Making the personal political

Ronan Harrington
Nov 29, 2016 · 18 min read
Burning Man, Black Rock City

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Antonio Gramsci

Summary:

In the age of Brexit and Trump, It’s hard to imagine how we could unite around a new vision for society. We are stuck in an interregnum, where the politics of the past prevails.

I argue that we are stuck, in part, because progressive politics has failed to go to the roots of our problem, which is the widespread neglect of vulnerability, spirituality, and personal growth in our culture. The revival of progress politics will not happen until we speak to what is most personal and universal to us.

I convey this potential by sharing intimate experiences from my own life, before exploring the prospects of making this a mainstream political movement. A way out of this interregnum.

Subject to the wrong priorities

The internet came to rural Ireland in 1996 when I was 10 years old. We had a 56kbp dial up connection, 500 times slower than the modem you are using to read this article.

You might expect growing up in rural Ireland to involve a romantic childhood in nature. But as a child of the 90s, most of my transcendent experiences took place in front of the TV during the advertising breaks. We only had two channels so there was no hopping to avoid them. Nor would I hope to. They were a window into the world beyond my upbringing.

One ad still stands out above all others. You might even remember it. A Nike classic where the all star players of Europe take on a team from hell.

Just Do It.

I was so mesmerised that this epic temporarily became my life. In the imaginal arena of my back garden, I would practice the kick flip of Ronaldo, the slide tackle of Paulo Maldini, and flip my collar up, Cantona style, when I struck for goal.

Every day I would patiently await its return. But it never did, so unbeknownst to my parents, I downloaded it illegally from Napster. It took one month, ONE MONTH, and each evening after school I would monitor the slow triumph of good over evil. During that time, I went so far as to find out who made the ad, and wrote a letter to the creative team of Weiden and Kennedy in Amsterdam telling them I wanted to work for them one day.

Weiden and Kennedy never called, and my fascination with epic struggles matured into a longing for political change. I came of age as Ireland was swallowed whole by the global financial crisis. As a freshly minted intern at the Irish Foreign Ministry, I witnessed the logic of what we tend to call ‘neoliberalism’ unfold in real time, with families convinced to take on generations of debt for fear of the bondholders. Many families in my community were split up as an entire generation emigrated. Friends who left my secondary school at 14 to earn £1 for every concrete block they laid, swapped a construction boom in one corner of the world for another, driving trucks around the copper mines of Western Australia.

It wasn’t just unjust, it was absurd.

Ghost towns in Ireland after the global financial crisis

This felt sense that we were subject to all the wrong priorities took on a personal dimension as I awakened to what I was subject to from within. By the time I finished my degree, I was wrapped up in so much anxiety to succeed that I lied on my CV to get a prestigious internship in Washington DC. I was caught out and confronted, the shame of which gave way to serious self examination. I remember standing in the kitchen in my boots after Hurling training googling what integrity was. My cousin also died at the time, a young man who was affectionately known as Moses for his long hair and free spirit. At his funeral, his older brother remarked that Moses came from a small business family and didn’t even have a bank account, but he was the richest amongst them. It hit me on a level that I found difficult to describe.

Soon after, I started practising mindfulness to get some space from what was an overwhelming experience. It was then that I became aware of my thoughts and emotions as something separate from myself. A journey into Zen Buddhism helped me recognise that much of what I considered to be myself was actually my ego: an insecure personality structure that was running the show. It was a total revelation to discover how little control I had over my mind, and how many of my thoughts were self sabotaging. Since then, I’ve been on a journey of personal growth, striving to move beyond default mode to a more conscious way of living.

When you open up to your inner world, your perspective on the outer world dramatically shifts. Unplugging from the Matrix is a useful analogy. When you become more acutely aware of your actions, you begin to see how much of what we do is an attempt to shore up our self worth through external validation. When you honour your deeper needs for purpose and belonging, you see how little the economy caters for it. When you develop a relationship with your reactions, you see how much our media feeds our worst instincts. It is therapeutic contexts where people have the rare opportunity to take off their masks that you see how much we are all suffering. Is it just me, or is society mad? Both are a mirror to each other.

