Politics, Psychology and Spirituality: The need for an Institute for the Understanding of Human Nature. To read this as a pdf click here
It has become increasingly clear to me that the negative effects of Capitalism subjugate and oppress most people. I agree with George Monbiot’s recent analysis (Guardian 25/04/19) that it is largely a rigged system. Those that benefit do so largely by accident. Yes, there are people who from humble origins who have become very wealthy, but there are of necessity rare and lucky. Capitalism means that most people become “wage slaves”, selling their labour in what has been becoming, especially in the West at least, an increasingly de-powered and unfair marketplace. The recent growth of inequality has been rubbing salt into the wounds of deficiency and Capitalism causes there to be a large group of people without hope at the bottom of the wealth pile. The inequality of land ownership, especially in this country, underlies many of these problems, as Monbiot has also recently pointed out (Guardian 04/06/19).
The Right correctly argues that Capitalism’s strength is in its freedom, diversity and creativity. The trouble starts when they argue that without the constraints and demands of the market people do not work hard, they become un-productive, lazy and wasteful. This is a view of people as inherently negative, where too much support leads to dependency and the avoidance of self-responsibility, as can be seen in all those “benefit scroungers” and “no hopers”. That, the winging by those on the left about the unfairness of Capitalism is just like children having a tantrum and complaining that “life is unfair”, when Life is not fair. A strong “work ethic” is seen as necessary for our survival. We live in a ruthlessly competitive world. That it is only by facing up to the demands of the market that we become “lean and efficient” and therefore deserving as human beings.
When you say this to people who doubt their own validity (i.e. most of us at some level) it is a powerful message, and one that insidiously permeates our society. It insists that we should all be confident, healthy, even “perfect”, otherwise we are “bad”, a burden, “not good enough” and something to be ashamed of.
The argument is that Capitalism has always existed, that it just reflects human nature. Good apples will rise to the top and the bad ones need to be controlled and defend against. People are un-equal in their talents and our genes make us competitive, so inequality is inevitable. This argument is based on a view of human nature that is bereft of Love and Compassion. This is not surprising as those who espouse this view are usually those whose hearts have been closed by trauma (I use this word in its widest sense). This view of human nature is part of the deeply perverted Christian view that saw children as being born evil with “original sin” needing to be “made good” through discipline and the withholding of love. The legacy of this is still unfolding through the generations, I work with it every day. It is there in our “blame culture” which exists in every sphere of society. It is there in our Education system and particularly in our continuing attachment to private schools with their ethos of unconscious deprivation and conscious privilege (Duffell 2000, Schaverien 2015). It is there in our criminal justice system, police and military and all the ways that governments in this country have centralised civic power over the recent decades with layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy which is hopelessly designed to avoid people taking responsibility.
Self-improvement is seen as possible for all “if only they pulled their socks up”. The Right emphasise self-responsibility, and yes, there is truth in this, which is what makes it so powerful. But it is a partial truth; the bigger truth is that as human beings we are all of equal value, we are all fragile sparks of the Divine that deserve support and the chance to flourish. There is a real dilemma here. On the one hand Capitalism can be seen as denying most people that chance to flourish, it condemns them to work hard just to survive, to pay the rent or mortgage and struggle to raise a family, let alone the extra struggles it causes those disadvantaged by whatever means. On the other hand, self-responsibility and choice are real, they are existential facts that cannot be dismissed because nobody can choose for us, self-responsibility has to be our choice.
From this perspective it is not “Capitalism” that is the problem, but Life itself, our existential condition arising from having choice over how we live our lives. We can live as a victim, blaming the world for our troubles or we can increasingly take responsibility for ourselves and find our personal freedom. This is the paradox of support and challenge, too much or too little of either causes problems. We need a balance of both to grow towards our potential. Taking self-responsibility is a huge life-long task for all of us and it is far too meaningful to be simplistically high-jacked by the Right to justify blaming “the poor” for being poor.
Capitalism can be understood as being as much a consequence as it is a cause. In the end there is no “they”, there is just everybody acting relatively “unconsciously” (yes, even those at the top of oil companies disseminating false information about climate change). It is the development of consciousness that changes societies, just as it does in personal change. The trap the Left are caught in is of blaming Capitalism. It is such an easy and alluring trap, so inviting and so straight forward and satisfying to blame the other to feel reassuringly “right”.
