This post has been a long time in the making: nearly two years in fact. It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for The Pochemuchka. This is at least partly because my health has been improving and I’ve been able to spend more time engaging in what could be called ‘real life.’ It is only as I begin to slowly emerge from illness that I have started to feel like I have the space to start trying to tackle my relationship with my body. It has been the elephant in the room for pretty much the entirety of the last two years, but because for most of that time there was only me in the room I could pretty much ignore it. Now there is a door in this room that I and other people are coming and going through. Unfortunately for me, the elephant has been watching us and has learnt how to turn the fucking handle, and I can ignore it no longer.
The text that follows is a letter to my body. I am lucky in that it has taken me 30 years to feel compelled to address my relationship with my body in any detail. I know that this is largely the result of the privilege that I experience as a white man. I know also that there are a huge number of people, especially women, who have, or have had, incredibly complex, challenging and sometimes traumatic relationships with their own bodies, often driven by the unrealistic ideals that are reproduced within capitalist patriarchy. Writing this felt deeply, deeply personal, perhaps more so than anything else I have written for this blog. But hey, what are blogs for if not bearing your bloody soul to whomsoever might wish to come and stare at it for a while? Experiencing and trying to make sense of my own body issues for the first time makes my heart go out to everybody else that has struggled or is struggling with how they feel about their body.
I’ve been inspired to try and find a positive way of dealing with the complicated relationship that I currently have with my body by my wonderful friend Kate. Kate wrote a brilliant piece for The Pochemuchka blog about her own ongoing quest for body positivity, and as part of that journey her own letter to her body follows mine. Although Kate and I had talked about this topic in the past, reading her piece was a real eye opener for me. Writing these letters is first and foremost a way of us trying to process some of the shit we are currently living with. As such you might wonder why we have decided to share our letters. For me it is a reminder not to take things for granted, a reason to be grateful for what we have, a chance to say ‘this is what it feels like’ to people who – like me up until two years ago – don’t have any real experience or understanding of this stuff, and finally and perhaps most importantly, a chance to say you are not alone to people who might currently be going through something similar.
I never thought about it at the time but I guess I’m just starting to realise how good you were to me. Before I got ill I’d never really had any major issues with you. Sure I got sick quite a lot when I was younger but for most of the last decade you were doing me pretty proud, all 6 ft 6 of you. I love how tall you are, even if it makes long journeys on planes and coaches a lot less comfortable than they should be. Oh, that and the fact that if you have any sense of common courtesy at all (I unfortunately do), you make standing at the front of a gig virtually impossible. Also almost everything in the world is basically designed for short people and is therefore either too small or too low for you, and that can make things annoying, uncomfortable and expensive sometimes. But, in the greater scheme of things it really isn’t that a big deal I guess. I mean I would never change this aspect of you, I just couldn’t. I like being able to see out over crowds. I liked being able to skip awkward hand-holds when I went climbing, and damn are you good at cuddling. I love being able to rest my head on the top of a girl’s head while I hug her, cradling her against my chest, smelling the delicate fragrance of her hair while I wrap her up in those long levers of yours.
So ok, you’ve always been a bit skinny and we both know that the ‘ideal’ version that we get constantly bombarded with from every direction is a damn sight more buff than you will ever be. I mean no offence, but even if I took you to the gym everyday I’m pretty sure you still wouldn’t end up massively hench. But listen, that’s ok, I got over that a long time ago. You’re just not built that way, I get it that now and it’s cool. If some girl is set on her dream fella having big fuck off arms then I’m not going to be her first choice and that’s fine by me.
You see, the thing is I was really fucking proud of you anyway. We were going climbing three times a week and boy were you starting to kick some ass. You weren’t about to turn into some big muscle bound hunk, but you were getting stronger, leaner, toned, more flexible. I was pushing you hard and you were responding in exactly the way bodies are meant to. We had a good thing going on. I had absolutely no shame when it came to getting you out infront of other people… I mean shit, I probably could have kept my clothes on a bit more but I didn’t want to! I feel insecure about plenty of different aspects of myself but you weren’t one of them. I loved you for that, and plenty of other people seemed to feel pretty good about you too.
And lets be honest here, its not like I’ve treated you that well for most of the last decade. Keeping you awake all night, skipping meals or feeding you crap, smoking, drinking, drinking, drinking… drugs, and jesus what a lot of fucking buckfast. I mean I really hammered you. And that’s before you think about all of the hours I forced you to sit hunched at a fucking desk infront of a bloody computer. You took a lot of shit from me and to be fair to you most of the time you handled it pretty damn well. The truth is that I took you for granted. Ok you needed the odd time out from time to time, but most of the time it seemed like you were just able to soak up the punishment and be ready for some more.
I guess I spent a lot more time thinking about how I was feeling than paying attention to how you might be or how there might be a relationship between the two. Despite growing up with an ill sister, despite my mum’s fears that the same thing might happen to me… well I guess I just refused to accept that it could actually happen to me – that was just too fucking terrible to contemplate. I was determined to live as much as everybody else, more even… if anything I guess that having an awareness that things do and can go really fucking wrong health-wise made me just want to cram in as much as possible while I could, and boy did I end up riding you pretty hard.
And then things went wrong. And you know what the fucking irony is? It all fucked up at a point where I had finally really started to look after you. Man, I was living more healthily than I had at any previous point in my adult life. But you still went wrong. I guess sometimes it feels like you are paying me back for taking you for granted for so long, forcing me to appreciate just how wrong you can go and just how lucky I had it. I don’t want to believe that you would do that to me, I mean this thing has kicked the shit out of us both and we both know the only way out of this is by us working together. But it does feel like a bit of a sick revenge mission sometimes. If it is then I guess I have to say well fucking done, you got me real good you bastard! Just be glad I didn’t take us both down – you made me seriously consider it.
Because fuck me it is hard living with you. I spend so much time these days listening attentively to you but I still feel like I’m second guessing you at least half of the time. I never know if what I tell you to do today is going to come back and kick me in the arse tomorrow. It is almost impossible to plan things because I never know when you are going to run out of steam and leave me feeling shit. It is a pretty horrible thing to say to anybody but I have had to come to understand and accept that I can’t really trust you. You are unreliable and unpredictable and I know from bitter experience that if I try and push on through with you, push through the tiredness, push through the pain, then there will be hell to pay.
I know that you are waiting to go to shit at the first sign of trouble. To be perfectly frank I fucking hate you some times. I know I have to look after you. I know I have to use you sparingly, I know I have to feed you the right things, I know I have to carefully ration my expenditure of emotional, physical and intellectual energy so that I don’t give you a chance to flip out. I know that when I listen carefully, when I pay attention to all of the tiny signs that you give me and stick within the ridiculous constraints that you impose on me, well… then you start to behave a bit more like your old self. We are definitely starting to get on better again. I wouldn’t be writing to you now if we weren’t, I just felt too let down. But although I’m listening to you and trying to protect you and give you the space to heal, you’ve repayed me by getting soft and weak. I have placed your needs at the absolute centre of my life, have put them first before everything else and yet you are still broken, you still don’t work the way you are meant to and so I still feel like a broken person. When will we both feel strong again?
I’ve learnt so much about you. You’ve taught me how light can be painful. You’ve taught me how noise can drive me into a fit of rage, You’ve taught me that eating the wrong thing can leave me curled up in pain. You’ve taught me that you can make me stumble over my words and struggle to get a sentence out straight. I’ve learnt that sometimes when I’m crippled with chronic anxiety and self-doubt, when the future looks so bad that I don’t want to carry on another day, when I feel like I’m drifting out of myself and becoming another person that I don’t know, when I feel like I’m going crazy, when I feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to control my emotions… sometimes all of these things are because of you and your guts. Boy was it a relief to work that one out. I remind myself that my feelings will calm down as and when you do. I remind myself that I’m not turning into a total fucking lunatic, but you sure do make me feel like one sometimes. Of all of the parts of you that I have a problem with these days I really fucking hate your your guts. I guess the expression makes a lot more sense to me now. How can you have such control over how I feel? I know it’s not your fault I took you to the tropics and ate something I shouldn’t have. I know you didn’t ask for Giardia, I know you didn’t ask to be stripped fucking bare with three doses of antibiotics but boy are you still making me pay for it nearly two years later.
While we are talking about your guts we may as well talk about food. One of the greatest fucking pleasures in life, or at least it used to be. I love food, and I always have. Another part of my life that I never used to have any issues with whatsoever. I miss all of the things that I still can’t eat and I still don’t know if I will ever be able to do so without you punishing me. I can’t help but resent you for denying me so many of the things that I love so much. While we are talking about pleasure and denial I suppose we may as well talk about sex too. Yeah, you remember that don’t you! Ok, so maybe at some points in the past I made it more of a priority in my life than it needed to be, but boy was it good, we were fucking good. You always delivered and I loved you for it, I felt like it was what you were made for, it felt natural, it felt fucking spiritual, a joyous celebration of our existence in which we would lose ourselves, replenish ourselves, reaffirm ourselves.
And now? Its nice to be in a position where I can even start thinking about it again because for a long time you were too sick for me to even contemplate it being an option. But with it becoming a possibility again comes a whole load of new shit to deal with, because fuck me things are different. You get tired so quickly and give up on me. Even when you don’t I’m still scared of how you might punish me afterwards if I push you too hard. I can’t lose myself anymore, I can’t get away from you. You are always there reminding me that I am still broken, still weak, still soft around the edges, still running out of steam far too quickly. I don’t trust you and you just aren’t sexy.
Because sickness isn’t sexy, and neither is weakness, or having to come face to face with your limitations. I used to feel bullet-proof but now I feel like you are inferior to all of the other healthy, beautiful bodies. I’ve lost faith in my attractiveness, I’ve lost faith in you, and it makes me feel so vulnerable. I know you are doing your best, that things are getting better, but I also know what you were capable of – and there is still a pretty big fucking gap between then and now. I’m worried that until I can love you again nobody else is going to, but I just can’t feel good about you until you are strong and reliable again. So here we both are, waiting for you to get your shit together, and all the while the clock is still fucking ticking and I’m still getting older, and I’m scared that things will never again be like they used to.
I know I have to be patient with you. I know pushing you will not make you stronger but will only increase the chances of you breaking further. I know that none of this is your fault and that I should have looked after you better in the past. I know that i’m lucky that you have improved as much as you have done over the last two years and that you still work much better than lots of other people’s bodies. I’m trying to appreciate everything that you are allowing me to do and not to resent you for the ways in which you are still holding me back. I’m trying to learn to love you again, even as you are now, and not to see you as a pale imitation of what you used to be, and I’m trying to believe that someone else might be able to as well.
I know you are fighting to get better and I’m fighting too. I desperately hope that one day in the not so distant future you and I will reach a point where we can like each other again. Because this is our struggle and we only have each other to help us get through this. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. I will never, ever take you for granted like I did in the past. I don’t know whether you will ever make it back to being as strong and resilient as you were before. I don’t know whether I will ever reach a point where I feel like I can really trust and rely on you again. I don’t know whether I will ever reach a point where I will feel secure in the knowledge that pushing you won’t break you again. I don’t know if I will ever get to a point where I can really love you and feel proud of you again. But whatever happens, and despite how betrayed I have felt by you, I promise that I’m going to listen to you and care for you for the rest of our time together
Your friend – still (despite everything),
The following letter forms a part of my ongoing quest for body positivity. As I mentioned in my last post, this was never going to be an easy journey. A very small, misguided part of me thought that after posting the last article, things might miraculously change and I might find myself looking in the mirror and being suddenly altogether satisfied with my ticket in the body lottery. That didn’t happen. I’m working on it, definitely, and day-by-day trying to learn the subtle but very important art of not giving a fuck. But I’ve got to play the long game. The purpose of this letter is to tell myself to appreciate that my body works for its biological purposes, and to re-affirm that it does not exist solely for the pleasure or judgment of others. Maybe once I’ve got that into my head, it might be easier to learn to live with it.
Sit down and listen to me for a minute. You’re good at sitting, this shouldn’t be a problem for you.
Pfft…where do I start with you? Man oh man we’ve been together a long time now, and I know you better than the back of my…oh wait, that is you. Oh well, you get what I mean.
I don’t like you. There, I’ve said it. But it’s not really your fault. In terms of what bodies are for, you do an OK job I suppose. Not like top-of-the-class, Masters with distinction followed by a PHd at Harvard and a mention in the New Year’s Honour’s list, but ok. You let me walk, you let me talk, you let me see things without glasses, hear things pretty perfectly. You aren’t broken in any major way. Sometimes you even let me ride a bike. I know you are trying your best day after day, like a little worker bee plugging away at that honey just trying so hard to please their queen, but uh-oh, sucks for you, your queen is actually a bit of a judgmental bitch (its not you, its her – she’s got issues), and nothing is ever good enough. Sorry little bee body.
The thing is, whilst you are doing an alright job with the day to day stuff (pretty bog standard supermarket squeezy honey £1.69), you’ve never let me excel. You won’t let me climb a tree. I love trees. You won’t let me run. I love…ok ok I hate running, but I’d like to be able to in case of emergency. You’re too big and you keep getting bigger. You make me slow and lethargic. You don’t let me keep up with my friends. You don’t really let me dance much any more. You sweat waaaaayyy too much (seriously, please stop this, it’s actually starting to get annoying now). You make me feel like a big lump, and not even a big strong lump that could give someone a good wallop if they needed it, but a big weak and flabby lump that just has to sit and watch whilst everyone else has all the fun. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, body, but you’ll just never be Manuka.
But you are mine, body. And we are in this thing together. So, I need to learn to appreciate you for what you are. You’re still going, you’re doing okay. I should thank you for that.
The thing is, body, that I’ve been conditioned to hate you. The eyes in your head have seen 30 years worth of patriarchal, capitalist, body-shaming, anti-feminist media bullshit. They read too many women’s magazines at far too impressionable an age. They’ve been told that fat is bad and thin is good (but not too thin). They’ve been told that thin is bad and and curvy is good (but not too curvy). They’ve watched far too much TV and too many films that don’t even pass the fucking Bechdel test. They’ve been told that fat women don’t get their own storyline, and as far as romance goes? Ha! Dream on. They’ve seen too many adverts. They’ve been told that women should change their bodies, rid themselves of their imperfections: remove every errant hair and smooth every wrinkle and plump every cheek and lift every sag and tone every wobble and what else? Pay for all of it. They’ve quite simply been told that YOU ARE WRONG. Those eyes may choose not to look at these things now, but the damage has already been done.
So, please try to understand, body, that I don’t choose to hate you. We are both victims of circumstance, really. I’m sorry that I haven’t treated you particularly well. You’ll be pleased to know that the drinking and smoking and partying days are mostly over, so you won’t be hurt by those things much anymore. But I still have trouble feeding you what you need and taking you out for walks and keeping you healthy. The problem is, body, how am I meant to take care of something that I’ve never loved? It’s like having an evil pet following you around your entire life. A little monster that snarls its teeth and kicks you in the shins and trips you up and gives you bloody knees and keeps you hostage in your own mind and threatens to tell the world what a horrible person you are and – I’m expected to love this little fucker? Not only that, but care for it above all else, nurture it, make sure it’s happy, every single hour of every single day this little bugger has to be my top priority and my biggest commitment, because our fates are one in the same? Jeez, body, that’s a fucking tough ask.
But I shouldn’t compare you to a little goblin, really. Especially not when we’ve already clearly established that you are a lovely little bee. We don’t want to mix our metaphors, now, do we? I’ve probably taken you for granted most of my life. But you are a BIG part of my life (scuse the pun) and I know that you are like family, and, since you can’t choose your family, you’ve gotta learn to love them. I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t love you yet, and probably won’t for a long time. But I am trying to accept you, I’m trying to be gentle with you, and I’m even trying to look after you a bit better these days. I don’t want you to fail. I appreciate all that hard work you are doing day in and day out just to keep me alive. If you could just keep doing that whilst I figure all the other shit out, I’d be really bloody grateful. I do actually like squeezy honey.
“Pure truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts but in nuance. Was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we are being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap.”
John Le Carre –The Pigeon Tunnel
So I’ve been thinking about this stuff in relation to my own life for quite a while now. After 18+ months of illness and isolation, I’m slowly and tenuously refamiliarisng myself with the contours and boundaries of my life as it used to exist. Or, to put it more accurately, i’m discovering that some of these contours and boundaries have changed so dramatically in my absence, have assumed such disturbingly alien and unexpected forms, that trying to understand how and why these shifts have occurred feels both overwhelming and traumatising in equal measure.
In so far as I have got anywhere at all with this conundrum, I have come to realise the following; People, standing in different positions, with different amounts of information, different motivations, temperaments and experiences, can, given sufficient time and space, end up seeing the same picture in very different ways, in ways that appear so different in fact that it is virtually impossible to comprehend how they could ever have been looking at the same thing at all.
Not sure what I mean? Then lucky you. But really, you know… the way in which sometimes people come up with the answer eight to what looks to you very much like the question ‘what is one plus one?’ Not only that, but they seem to be so god damned sure that the answer is eight, and determined to tell everybody else that the answer is eight too, that you start looking at the two in front of you with some concern, like it might be trying to trick you or something.
A few weekends ago I watched someone answer eight and someone answer two. Watching from the sidelines, it probably looked a bit more like a four to me. Having found my way back to my bedroom, and whilst lying on my bed and feeling slightly the worst for wear, I was struck by the extent to which different people, who generally share pretty similar opinions and outlooks on the world, can – in this case with the help of no small quantity of alcohol – end up interpreting the same situation in such wildly different ways.
I had been painfully aware of it happening as part of recent events in my own life, and had been feeling rather sorry for myself in a ‘why me?’ sort of a way, whilst thinking it was probably an unfortunate consequence of the particular and relatively unusual circumstances surrounding my illness, but here was clear evidence of it happening to other people, right infront of my nose. Thinking about it now, this kind of thing must happen all of the time and in all sorts of situations. This puzzles me though, because basically it doesn’t seem to make any bloody sense. Or does it?
The obvious place to start exploring the way in which people can come up with opposite interpretations of events is with dualism. Dualism can be defined as a pattern of perception and thought whereby aspects of the world are divided into two, often opposing parts. There are a variety of natural phenomena such as light and shadow which appear to support this view and humans have apparently always possessed the tendency toward psychic dualism. We speak of the “opposites” of day and night, spirit and matter, good and evil, male and female, and so on. Interestingly, many people who suggest that we need to strive to escape such oppositions tend to classify binary oppositions as being typical of ‘Western’ thought. However its worth noting that it is not simply a Western phenomenon. George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic (in which all values are reduced to TRUE or FALSE) was deeply influenced by classical Indian logic, which is itself rife with sharp distinctions. Taoism has also been described as fundamentally dualist. The tendency to create a global binary between Western and Eastern thought just goes to show how easy it is, even for those seeking to escape such oppositions, to fall into this pattern of thinking.
Neurological research of human emotions has also helped to explain the nature of this seemingly inherent dualistic psychological pattern. According to American Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, any stimulus entering our central nervous system is immediately relayed in two directions; to the cerebral cortex, which mediates cognitive, logical processing and precise recognition, and to the amygdala, a tiny subcortical structure mediating an emotional reaction to the object under scrutiny. Although the cortex and amygdala are activated at about the same time, the amygdala decides whether we like the object or not, and may even initiate a behavioural response, all before the cortex has even managed to figure out what the object actually is, and long before we are aware of any conscious thought or feeling. Essentially, the brain gives an emotional label to each object as “good” or “bad” even before we have been able to cognitively grasp what that object is.
There is a pretty good reason for our brains to this kind of ‘black or white’ thinking. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah such as ‘can I eat this’ or ‘will this kill me’ are sorted out most effectively by the use of binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/non-predator. etc. The drawbacks to this process of internal categorisation didn’t really seem to bother other ancestors. There’s no significant middle ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and nonpredator, and so the reactive response we’re discussing excludes the possibility of middle ground; either you can eat something or you can’t, either something will eat you or it won’t. So far so good. The problems come as our reasoning brains have developed over the top of our social primate brains.
