Repentance: the mistakes we made

The aftermath 

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.

Maybe…”
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.

Why I am so furiously angry about Brexit – and how the vote changed me forever

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.

Addendum

But see Repentance.

Delivering leaflets for Dave

 

I couldn’t believe it. Was this what 30 years of (mostly) radical political activity came down to? Delivering leaflets on behalf of David Cameron! Oh sure, the leaflet said ‘Labour In’ and even had a nice picture of Jeremy Corbyn on the back with the most underwhelming message in support of continued EU membership that one could imagine. But I took heart from this. This wasn’t about how great the EU was. No this was about pragmatics, and the simple realisation that for a variety of reasons, leaving the EU would not only be bad for the economy but for the cultural direction of the UK.

Thus far, the whole campaign was characterised by the Conservative Party tearing itself apart – ‘Blue-on-Blue’ the media called it, but it was more ‘Blonde-on-Brown’. Yes, Boris Johnson had stabbed his friend David Cameron in the back when he announced his intention to campaign for a leave vote. Earlier this year, one could not have got a cigarette paper between them on this most vital of questions, now….

This act of treachery filled me with rage. ‘How could you do it Johnson, you over-ambitious asshole?’ Every time I saw Cameron’s face a wave of empathy rushed over me.

‘Don’t worry Dave, stay strong, you, me and Jeremy will halt the rise of the blonde assassin and his racist ‘spiv’ associate’.

How were these feelings possible?

I thought I hated David Cameron.

This was my self-justification for delivering pro-EU propaganda to local households on the London-Essex border. It made a change from the stuff I used to deliver. Here I was ready to defend the status quo at the drop of a hat. I was agitating for the establishment, yet I felt clean and unaffected. How nice to play the grown-up and confront these dangerous radicals, of both left and right, on their half-baked plans and their wistful fantasies.

Oh how I pitied them, despised them even.

However, my main concern as I walked up and down people’s front gardens, was what to say if someone challenged me. Should I argue at all, or come out with some witticism or clever putdown? Might that only provoke or alienate? Thirty years of actively studying politics and economics on a daily basis, seemed meaningless if this wisdom was not transferable to a pithy anecdote, or some clever phrase. The very idea of communicating in such a false way made me feel sick. I comforted myself that I really would have made a poor politician. After all, I still read books for Christ’s sake!

***

It was then when I saw her grey head walking up and down front gardens, zig-zagging towards me. She too was delivering leaflets and I knew instantly that she was working for Vote Leave. My bile rose up in my throat, I would have to say something – a golden nugget to get under her skin. What if she actually had some political understanding, and a longer discussion was required? This would require an entirely different approach. I rehearsed a thousand different arguments in the 20 or so seconds it took for us to virtually collide outside someone’s garden gate, and when this fateful moment occurred all I could manage was:

‘Vote lose-all-your-annual-leave’.

She looked at me momentarily, shook her head to free a pair of earphones which I had not noticed.

‘Sorry?’

‘I said you guys want us to lose our employment rights so Boris can inaugurate a form of neoliberalism which would make Maggie look like a socialist. You really think we can leave the single market without consequences? All of business and expert opinion is lined up against you.’

Ah, that felt good.

‘We can trade with other nations.’

‘Trade with other nations!! If it was that easy, nobody would want to be in the EU in the first place. Nobody likes the EU, including Cameron and Corbyn!’ I spluttered.

‘It’s all this migration,’ she returned. ‘We can’t control our own borders.’

‘No one can control their own borders, we all have equal access to each others’ borders, that’s the whole point!’

‘But there are too many coming here, and we can’t cope.’

‘Can’t cope, do you not realise that migrants make a net contribution to the economy?’ Ever since Thatcher’s day, the idea has been to make the UK a low-wage flexible labour market. The whole thing has been set up for migration, the Brexit free-market Tories don’t even understand the logic of their own argument! How dare they blame the migrants for low wages – for shame!’

She stepped back a bit. It was working, she was an amateur, and she had not even mentioned wages.

Then she said it, her final rally…

‘Uncontrolled migration is a drain on public services, particularly the NHS. We need to take…’

‘NHS!!’ I shouted, slightly frightened by the level of my own volume. I stole a quick glance around the neighbourhood so as to ensure we were not causing a disturbance.

