Progressive renewal lies in a deep recognition that we are not choosing our current lives.
By Ronan Harrington
May 27, 2016
On 4 June, thinkers, activists and politicians from across Europe are gathering outside London to explore a more visionary politics. One that is not merely content with humanising neoliberalism, but taking us beyond it. Toward a society with a renewed understanding of progress, where the economy serves us again.
The gathering is called Alter Ego because change of this magnitude requires an inner transformation in all of us.
As an initiator of this gathering, I am guest editing a series for Transformation that will argue that spirituality is the key to the visionary politics we long for.
My understanding of the potential constraints of this claim come from personal experience. For most of last year I was simultaneously the co-director of the Psychedelic Society (an organisation that advocates for the careful use of psychedelics) and a director at a city law firm, recruited to show lawyers a new way of seeing themselves.
I had a foot in two worlds that exist on opposite ends of the political spectrum and was trying to reconcile them.
For me, it’s not that psychedelic drugs themselves are important, it’s about the perspective they give. When taken responsibly in a safe setting, they have the potential to occasion a complete mystical experience, one that radically alters our understanding of reality. We go beyond our default, egocentric way of seeing the world and connect deeply with the underlying unity and interconnectedness of all things. In short, we deeply experience what is at the heart of all religious teaching.
BBC Radio 4 Analysis recently documented a trip I helped facilitate in the Netherlands, as part of a piece on the renewal of scientific interest in the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs. In interviews, participants spoke, sometimes through tears, of overcoming trauma from the past, seeing through the societal expectations that had constrained their lives, and connecting with something greater than they had previously imagined.
At one point two of their journalists cornered me, asking whether psychedelics should be legalised. I doled out some soundbites about sensible policy and their appropriate use in a therapeutic context, but the truth was that I was seeing my friends connect with something greater than themselves, and I wished more people could experience it.
I tried to bring the essence of this vision into the law firm, inspiring them to be more purposeful, daring and caring. For a conservative profession in the heart of the city, they were incredibly open minded. Even hiring me in the first place was an encouraging sign.
There was interest in my ideas, even excitement at times. However, we too easily fell back into default ideas about who we were, and what we could become. Established identities and aspirations, particularly amongst older generations, were impossible to disembed from the capitalist system that created them.
I half jokingly suggested more than once if that if we all just tried psychedelics they’d get what I was talking about.
Despite opposing political viewpoints, the managing partner of the law firm and I had a strong working relationship. One of his favourite pastimes was to cut out copies of Janan Ganesh’s Tuesday column in the FT to encourage me to grow out of my youthful idealism.
Ganesh is blunt about our lack of desire for change. His sobering theme is that despite the clamour for change on social media, most people just want to get on with their lives. He argues that the British left mistakenly see political apathy as a sickness to be cured, rather than something entirely respectable in a country where life is “tolerable to good”.
He says: “This is what happens when people spend too much time in central Athens and not enough watching shoppers trundling their trolleys through the Tesco in Leighton Buzzard.”
Reading his column every Tuesday, and experiencing it play out in real time at the law firm was incredibly deflating. Yet I refused to believe this was the end of the story.
The political theorist Roberto Unger doesn’t either, arguing persuasively that the left will only renew itself if it champions the cause of “deep freedom”. My friends and I had experienced this freedom first hand, and yet this conversation remains off the table in our political debate. Alter Ego is our way of asking why.
The premise of Alter Ego is that our economic system is a reflection of a conditioned self that we find difficult to see beyond. What I mean by conditioned self is the way that society shapes who we think we are, often entirely in unconscious ways. If we are serious about creating a new society then we need a narrative and policy agenda that helps us go beyond the selves that sustain the old one. All of this is possible with a new understanding of spirituality as an adult developmental journey.
The conditioned self
We are stories we tell ourselves, or more accurately, we’re the stories that are told to us again and again. When education secretary Nicky Morgan warns young people that choosing arts subjects at schools could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”, a story is being told. When the Daily Mail publishes a front page news story that ‘Retirement really could kill you’, a story is being told. When we are told how to succeed, who to care about, and how to react, a story is being told.
We build our lives, and construct our very identities on these stories. They become who we are.
In this case, the neoliberal story is that salvation lies in work and materialism: a status anxiety that undermines peoples’ wider social obligations and the prospects of a more fulfilling life. This private tragedy plays out at a collective level in the inequality and mental health and environmental crises that plague societies.
