The sacred, the profane and the fatal flaw in politics

“Everything starts in mysticism and ends in politics.” ~ Charles Péguy

pprepublic-of-platoSo, politics is broken. Everyone’s standing back, eyeing those sharp-edged pieces scattered over the carpet, quietly horrified that any minute someone might be tempted to pick one up and use it as a weapon.

The hair-raising crises in energy, finance, ecology and climate that led to this scenario have been clear for years. The real wake-up is in recognising the premeditated cunning with which ever more unsavoury, self-interested opportunists continue to exploit them, now without even a pretence at decency. While thoughtful pioneers were exploring how radical democracy, alternative economics, ecological farming and restorative justice might facilitate resilience, peace and regeneration, a cabal of racketeers fuelled by greed and contempt were organising the final chapter in a coup de grâce designed to grab control of the lot.

And where’s democracy when you need it? What a let-down. It only took a few millennia for it to become so corrupted and flawed that so-called democratic systems in most Western countries preclude meaningful representation, acting instead as covers for the interests of supranational capitalist organisations while allowing the people to be deceived and manipulated by self-protecting corporate media and psychometric marketing techniques in the hands of would-be demagogues and their conspirators. We’re now left with something that’s not democracy at all but electoral oligarchy — or perhaps corporate oligarchy or even kleptocracy, featuring state-sanctioned, armed robbery of communities, countries and peoples, partially obscured behind veils of extreme corruption and collusion.

The system is an insult, a profanity and an abomination. It has allowed the unelectable to become the ineluctable, converting our desperation for change into an eruption of tyrants. Politics now serves little purpose other than to cast aside our strangled dreams while committing murder in our names. It has failed us, at this time of greatest need for humanity and all life.ppworldflags

Suggestions abound as to how we might clean up the system. No doubt pursuing the best of them could bring improvements. But without a deeper exploration of why politics keeps letting us down in the first place, amendments and reforms have slim chance of preventing the old patterns repeating, in ever more constricting circles.

I’m not pretending to be well equipped to offer such an exploration. I’m inappropriately educated and have a specific learning difficulty in this subject area. Faced with essays about politics, I am generally barely capable of parsing a sentence, let alone coming to a conclusion.

So what follows are the naive considerations of the novice, which may or may not offer a diversion.


My first hunch is that politics is not broken at all. It seems more likely we’ve collectively misinterpreted what its function was meant to be all along. It’s working fine, which is precisely the problem, because its deep code is founded on betrayal.

This thinking emerged from a brief excursion into descriptions of political systems through the ages. While my studies may have been casual to the point of desultory, one thing jumped out consistently: the absence in any post-Greek political writings of an automatic assignment of land rights, or even of the acknowledgement of their centrality to people’s well being and freedom.

Take Plato. Sure, he was ahead of the game on democracy and its flaws. But he appears to have accepted social hierarchies topped with a sprinkling of landowning elites as a matter of course. Skip forward to feudal England and although there were clear, strong connections between peasant farmers and the land, they came at a price; rent had already become a four-letter word.

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By AK Rockefeller via Wikimedia Commons

Regaining control of productive property was obviously a cornerstone of Marx’s thinking. But while he favoured common ownership of land, the context at the time resulted in his focusing on the corrosive effects of industrial capitalism on workers, entailing a tacit acceptance that land had fallen largely into private rather than public hands. As a correction to this, certain communist countries opted for state ownership of land, but the persistence of a centralised control imperative means that communism does not, sadly, preclude settler colonialism and the associated dispossession of people from their landscapes — think China and Tibet.

Then we have the emergence of the modern democracies, founded after long-fought battles with the aristocracy for full suffrage. By now, the people were happy to be offered a meagre vote that would decide who would handle decision-making. Private property and its unequal ownership were already so embedded into cultural beliefs that questioning the situation would have been as anathema to the lower classes as to the privileged.

What a coincidence it is that the people who designed the new democratic systems had already stolen the land from the rest of us!

And how naturally that leads to the next hypothesis, which is this: one of the implicit purposes of modern democracy was to maintain land ownership for the gentry while controlling and exploiting the wage-dependent landless masses, deprived since the Enclosures of their means of sustenance but now pacified by the pretence of a say in political matters. It’s self-evident, if you consider it for even a moment.

And now, a step further. When the zone of interest (i.e. wealth production) moved from land to other, differentiated vehicles — technology, factories, companies, money itself — it became even easier for those in possession of the first order assets (land) to maintain their control over those assets, because the people had taken their eye off the ball. Even radical activists were by now largely embroiled in second order abstractions: battles over wages, working conditions, technology, the women’s vote, corporate ownership structures, shareholder responsibilities.