‘Let me tell you about the NHS!’ Last year my father almost lost the sight in his left eye. The doctor who saved his sight was from Greece. She was wonderfully attentive to my father’s needs to such an extent that he did not want to see any other doctor. It was as if she was a pagan Greek Goddess to our family. Even when we were at home eating dinner, the conversation would turn to Dr Frangoli. We would stop eating, and once I noticed a little tear dropping from my father’s left eye. He was so grateful, awestruck by this woman. ‘I don’t want any other doctor touching my eye,’ he said, ‘I trust only her.’ If that was not enough, most of the aftercare service was carried out by other migrants from the EU, as well as other countries. For days we sat in that hospital praising these people to high heaven. They appeared like angels to us. I even joked with them, saying, ‘Thanks for leaving your country and tending to our needs.’ How many Greeks have lost their eyesight whilst Dr Frangoli was helping my father? Eh? How many?! Migrants are not a drain on the NHS, they ARE the bloody NHS! Without them we would be screwed, how can you be so disrespectful?!’

I stopped and caught my breath. God I felt like crying!

I noticed my companion had shuffled back, she had clearly had enough.

‘I see,’ she said. And almost as an act of contrition, she whispered, ‘Well I guess your father will be voting for Remain then?’

‘Oh no, he’ll be voting for your lot.’

We stared at each other for a couple of seconds before she took her leave and recommenced delivering her leaflets. I stood there listening to my heart thumping. I was quite worn out, and just wanted to go home. I observed her mechanically zig-zagging up and down the remaining front gardens, but the swagger had left her gait.

I looked at the crumpled leaflet in my hand. It had become sodden with sweat. How had it come down to this? Without any enthusiasm whatsoever, I too continued with my leafleting.

‘Better get these delivered for Cameron,’ I reasoned.

‘Bastard.’

Brexit? No thanks! Better the Devil you know

That there is a lot wrong with the European Union is not in doubt. It has morphed into a lumbering, hubristic leviathan before our very eyes, often displaying the kind of staggering incompetence, not to mention cruelty and abuse of power, associated with empires that have grown too quickly; losing touch not only with reality, but most importantly with its people, as it shambles along in a delusive bubble of its own creation. But it was not always like this.

A potted history of the EU

Back in the eighties, it was a no-brainer that Britain should be a part of the nascent European project. That the Labour Party dared to advocate withdrawal from the EEC in its 1983 ‘suicide note’ was deemed to be further proof that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives were the only competent party to be trusted with the economy. It is now often forgotten that it was Mrs Thatcher (later to succumb to Euroscepticism) who signed the Single Market Act in 1985 – giving us the free movement of capital and people, a neoliberal nirvana. Only a few years later John Major followed up with the Maastricht treaty, which drew out some of the political implications of the ongoing process of the union of European nations, and then took us into what turned into the disaster of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The ever-expanding EU project culminated in the creation of the single currency – something now widely credited with much of Europe’s economic woes. Euroscepticism grew in tandem with the expansion. The European project was growing too fast, said the sceptics, and Britain risked losing what was left of its sovereignty – we were sleepwalking into a ‘superstate’. Even from the very start of the creation of the EU, the Tories had had their naysayers – its right-wingers, who cloaked their ideological objections in an economic rationale. This struck a chord with their doubles on the left who were doing the same thing. These ideologues patiently bided their time as, over the decades, the fantastic success of what is now called the EU slipped into its opposite – vindication of the naysayers’ warnings, at least in their eyes.

Britain was always something of a reluctant partner in this project. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too. After the decline and fall of its empire, Britain was caught following the second world war between the rise of the new superpower, the USA, and the formation of the European power bloc. The former imperial power naturally wanted to retain power and influence in a changing world – but what compromises should it make with rising greater powers, and with which ones? Straightaway we see that worries about the loss of ‘sovereignty’, voiced by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, is at least situated by history. But if it was all as simple as they like to make out, why did Johnson only convert to Brexit after David Cameron’s apparent failure to secure suitable reforms? It’s not as if those reforms were ever going to deliver the kind of sovereignty wished for. Brexiteers argue that, with full sovereignty restored, Britain would be free to do trade deals with all four corners of the globe, but what sort of trade deals would the likes of Johnson and Farage sign us up to? Presumably, ones without the socio-economic protections of the EU – arguably good for businesses, or at least for some of them, but what kind of boon for democracy and ‘sovereignty’ would it represent for the mass of the population? One that is hard to discern, we would wager.