The fact is though that Capitalism is so unfair. Money makes money and poverty makes poverty. Any alternative system that resorts to even more centralised control is bound to be deeply un-desirable. Such “power over” hierarchical structures, whether from the Left or Right, are inevitably an un-democratic oppression of the human spirit. Our wish for freedom, is very deeply rooted in millennia of profound struggle, especially in the West. So, the way forward must be through deepening democracy. The task is then to find the best balance we can between community and individual freedom. It must tackle inequality whilst at the same time understanding how our need to take responsibility for ourselves is an essential aspect of our developmental nature.
Our developmental process has at its heart our need to face our own difficult existential choice about whether we say “Yes” or “No” to life. Many make the choice without doing so consciously, they just let themselves stay caught in being a victim, never managing to escape. This is irrespective of wealth, class, race or gender. Many others struggle heroically for decades between their “Yes” and “No”, some manage to embrace the journey of taking self-responsibility and find their “Yes” in the direst of circumstances. But there is real mystery here, with each person’s journey is so unique that comparisons are impossible.
At some level though we do have choice, and this means we are bound to struggle. It is why we find growing up is so hard, we all want to take the easiest paths and avoid the difficulties involved in taking responsibility for ourselves. With animals this process is often heartbreakingly tough. For those who have experienced more trauma (again in its widest sense) in their development, the difficulties of growing up are multiplied because to do so means facing the extra pain of that early hurt. The reality is that we are all victims, yes, even those with unimaginable wealth and power. Human maturation is such a long and complex process that to negotiate it without rupture at some stage is impossible and living with the effects of trauma is to live with internal conflict and confusion, like living in a troubled dream. The question is can we “grow-up” and “wake-up” from that “sleep”.
The most meaningful and valuable thing we can achieve as human beings, is our Liberation, our Freedom from being a victim. Ultimately this comes from transcending (and including) our ego, which largely is the defensive self-structure that we developed around our insecurity. The first steps in this are through taking responsibility for ourselves, not in any “shouldistic” way, but through gradually facing the reality of what and who we are. It is through first knowing ourselves that we can heal and become authentically ourselves, after this we have the possibility of letting our ego go, which is our “spiritual” journey towards inhabiting this present moment, right now. This is the goal that matters most, it is our deepest desire and responsibility, to embody Consciousness (with our awareness/ head), Love (with our heart) and of Presence (with our body) (the three part of the whole self). It is this “Beingness” that can emerge from our integrated wholeness, that holds our most extraordinary potential. Here there is no separation between you and me, everyone is an equally valid spark of the divine, which demolishes any possible justification for anyone being superior to, or indeed separate from, the other.
This underlines the impossibility of accepting that a large percentage of any society can be consigned to poverty and suffering because they are “bad apples”. That is wholly and totally untenable. It is totally at odds with my understanding of human nature. All our negative and destructive aspects are the result of trauma, not from any inherited “badness” or “inadequacy”. So, everyone always deserves another chance. Whilst there is this profound paradox around choice, it must not be used as an excuse to avoid fighting for a fairer society. We all need support … as well as challenge.
That those in most need seem to so often refuse support, simply reflects the level of trauma that they are carrying. Offer love to someone unloved and they will often refuse it because to accept it would mean opening their heart, which means facing the pain that has for a long time been held out of awareness. It is this projective process that is behind so much of our judgement of the disadvantaged and minorities of all kinds. Blame is all about projection. We “project” the unaware unacceptable aspects of ourselves onto the other. The same is true when we idealise the other, only to be disappointed when they turned out to be human. What we find unacceptable in the other are those negative aspects of ourselves that we have not yet accepted. We then project that “badness” onto the other. As James Baldwin instinctively expressed it decades ago whilst talking about white supremacists in the USA, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain” (The Fire Next Time).
Those with power and wealth are engaged in a constant ruthless struggle to maintain their advantage and avoid any pain whatsoever. Their control of the media and power to promote their defensive and negative philosophy is frightening. They buy influence, sow confusion and create smoke screens of “moral outrage” to fight anything that might remotely threaten their privilege, power or wealth. Much of the media reinforces our blame culture, it stirs up people’s survival fight, flight, freeze responses to keep people from seeing what is really going on. A frightened and divided population is easily manipulated.
