The rise and rise of populism (1)

Theresa May has today come back with a draft Brexit deal from Brussels. Will it get through her cabinet meeting later today – will it get through parliament in the coming weeks? The convolutions over recent months have been extraordinary, and occupied newspapers, TV, parliament and civil servants, and intruded overly into all our lives. Our time could have been better spent elsewhere.

I wrote when I set up this blog that ‘zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future’. We have done too much of the latter over the last two years. It is the reality of the moment we have to address.

In this blog and the following one I’m looking at the rise of populism and, with the help of an Economist article and a new book from the political theorist Yascha Mounk, attempting to put it in context.

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Bagehot (Economist 3rd November) is on the look-out for ‘intelligent explanations’ for Brexit and specifically the rise of populism that lies behind it, and he finds guidance in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s book ‘National Populism’.

The authors identify ‘four Ds’ that they believe explain populism:

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

distrust of established elites: 58% of Britons think that ‘politicians do not listen to me’;

deprivation: ‘a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation … tipped the balance for significant groups of voters,’ in Bagehot’s words;

de-alignment: it’s true that Labour and Tories together at the last election won 82% of the vote, but ‘Brexit cuts like a knife though both main parties’.

Bagehot argues that all this should warn ‘the political elite should not to take the decision to re-fight the 2016 referendum lightly if the opportunity presents itself’.  Those whose opinions were ignored ‘could be dangerously radicalised if the vote went in favour of Remain’.

This is a dangerous argument in itself. If Brexit is a pathway to disaster for the country, as Remainers believe it is, and as events are proving, then we who might be immune to ‘dangerous radicalisation’ should not back off because we fear it from the other side.

Bagehot’s other conclusion, that nationalist populism will be an important part of British politics for decades, is probably true – but not certainly so.

Disinformation and dishonesty and simple deviousness (Ds again) played a significant part in swinging the referendum vote. (Or as a local leaflet has it: ‘manipulation, mistruths and campaign violations.’) They will be harder to counter as long as the media play the polarising game: restricting UK media ownership to fully resident and full UK-taxpaying citizens would be an important step forward.

But we have the media we have – in the UK and the USA. Looking beyond, we have immediate actions we could take, if the will is there. But there is also a deeper crisis, which immediate actions can ameliorate but not resolve – a crisis for democracy and for liberal democracy, in the very institutions which have underpinned our democracies in the post-war years. I’ll return to this in the post following.

As for immediate actions …. I don’t believe answers lie in new democratic institutions, citizens’ forums and the like, but returning power to local authorities would be an important step. Likewise, nation-wide investment in infrastructure: starting in, not ending in, or not even reaching (I’m thinking of HS2), deprived areas.  And a curtailing of arrogance among the elite – de-eliting the elite. Many MPs have a close relationship with their constituencies (see Isabel Hardman’s new book, ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’): all need to do so, and the ‘club’ atmosphere of the Commons, and all signs of arrogance among MPs, need to be stamped down on hard. A surfeit of posh Tories and democratised Trotskyites hasn’t helped.

Fewer ‘free-traders’ would also help: arguments that there exist ‘free trade’ alternatives to the EU and the single market reassured many Leave voters that there was a real alternative to the EU. I grew tired of ‘free-traders’ referring to an economists’ ‘commissariat, as if there was a plot afoot among mendacious economists to fool the nation in the interests of … who? … global capitalism, I assume.

But immediate actions can’t level out the playing field between a rampant banking and global business sector, and the wider business sector, between a brutally acquisitive oligarchy for whom wealth brings power and influence, and the ordinary person, out of London, out west, or north, or east.

I’ll address this wider context in my next post.

Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

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.

Is reason enough?

(References are to Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress’, and Philip Ball’s excellent review of the book in the March edition of Prospect. Also to Philip Dodd who took on Pinker is a determined interview on the Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.)

A brief weather note to begin. Spring we thought might almost be upon us, but Siberia has chased it away, and the snowdrops are looking a little out of place, and the daffodils have all but gone to earth.

So too reason? And, specifically, the pursuit of reason in political argument and debate?

I’m reading so much about identity, culture wars, anger and estrangement – and now with Steven Picker’s new book, the Enlightenment is in the news. How can I not be a big fan? The rigorous application of reason brought to bear on all aspects of our activities. As advocated by Diderot, author of the Encyclopedie, the seminal text of the Enlightenment.

Sleep of reason

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, from his series of etchings, Los Caprichos, 1799.

But has the Enlightenment also gone to earth? Pinker thinks not – argues powerfully against.

I’d love to sign up unreservedly to his paean to progress – things are getting better, as the statistics and graphs tell us, incontrovertibly so – we are all living longer, better educated, immeasurably better off if we take the world as a whole. But what troubles me is his ‘aversion to anything subjective’, as Philip Ball puts in his review. Pinker denies religion any role, likewise identity, tribal identity – and that means shared beliefs in progress, humanity, compassion, sometimes God. He has no place for out-there institutions, places of worship, and the collective action they often embody – action against poverty, hardship, exclusion – inspired by and acting out of love. Compassion, as I argued in a post of a few years back, discussing Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, doesn’t get a look in.

Can reason be enough of itself to triumph over violence?

