As people explore new forms of agency online, where is the politics that can serve their growing sense of possibility?
For a little while now I’ve been waking up in the morning feeling ready for something. When people ask me “how are you?” the answer, is “Good. Excited”—though I can’t explain exactly why.
It’s a feeling that is laced with frustration, as if whatever I’m seeing coming isn’t coming fast enough. But frustration is fine: I know I can convert it into resilience and forward motion. That’s the spiritual deal.
How many of us are currently living in that twilight zone—watching the old world order dying while the new one is yet to be born? The revolution of global connectivity, and the movements and parties it has given rise to, have created a surge of expectation that change is on the cards. Not quite inevitable—after all as much can go badly as well—but the logic of the 99% means that at least the old orders will be challenged and, over time, may well fall away. The moment feels hopeful.
Anyone who has been involved in the rise of Podemos, Alternativet, or the Sanders campaign in the USA is getting the best of this. Surrounded by new friends sharing the same dreams, and bolstered by incremental victories, we can sustain our positive vision with a view to concrete goals. Yet when the moment of achievement—an election, an uprising—has passed, it’s hard to sustain the experience, as Obama, the Arab Spring, and even the SNP have found. Hope evaporates too easily.
Maybe because of that fragility, the political left feels more comfortable with putting hope in its place. So often exuberance is met with Gramsci’s warning to nurture a ‘pessimism of the intellect’ while retaining ‘optimism of the will.’ Does that do us a good service now?
Too often I hear the phrase used as a way to belittle optimism, to make it appear naive or at best secondary to what can be rigorously evidenced by the intellect.
Because of that we tend to accept hope and optimism as ephemeral feelings that spring up predictably but disappear when circumstances no longer look favourable. But why not look at them as a resource that, even more than the intellect, can be developed, strengthened and put to the service of our emerging futures?
To do that we would need to know where hope sits, not just in relation to our activities but within ourselves. Is hope an e-motion—a physical response to changes in the body, what’s sometimes referred to as affect? Or is it, as Antonio D’Amasio defines it in The Feeling of What Happens, the meaning that we attach to that emotion, denoting our spirit? And if it is the latter, can we forge it ourselves—can we actively cultivate that spirit?
As a political activist and campaigner most of my life, I’ve come across a significant divide: those who consider themselves spiritual and those who don’t. When the question arises, as it might do in the pub, the responses are more decisive than they might be in answering whether you are you in or out of the European Union, for example.
Non-spiritual identifiers often stress autonomy. They resist the idea of constraints, mixing up religion with spirituality as if a codified, hierarchical organisation is the same as something that has no boundaries. Or, at the other extreme, they allude to spirituality as fuzzy, soft, wishy-washy or lacking material agency—not knowing how much of a premium spiritualists put on clarifying, revealing the power of and making manifest the effects of their spiritual work in daily life.
From the other side, spiritualists often stress freedom—the urge to go beyond. They label their deniers with a lack of imagination or feeling, of having no sense of the sacred. They ignore the undeniably spiritual aspects of the arts, relationship, creativity, camaraderie, play which are the very fuel of progress. Or, in their frustration to bring everyone on side they make the claim that everyone is spiritual whether they know it or not.
There is some evidence, however, that this divide can be bridged, if not resolved. Jonathan Rowson’s study Spiritualise: Revitalising Spirituality to Address 21C Challenges does a ground-breaking job of bridging the material and spiritual, the rational and instinctual.
Employing neuroscience and cultural psychology, he makes the spirit tangible for anyone who is interested but lacks experience or models. In other quarters, mindfulness, once the preserve of the spiritual, has entered into policy debates on education, health and even political culture and behaviour. Drugs too: hallucinogenics from LSD to Ayahuasca are increasingly cited as offering direct experience of the spiritual body for those searching from a material base.