All too many of us even now overlook the fact that original sustenance, original wealth, comes from land, air and water, and nothing else. This is no accident; those at the top have longer memories, and are still to this day reaping our rents and subsidies with little challenge. Meanwhile the collective sense of the political hovers conveniently in some abstract space: in the mind, in our bank accounts, in things called jobs, taxes, mortgage interest rates, school league tables and doctor waiting times, all of which can be recast, re-calibrated and renamed, so our fights become ephemeral and un-winnable, like throwing darts at moving blancmange.

The swing from right to left and back again is no more than hypnotism. We rarely think to ask from where the pendulum hangs.

So my contention is that politics has worked perfectly well for centuries, in keeping the people from their birthright. It is still working now.

Even though we see the politically-enabled machinations of profit and greed destroying soil, water, forests, oceans, ice-caps and the life around us, we are still not, en masse, making the connection between land and politics, nor (with the exception of some courageous minorities) focusing our shared fight on the thing that underpins it all.

This is not some archaic, quaint theme. This is a statement that reflects on thousands of years of daylight robbery, for which politics has been the getaway vehicle.


It’s hard to say precisely what started the process of our disengagement and dispossession from the land — likely some combination of environmental conditions, totalitarian agriculture and take-over by “big men” — but what is clear is that the great betrayal goes back a very long way, and that once in full swing it unleashed a fracture in the fabric of our relationships that rearranged the patterns of power across space and time.

As wild people living by hunting and foraging, our exchanges with other species were unmediated and real-time. Relationships with each other in tribal communities were visible and testable. The web of connection on which life depended was at the forefront of practice, ritual and myth, which served to maintain a respectful reciprocity between us and the sources of our sustenance, and thereby a viable habitat for the future.

But then we were peeled away from that biodiverse, vivid, sensual, ecologically-attuned life and shifted into complex societal structures based on boundaries and hierarchy, maintained using coercive means by those who controlled the weapons and food supplies.

The change brought deep psychological pain. How could it not? Each step of its unfolding required the brutal severing of primal bonds.

Mutual trust was replaced with suspicion and obedience; help once freely given became priced and commodified; the natural interplay of responsibilities was replaced by formal constructs like law, ownership and debt. Food, once that most potent and unmediated of connections between hand, mouth, soil and season, became once-removed, stripped of meaning and surprise.

These hierarchical societies by default selected for the dominant, controlling people to be promoted to the top. These people, themselves bent out of shape by the coercion and control they had suffered, internalised their pain by justifying the system and their place in it, and this in turn required perpetuating it. Validated by their status and addicted to power projection, they reacted quickly and violently to challenge and sought every opportunity to pacify the masses while extending the scope and reach of their control.

Rinse and repeat a few thousand times and the rest, quite literally, is history.

The point of this (fast and loosely written) story is that the wrenching from the land resulted in two significant events: it caused people to surrender their natural power — power to live interdependently and in keeping with wild and human nature — and it also set in motion a process in which a deep psychological wound took flight across time and space, propagating across fault-lines from officer to corporal, from boss to employee, from militarised cop to dissenting citizen, from teacher to student, from priest to choirboy, from man to woman, from parent to child; passing through the stratified substrates of social class, families, companies, countries and (of course) empires, sowing and reaping suffering and fear — and, critically, the Achilles’ heel of corruptibility — as it went.

The imperative to pass on the wound became encoded deep into our political institutions and all they define, from economics to law to education, while the thing that could heal that wound — our connectivity with the land and each other — was ripped out of them.

Authority and control, and their twin sisters compliance and obedience are now held up as measures of success and sophistication; love, compassion and sacrifice for others are derided as distracting and inferior. Individually we have become infantilised, reduced as workers and political participants to a choice between indignation, apathy or approval-seeking, as if in the shadow of abusive, authoritarian parents. Even elections only provide the option to choose, sulkily, to live with the other one.

Underpinning this whole sorry mess, and manifesting at every level, is a deep and anguished sense of insecurity and mistrust, highly infectious — and now weaponised.

The First Nations tribes people of America saw with unblinkered eyes this psychologically damaged culture as it encroached on and destroyed their own. They diagnosed those white invaders with a cultural sickness, a sort of spiritual cannibalism, and named it; in the Algonquin tongue it’s called Wetiko.

It is instructive — and strangely liberating — to spot Wetiko in action throughout our culture. It accumulates in spades in politics, that manifestation in bureaucratic form of the urge to control, limit and coerce, unwittingly optimised for turbocharged infection rates. The inevitable result is a gravity-defying upward flow of power to an immensely wounded and deluded elite minority, while oppression, injustice, poverty, war, destruction and ecological collapse are foisted on growing numbers of the rest of us.

We are closing in now on the natural end point, as the system completes its transmogrification into a corporate-financial-political-media-industrial-military complex so corrupt, so manipulative, so recklessly damaging, and so unjust that it’s hard to imagine its raison d’être as anything other than accelerating us all towards total annihilation — which indeed appears to be the mission of the damaged new leader of the so-called free world.