Political discourse is largely ignorant of this reality, trumpeting a model of economic growth that leads to a profound dislocation of self worth and belonging. I don’t want this to be an equally unconscious rant against our dominant model of progress. It has brought us much material security and freedom, but at a profound cost. The widespread devaluing of this tradeoff became clear to me at at the launch of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Dueswhere he heralded the epic achievements of capitalism in overcoming famine and disease, and then quipped that you were more likely to die of suicide than starvation in the West, with zero sense of irony.

To be fair, there have been recent nods to mental health and well being, but no serious acknowledgement that we are mostly unconscious and need support in transcending our egoic impulses and fulfilling our needs. Instead we let consumer preference decide, neglecting that its prevailing form is itself fashioned by advertising, which feeds off these very egoic insecurities. Through a superficial understanding of liberalism we are locked into a lower order of self actualisation.

Getting to the roots of the problem

The etymology of the world radical is to get the roots of a problem. I’ve spent most of my twenties trying to do this, studying the emerging alternative on the masters in economics for transition at Schumacher College and the established view of progress on the masters in public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. What was most interesting about both institutions was their starting assumption. At Schumacher, they believe that if we want to change the old paradigm, we have to recognise that we carry it within us in our values, mindsets and behaviours. What followed was a year of deconditioning and healing journey through the emphasis of care and creativity within community. This contrasted with Oxford, where one of the first things offered was a running t-shirt that said ‘training to run the world!’. Their starting assumption is that human nature and our political values are largely fixed, and we must respond to this as best we can by getting the incentives right. It was the world of homo-economicus, updated to incorporate nudge theory, with little emphasis on the potential of personal development. It was so intellectually compelling that I almost dismissed everything that I learned at Schumacher as fanciful hippy nonsense.

Since then I’ve become convinced it is the mainstream that are operating with outdated mental models about how to bring about change. The assumption is that if we just get the framing right and mobilise people to vote us into power, we’ll be able to administrate our way to utopia. But if you ask any leader that’s actually done that, they’ll tell you that life proceeds as normal. The emerging view from complexity science is that we live within global, mutually reinforcing cultural, economic and political systems, which are founded on a paradigmatic view of ‘ourselves in the world’ that is deeply entrenched in our psyches. Together, they form the invisible architecture of our lives, structuring our understanding of ourselves and whom we aspire to be.

The depth of our conditioning came to life recently when I read Sapiens, in which Harari (again) describes the cult of the individual being so great, that every child is expected to have their own bedroom, their very own architectural complex! You might agree with that (unless you’re struggling to pay the rent) but it is literally the case that the prevailing paradigm structures our understanding of ‘the way things are’ and limits our understanding of the way things could be. As Jonathan Rowson explains in the introduction to Perspectiva, “We don’t just have an ‘economic system’, we have a particular kind of finance and competition driven capitalist economy supported and reinforced by forms of cultural discourse and advertising about what it means to be successful (‘neoliberalism’) at a time of secularisation.”

It’s important to recognise just how much our prevailing culture holds us back from the change we wish to see, particularly through the neglect of three key aspects of our inner world: vulnerability, personal growth and spirituality.

Vulnerability is taboo in our culture. And without it, we cannot publicly acknowledge that things are not going right for us anymore. Speaking from the experience of being a very ‘heady’ person, we are unskilled at really checking in with ourselves. Understanding and honouring what is going on in our bodies, particularly our hearts, is difficult because our mind will always find ways to rationalise and distract us. We are even worse at doing anything about it. As long as things aren’t that bad, we’d rather deny what we’re feeling inside and conform to whatever happens to be the current arrangement. This applies to our intimate relationships, our families, and our work, as much as our politics. We all know the conversations we need to have to move to a greater level of intimacy and potential, but is scares us, so we dare not rock the boat. One movement that has been successful at this is the current wave of feminism. In particular it has taken an invisible experience, everyday sexism, that most women either weren’t aware of or dare not acknowledge, and gave ordinary people the courage to call it out.