The Right deny their insecurity through projectively justifying Capitalism and inequality whilst the Left deny theirs through projectively blaming Capitalism. For both the attachment to power is deeply compensatory. Politics needs to expand its perspectives to include a deeper understanding of the psychological as well as “spiritual” dimensions of life, because, as above, they represent our deepest desires and our most meaningful understanding. This is about our need to psychologically “grow up”, as well as “spiritually” to “wake up”.
The latter is about our need to come to terms with, and transcend, “whatever is”, it is the perspective of the Tao, of Non-Duality, of “all is only at it can be, right now”, it is about knowing the pre-eminence of “Being” over “Doing”. But this stance can be very is apolitical and passive, letting what will be, be. It reflects the healthily idea that it is better to do nothing than do harm. How though do we know what to do? After all, “every stick” has two ends” and we live in a world of unintended consequences. I have partly taken this position down the years, and in doing so have avoided taking fuller responsibility for the political implications of my philosophy. For those of a spiritual disposition this place of “Being” is beyond material concerns, only an “Enlightened being” could possibly act wisely. This can be an easy “escape route” from the real difficulty of facing our responsibility for the world that nurtures and sustains us. For myself, I see now that to ignore the political “doing” that inevitably flows from my philosophy, is ducking my responsibility to the world I live in. I guess that in an ideal world anarchism might be the answer, trusting in the “Goodness” and self-regulating power of human beings. But we live in a traumatised world that is far from ideal and history teaches us that change happens because of people’s efforts.
One of the problems is that modern societies have largely forgotten or rejected the understanding of this “spiritual” core to human nature. This rejection was necessary for removing the shackles of fossilised Religions, it facilitated embracing Modernism’s wonderful liberating emphasis on scientific truth. More recently we needed to challenge the fossilisation of Science to reach the freedom of Post-Modernism’s insight about the relativity of everything. Now we need to “transcend and include” (Ken Wilber) Post-Modernism to reclaim our “spirituality”. This multi century journey of society’s developing consciousness (à la Wilber’s “Integral” model) provides the ground for our current remembering of “spirituality” in wonderfully new, free, non-dogmatic ways. It is obvious why we needed to separate religion from politics. They can dangerously mutually justify and reinforce each other in the accumulation of power, something that is re-emerging today in Russia and with other authoritarian movements (Guardian 11/06/19). But this newer understanding of the “spiritual” aspect of life is not concerned with power, it is not religious (it defies any dogmatic or institutionalised form), and it needs to be included back into the heart of our philosophy. Our spiritual and psychological understanding are an integral part of this and in the end, we cannot separate philosophy from politics.
The implications of these two perspectives are that many of the Left’s proposals for creating a fairer society are correct, but from a perspective of deeper meaning. We do need to re-configure the Capitalist basis of our economies, competition and “free markets” alone are evidently not the answer. They continue to create lives of misery whilst destroying the planet at terrifying speed. Many of the changes needed may well look like “socialism” as we have little in the way of other conceptual frames at present. We need though to be wary, because politics always seems to fall into the trap of power and in doing so loose the treasured goal. Socialism’s problems, it seems to me, stem from its addiction to power. To avoid that we need to stay connected to and informed by the “spiritual” dimension of our experience as well as our psychological knowledge. Our insecurity leads us to seek power over others. That this “need” always comes from trauma is clear, but it continues to perniciously play out in all forms of Governmental and private institutions. It certainly “did for” the twentieth century’s experiments in “Socialism”. Established religions also fall into this trap too and need to let go of their wealth and “power over”, which has always been deeply hypocritical.
So, yes, many of the Left’s policies are what is needed to tackle inequality and poverty and increasing taxes on the wealthy is part of this. Whilst there are obviously practical limits to how much tax can be raised, and therefore on the extent to which wealth redistribution can be the answer. The wealthy however need to understand that their lifestyle in the end depends on the poorest in society getting enough support. This needs to become an unequivocal moral understanding, like the unacceptability of slave labour. Wealthy people need to understand and feel that paying tax is part of their privilege, it is a gift and a blessing contributing to the health and harmony of society. The narrow-minded selfishness of seeing taxes as “state theft” needs exposing as well as understanding. Selfishness is always a consequence of trauma. Superiority and arrogance are always the compulsive compensation for the denied wounds of insecurity with its unaware inferiority.