Understanding this underlying fatal flaw in the system is an important first step in responding intelligently to the predicament in which it has placed us.

It remains to be seen how the great age of Earth vandalism will end, but the signs suggest the game is nearly up. How many of us and our fellow creatures will be left at the end is anyone’s guess; the accelerating extent of ecocide and spiralling climate chaos leave us with no guarantees. But I can think of no more intelligent way to improve the chances of those who make it than seeding social, economic and political structures that promote health-creating and regenerative ways of living.

A critical requirement for those structures is that they explicitly and implicitly address the fatal flaw — that deadly doublet of the inner wound and its anaesthetic, power — by embodying rules, norms and practices that stop it in its tracks, absorb its momentum and provide herd immunity in the event of future re-emergence.

There’s little point looking to mainstream pundits for ideas: they are wallowing in workplace Wetiko, blind to the deeper points and hamstrung by some unspoken obligation pplondonstoptrumpbycndukto maintain the charmless, inhuman nature of political discourse. Demonstrations and marches are not the whole answer either: they can work well to rally a growing impetus for change but tend not to fully define that change, instead framing their demands in the terms of existing, failing systems.

 

Despite the mainstream reticence though, a global community of thinkers and doers is making stealthy headway through the backwaters, exploring and piloting alternatives, many of which do indeed address the fatal flaw. Most readers will know where to look for updates on these; I won’t expand on them here.

(But for those who want links: I’d say those with most promise draw on a combination of commons thinking (see the P2P Foundation, Commons Transition and the writings of David Bollier), land rights (for ecologically regenerative livelihoods), open cooperatives, delegative or liquid democracy, the solidarity economy, localism, Samuel Alexander’s “wild democracy“, Buen Vivir (involving ecological self-determination) (or a different description (PDF) here), Radical Ecological Democracy or Eco Swaraj, the works of Elinor Ostrom, Daniel Christian Wahl’s theories on designing regenerative cultures, James Greyson’s policy switches, Transition and people permaculture.)

The thing is, there’s no shortage of innovative and practical models, nor of pilot implementations. The biggest impediment to their wholesale adoption is the politics of Wetiko. The question, as ever, is how we might replace that monolithic death machine with a million wellsprings of a politics of life.


“If you want to build a ship don’t assign tasks; rather, teach others to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery


If that can ever happen, the first requirement will be that a critical proportion of people believe it to be possible — and want it. I’d guess our best chance of spreading such a desire lies not so much in communicating the nuts and bolts, more in inspiring the feelings.

Because the truth is, I’m almost as alienated by analyses of peer-to-peer economics and commons-based ownership as I am by mainstream politics, which probably means others will be too.

This points to a missed opportunity, because the essence of the alternative systems is not really about systems at all (unlike our current one, with its heart-numbing focus on numbers, mechanisms, leverage and control) — but about allowing the organic re-emergence of unquantifiable partnerships and aesthetics.

These alternative approaches embody a beauty, a spirit that’s entirely absent from the incumbent system. In their optimum form they could enable (rather than repress) everything we love: mutuality, generosity, reciprocity, trust, solidarity, shared visions, nature-based living, kindness, fun, healing; in other words, everything sacred — all of which the fatal flaw precludes.

Injecting this spirit, and these taboo terms, into even a fraction of the flurry of political debate underway right now has the potential to transform our engagement with politics, perhaps even to re-enchant it, to imbue it with colour, feeling and relevance. Messages that communicate how politics, rather than being a getaway vehicle for gangsters, could be the repo vehicle that lets us reclaim our rightful connections with land, health and community, could be revolutionary.

That type of communication is not without its precedents. One inspiring example is offered by the recently published Lean Logic. Written well before its time by the late David Fleming, and painstakingly edited by Fleming’s friend Shaun Chamberlin, Lean Logic offers unconventional and captivating reading, which feels not at all like work, yet still provides a solid foundation for understanding where as a society we could be heading and why we might want to head there.

Fleming organised his arguments like an encyclopaedia, for ad hoc imbibing, and wrote with such charm and levity that gliding from an entry on eroticism to his description of a method for national energy reduction via a moment spent lingering over a wood-cut drawing of a calf, feels as natural and free as a Saturday morning.

It turns out that the style and shape of this magnificent creation maps naturally onto the non-linear, novelty-seeking, story-loving landscape of our minds while its wisdoms take root in the heart. There is a lesson here for how to wake up the inner senses. Fleming was not afraid to mix erudition and authority with playfulness and conviviality, and did not shy away from giving love, music, art, dance and laughter — carnival — the same high priority as the nitty gritty of economic and political systems.