It’s not the economy, stupid

You can argue the toss about the economic trade-offs. As far as it is possible to tell, the boring reality is that the purely economic costs or benefits will probably be marginal either way. The whole question is more a political one. As Paul Mason points out, there are good arguments for wanting to exit the EU, but that doesn’t mean you should actually vote for Brexit. Why? Two words: Boris Johnson. Vote Brexit, get a resurgent Tory right, which will dominate the next period of British politics, and which will use the referendum win as a mandate to pursue ever more extreme Thatcherite polices. It is all very well voting to ‘get your country back’, but you won’t get it back – you’re handing it to the Tory right.

There’s a small ‘c’ conservative argument for staying, too, in that we are gambling with uncertain and potentially big upheavals for at best marginal economic gains. The terms of the withdrawal that Britain will win from the EU are by no means clear at this stage, but could conceivably be punitive – the EU will want to discourage other countries with similar ideas. Britain will want a continuing relationship with Europe, particularly access to the single market – and Europe will to an extent surely want that too. Britain is still one of the biggest and richest economies in the world. But given Britain’s current (at least apparent) hostility to migration and regulation and other conditions imposed by Brussels, how will this be achieved? The devil will of course be in the detail. But this is the real point. Brexiteers are pursuing an ideological agenda, the implications and real consequences of which they cannot be sure of. They are dangerous radicals, not conservatives. They want the benefits of EU membership without the costs. They are not really conservatives at all but have a petit–bourgeois spiv mentality.

Don’t let’s divorce or kick out the kids, let’s talk

Let’s return to the sovereignty question, as this would seem to be something of a trump card for Brexiteers of left and right. It can be seen for the myth it is with an analogy. When an individual decides to get married, they cede a large portion of their personal sovereignty with another person who is doing likewise. Both parties pool sovereignty: what they lose in one aspect, they gain in another. This is only apparently a loss, from a limited and selfish point of view. Actually, the apparent loss is a real gain: both individuals are strengthened by the partnership – the ‘individual’ has been transformed into a higher synthesis. At this point, it would be stupid and counterproductive to continue to insist on your individual rights. All that would do would be to threaten the higher synthesis. You’ll end up back on your own again, back where you started, having gained nothing. As The Economist likes to point out, full sovereignty is not obviously something to be wished for. Nowhere on earth is more sovereign and independent than North Korea.

What would we want this much-prized sovereignty for? The Brexiteers top trump, at least when it comes to connecting with a disaffected populace, is: to control our borders. The UK has entered an arrangement which nominally cedes border control for the right of access to other countries. The Brexiteers’ big beef is that more people in the other countries appear to have taken advantage of this to come here than people in the UK have to go there. This is a partial and hence misleading truth. What has really been happening is that the UK economy has been sucking in some of the most able workers from other EU countries and exploiting them in our more-flexible and hence cheaper labour markets. This has been made possible because of the near collapse of the ‘wage’ following 30 years of Thatcherism. Many indigenous Brits cannot afford to live on the wage a job offers without relying on a relatively generous (soon to be taken away) system of benefits. That this has been a boon to UK business (if not to its workers) is not in doubt. The UK has expanded its economy by raiding poorer countries’ labour forces, at the expense of our own, whilst at the same time having the chutzpah to claim that these very same people are clogging up our hospitals and social services – institutions that are, ironically, most often built and staffed by those very same immigrants.

