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Left Needs Soul Searching

To make people care, craft a 'politics of meaning'.

By Murray Dobbin 9 Jul 2009 |

Murray Dobbin's State of the Nation column runs twice a month on The Tyee.

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Lerner: Blame 'secular fundamentalists'

"We hunger for communities of meaning that can transcend the individualism and selfishness that we see around us and that will provide an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives some higher purpose." -- Michael Lerner, The Politics of Meaning

If progressives, whether in unions, activist groups or political parties, don't soon begin doing politics differently -- radically differently -- they will fail to show that "a better world is possible."

And the price of failure will be catastrophic.

We have known for years that our consumer culture is out of control and our obsession with having more and more stuff has reached the status of a virus. Our consumer-driven global economy is a lethal threat to the planet and every one of its eco-systems. 

The lock that consumerism has on Western so-called civilization is formidable -- a virtual death-grip on our culture and our future as a species. It is a kind of madness but one which we can apparently adapt to. This manufactured addiction to more and more stuff undermines community, threatens the planet and doesn't even make us happy. Consumerism, driven by the most sophisticated and manipulative psychology the advertising industry can buy, has had the effect of atomizing us. We are defined more and more by what we have, less and less by our relationships to family, friends, colleagues and community.

One anecdote has stuck in my mind for over 20 years. A friend attending an international peace conference in Edmonton accompanied a group of Filipino women -- all from rural areas of the Philippines -- to the West Edmonton Mall as a "tourist" outing for the visitors. Twenty minutes into the tour the women burst into tears and pleaded with their hosts to get them out. The insanity, the grotesque over-stimulation of the place, no longer obvious to the Canadian women who had grown up with these monstrosities, was grimly apparent to the village activists.

They were right.  We should all burst into tears after 20 minutes in a giant mall -- it would be a test of our mental and spiritual health.

Secular fundamentalism and its limits

It's not as if we don't know what the Filipinas knew. It's just that we have adapted to it -- like we might adapt to some physical disability. Yet if we all know this, why is it that we are unable to incorporate our understanding of this all-important cultural disability into our progressive politics -- into the ways in which we try to engage people in the struggle for a better, sustainable, world?

American rabbi and radical Michael Lerner blames what he calls "secular fundamentalism" -- the tendency amongst mainstream activists to stick rigidly to a rationalist and technocratic interpretation of both politics and culture. He calls for a politics of meaning which "posits a new bottom line. An institution or social practice is to be considered efficient or productive to the extent that it fosters ethically, spiritually, ecologically, and psychologically sensitive and caring human beings who can maintain long-term, loving personal and social relationships. While this new definition of productivity does not reject the importance of material well-being, it subsumes that concern within an expanded view of 'the good life': one that insists on the primacy of spiritual harmony, loving relationships, mutual recognition, and work that contributes to the common good."

Secular fundamentalists find talk of spiritualism intensely uncomfortable, probably because they draw immediate connections to either organized 'God' religion and its patriarchal authoritarianism or vaguely to some mushy "self-improvement" sub-culture.  Spiritualism seems to fly in the face of the kind of rationalism that has been at the core of socialist and social democratic theory for nearly two centuries.

But organizers for social change face a critical problem. Trying to mobilize people strictly on a rational basis, and in particular with uncritical acceptance of the assumptions of a consumer driven economy, is proving increasingly difficult.  On paper it should be working. Intensive values surveys of Canadians consistently reveal that they are progressive in their views about the role of government and the value of community. On the basis of such surveys, over 60 per cent of Canadians could be described politically as social democratic. And yet we see two neo-liberal federal leaders and their parties garnering two thirds of Canadians' voting intentions. Something is very wrong here.

What makes people identify?

It raises the question of why people get engaged. Why is that tens of millions get into an emotional frenzy over the death of a pop star or identify their lives with a professional sports team but can't be convinced to fight for social programs that would increase the quality of life of their communities? Why do further millions identify with right-wing evangelical religion rather than the call for secular social justice?

According to Lerner, they are in a search for meaning and in the context of the destruction of community of the past 30 years, they find in sports and Michael Jackson's fandom pseudo-communities they can identify with. In their quest for community they pass by the door that says left-wing politics. Why?  You need not search much further than the typical political meeting -- overly earnest, boring, economistic, gloom and doom and, except on rare occasions, distinctly unwelcoming to the newcomers who have braved their first tentative outing.

And after the meeting? Nothing. No nurturing. No ongoing connection. No community.

While the U.S. example does not apply as clearly here, Lerner's analysis of why the Christian right in the U.S. has been so successful has lessons for Canadian activists.

"We find thousands of Americans -- from every walk of life, ethnic and religious background, political persuasion and lifestyle -- with lives of pain and self-blame, and turning to the political Right because the Right speaks about the collapse of families, the difficulty of teaching good values to children, the fear of crime, and the absence of spirituality in their lives. The Right seems to understand their hunger for community and connection." Lerner clearly acknowledges the destructive and often vicious politics of the right but argues most people vote for the Christian right because they feel understood and cared for by it, not because of its policies.

Nothing exciting here, move on

The left, on the other hand, fears that the people it is trying to persuade and mobilize aren't capable of imagining or accepting a truly radical vision of the future. So the NDP, instead of developing and presenting such a vision (assuming it is still capable of imagining it) that addresses people's need for a broader meaning, reduces that vision to a package of disconnected, minor reforms that doesn't offend the media power brokers. Of course, it doesn't inspire anyone either, as evidenced by its inability to get beyond 20 per cent support.  Social movement organizations are in some ways even more trapped in the single issue incrementalism that fails to inspire all but a relative handful of politically conscious followers.

Convinced that "ordinary" people are incapable of radical change, says Lerner, too many left activists themselves retreat into a middle-class, consumer existence that they know deep down is not only unsustainable but deeply unsatisfying. We fight the good fight -- and then drive home, turn on the TV and watch the news report on a world that does not acknowledge our existence.

'These are radical needs'

Lerner's call for a politics of meaning is truly revolutionary given the extent to which consumerism is embedded in our lives and our culture, and the failure of our organizations to address the coming catastrophe. Who will be amongst the first revolutionaries to challenge the system?  We will -- the activists who are now exhausted, demoralized and convinced there is nothing new they can do to make change.

Says Lerner, "Having been burnt by past failures, these former activists will not quickly jump into new political movements. Yet, as a meaning-oriented movement gains momentum many of them will feel a homecoming that reconnects to their deepest hopes. They will become the transformative agents who move these ideas into the mainstream... These people respond out of a real inner need, not from a commitment to an abstract idea, nor out of a sense that someone else ought to be treated differently..."

"These are radical needs," writes Lerner. "Unlike needs for economic well-being or political rights, these cannot be fulfilled inside our society as it currently is constructed."

It's time for reconstruction. The economic and climate change crises can serve as an enforced breathing space: an obligatory opportunity to get off the consumer/wealth accumulation/hyper-individualism tread mill for long enough to realize it was taking us over a cliff.

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