The more complex sets of classifications that the reasoning mind can use, and the complex relationships that develop once this reasoning mind gets to work alongside essentially social nature, results in the production of a great deal of middle ground (the 50,000 shades of grey of the title). Of itself this isn’t a problem, the problem comes when our hardwired ability to make snap black and white judgements, an ability that remains lurking just below the surface, suddenly takes over. Often all it takes is sufficient stress for this behavioural response to come the surface. In the survival situation our ancestors found themselves in, there was little room for maybe this or maybe that, and so in an uncertain, stressful situation, we had to make a ‘fight or flight’ decision and act on it. Unfortunately, for many of us in the 21st century, life feels – and is – increasingly precarious. We are surrounded by uncertainty. More often than not, for most of us, this uncertainty is not actually physically threatening, but the perception of threat can still trigger the same kind of fight or flight responses that result in binary thinking kicking in, the middle ground disappearing, and people thinking, saying and doing incredibly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives.
Linguistically we probably aren’t doing ourselves many favours either. English is the worlds most widely spoken language. While the spread of english around the globe is largely a result of British Colonialism and subsequent American Imperialism, english thrives nearly everywhere partly as a result of it being rich in simple terms of description. This linguistic structure gives it a tendency to invite binary thinking that some non-Western languages like Mandarin and Japanese partly avoid. English speakers born into the language often think in terms of polar opposites: winning versus losing, succeeding versus failing, happy versus sad, mental health versus mental illness, and so on. This kind of two-tailed logic isn’t encouraged by the English language alone but it does push us towards being definitive. Anybody who has read George Orwell’s 1984 will have been struck by the familiar message of ‘Big brother is watching you’ and his warnings against omnipresent surveillance. They will also be familiar with the way in which the state uses Newspeak, an altered form of regular english, to suppress free thought, individualism and happiness. Words do our thinking for us in so much as language lays down the tracks of our consciousness. This being the case, English sometimes reduces our abilities to see the world in a range of hues beyond black and white.
There seems to be a strong correlation between ‘all or nothing’ binary thinking and mental health. The more polarised our thoughts become, the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m an awful person”, “She is perfect” or “I’m a total failure”, oversimplify life and can cause massive emotional swings. Very few relationships, jobs or anything else are ‘complete disasters.’ It is far more likely that they consisted of a number of different positive and negative elements within them. Learning to see shades of grey can therefore serve as a powerful tool for overcoming depression.
The concept of splitting, another term for ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking was developed by Scottish Psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn. In his analysis, splitting begins with the inability of the infant to resolve the fulfilling aspects of the parents (the good object) and their unfulfilling / unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object) into the same individuals, with the result that the good and bad are seen as separate. An inability to bring together the positive and negative dimensions of the self and others into a single and realistic whole is a common defence mechanism which results in people seeing an individuals actions and motivations as either all good or all bad.
Splitting is often associated with people suffering from Narcissistic and Borderline Personality disorders. Splitting serves as a defensive mechanism; allowing the narcissist to stabilize their sense of self positivity and preserve their self-esteem by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable and others as purely wicked or contemptible, while for those suffering from Borderline Personality disorder, splitting can result in a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by an alternation between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
Having worked and volunteered on both sides of the statutory / non-statutory divide that exists within mental health services in this country, I have some issues with the medical model of mental health in general and the extent to which focus can be placed on a diagnostic label as opposed to the actual symptoms and lived experienced of somebody suffering with poor mental health. Here too, the English language again plays a role in pushing us towards the definitive. It’s hard, for example, for us to think of someone as being a little bit schizophrenic. This focus on labels has spread beyond the boundaries of mental health services. Increasingly, individuals with no training whatsoever appear to be willing and ready to ‘diagnose’ (and seek to stigmatise) people within their personal lives with one disorder or another, based on little more than something they have read on the internet and their own prejudices / issues with that person.
If a tendency to focus on diagnostic labels within professional mental health services can be problematic then obviously it is even more dangerous when undertaken by members of the general public. As such it reflects an extreme version of binary thinking whereby a simple but already problematic good / bad dichotomy arising from personal conflict (you are bad and I am good) is pathologised into becoming a healthy / sick one. I know what it is like to be around somebody who tends to flip between extremes of idealisation and devaluation. However, while a I am painfully aware of the devastating impact that this can wreak on a relationship, I would never dream of trying to ‘diagnose’ them.
In my previous post Detox Culture and the rise of Toxic people, I asked people to consider whether the use of the Toxic label might simply serve to reduce people down to a caricature of their most negative traits, an act which seems to fit well within the framework of using binary thinking or splitting, as outlined in the paragraph above, as a defence mechanism. In the piece, I also asked readers whether ‘Toxic’ behaviour might be the consequence of trauma, discrimination, low self esteem and depression. Given the relationship between stress, depression and all or nothing / black and white thinking, might binary thinking therefore have a role to play not only in the performance of ‘Toxic’ behaviour but also in our efforts to ascribe this label to difficult people?
Our tendency towards psychic dualism, amplified by exposure to stress, and influenced by the way in which we emotionally and physically bond to our caregivers as infants, can have a significant and detrimental impact on our lives and relationships. Having looked at the neurological and psychological aspects of this phenomenon, I want to also explore whether there are other social and cultural factors which are encouraging us to see the world in black and white.
I have a feeling that i’m probably not exactly the first blogger to take a quick pop at the state of the education system in this country and I certainly won’t be the last. But having already looked at the way in which the relationship between child and parent can impact on peoples long term psychological development, surely our earliest years of schooling have an impact too? The particular bone I wish to pick today is with the relentless (and growing) focus on testing and examinations. Not only does the relentless testing regime experienced by children in this country tend to result in formulaic learning, devoid of creativity, breadth and freedom of thought, but more importantly, at least in the context of this argument, it leads to children becoming increasingly terrified of making mistakes. Mistakes are only helpful if we believe that the process of learning – which inevitably must include the process of erring – is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct answer.Unfortunately, success in school is too often defined as high marks on tests, and if results are all that matter in education, then mistakes play no positive role. If people are afraid of mistakes, then they become afraid of trying new things, of being creative, of thinking in a different way and of taking responsibility for their actions. Perfectionism can be understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame. When mistakes are made (as they inevitably always are) they increasingly come to represent failure and as such are a profoundly harmful source of shame.
Encouraging children to think that there are only right and wrong answers to questions, and to think that there is something wrong about getting things wrong, only reinforces our propensity for seeing things in black and white. If we have grown up learning to fear mistakes and associate ‘getting things wrong’ with feelings of shame and failure, is it really so surprising that during times of extreme stress, such as when we are experiencing conflict within our personal lives, we tend to find it much easier to apportion blame entirely on the doorstep of one person (be this ourselves or somebody else, depending on our own self-perception) rather than to seek to explore responsibility in a more equitable manner?
One of oppression’s principal effects is shame. Oppressive power systems confer a status of inferiority onto select groups, which is then internalized and taken for granted, resulting in a strengthening of the dominant group’s hold on power. Interestingly, however, the shaming of those who are considered to have erred is also prevalent within those very communities that have sought to challenge some of the established yet unequal binaries within society. The political critique of binary oppositions is an important part of third wave feminism, post-colonialism and critical race theory, which argue that the perceived binary dichotomy between man/woman, civilized/uncivilised, and white/black have perpetuated and legitimized Western power structures favouring white men. In the last fifteen years therefore it has become routine for much social, political and historical analysis to address the variables of gender, class, sexuality, race and ethnicity.
Identity politics is a politics that stresses strong collective group identities as the basis of political analysis and action. As political engagement with society as a whole was increasingly been perceived to have produced insufficient progress or solutions, many progressives have retreated into a focus on their own “self” and into specific cultural and ideological identity groups which make rights, status, and privilege claims on the basis of a victimized identity. Identity politics is centered on the idea that activism involves groups’ turning inward and stressing separatism, strong collective identities, and political goals focused on psychological and personal self-esteem. As such, one of the functions of identity politics can be considered to be an effort to counteract the shaming effects of oppression.
The problem with identity politics however, is that different groups can end up vying with one another for social recognition of their oppression. The demarcation of identity via rigid definitions and boundaries can easily lead to a new and deeply problematic binary; that of us and them. “Us” helps us think of others as part of our circle and can help create a sense of solidarity and collective strength. Them on the other hand can all too easily used as a fence to keep others out. ‘Them’ can be used to help us to glue ideas together without negative consequences but when we appropriate it to put a barrier around groups we intend to keep at a distance, we don’t just make it more difficult to form the broader coalitions necessary to achieve systemic change within society, but we actually engender a disregard for the rest of society. At its core, identify politics advocates a retreat into the protection of the self based on the celebration of group identity. As Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri state, the revolutionary take on race, gender and sexuality struggles goes far beyond the demand that different identities be recognised but ultimately is about the dismantling of identity itself;
“The revolutionary process of the abolition of identity, we should keep in mind, is monstrous, violent and traumatic. Don’t try to save yourself – in fact, your self has, to be sacrificed! This does not mean that liberation casts us into an indifferent sea with no objects of identification, but rather the existing identities no longer serve as anchors.”
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri – Commonwealth
While the ability to make rights, status and privilege claims on the basis of an ‘us’ formed around a victimised identity would appear to have an important function in countering the shame imposed by oppression. There is, within the modern left, also a corresponding tendency not to tackle shame but to delight in it. The clearest expression of the Left’s relationship with shame and shaming is demonstrated by what R.L Stephens calls “call out culture.” The “call out” is a form of shaming which seeks to label an individual as fundamentally bad. Often the intent behind this ‘calling out’ is to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, and like they are a better person. This fits to a rather worrying degree to the description of the way in which narcissists use ‘splitting’ to stabilise their sense of self positivity and preserve their self-esteem by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable by labelling others as purely wicked or contemptible.
Just as perfectionism is the product of shame, so to is the puritanical ‘holier than thou’ attitude indicative in call out culture and the waves of shaming that wash through social media. After shame is triggered, a person will typically respond in one of four ways; withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers additional shame in the target as well. From a political perspective, shaming individuals as an alternative to concerted political effort and analysis of the structural causes of inequality will never result in the kind of dynamic collective movements required to effectively tackle the material consequences of oppression. That is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions, particularly if they are oppressive, only that there are ways of doing so that are more likely to have the intended outcome, providing that the desired outcome is a more just world rather than simply an attempt to boost ones own ego / to alleviate your own feelings of shame through the shaming of another.
In the context of personal relationships, feelings of shame (helplessness, impotence, betrayal) which may emerge as a result of another persons problematic behaviour, can – if unacknowledged – end up being expressed as anger, which triggers further shame in the other person, who is then likely to respond in a negative way. This person is then highly unlikely to change their behaviour. This results in what we could call a ‘shame spiral’ whereby anger and shame are traded backwards and forwards with no end in sight.
Last night I watched Adam Curtis’s new documentary film HyperNormalisation. In his latest film Curtis explores the ways in which “we have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world.” Curtis argues that the collective action of the 60s has been replaced by individualism (the self of identity politics) and that this inward turn, with its emphasis on the transformation of the inner self rather than society has allowed elites to construct a fake, simplified version of the world. In this vision of the world there are the two kinds of people; the good guys, and the carton baddies like Colonel Gaddafi, with no confusing shades of grey in between and no difficult and uncomfortable questions. The parallels between the black and white world described by these elite narratives and the simple good and bad, us and them binary trap that many of us, with the assistance of the internet as echo chamber, fall into within our own lives are obvious. In both cases, at the personal and political level, an unwillingness or inability to search for and accept a more uncomfortable truth can have profoundly negative consequences.
If we are seeking justice over its opposite; then we have to acknowledge that dualism as of itself cannot be held entirely responsible. However, in order to fully acknowledge the 50,000 shades of grey that exist between simple black and white interpretations of the world around us we also have to be able to see ourselves and others as inhabitants of this same spectrum, living in a constant state of flux. The problem with ‘call out’ culture and the terminology of ‘toxic people’ is not only that they risk fixing the accused in a permanent position of shame (and thus inadvertently – or not – engendering additional feelings of fear, blame and disconnection for the accused), but the accusers, in doing so, may also be seeking to position themselves in an unrealistic position of untouchable virtue. There is a danger then that calling out can simply serve as a tool for individuals to create their own fake and simplified reality operating along simple binary terms.
If we have a neurological predisposition towards binary thinking that is reinforced by our language, if systemic oppression and even our education system tends to engender feelings of shame within us, and if this shame results in a tendency towards crippling perfectionism, moral puritanism, the re-assertion of self through rigidly boundaried group identities built around a victimised identity, and further victimisation of the self / other, well… we’ve got ourselves into something of a pickle at both the personal and the political level. So whats the answer? Is there even an answer?
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston has been studying courage, empathy and shame for the last ten years. Brown identifies empathy and shame as forms of vulnerability. When we are open about our strengths and our struggles (even our mistakes), our vulnerability moves us towards empathy, towards being vulnerable with other people in their vulnerability. When we hide parts of ourselves from others because we fear disconnection, that moves us towards shame. According to Brown, empathy is the antidote to shame. Rather than hiding our vulnerabilities and sinking into a shame spiral, if we can have the courage to tell our stories we can escape from shame. The good news here is that we are naturally predisposed towards telling stories. The bad news is that we live in a culture of fear where we are afraid of not fitting in, of being judged or rejected, and where there are other strategies (blaming oneself or others for example) that are much easier to adopt.
In order to overcome what Brown calls an ‘epidemic of shame’, we need the courage to tell our stories and the compassion to hear them being told. This can be tricky because just listening to shame can be shaming and result in blame and judgement, particularly when somebody else is struggling with their own authenticity or sense of worthiness. Share a shame story with the wrong person and they become ‘one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.’ The answer, according to Brown is therefore to find a person who has earned the right to hear the story and with whom you are in a relationship where they can bear the story.
I went for lunch recently with a very good friend of mine and we were talking about whether and how it is possible to find a sweet spot between not writing people off, trying to use compassion and empathy to see past what we might consider to be problematic behaviour, and the need to protect yourself and your own wellbeing in the face of said behaviour. I guess we have both felt like we’ve gone too far in one direction and were struggling to find a happy compromise. The answer, according to Brown and her research, is that the people who are able to be the most compassionate and empathetic are those who have the strictest boundaries about what is and isn’t ok. When we fail to set boundaries, we let people do things that are not ok for us and we end up becoming resentful and hateful.
So there we go, it all sounds so simple doesn’t it? And yet looking back at previous blog posts I can see in my own writing a tendency towards binary thinking, whereby in my desire to shoot down whatever position I might be critiquing (and its simplistic black and white logic), my writing loses subtlety and gains instead a tendency to sound more definitive than perhaps it should. The end result is that things start looking a little bit too black and white here too. In a similar vein, looking back at my own life I can see the occasions in which my own feelings of helplessness impotence or betrayal have resulted in me simply reallocating this shame by calling out (rather than calling in) whoever I felt was responsible for triggering it. I can also see moments when my own lack of boundaries may have been an equally relevant factor in causing these feelings. I can also identify moments where I have sought to share my story with people who had neither the desire, nor the capacity to hear them in a compassionate way. It would be easy to feel ashamed about these things. It is hard not to feel shame, particularly when we feel that other people are actively seeking to shame us, or when we have a tendency to do all of the work for them ourselves anyway. What is much more important, however, is to actually learn from our mistakes, to work on our own discernment and ability to hold boundaries, to always keep our eyes peeled for the shades of grey, and to practise not only sharing our vulnerability with other people, but also to practise being vulnerable towards other people in their vulnerability.
A friend of mine died a few weeks ago. The funeral took place at the beginning of this week. I wasn’t well enough to make the journey to attend but it sounds like it was a very beautiful ceremony. I’ve been remembering in my own way, walking, sitting, watching; the changing light, the flocks of birds gathering in the trees and on the electricity lines, listening at night to the stream that flows past the front of the cottage. There hasn’t really been a day yet when Andrew hasn’t been at the forefront of my thoughts.
As I have been thinking about him, I have also been thinking about my best friend and his family who were killed I was eleven. They were killed when their car collided with a horse-box on the motorway. I’ve never looked at horse boxes in quite the same way since. Since Danny’s death, I’ve lost all four of my grandparents. And now, Andrew has gone too.
I’ve already written a piece for this blog about the way we think about death, and about the way in which sadness and grief are increasingly pathologised instead of being embraced and accepted as a necessary and perfectly normal part of being alive. What I didn’t mention in that piece, while I theorised away merrily, was the fact that each and every time I have experienced loss in my life there has, amongst the ongoing sadness and pain, been moments of revelation; realisations that I have sworn not to forget, and resolutions about how to move forward with my own life in a way that honours those who cannot.
It is only being back in this position again that I realise how much of this has fallen by the wayside as grief has slowly begun to fade, and life, as always, has continued at what – until my illness – felt like an increasingly breakneck pace. The paradoxical consequence of the frenetic pace of life is a slow but steady lulling of oneself into the complacent position of thinking that, at a fundamental level, everything is probably just going to carry on in much the same way as it is already. And so, here I am. I feel like I need to write now as a way of processing, of remembering, and of making sure that when life does become all consuming once again, all isn’t forgotten.
This morning, for the first time in several years, I walked up a cart track on the hill above the cottage where my Great Grandmother was born. I’ve been walking up this cart track since I was a little kid, so little in fact that in order to make it to the top I had to be bribed with fruit pastels (my parents had me well trained – or was it perhaps the other way around?)
For as long as I can remember, as I’ve walked up this cart track, I’ve always looked at the jumble of stones, cracks and mud that form its surface and imagined them as if they were the surface of a great barren wilderness, a wilderness that I, a lone giant, am striding high above. Although I have played this game of scale elsewhere, there is something about this particular track that makes it impossible for me to walk it without stones becoming great monoliths, cracks yawning canyons, and puddles sweeping lakes. Habit, I suppose.
Walking these hills again, even as I mentally expand the objects beneath my feet, it is disconcerting how much smaller this landscape now feels. Time works slowly here; with fewer people around, it is less driven by our constant consciousness of its passing. Instead, the landscape changes at its own pace. Isn’t it strange how as we grow, the world around us seems to get smaller? These tracks are criss-crossed with memories. I walk back down into the valley, remembering the landscape laden in snow. Anna, before she was ill, sledding down the track one icy winter, or was it Easter? Only a few months ago I wasn’t sure if I would ever see this place again either. A loose stone in the stream, the shock of the cold water, the squelch, squelch, squelch of ghostly wellies, trudging home tired and happy after hours of building dams and channels. A childs homage to the great walls of stone, the sharp lines of industry old, cut across the landscape, now slowly being swallowed back into the hills.
About a week after Andrew died, a mutual friend posted a link to a wonderful blog entry that Andrew had written and that I had, until that point, been completely unaware of. It turns out that not only had he been playing with ‘gigantism and microscopics’ during those moments of down-time when so many of us simply turn to our smartphones, had been turning wrinkles into mountains and rivers into microscopic veins, but he had also been using visualisation to stretch, melt and explode the world around him. There was something wonderful about discovering a new connection with Andrew even after he had gone. He has inspired me to move beyond my cart track deserts and, as I have been grieving his death, it is perhaps apt that I’ve become particularly taken to mentally shattering windows and blowing up trees and bushes as I walk past. You should try it… once you get over the (possible) strangeness of using ones imagination in such a flagrantly playful way, it becomes deeply satisfying.
The sad thing of course is that I never got to speak to Andrew about any of this. We hadn’t actually spoken at all since I feel ill and this new connection remained undiscovered until after he has gone. I am the kind of person who sometimes feels tongue-tied, even with friends I sometimes find myself feeling as if I have nothing to say. I have begun to realise how ridiculous this is on a number of levels. Firstly, what is important is not necessarily what we say, but the spirit in which it is said, secondly, whether we actually listen or not to what another person is trying to communicate is just as important as anything that we might have to say, and finally, not having anything to say stems from a fear of saying the wrong thing, from a fear of creating distance with somebody rather than from a curiosity or a desire to find connection. The fact that I never spoke to Andrew, somebody who took play more seriously than anybody else I have ever met, about this game, reminds me of how important it is to take a chance sometimes, to find the additional connections that are waiting to be discovered between us.
