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How Corbyn can break the conservative consensus

Three drivers of change have the potential to disrupt neoliberal hegemony: post-material longing, the logic of inclusive capitalism, and the emergence of secular spirituality.

Ronan Harrington
17 September 2015
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Flickr/ Chris Beckett. Some rights reserved.

A profound irony animated the Labour leadership contest. Jeremy Corbyn was positioned by the Labour establishment and conservative press as the throwback to failed ‘80s socialism.

Yet, despite his elderly appearance, his policies are in principle the vanguard of progressive thought. Young supporters flocked to him not out of some misguided left wing nostalgia, but because he speaks to the progressive clarity that has emerged since the global financial crisis. The fall of Lehman Brothers not only exposed the systemic threat of unregulated markets, but also the broad decoupling of business and societal interests.

In a post—industrial economy where wealth trickles up, not down, the restoration of widespread prosperity requires a resurgent state that can tackle excessive wealth concentration and the power imbalances they foster. The Observer recognized this in their editorial endorsing Labour at the last general election, drawing a historic parallel with another 'Red Ed', the Republic President Teddy Roosevelt, who recognized the threat of oligarchic power at the turn of the 20th Century and reined it in for the common good. The 21st Century progressive agenda did not die with Ed Miliband, and attempts by the establishment to bury it more accurately reflect their own misguided nostalgia.

Yet despite the hype surrounding Corbyn, there is an unspoken uneasiness about his ability to disrupt the status quo. While he can win over the progressive heartland with appeals to social justice, this is less likely to wash with a general public who never bought into an anti-austerity message when it affected them, and are less likely to now that it is more targeted at marginalized groups they have hardened towards.

As Ed Miliband painfully experienced, it is almost impossible to invoke genuine solidarity given our conservative understanding of what we owe each other, and how economies work. Neoliberal economic orthodoxy, narrowly taught at universities and heavily promoted through influential think tanks, legitimizes business and elite interests as the primary route to societal benefit, all the while limiting our understanding of the role the state and other collectives can play in our economic lives.  This intellectual consensus is rendered publicly intelligible via a coordinated chorus of pro-business pundits who dismiss any alternative as bygone socialism. It would be so easy for them to do this with Corbyn, the 'beardy hippie' Leader of the Opposition and for the public to grow tired and give up the dream.

Even if the public agrees with him — and they do on a host of left wing issues — Corbyn is left to contend with global financial markets, the modern panopticon that keeps progressive states in their place. As Francois Mitterrand experienced in the 80s, radical redistributive policy can trigger capital flight and inflationary hikes, rendering them too economically disruptive for a short-term electorate. The odds are heavily stacked against him, but this does not mean we should have heeded Tony Blair's advice to get a heart transplant. Any moderate alternative could only have won by securing the consent of Middle England and their conservative media, which means never really confronting the wealth concentration and power imbalance that plague Britain. Labour may achieve hundreds of incremental gains as the Government of 2020, but their legacy from the Blair years is proof of how easily they reverse if structural injustice remains untouched.

The success of Corbyn and the rise of his US counterpart Bernie Saunders are signs that there is a public appetite to confront the establishment, but the power asymmetry within British politics is so great that Labour is terrified to confront it. Their learned helplessness leaves them unwilling to entertain the possibility that they could be counter hegemonic force, dismissing Podemos and Syriza as products of more revolutionary conditions. Yet, Jon Cruddas reminded the party at the beginning of the leadership race that Labour only wins when it takes the nation by the scruff of the neck.

The party's historic victories in the 20th century were times when bold leaders defined a new era of national prosperity. In 1945 under Clement Attlee, Labour offered a vision of the welfare state which was not just a moral crusade cultivated from the siege mentality of World War II, but a story of what was technologically possible. This instinct would appear again under Tony Blair who galvanized the public around a narrative of economic and social modernization. While this has now proven hollow, at the time it felt like things could only get better. The simple lesson is that Labour wins when it inspires the public with a progressive agenda that feels idealistic yet competent, positioning the Tories as antiquated and out of touch. The added challenge is that is has to be potent enough to challenge power at its zenith. It seems impossible, but Corbyn can do it again by tapping into three drivers of change that define millennial politics: post-material longing, the logic of inclusive capitalism, and the emergence of secular spirituality.

