Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download
Lefty arguments are fraught with asterisks, exceptions, caveats, considerations, footnotes, excuses and pie-in-the-sky moral posturing coded in a lexicon that most people don’t even get.
The right meanwhile is able to stand behind simplistic, strong and wrong optimism, cloaking itself with the grace of God and good intentions. The left is caught navel-gazing and obsessing over whether or not their actions are philosophically correct; stuttering, qualifiyng, apologizing, accommodating … whimpering along the way. The right meanwhile is going with its gut, shooting from the hip, smoking people out of thier caves, straight talking … pick your conservative maxim. The reins of global power are in the hands of those who are able to symbolize a big idea, whatever that idea may be. The fortunes of the global left depend on whether or not they can take a stand on a big idea again. Žižek, Badiou, Hedges, Klein, Rancière, Bifo, have all hinted at what the left has lost, but it’s Jonathan Franzen who hammers the point home:
“Craving sex with her mate was one of the things (OK, the main thing) she’d given up in exchange for all the good things in their life together. Walter tried everything he could think of to make sex better for her except the one thing that might conceivably have worked, which was to stop worrying about making it better for her and just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind. But the Walter who could have done this wouldn’t have been Walter.”
You might be wondering what does this have to do with the left? In asking, you, like me, and maybe all of us, highlight a common affliction we suffer – the creeping truth that activism has become a mask for spiritual and character rot. That maybe we have erected a progressive facade to cover the worst of denials, our animal. Sex has everything to do with the current state of things. It represents our most basic human desire and our most common trait of voluntary repression. If behind closed doors we cannot be free, what possibility do we have of offering anything to our world? This doesn’t mean that you need to be an S&M character in order to be progressive, but it shows the point that for a message to be genuine it must come from a place of personal emancipation. Sincerity and liberation are addictive. The most successful entities in any society know this and use it to their advantage. Las Vegas was built upon the principle that if you build it they will come. And they did, making a multibillion dollar oasis in the desert. Las Vegas tells no lies. There is no delusion in traveling to Nevada’s desolate plains and throwing your money away. You get what you pay for – a casino brothel under the baking sun. The sincerity is quantifiable. The potential for financial liberation, no matter how unlikely, is intoxicating. Likewise, if a movement has currency, sincerity, honesty and a hint of real liberation, people will come. Tahrir Square. London. Syria. Vancouver Stanley Cup riot. All sincere regardless of cause.
Australian author and environmentalist Clive Hamilton has been arguing for the past decade that the left has been floundering around like a bunch of whiny holier-than-thou beach bodies, screaming how to save the world without first having ensured that they too won’t be sucked under the wave. The left make poor lifeguards is essentially what he means. They don’t ensure their own safety – personal liberation – and are likely to be drowned by the victim they are trying to save – the converts. This is not an argument about hypocrisy, far from it. It is a psychological assessment of what Hamilton considers the savior complex endemic in the global left. A complex that has no currency without corresponding personal sincerity. Do this. Do that. Don’t consume that. Buy this. We’ll fight the corporations. Lets fight the right-wingers. A better world is possible. A cacophony of soft maxims supported by desperate bodies throwing their personal misgivings and unhappiness onto the altar of activism – the same impulse that drives entire populations into ethnic nationalism, religious conversion and other ubiquitous populist enterprises.
A Christian missionary in Thailand once told me that Buddhists don’t hear what you say, they hear what you do. The villagers observed him and his family closely, how they treated each other, noting expressions of love, equality, respect, humility and modesty. The most important quality of all to them, he said, was whether he had a spiritual revelation manifest in an outpouring of personal joy. This caused great concern to his colleagues and despite several years of effort, they converted no one. He and his missionary friends were gloomy and homesick. They offered a new system to the Thai villagers, but not a new way of being. That is where, as Hamilton argues, the left is today. A system without soul. A people in denial. An obsession looking for a cause. A mass of people looking outward when they should be looking in.
We have all seen it. Maybe we are even these archetypes ourselves. The close-minded open-minded person. Well versed in emancipation and cutting edge lefty rhetoric but altogether intolerable, anal, pedantic, arrogant, rude and fully convinced they know what is best for society. Or the idealist who hops from cause to cause, virulently condemning a belief they wholeheartedly embraced only a short time ago, trying to convert you to direct your energy toward the latest paradigm. Or the usual suspect protesters manifesting a collective oppositional defiance disorder against anything and anyone representing vague concepts of power. Their own lives might be in shambles, without spiritual relief, entirely unable to define their action beyond a sentence, but that does not matter to their leaders. What has become tantamount in activism today is collective, organized action, however weak, regardless of the motivation or the emotional/spiritual source of that action. The left must have more to offer than this. It needs the righteous confidence of the right without the pride and arrogance. It needs the confidence of Evangelicals and the commitment of Islamists without the delusion and apologetics. It needs emancipation. It needs a newfound spiritualism that places a premium on personal enlightenment and monasticism. It needs, in a word, liberation.
All the great religions talk about liberating the self first and how only out of that emancipation can goodness flow. Defiled, this principle becomes the blasphemous health-and-wealth evangelical doctrines sweeping Nigeria, South Korea, Holland and the United States. Undefiled, it is the key that unlocks paradise. In the gospel of John, Christ encourages his disciples, saying people will know you are Christians by your love for one another. His early disciples were afraid and isolated, living under Rome’s heavy hand. To make converts they had to show in their joy that the belief was worth emulating. In Islam, Jihad, the struggle against desire and sin within oneself, is the primary task of the spiritual journey. Observed as intended, Jihad goes hand in hand with the bigger idea that if everyone just focused on being a “good” Muslim, being themselves, the law would wither away and society itself would become the creation of each inhabitants’ revelation. Buddhism’s all-suffering-comes-from-desire equally focuses on righting the self. Without enlightenment, the Buddha insisted, one was destined to replicate the errors of the past regardless of the goodness of intentions. The Dalai Lama’s modern musing, world peace through inner peace, is the greatest political assertion of this principle.
A wedge has been driven between politics and personal emancipation. Activism has been drained of its mysticism and reduced to a sterile rational prop, a blank slate upon which protesters trace their wants and desires – demands impossible for even the most benevolent and wealthy state to deliver. And despite its futile and Sisyphean character, this is still where the bulk of the left in the West finds itself today. Infinite causes, grandiose ideals … and miserable lives. Perhaps it is time to reverse the paradigm and reconsider what was thrown out with religion long ago – liberation of your animal soul.