Could more conversation overcome polarization in politics?

Political differences won’t disappear, but we can do a much better job of working with and through them.

Mark E. Blum
22 October 2019, 8.03pm
Flickr/Speaker Pelosi.

In Highgate cemetery in north London two graves are diagonally opposed from one another - those of Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. That’s appropriate, since Spencer’s ‘social Darwinism’ is noted for its justification of violence to others in the name of evolution, while Marx championed equality, community and openness to all.

Central to the difference between these two thinkers is the question of whether conversation can produce communal agreements among people who accept the need to cooperate with each-other across their differences, at least in part; or whether such differences are so deeply embedded in ideology, identity and material circumstances that competition - the ‘survival of the fittest’ - is the only way forward.

This isn’t just a clash between philosophies from the past; it’s also a challenge that’s deeply embedded in politics and social activism today, when divide-and-rule tactics and either-or thinking are so dominant. Donald Trump, for example, represents the triumph of an unreflective mind inside an aggressive spokesperson for the survival of the white race. By contrast, at least in her guarded statements on policy decisions that embrace the maximum of cooperative understanding, Nancy Pelosi is trying to be a reflective integrator of community beyond a single constituency.

The difference between Spencer-Trump and Marx-Pelosi is one of proto-genocidal thought versus what today is inaccurately slurred as ‘political correctness.’ In reality such ‘correctness’ simply means reflective respect for others based on the need to integrate a community of equal and cooperating human beings.

So against this background, would more conversation of the kind Pelosi recommends and Trump rejects be sufficient to generate a greater sense of consensus and community?

Following Trump and Spencer, conversation is simply a trading of idioms based on a single viewpoint among like-minded individuals who seek only a superior chieftain. By contrast, Marx and Pelosi enter the conversation at a very different point, by exploring the benefits that come from ‘association before politics’ i.e. what happens, in somewhat idealistic terms perhaps, when people come together voluntarily in groups. As Marx put it in 1844:

“When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end.”

Couching his remarks in the somewhat surprising language of love, Marx goes on to explain that only certain values and behaviors can lead to the kinds of association that produce solidarity in this way:

“the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them…Everyone of your relations with man and nature must be a specific expression…of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return - that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent.”

In other words, there must be a conscious process inside groups that fosters connection and unity. But that doesn’t mean that all differences in the political values of individuals are ruled out; rather, through thoughtful conversations that are guided by love and reciprocity, people can listen to themselves and others with enhanced self-knowledge and empathy in order to identify some level of agreement.

As early as the mid-eighteenth century, this process had been identified as the basis of a ‘general will to action’ by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, a method through which societies could develop a sense of direction beyond the mere agglomeration of self-interests. This is not the same as finding support from a simple majority of a population, since as Rousseau writes in The Social Contract:

“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills.”

Political thinkers and activists who took Marx’s words literally and sought to improve the mutual understanding of their society built on these ideas to develop a repertoire of techniques to facilitate collective conversation.

Kurt Lewin, for example, was a German Social Democrat who began what became known as ‘T-Group training’ in the late 1920s and 1930s – training in listening and self-reflection whose aim was to realize a ‘general will’ in the above sense to improve society. Today these techniques are known under the label of ‘group dynamics.’ In this tradition, Marxism is less a didactic dogma and more a political understanding of the necessity of a thoughtful democratic community.

There were other descendants of this understanding of Marx’s foundational vision too, including the Austro-Marxist Max Adler and his ideas around a “solidarity society:”

“In a solidarity society,’” he wrote in 1922, “a trade association or other association will not feel itself to be ‘overpowered’ by a majority against it, nor will any minority position feel so if they are in a state where there is basic agreement upon mutual life interests.”

Despite such ‘basic agreement,’ a solidarity society can never be without contention because of the singularity of minds and the diversity of backgrounds that exist in the same and differing work-groups. Nonetheless, a clarity of, and commitment to, personal principle can enable a general will to be formed with others over time.

This process of mutual self-clarification has developed apace in many societies over the last hundred years through co-operatives, labor unions, civic organizations, self-help and therapy groups, but the underlying tenets that guide the process in terms of group dynamics and collective learning have not been internalized in the mainstream of politics and political institutions, which still lean more towards Spencer than Marx – more towards ‘winner-takes-all’ than consensus-making. This is why alternative methodologies of conversation are so crucial.

The process of group dynamics begins with a small group of individuals who have an interest in a common issue, with a conversational leader trained in Lewin’s Training Group or other similar techniques. The leader is non-interventional, engaging the group only to impart the core concepts of listening and reflecting to oneself and others. As in Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy, participants are asked to listen to their own statements as repeated by the leader or by others, and to consider how and why they might conflict or conjoin with those of other members of the group.

The process continues through self-study and role-playing to clarify differences and similarities in the views of every person in a way that generates both mutual understanding and respect. Lewin also helped to begin another form of training and conversation which produces similar results through the Tavistock method, which seeks to enable individuals to see and work with the variety of leaders needed to accomplish group projects.

Yet normal conversational settings in business, politics, education and every other social interaction lack any of these practices. There are some obvious reasons for this outcome. Patience for this kind of group process is lacking; there are severe shortages of trainers and facilitators; and - as Marx himself knew - the dominant norms of social, economic and political practice throughout a culture frustrate any real conversation that seeks a functioning community.

Both Spencer and Marx sought to teach the societies of their time practices that were outside existing norms. Spencer and his followers knew that millions of people would die in conflicts around the ‘survival of the fittest,’ but the benefits of evolution made this worthwhile. Hitler himself was a well-read Social Darwinist who thought the Germans had failed in 1945 and ordered his Interior Minister, Albert Speer, to destroy the infrastructure of Germany so that his Aryan race would perish to the conquering allies.

By contrast, in 1844 Karl Marx spoke of how a learned, conversational mode of being and acting could enable human beings to “win back themselves” from the distortions of a culture where the autonomous individualism of republican-capitalism was itself a threshold for the avenue of the “fittest.”

The ‘dead don’t speak’ as the saying goes, but if they could, what sort of conversation would Marx and Spencer have across the path at Highgate Cemetery? They could speak past each-other of course, as most of us do now, or - following Oliver Cromwell and the Quaker democrat George Fox, for example - they could decide to listen carefully to views that differed from their own and reach some important common ground.

Fox and Cromwell decided that there should be a separation between religion and the state so that cooperation in secular matters became a living possibility. How far are we prepared to go to find similar breakthroughs in politics today?

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