The post-material longing

Do people yearn for work, or time with their children?

While the Westminster establishment talk endlessly about jobs and growth, what most people are really searching for are creative ways to trade consumption goods for more time to be with the people they love, the communities they belong to, and the activities that bring them to life. This initially jars with the material deprivation that haunts Britain. Millions are bearing the brunt of savage cuts whilst searching for stable employment, and if they happen to be successful, finding themselves in a full time cycle of poverty.

This national shame is the beginning of any political agenda but Corbyn will fail to inspire people about its alleviation if it remains directed towards an indistinguishable treadmill. Witness the drudgery of the five-day working week. Our advanced society has a hit rate of two out of seven in meeting our most pressing need for days to do what we would freely choose during our short time on earth. This possibility is only available to the most privileged, for anyone else it is an uncompetitive policy for Britain Inc., which leaves us questioning the absurd purpose of being competitive if it only leaves time for competing. As long as progressive economic policy remains exclusively connected to this conservative end, it will fail to move the public to support it. Corbyn needs to tap into a new aspiration that is struggling to break through.

Baby Boomers and Generation X completed the modernist project of wealth generation but undermined it by remaining enslaved to the material lifestyle it promised. This glamour of potential has lost its sheen, with Generation Y striving to find a better balance between income and the time to actually spend it. Driven by the immediacy of experience, they do not postpone freedom until the weekend and their eventual retirement or misspend it on stuff.

A deeper sense of purpose animates the ideal of doing meaningful work that gives them reasonable time to pursue all that life has to offer outside of it. The fabled Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren struggles in a low pay economy that forces so many into bullshit jobs that barely cover the astronomical cost of living, all the while feeding a status anxiety that keeps the consumer show on the road. Even if we summon the strength of character to down shift, it is a full time job to pay the bills. A new wave of experimental policies are emerging to ease this trade-off, from rent controls that ease the cost of living to policies that promote a shorter working week. It is based on the basic recognition that living to work, working to earn, and earning to consume is absurd. And it also happens to be good for productivity, as workers are more productive hour for hour with lower attrition rates for companies. In a 2014 YouGov poll, 57% of the public supported a four-day week, while 71% said it would make Britain happier. Corbyn can ride the wave of this common sense ideal.

Going deeper still, most people, be they rich or poor, are deeply anxious and lonely under neoliberalism. In a post-religious society, we lack institutions that buffet us from the extremes of the market and forge connection and belonging to each other. The carving out of religious and social institutions in a market age is the story of the self-uprooted from nourishing contexts and the reciprocal relationships they foster. This existential absence has coincided with the ascendency of a social media consumer culture, trapping us in constant game of social positioning. We are spent, but are spinning slow enough on the hamster wheel to witness the potential destruction of our species. Is it any wonder people are disengaged with politics? All it asks of us is to remain complicit in our brokenness, lest we undermine the exchequer.

For Corbyn to present a genuine alternative that captivates society, he must envisage a future that resolves the interconnected personal and systemic crises of neoliberalism. What we are really looking for is a Nordic model for the 21st century, one that purposefully connects sustainable economic growth with social flourishing. This was the basis of the Common Weal initiative that prefigured a shift away from Scottish Labour by articulating a step-change from a ‘me first’ to an ‘all of us first’ society during the independence referendum. We have reached a point in our development where the exclusive pursuit of profit and growth now contradicts — rather than enables — our deepest longings and aspirations.

Despite all the work on alternative indicators of progress, and breakthrough policies on shorter working weeks and basic income, the establishment have succeeded in making material security the perpetual end-game. This becomes primal in times of perceived scarcity where the Conservatives thrive as the party that helps you get on with it. To move beyond this in supposedly hard times is to run ahead of yourself, not a wise move from a party with a reputation for fiscal irresponsibility. The political irony is that a correct understanding of human needs, what nourishes us versus what leaves us striving for more, puts us in a position to honour the needs of others. As long as the rich are trapped in an insatiable status game, they will never meaningfully distribute their material excess. Labour needs to complete the modernist project of wealth generation by trading in some of it in for the experience of freedom, which comes full circle in the form of social justice and the ease of an inclusive society.

