Myths and the progressive dilemma
If one message has come through loud and clear since the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, and the widespread sense that the story of ‘western liberal progress’ has collapsed, it is that we need new stories.
One of the latest attempts to grapple with this is ‘The Myth Gap’, by former political advisor on climate change, Alex Evans. He describes how western society lacks uniting narratives, mythologies that gives us a shared meaning and purpose. He argues convincingly that we need new myths of renewal and restoration in place of the dominant ones of crisis and collapse, persuasive though they are.
He speaks also to something that I believe is essential, that these new myths have a spiritual component.
But there are also ideas that are more challenging. One passage in particular caught my eye, as I think it speaks to both the necessity of the task, and how difficult it will be for progressives to achieve it in practice.
“There is no single set of myths that will work for all of us. In a globalised society facing global challenges, we are too diverse to be a viable option. Instead it’s for all of us the find the myths of regeneration and restoration that work for us personally — and then for ALL of us to find the areas of agreement between them, and sew together a quilt of compatible myths.
This will be much more challenging than simply agreeing to disagree about our core stories and values, as multiculturalism implies. Nor can it just mean a process of dialogue in which everyone has the opportunity to participate and be heard, but which at the end of the day struggles to reach any actual conclusions — a shortcoming that the Occupy Wall Street movement exhibited perfectly.
Instead, the challenge we face is to find genuine common ground and a hard- edged unity of purpose, while simultaneously recognising and valuing what makes us different from each other.”
Most progressives share the sense that we are living through the collapse of the ‘end of history’ mythology of inevitable globalisation and trans-nationalism. And equally fear that what is coming in its place is a return to an ugly nationalism and tribalism.
There is a strong assumption among progressives that we should look to go beyond and transcend tribalism — what is sometimes called the ‘global village’ mentality.
Alex Evans’ is just the latest book that argues that we progressives need to stop and think, and to recognise how some of our habits of thinking and assumptions have created the backlash we are now living through.
Anywhere vs Somewhere
Another contribution comes from David Goodhart, in ‘The Road to Somewhere’, where he argues that what we are seeing is a clash between the worldviews of what he calls the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’. The ‘anywheres’ (of which if you are reading this, you are probably one) are those with ‘achieved’, portable identities, from education and financial success, as opposed to the ‘somewheres’ whose identities are more connected to their sense of place and collective identity.
What both Evans and Goodhart share is a conviction that modern liberals will have to make peace with tribalism and patriotism if they are to create new stories that gain traction and can connect and inspire.
To come up with these myths also requires us to challenge our value systems. The pre-eminent value of the modern ‘anywhere’ progressive is ‘inclusivity’. It explicitly and implicitly informs many of our decisions and attitudes, and particularly informs the way that we consciously try to create groups. We focus on making sure that our groups are suitably diverse, by ethnicity and gender, for example.
The desire among contemporary progressives is to transcend the tribalisms that have blighted much of human history. But this desire for community with like minds is something that has been part of human nature from time immemorial.
Even our biology is still wired for tribal living. The recent work on the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin confirms this. It was long known to encourage bonding and closeness with others. But recent scientific studies show that it encourages closeness with the ‘in-group’ or tribe, at the expense of connection with those outside.
“Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood,” as a recent New York Times science article put it.
So any attempt at moving towards a more universal and global society will have to first make everyone feel secure enough not to be threatened by that prospect.
The ‘global village’ mentality is not a tribalism based on race or nationality — but it easily becomes a tribalism based on ideology. Implicit in it is that you must share the same values to be included. Trying to consciously reject it means it plays itself out in passive-aggressive ways, as we see on many American University campuses.
And from the perspective of the ‘Myth Gap’ and the need for strong, confident and transformative myths of renewal and restoration, inclusivity cannot be the dominant value. An inclusivity that is stretched to the point that anything and anyone is included becomes meaningless. We have to set boundaries.
These myths will have to be rooted in our sense of place and our collective experience of being a person and a people from this particular place in the world, with this particular history and tradition.
The western ideology of materialism, with its values of greed and exploitation, and objectivication of human relations and the natural world (often described as neoliberalism) has erased this sense of place most completely from those places where this hollow ideology has been most successfully implemented — in particular the USA.
Middle (mainly white) America is in deep crisis. Death rates are going through the roof, mainly caused by suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.
On Friday, the columnist Andrew Sullivan compared the impact of the opioid epidemic on rural America to the impact of AIDS on the gay community of the 80s.