For Pinker man is ‘born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive’. Only reason can hold out against this. And reason finds expression in democracy as the most effective way to gain traction. Thomas Hobbes had a similar view of mankind, but saw our only hope as lying in contracting with an autocratic ruler. With Xi Jinping seeking president-and-party-leader-for-life status we’ve a good example of that alternative path closer to hand. Turkey likewise, and Hungary and Poland moving in that direction.

Reason simply isn’t enough on its own. It’s not solus reason that’s leading the charge, it’s religion, and reason together, and by religion (a maybe controversial definition!) I mean the exercise – the acting out – of an innate compassion, a rather un-Darwinian concept. Not just the compassion of mother to child, or a care worker to her charges, or a priest or minister toward his congregation, but compassion as an innate moral code that informs the wider political workings of society.

Pinker’s right in there, unworried about his PC status, arguing that the left, supposedly champions of the working-class and the left-behind, has focused too much on issues of sexual and cultural identity – and lost connection with the old working class. Marx is excluded from the pantheon but Hobbes indeed is one of the good guys. Fascinating as intellectual debate, but where is the connection with the everyday?

Reason is too chill to excite, too cerebral to inspire (unless you’re Pinker). We are where we are today because the passion and compassion of reformers, secular and religious, has consistently challenged enterprise and competition – to the benefit of all. Championing education, social welfare, safety nets in time of need. It’s when society believes in and acts out a shared morality that we move forward.

Pinker has run himself into hot water in recent weeks arguing that inequality isn’t a major issue for our times – the majority worldwide is in our times so much better off – but inequality is a key driver of social action. Inequality is tied in with a sense of being left behind, on the outside. There’s a big poker game running, but it’s (the UK) down south, or (the USA) up in the north-east, or out on the West Coast, and I’m not invited.

If society isn’t inclusive, if it isn’t compassionate, those who perceive themselves as excluded will set themselves up as ‘the majority’, will scale down compassion to actions within their own social group, and society will polarise, and nations seek out their own identities, and close borders, and all the grand tenets of the Enlightenment will be even more confined to discussion among academics.

This zenpolitics blog is about strategies for living, if that doesn’t sound too grand – I’ve summarised them before as enterprise and compassion, social justice and capability. Yes, there’s a violent side to all our natures, but it’s more our competitive instinct that dominates and drives society forward. Violence arises when we push back selfish boundaries too far.

Compassion and competition work together. If competition is centrifugal, tearing apart, at its extremes, violence, then compassion is the opposite, it is the instinct that binds – and it is innate. Pinker would scorn such notions.

Pinker’s wonderful to listen to – he signed my copy of Better Angels at a Royal Society of Arts talk some five years ago, and we had a few words back then. (Our subject – was war inevitable in 1914?) But his argument hasn’t the essential motor, the sine qua non, to progress.

It will fire the campus and the book pages. But beyond?

Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.

 

Brexit – the new promised land

Buddhism has neither a god, nor a promised land – for many that is, but not for all:  adherents of the Pure Land teachings within the Mahayana tradition believe that by reciting the name of Amithaba Buddha they can achieve rebirth in a western ‘pure land’.

Deriving any kind of political conclusion from spiritual belief is always high risk. But there is a ‘promised land’ mentality abroad at the present time, and curiously it’s taken hold of the right of the political spectrum – the day-dreams, the political unrealities which typified the Left for so long are now the prerogative of the Right.

There is it seems a world out there, beyond the western horizon (beyond the sunset), where we can trade freely, without restriction, without regulation, where self-interest becomes the common interest, where supervisory bodies not least governments touch so lightly that we’re hardly aware they’re there. We in the UK, we’re free traders at heart. Once we set the example for the world by going it alone. Others followed. And they will do so again. We were, we still are, exceptional.

We achieve this by a simple stroke, a referendum, from which there is no turning back.

Our history, our unwritten constitution, is full of errors, U-turns, crises, but the parliamentary system has always allowed for corrections, changes of tack, a self-correction mechanism.

But true belief and true believers allow no compromise.

There is a rigidity to belief systems, and referenda are a classic way of embedding practices and beliefs. Cooperation and compromise become, as we’ve seen over last year, much harder. We are on dangerous ground.

Likewise the USA, where exceptionalism, of the American kind, is also closely woven into the debate. A continuing danger lies in the presidential control over appointments to the Supreme Court, and the way appointments can sway the Court in the ever-more-polarised national debate. The Citizens United decision in 2010 effectively allowed super-PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of political parties or candidates, as long as the money wasn’t paid directly to the candidate. There is now no restriction on what money can buy in American politics, and no limit to the levels of vituperation, and with much of the press in the UK in the hands of over-wealthy men with overt political agendas we are running the same risks here.

The US Congress has many famous examples of cross-party cooperation, of a movement to consensus when the times require it.  The UK likewise. But money polarises, and likewise referenda. If one side dig deep to defame the other, if one side claim that a referendum has once and for all and forever decided an issue – what scope can there be for coming together?

The ‘pure land’ mentality belongs in the spiritual sphere. It is pace Dawkins, Dennett el al, a natural aspiration of mankind. But it has no place in politics.

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A brief coda. Paul Johnson (director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies), writing in The Times, reminds us how once a big government project (for example, the NHS IT system) is underway ‘its momentum can carry it through almost any amount of evidence it is not working’. He continues:

‘The serial inability of governments to define, manage and deliver big projects can only be sobering in the context of the attempt to deliver Brexit – the biggest project of them all.’

At what point does a promised land become a fool’s paradise?

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.