Going deeper still, we are given precious little instruction or encouragement to seriously engage with our personal growth. This rests on two severely limiting assumptions. The first is that we have finished our development by the time we reach adulthood. This contradicts decades of empirical research that shows how we can go through ordered stages of adult conscious development. As I’ve written about previously, 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 to assuming a more counter cultural perspective. The very mindset that progressive politics is dependent on.

The second assumption is that no one should dare tell us what to do unless we’re explicitly harming each other. But the problem is we are. Other people have to deal with the consequences of us not having our shit together, particularly our children. The famous line from Larkin “they fuck you up your mum and dad they do not mean to but they do” has the rhetorical power of an iron law, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A culture where we understand that we all have a shadow (a Jungian term for the negative aspects of our ourselves that we repress) and trauma that we must integrate is an essential part of any functioning society. If we don’t, it lives on in the righteous projection and blame that defines our stuck situation. I’m on my own journey to understand and integrate my shadow, which I talk about here. I’ve noticed a particularly tendency toward feeling superior, which actually reveals itself as the insecurity of having to feel better that others In order to feel okay about myself. If it feels strange to read this on a political blog, it’s probably the best illustration that we are missing this in our culture.

At the deepest level, our problems stem from a chronic absence of spirituality in our lives. Consumer capitalism remains dominant because we lack an alternative source of moral identity. This has traditionally come from religion, but in our postmodern age, we are suspicion of any totalising narratives, which denies us the experiential understanding of ourselves as an expression of life. For an amusing explanation of this, see the South Park animations of Alan Watts explaining how the Earth ‘peoples’ in the way apples grow from a tree. Without regular experiential reminders of our place in the universe, we remain existentially adrift and cling to whatever can give us a comforting identity, which are often divisive in nature. I’ve written previously about why spirituality is the key to a more visionary politics, namely by helping us go beyond our default, egocentric way of seeing the world and connecting deeply with the underlying unity and interconnectedness of all things. Basically what is at the heart of all religious teachings and modern science. If we think about the major movements for social change, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, they spoke to our spiritual sensibility. This potential is lost in a culture of ironic detachment.

A post capitalist vision of society is emerging. One where the values of care, creativity, and community come to the fore, liberated by policy innovations such as basic income, shorter working weeks, and extended parental leave. These progressive ideals lie far outside the Overton window, the range of ideas the public will accept. The overton window will not expand until we expand our understanding of ourselves and develop post material aspirations for our lives. An unofficial blog post by an analyst at the Bank of England, outlining why mindfulness shows that consumption does not necessarily lead to greater happiness, is a nascent example of this. We need to experience ourselves differently and pursue change as a function of a post-egoic, post-material identity.

To conclude, until we address the absence of vulnerability, personal growth, and spirituality in our culture, the systems that thrive on their absence will remain.

Making the personal political

The real revolution is public acknowledgement of our shared inner struggle. To create a new humanising agenda, we need to create spaces to really experience what is going on inside us, and acknowledge that. Like the all star players of my childhood who turned the game around, we’re seeing a revival of spirituality, vulnerability and personal growth that together contribute to a more conscious society. A host of new organisations are cropping up that cross the secular-sacred divide, from the Sunday Assembly initiating public conversations about death to the The School of Life making emotional intelligence intelligible. Brene Brown’s Ted Talks are a cultural sensation and we’ve even had Prince Harry talk candidly about his own struggles with mental health. It’s important to recognise that deep change is happening amidst all the doom and gloom, and we can build on its foundations.

This contemplative shift is catalysed by a need to turn inwards as a way of making sense of our increasingly overwhelmed lives. Yet its true value is helping us grow out of a system that traps us in financial and psychological terms. One of the most interesting entries in the alphabetical guide to Perspectiva is Bildung (with roots in Hegel, Schiller and Von Humboldt), where we grow as a deliberate attempt to improve the world. In this way: “Bildung does not simply accept the sociopolitical status quo, but rather it includes the ability to engage in a critique of one’s society, and to ultimately challenge the society to actualize its own highest ideals.”