In nearly a third of American states, white Americans are dying off at a greater rate than they are being born. These are terrifying numbers, all spelling out a mass of people drugging themselves, killing themselves and eating and drinking themselves to death on an unparalleled scale. This is a deep psychic anguish that is repeated across the developed world.
The spiritual perspective is that this is the effect of a materialist, mechanistic worldview that has taught that life is effectively meaningless, there is no purpose to being in the universe, and the only solace is to be found in the accumulation of possessions.
The rise of an ugly nationalism in the US is a response to this deep sense of dislocation and the hollowing out of the spiritual, mythological roots of middle America.
We on the progressive side have to counter that with a narrative that recognises the reality of the suffering — and is able to see to the heart of the problem — a spiritual void of meaning. The counter cannot be solely to lecture these people even more about white guilt and privilege.
Returning to the UK, and the words of the mystic poet William Blake two hundred years ago.
“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear”
This perspective, shared by many of the world’s great wisdom traditions and the mysticism of the perennial philosophy, is that what we take for everyday consciousness is a kind of hypnosis. A bare fraction of what we are capable of in moments of transcendence, or through dedicated self-inquiry.
Most modern spiritual teachers agree that the imprisonment of our consciousness by these ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of conditioned behaviour and limiting beliefs has barely changed in two hundred years.
Even many secular thinkers such as the philosopher John Gray argue against the ‘folly of the myth of progress’ saying that despite immense technological progress and material improvements, spiritually and morally we have barely changed.
‘Power and privilege’
The most common framework for trying to understand society and culture — among the left-leaning ‘anywhere’ friends of my generation at least — is variations of the ‘power and privilege’ perspective. It uses a lens of anti-patriarchy, anti-imperialism, and is acutely conscious of discrimination and inequality of all kinds.
It is a necessary and valuable corrective to a past where inequality and oppression was commonplace, but as a uniting myth it falls far short.
In its most simplistic form the power and privilege perspective implicitly accepts the metrics of western culture, the materialism and ‘success’ that is part of the problem. Of course material circumstances are important and should be addressed by any empathetic or developmental perspectives. But it is a two dimensional metric.
From the spiritual perspective, the materialism of western society is a compensation strategy for a spiritual emptiness, and many of the abuses of power hide a sense of deep inferiority and detachment from ourselves and the planet.
Simply pointing out the behaviour in the world and opposing it is not enough. It is necessary but not sufficient. We need a perspective that sees the psychological and spiritual truth underneath — and can even have sympathy for those people behind the behaviour, understanding that they are acting out unconsciously on some level.
What are the myths that we need to start telling? They will be different depending on where you are in the world, and who the people are that surround you.
In the UK, we are overflowing with mythological material from Britain’s long tradition of spiritual and creative wisdom, from the romantic poets such as Keats, Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth to the music of the two psychedelic explosions of the 60s and late 80s.
Progressives have to make peace with a form of patriotism that draws on this, as only through a strong and confident sense of self can we meet others.
Spirituality has many manifestations, and traditions, but as Aldous Huxley pointed out in ‘The Perennial Philosophy’, there is a common thread to all the mystical traditions. They lead to the same place.
Returning to the US, there already is a spiritual and social revival taking place, fuelled by powerful mythologies and stories of renewal. It’s happening in the black community.
Over the last few years a powerful new (rediscovered) mythology has entered the mainstream through artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce. Increasingly they are framing black identity as an inner spiritual emancipation alongside a material one. Kendrick Lamar — who has emerged as one of the influencers of the Black Lives Matter movement — addresses this directly in ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, where he characterises materialism as a satanic influence called ‘Lucy’ (short for Lucifer), and calls on black people to reject it and embrace their identity and history as African-American.
This spiritual perspective is deeply rooted — generated from — a black identity and a black history and culture — drawing on Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luthur King, but it leads one to a place that anyone who shares a spiritual perspective can recognise and connect with. A sense of a life lived with purpose and value, in service to something greater than oneself and with a space for gratitude and humility.
I cannot truly know the life experience of Black America, and the generations of pain, degradation and trauma created by the legacy of slavery and racism. But the message of the music of the likes of Kendrick Lamar is something very similar to the concept of freeing oneself from the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ that William Blake talked about.
By going deeply into the particular of our time and place — we can reach the universal themes that unite us. Only by going into and making peace with our tribal instincts can we be confident and comfortable enough to connect globally.