It’s difficult to imagine how a critical mass of people could simultaneously become aware of and challenge the dominant stories that actively shape us.
Yet it’s not so much the persuasive capacity of fringe elements, but that the stories themselves start to break down. In times of stagnation and crisis, the mythos of the old story is laid bare, which helps explain the mass disillusionment with politics today.
This breakdown is more keenly felt amongst younger generations. A recent Harvard University survey of young adults found that that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. Our loss of confidence in Capitalism is pause for self reflection on what we’re trying to achieve in the first place. An hour on the therapist’s couch reveals the underlying insecurity that drives our received ideals. We lack self-worth, so we seek validation through ‘success’. Yet even when we summon the courage to step outside this narrative, we’re up to our eyes in debt and can’t afford the rent.
Progressive renewal lies in a deep recognition that this is not a life we are choosing. We are trapped, on the outside and within.
To shield ourselves from this uncomfortable truth we rationalise ways of living even if we also doubt them, ridiculing others who choose an alternative path. This is the conspiracy of conformity that we are all guilty of participating in. Unger characterises this cultural tendency as “a posture of ironic detachment that turns us from flesh to stone”. The kind that makes Ganesh’s conservative realism so seductive.
The new story of spirituality
Renewal will only come when we experience ourselves in a new light. Just as Galileo proved that Earth was not the centre of the universe, there is potential for a shift in perspective within, discovering that the conditioned self is not the whole of who we are. This essentially spiritual awakening gives rise to a set of aspirations that enable a more visionary politics.
What used to be a vague new-age notion is now understood more plainly as adult development. As Jonathan Rowson unpacks in his article for the series, this usually means one or more of at least three things.
Firstly, maturational development, popularised in the bestselling book Reinventing Organisations, which allows us to detach from narrow perspectives that we were once unconsciously beholden to. Development in ‘stages of consciousness’ help us free ourselves from needing to conform to the dominant norms and values of the culture we were raised in. This is critical in order to assume a more counter cultural perspective.
Secondly, experiential depth, which refers to the broadening and deepening of experience, opening to states of mind and body that we were previously ignorant of. Exposure to these states, through mindfulness, drugs, and other ecstatic experience helps us glimpse beyond our default ‘rational consciousness’, the kind that cements a ‘put your head down and get on with it’ mentality that is closed to new ideas.
For example, the administering of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can occasion a ‘complete mystical experience’. One high profile study found that it it lead to “significant increases in the key personality dimension of openness - being amenable to new ideas, experiences and perspectives — more than a year later”. It’s a progressive bonus that those who score higher on the personality dimension openness also tend to endorse less right wing views.
And thirdly, emotional development, arguably the most familiar within mainstream discourse, found in psychodynamic practices and popularised by organisations like The School of Life. This helps us develop a relationship with the complex and often overwhelming emotions that arise inside us. “Developing a relationship with our reactions”, in the words of psychologist Robert Kegan, is critical to overcoming the cycle of self righteousness, blame and projection that keeps us politically stuck. A new society will not magically appear outside of ourselves. It is only possible when we acknowledge that we all have a shadow side, and are willing to work on ourselves.
This is the new story of spirituality that we are all in the midst of experiencing. An adult developmental journey that leads to greater perspective, more openness to change, and greater self responsibility. These are the foundations of a visionary politics.
Spirituality needs to be made political because politics is the means by which we alter the structures that conspire against our development. The outdated working week that saps our engagement can only be dismantled with legislation on shorter working weeks, the embrace of full automation, and universal basic income. The exam factories that turn children off their own development for life can only be transformed by wresting control of education policy.
In turn, the appetite for a visionary alternative can only come from people that have seen themselves in a new way, who demand a different life.
Charles Peguy reminds us that “everything starts in mysticism and ends in politics.” This week you will read articles that attempt to put what is most fundamental to us back on the table. Charlotte Millar and Deborah Grayson argue that neoliberalism is an anti spiritual project; Jonathan Rowson unpacks what exactly it means to say that personal change is the key to transformative political change; Max Harris asks whether basic income could make us more lonely; Ejner Friis and I explain the link between deep experience and the acceptance of visionary alternatives, and Indra Adnan persuades us that our spirit is something real that our politicians can cultivate in a digital age.
What these articles speak to is a new story of self. It’s time to make it political.
Ronan Harrington is a freelance political strategist. He is a co-creator of Alter Ego, a gathering exploring the future of progressive politics.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.