More compelling evidence comes from the growth of the internet and how we use it to express our ‘whole selves.’ Not just the emotional and relational selves that are performed on Facebook and WhatsApp, but that part of us that imagines and dreams. Twenty years ago—well before the internet became the tool it is today—US tech guru Erik Davis wrote Techgnosis. In it he described the spiritual nature of the digital world and a life online as the place to hone our alter ego. More than an extension of our capabilities, Davis saw the virtual life as a parallel existence, one in which we could be at play and explore our imagined selves.
While most of us would understand the fantasy aspect of this vision—the role of avatars in 2nd Life for example—others explore the symbolic: using the internet to amplify small acts into massive intentions. When the Pope visits Lesbos, sheds tears amongst the refugees being doubly punished by their oppressors and their saviours, and takes a dozen back to live with him in the Vatican, he is rehearsing a better life. These are not simply nice gestures but acts of symbolic militancy distributed along our virtual and neural networks. A thoroughly modern Pope, acting in the face of prevailing wisdom to help us re-imagine and then re-make the world: share and be transformed.
This ‘soft power’ is not the province of the ‘good’ alone. When Daesh use the same tools to rehearse their power over their oppressors—a severed head the symbol of America’s defeat—they do the same, offering their own followers a glimpse of a life in which they are no longer the victims. Like the Pope, they polarise the feelings of all onlookers; no-one can remain unchanged. In each case, the tools are mechanical but the effect is spiritual—nothing new is in our hands but our minds and bodies are transformed.
Playing directly to the spirit is traditionally something only the boldest or those with utter conviction are prepared to do—artists, activists, and the angry. Those on the receiving end are often helpless: unless we have a guiding philosophy, a practice or a belief through which to filter them, these assaults on our senses make us vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we are easy to manipulate. As many have pointed out, brutal videos lead to knee-jerk militarism of exactly the kind that Daesh need to fuel their crusade. Where is the politician today who can name the spiritual attraction—the meaning and purpose—that Daesh offer their followers, and articulate a greater one?
When Barack Obama made a fleeting visit to the UK to wish the Queen a Happy Birthday, instruct us to stay in Europe and give our floundering youth a much needed injection of hope, the Guardian went overboard in trying to capture his impact, publishing numerous articles by awestruck 20-somethings. He dances, sings gospel and blues, cries, and cares for the elderly all whilst doing his daily job. It’s a performance of wholeness. What is charisma if not the ability to talk from the whole person to the whole person?
Yet charismatic leaders are not enough if they arise within a passive polity. Who holds them to account? To do that, people themselves must develop an emotional and spiritual intelligence which becomes the new ground of politics. Some say that this is a big ask given the work and consumption-obsessed lifestyles we have. I would say this is exactly what is being developed in this age of social media.
Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snap-chat to name but four in a dense field of platforms, we don’t hesitate to reach out to each other, assaulting the senses and eliciting responses both financial and emotional—more intimately than we ever could in real time. And as we do so we comment and reflect, watching ourselves watch each other, co-creating the space for the new to emerge. It’s early days, but after 20 years of a neoliberal project that has required us to reduce ourselves to numbers, we are reconstructing ourselves piecemeal.
This understanding that politics is not simply a left-brain project of the intellect but also a right brain project of the soul is something that the left is still wary of. Understandably so, given Margaret Thatcher’s abuse of power. But we can’t let her forever define that sphere of agency.
Maybe it’s too much to ask of politicians who spend their lives defending the vulnerable to shift their mode of expression away from the scarcity of material resources to the potential abundance of emotional—even spiritual—resources.
But if we are indeed living in an age of, by and for the 99%, then democracy—evidenced through the increasingly efficient vehicles of public expression—will be their teachers. Instances of common heroism, from the spontaneous, public responses to migrants arriving on beaches to the long suffering Hillsborough campaigners who eventually triumphed against the self-interest of authority, are plenty. And judging by the viral nature of the pictures and tweets that accompany them, these are the emotional and spiritual standards we yearn for in our politicians.
That clamour, that demand is growing daily. Maybe it accounts for that feeling of excitement I wake up with every morning.