Although there were a million things to admire about Andrew, who was a warm, loving, brilliant human being with a magically creative mind, perhaps the thing that I admire about him the most is that he was resolutely and determinedly himself and unafraid to speak out, for example, with regards to his own mental health at a point when he was struggling with depression, or on behalf of other groups facing stigma or oppression. Although I remember him saying that he didn’t really like the ‘A’ word, he was a genuinely authentic person. Many of us spend at least some part of our daily lives living in an alternative realm of social media in which the value, and visibility, of everything we communicate is determined largely by its popularity. In spaces such as these, the temptation to create and portray an alternative, more likeable, positive version of ourselves is ever-present. When Sartre talked about hell being other people, he was talking – I think – about the way in which our compulsion to consider ourselves through the eyes of other people reduces our ability to authentically be ourselves. Anyone who has ever experienced liking somebody so much that they find themselves lost for words in their presence will understand this. There is something quietly heroic about anybody who seeks to resist this pressure in even the smallest of ways. To quote Harper Lee, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
However we might chose to perceive of ourselves, we are all essentially the products of each other. When people are alive and ‘around’, whether in the distant background or the very forefront of our lives, I think it is all to easy to take for granted the myriad ways in which they shape us. By this I mean that it is easy to forget how the defining parts of ourselves, the parts that belong to nobody but ourselves, i.e. our own unique identities and personalities, are actually, via our interactions, constructed out of other people. Our memories and experiences are important parts of who we are, yet they would not have come into existence – just as we ourselves could not have come into existence – without this complex web of other people, a web that stretches far back into the past and predates our own births whilst continuing to move forwards with us into the future.
“No person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others.”
When somebody dies, when they are no longer there for us to reminisce with, to construct and re(co)construct these memories, events and connections, our actual experience of these moments change; they become ours alone, trapped now irrevocably in the past, overshadowed by the absence of a future in which we can reflect back on them together. When somebody dies, or sometimes even when a relationship ends, people talk as if a part of them has been taken away. What I think we really lose, beyond the person themselves, is the specific reflection of ourselves that this person gave us access to. When we lose this reflection we also lose the future role that this reflection, replaced in turn by a new reflection that arises in response to that persons absence, would have played in the shaping of our future selves.
I recently stumbled across ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ by Carson McCullers, a series of short stories, set, like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in the deep south, and cloaked in melancholy and longing. The main story; the one from which the novella takes its name, is essentially a story about love, or more specifically about a bitter love triangle that draws certain parallels with the authors own life. It also contains perhaps the most profound description of love, and of the difference between the lover and the beloved, that I’ve ever encountered. This description has proven to be particularly revelatory for me with regards to finally making peace with a certain abortive romantic entanglement from which, as with all failed romances, an ongoing sense of sadness and loss stubbornly prevails.
Perhaps most pertinent of all however, is the following passage “Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer.” Just as falling in love with another person can be a strangely sad and lonely process, as one wrestles with the feelings that surge up within ourselves, cannot the same also be said of grief?
When we grieve, we grieve for everything.
This is what my friend in Berlin said to me during a Skype conversation in which I tried to convey the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss that I was feeling, not only about Andrew but about life more generally.
If the object of ones affection often simply serves as a stimulus for all of the stored up love within us, can the tragedy of a death, the object of our grief, also serve to release all of the stored up loss and suffering within us too? It is only really when I heard the news that Andrew had died that I realised that the world that I am returning to, as my period of illness finally draws to an end after a year and a half, has permanently and profoundly changed. The life I knew beforehand – and have been so desperate to return to – does not exist anywhere anymore, other than in my own imagination.
Only now have I really been able to grieve for everything that I have lost during my illness. I had already accepted that a partner, a home and a pet had gone and would not return, but losing Andrew has forced me to come to terms with the fact that the very community of which I had felt such a part, of which Andrew and I had both been a part has, if not gone, then changed irrevocably. There is to be no returning to life as it was, because, to put it bluntly, it not longer exists.
I ended up sobbing, for the first time in almost a year, down the phone to a friend. As with Andrew, I hadn’t seen him since before I got ill. He was still in something of a state of shock, trying to manage the challenge of leaving Bristol for a new start abroad whilst processing the news of Andrew’s passing, and together, for a few brief moments, we tried to come to terms with everything that had changed since we last saw each other.
Perhaps this is one of the things that death teaches us. Change is not only scary but it almost always involves loss of one kind or another. For those reasons we can try and resist it, or simply look the other way and pretend that it isn’t happening, abdicating ourselves not only of any responsibility, but also of the opportunity to try and shape whether the impact of that change is positive or negative. When somebody dies however, we cannot simply turn away, we cannot pretend that it hasn’t happened and nor can we fool ourselves into thinking that things are going to go back to the way they were before. Death reminds us that change is inevitable, it can be profound and often it will happen whether we want it to or not.
Things that I have re-remembered in grief that I wish I hadn’t forgotten:
We really don’t know how much time we have left. You can put things off until tomorrow, but be prepared for the fact that tomorrow will not necessarily be there for everyone.
We are the product of all of the people we have ever known, shaped by our shared experiences. There is no such thing as an end to a relationship with another person. We may not see somebody anymore, we may not even talk to them, they may have passed away, but we will continue to carry a part of them within us for the rest of our lives, whether we want to or not, and no matter how large or small a role they played in our lives.
Tell people how you feel about them. Tell people about how you feel about yourself too. They aren’t going to be around for ever and neither are you. If you still care about somebody it’s never too late to get back in touch. Hell might be other people, but to quote Emily St John Mandell, it is also “the absence of people you long for.”
If you have a problem with somebody, try and find some resolution to it while you still can. Time can be a healer (sometimes) but it can also run out.
Life is full of change, which means it is also full of loss. The harder we fight against or try and deny change, the more we suffer.
When we grieve, we grieve for everything and everyone that we have ever lost. This being the case, it’s ok to feel sad as you go along. It might feel easier to try and avoid thinking about it and just carry on, but rest assured it will all catch up with you sooner or later, and you might end up wishing you’d tried to deal with some of it along the way.
Don’t be afraid of being true to yourself. It might not make you the most popular or the most successful person (which isn’t to say that it definitely won’t) but it is what people will love you for and remember you by.
When you feel lonely, try and remember that you have had far more of an impact on other peoples lives than you can possibly imagine, often in ways that you might be completely unaware of. Just as other people form a part of us as we move forward in our lives, so we also form a small part of the lives of everybody around us. Its easy to forget this, so when somebody has made a real difference for you, help them to remember by telling them.
Life is precious. Its ok to be scared, or bored, or stuck. It isn’t going to last forever, but nor is your life. Try and honour the things you value most about the people that you have lost by living your life as fully as possible and in a way that would have made them proud.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, in the greater scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. And besides, a lot of the big stuff is out of your control anyway.
Nothing puts life into perspective quite like death.
In my previous post I wrote about how Brexit has seemingly woken people up to the searing divisions that exist within British society. The unexpected victory in the EU referendum for the leave campaign is certainly making its mark in a number of different ways. Within a matter of days £100bn was wiped from the FTSE 100, the UK lost its AAA credit rating and the pound hit a 31 year low against the US dollar. While there does now seem to have been a significant degree of recovery within the financial markets, the long term impact on the UK economy will remain largely unknown until the terms of Brexit become clear. The impact of Brexit on the countries political landscape has been much more profound, and while the market may have stabilised to a certain degree, the political turmoil looks set to continue for quite some time. It is this aspect of Brexit that I want to explore, with a particular focus on the future of the labour party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The early favourite for the subsequent conservative party leadership election was ex London mayor Boris Johnson, a man whose clown like public persona hides a ruthlessly opportunistbully and former Bullingdon club member, a man who clearly only played a central role in a leave campaign which whipped up a murderous storm of xenophobic and anti-intellectual feeling because he thought it would weaken David Cameron and further his ambitions of becoming PM. Going from his demeanor over the past week, it has increasingly becoming apparent that the leave campaign’s unexpected victory and Cameron’s subsequent decision to step down without activating article fifty has somewhat ruined things for Boris, who has just announced that he will not be entering the race after all.
Michael Gove is even more ruthless than Boris Johnson. As then secretary of state for education, he received a series of votes of no confidence from teachers unions and professional bodies outraged by the “climate of bullying, fear and intimidation” that he had created. He is the man – lest we forget – most responsible for the current climate of anti-intellectualism, as a result of his suggesting during the leave campaign that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts.’
He is joined in the leadership race by Theresa May; a women who backed remain but gave a speech on immigration at the conservative party conference that even the daily mail – of all people – described as “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible.” Also on the list, we have Stephen Crabb; a man who voted against same-sex marriage and with links to “gay cure” advocates and Liam Fox; a man who made the largest over-claim on expenses of any parliamentarian, and was forced to resign from the cabinet when it emerged that he had given a close friend and lobbyist access to the Ministry of defence whilst allowing him to join official trips overseas.
Last but certainly not least, we have Andrea Leadsom; who not only abstained from the Marriage (same-sex couples) Bill but has used a variety of strategies to avoid paying tax. In what smells distinctly like a cash for political office arrangement, Leadsom’s election to office as an MP has consequently been followed by very significant donations that have been made both to the Conservative party and directly to her, by a firm based in London but owned by her brother via a holding company in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.
Even if no other conservative MP’s put themselves forwards, this is already a quite remarkable lineup. This cast of characters do a good job of running the current incumbent, another former Bullingdon man with a rather unfortunate fondness for pork, close. It is not impossible that, in terms of immorality, intolerance, greed, ruthlessness and general despicability, one or all of them may even yet outshine him.
In the run up to the EU referendum things hadn’t exactly been going well for the conservative party either. At a point when David Cameron claimed to be leading the international fight against tax avoidance, a number of the people; donors, MPs, financiers, (and lets not forget his dad) who who had supported his rise to power were exposed by the Panama papers as having links to the UK’s network of tax havens. The party also had to perform an embarrassing u-turn when its proposed cuts to disability benefits resulted in back-bench uproar and the resignation from the cabinet of then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, and was forced to perform a similar u-turn on its proposals to force all schools to become academies. Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, even David Cameron’s mother had made her feelings clear about the austerity policies of her son, signing a petition against the planned closure of children’s services in Oxfordshire, whilst his aunt publicly described the cuts to be a ‘great, great error.’
This being the case you would think the labour party would be feeling quite good about itself. Yes, the fact that 52% of the electorate voted to leave the EU on the back of a campaign that focussed unrelentingly on immigration was a shock for many people within the labour party, and a profoundly disappointing result. There is also understandable concern, especially since the referendum and the surge of anti-immigration feeling that it has aroused, that the high point of UKIP gains from the labour base, particularly in its traditional (post) industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north, is still yet to come. In other bad news, the odds of labour making a comeback against the SNP in Scotland currently remain pretty slim.
But lets just take a quick step back and have a look at the positives shall we? Jeremy Corbyn won the labour leadership contest in September 2015 running on a platform of reversing austerity cuts to public services and welfare funding made since 2010, and proposing renationalisation of public utilities and the railways. A longstanding anti-war and anti-nuclear activist who was also a well known anti-Apartheid activist, Corbyn also supports a foreign policy of military non-intervention and unilateral nuclear disarmament. As such his platform can be considered a return to a set of traditional labour policies, some of which (nationalisation and nuclear disarmament) had seemingly been consigned to the dustbin of history at the onset of Tony Blairs ‘new labour’ project which took the party significantly to the right. ‘Unelectable’ Corbyn was considered a rank outsider at the beginning of the contest and only scraped the sufficient number of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) nominations to appear on the ballot with minutes to spare. However, having succeeded in making it onto the ballot he then attracted a massive 59.5% of the first round ballot, significantly more than all of the other candidates put together and the largest mandate ever won by a party leader in British politics.
Since Corbyn became leader of the labour party, many tens of thousands of people have flocked to become members, effectively doubling the total membership. These new members consist not only of those joining for the first time, but also a significant number of former members, many of whom left the party when Tony Blair took the hugely unpopular decision of pushing the labour party into supporting the invasion of Iraq with the use of a three line whip. As such this surge in membership, and the sheer scale of it (more new members have joined the labour party than there are members of the conservative party in total), reflects a clear rejuvenation of the base of the party that is reiterated by the historic move of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) becoming the first union to decide to re-affiliate to the Labour Party, more than a decade after it withdrew its support.
Under Corbyn’s stewardship, the party has has won all four by-elections that have taken place (three with an increased majority) and all four mayoral elections too. Labour has also also succeeded in outperforming the conservative party in the local elections with an projected national vote share of at least 31%, a figure that is ahead of the conservatives. With regards to the EU referendum, the labour party was able to convince 63% of its 2015 voters to vote Remain, an almost identical proportion as that achieved by the SNP and far higher than the 42% minority of Tory voters that David Cameron was able to persuade.
Why then, you may ask, does the labour party currently appear to be tearing itself apart at a point when the conservative party is in complete disarray? Following the sacking of Hilary Benn in the early hours of Sunday morning after it emerged that he had was plotting a coup agains the leader of the party, the carefully staggered resignation of 20 of Corbyn’s 31 strong shadow cabinet – carefully designed to maximise the amount of news coverage received – has thrown the party into chaos. Following a subsequent non-binding vote of no confidence which was won 172-40 by the rebels, labour finds itself in the position whereby the majority of the parliamentary party holds views directly at odds not only with their leader but with the majority of their membership. It should come as no surprise that this was a secret ballot, suggesting that MPs do not want their constituents to know if they voted against their parties leader. Corbyn struggled to scrape together enough nominations from PLP members to run for leader in the first place so we know he is not particularly popular amongst labour MPs, but the question we need to ask is why a coup attempt and why now?
Many of those labour members of parliament who have resigned from the shadow cabinet have spoken of their disappointment at the EU referendum result, arguing that Corbyn failed to lead from the front with regards to making the case for Europe, and is therefore no longer fit to lead the party. However, it is worth bearing in mind that most of these critics did not support his leadership prior to the referendum either, infact they have never supported him. It is well known that Corbyn retains a healthy scepticism of the EU and he adopted a nuanced position in arguing for the need to remain inside the EU whilst working collectively for a reform agenda that would seek to address its myriad shortcomings.
Corbyn also took a lot of flak for failing to share a platform with David Cameron and for not being visible enough in the public eye. When it came to the remain campaign, Corbyn made far more media appearances on this subject than any other Labour MP whilst also touring meetings up and down the country. If Corbyn did not occupy the public attention more this was largely the result of the fact that the British media largely portrayed the entire debate as an argument between two halves of the conservative party. With regards to not sharing a platform with Cameron, the referendum on Scottish independence provides a recent lesson on what happens when you try to run a campaign with the Conservative Party and without any major points of differentiation; it was an unmitigated disaster.
Suggestions that Corbyn did not pull his weight therefore appear to be grossly unfair. The idea that Corbyn deliberately sabotaged the remain campaign, as suggested by the notoriously neutral Laura Kuenssberg, chief political commentator at the notoriously neutral BBC are even more far fetched. In the article in which she makes these claims Kuenssberg does little more than posit a series of suggestions relating to un-released documents and unnamed sources; “documents passed to the BBC suggest Jeremy Corbyn’s office sought to delay and water down the Labour Remain campaign” with “sources suggest[ing] that there is evidence of ‘deliberate sabotage.'” There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that this was the case. It is worth remembering the the Labour remain campaign was run by Alan Johnson, a former cabinet minister under Blair. Johnson has been one of the most ardent critics of Corbyn’s remain efforts, but might it be possible, especially given that a number of broadcasters claim to be exasperated over the difficulties they encountered in getting Johnson himself on air to discuss the Remain campaign, that lashing out at Corbyn represents an attempt by Johnson to divert criticism away from himself?
The whole narrative that Corbyn failed to deliver the labour remain vote is less convincing if we consider the simple fact that virtually as many labour voters voted to remain as SNP voters. How, when it is widely accepted that Scotland voted unequivocally to remain, can a similar percentage of labour voters choosing to vote to remain be seen as an abject failure or as the consequence of deliberate sabotage by the parties leader? If you still think the labour coup has anything to do with the results of the referendum then think again; weeks before the result, it was being reported that labour rebels were openly discussing the fact that they believed they could topple Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum in a 24-hour blitz, by jumping on a media storm of his own making and by fanning the flames with front bench resignations. Its pretty much worked out exactly this way, only it was the MPs and not Jeremy Corbyn who have created the media storm and Corbyn remains resolutely untoppled.
Brexit was simply the excuse being used by the PLP to justify its coup attempt whilst seeking to divert attention from the genuine reasons. And what could those reasons possibly be? Here is a statistic to consider… every single one of the labour MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet abstained from voting against the 2015 Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which proposed a further £12 billion in welfare cuts. If you don’t believe me you can check for yourself. Here is a list of MPs that abstained, and here is a list of the MPs who have resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. The fact that none of the rebels voted against additional swingeing cuts that go on to harm some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the very same cuts that the UN has described as being in breach of the government’s obligations to human rights, tells us a little something about which wing of the labour party they come from.
Many of those criticising Corbyn has talked about the need to build a broad church within the labour party, one in which Blairite and Corbynista can co-exist. The fact that Corbyn was willing to include people such as Gloria De Piero – a member of the Blairite pressure group Progress, Lord Falconer – a close associate of Blair, and centrists such as Vernon Coaker and Ian Murray suggests that he was willing to try and build a consensus. The PLP coup on the other hand, and the particularly unhelpful timing of it, suggests that while Corbyn may have been willing to work with those with ideological differences a significant proportion of the PLP to the right of Corbyn are not.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that members of the Labour Right have sought to sabotage their own party. Right from the point, almost a year ago, when it became clear that Corbyn might win the leadership contest, MP John Mann was trying to get the leadership election cancelled. When he actually did win, others such as Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman, were openly talking about splitting to form a new party to the right of Corbyn. John Prescott, former deputy leader, laid into these ‘bitterites,’ for their refusal to accept Corbyn’s victory and efforts to undermine Labour’s chances of victory, but it seems that the hostility to the Corbyn project has continued all the way up until most recent events; Richard Seymour, Author of ‘Corbyn: the strange rebirth of radical politics’, has suggested that certain MPs were privately briefing that they didn’t want Sadiq Khan (a man who could hardly be described as being from the left-wing of the party) to win the London Mayoral elections, incase it strengthened Corbyn’s position as leader of the Labour party. Although those in open revolt against their leader claim to be concerned about Corbyn’s ability to win an election, their behaviour actually suggests that they are more worried about the fact that he might win. If this sounds far fetched, consider the fact that Tony Blair has stated very explicitly that he wouldn’t want a left-wing Labour party to win an election.
The following article reveals the extent to which the current Labour ‘coup’ being instigated against Jeremy Corbyn appears to have been orchestrated by the Blairite right of the labour party. The articles links a PR company, Portland Communications, whose parent company was contracted to do PR work for Tony Blair with the Fabian society and the Parliamentary labour party. The ranks of Portland Communications contain Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s arch spin-doctor, Tim Allen, former adviser to Tony Blair and director of communications at BSkyB, and Steve Morris former head of communications for both Blair and Brown. Infact, the majority of staff at the organization appear to have direct links to the centre and right of the labour party as well as to media organisations such as Sky, the BBC, ITN, The Sun and The Guardian. Most significantly of all in the context of recent events, Portland Communications also employs labour activist Tom Mauchline as a Senior Account manager. Tom Mauchline is the man whose heckling of Jeremy Corbyn was almost immediately picked up on the BBC website along with an interview with the heckler. How many members of the public do you think have heckled Boris Johnson? And how many of them have had their own footage of said heckling rapidly uploaded onto the BBC website along with an in-depth interview? It is not a coincidence that while the Tory party has also been exploding in an equally dramatic fashion, the media have given their full attention to the state of the Labour party.