A political renewal always arises from a suppressed longing. It is ironic that something as frivolous as more leisure time could be the guiding aspiration of modern politics. Yet it is an emancipatory ideal from the lived experience of drudgery that the Tories like to call discipline. For Corbyn to shift the political consensus, he needs to go beneath the surface that neoliberalism claims to have covered and expose its outrageous deceit.

The logic of inclusive capitalism

The key with any new political consensus is that it needs to be economically credible and potent enough to force power to comply. There was a moment during the last parliament when it felt like it might be possible to break from neoliberal logic. Ed Miliband had just announced his first tactical maneuver, a two-year energy price freeze. The conservative media went into frenzy, but they were at odds with the public who saw it as common sense at a time of soaring prices. This badly exposed the Tories’ over-zealous commitment to free market ideology, which was demonstrably failing in the cartel-like energy industry. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and former oil executive, spoke about businesses requiring a social license to operate. They do not get to exist because markets are primordially free, but because the political community they are part of deems them beneficial.

There was an existential awareness of this in the inclusive capitalism initiative launched by business CEOs at the height of the great recession. In a speech emphasizing the need to embrace the Nordic model of a mixed economy, institutionalize long-term thinking, and encourage small and medium sized enterprises, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, gave the prescient warning that “just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself.” This systemic awareness justifies the renewed role of an activist state that plays a central role in our economic lives. For Corbyn, being pro-business no longer has to mean kowtowing to their demands but being a prudent guardian of their long-term interests.

The moral purpose of business is no longer to exclusively maximize shareholder value, as Milton Friedman advocated in the neoliberal hay day, but to contribute to society. This is an idea that Boris Johnson now advocates as the Tories try to steal a march on what it means to be progressive in the 21st Century. Corbyn must go further by defining what contribution means in a post-material age. It is not enough to make a profit and pay your taxes, it is about how you treat your workers, how green your supply chain is, and the harmony of your products with the health and well-being of society. This expectation holds promise in a social media age as heightened scrutiny creates a feedback loop that makes corporations more likely to capitulate in order to mitigate reputational risk.

Businesses are now beginning to internalize this moral pressure as millennials bring their values to the workplace. In the global war for talent, responsible businesses that operate for the well-being of society attract the cream of the crop. This is crucial in a cognitive economy, as value creation is dependent on harnessing the collective intelligence of the whole organization. Those that are inclusive and purposeful are also more likely to have the social capital necessary to generate disruptive ideas. If Britain is to attract the best and brightest and encourage innovation, then it has to instill an ethic of purpose and inclusivity into the economy. The rules of the game are changing: inclusivity is not just morally right, it is the key to our international competitiveness. Corbyn can champion this with a range of pro-worker policies that encourage British businesses to raise their game.

Despite the increased pressure to conform to a more progressive outlook, businesses will drag their heels and convince bright graduates to selectively ignore their social responsibility for a large pay check. This is because neoliberalism breeds and incentivizes a lack of systemic awareness and empathy, as evidenced most recently by the muted stock market response to Amazon’s dystopian working culture. This is utterly dangerous in an era where we have lost the ability to rein in business, and they lack the ethical imperative to restrain themselves. Even in the face of global environmental catastrophe, oil companies are unable to do anything but advance with reckless abandon. In the absence of external restraint, we need to disrupt neoliberalism from within. This can only happen by triggering a loss of confidence in its underlying egocentric mindset. When we begin to see through ourselves, the absurdity of our actions becomes clear.

The emergence of secular spirituality

All visionary politics involves a shared moral struggle. And the one that unites all humans globally is the human struggle to overcome the ego and live from a greater place. As Albert Einstein famously articulated: "A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty".

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What Einstein is referring to is central to all wisdom traditions: that despite appearances, our identities are an illusion. This is not a fringe new age philosophy, but an empirical claim that is gaining traction in a neuroscientific age. As the revered new atheist Sam Harris unpacks in Waking Up: "There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are."

This revolutionary understanding of self has found secular clarity as progressives dig deep to find a way out of neoliberalism. The RSA Social Brain Project has just completed a two-year study into spirituality in modern Britain, finding a rationalist hangover from the Enlightenment, one that stifles serious engagement with spiritual experiences that are so common to many.