This serves as an uplifting reminder that politics and its communiqués need not be complex and overbearing, nor dry and intimidating, nor vessels for deception, division and denial, but instead can be spirited, diverse, enabling and connecting.

Nor is there any need for politics to be something inflicted on us, at great cost to our souls, by tyrannical, abstract systems. Instead it should and could be something we recapture from its lofty conceptual realms, disarm, bring down to earth, and revive — in the process remaking ourselves and our world.


“Politics. (1) Deliberation about collective decisions by those affected by them.
(2) The grief that follows when (1) breaks down.” ~ David Fleming, in Lean Logic.


Further reading (some of which I have yet to do)
Lean Logic by David Fleming, edited by Shaun Chamberlin
Wounded Leaders by Nick Duffell
Psychopathic cultures and toxic empires by Will Black
The State is out of Date by Gregory Sams


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Mural by students of the late Mark Fisher, Goldsmith’s University, London

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18 comments

  1. We who believe a better world is possible are labelled dreamers and idealists. Yet I cannot stop myself from dreaming of an ideal world, and neither do I think I should.

  2. The Aristotelian hierarchy of matter separated Gods from Man, and Man from everything else. What was a ‘scientific description’ became a cultural foundation of separation of the sacred from the profane and ‘superiority/civilized’ over ‘inferiority/less-than/savage/uncivilized’, — and the basis of all of Western Civilization. Check out Robert Williams book, Savage Anxieties, for a detailed analysis.

  3. Informative and beautifully written.

    The book I’m reading at the moment points out how as people were granted more rights, PR (a multi-million dollar industry) became more prominent to nudge people into making certain decisions. Ours is a world of implied democracy where choices are influenced by emotional rhetoric and repeated assumptions. To build a better world I believe it begins with the mass media. We need media coverage of a wider range of political opinion and we need actual critical analysis to encourage people to engage in critical thinking. As you point out: the purpose of democracy to maintain land ownership and keep people subservient is ‘self-evident, if you consider it for even a moment.’ I think the problem is so few take that moment to consider it.

  4. Thank you Lydia for your thoughtful comment and kind words. Totally agree with your points, especially about PR and the media and the need for critical thinking.

  5. I imagine that all other species probably see land rights as their top problem too, because of the sixth mass extinction being caused by human overpopulation, according to David Attenborough and many others. In his notes on ‘population’, David Fleming gives the ecologists’ estimate the human population is on course to crash to 1 billion people or fewer this century. Steven Leblanc and other anthropologists can now describe in detail how the downside of civilisation over thousands of years has been that it results in a repeated tragedy of population growth, war, environmental destruction, and climate change – it’s just as well there are some good bits. The societies that successfully achieved a stable population and lifestyle were ones like the medieval village commons that were small and able to make local decisions. Long-term solutions to the overpopulation problem will probably again have to be spear-headed by grassroots UK communities, and quickly too if future generations are to enjoy a fraction of the wildlife that we do.

  6. I read Lord of the Flies when I was twelve and I understood perfectly how a group of boys would form a savage society. Feral politics. I think the only potent counterweight to political force and it’s destructive effects is spiritualism. No spiritual path has ever liberated a nation from political bondage , that I know of. But then then cannon law can become the equivilent of a dictatorship so it comes down to not what you do but how you do it that matters most.

    A disturbing bit of Plato has been bothering me for awhile, in part nine of The Republic in a discussion of imperfect societies the interlocutors are examining the type of person that exemplifies a particular ethos. Of a system, “midway between an earlier society and oligarchy”, he says;

    “It’s own peculiar characteristics, on the other hand, will be, for example, a fear of admitting intelligent people to office because intelligence is no longer combined with simplicity and sincerity; it will prefer the simpler, hearty types, who prefer war to peace. It will admire the tricks and stratagems which are needed in war, which will be it’s constant occupation.”

    What bothers me about this is the contemporary correlation. You may have noticed that we are beset on all sides by inferior people in politics. Recent events in the U.S. have liberated a great horde of inferior swine into power and Plato shows us that this sort of thing reoccurs throughout history, at least for the last 3000 years. Of course we have to keep trying, but it is demoralizing to find out that the ‘unelectable ineluctable’ nature of things is something we are truly stuck with.

  7. Thanks for your comment. That was a horribly prescient observation by Plato. William Golding had it nailed, too. The contemporary manifestations of those traits are possibly even more brutal and extreme than even they might have imagined. I’m inclined to agree that spirituality could be part of the answer, although share your concerns about the tendency of organised religion to channel undesirable tendencies as much as organised politics does. Perhaps a more spiritually aware or conscious approach to the systems of governance could produce structures that impede the dark forces in their tracks. It would be interesting to research if any such structures have existed, or prevailed for long enough to show any measurable success.

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