Many members of Portland Communications also have links with the fabian society, a ‘left-wing’ organisation that is constitutionally affiliated to the labour party as a Socialist Society. The Fabian society advocates gradualist, reformist and democratic means in a journey towards radical ends. Despite describing itself as Socialist, over the last few years it has received funding from the likes of Barclays, Cuadrilla, Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC. Fifteen of the shadow secretary of states and nine of the shadow ministers who resigned are affiliated to the Fabian Society. According to Sky news reporter Soppy Ridge, the man orchestrating and choreographing the shadow cabinet resignations was Conor Mcgin, opposition whip (and therefore rather ironically tasked with ensuring party discipline) and Chair of the Young Fabians. Margaret Hodge, vice president of the Fabian society co-penned the motion of no confidence.
A browse of the Fabian society website quickly reveals interesting information. Articles such as “how should a centre-left government tackle inequality“and “pursuing centre-left politics in one country” clearly show that the society considers labour to be a party of the centre-left and not the left. In 1993, prior to becoming leader of the labour party, it was for the Fabian society that Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet in which he criticised clause IV and put forward a case for defining socialism in terms of a set of constant values and not policies. The eventual acceptance of this argument and the changing of clause IV represents, in many ways, the defining moment at which labour became new labour. With regards to Corbyn, two extracts from a recent comment piece on the Fabian society website speak for themselves:
“Any impartial observer would have to conclude that Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the referendum campaign was lacklustre”
“Whether the wave of shadow cabinet resignations will bring about a successful coup remains to be seen. There are two obvious problems. The first is that in a vote of all members and registered supporters Corbyn would be very likely to win for he remains very popular among the grassroots.”
The Fabian Society would therefore certainly appear to remain largely tied to the Blairite vision of a centre-left ‘new’ labour party that defines itself by ‘socialist’ values rather than policies. As such it does not support Jeremy Corbyn and his efforts to move the labour party back to the left (through the support of policies that clearly articulate these values), despite his popular support from within the party membership. By seeing Corbyn’s popularity amongst the grassroots as a “problem” that might prevent the success of the unconstitutional and undemocratic coup, it becomes clear that at least some members of the society are more interested in the removal of Corbyn than the wishes of the labour party membership.
I do not think there is enough evidence to go as far as Steve Topple has in his article in which he suggests that it is the the Fabians who are behind efforts to dethrone Corbyn. However, what does seem apparent to me is that those to the right of the party, those who wish to see a centre-left labour party and have therefore been opposed to Corbyn from the moment he sought election as leader of the party, are systematically working to undermine him for ideological reasons. This effort does not only involve individuals within the current parliamentary party, but also those to the right of the broader labour movement with involvement in the spheres of media and public relations, many of whom have clear links to the previous new-labour administrations of Blair and Brown.
While it may be that some of the MPs who participated in the vote of no confidence against Corbyn simply do not feel that his leadership is working, the attempted coup cannot simply be viewed as a pragmatic response to the alleged failings of Corbyn’s leadership, but rather, I would suggest, represents also the manifestation of fundamental ideological disagreement over the soul of the labour party, and an attempt by senior figures on the right of the party to prevent it from being moved back to the left, despite the support for Corbyn, not only amongst the party membership but also from the unions.
While the labour rebels and most commentators are linking the timing of the coup to events of the recent past (the EU referendum), and labours potential performance in the event of a (possible snap) election at some point in the future, what if we also consider the coup in relation to another future event, one whose timing we already know for sure? On July the 6th, the Chilcot enquiry, which examines the nation’s role in the Iraq war and which will cover the run-up to the conflict, the subsequent military action and its aftermath, is due to published. This report is expected to deliver an ‘absolute brutal‘ verdict on the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others. It may be pure coincidence but given how damning and damaging the enquiry is likely to be, and the fact that Corbyn appears to be prepared to call for Blair to be investigated for war crimes, the timing of this attempted coup, led from the right-wing of the party and containing many Blairites who voted in favour of the Iraq War, perhaps starts to make a little more sense.
Beyond the careful choreography of the initial resignations, designed to maximise media attention, the coup attempt certainly seems poorly prepared. Those behind it have still not stated who they think can take Corbyn’s place (possibly because they are looking for a candidate who did not vote for the war), or even detailed any specific policies that they disagree with Corbyn on. Now that it has become fairly apparent that Corbyn will not simply step down, there does not seem to be much of a plan. Rebel MP Stephen Kinnock has tried to suggest that as a result of the EU referendum, the massive mandate to lead granted by party members to Corbyn now belongs to a different era and no longer holds water. Others have suggested that Corbyn is not capable of leading and have urged him, with an edge of desperation, to ‘do the right thing‘ and step down, hypocritically placing the responsibility for ending a crisis that they created on his shoulders.
Despite these efforts to persuade Corbyn to step down, nothing currently suggests that he is going to. The fact remains that unless Corbyn is bullied into standing down, the only way he can be removed is via a leadership contest. This has led shadow chancellor John Mcdonnell to describe the rebels as “like a lynch-mob without the rope.” While the outcome of an upcoming leadership contest cannot be taken for granted, it currently appears that the most likely result would be Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as leader of the labour party. This is reflected by the level of support for him amongst the party membership, who gave him a huge mandate less than a year ago.
While 64% of the membership would have voted for Corbyn in early May, a poll conducted between June 27 and June 30 suggests that 50% who would now vote for Corbyn against 47% who would not. Despite the turmoil caused by the MP revolt, Corbyn therefore retains the slim support of existing party members. A further 60,000 new members have also joined in the last week as a result of the attempted coup. Of the 20,000 new members to have been checked so far, more than 50% support Corbyn. The financial support he will receive from the unions (who played a crucial role in the last leadership election), and the number of activists (from both the unions and momentum) that will support his campaign also gives him a significant edge over any potential leadership rival. The hint of desperation evident in the attacks on Corbyn, and the pleas for him to step down surely therefore reflect the fact that the PLP rebels do not really have any more cards up their sleeves, with the publication of the Chilcot enquiry report looming large at the end of next week and the majority of new members also now suggesting that they would support the deselection of MPs who fail to support Corbyn.
Over the last week I’ve had conversations with a lot of labour supporters about the Corbyn coup. Generally the opinions I have encountered can be divided into two camps. The larger camp, who support Corbyn and his anti-austerity platform feel shocked, saddened and angered by the actions of some members of the PLP. They cannot understand why the parties own MPs would inflict so much damage on the party at such a crucial point in time, with the country divided and hatred bubbling over on the streets, and the conservative party in a state of almost total disarray. This group, to which I belong, feel that in Corbyn labour finally have a decent, honest and principled leader who genuinely reflects the values of the party that set up the welfare state, founded the NHS and introduced the minimum wage. For this group of people, Corbyn is the future of the labour party and for many, his standing down would trigger a level of disillusionment that might even exceed the revulsion generated by Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
The second group of people to whom I have been talking would probably consider themselves to be pragmatists, and therefore dismiss the first group as being overly idealistic. While they may not fully condone the behaviour of the rebels, may agree that Corbyn is a principled and decent man, and may even agree with some or most of his policy positions, in their mind the labour party simply cannot win the next election with him as their leader. They argue that while Corbyn’s ideological purity may be popular amongst the membership and a new well to do, liberal brand of labour voter, it will not succeed in winning back those voters from UKIP and the conservative party that are required to win a general election. Members of this group feel that Corbyn should step down immediately, making way for a charismatic, media savvy candidate who can heal the rifts within the party and attract the kind of voters that are put off by the ‘socialism’ of Corbyn.
I share the concerns of those who emphasise the necessity of winning the next election, who underline the importance of appealing to the traditional labour heartlands, and of returning lapsed labour voters back from the clutches of UKIP and the conservatives. It is precisely because I share these priorities that I believe Corbyn to be by far and a way the best candidate to lead the party. In order to explore this a little further, I want to take a brief detour into the history of the modern labour party.
Many people seem to get quite angry when Tony Blair is mentioned in relation to any discussion of the current situation and are keen to point out that just because you are not a Corbynista does not mean you are necessarily a Blairite. This might be true, but with regards to answering the question of how party can win the next election and re-engage its base, it is absolutely essential to understand what happened under Blairs leadership.
The Recent History of Labour
Tony Blair’s rise to power in 1994 fellowing 18 long years of opposition, was the dawn of a new era for the labour party. Blair had made the case that in order to get elected labour had to modernise, and stamping his authority on the party abandoned policies such as nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and high taxes. Perhaps most significantly of all, Blair abolished the totemic clause four, whilst adopting a more business friendly and focus group driven agenda that sought to speak to ‘aspirational’ middle class voters. By the end of the 20th century, the party of collectivism and the poor had abandoned much of its radicalism in favour of an increasingly pro-market neoliberal position. Embracing the use of PR and spin, and heavily courting the media, new labour swept into power in 1997 with 13.5 million votes.
While the policies of the ‘Third Way’ succeeded in returning the labour party to power, and keep Blair in number ten for the next decade, this ‘new’ labour government moved a long, long way from the parties founding principles. It is highly significant that Thatcher once referred to New Labour as her greatest achievement, so fully did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown embrace her policies of free-market reform. Understandably, a significant part of the parties traditional support-base struggled with the concepts of free markets in health, education and transport. By 2007 labour seemed tired, worn out by the personal infighting between the two men at the top. Labour die-hards were also increasingly disillusioned by the compromises that they had to make under Tony Blair, and by the political-media crisis over who had really thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and whether journalists and the country had been misled. The eventual transfer of power from Blair to Brown failed to reinvigorate the party, as it was not accompanied by any real shift in policy direction. Brown’s defeat in the 2010 general election after just three years in office saw the party return to opposition, where it has remained ever since.
The trade unions were credited with ensuring that it was the marginally more left leaning Ed Miliband who snatched the labour leadership from his Blairite brother David in 2010. Despite five years of unpopular government under a Lib-Con coalition, Miliband lost the 2015 national election after a confused electoral campaign in which he had sought to combine a rightward shift with regards to immigration, and support for a marginally ‘softer’ version of Tory Austerity, with more progressive policy goals such as a levy on tobacco companies, the raising of the minimum wage, a mansion tax, and the renationalisation of the railways.
From this brief overview of the last twenty years of the labour party a couple of key points become clear. The first is that the labour party did return to government on the back of a shift to the centre, one that enabled it to pick up votes amongst middle class voters but without completely alienating its traditional working class base. What is equally apparent, however, is that over the course of its time in power, and partly as a result of this shift in focus towards wooing the votes of the aspirational middle, the compromises the party made with regards to its more traditional positions, resulted in it losing four million voters between 1997 and 2005, many of them from its working class base.
Despite continuing with a Blairitepolicy agenda under Brown, at the 2010 election it lost nearly another million votes. Under Ed Milliband this decline was reversed, with the party gaining 700,000 votes in comparison to 2005, but despite the deep unpopularity of the conservative led government, the labour party has been unable to recover the 4 million votes it lost during Blair’s premiership and has lost every election since. Why has the party been unable to win these voters back? The dominant narrative, put forward by Tony Blair amongst others, was that the reason Miliband lost the last election was because he abandoned New Labour and moved labour too far to the left of the centre ground. If Miliband’s unfortunate hash of polices were considered a move to the left then it is not surprising that Corbyn is so unpopular amongst Blairites, with his policy platform representing a clear shift from the neoliberal free-market position of New Labour and back towards a genuinely left vision that sees an increased role for public ownership of natural monopolies such as the royal mail and the railways. However, as well as debunking Blairs claim, labour’s own report into what went wrong in the 2015 election reveals that one of the most significant reasons for the party’s defeat was down to its failure to address the Tory myth that it was Labour that were responsible for the financial crisis as a result of overspending during their time in government.
The argument put forward by Blairites originally was that holding the centre ground would allow the party to win support from the aspirational middle and yet Corbyn has received criticism exactly on those terms, the argument being that he only really appeals to the sort of liberal middle class supporters that have flocked to join the membership and doesn’t connect with the labour heartlands outside of the more affluent Southeast. If we look at the actual data, it becomes readily apparent that a lack of appeal to the aspirational middle is definitely not the issue that needs to be addressed, with support for the AB and C1 social groups staying fairly stable. The existential threat facing labour comes from the precipitous drop in support for the party from the skilled and unskilled/semi-skilled working class social groups that have always formed the traditional core of support for the party.
Following the 2015 election, leadership contender Chuka Umunna wrote in an article in the Observer that Labour must “start with the aspirations of voters”, while Lord Mandelson said the party had made a “terrible mistake” in ditching New Labour. Yet most of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing policies are popular with the public. According to YouGov, 60% agree with the renationalisation of railways. Even among Tory voters, half believe this to be a positive policy. There is public support for a 75% top rate of tax on incomes over £1m. In addition, rent controls on landlords is a policy supported by 59% of the public, the introduction of a mandatory living wage (a real living wage, as opposed to George Osborne’s minimum wage increase) has support from 60% of the public. Furthermore, the majority of the public support a cut in tuition fees, with 49% in support of the policy, while 31% oppose the idea. Although the public still rejects the idea of unilateral disarmament of the UK’s nuclear weapons, support for an international convention on banning nuclear weapons currently sits at 64%, raising the possibility that even the public’s attitude towards Trident renewal might change in the near future, especially given that no major party has ever come out and argued the case against. Arguing that labour cannot win an election by pursuing the kind of policies that have traditionally appealed to its base and which polling suggest has significant appeal across the political spectrum is nothing more than a lie.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is immigration. The leave campaign has managed to stir anti-immigration sentiment to fever pitch, and a perception has been created the for many people, immigration remains the number one issue, and one that will have a key role to play in the next general election. However, look a little bit closer and a rather different picture appears. A YouGov poll undertaken at the beginning of June provides a statistic that fits well with the narrative of ‘immigration, immigration, immigration.’ This statistic is that 50% of people think immigration is the most important national issue. However, when you ask individuals what they, themselves, worry about Immigration plummeted from 50% of people to 20%, significantly behind other issues such as the economy, the NHS, pensions, and tax. This distinction even applies to UKIP voters, although the levels are different. 90% of UKIP voters thought immigration was the top issue for the country, but this figure came down came down to 49% when they were discussing their own personal issues. YouGov ran a poll where respondents had to pick the one issue most likely to determine how they would vote. Only 20% of the public picked immigration, with 31% saying the economy and another 31% saying it’s which is likely to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries. It also appears that more people think they benefit from (EU) immigration than don’t.
This polling suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on immigration, which is that it is not necessarily a problem, but rather a very great opportunity, might not look quite so untenable after all. While it is entirely possible, if not probable, that there is greater hostility to immigration from outside of the EU than there is to the free movement of people within it, it is also clear that immigration is an issue of much more higher import for those UKIP voters that labour must try to win back, than for the broader public at large.
However, the appeal of UKIP is not that they simply sell an anti-immigration message. They are also selling an “anti-metropolitan message about political elites uninterested in those ‘left behind.'” Labour cannot and should not seek to compete with UKIP and the conservatives with regards to being ‘tough’ on immigration. Not only is it morally wrong, but it won’t work either. After all, Ed Miliband’s attempt at taking the party to the right on this issue did not result in electoral success and only served to reinforce the existing narrative of immigration as a threat and a problem. If it is to pick up votes from UKIP, labour not only needs to fight to protect the pay and conditions of the working class, push for increased investment in public services and challenge the narrative that it is immigration and not austerity that means ‘there is not enough to go around’, it also needs to address the cultural appeal of UKIP.
This requires a Labour party that is genuinely active in local areas, with Labour representatives that are seen as having an authentic voice for every parts of the country. This is not a change that can be done to working-class communities, but has to be achieved with them. What is interesting about the Corbyn effect is that when you talk to local labour officials about the new members flocking to the party, it becomes clear that they do not just consist of a new generation of young, middle class corbynistas, but also include ex-members (or traditional labour voters) who left during the Blair years and as a result of the Iraq War. In the long run, this kind of rejuvenation of the membership of the party is essential if it is going to win back support from UKIP and rebuild support within its traditional working class heartlands.
Under Jeremy Corbyn the labour party has an identity again, the kind of identity that allows it to differentiate itself clearly from the Conservative party, to challenge the dominant narratives on austerity and immigration, and to demonstrate that it has once again become the party of the working people in the UK. We have already seen how failing to differentiate clearly from the conservatives and compromising core labour values has resulted in a collapse of the labour vote in Scotland and growing support for UKIP at the expense of the labour party in England. It is absolutely imperative that, if the labour party is to remain a relevant political movement within the UK, it does not repeat these mistakes again with a return to the centre ground.
Jeremy Corbyn is not the perfect leader of the labour party. Although he has tidied himself up following Cameron’s childish playground style attacks on his appearance, he will always be vulnerable to those who want to pick on his fondness for manhole covers and train timetables, as an indication that he is totally out of touch with the rest of Britain. He is not the worlds greatest orator, nor will he ever be the most charismatic politician in history. His unwillingness to form a coalition of the left with other progressive parties, parties who could provide the kind of new thinking required to counter those who claim that Corbyn simply represents a re-heating of the politics of the 1960s is misguided. A series of errors have been made by Corbyn and those around him. Even before the coup, Labour appeared to much of the country as shambolic and incompetent. Corbyn’s team is stuffed full of intelligent people, but there has been a lack of direction and inability to communicate in a way that resonates with most people. This is not simply the product of a hostile media and PLP, but is also one of the non-ideological factors that has contributed to this growing hostility. These are things which must and can be improved if the labour party is to have any chance of winning another general election.
What is so special about Corbyn however is that he is not a ‘personality politician‘, but a man with a set of deeply held principles. This is not something that can simply be polished up over time, but rather that is acquired from a lifetime of service to the cause. Corbyn has been involved in the Anti-War, Nuclear Disarmament, Anti-Apartheid, Palestinian Solidarity, Gay Rights and Animals Rights movements, and has campaigned against miscarriages of Justice. He has consistently voted with his conscience in parliament, often defying party whips. He has a clear anti-austerity platform that has attracted tens if not hundreds of thousands of disillusioned people back into politics and the party. It is no surprise that polls show that during the EU campaign Corbyn was by far and away the most trusted voice within the labour party. The bottom line is that while there is plenty wrong with Corbyn and his leadership of the labour party, sadly there is no other candidate within the labour party capable or willing to do a better job of leading the party into the future than Corbyn, or that could mobilise the base in the way that he continues to do.
Under Jeremy Corbyn the labour party does still have an opportunity to rediscover its soul, to once again become a tolerant civilised and progressive organisation that fights for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, whilst promoting fairness and equality. While there are plenty of ways in which ‘Team Jeremy’ can and must improve, it is not so much Jeremy Corbyn who is failing the labour party as the Parliamentary labour party that is failing the leader of the party, its members and supporters, and the interests of the country at large. Since he was elected last September, Corbyn has not only been fighting a Conservative party backed by the interests of big business and the right-wing press, but also against a significant proportion of his own party, who, despite Corbyn’s clear mandate to lead, have sought to undermine him and his efforts to create a genuine alternative to Blairite neoliberalism and Conservative Austerity. Imagine what Corbyn might be able to achieve if he actually had the parliamentary party’s backing, along with that of the party membership and the unions? He might even win the next election….
What can I do?
So often when we engage with politics and current affairs it feels like there is very little that we, as individuals, can do. In this case, that could not be further from the case.
If you are a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, believing him to be the kind of progressive, principled politician that this country and the labour party is crying out for, there are a number of things you can do.
If you are not already a member of the labour party join it now. This will allow you to vote for Jeremy in what will almost certainly be a new leadership election. The bigger the mandate Corbyn wins, the easier it will be for him to quell dissent within the party and to get back to fighting the conservatives, and ensuring a progressive Brexit that protects the environment and peoples rights.
The vote of no confidence was held by secret ballot. This means that we do not know which MPs voted for or against. We do however, have a list of all of those members of parliament who resigned from the shadow cabinet in protest at Corbyn’s leadership.
If your local representative is on this list, write to them and tell them how you feel about their decision. Even if they aren’t on this list, you can write to them, telling them why you support Jeremy Corbyn and asking them whether, as your elected representative, they share both your views and the views of the labour membership that elected him to lead the party in the first place. You can also make it clear that if they want to rely upon your support in the future, it is imperative that they support him.
