Ten years on

Ten years ago I was full of optimism.

More to the forefront than ever was our common identity, as human beings – coloured, black or white, male or female, or what or whoever they might be.

There might I thought come a time when love and compassion could be mentioned more readily in everyday discourse, without raising cynical hackles.

Zen with its focus on living in the present, and not in imagined pasts or impossible futures, might have something to teach us.

The personal would naturally elide into the social, and the political. The local into the big picture. Society would be more just, more open, and liberal democracy more firmly rooted.

I still have my optimism. But it’s tougher road to travel.

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Ten years on my starting-point remains the same – the innate sense of justice and compassion which lies within each of us. Violence is the distraction. For Thomas Hobbes, favourite political philosopher of many, on the other hand, violence is the reality, society a necessary construct to allow social values space to operate.

I’m arguing we should take compassion as the reality, and build out from there.

It’s hard to imagine the practice of compassion beginning at the top, with government, though it would be wonderful if it did. Its natural launch pad is the family, from which it extends out into neighbourhood, into local institutions, school, colleges, local government. Identification with neighbourhood is key. But identity too easily becomes exclusive, narcissistic, intolerant – identity operating against rather than with others. We operate our politics from behind barricades. We don’t talk at bus stops, on street corners, or in pubs. We prefer social media …

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Many see social media as a panacea for all our ills, people coming together. I’d question this.  Coming together is about eye contact, about all the nuances of expression, about changes from moment to moment, about listening more than speaking, about compromise – about the moment, about the instant – about holding hands, walking together, taking in the sky and sunset together – social media offer none of this.

Larry Diamond argued back in 2010 that new digital tools would empower ‘citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilise protest, monitor elections, scrutinise government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom’. The Arab Spring, inspired by social media, followed. And we know what came later.

#MeToo is another matter – it proves how much of a driver for change social media can be. I’m counselling caution, not opposition.

Who are the gatekeepers of social media? We may think the digital world has left the analogue, the old pedestrian face-to-face outmoded and behind the curve. But we should beware. Keyboard democracy has the same instant appeal as referenda, and all the disadvantages, and more. The ‘will of the people’ is unrealisable, because there must always be a question-master, a rule-setter, an interpreter, a judge – whereas representative democracy has the rules, the check and balances, and, for the USA and Europe, the traditions in place.

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Politics is about compromise – it is the art of compromise. And it needs to be personal, and pragmatic. So when we move out of our localities, or our social media space, we need our social spaces to link up to find common ground with each other. We need to look beyond our immediate identities. Find common ground with other groups. Political parties exist for this purpose. They need to be broad churches, where change and compromise are the order of the day. Media which demand positions which are always consistent which never change, are the enemy here.

Political parties aren’t popular. At times they’ve had the world before them – ridden the wave, at other times they’ve turned inward, exclusive – one interest group triumphs, ideologues take over the agenda … I needn’t say more.  But I don’t believe they can be easily substituted. Gauging opinion via social media assumes an entirely open and unmanipulated space out there, and that doesn’t and will never happen.

So, yes, it’s the street corner, the pub, the club, the church – they’re the spaces where we start. With the individual, operating in person and not with a virtual identity. We move up the chain from there, by consultation and election, to representative institutions, places for debate and the exchange of ideas, ultimately to parliament.

There are vast differences of view out there. Conflict and change will remain the order of the day. But let us at least ensure the foundations of our institutions are dug down deep. They don’t belong in a virtual space, they belong in ordinary human contact – moving up and out on to larger stages.

Those institutions well established are our best guarantee that we will reach the right decisions – on identity, immigration, infrastructure, business, welfare, how wealth is distributed, how media should be owned and operate ….

For some what I’ve said here many seem obvious, others may see it as no more than faux sociology. But I’m not attempting here an academic proposition. Rather, no more than to outline the way the personal and political need to link if society is to prosper.

As individuals, while we may lay into politicians, we need to tread carefully railing against institutions. They’ve come about not by accident, but because they worked. Take note of China, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela. Whatever you do with the bathwater, hold on to the baby.

Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.

And who is working class these days?

Working class – who is working class these days? The numbers of Americans defining themselves as middle class are in decline: 48% now consider themselves lower or working class. There are similar shifting sentiments in the UK.

And where do the old values of social liberalism (for a definition of social liberalism see * below) and social justice fit within this changing spectrum?

In both the USA and UK a new identity (nation, race, interest group) politics is taking hold. At the expense of both a more liberal outlook, and ‘the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England’. (David Marquand)

Taking Labour first, what the old Left hasn’t accepted is that the working-class solidarity of old, which has inspired the Labour movement for 150 years, is gone forever. And that could include Marquand’s ‘more conservative Labourism’. Left-intellectual radicalism and working-class aspirations no longer gell as once they did. Grinding poverty is no more, the old Marxist underpinning likewise, and there’s an alienation, a boredom and increasingly an hostility toward the political process.

And intellectuals, never too popular in the UK, are out of fashion as never before.

The popular instinct, as the Brexit result revealed, is to hold on to what we have. Immigration, globalisation, new technologies, the old politics, all are suspect. There’s support for renationalising the railways, but not for wider state intervention.

Maybe the Corbynite left will convince us otherwise, but I think they’re simply out of tune with the popular will.

So too social liberals – they’re also out of tune with broad sections of the population, who only see government indifference to unwanted changes in their lives – housing shortages, pressures on services, regional development, immigration.

It’s addressing these issues, rather than an overtly radical political prospectus, that will win people back to a liberal agenda.

Likewise, this should be Labour’s policy focus. Radical at heart, but pragmatic in practice. Unless you’re happy in the wilderness.

*Wikipedia has a helpful definition of social liberalism: Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

The better side of business

Zenpolitics and enterprise. Bedfellows? I’ve two very different contributions to the subject.

One is inspirational, Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City and Belgian captain, writing on the subject of Shared Goals, in an interview with Matthew Taylor, in the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) magazine:

‘Too often we’re forced to make a choice between charity and business. Of course supporting charities is very important and there need to be dedicated areas for charities. But I think we need to close the gap between the two – entrepreneurial and charitable – because there is a huge middle ground there, where there are still a lot of projects worth bringing to completion, that are going to have huge long-term benefits for society.’

Referring specifically to football, he argues that it is ‘more and more… damaging for a brand to just be focused on profits without having a plan that can make other people benefit… One of the biggest examples to me of this is the pricing of a tickets in England…’

The other contribution – a recent House of Commons debate on the subject of tax. Tory MP Alan Duncan referred to people on the other side (meaning the Labour benches) who ‘hate enterprise’. Much of the rest of his speech was intemperate and best forgotten. His jibe begs the question – what do we mean by enterprise?

Vincent Kompany has a much better understanding than Alan Duncan, particularly if we note that Duncan’s comments were during a debate on tax havens.

We have one definition of enterprise – the pursuit of profit for its own sake.

And a second – enterprise which, to borrow Kompany’s words, closes the gap between ‘the entrepreneurial and the charitable’ – combining both a private and a public good. Capitalism drives the world economy, it’s high energy, and competitive – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise football – high energy and competitive! Think last evening and Chelsea drawing with Spurs – arguably too competitive. Be that as it may, we need entrepreneurs who are aware of the social impact and benefit of what they do, at the same time as looking to make a profit for themselves. The best entrepreneurs will plough a lot of that profit back into the country, new ventures, charities, sport and other forms of social support.

Other definitions – social enterprise, cooperatives, on a small and a larger (John Lewis) scale. And there’s scope for enterprise in public services, though I wouldn’t argue for re-nationalisation. Public ownership and enterprise aren’t easy bedfellows.

And Buddhism? Buddhism is about letting go, curbing the acquisitive instinct, recognising the impermanence of everything in the world. Viewed another way – it’s about change, and that of course is exactly what enterprise has to be. And it’s about compassion – and we have Vincent Kompany’s comment that ‘we need to close the gap’ between the entrepreneurial and the charitable.