Increased migration was an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism. This is the economy Thatcher and her successors built – a globalised, neoliberal, free-market utopia – and it explains why large sections of the business community still support EU membership, albeit through gritted teeth. But rather than accepting this reality, the likes of Johnson and Farage want to go a step further. For them, the EU stands in opposition to the kind of neoliberalism they want to see. When they bemoan the EU’s ‘regulations’ and ‘red tape’ what they are tacitly acknowledging are the remains of the social democratic settlement that followed in the wake of the second world war. This settlement was a compromise that recognised the rights of ordinary working people to such things as health, education, housing and a decent wage, if in return working people would recognise the rights of businesses to ply their trade in search of profits. This compromise, now thinned out, still underpins the Single Market, and the likes of Farage and Johnson want to get rid of what remains. The rest of the ‘red tape’ constitutes the legal framework required to underpin any free trading agreement – costs big businesses are happy to take on, but which can be an intolerable burden to smaller ones (a reason in itself why big businesses are happy to take them on). So when the Brexiteers light a bonfire under EU red tape, we can assume that any new such arrangements they come up with will be just as bureaucratic and costly (if not more so, minus the social protections we currently enjoy). What kind of free-trading paradise would you expect when when a desperate UK led by the blonde opportunist starts renegotiating our trading position with the likes of Trump or authoritarian states such as China?

Bigger dreams

At least some of the Brexit people have bigger dreams. They believe that a referendum victory will lead to a series of referendums in other EU states, thereby destroying the EU leviathan by stealth and turning Europe into a group of free associating and freely trading democractic nations – a kind of anarcho-capitalism, in fact. This is almost certainly a dangerous illusion and makes Cameron’s overheated warnings about world war seem all the more plausible. As the Remainers rhetorically point out, about the only foreign power praying for Brexit is Vladimir Putin – there’s nothing that would suit his geopolitical strategy more than the break-up of the power blocs currently frustrating his ambitions. This is not to say that there will be chaotic break up and war in the event of Brexit – but given the uncertainties, and the continent’s still recent history, conservative caution would seem sensible. There’s nothing very wrong with utopian dreaming, but beware the fanatics who are in a rush to impose their vision on a recalcitrant reality. Afghanistan and Iraq provide sobering lessons for those who are in a hurry to engage in utopian state-destruction and social engineering. The hope there was that ‘liberal democracy’ would spontaneously emerge from the rubble; what we actually saw was tribalism, sectarianism and corruption, to mention nothing worse, emerging in the power vacuum of these failed states. Utopian Brexiteers, whether of the free trading or socialist variety, should be careful what they wish for.

The EU does of course need to change, and the best way for progressive forces to help bring about democratic change is for Britain to remain a member. Being outside will leave us with no control over events occurring on our doorstep and will not return any meaningful sovereignty. Warnings from the likes of the Bank of England and the IMF should be heeded. The only likely result of a win for the Brexit campaign is a carnival of reaction in this country – and perhaps worse in the countries on our borders. That many people want to leave the EU is entirely understandable, however. The EU needs to wake up to the simple fact that its current course is unsustainable. Let’s hope the UK’s referendum goes the right way – for Remain – but that the EU learns a lesson from all the millions of ordinary people who are clamouring for the exits.

Politics for beginners

This talk* was originally entitled “Being political in a non-political era”, so given what has just happened to the Labour Party, it is probably a good idea that I agreed to change the title. However, this is not a pure Politics 101 type talk. Instead, after saying a few words about the nature of politics, how it is represented in the media, how we are all affected by it, and about the academic study of politics, I propose to give an illustration of how we can start the process of thinking critically and learning to navigate our way through the political world – and that means, the human world, our world. It is not my intention to convince you of any particular political point of view – rather to provide food for thought.

What is politics?

My guess is that if you ask most people what they understand by ‘politics’ you will get a variety of answers revolving around politicians, the House of Commons, elections, legislation, political parties, foreign relations and wars, and so on. And these are undoubtedly crucial aspects of what we call ‘politics’. But what such answers reveal is that, for most people, politics is ‘out there’ and has nothing much to do with them or their everyday lives. Indeed, this is how politics is most often represented to us. And yet, at the same time, although politics is not our “specialist subject”, we will be asked to vote, or someone will offer strong opinions in the pub, workplace or over the garden fence, as if we’re entitled to an opinion.

