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.

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

Murmuring

My previous post raises two obvious questions. How do we get happiness? And what does it mean to lead a human, a noble life?

The Books of Moses in the Bible hint in an amusing way at the answer. The children of Israel, having groaned under the lash of the Egyptians in slavery for generations, are liberated by God. God puts forth his hand and rescues the Israelites from slavery, revealing “wonders” beyond imagination as he does so. He leads them through the wilderness, providing food and and driving off whole armies along the way, before arriving at a land flowing with milk and honey. God gifts this bountiful land to the children of Israel, promising to be with them in their trials and to drive out before them their enemies, if they will just walk in the ways of God, ie, live a noble life. And how do the Israelites show their gratitude for such miracles, such gifts? They do nothing but “murmur” and whinge and rebel against Him at every opportunity, every step of the way! Even if we were liberated from our daily grind and granted the whole universe, it seems, the human response would be to get bored with it and demand another one.

If happiness is not to be found in getting what we want, but in living a good life, how then are we to do that? It’s hard to think of a better or more concise answer than that offered by Tolstoy in his short parable, “Three Questions”. Please do have a quick read of it here. But if those few hundreds words are too much for you, you lazy dogs, just two capture it perfectly. Only connect.–Stuart