If you want to volunteer to support Jeremy in the leadership campaign, join Momentum. Momentum is the “successor movement” to Corbyn’s leadership campaign last year and will play a key role in helping him to get elected again.
Express your support for Jeremy and sign the petition offering a public vote of confidence in his leadership.
I’m lucky enough to live in the city of Bristol. It is regularly declared to be one of the best places to live in the UK and is a flourishing, tolerant and multicultural success story, a byword for social diversity and vibrant community politics, a city filled with open minded and creative inhabitants who know how to party. Or so the story goes, often neglecting to mention the fact that not only are too many residents of Bristol not a part of this narrative at all, neither are they likely to join it any time soon, with high and growing levels of inequality between different parts of the city.
In some ways Bristol reminds me of Beszel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s book The City and The City; twin cities that occupy the same geographical space but in which the citizens of each side largely ‘unsee’ the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other. Hopefully the election of the labour candidate Marvin Rees as Mayor of Bristol represents a positive step towards the reconciliation of these two very different Bristol’s. Marvin, a mixed race native of the city who spent part of his child-hood growing up in the largely white working class Long Cross estate and whose campaign has focussed on bringing in the many inhabitants of the city who feel entirely excluded from the ‘party’, certainly appears better placed in this regard in comparison to previous Mayor George Ferguson, a former member of the elitist Society of Merchant Venturers – an organisation with a historical involvement in the Slave Trade, and a man who has not only driven the regeneration / gentrification of several areas of Bristol, but who also in many ways personifies the gentrification of progressive politics itself.
I started writing this post in the run up to the EU referendum in the UK. I was going to try and avoid writing about Brexit because there will be no shortage of able commentators dissecting the result. I apologise for adding yet another voice to the mix but I had to join in when I realised that in many ways the Brexit vote represents – on a national scale – exactly what I am seeking to describe about Bristol. Once one recovers from the initial disbelief of this epic omnishambles, one of the next things that an analysis of the result reveals is quite how divided on this issue the country is. The successful leave campaign garnered 52% of the vote, only just squeaking past remain with 48%. This is a tiny margin of victory, one that professional arsehole Nigel Farage himself argued would constitute ‘unfinished business‘ (albeit if the result was in the other direction). The narrowness of the winning margin is especially significant when you consider that the decision to leave the EU is a probably irreversible – and in my opinion, jaw-droppingly terrible – decision, an act of national self harm that is likely have a negative impact on many generations to come.
If you look at the results a little more closely it quickly becomes apparent that there is a clear divide between those areas (London and most of the major cities, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and parts of the south) which voted strongly in favour of remain, and the rest of the country which voted equally as strongly to leave. Look a little closer still and it becomes apparent that there was a strong correlation between age, level of income, educational status and voting intention. This is a country deeply divided between young and old and rich and poor.
The referendum offered the economically disenfranchised millions across the country an opportunity to be heard. The gutter press, and ruthlessly immoral politicians eager to seize a potential opportunity for career development, have been only too happy to stir up xenophobia and anti-intellectualism to a fever pitch that was only temporarily quietened by the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox by a man shouting ‘Britain First’. The brexit vote represents a long, loud, ‘fuck you’; To Europe, Politicians, Intellectuals, Immigrants and liberal cosmopolitan Britain. Given the likely long-term outcomes, and the fact that many of the most pro-Brexit regions are also those most dependent on the EU for trade (and aid), ultimately – and perhaps most tragically of all – the longest, loudest and most hard-hitting ‘fuck you’ will be delivered to the very same economically disadvantaged people who voted for it in the first place.
This is what can happen at a national scale when too many people feel left out and powerless for too long. It is ironic that David Cameron, the man most responsible for inflicting Austerity on Britain, has fallen on his sword (figuratively I might add – sorry to disappoint) as a direct response to the votes of millions of those very same victims of austerity; people who have so little / have already lost so much, that they were willing to roll the dice on a leave vote. People who are willing to risk bloodying their own noses if a few political snouts [having name-dropped the current, soon to be former, prime-minister, I felt it essential to make at least one pig reference] could be bloodied also. People who were willing to vote leave in a desperate hope that the great unknown might somehow be an improvement on the status quo, despite the weight of evidence and expert opinion suggesting the opposite outcome is far more likely.
I’m lucky enough to live in the city of Bristol… and to be one of those people who has been invited to the ‘party’, and indeed – as I discuss in this post, who has had the privilege of wasting spending a not insignificant part of my twenties doing exactly that. I’ve also spent a rather more significant – and productive – part of this time working jobs, in drug and mental health services, in prison and with community groups, in which the gulf between my existence and that of some of the other residents of the city have been brought to my attention in the clearest ways imaginable.
What has any of this got to do with spirituality? To begin with, this divided city with its gentrification, its homelessness, its artisan bakeries and methadone clinics, boutique theatres and massage parlours, serves simply as the setting in which my encounters with ‘the spiritually inclined’ must be considered. It is important for things to be put into a broader context if you really want to understand them. I will argue that this process of contextualisation is particularly important in this case because it runs directly against the somewhat self-centred and inward looking nature of much of what we might call ‘western spirituality.’
Before I go any further its probably worth considering what spirituality even means. If you are anything like me then the concept will simultaneously represents everything that is banal, vague and frankly just utter bullshit with regards to new age ‘religiosity’, but might also signify in some way a potentially transcendent phenomena with the power to enhance life by allowing access to a sense of the divine, of something bigger and greater than yourself. You might even see spirituality as representing a sort of detoxified distillation of some of those more positive aspects of traditional religion.
I’ve been wanting to write a post that relates in some way to spirituality ever since I shared the following article a number of months ago. This article, whilst perhaps not the best thing ever written, provides a valuable critique of mindfulness by drawing attention to some of the negative effects experienced by people practising the technique. Mindfulness is a stripped down, secularised meditation technique that describes itself as a translation of Eastern Spiritual meditative practises. Mindfulness has gone mainstream in the west, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons and government agencies as a one size fits all solution for creating a happier workforce, increasing productivity and lowering the number of sick days taken. It is backed up by scientific studies that report the numerous health benefits of the practise and how it can effect neurological changes in the brain.
Although the article has something of a provocative headline I was taken aback by the strength of negative feeling that the post aroused. Many of the responses I received were from people who used meditation or mindfulness regularly and whose experiences of these techniques – like my own experiences with meditation – have been almost entirely positive. In my previous post I briefly touched upon the way in which the internet encourages us to graze, regurgitate, rebuke or rebut information, often without having ever engaged our own critical reasoning properly. In this case it quickly became clear that a number of people were simply responding to the title of the article without even having taken the time to read it properly. Some of them, however, clearly had. Responses ranged from a questioning of the authors mental health and the suggestion that she was grossly exaggerating her own experiences, to the relishing of the fact that the article includes the story of a woman who experienced a mental breakdown when she meditated (serves her right for thinking she had already dealt with her issues, what an idiot). Needless to say I was pretty horrified by these responses, which seemed to represent a complete disdain for those not sharing in the benefits of mindfulness, and the labelling of them as unenlightened, unconscious, ‘sheep.’
It quickly became apparent to me that these responses were a perfect example of one of the underlying issues with regards to the adoption of secular ‘spiritual’ practises in western society. Just as these responses seemed to be almost entirely lacking in empathy or compassion for the negative experiences of the people described and which were so different to their own, mindfulness is in itself a stripped down version of traditional meditation from which the equally important aspect of loving kindness is removed. Mindfulness, as understood and practiced within the Buddhist tradition, is not an ethically-neutral technique for reducing stress and improving productivity at work but a specific quality of attention that is dependent upon and influenced by other factors like the nature of our thoughts, speech and actions; including how we make a living, our efforts to avoid unwholesome and unskillful behaviours, and our efforts to develop those which encourage wise action, social harmony, and compassion towards oneself and others. It is this compassionate element of traditional buddhist practise (or rather its absence) which may not only help to explain the negative experiences described in this article but also the responses of some of advocates of the practise who commented on it.
In order to explore the nature of contemporary ‘spiritual’ practise in the West further, it is worth starting with a bit of historical context. Adam Curtis is, in my mind, a great British institution and his documentaries for the BBC – which can all be watched online for free here – present in themselves a sufficient reason to keep paying the license fee. In his marvelous four part series The Century of the Self, Curtis explores (amongst many other things) the way in which the violent repression of the movements seeking to overthrow the consumer-war machine during the 1960s led to a subsequent ‘turning inwards’ via the adoption of a range of new-age spiritual practises. The thinking behind this inward turn was that if enough people could change themselves then the world would change with them, and without any need to fight (and get beaten up by) the riot squads.
Curtis goes on to show how in ‘tuning in, turning on and dropping out’ and moving away from the protestant work ethic that still underpinned society at this period, young people in the 1960s threatened a controlled consumer society. A new generation of corporate therapists were brought in to convince the rebels that consumption could allow them to be whoever they wanted to be. In the Century of the Self therefore, Curtis makes explicit the relationship between the inward turn of new-age spirituality and consumption choices as an indicator of ones individuality, and an expression of ones freedom from the constraints of society. In doing so Curtis identifies how being able to buy anything has eroded the notion that you are perfectly free to create anything or that you are perfectly free to change the world.
The legacy of this shift remains today. In my post ¡Viva La Compost Revolution! I touch upon cultural capitalism. We are encouraged to think that when we buy the ‘right’ products, our anti-consumerist duty to do something for others or the environment is already included within the purchase. This helps us to feel good about ourselves, and to indicate the kind of good and caring people we must be to others, whilst also helping us avoid seeking out effective ways of changing (or even thinking about) a destructive global economic system whose built in inequalities are – in general – only further consolidated with each and every purchase no matter what choice we have made. According to Annie Leonard, former Greenpeace activist and creator of the story of stuff, and the writer George Monbiot, the real solution is not perfecting your ability to buy the best option from various products, but to get products off the shelf altogether and to buy less full stop. The problem here is that it increasingly looks like buying ‘ethically’ can actually delay people from engaging with the (political) processes necessary to achieve this more significant change. Our identities have become deeply entwined with what we buy, creating an overdeveloped consumer-self. This means that when we are faced with major issues like climate change, we tend to think about what we can do as individuals and consumers rather than as citizens who can collectively change the balance of power to reflect our interests.
In ‘Selling Spirituality; The Silent Takeover of religion‘, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King expose how deeply the market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s has infiltrated secular and economic contexts. They reveal how business has repackaged religion as a means of supporting the selfish motives underpinning unregulated capitalism. The ‘spiritual’ therefore, having lost its orientation towards a wider social and ethical framework, has become an instrument of the market. Psychology has played an important role in creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Self facing New Age spiritual practises are then presented as therapeutic practises that offer a supposed cure for the isolation created by a materialistic, competitive and individualised social system, when in-fact they can simply work to reinforce it.
Spirituality, as it has become separated from religious contexts has adapted itself to individualism and the corporation. The primary function of spirituality therefore is no longer to provide a critical reflection of the consumerist status quo, but rather to help to maintain it. Spirituality has been yoked to the new goals of productivity, work-efficiency and the accumulation of profit, which have replaced the more traditional values of self-sacrifice, the disciplining of desire, and community.
Yoga provides a perfect example of the way in which spiritual practises now often serve to support this status quo. Traditionally rooted in Hindu and Buddhist religiosity, yoga seeks to facilitate the rejection of the autonomous self through contact with the divine. In the West however, it has been largely stripped from its spiritual contexts, often becoming an egocentric pursuit of individual spirituality or, in many instances, little more than a stress relieving and body toning activity that is actively sold by the fitness and wellbeing industry (for more about this refer to my previous post about capitalism and health), alongside a vast and increasingly expensive plethora of yoga pants, shirts, and mats. It has, in essence, become a cultural commodity to be sold to the ‘spiritual consumer.’
While there is nothing wrong, and actually rather a lot of positive benefit associated with the actual practise of yoga, it is the interaction between new age ‘asiatic’ spiritual thought, and highly individualistic ‘western’ capitalist society that is so problematic. Slavoy Zizek has described the Western Buddhist meditative stance (or what we might call mindfulness) as arguably the most effective way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics whilst retaining the appearance of our sanity (if not our sanity itself). Mindfulness has been presented as the perfect remedy to the stressful tensions of capitalism, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace. Zizek doesn’t disagree but points out that as such it functions as capitalisms perfect ideological supplement. Drawing on the concept of future shock, he explores the ways in which people are increasingly psychologically unable to cope with the speed of technological development and the profound social changes accompanying it.
Instead of trying (and increasingly failing) to cope with this accelerating rhythm of change, engaging with a spiritual practise can enable one to stop seeking any control whatsoever what is going on. Instead spiritual practise my allow the practitioner to let go and drift along, maintaining an inner distance to, and indifference from, these changes. This distance is based on the ‘insight’ that social and technological upheaval is fundamentally just “a non-substantial proliferation of semblances” that does not have to concern the innermost part of our ‘real’ being. Spirituality then, allows the individual to maintain a critical perspective of the frantic spectacle of contemporary capitalism, from the safety of a peaceful inner self to which they can escape. This sacred inner-self, allows the individual to to feel that they are not really a part of it, whilst also enabling them to continue to fully engage with it, happily free from the cognitive dissonance that such a contradiction would otherwise inspire.
Mindfulness is often marketed as a private and internal affair, a method for achieving personal self-fulfilment and a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cutthroat contemporary life. Spirituality becomes a central ideological tenet of capitalism, increasing peoples resilience and ability to perform productively under increasing levels of stress. While this individualistic and consumer oriented practise may allow for self-preservation and advancement, the flip side is that it may actually discourages resistance to the underlying and systemic causes of stress and distress, by keeping the individual focused on themselves, and by keeping them below the breaking point at which they say enough is enough and start taking the kind of (collective) action necessary to improve their situation.
Western spirituality in this form has also enabled a reassertion of the traditional meritocratic argument that, irrespective of preexisting social systems with their built in structures of oppression and discrimination, anybody can become rich and successful if they just work hard enough. This once powerful narrative, which we could just as well call ‘The American Dream’ lost a little of its shine following the global financial crisis and subsequent global recession. The concept of spiritual meritocracy however, has allowed for a successful rebranding of the concept, the new line being that professional and financial success are now dependent on our spiritual merit, and therefore that if we pump out enough positive energy, and are happy and grateful enough, then we will be rewarded.
The growing power of the narrative of spiritual meritocracy is underlined by the following example. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently told a young businesswoman who was concerned that her male peers were passing her up for promotions, that she would get ahead if only she put her trust in good karma. Thus, rather than encouraging the women to question the very real and systemic sexism in the industry, Nadella suggested success would follow as a result of doing the very opposite and passively waiting to be noticed as a good egg. Once again spirituality is being used to justify and reinforce an existing social hierarchy rather than to inspire positive social change. While you might point to the fact that west coast new age spirituality has been rapidly embraced by silicon valley and the IT industry in general, I would argue that the subconscious embracing of spiritual meritocracy is far more widespread. A memorable response to the mindfulness article that I shared, which relished (I love the bit where…) the fact that a woman experienced psychological breakdown when historical trauma reemerged during meditation, provides a clear example of this kind of thinking much closer to home. The author of the comment, in claiming that it served her right for thinking she had already dealt with her trauma (despite not having meditated previously), provides a perfect example of a narrative whereby the suffering of others becomes the karmic product of their own poor decisions.
Our society emphasises an interpretation of Eastern spirituality that does not threaten its own internal materialist and individualist logics. The Buddha taught that money was a blessing, and that one effect of an ethical way of life would be material prosperity. But surely he would interpret the glaring wealth inequalities that exist today as more than the result of karmic patterns, especially given the central roles played by slavery, colonialism patriarchy and the general exploitation of humanity and nature in their emergence. Even when Western Spirituality appears to embrace asceticism, as – for example – with the techno-asceticism advanced by Rob Rhinehart, you only have to scratch the surface to realise that the seemingly anti-consumption ‘less is more’ ideology being adopted is little more than a form of ‘consumption laundering.’ The feeling of minimalism is achieved by offloading consumption onto others, in this case the workers of the new gig economy, who carry all of the risk for their employers, are discouraged from organising (to protect and fight for their rights) and whom enable capitalists to reap huge profits with low costs.
It is at this point that I want to bring back Bristol and Brexit. Although 62% of the electorate of Bristol voted in favour of Remain, that still means that almost 40% voted to leave. When people talk about Bristol being a united community and joke about how we should declare independence and stay in the EU, they ignore the fact that essentially 2 in every 5 voters in the city have extremely different views to them. There is no available breakdown of voting across the city as it is a single council area, but based on the figures from the Greater Manchester region, other larger urban areas and the overall national results, it seems likely that in those areas of Bristol with lower levels of immigration and higher levels of deprivation, the majority of people will have voted to leave.
Writing this now, I’m reminded of when I was evaluating a community project in Knowle West, a deprived, predominantly white area in South Bristol. A member of staff at the organisation had contacted their network of contacts in the local community regarding a rash of graffiti Swastikas that had appeared on walls in the area, asking what they could do about it. She was stunned by the almost total lack of outrage, and a general lack of response to her communication. There are communities within Bristol, as in the rest of the country, that have been deprived for a very long time. Austerity has made people’s lives worse, it has even claimed peoples lives. It is the failure to really acknowledge these communities as part of ‘our’ Bristol, a failure that still continues post referendum that is at the heart of why we find ourselves in this situation in the first place.
Like many people I know, such is the divide between these two worlds that I hardly know anybody who voted for Brexit. When I have encountered people, I did my best to try and explain my views, although it was quickly clear to me that their opinions were unlikely to change. More importantly, I also did my best to try and understand where there motivations for backing Brexit were coming from, irrespective of how unpleasant they might have appeared to be. Unfortunately, I don’t think this kind of dialogue is happening nearly enough. It is easy to laugh or get angry at the stupidity, small mindedness or bigotry of the ‘other.’ It is even easier to do so when these people are not part of our own networks of friends and acquaintances, when they remain nameless and faceless strangers as opposed to real, individual members of our own local and national community, people with the same fundamental hopes, dreams and fears as the rest of us.
It should be no surprise that support for Brexit and the anti-immigration stance it’s advocates took, were highest in parts of the country where immigration is lowest. Just like the monster in the horror film, which is always more scary up until the point that you actually see it, it is the idea of immigration and the myths and fallacies associated with it that provide the most effective receptacle for peoples broader fear, anger and anxiety. The demonisation of ‘stupid small minded leave voters’ is also driven by the same process. The idea of the other always provides a much safer space for us to unload our unwanted and unsavoury negative feelings than the more complicated reality of people who are fundamentally just like us, but whose circumstances are vastly different.
Here are a few post referendum posts from people within my own social network that jumped out at me from my newsfeed. They were far from the only ones I could have chosen, with many others sharing a similar ‘vibe.’ Generally speaking, they all acknowledge (explicitly or not), that the outcome of the referendum has been hugely divisive and that clearly slagging leave voters off is unlikely to improve the situation. Instead they all have a positive message, calling for more love. Now I can be a pretty miserable bastard at times but even I can admit that this sounds fairly nice. It is your typical progressive liberal call for everybody to be nicer to everybody else… very Bristol:
“LOVE! Refrain from jumping on the hate bandwagon. Don’t be angry. The EU will fall apart now. We’ll all be on an equal footing. Brussels no longer has all that power. We the people will have more influence on how things are run here. The US will fall apart next and split into smaller states. THIS IS A DIVINE PLAN!! Centralised power is too dangerous. Mother won’t allow it. We must NEVER allow a centralised power aggregate.In the meantime LOVE ONLY. This divisive process is causing much hate. We are birthing into a new era. Surely we should celebrate and support our brothers and sisters in the Europe to do the same.”