And what do we hear over that fence? More often than not, platitudes ingested and regurgitated without much thought from the mass media. You will sometimes hear some sense or evidence of careful thought, of course. But the observation brings me to my first controversial statement: political ‘common sense’ is invariably nonsense. If we think about it, this should come as no great surprise.

Political culture appears to be based upon a contradiction: on the one hand, we are feted by pollsters, and parties seek to connect with this thing called ‘public opinion’. After all, we live in a democracy – rule by the people. On the other hand, we also just as clearly seem to live in the age of the ‘expert’, and are effectively told (and sometimes we tell ourselves) that we are not politicians, and that we should defer to the experts for guidance.

My contention is that within the space where these contradictions clash lurks something called ‘ideology’, that that ideology masquerades as “common sense”, and it is precisely here where we are open to political manipulation. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, with the help of critical thinking, we can turn the tables, and change the agenda. This should therefore be an area of deep concern to all citizens of a democracy.

If we define ideology roughly as the ideas that those in power want us to accept in the interests of their keeping power, then this leads me to my working definition of politics: power and its distribution in society. Associating power with politics is not controversial, but the social relations of power can be. If we take a brief and simplistic overview of the history of our society over the past few centuries, we will clearly see that power relations can change quite radically – from the divine right of Kings and Queens, and the power of the church, to parliament, and up to our modern day, where, in theory at least, we all hold the power – the revolutionary idea of universal suffrage. It is salutary to think that our society is actually based upon this extremely radical idea, and I would like you to hold on to this thought.

The academic study of politics

I have been involved in the academic study of politics, both as a student and teacher. Political science is a branch of the social sciences, which includes the likes of economics, sociology, anthropology, history and so on. All such disciplines are an attempt to investigate scientifically – or at least systematically and seriously – aspects of human life. Really, what all social science does is pose the question: what does it mean to be human? But if, as I suggested earlier, politics is concerned with power, you might see that there is a problem. Does not power and its distribution in society and the resulting ideologies affect our ability to investigate things objectively, scientifically?

Political theory is the study of ideologies (conservatism, socialism, liberalism, and so on) – it asks questions about the nature of political life, the relationship between the individual and society at large, the nature of the ‘state’ and its ideological underpinnings. An appreciation of such questions will affect how you see all the other questions – all the other branches of study. It will colour the lenses through which you see political reality. That is why political theory can be seen as primary for a genuine understanding of human life in all its aspects. If you have no appreciation of international relations, social history, or economics, then your understanding of what politics really is will be severely hampered. Without some grasp of political theory, one lacks any genuine frame of reference for understanding anything.

The icing and the cake

And that leads me back to how most people engage with politics. Even for those relatively highly motivated people that watch Newsnight or read a broadsheet – if this is all they are doing, and politics is a cake, all they are doing is nibbling the icing. The sponge will forever remain an untasted mystery. I am not saying one should not read quality newspapers, obviously, but they are no substitute for broader and deeper study. They are not a substitute for books or collective engagement.

What kind of things would a serious study look at? Many difficult issues, no doubt, but let’s start with just two. First, what does it even mean to say we live in a thing called ‘society’? You will perhaps remember that Mrs Thatcher herself raised this question, and famously answered it by asserting that the question was meaningless as there was no such thing as society. For those of us awake to present-day social realities at the bottom of the pile, perhaps now we are in a position to see the practical impact of her theoretical assumption and the intimate or dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Thatcher’s political theory defined her attitude to social questions and the action she took on them. In other words, political theory is not just abstract ideas. It can hurt you. Badly.

Second, how shall we be governed and on what terms? A democracy is a society based upon political equality. We are all equal before the law and we have one vote each. But at the same time there is social and economic inequality, which implies power structures in society, which democracy itself has not been able to fully bring to account. As good citizens, we must question how the people at the top got there, whether or not there is any validity to the process whereby they got there, and whether they should be allowed to continue in their roles or be made redundant.

Now we are really doing politics! When we engage with politics, ideology and theory in a critical way, then we are in a position to hold our political masters to account – as is demanded of us in any genuine democracy. The alternative is to uncritically and unconsciously accept the unexamined ideological framework and the power structure on which it rests. This turns on its head the old definition of politics as “the art of the possible” – because what is deemed “possible” is itself an ideological construction, not a matter of objective science. This is the importance of political theory: to help us see beyond what is obvious, beyond “common sense”, beyond ideology.