In “Does the Left Have a Future” John Harris hints at Bildung when this that for the left a solution might begin with the understanding of an epochal shift that pushed politics beyond the workplace and the economy into the sphere of private life — a transition first articulated by feminism, with the assertion that “the personal is political”. If we want to build momentum around a new vision for society, we need to have the courage to go into the dimensions of personal life that are considered taboo. You can’t convince people on the doorstep about the instrumental benefits of a new society, you have to create spaces where we can drop to a deeper level together, remove our masks, and acknowledge our shared struggle.

This is inherently fragile work. From my own experience doing Vipassana meditations and group psychotherapy, the amount of individual and collective trauma we hold is staggering. I recently met the head of a communications agency to discuss the possibility of this being a popular movement. He said: “that sounds like our cave of shit theory mate, most of our work helps people avoid that, sounds like you’re trying to excavate it.” It’s important to be honest that on some level that’s what we’re inviting people to do.

You might be thinking, no one that I know would want to engage with this kind of movement. Conservative political commentator Janan Ganesh believes that it’s precisely this sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the electorate that keeps progressives out of power. Read Passion is a vote killer and gives people the creeps, for his sobering conclusions. Personal transformation is not convenient in a political culture that denies our inner world, but it is the route to the wholeness that a new society depends upon. And while initial encounters are usually met with resistance, it’s also quickly becoming a global trend that can overcome that.

Through the rise of ‘conscious culture’, ayahuasca ceremonies, men’s and women’s circles, and regular retreats are all in vogue amongst younger, more privileged groups who are searching for greater self actualisation, in what the New Yorker has called The Age of Kale.

Conscious culture is waiting for a coherent political expression. But the difficulty is that members of this new spiritual movement are predominantly apolitical, apart from the odd Bernie Sanders Facebook endorsement. They have soul, but from Perspectiva’s perspective, are missing “systems” and “society”. In one sense this reflects the capacity of capitalism to co opt any counter cultural movement from mindfulness to Burning Man and ayahuasca. From my own experience of living in intentional communities, there is a natural tendency for those of us who follow a spiritual path to retreat from an inhumane system and heal themselves, rather than engage in the struggle for wider emancipation.

One recurring internet meme captures the contradictory nature of our age

The self assuring narrative is that they are modelling the alternative, and while there is value in that, it poses little threat to market hegemony. This perspective is superbly outlined in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s critique of ‘folk politics’ in Inventing the Future. A devastating account of the failures of the modern left, neatly summarised in this gem of a quote from political scientist Jodi Foster:

“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”.

We therefore have to promote a spiritual turn amongst those who are in the system and a systemic turn in those who are spiritual.

The beginnings of a game plan

I’ve recently tried to emphasise this shift through Alter Ego, a gathering of progressive leaders across politics, activism and systems change to explore conscious culture and visionary politics. My main intention was to land Jonathan Rowson’s thinking on spirituality from his time at the RSA amongst progressive influencers who are already engaged in systems change. One of the premises of Alter Ego is that we need a deeper engagement to crash through the delusion of modern society. Only then could we discover where our perspectives and priorities lie.

The core team who designed the experience knew each other from European Burning Man Festivals, where deep transformation is commonplace. The challenge was to translate that in a professional setting and show its relevance to the political conversation that was happening. The programme included circles for deeper check ins, shadow work, and even a death meditation where all eighty participants were guided through the last twelve hours of their lives, down to the slow asphyxiation of their last breath. There’s something about really confronting your death, and by implication your unlived life, that crashes through the delusion we all conform to.

By dropping deeper together we had a palpable sense that there was ‘something there’, much greater than an intellectual proposition alone. But it would have only been possible had there been a credible intellectual explanation of the need for us to consider this option, which Jonathan ably provided. It’s helped me realise that the purpose of organisations like Perspectiva and Alter Ego in this interregnum is to provide an intellectual case for going into these deeper territories of change.