“Now is not the time to begin pointing fingers or pushing out even more hate than this awful campaign has already created. This is where we are now, and now is the most important time to be conscious, mindful and active human beings that understand, challenge and really fight for the real shifts that need to now take place to get us out this mess. Dont waste your energy on anger, push the love out there peeps x”
“Today, I find myself quickly moving quickly through stages of denial – anger – acceptance – happiness – gratitude – to finally being at the pub with friends, celebrating the beat of the global heart that politics and capitalism and other such bollocks can never falter. Let’s move forward with absolute love and faith as per usual eh!?”
I know many people – myself included – sometimes say things on social media without really thinking that much about them. I also appreciate that Facebook isn’t necessarily the best place for careful analysis and discussion (where is these days?) However the first post is such an extreme example of the perverse bullshit that taints so much of contemporary Western ‘spirituality’ that I had to include it, albeit partly just because things are rather serious and everybody needs a chuckle from time to time. Obviously the idea that the vote for Brexit is all part of some cosmic plan is as absurdly stupid as somebody saying it was gods will, and actually seeks to discourage people from trying to do anything about it. Clearly the author is more than a bit confused anyway, because he also states that Brexit will give people more influence (but presumably only if this influence fits with the ‘divine plan’, right?)
I have less of an immediate issue with the second post which generally seems pretty nice and quite sensible. Unfortunately it puts rather a lot of emphasis on the idea that if we can only push more love out everything will be ok. I like the language; the talk of action, of fighting for change, of understanding and being conscious and mindful. These are all very positive words, but the post makes no real effort to identify what the underlying problems are (beyond too much hate), or how to solve them (beyond ‘pushing out’ more love).
It is interesting that all three posts seem to have a bit of an issues with people being angry. I agree that anger directed at ‘remainers’ is probably just as unhelpful (if perhaps more understandable) than the anger some remainers are directing at immigrants, members of the BME community and anybody else not considered British or patriotic enough. However, I do I wonder if we are in danger of pathologising anger? As my wonderful Colombian friend taught me, anger and associated feelings of injustice can also be the most incredibly powerful driver of positive action when it is correctly channeled. Instead, collectively these posts may actually be in danger of reducing the issues around Brexit down to the the need for individuals to move from bad (negative) to good (positive) emotional states whilst being more loving. Behind this rather hopeful message, there is little attempt to actually understand why these events have happened or what could possibly be done to prevent the situation escalating further.
The third post takes perhaps this the furthest. In less than a day the author tell us that he has succeeded in moving through the spectrum of emotional states, from negative to positive, as if this were something to be admired. He is happy again and ready to move forwards with life. Going to the pub with his mates and ‘celebrating the beat of the global heart’ (I know, don’t even bother asking), provides the means to disassociate himself from nasty things like politics and capitalism. Hey presto! By focusing on feeling grateful for what you have within your own community, feelings of anger are removed and – as if by magic – any motivation to think about what others may be going through in the face of a growing tide of racism and hate, to think about what others may lose in the near future, or to try and understand the causes and possible solutions to the problem, disappear. Now I am not suggesting that there are any easy or obvious answers to the questions why is this happening and what can we do about it, but surely we should at the very least be asking these questions and not just withdrawing back into the relative comfort and security of our own lives?
So, three post-Brexit posts from progressive, liberal, inhabitants of Bristol; all with a sprinkling (or avalanche) of positive new-age ‘spirituality’, all undoubtedly well meaning, but all unable to really move beyond suggesting that we should be less angry, more positive and more loving. I’m aware of the fact that a positive post has a much better chance of becoming ‘like bait’ on Facebook than a depressing one, and that it is also entirely true that the depressive effect of mass hopelessness does not make it a very effective driver of progressive change. But unwarranted optimism and the disappointment it invariably provokes when things don’t improve, can be just as demobilising as pessimism. Pessimism is easily written off as cynicism but the reality is that analysis of some situations should provoke pessimism as an appropriate and logical response. I think it is far better to try and actually understand a situation, even if it involves feeling bad about the realities of it, than to myopically avoid the analysis and skip ahead to trying to make yourself feel better about things by reminding yourself how much you have to be grateful for.
Yes love is important, of course its important, and its certainly more useful than hatred (duh). It amazes me that people seem to think that there might not actually be a consensus that love is good, or that more love is even better than less. But while calling for more of it within our own cosy, caring little echo chambers might help us all to feel a little fuzzier, it is not really the level of analysis we need if we are actually going to change the big bad world outside of them. And actually, a thousand horrible acts are committed in the name of love, it can be just as destructive a force as any of seemingly unacceptable emotions like anger. After all it is when we feel that the things and people that we love are most under threat that we often become deeply intolerant towards whatever (or whoever) appears to be threatening them. Might many of the people who voted to leave the EU and who appear to hold such unpleasant views about immigrants, who appear to be expressing so much hatred towards others, not also – admittedly rather perversely – be acting out of love? Acting out of the desire to protect and defend their loved ones by what they – misguidedly – see as an overwhelming threat to their wellbeing and quality of life? No matter how much we encourage each other to love more, what happens if that love never reaches beyond the boundaries of our own comfortable communities to the people we disagree with, to the people whose views sometimes seem so abhorrent to us?
If we don’t know a single person within our own social circles who voted in favour of brexit, or who thinks immigration is a bad thing, (or actually, even if we do), how exactly is us calling for more love going to make even a single jot of difference to their lives and inspire them to change their opinions? The reason why we are so shocked when half of the country suddenly votes in favour of a deeply unprogressive and intolerant agenda is because we often consciously chose to live in an almost entirely separate universe to many of these people. I think that this is a big problem.
Despite much good work, the divisions between communities in Bristol remain real and very visible. They are not just socio-economic but racial too. The ward of Easton prides itself on its inclusivity and tolerance, and despite (and maybe also partly because of) a general level of dirt and dilapidation immortalised in the Facebook group get the Easton look, I loved living there. It is a diverse area with a BME (Black Minority Ethic) community that represents nearly 40% of the population. When I lived there however, I was shocked to notice that very few of the pubs had a mix of punters that was in any way representative of the ethnic makeup, with virtually all being almost exclusively white or black. The same lack of ethnic diversity was also true with regards to the inhabitants of many streets. To me something instinctively feels wrong about the fact that even within our most diverse communities a degree of segregation, whether voluntary or not, seems to exist. Here too, the divisions may be getting sharper and this is certainly not a voluntarily process. Easton is now experiencing a process of gentrification, with house prices soaring and the arrival of a deli, an artisanal bakery and an influx of more affluent (and predominantly white) residents. I wonder how long it will be before the less well off are priced out of the area all together.
Within Bristol more broadly, a blend of new-age spirituality and positive psychology seems to abound within the more cosy, liberal areas. This might seem pretty harmless. But sometimes it reinforces a narrative of spiritual meritocracy, even if the onus largely remains – thankfully at least for now – on creating ‘good karma’ for yourself through the positivity and gratitude you feel for how wonderful everyone and everything is, rather than on the equation of the misfortune of others with their own bad karma. Perhaps the only reason why we do not yet seem to be applying this same logic as consistently to the less fortunate and more challenging amongst us, is that we would actually have to really acknowledge their existence within our city first, and that might feel a little too uncomfortable, like a ‘blessing’ we are not quite ready to count yet. As I discussed in a previous post, when we do acknowledge these people, sometimes it is simply to label them as ‘toxic’, a practise that in itself is often associated with being ‘spiritual’, in that the disassociation of ourselves from difficult people, whose behaviour may actually be a manifestation of the struggles they are experiencing, is apparently not only beneficial for us but is also apparently doing them a favour too.
This kind of thinking can encourage a kind of apolitical laziness, a willingness to fall back on easy answers, like the need for love, but an unwillingness to extent it beyond those who we identify as being ‘good’ people like us, to those who we may either consider invisible or in some way ‘toxic.’ What these acts often actually represent is an effort to avoid really understanding the causal forces, power structures and inequalities at play behind events such as Brexit. This may be because when we really seek to do so, the sharp divisions that enable ‘us‘ to comfortably moralise and be outraged about ‘them‘ suddenly seem less solid, with our own moral superiority being dissolved by what often turns out to be the reality of our more fortunate, privileged circumstances.
An unwillingness to really seek to understand such events – and our own potential complicity in them – may also be explained by the fact that the negative consequences of these events often fall most heavily on those less fortunate people who exist hazily somewhere outside of the boundaries of our own enlightened communities. This is a reality that we may seek to remain unconscious of, as a full awareness of this fact not only undermines our ability to get totally outraged at the (relatively lesser) injustices that wemay have to bare, but may also make our own karma boosting attempts to count our blessings and stay positive, look a little smug and uncaring.
The maintenance of, and withdrawal into ‘safe spaces’ (be they internal, electronic or geographical) can provide a safe haven, a chance to reenergise and gain courage for the battles ahead. However, if we do not leave these spaces again we can miss out on a fuller understanding of those events and people that exist outside of these boundaries. The trade off for this lack of understanding is that we can also evade or minimise the associated emotions that often accompany these efforts, whether they are ‘negative’ (a sense of responsibility / guilt / helplessness / anger / despair) or ‘positive’ (feelings of compassion), allowing us to focus instead on the maintenance of our own individual (or tribal) happiness and peace of mind.
In a previous post I talked about the worrying tendency for the left to seek to ban, block and censor the things and people that we fear or despise, that scare us and makes us feel deeply uncomfortable. This is the flip side to our seeking out of safe spaces and another means of creating distance between ourselves and things we don’t like. While the need to these spaces in a scary and sometimes threatening world is both understandable and necessary, we also need to be willing and able to step beyond these spaces and engage with the dangerous and troubling realities of life, including those people whose views are so very different to our own. After all, how are we going to change the things we have an issue with if we constantly succeed – whether intentionally or not – in maintaining a clear space between us and them that is too wide to be bridged,
While the posts calling for less hate and more love are admirable (in that they are actively seeking to challenge the easy option of simply demonising ‘the other’), that is the limit of their engagement with this ‘other.’ Here is a question: Is there not a very real danger that if one of the overriding instincts during the course of troubling events is to focus on removing your anger and regainingyour own emotional harmony, could the ability to understand, empathise and feel genuine compassion for others, could the burning desire to try and change that situation or protect their interests also be shed along with these ‘negative’ feelings’? When we suddenly feel that we are wobbling in the face of uncertainty and insecurity and feeling anger and shock, rather than simply rushing to rebalance ourselves via some kind of inward looking ‘spiritual’ practise or the reaffirmation of the goodness of ourselves and our tribe, what if we sought to use these experiences to help us to relate to those for whom this is a more permanent state of affairs? In the case of Brexit, are not the feelings of impotency and uncertainty that we may be feeling the same feelings that a great number of leave voters have been feeling for many years? If we set out to channel feelings of anger and injustice into actual positive action, would the need to urge ourselves and others not to be angry but to revert back to positivity as quickly as possible still be required? Is the need to regain emotional control perhaps symptomatic of our inability or unwillingness to do anything more productive with these emotions, or is it perhaps a fear that if we cannot revert back to a positive and optimistic type, we fear our progressive and spiritual credentials will lose a little of their lustre?
In my explorations of the ‘spiritual’ I how described how the ‘inward turn’ of new age spirituality came about as a result of the violent repression of the progressive movements of the 1960s, only to become horribly entangled with a form of identity signalling consumption so powerful that individuals seek to address global challenges as consumers first and citizens second. I have argued that spiritual practises like yoga and meditation, stripped of much of their original context and geared toward individual achievement, often provide an ideological supplement to capitalism; putting the onus on the individual to cope with the psychological stresses induced by accelerating technological and social change and potentially discouraging them from acting collectively to regain some control over these processes. They have become means of capital accumulation and examples of cultural appropriation,’spiritual commodities’ to be sold along with their ever growing bevy of associated products.
I have talked about the way in which new age spiritualism has blended with positive psychology to give the faded narrative of meritocracy a shiny new gleam, one that continues to blind us from the underlying structural causes of the issues we face, encouraging us to think that our fortunes, and those of other people can be improved through the accumulating of good Karma manifested in the form of positivity and gratitude. Working hard at this task can supersede the larger challenges of tackling the broader systemic oppressions and inequalities that ensure that the route from suffering to success is not as available to other people as it may be to us, irrespective of their and our relative karmic accumulations.
This form of spirituality displays a preoccupation with the continual shifting of the inner self towards happiness and gratitude. What if this preoccupation comes at the expense of an engagement with society and politics, with getting to grips with the realities of capitalism and any ‘other such bollocks’, or with the difficult, complicated and unpleasant feelings that may accompany such engagement? If this strategy is simply encouraging us to try and “rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it”, then actually we can describe it as spiritual bypassing. As such, there is nothing transformative about it at all, and it can often serve only to reinforce the individualistic and materialistic logics of the status quo, the very same logics that actually underpin the growing inequality and division within society.
This post might give the impression, that by and large I think western spirituality is a morally bankrupt and failed corruption of traditional practises. It is definitely fair to say that when people talk about how spiritual they are; about how their ‘tribe’, unlike all the other ‘sheep’, is not afraid of reality; when they seek to differentiate between ‘real’ spiritual people (who say fuck apparently) and ‘fake’ spiritual people; or even when they seem to take even the very idea of spiritual bypass as a personal slight, I increasingly find myself grinding my teeth and wanting to violently and repeatedly smash my head against a wall with frustration. As I may have mentioned earlier I think there is a great deal of egotistical self-serving bullshit wrapped up within the guises of spirituality.
I recently saw a quote which ran along the lines of ‘the motivation for everything we say and do can be summed up very succinctly; validate my existence’. While this is almost certainly an exaggeration, I do not think I am exaggerating in suggesting that within the bubble of liberal, progressive and spiritually inclined Bristol, the primary motivation for some people in being closely associated with these values (by, for example, proclaiming ones ethical consumption, spiritual practise or general positivity and gratitude through social media), is for the purpose of creating and reaffirming their own identify, individual virtue and social status. That is not to say that many people do not care deeply about the environment and social justice issues, or much more importantly that they are not actively working to try and make the world a better place, only to say that these noble concerns can become increasingly wrapped up with the representation of the self.
It does seem to me that these concepts may sometimes play a more important role in allowing the demonstration of belonging to the correct tribe, or of feeling good about oneself, than as a core set of principles from which to actively and collectively fight for change. Drawing on my own history, it is all too easy in Bristol to pay lip-service to these ideals without actually ever really going out of your way to truly honour them. The number of self proclaimed ‘hippies’ who buy everything from scoopaway so as to avoid using plastic bags and who carefully recycle paper so as to protect the trees… and then buy a gramme of cocaine or MDMA at the weekend, despite the huge social and environmental impact caused by these substances, provides a perfect case in point.
Many people make at least some attempts to reduce the damaging social and environmental impact of their daily lives, picking and choosing where it suits their patterns of consumption and general lifestyle – with blindspots (flying anybody?) – for where it does not, whilst also undertaking some form of ‘spiritual’ self-development. But much of this activity can become largely self serving. While these activities might make you feel good about yourself (and there is nothing wrong with that), really trying to make a meaningful and positive impact on the world outside of your own personal bubble is often a thankless and seemingly impossible activity that involves genuine commitment and sacrifice, and can lead to complete mental and physical burnout. It involves collective rather than just individual action, engagement in the frustrating world of politics, and dealing with people much less pleasant than the lovely like minded folk that you probably chose to have around you. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel good all of the time either. After all, it is not easy navigating the gamut of negative emotions, contradictions and moral mazes that arise from engaging with the overwhelming realities of living in an in inherently unfair, oppressive, globalised system.
I would quite happily put the term ‘spirituality’ down (humanely of course), so saturated with bullshit has it become. Having said all of that, and at the risk of now sounding ever more stupid, I’m not against ‘spirituality’ per say, just as I am not against people trying to make positive changes in their lives. I think, however, that it is important to to ask the question ‘who benefits from particular constructions of spirituality?’, just as I think it is important to ask – for example – whether ‘ethical’ consumption is the best way of actually achieving the change we wish to see, particularly when consumerism and the identification of self with what one buys, is clearly part of the problem.
When we ask the question ‘who benefits’, we see what happens when spirituality is decoupled from the institutions and social conventions of religion or a broader ethics. We see what happens when we make it instead about personal development and link it to an identify that is defined by the consumption of lifestyle and wellbeing products and the egotistical projection of self via social media. The answer is that it becomes little more than a sticking plaster for neoliberalism, an ideological accompaniment that encourages individuals to become compliant, self-absorbed and reliable consumers, not the active, compassionate and outwardly engaged citizens that we desperately need.
This corporate-capitalist construction of spirituality currently appears to be the dominant model, to the extent that it is being re-exported back from the west to countries such as India, as means of pursuing secular life and career goals in deeply disciplining institutions without becoming too stressed / depressed. Despite the dominance of this construction however, what is to say that if we could unshackle spirituality from its subjugation to the cults of hyper-individualism and accumulation, that it could not be anti-capitalist or indeed even revolutionary?
Buddhism is sometimes labelled as a religion and sometimes as a philosophy. One thing that is clear is that much western secular spiritual thinking and practise draws, or at least claims to draw heavily from it. My perceptions of Buddhism shifted dramatically after I attended a talk being given by the venerable Robina, an Australian Buddhist Nun with a demeanour somewhat reminiscent of a pit-bull terrier. Up until this point my – admittedly pretty limited – understanding of Buddhism could be summarised as “the pacifism and the tolerance and the lack of dogma sounds pretty good, but surely (as per Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism) the acceptance part just encourages passivity when actually we need to fight for change?”
Nobody would ever dream of describing the venerable Robina as passive. She is an activist who has worked tirelessly to support the vulnerable and disenfranchised, including those in prison. She argued persuasively that meditation and buddhist practise can allow us to become more skilful in life, and that these skills can be set to the task of instigating progressive change. As a result of the talk, I started attending meditation sessions at a local Buddhist centre. Within a few sessions I had changed my mind significantly. Mindfulness does not have to simply serve as a tool for helping us to cope better with the terrible state of things and to achieve a passive acceptance of them. When it is married with compassion for oneself AND others via metta bhavanna or the cultivation of ‘loving kindness’, it can become a powerful instrument for change, not only giving us the headspace to create more skilful responses to the challenges we face, but more importantly by morally compelling us – through the cultivation of compassion and empathy – to try and reduce not only our own suffering but that of other people too.
I think that every post I have written for this blog, has in one way or another been a cry for more compassion. More than anything else, compassion seems to be the vital ingredient in most short supply in a society in which the pursuit of material wealth and/or individual happiness remain the primary motivations for many people. The results of the EU referendum has shown us what happens when compassion runs in short supply, when we fail to fight on behalf of people who have suffered a long process of economic and political disenfranchisement that, oddly enough, began at about the same time as the ‘inward’ spiritual turn. It is this turning away from society and the suffering of others that has left us where we are today. For too long, much new-age spirituality has reflected Margaret Thatchers mantra “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and families [or – in todays lingo – ‘tribes’].”
Inward looking spiritual practise, which focuses on the development of the self, the creation of a haven of inner peace, or – at best – a state of tribal contentment amongst the fellow ‘enlightened’, is not fit for purpose. It simply allows people to disassociate themselves from the forces that are wreaking social and environmental destruction around the globe whilst allowing them to continue to engage fully with them guilt free. As such, it represents an attempt to be like China Mieville’s citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma; a manifestation of a desire to ‘unsee’ and to consciously abdicate oneself from the moral responsibility and associated negative emotions that often arise when one realises that the world is actually burning.
The only description of ‘spirituality’ that I can think of that fits this way of being is this:
The undertaking of almost entirely self serving actions to improve ones psychological wellbeing, with little regard for engaging with the broader world; both as the probable source of this suffering, and as the home of many other creatures that are also probably suffering, possibly far more than you.
This description is unlikely to appear in a dictionary any time soon, so its probably fair to say that this is not what spiritually should be. You might also think that as a description it sounds like it fits rather well with counselling – which I am a firm advocate of – but actually, in helping individuals to work through psychological distress, counselling can help people to make connections between their own suffering and its broader causes, and as such can help to get people out of their own individual bubbles. Plus, the ‘counselled’ – or the ‘therapeutically inclined’ (as one might call them if we used the framing of spirituality), don’t tend to make grand claims about their enlightenment and moral superiority, nor do they generally seek to create a slightly smug identity around the fact that they decided to go and see a counsellor for a while. I think we can let them off.
