The new left and the language of the soul

Inspired to write a blog post of my own by some really thought provoking ideas from a guy called Dougald Hine. His thoughts touched a nerve, especially the realisation that the answers would have to come from outside politics as it is, and also as I suspect that he’s connected to some of the same ‘experimental’ festivals and communities I have.

He basically argues that the left/progressives right now need to start learning to speak in the language of the soul.

He quotes Margaret Thatcher saying “economics is the method: the object is to change the soul”, meaning that the ideology of neoliberalism was a very deliberate, individualistic project of reshaping society and individuals.

“The people at the top of today’s Labour party, a few of whom I’ve crossed paths with over the years, are in no way equipped to operate in the territory of the soul – so it’s probably going to take the help of some of us who’ve been a long way outside the pale of politics-as-we-know-it, if we’re going to work out how to do this.”

He goes on to say that the right has a monopoly on all of the instinctive, emotional, ‘irrational’ arguments – like the old attachments to blood and soil underpinning the rise of UKIP and the Conservatives.

“It’s a terrible mistake to cede the territory of the intuitive, the emotional, the unconscious, the irrational to the far right. It’s only by people of good will engaging with these sides of ourselves, at a cultural as well as an individual level, that we can prevent a political “return of the repressed”. We need to go there vigilantly, but we need to go there.”

So how could we as progressives begin to structure an argument on those terms? What are the instinctive – intuitive – emotional drives that we need to appeal to? And what’s more, how do we construct a narrative that attacks neoliberalism at its core and start to create a new story – one that speaks the language of the soul?

Surely it has to attack the roots of the neoliberalism project, the idea of the autonymous individual itself. Instead it has to say that the individual is actually a central point in a set of networks; social and cultural structures, support structures like cultural influences, parental expectations and the rest.

Many have pointed out that the neoliberalism project itself is contradictory – it argues that it liberates the individual by reducing the role of government and leaving more money in your pocket through lower taxes, but the actual effect is that by steadily stripping away the social support, you remove the networks that allowed the individual to thrive. It’s a false god.

How would it be for a political leader to come out and say clearly, “I succeeded because I was lucky, I had parents who expected me to do well, I had mentors and contacts who opened doors for me. It’s not only about money or class – it’s about the expectations and support networks that you are surrounded by – and I will do my best to foster that same support for everybody.”

It’s also a spiritual language – a language of the soul, to recognise that separation, of me from you, us from them, is an illusion. It’s a the realisation at the core of all true spirituality – outlined by Aldous Huxley in ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ – that we are all one consciousness. If this is true – then a message built on its foundations HAS to find a deep resonance at a soul level – perhaps even deeper than the level of fear, individualism and materialism that the Conservatives so cleverly play upon.

Not all the emotions and instincts of the soul are threatening to the left, it also contains a deep instinctive drive for fairness, rooted in this deeper understanding of interconnectedness.

Left wing parties like Labour have a strong bias against spirituality, owing to the influence of Marxist materialism, so it may be that the party can’t go there.

Labour tapped briefly into the drive for fairness with their proposal to close the loophole on non-doms, those who don’t pay tax in this country but continue to live here. All the Conservatives could do in response was to say ‘those wealthy people might leave the country’.

To which the progressives have to say ‘let them’ – if they don’t pay tax here, they should leave. Even if it DID affect the UK’s finances negatively – we would more than make up for the loss in the gain in social cohesion.

We need to take that argument much further – aggressively closing all the tax loopholes on individuals and businesses and calling their bluff on leaving the UK. Most won’t, the UK is still a great place to live – and if they do, if they would leave the country rather than pay their fair share on tax – we have to say – go on then, we don’t want you here.

Tax avoidance and gaming the system has to be made as culturally toxic as possible, as it’s hugely corrosive to the instinctive sense of solidarity that we need to build.

There are a raft more political ideas that come from the rejection of Margaret Thatcher’s cult of the individual.

It won’t happen overnight, but I’m hopeful that the next five years will allow progressives to come together and start articulating a deeper vision of the post-neoliberalist world – one that talks to the whole being, and to sketch out a much larger vision of ourselves, where inequality, individualism and separation are seen as a thing of the past – and deeply unfashionable.

4 thoughts on “The new left and the language of the soul”

  1. Thanks for picking up my thoughts and running with them! You’re right, the deep challenge is to tackle the fiction of the individual.

    Appropriately, it’s a suggestion that seems to come up from different directions. It’s there in the writings of The Invisible Committee and their ilk. It’s there in the conversations and collaborations among the friends of Ivan Illich.

    I’m sure there are lots of other theoretical references that could be given – but part of the challenge is to express this without the protective impenetrability of the theoretical language into which the intellectual left retreated after the failure of the dream of 1968.

    My own political education came from the work of people like John Berger and Gustavo Esteva, intellectuals who didn’t retreat to the universities but to the grassroots – in one case, the last pockets of peasant culture in the French alps, in the other the world of fellow indigenous people in the barrios of Mexico City.

    It was Gustavo who first told me a line of Raimon Panikkar’s – “a person is a knot in a net of relations”. That’s very much what you’re expressing here. (And Panikkar must have been some kind of a trickster, he managed to be a Catholic and a Hindu simultaneously!)