My gut feeling is that the process of change that we need to undergo in society is a milder extension of what we experienced at Alter Ego. We need a much deeper diagnosis of the problems we face, and in particular a credible articulation of the need for a more conscious society. It is nothing short of a new story ‘of ourselves in the world’. To do that we need to begin to dislodge the current story that is entrenched in our psyches, as it is being actively conditioned from all angles by our media. In a post-truth political age where people’s views tend to be reinforced by social media, we need to go to the grassroots, developing social technologies for people to go deeper together, so that we can viscerally acknowledge that this system is not serving us anymore. We also need to support people in freeing themselves from unfulfilling lives, creating the alternative, and advocating for deeper reform. This is movement building work of the 21st Century, but also the enduring project of any progressive society.

It’s the inner work we must always do.

To challenge now is to take this vision to the mainstream, who have little interest in adopting any satirised hippy lifestyle. I have a particularly unique experience of the challenges of even attempting to do this. Last year I was approached by a UK City Law firm to inspire a cultural transformation. The leadership team were incredibly open minded, and begun by saying that they knew the world was changing, but there was a limit to what they could know by virtue of their age and background, so they wanted to bring someone from the next generation to help them understand it. So on the day I turned 28, I was made the youngest director in the legal industry with the job title ‘animateur’, literally responsible for bringing people to life.

I saw this as a chance to put my thinking to the test. If I could inspire some kind of cultural renewal and policy change within a conservative context, this theory of change had merit. I was conscious that I had a window in my first 100 days, so I used my political capital to get the whole board to do a six week mindfulness course together. In parallel, I initiated conversations amongst the Partnership on purpose and how we could all have easier lives by playing to our strengths and embracing flexible working. I even managed to get them meditating at the top of the Gherkin to envision a law firm of the future at their annual conference.

Yet even these modest aims were incredibly difficult to sustain. Moments of inspiration would be subsumed by the daily grind, momentum would subside in the face of competing priorities. To even get them to a commit to an hour of their time was a challenge, let alone bring them into a deeper space where they could acknowledge how the way they were working was not working for them anymore.

For some, they didn’t see any problem at all. Life is about working hard. For others, they acknowledged a longing to spend more time with their kids, but had pressures to maintain a certain lifestyle, and felt powerless when the client wanted them 24/7. In the end I turned my attention to the new intake of trainees, to try to bring a culture of vulnerability but even this was met with mild skepticism for very genuine reasons that it might undermine their career prospects. They were incredibly open minded and I have a lot of respect for them, but were ultimately operating in a systemic context that was difficult to fight against. I spoke candidly about my failure in my exit interview, which I recorded as a podcast for the firm. I felt that even if the change I envisioned wasn’t possible, at least we could be a witness to what was not possible.

What this experience has taught me is not to assume I have agency. Big shifts in thinking cannot be initiated and transitioned through inspiration alone. The prospects of the new is determined by a wider breakdown of the old. In the case of the law firm, they were doing really well. They had just won law firm of the year for the second year in the row. There was no incentive to change, let alone a burning platform that required them to leap.

This is not the case for wider society. Our democratic, economic, and ecological systems are breaking down, and the morbid symptoms are on clear display. A crunch time is on the horizon, and there will be a clear opening for an alternative. This could be something truly liberating or something deeply regressive. The latter already has a head start. Our agency in this is to choose what truly liberating looks like, and I believe the answer to that question can be found by looking inside. If we don’t have the intelligence and courage to do that, then the new cannot be born. As John Harris says, it’s a hell of a knot to untangle. But my feeling is that it’s a Gordian Knot. One that can be sliced through in one go, by awakening to our inner world.

Ronan Harrington is Head of Strategy at Perspectiva. He tweets @RonanHarrington

Perspectiva

Perspectiva is a research institute that offers a deeper analysis on the social and political challenges of our time, highlighting the relevance of our inner worlds.

Ronan Harrington

Written by

Founder of Alter Ego. Head of Strategy @Perspecteeva. Making the case for a more conscious culture and visionary politics. Wouldn't that be nice.

Perspectiva

Perspectiva is a research institute that offers a deeper analysis on the social and political challenges of our time, highlighting the relevance of our inner worlds.

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