If we want to have the understanding and the motivation necessary to really set about trying to address the bigger issues in society then the inward focus of self development needs to be partnered with the cultivation of compassion. We need to have an outward looking perspective that contains a willingness to feel the suffering of others; to accept that while we may be able to feel ok and grateful through spiritual practise, systemic oppression is real and needs to be fought; and finally, we need to have the courage to be with the accompanying (often negative) emotions that can spur us to (collectively) act. In my mind, any practise in which the pursuit of individual happiness is an end in itself, and not a starting point / a compelling motivation for seeking to benefit the collective good, is spiritually bankrupt.
Self development can simply reinforce the status quo by making it a little easier for us to cope with the pressures of an accelerating and opressive system. It can also provide the precious space that is necessary to effectively understand and critique the way things are, and to develop the skills necessary both for its effective resistance, and for the creation of alternatives. Self development through ‘spiritual’ practise can also provide us with the means to skilfully engage in these battles without burning out or giving up as a result of the trials and tribulations and the suffering, grieving and profound heartache that often accompanies them. Whether it be as part of a ‘spiritual’ practise or not, we need to cultivate our compassion and empathy along with our understanding. Not simply for ourselves or the nice people we chose to have in our own personal networks, but for people in our broader local and national communities, (yes even ones that vote for Brexit and are shouting at immigrants to go home), and for the whole global human community too. It is only then that we can really hope to reach out from our own mental and physical safe spaces, reach out across the increasingly apparent divides that run through our cities, our countries and the globe, and learn, understand and fight together for the kind of transformative systemic change that can not just reduce the suffering of one person, but millions. This is what our city and our country so desperately needs.
Feeling inspired by the memes dotted throughout this blog? Check out negativelyinspired for more.
I’m still quite new to WordPress and up until this point I’ve mainly been focusing on getting on with writing my own blog posts to share with people. It’s only really within the last week that I’ve tentatively started to interact a little more with other bloggers. Its taken even less time than that for my experiences – both positive and negative – in this small corner of the web to make me think about what role the internet may or may not play with regards to civil rights and human freedom.
There seem to be two dominant frames with which people think about the internet. There is a line that sees the internet and social media as instruments of liberation, promoting greater individual freedom. The internet in this interpretation provides people with ways of accessing news ‘from the ground’ independent to the channels and editorial censorship of the traditional media conglomerates, encourages whistleblowing, and allows people to connect with other like minded people wherever they might be in the world. The internet has played a role in helping people to bring down regimes, influence the outcome of primaries and communicate directly with their political representatives. Social Media provides a vibrant and inclusive space in which individuals can express their beliefs without needing to fear being silenced or coerced into conformity. The internet engenders new forms of media activism and political citizenship, facilitating the creation of bottom up horizontal networks that are characterised by a contestation of elites, elected representatives and other ‘so called’ experts. That is one view.
The alternative view is that the internet is not as free and open as it might seem. The great firewall of china provides an example of how content can be controlled by the powers that be, while the global surveillance disclosures that Edward Snowden has made demonstrate the extent to which National governments are using the internet to undertake mass surveillance of their citizens via the internet. Not only this, but social networks, search providers and content management systems do not operate within a political and social vacuum but have to be understood within the context of pre-existing power structures. Even if internet users chose to use alternative internet spaces, traditional power brokers have quickly moved into this new realm, taking a dominant position that affects the visibility of oppositional voices. The internet can also reduce political engagement to a few clicks of a mouse button whilst the emergence of filter bubbles, via personalised search and news streams, can lead to process of cyberbalkanization. The internet can simply serve as an echo chamber in which individuals become shut off from views and information that might challenge or broaden their pre-existing beliefs.
I’ve recently discovered a blog by a nice young man who – according to his blog anyway – is nothing more than a humble novelist and (unpublished) playwright, who just so happens to really, really believe in Freedom (and yes, incase you were wondering, he is a citizen of the United States). He recently wrote a comment piece called ‘The suicide of Venezuela‘ which went viral, receiving over 220,000 hits, and which we can therefore consider to have had a not inconsiderable impact in colouring a significant number of people’s opinions on the situation.
I stumbled across the piece because it appeared via WordPress Discover which consists of content that has been handpicked by an editorial team as being ‘the best’ content on WordPress and which is then promoted to WordPress users. There are a number of interesting talks and pieces discussing the role of algorithms in tailoring the information that is made available to us on the internet and the potential problems that can arise from these ‘filter bubbles.’ However in this case, information is being filtered in much the same way as it would be in a traditional media organisation, that is to say actual people (with their political views and opinions) are making editorial decisions about what content should be put front of house. This is also the case with Facebook news, the biggest news distributor on the planet, which also relies to a surprising extent on a small editorial team to determine what news is currently trending. That such a biased article as the one I am discussing would be promoted via WordPress Discover raises interesting questions about the political affiliations of said editorial team, especially if one considers the advice provided by WordPress on what you should do if you want your blog to be featured in WordPress Discover (We care about the facts, support your work with research when necessary, be respectful; these are just three of the suggested guidelines on which – it could be argued – ‘The Suicide of Venezuela’ falls short.) Personally I find it hard to accept that any piece of writing that lovingly quotes Ayn Rand could in anyway be considered ‘good’ content, but those are my own personal opinions. Either way, I have a feeling that – however tightly I might follow these guidelines – none of my posts will ever be appearing in the editors picks, particularly by the time I have finished writing this one.
If you were to take the time to read the ‘Suicide of Venezuela‘ post for yourself, you would immediately notice that it is written in an extremely evocative style (the most excellent gentleman is an author after all) in which the ‘long and tragic suicide of Venezuela’ is explained as a direct consequence of the ‘dictatorship’ of the hate filled Venezuelan government. The author – without providing any evidence whatsoever – holds the Venezuelan state accountable for a multitude of sins including regulation, corruption, bureaucracy and ‘monumental stupidity’, along with a tendency – in true ‘tribal shamanic’ style – to blame the weather for its problems. The man behind this bleeding-heart analysis of the ‘marathon of destruction’ taking place, speaks as if he were a desperately saddened and concerned citizen. Yet he also talks as if he were an expert who has no need to makes reference to any other authority or source of information on the subject, and who claims to have ‘tried to fight’ on behalf of the ‘good men and women’ of the country. If we ignore the religious fervour, evocative language and messiah like tone present in the piece, the line of argument largely fits with the mainstream explanation provided in the Western media regarding Venezuela; namely that the crisis is the result of economic mismanagement and the ideological rigidity of the country’s authoritarian Chavista led-government. The analysis – if we can call it that – of ‘The Suicide of Venezuela’ does however go a few steps further than most mainstream interpretations, in labelling the administration a dictatorship, and in its refusal to acknowledge any other factor – beyond the failings of the what the author regards as the corrupt tyrannical socialist dictatorship – as having had a role to play in the crisis. This extreme view is interesting when you think about it being selected by WordPress as ‘high quality’ content, and it subsequently going viral as a result of this.
But before we go any further, we need take a step back. For those of you who have not been following the situation in Venezuela – and feel free to skip ahead if you have – here is a quick overview; Venezuela is currently in the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation was running at 275% last year and is likely to be significantly higher this year. At the same time the country is experiencing power and water cuts, a shortage of basic goods and essential medicines and increasing levels of crime. The president of Venezuela is Nicolas Maduro. His predecessor Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 and oversaw a socialist revolution that focused on using oil revenue to oversee a broad range of social reforms that – according to the world bank – lifted 20% of the population out of poverty in a 15 year period and left it as the most equal society in the region with one of the highest levels of literacy (95.5%). On the international front the Venezuelan government has been a fierce critic of American foreign policy and US supported neoliberalism (I provide a quick summary of neoliberal thinking in my blog Capitalism and the pursuit of healthiness). It has also actively pursued initiatives to encourage greater Latin American and Caribbean cooperation, particularly with other countries with left wing governments such as Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
The opposition in Venezuela, a centre-right coalition, are demanding a recall referendum which could cut short Maduro’s term in office. Following Chavez’s death, Maduro was democratically elected as President of Venezuela with 50% of the vote and his term in office is not due to end until 2018. The opposition, which following the 2015 parliamentary elections has a majority in the national congress, want this to happen sooner (because it would trigger a new election) rather than later, as the constitution states that Mr Maduro’s strongly Chavista vice-president would then take over. Some polls suggest a majority of the people want Mr Maduro to go. Yet as recently as last December the Chavistas won 41% of the vote in elections for the national assembly. What is clear is that the severe economic crisis gripping the country is leaving an increasing number of Venezuelans more and more unhappy with the current situation, and that the subsequent protests and increasing levels of violence and hostility between the two sides is making the situation on the ground increasingly volatile.
There is no doubt that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela has struggled to effectively address issues such as corruption – something which Maduro himself has accepted is a serious problem. The government has contributed to its troubles by keeping prices rigidly fixed at artificially low levels for too long (with the price of gasoline for example having been fixed until February this year at an almost giveaway price), and setting multiple exchange rates that overvalue the price of the bolivar against the dollar at the official rate. These policies have created the conditions for scarcity and a growing black market. But the root of the crisis surely lies in the dependence of the Venezuelan economy on oil. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and oil-related sectors making up around 96% of export earnings and contributing to about 45% of Venezuela’s budgeted revenues. With this level of dependence, a fall of just $1 will cause a significant loss of government revenue. It is no surprise then that with oil prices having plummeted from an average of $109 per barrel in 2012 to $30 a barrel in 2016 that the shortfall in dollars earned has played a major role in Venezuela’s economic crisis, having led for example to a massive reduction in imported goods, even if issues such as a shortage of some basic goods already existed.
It is probably worth mentioning the idea of the resource curse at this point, a theory that posits that developing countries rich in mineral resources are often unable to use that wealth to boost their economies and how, counter-intuitively, these countries have often experienced lower economic growth than countries without an abundance of natural resources. Reasons for this include commodity price fluctuations, an over dependence on imported goods, and the potential for vast amounts of wealth to be accumulated through corruption. It is also worth pointing out that Corruption predates the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela with, for example, $36bn being misused by the foreign exchange programme RECADI during the presidency of Jaime Lusinchi in the five year period between 1984 and 1989.
The reluctance / inability of the government to effectively address some of the problems, such as profiteering and scarcity, which have arisen seemingly as a result of its populist policy measures – such as keeping the price of gasoline so low – have to be understood in the context of the aggressive acts of the Venezuelan opposition. For years, the Venezuelan opposition has made it clear that regime change is their principal goal. They have engaged in insurgent activity to overthrow the democratically elected Chavista governments — in an attempted coup in April 2002, a business-promoted general strike (aimed at bringing the countries oil industry to a halt) seven months later, and more recently during a four month period of urban violence in 2014, referred to in Venezuela as the “guarimba“ in which both supporters and opponents of the government were killed. In this context, and with the opposition wiling to go so far as to launch an attempted coup d’état (that was foiled, partly by an uprising of the poor), is it surprising the the government has been reluctant to take measures that might have helped to stabilise the economy but which could have also proven unpopular amongst its working class support base?
But what if there were more to the picture still? Before Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, the economic levers of society were almost exclusively in the hands of a social elite of overwhelmingly light-skinned Venezuelans: the inhabitants of the wealthy neighborhoods of Venezuela’s urban centers and wealthy landowners of the campo. According to Tiffany Linton Page, writing in the International Handbook of the Demography of Race and Ethnography, Venezuela has a “long history of racial and ethnic inequality” that dates back to the colonial period. This has lead to the social, political and economic marginalization of non-white racial and ethnic groups. A central goal of Chavismo was to wrest control of the economic levers from this elite and more evenly disperse them throughout society. Significant change has occured during the last 15 years with the efforts of the Chávez and Maduro administrations to democratize economic decision-making, and to predicate it on serving the public interest rather than the pursuit of private profit. However non-white racial and ethnic groups continue to be overrepresented among the poor and continue to face discrimination. The elite in Venezuela have the motive and the means, not only to aggressively resist a recalibration of economic and social power, but also to seek to undermine the Chavista administrations that threaten their privileged position in society. It is not they but the country’s poor, darker skinned majority that are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. For Venezuela’s 1% – who earn and spend in dollars – life, and lobster gets ever cheaper.
The unwillingness of these elite groups to tolerate, let alone work with progressive movements which want to make society fairer and more equal, is demonstrated by the speed of events in Brazil. Following the impeachment of former President Dilma Rouseff on charges of fiscal peddling, it has taken just one week for interim president Michel Temer and his centre-right administration – which has no senior female or black senior ministers – to roll back many of the social policies put in place by Workers’ party governments over the previous 13 years. Moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim housebuilding programs and sell off state assets in airports, utilities and the post office. Newly appointed ministers are talking about cutting healthcare spending and reducing the cost of one of the most progressive policy initiatives ever enacted, the bolsa familia poverty relief system. Four thousand government jobs have been cut. The culture ministry has been subsumed into education. This represents nothing other than a reassertion of neoliberal economic policy by the business elite.
Throughout the period of Chavista rule, there have been many claims of business-induced, politically motivated scarcity of basic commodities. Immediately following the opposition victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections, social media commentators indicated that staple goods miraculously began to reappear on shelves throughout the country. They claimed that the expiration dates of some of these products (they were out of date) indicated that the problem might not so much be with the production but rather with the distribution (a sector to the economy largely in private sector hands) of these goods, and suggested that deliberate hoarding may have been taking place.
Having lost control of the state oil company, the business elite in Venezuela still control most of the companies importing goods into the country. They appear to have found new ways of generating income, acquiring cheap dollars from the Central Bank for false or manipulated imports, and then speculating on the growing gap in exchange rates. A more detailed explanation of how this works can be found here. According to this same article, the scale at which this activity appears to be occurring is staggering. According to the Venezuelan central bank, the period 2003 to 2013 saw the Venezuelan private sector increase its holdings in foreign bank accounts by 230% an increase of over $122 billion. Chavistas campaigning for an audit of the public debt have estimated that the total amount lost through fake imports and other mechanisms during this period amounts to $259 billion. It is eminently possible that many of the 750 offshore companies linked to Venezuela in the database released from the Panama Papers have been used to recycle this money. While poor economic management by the Venezuelan government and lower oil prices appear to be the major contributing factors to the economic crisis, it may well have been greatly exacerbated by the hoarding and price speculation being undertaken by the pro-opposition business elite as they seek both to enrich themselves and de-stabilise the Maduro administration. Which is not to say that members of the Madura administration may not have also been doing the very same thing themselves!
Although the ‘economic war’ thesis put forward by the government has been ridiculed by many commentators in the West as a desperate attempt to distract from allegations of the administrations gross incompetence, there are historical precedents. The situation in Venezuela, in particular the shortages of basic goods, are in some ways analogous to the conditions leading up to the 1973 coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The right-wing Chilean opposition were backed at this time by the CIA, who had been ordered by Richard Nixon to “make the economy scream” by provoking food shortages, a truckers strike, and mayhem in the streets. In The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, Researcher Peter Kornbluh summaries formally classified cables at the National Security Archives. These cables show that in the days prior to the overthrow of Allende a terrorist paramilitary group and a “large segment” of the business community were “undertaking actions to increase discontent and incidents of violence…in order to create an atmosphere in Chile which would be propitious for a military coup.”
Incoporating the active role of the right-wing business elite in seeking to destabilise the Maduro administration and the heavy impact of plummeting oil prices, provide a far more satisfactory explanation of the current crisis than the one provided in ‘The Suicide of Venezuela’. If we also factor in the fact that 73% of Venezuelan electricity is generated by hydro power and Venezuela is experiencing its driest spell in decades, ‘blaming the weather’ suddenly looks less like a pathetic attempt to distract from government mismanagement and more like a reasonable explanation for electricity shortages. Clearly there are very legitimate reasons to criticise the central government, and it has doubtless had an important role to play in this crisis. However, it is equally clear that the situation itself is far more complex than the simple narrative used in ‘The Suicide of Venezuela’ blog.
There is however a further factor in the Venezuelan crisis that we have yet to address. The United States has a long history of involvement in Central and Latin America, a region which it considers to be its own back yard. A timeline of American intervention in Latin America since World War II can be seen here. A quick glance of the sizeable list reveals the numerous occasions in which the US – as a result of cold-war paranoia and in an attempt to protect its own trans-national corporate interests and to push Chicago School free market economics – has allied itself with the wealth controlling elites in this region, irrespective of however repressive or reactionary their regimes have been. In so doing so, the United States has helped to undermine democracy, stunt Latin America’s own development and contributed to some of the darkest periods in Latin America’s history by supporting, for example, the military dictatorships of the 1970s that were responsible for the “disappeared”; the brutal contra war in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador.
So, we can conclude that the crisis in Venezuela is not simply the product of economic mismanagement or the ideological rigidity of the country’s Chavista led-government. While it would appear that economic mismanagement certainly has a part to play, so too does plummeting oil prices, climate change and the ‘economic warfare’ being waged by an opposition who have received tacit support from the US. Having said this, it is important to reiterate that the Maduro administration quite rightly deserves criticism for its failure to deal with the economic crisis more effectively, even as it has continued with important social programmes and built 1 million affordable houses since 2011. While accusations of economic ineptitude may hold some water, and corruption remains a major problem, equally worrying is what human rights watch has described as the erosion of human rights guarantees in Venezuela as the government has sought to quell the opposition and hold on to power. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch paints a picture of an alarming pattern of abuse, stating that Venezuela should end the rights abuses, investigate ones that have already occurred and bring those responsible for committing them to justice, regardless of the political affiliation of suspects or victims. While the government’s increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian stance should be deplored, it must also be analysed in context.
Ok you might say, so the picture in Venezuela might be more complicated than the one being expounded by much of the media, or the even more extreme version provided by our friend, the author of ‘The Suicide of Venezuela.’ But actually what is the big deal? We know that the mainstream media normally has a significant bias reflecting the interests and political leanings of its (normally rather rich) owners and therefore tends to be in favour of low tax low spend laissez faire government, and against social democracy and the welfare state. As for the blog post, well its just some guy who writes a blog, got lucky and went viral. He might quote Ayn Rand, be unable to make any distinction between the free market and actual political freedom, have an almost pathological hatred of socialism in any shape of form, and also have something of a Messiah complex, but at the end of the day he’s just some libertarian crazy guy who can’t even get his play published. Right? Wrong (but not about the play bit.)
I don’t think I had ever come across such a perfect caricature of a right-wing Libertarian before I met my new friend. I found myself reading other posts the he has written, and finding them absolutely fascinating, albeit it in a ‘I can’t believe that this isn’t actually a big joke‘ and ‘where does all of this anger and self righteousness come from‘ kind of a way. At this point, and getting back to that initial question of whether the internet is a good or a bad thing – I would give it a wholehearted thumbs up. Clearly my friend lives in an almost hermetically sealed (and by the sounds of it, rather lonely) echo chamber in which his study of economy ended at some point during the first half of the twentieth century and Ayn Rand heroically stands as our greatest advocate of individual liberty (unless you are gay, a woman or native American of course). But there we were, each sat on our own side of the Atlantic, arguing away in a fair and frank way over our diametrically opposed views of the world, and both trying to find ways of shaking each other out of our own pre-existing beliefs. And all because we had both decided to share these views through an online blog. This definitely feels like 1-0 to the ‘internet as a force for good camp’ doesn’t it?