Ideological societies

This kind of analysis often surprises people who assume they are free of ideology. Most of us realise that Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, North Korea, or even those areas now controlled by ISIS are examples of ‘ideological’ societies, being based upon a prescriptive set of values and rules, where free thought is suppressed and submission to some kind of doctrine the norm. We often congratulate ourselves on having escaped this and for living in a ‘free society’.

One does not wish to be churlish – of course, we do live in a society that is remarkably free by historic standards. But such freedoms need to be guarded, nourished, and extended or surely they will wither away. As noted earlier, the freedoms we take for granted spring from a democratic culture which has been many decades in the making. In some respects, mainstream politics has been about expanding those freedoms, but in some cases it has been about restricting or reversing them. The overall context is political equality: one person, one vote. That we have a form of democracy is not in question. The issue is its content and quality – its depth.

The point is that, despite our society being based upon one of the most subversive ideas of all time – mass political democracy – arguments over social and economic democracy have still to be won – perhaps the best example of how ‘ideology’ still controls us and defines our options. In a sense (and only in a sense!), we have it harder than the North Koreans. We are already free – but what shall we do with our freedoms? Are we truly alert to the responsibilities – and grown up enough to take them on?

Demand the impossible

Perhaps, then, the ‘art of the possible’ is not so much about a wise acceptance and navigation of objective realities as it is an ideological defence of social iniquities. I want to subvert the idea that politics should be or is the ‘art of the possible’, and argue that it should, and can become the ‘art of the impossible’ instead. We must examine closely what we are constantly told is ‘unrealistic’. We have a perfect example of this with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, and I will finish my talk with this point about how ideology works.

Labour lost this year’s general election and then threw itself into a bruising leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn was persuaded to stand as the left candidate, and because he could barely even get the minimum number of nominations required, MPs who disapproved of him signed his papers so that at least the party could be seen to have a ‘full debate’. Some of these people later regretted helping him, when his campaign started taking off. So please note that what they wanted was the appearance of ‘democracy’ – a token. This way, their democratic credentials could remain intact, and the left could take a thumping and be reburied after its temporary exhumation.

In pursuit of the façade of democracy, the rules of the leadership election had been changed – the idea was precisely that this would neutralise the left, and disempower the trade unions. Imagine the shock and horror of the party establishment when thousands of outsiders decided to pay their £3 and declare for JC! Such temerity could not be tolerated, so the party establishment claimed they were being infiltrated by outside left groups. Although true, the numbers did not add up – the numbers in such groups are minuscule and people were joining to vote for JC in their tens of thousands. The establishment had opened Pandora’s Box and they were losing control. And all thanks to their own rules – their own political chicanery. This led some party figures to argue for the suspension of the election – just because they did not like what was happening, that the result was not going their way. Just consider that for a moment. For years such people had bemoaned the lack of participation in politics, and now, at last, their proclaimed dream was coming true. But the dream was after all a nightmare, because the people joining had the cheek of having their own ideas. Such hypocritical hubris, cant and humbug.

We all know what happened next, but notice this. The same people that told us that the election of JC was impossible were not only proved hopelessly wrong, they are now telling us his potential election as PM will equally be impossible because what he proposes is unrealistic, and the people won’t go for it anyway. Notice the language they continue to use. They speak of ‘realism’, ‘common sense’ and the need to be elected. Aside from the obvious objection – ‘what is the use in electing a Tory-lite Labour Party other than to save your personal careers?’ – they have this fixed idea about what is permanent, possible and acceptable. In other words, they lack any kind of historical analysis whatsoever – they do not understand that change is the only thing that history guarantees.

But what change is possible is actually down to us. We can only be effective in bringing about change if we are alert to ideological bullshit. This demands a better civic-democratic culture than the one we already have – a culture that values reading, study, participation. But maybe such a culture is now on the cards. Love or loathe him, JC and his nascent movement will surely contribute to this end–Dave

* This is based on a talk first given by Dave to environmental group Barkingside 21