This has literally been proven to be the case by Iain McGilchrist, the Oxford All Souls Fellow and neuroscientist, who has revealed how the dominance of the left hemisphere obscures our ability to fully apprehend the world. The rationalist left hemisphere attends to the world by breaking it down into conceptual parts and assessing how they causally connect, often at the expense of the right hemisphere, which sustains a broad awareness of reality as it emerges, appreciating its contextual interrelationship.

This is the underlying cognitive basis of all religious and spiritual traditions that directly experience the integrated whole, rather than analyzing it to death. The rationalism of the left brain is important but it is useless if it denies this other, more implicit way of knowing. We live in a society that is currently beholden to the conceptual map, rather than the living territory.  With a post rationalist understanding of reality, we can more confidently assert the best part of us that struggles to be heard, the internal protagonist of a more soulful society.

The radical insight that awaits humanity is that far from a statement of identity, the lived experience of our thoughts and emotions represent the broader arising and passing of all phenomena in an interconnected reality that we are intrinsically a part of. This revelation, empirically revealed by quantum physics as far back as the 1920s, disturbs the materialist scientific paradigm that legitimizes a hard conception of self and other. 

As the philosopher Alan Watts drily reminded us, there is no self in a bag of skin separate from the universe, there is just the universe itself from which you continually emerge. Here we get to the true emancipatory project of the great prophets and sages, that the development of humanity is really a return to God. This is not the monotheistic man in the sky, but as Paul Tillich describes, the ultimate ground of being. One where we personally experience a oneness with the unknowable wonder of creation. It is this disconnection from the living process of life that is the source of our extractive behaviour.

And it is only when we see through our egos that we can begin to free ourselves from the impulses and ideologies that sustain a ‘me first’ society. Spiritual awakening is not a panacea for our societal problems. Entrenched structures will remain that condition an ever-present egocentric mindset. But it is the prospect of seeing this as relative, of being less attached to 'the way the world works', that opens us to progress. When we create that space, a deeper aspiration can emerge, one that leads us to give rather than take from the world. It is the worker who chooses to go part time to contribute to their community, it is the graduate who sees through the allure of the city to join a social enterprise, it is the CEO who changes the ownership model of her firm.

In an IPPR article, the progressive political theorist Roberto Unger urged the left to champion the cause of "deep freedom", which he describes as "a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person - a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability". We have to move on to a new understanding of who we are before we can rise above neoliberalism. Referencing the work of David Loy, The RSA's Dr. Jonathan Rowson explains this radical shift in perspective: "Look deeply into unfettered capitalism and there seems to be a deluded self, scrambling to make itself real; buying itself into existence, until it finds it is fading again, until we buy some more. But we give little thought to the inherent fragility and virtuality of this self, and speak little of how to work towards its integration and transcendence." If Corbyn champions our transcendence then he can finally offer a clear choice; not between left and right, but between what is true and what is false. If he is daunted by the prospect of going so deep, it's worth remembering Margaret Thatcher’s enduring insight: Economics is the method; the objective is to change the soul.

Toward a deeper political engagement

Corbyn might intellectually be on the right side of history, but how does he convince the average punter who does not like being told what to do, not least by a politician? What is missing is a prefigurative spiritual awakening, one where we individually come to see the thoughts and emotions that arise within us not as an endorsement of self and reality, but activity of the mind that we can gain sovereignty over. Such personal transformation will only come to politics through the groundswell of experience: people awakening people to a deeper aspiration, committed to no longer sustain what does not serve us. This echoes the sentiments of Zen Buddhist Thich Nath Hanh, who foresees the next Buddha as a Sangha, not one heroic individual but a community who collectively nurture a more enlightened way. It feels all too impossible, but a new political consensus only occurs when we are given the opportunity to experience the world differently. Our true hope lies beyond politics, in a deeper engagement that ripples through our boardrooms, churches and communities, inspiring ordinary people to act in ways that are incompatible with the logic that keeps us here. Luckily, the prospects of a deeper engagement are becoming increasingly real.    