It was around about this point that I decided to do a little background research into my new friend. It turns out that he has been being rather modest. Despite what his WordPress blog says, it doesn’t take long to realise that he is not just a humble author and (unpublished) playwright. It also turns out that he was also a fellow of the George W Bush Institute.Wait a minute you might be thinking, wasn’t the Bush administration involved in the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002? Yep. Here is what the Institute have to say for themselves; “The Bush Institute’s Human Freedom initiative advances freedom by developing leaders in emerging democracies, standing with those who still live under tyranny, and fostering U.S. leadership through policy and action.” I guess it’s a bit more understandable why my friend, in fiercely calling for the Venezuelan people to be free from (democratically elected) dictatorship, forgot to mention the Bush administrations support of the 2002 attempted coup (or even to mention the coup at all), not to mention America’s ongoing funding of the right-wing Venezuelan opposition, and his very own connection to all of this charming behaviour via his freedom fellowship at the Bush Institute. Luckily I was happy to amend this oversight on his behalf by drawing people’s attention to these facts in the comments section.
I then discovered that my friend was also a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations; an American think tank based in Washington DC that promotes globalization, free trade and reduced financial regulation for transnational corporations. Membership of the Council on Foreign Relations has included senior politicians, more than a dozen secretaries of state, CIA directors, bankers, lawyers, professors, and senior media figures. This is Noam Chomsky’s review of a recent book about the Council on Foreign Relations entitled Wall Street’s Think Tank; “a very revealing account of how a small group of planners drawn from sectors of concentrated private and state power, closely linked, along with ‘experts’ whose commitments are congenial to their ends, have set the contours for much of recent history, not least the neoliberal assault that has had a generally destructive impact on populations while serving as an effective instrument of class war.” Interesting.
My friend is also a principal of Cordoba Group International LLC, an organisation that seeks- in their own words [but with my own comments included in brackets] – to build ‘the strategic and organizational capacity of civil society groups and political organizations to establish and protect free [market?] societies’ and works with businesses to ‘preserve and protect their achievements through organizational and political strategies that improve [by undermining socialist governments that might wish to nationalise or even just tax them?] their environment.’ The Cordoba Group is closely linked with yet another right-wing think tank, the Centre for a Secure Free Society, which concentrates on “promoting free markets and limited government, both inside and outside the United States.” Isn’t it interesting how the concept of free society and free markets are used interchangeably. I am all in favour of democracy, but free market capitalism works just as well with dictatorship (you could even argue better) as it does with democracy. Singapore, officially the best place to do business in the world, provides the perfect repost to those who argue that free markets and political freedom go hand in hand, as does the American backed neo-liberal Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Given America’s long track record in Latin America of overthrowing left-wing democracies in favour of right-wing business friendly dictatorships, given the close links between organisations such as this and transnational corporations, you have to ask very carefully what kind of ‘freedom’ organisations such as this are really promoting.
I wanted to ask my friend about his involvement with the Council on Foreign Relation and his work at Cordoba Group International, and how this might relate to his analysis of the situation in Venezuela. Unfortunately, I discovered that I was no longer able to comment on his blog. If you are reading this my friend, and I hope that you are, please don’t give up the playwriting. I know you must be a busy man and all, but if you stick at it I’m sure you will get one published one day.. you do write such excellent fiction after all. Given how fervently my friend champions individual freedom, I was a little disappointment at the way he had deprived me of the opportunity to comment on his blog any further. After all, all I had really wanted to say was that I finally understood why his commentary on Venezuela – with its state intervention in the economy, nationalised oil industry, currency controls and leading role in fostering closer co-operation between the social democracies of Latin America – had received such a one sided tongue lashing from him, and why his commentary had completely avoided talking about the role of falling oil prices, climate change, the American sponsored opposition, or the economic / class warfare being waged by the business elites, in undermining the Venezuelan economy. It was suddenly all so clear; this man was not just an author and (unsuccessful) playwright, but a paid up member of the predominantly white, male and reactionary right-wing American establishment. An establishment that sees Venezuela, and progressive left-wing Latin American governments in general, as posing an existential threat to their own power, privilege and political and economic interests, and that is actively seeking to overthrow and destabilize them in the name of ‘freedom’ (or should I say free markets?) Perhaps that is why he didn’t want me to draw attention to his other career?
So we are nearing the end of the story… my first week of talking to other bloggers has certainly been an interesting one. Although communication with my new friend has tragically come to a halt, it did serve to remind me of some of the more positive and negative aspects of the internet. The internet allowed a card carrying member of the very institutions of American power that have sought to discredit and undermine social democracy in Latin America to present his own propaganda piece as nothing more than the heart-felt sentiments of a humble writer and concerned citizen. It enabled’The Suicide of Venezuela’ to be selected by the editors of WordPress as ‘high quality’ content for dissemination to its many users, and therefore facilitated the piece in going viral and attracting nearly a quarter of a million views. Going by the comments, it also succeed in influencing or reinforcing many peoples perspectives on the situation in Venezuela. However the internet has also allowed me to debate with the author of the piece, to draw attention to the gaping holes in his analysis, and to reveal how they might relate to his undisclosed political and institutional affiliations. In combination with this response, I hope in some small way it will send a jarring new tune, however faint, bouncing around a cosy echo-chamber in the making.
The internet allows us to become better informed and to be better mislead. It exposes us to new views and more information than ever before, and in doing so makes it harder for us to accurately ascertain their real value or validity. It allows us to challenge the powers that be, and it allows the powers that be to reassert themselves over us. Ultimately, my experiences of the last week has served to remind me of the fact that the internet is like any other tool; it may be used for fair means or foul and does not fit neatly into either the liberational or repressive frames that I outlined at the beginning of this piece. The same, despite the best efforts of people like my friend Joel D Hirst, can be said of the political situation in Venezuela, and so many other situations that are not as simple as people might like us to believe. The internet is very good at breaking the world down into sound-bites, memes, gifs and simplified, emotive, easily digestible narratives. These we can graze, regurgitate or rebuke, often without having ever engaged our own critical reasoning. We must resist being lulled into ignorance by those who use the internet as a tool for transforming a complex reality into simple ideological parable.
So you may be wondering what makes me qualified to comment on Toxic People. After all I don’t have a pseudo-psychological self-help website, nor am I going to divulge my ‘wisdom’ in just 8, 9 or 10 easy to swallow bullet pointed pieces of bullshit. The reason while I feel like I can talk about Toxic People is because, according to the so called definitions being used to describe this ‘phenomenon’, I am a ‘toxic’ person sometimes, and so are you. We are all ‘toxic’ people sometimes. Or, to put it better, there is no such thing as a ‘toxic’ person, just people who are more than capable of being both wonderful and shit.
We have reached a point now where our obsession with being ‘healthy’ has in certain cases become deeply unhealthy, to the extent that the term ‘Orthorexia‘ is now being proposed as a distinct new eating disorder in which people are solely concerned with the quality rather than the quantity of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’ and which are unclean, poisonous, shameful (because they are too pleasureable) or bad. We talk about rape culture being a society where rape is so normalized that many victims do not even recognize it. It has been argued that we now also live in an eating disorder culture whereby eating disorders (sometimes wrapped up in the guise of detox diets) have become a mainstream way of life.
Why have we allowed ourselves to be conned into buying the idea of the detox? Is it because we are hard-wired to want to do so? Many of the oldest religions practise fasting and purification. But the ancient religious tradition of renunciation – of which Ramadan and Lent are obvious examples – doesn’t involve neurotically regarding enjoyable experiences as dangerous or shameful. Rather it is about willingly deciding to deny yourself certain easy forms of escapism and distraction, with the idea that fronting up to reality without them might, at least for a short time, have some benefits. Is this where the urge to detox comes from? Or is it simply that – as I discuss in the post Capitalism and the pursuit of healthiness, the ‘health and wellbeing’ industry has becoming increasingly good at coming up with strategies for helping us to shed many pounds (from our wallets), and that we, eager to believe that we can simply undo the harm we inflict on our bodies through our hedonistic consumption driven lifestyles, are happy to buy into them?
While the desire to detox may have its roots in deep rooted religious ideas relating to self denial and self development, in its present guise it is much harder to see the possible benefits for anyone other than the companies peddling these ‘remedies.’ While eating large amounts of Kale or less processed and refined food is probably quite a good idea health wise (providing it isn’t just Kale that you eat), some of the more extreme forms of detox available such as fasting, strict dieting or the use of coffee enemas and laxatives are much more likely to do more harm than good, whether this be in the respective forms of disrupted gastrointestinal fauna, nutrient deficiencies, septicaemia and rectal perforation (lovely) or constipation (laxatives give you constipation, oh the irony).
So maybe we can agree that detoxing is a bit of a silly idea in its current guise. But what about toxic people? I was blissfully unaware of the concept until recently when a friend posted an image that contained the very same text included in this rather lovely image:
Without really thinking about it I found myself about to like the post – as many people already had. After all it is rather reassuring to think that whatever unpleasant things somebody who has treated us badly might say about us, eventually people will see through their lies and get to the truth. As well as being comforting it is also probably more than a little naive – after all politicians and the media provide us with a fairly considerable body of evidence to suggest that misinformation can be an extremely effective way of influencing peoples opinions not only about individuals but entire groups of people.
But the possible naivety of the statement wasn’t what stopped me from ‘liking’ it. Nor was it the idea of there being some kind of a fixed and absolute truth for people to finally ‘see.’ Again it is a comforting thought to think that there is a single objective truth just waiting to be uncovered as opposed to a multitude of different and sometimes contradictory perceptions of a ‘true’ reality that always remains somehow tantalisingly just out of reach. I’ve probably just demonstrated that I can be a bit of a pedant but that wasn’t really what bothered me either, after all I like and would like to believe in the overall sentiment that if you let nasty people fling shit around eventually people will see through it. What actually really bothered me about this statement is the idea that a person can be toxic or would be described as such. Much to my despair, this phrase – having only entered my consciousness recently – now seems to be popping up everywhere.
So what is a toxic person anyway? A quick google search quickly reveals all, or does it? Interestingly despite the depressingly endless pages of search results talking about toxic people, most of the definitions of what constitutes a toxic person seem to consist of telling you how to identify one based on your own feelings or emotional responses to that person. This is interesting in that again it feels a little subjective to me. After all, aren’t we supposed to take responsibility for our own feelings? To acknowledge that cause and effect does not work in quite the same way in the emotional world as it does in the physical and accept that other people do not ‘make’ us feel anything, we just react to different circumstances in ways that draw upon our own ideas, beliefs, hopes, previous experiences and fears? Surely identifying a toxic person becomes rather difficult if the feelings they engender in us may have more to do with ourselves than them?
What if we move beyond the idea of other people making us feel a certain way to try and understand ‘Toxic people’ in another way? Maybe people are Toxic because they are bad people who do bad things? If we cannot rely on our own emotions to identify a toxic person perhaps looking at their actions could provide a more objective measure? According to the eternal wisdom of the internet, toxic people try and control, undermine and belittle us, seeking to impose their own emotional needs, negativity or insecurity onto us. Is this moving us a little closer? The idea of action rather than emotion being the determinant of a Toxic person fits a little better with what the ‘experts’ seem to have to say, namely that Toxic people are not really toxic at all; rather it is their behaviour towards you or your relationship with them that is actually toxic.
But doesn’t the label of a ‘toxic person’ become totally misleading if it is the behaviour of a person in a particular relationship that might actually be the problem? And given that two or more people are (normally) involved in a relationship, what if the behaviour of more than one person contributes to its ‘toxicity’? This is a sensitive and complex subject. I’m very keen to ensure that this isn’t misunderstood as some kind of a justification for abusive behaviour or as a way of blaming the victims of abuse. Abusive behaviour is unacceptable and never justified, and yet abusers often try and blame the victims themselves as a way of avoiding taking responsibility for their own actions. The very reason that I am seeking to challenge the idea of the ‘toxic person’ however is because I feel that it is important that we all take responsibility for our own actions and their consequences – which in this case means thinking about the way in which we chose to label each other and the reasons we might have for doing so.
Could it be in some cases that the labelling of one party in a relationship as toxic might be a little simplistic? Could it be that sometimes labelling the other person as toxic is a useful way of absolving oneself of ones own possibly ‘toxic’ behaviour? According to Jodie Gale (MA) often the toxic person is deeply wounded and unable to take responsibility for this wounding, feelings, needs and subsequent problems in life. But according to this definition, couldn’t somebody who feels deeply wounded as a result of how somebody else ‘made’ them feel, who behaves unpleasantly towards them, who also decides to label that person as toxic, and who, in doing so, is seeking to avoid understanding not only themselves and why they actually feel the way they do, but also the possible role they may have played in the emergence of this ‘toxic’ relationship, well… might we describe this persons behaviour as ‘toxic’ too?
The idea of a toxic person is getting more and more confusing. It is interesting that much of the search material I found on toxic people was explaining how to deal with them, which in most cases consists of information on how to remove them from your life and justifications for doing so. Now i’m not suggesting for a second that people who are in an abusive relationship should hang around in it, or that its wrong to need to have space from people at times, or to maintain healthy boundaries. I should probably repeat that just to be clear; i’m not suggesting that people should feel in anyway obligated to spend time with people who treat them terribly, or that there is anything wrong with establishing boundaries or walking away from people or situations that are not doing you any good. It seems like common sense to me that this is absolutely what people should do.
It is the use of the word toxic that really worries me though. It seems to be increasingly used not just to describe people who are abusive (and even then I would argue that it is a poor choice of word) but also people who – for example – have ‘too much’ drama in their lives, are too negative, who get jealous, or who are prone to behaving in passive aggressive ways at some points. Because hang on a minute there, surely what is being described here are character traits that every single one of us – sorry to anybody out there who is completely perfect but you are almost certainly in self denial and probably need to take a long hard look in the mirror – have displayed at some point in our lives, and most probably when we are struggling and feeling insecure? What if, rather than people being Toxic, people are just simply having a hard time and not coping very well? I can think of no better portrayal (albeit fictional) of the bizarre and terrible ways in which people can behave when they are pushed beyond their breaking point than the wonderful Argentinian film Wild Tales, in which people… once pushed beyond their natural limits reveal themselves to be capable of murder, infidelity and a range of other violent and destructive ‘toxic’ behaviours.
We all have a certain amount of shit to deal with in our lives, and just like everything else in society it does not tend to be evenly distributed. Some of us may be better equipped to deal with these challenges and be able to do so more gracefully than others. This may be a result of the relative stability of own childhoods and the absence of historical or ongoing trauma in our lives, the result of painful lessons learnt or the consequence of us just having worked bloody hard at our own self development. Whether our own relative resilience or emotional stability is the result of luck or just plain old hard work, does that give us the right to label anybody, no matter how bad a job they might be doing of coping, no matter how unpleasantly they may be behaving, of being toxic? And should we really be encouraging each other to push people out of our lives? As unpleasant as their behaviour may be, it is not necessarily a simple reflection of an individual desperate seeking to either cling on to or abuse the power bestowed on them within a system of capitalist patriarchy. Rather, could it not be the consequence of an absence of power; a manifestation of the experience of low self-esteem, trauma, discrimination and depression? Might there therefore be other options available to us when we are dealing with people like this?
Calling other people toxic can allow us to turn our gaze away from the darker aspects of our own personalities and our own ability to – in the wrong circumstances – behave in similarly unpleasant ways. It can allow us to turn away too from the potential role that we may have played in the emergence of so called ‘toxic’ relationships, and it can prevent us from doing the kind of soul searching that may reveal a deeper understanding of the nature of our own emotional reactions to certain situations and where they may actually originate from (clue; we never just react to another person or situation, we also react to our own experiences of previous people and situations whose connection to current events we may still be totally unaware of). One thing is for sure, calling other people toxic certainly doesn’t help us to become more compassionate towards each other.
But using the toxic label is not just holding us back, it also stigmatizes the people that we label in this way, potentially adding to the separateness that may already underpin the struggles they are experiencing and the reasons why they are behaving in such a problematic way in the first place. When any kind of relationship between people begins to fall apart or go wrong, we can only ever come out completely clean if we label somebody else as being completely at fault. It is important that people take responsibility for their own actions, and in some cases (such as with abuse) the blame may lie very clearly at the feet of one person. But when we apply the toxic label to difficult relationships in general, do we not risk simply reducing somebody down to a caricature of their most negative traits – even as we seek to obscure our own in the process? How flattering would any of us look in this light? It might makes us feel better in the short run to do this but whether you believe in Karma or not, what good does it actually achieve?
What if ‘toxic’ people might behave the way they do because they are experiencing or have experienced periods of profound stress and trauma? Unless – and I hope that this isn’t the case – we only really care about ourselves and our own wellbeing, we might hope that by removing these people from our lives we are not only doing ourselves a favour but also, through our display of ‘tough love’, actually encouraging them to heal or ‘de-toxify’ themselves. But that is a difficult thing to achieve in isolation. Healing, according to so many Indigenous teachings, is an on-going collective project. Shame is not meant to be privatized or isolating and can become profoundly damaging when it manifests itself in this way. The pain you experience from trauma and how you manage or mis-manage it might be your own responsibility, but the roots of that trauma are not all singularly yours, but rather a product of the society that you live within and the people that make it up. When we label people as toxic we fail to acknowledge this fact. Instead we set boundaries that exclude them from our communities when we could be involving them in processes of community accountability that might allow them to transform their behaviour and our understanding of why it happens. As I asked in my previous post A conversation about Lemonade; what happens to all of the people we dump on the trash-heap for failing to be unaffected by the piece of shit system that we live within, and what chance does it give us for creating the kind of world we would all like to live in?
So let me suppose – and this may be a rather large leap of faith given how popular these frankly charming toxic people memes seem to be – that you agree with me in thinking that our attitudes towards toxins and toxic people might both actually be a little messed up. But what should we do instead if we accept that detoxing ourselves or our social circles might actually do more harm than good? Perhaps we can take some inspiration from a hero and villain of the detox debate; namely ‘naughty’ booze and ‘super’ broccoli.
Lets start with the booze. As I already mentioned, an alcohol detox is an all too real medical procedure that normally takes place on a medical ward. The idea that stopping drinking for a while will allow your liver to detox itself is, on the other hand, a complete and total fallacy. This becomes readily apparent when you understand how the liver works. The liver breaks down alcohol in a two-step process. Enzymes in the liver first convert alcohol to acetaldehyde which is a very toxic substance that damages liver cells. The acetaldehyde is then very rapidly converted into far less toxic carbon dioxide and water which the body then removes. Drinking too much booze is problematic because it can overwhelm these enzymes, leading to acetaldehyde buildup and liver damage. Drinking a little bit of alcohol on the other hand seems to be helpful, possibly because it keeps the liver primed with the detoxifying enzymes it needs to help it deal with other toxins. Surprising as it may seem, broccoli, the supposed “superfood” of many a detox salad, also helps the liver out in a similar fashion. Broccoli, like all brassicas, contains cyanide, and eating it therefore provides the small quantity of poison necessary to prime the enzymes in your liver to deal better with other toxins.
If the limited exposure of the liver to harmful substances can actually help it to detoxify our bodies, can a limited / boundaried exposure to difficult and unpleasant people also be of benefit to us? Rather than labelling these people as toxic and seeking to exclude them from our own self-constructed ‘clean’ lives (in much the same way as the Orthorexia sufferer seeks to exclude impure food groups from their diet), can we expose ourselves – even if it is only mentally – to the reality that they may actually just be plain old people like you or I? Can this help us to detoxify ourselves and to bridge some of the ever growing divides within our society? Might these people help us to understand what it is within ourselves, our experiences, and our psyches that make them so difficult to bear, that trigger the emotions we find so difficult to manage, and that makes us want to brand them so resolutely as ‘other’ to ourselves and as the sole bearers of responsibility for our failed and failing relationships? Might they help us to become better prepared for the next difficult person – and god knows there always will be another one – who is going to come along in our lives? Can they not act as a mirror for ourselves, enabling us to face and accept the darkness, the chaotic and destructive potential that lies below the tranquil, ‘together’ and emotionally stable facades that we may be able to hold together when all is well, but which will likely begin to crumble if and when things go seriously wrong? And might our growing acceptance of people who are in this space encourage others to treat us with more compassion if and when we find ourselves there too?
There is no such thing as toxic people… there are only people; infinitely complex, wonderful, bizarre and puzzling in equal measure. There are, on the other-hand, no shortage of toxic attitudes (of which the concept of the toxic person is just one) with which we judge those around us, and which stop us from seeing ourselves in each other.