Change and progress and enterprise have always produced casualties, with the Victorian Poor Law and workhouses as the extreme examples. But link compassion and enterprise, bring the entrepreneurial and the charitable closer together – and we could make a different and a better world.

As Vincent Kompany suggests, this isn’t a utopian ideal, but something that can become part of business, already is for many – part, put simply, of the way we do things.

Workers or shirkers

There was a BBC2 programme on ‘workers or shirkers’ last night, exploring a division which dates back to Victorian times (and earlier), to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

Ian Hislop (and it came over very much as his programme) provided some interesting background detail, taking us back to the 1830s and Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which established the Victorian workhouse. We had Chadwick’s categorisation of the population from worker to able-bodied vagabond (I don’t have access here to the exact categories), all very utilitarian, but it was often brutal in its effects, and stigmatised poverty. Hislop of course doesn’t stigmatise but he fails in his programme to get to grips with what being an outsider in society entails. A wiser programme might have used that word – those destined to be ‘outside’ the mainstream – the unemployed, the handicapped, the uneducated, the illiterate – people from broken homes, with no parental role models, in reduced circumstances, people losing jobs in towns where there are no jobs available or only the most menial. The poor – and, too often, the elderly.

The very use of the word ‘shirkers’ is playing the tabloid’s game. Likewise using George Osborne’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: Osborne’s imaginary worker, setting off to work seeing the ‘closed blinds of [his] next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The polarity is totally wrong. Yes, there is a category of able-bodied worker who chooses not to work when there are good opportunities for them to do so – the press parades them when it can find them.

My own experience (not least of education) suggests that it’s de-industrialisation, the switch from industry to services, available jobs now being of a fundamentally different kind, and in different locations, which lies at the heart of the problem. In Victorian times the surge to the cities brought problems of poverty on a massive scale. Today it’s the re-location of industry away from existing cities and towns, not least in the north of England, and the growth of new industries, especially service industries, in very different areas, which has brought new problems. Urban poverty has always been with us, and too easily becomes institutionalised. What we’re not faced with, contrary to what some would have us believe, is a wild and wilful recalcitrance.

If you’re ‘working class’, probably with a rented home, little by way of savings, limited education – when you’re world goes wrong you have nothing to fall back on. Maybe there’s a job sweeping streets, or loading shelves, paying little – much less than in a previous job. If you’re ‘middle class’, educated, home-owner, with friends and relations who may be able to help – you’re sheltered from the worst. And – if you’re lazy, don’t feel inclined to work too hard, or to get on too far in life,  it doesn’t really matter. Your circumstances will be reduced, but there will be no-one out there pointing a finger at you.

We’re back – and I’ve argued this many times – to compassion, and at the heart of compassion lies understanding. Hislop never once mentioned compassion, and never once tried to understand, to get inside the mind, the reality, of being an outsider.

That simple polarity – you’re a worker, or you’re a shirker. Hislop ended his programme by repeating it and pronouncing, ‘I’m with the workers.’ As he claimed most people are when presented with that false division. And that division has of course become the stock-in-trade of the press. Forty years ago we accepted and were proud of the welfare state and we had moved a long way from that Victorian divide. But it’s now back, and it’s pretty brutal, and where once the BBC might have been expected to show some neutrality – and indeed recognise the plight of society’s outsiders, it’s no longer fashionable to do – or maybe, and simply, the BBC no longer dares to show a heart of its sleeves.

And finally – Hislop made no mention at all of the extraordinary population growth in the early 19th century, consequent upon the industrial revolution, and the major problems faced by cities such as Manchester. See Alison Light’s Common Ground for the situation in Cheltenham. The Poor Law Amendment Act was a response to a perceived and real emergency. We have no such excuse in our own times.

Yes, there is a continuing discussion to be had about whether or not austerity has gone too far, and payments of some benefits have increased to an extraordinary degree in recent years. There are issues to be addressed but the worker-shirker divide is entirely the wrong context.

Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)