Largely unrecognized by the mainstream media, a Cambrian explosion is taking place in the post-religious space, as groups reclaim ceremony from traditional religions to create forums in which people can be authentic together. From weekend retreats to women and men’s circles, there is a concerted effort to confront the pain wrought by the patriarchal system we have inherited. For many, they are unaware there is a problem until they are offered the space to be vulnerable and confront their numbness. Collective vulnerability is an essential prerequisite of agent of change, helping us empathize with the lived experience of others. A new politics must go from knocking on individual doors to the facilitation of public space, giving people the opportunity to deeply relate to one another as fellow human beings sharing this life together. Labour must nurture the reinvention of this public space to accelerate this deeper recognition.

Mindfulness has become the sine qua non of the spiritual zeitgeist; its hard secularism and deep evidence base make it a solid invitation into a more liquid conception of self. For many it is the first time they become conscious of dysfunctional tendencies that have hitherto defined their lives. This is a maturation process that progressives can anticipate and nurture to prefigure a society that is more aware of the violence we do to others and ourselves. Its meteoric rise through parliament, businesses, schools, and hospitals is prefiguring receptivity to a more enlightened understanding of self. So much so that when Russell Brand brings a hitherto unfathomable narrative that our problems are primarily spiritual, not political, people understand what he is talking about. However, mindfulness too is subject to co-option by business who see it as a tool for increased productivity, with paranoia amongst the left that it amounts to a real life SOMA, designed to increases our tolerance to life under neoliberalism. This requires strong progressive voices who can expose this shadow application and reorient us to its emancipatory potential.

The incontrovertible catalysts for spiritual awakening are psychedelics. Characterized by their non-toxic, non-addictive properties, psychedelics when taken in a safe setting have the potential to induce a complete mystical experience, allowing people to see beyond the veil for the first time in their lives. Participants speak of a profound sense of oneness, of having finally understood who they are and what life is about, leaving them with a deeper sense of compassion and self-worth.  It's unsurprising that a study at John Hopkins University study found that taking Psilocybin (the active compound in ‘magic mushrooms’) leads to an enduring change in one of the five key personality dimensions, openness, which negatively correlates with a range of right wing authoritarian, prejudicial views. This finding alone is worth the progressive movement taking note of.

Despite their illegal status under the War on Drugs, Psychedelics are enjoying a second coming as they evidence impressive clinical results for the treatment of addiction, depression and anxiety. Indigenous tribal medicine such as Ayahuasca, Iboge and Peyote are also increasing in popularity as people seek to resolve the lifetime insecurities of an egocentric society. In a recent study at John Hopkins University in which psilocybin was administered in a double blind trial, two-thirds of participants found it to be one of the five most personally meaningful moments of their life, while a third found it to be the most meaningful moment of their life. At the moment psychedelic usage is low in Britain, but when studies evidence results like this, public curiosity grows.

Rarely is an evidence base so at odds with prevailing policy. A 2005 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee described Britain's drug laws as "arbitrary" "unscientific" and "based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment". The Lib Dems were commended for their political courage in calling for a 'Portuguese style' decriminalization model for all drugs in the interests of harm reduction. Labour needs to go further by supporting the rescheduling of Psychedelics for clinical research to address the mental health epidemic that scars Britain. It is within these societal cracks that we can uncover a broader social renewal.

It is worth stressing that none of these avenues are a panacea for social change, it is not that we will take psychedelics, start meditating, and cruise to an enlightened society. Rather, their deliberate pursuit reflects a growing recognition that when we get to the roots of the perennial problems of humanity, we find ourselves, and we are far from immutable. As Britain's most powerful progressive institution, Labour needs to get serious about our long- term potential as a society, and understand that its roots lie in our personal transformation.

Corbyn is not the obvious choice to lead this transformative politics. He does not embody this millennial view at first glance, nor has he the political clout to push through radical policy change. But that does not really matter because a transformative shift in the political consensus is a decade's long process that transcends electoral politics. It requires a political leader who is open to new ideas and has the humility to collaborate with other parties and social movements. As the grass roots candidate of choice, he is our best hope to initiate a long-term journey we must ultimately take. However, he will have to undergo his own transformation to deliver where so many other politicians have failed. When he speaks of making the Labour Party a movement again he is only half way there. This is about making society a movement again; so that in the words of Unger, we can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves. Only the essence of progress can break the conservative consensus.


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