    It’s heartening to see others picking up these ideas and running with them. As I wrote in the original post, we need to go carefully in this territory, not be blind or naive to the history of the dangerous paths which a coming together of politics and the deeper, less rational sides of ourselves have taken. I’ll get that conversation that I had with Steve Wheeler edited and online soon – I suspect you’ll appreciate it.

  2. These are some brilliant thoughts. I think you’re so very right that we have to find a way to articulate the value of interconnectedness, the value of support networks, the value of a meritocratic system that already exists and which British socialism has done so much to bring about. I read dougald’s piece – after you shared it – and also found it really inspiring. That idea of appealing to the soul is so important. I wonder if the time has come to really articulate a politics of the land, taking the Greens’ environmental message and broadening it to make it about national identity; that this is our land and it’s being threatened by the crass and careless mindset of neoliberalism. National identity is rooted in the land, after all. And one consciousness also includes our environment.

  3. Your article is good but makes some very clumsy analytical mistakes
    1 – the rightist rhetoric is not just or even predominantly about emotional drives
    the winning proposition is a) the magical balance between logic and emotion, like a necklace where jewels are strug together with metal (jewels – emotion, metal – logic) – THAT is what needs to be replicated (and you touch on it later in the article but not in that context)
    b) the freedom and lack of shame in shifting between emotion and logic in one argument (this is also how religions ‘win’ arguments, i.e. they cheat and dont’ even play by their own rules)
    2 – the issue of illusion is very mistaken
    this is where the left also needs to grow up
    the illusion of the self is the /reality/ that we live in
    that is actually what samsara / nirvana duality is about
    if the illusion of the self was so simple and easy and good to dispense with, WE’D DO IT with no problem
    we NEED illusions, we use them, we exploit them – but we also know they are not real
    that is the nature of the mature adult mind in conventional terms
    i.e. we watch TV, film, theatre etc
    and have no problem using our emtions and insights there to guide reality where relevant and discarding where not
    so the same smart-duality model is appropriate for how we deal with illusory messaging and aspiration in the political realm
    we can’t just dump the illusion of self
    and its potnetial to be exploited by left and right
    any more than we can just jump into enlightenment
    these illusions (to use a Buddhist analogy) stick to us like barnacles

  4. Very interesting having politics reconsidered in this way and well overdue. I really like the notion that a successful party connects to the soul of a nation, I think it’s absolutely true. But I think this analysis may in the end up being less useful than it is being presented here – especially to a nerve-shredded Labour party, lumbered with too-big brains and hobbled by political correctness. I think they’d just massively overthink it. Engage precisely the wrong part of themselves and generally make a hash.

    The problem is that the more ‘soulfulness’ is thought and talked about the less soulful things become. Unfortunately that is the progressive paradox. Labour may eventually admit it needs more soul, but how on earth will it acquire it? I’m not convinced the processes available to them will do the trick.

    I think all they really need, as everyone knows, is a new leader. Any connection the party manages to make with the nation will ignite and grow organically from a single human personality. A single soul, projecting epically outwards towards millions. Nothing exciting in this analysis alone, but worth putting forward in this particular dialogue.

    Three recent Prime Ministers make good case studies. Their success was intrinsic to who they were as people and where they landed in history, rather than the deliberate, rational attempt to win over a nation’s soul.

    Margaret Thatcher was a child during WW2. She lived and suffered the central narrative of her generation and was supremely passionate about Britain’s rebuild. Her conservative vision was so central to her being that all of her rhetoric streamed from her own experiences very naturally. From our perspective it’s hard to imagine but the woman actually embodied great pathos. That she was a woman – an underdog – made this even more potent. The conservative manifesto was re-envigorated through her and made ‘soulful’.

    The same can be said of the Tony Blair. His appeal was a new fresh common sense – the appeal of the rational center. He managed to mobilise the nation’s sense of frustration by offering them an sensible alternative to the binary extremes of left vs right politics. He shone a light, encouraged a liberation from the past. This worked for him because he was young, dynamic, very sharp and unafraid to wade into a complex issue to provide clarity – hugely appealing to a nation fed-up of being condescended to by political dinosaurs.

    The Tories would not have won without David Cameron. Posh and cocky, but again young, articulate and much of the time a fairly reasonable and personable guy. He presented an updated conservative government, that appeared responsive, energetic and modern. Few would call Cameron ‘soulful’ but he operated as a ‘whole’, embodying his work through the person he is.

    I can imagine the Labour party – using their vast collective intellect will now analyse and soul search the hell out of the result of their defeat. But will that get them anywhere? I doubt it. Even if each and every one of them loosened their ties rolled up their sleeves and really really dug deep (soul deep) I don’t think – by any deliberate programme of change – rational or irrational (£10000 per day debating coach?) – they could reforge the party character. No amount of conscious change brings real change on that level. Really all they need to do is find a leader. Or, rather, let that leader emerge. A person whose life experience, beliefs and personality culminate into something that represents the progressive cause and appeals to people’s hearts. This may be very awkward for a progressive party who has a knack for overthinking simple problems. But eventually, when it counts, when the chips are really down and things desperately need to (fucking!) change nothing should more simple.

    If that Labour leader is out there and they make it to the top of their party then very little else needs to happen. It’s almost tautological – that’s why a great leader is so rare, because they can’t be shaped, can’t be taught and can’t be modelled. They just need to be found. The strength of their vision will come from their knowing and feeling it completely and ‘soulfully’. The rest will work itself out just fine.

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