I will learn to be a more effective communicator and political activist. La lutte continue. Peace.
But see Repentance.
“I was among those who had gone to the masses. Now I and my comrades have returned. We have lost some along the way – either to a party or to despair. We have brought back others with us – more than them, we could not find. We have come to a realization that took pains to reach: we are too far ahead to be understood. We have developed a sense of clarity that people in their everyday confusion cannot grasp. Our souls cannot tolerate this confusion any longer. The conclusion is that we must cease descending to the masses. Instead, we must precede them. At first, it might seem as if we were walking away from them. But we can only find the community that we need and long for if we – the new generation – separate ourselves from the old communities. If we make this separation a radical one and if we – as separated individuals – allow ourselves to sink to the depths of our being and to reach the inner core of our most hidden nature, then we will find the most ancient and complete community: a community encompassing not only all of humanity but the entire universe. Whoever discovers this community in himself will be eternally blessed and joyful, and a return to the common and arbitrary communities of today will be impossible.” “Through Separation To Community”, Gustav Landaeur