History, and the Right, have sown seeds of doubt about the economic viability of the Left’s economic policies. There is indeed no “money tree”, and we know that out of control spending leads to the disasters of overwhelming interest payments and or runaway inflation. Yet from the little I understand of this; it seems that we can sustain a somewhat higher levels of borrowing than the Conservatives “austerity programme” “sold us”. But financial realism is something that the Right are good at. It is so easy to trot out ideas for spending money without bearing in mind the hard work, creativity and patience needed to generate it.
More importantly, and as many have argued, we need to devolve power as far as is practical. This means passing the responsibility for social spending down to as local a level as possible. We need to deepen democracy no matter how messy that process is, with Governments and businesses flattening hierarchies and encouraging democratic participation as well as increasing public and employee ownership. Taking back into public control many of those “outsourced” services is a given. (recently there was the news story about the failure of the outsourcing of the probation service to a “payments by result” company. How mind-bogglingly daft was that!) This has the potential to undo much of the alienation that many people feel through their current employment conditions in both the state and private sectors. Through enabling people to take on more responsibility, their lives become more meaningful. Devolving power is this process, power hierarchies inevitably alienate and or infantilise.
It is clear from the increase in inequality over the past decades, that unfettered Capitalism has not delivered on its promise of improvement for all. Society needs to take its responsibility for giving everyone the chance to fulfil their potential more seriously. Whilst it is true that no one can choose “Yes” for anybody else, it is surely everyone’s right is to live in conditions that support as many as possible to find their “Yes”. When we live with too much trauma and too close to our fight, flight or freeze reactions, there is no space for anything but survival.
Part of all this is, as above, the task of undoing our insidious “blame culture”. People need to be supported and encouraged to take self-responsibility for themselves and their situations. They can only do this if there is sufficient support, something that needs then to be embedded systemically in all our institutions and social structures. An increased understanding of the reality and profundity of ongoing adult development is in turn needed to support this change. When we dismantle the charade of everyone needing to pretend to be “perfect” and “competent” adults, we can come back to humility, to knowing how we are all struggling to grow up on our lifelong journey of taking responsibility for ourselves and finding our freedom. Making mistakes and failing are an inevitable and necessary part this. Again, at root, this is about understanding that people are fundamentally “Good” and creative. That all our “negativity”, all our “problems”, arise from the consequences of trauma. The “silver lining” here is that every “problem” approached creatively, is also an opportunity for growth and freedom.
This brings me to an idea that I think could significantly support the change in consciousness necessary for our society to heal and develop. I think we need a national state funded enquiry (at an international level as well) committed to developing our philosophy of the meaning of human life. It could be called “The Institute for the Understanding of Human Nature”. The UN Declaration of Human Rights deals with the rights of individuals within societies, but in terms of looking at the meaning of life it has little to say, other than upholding that we are all are of equal value, with the right to dignity and self-determination. This new body could undertake the responsibility to find the best answers we can to this question of what our fundamental human nature is and what it means? As I have tried to articulate above, so many of our current policies and approaches are based on unclear, self-contradictory and incorrect assumptions and prejudices about what human nature is. We need to articulate a new guiding philosophy.
Psychological and spiritual perspectives are to me fundamental to this proposed enquiry. Research increasingly supports the understanding of how all our negativity and destructiveness are the compulsive compensatory consequences of trauma. Given even “half a chance” our inherent drive to heal, grow and develop works well. Just as our bodies heal, our “selves” can do so too. Our “organic” relationship to life is a creative one and all this goes to confirms that our basic human nature is “Good”. It ties in with deep intuitive sense that Nature is “Good”, as well as “True” and “Beautiful”. It provides us with our path of adult development, which is largely, to paraphrase Rumi, about slowly removing the obstacles we have within us to Love.
It is the “spiritual” aspect of our experience that provides the values we so dearly need for a more harmonious society. By “spiritual” I mean our potential to “be”. All religious and spiritual traditions are, or were, concerned with how to find our way to embodying this tiny word. Past all our “obstacles”, at our core is the miracle of “Being” with its Consciousness, Love and Presence. This is confirmed by the descriptions of many people who have found themselves able to live with these three parts awakened in an extra-ordinary level of being. Most of us at some time get glimpses of this in our ordinary lives. It is a place where our ego is transcended (and included), where there is no difference between you and me, Consciousness-Love-Presence, as a whole, are the Reality of which everything is a part, all is one. This profound reality is Non-Duality, it is Love, “God” or however you want to name it. It makes nonsense of our obsession with money and power and all the entanglements of our ego. Again, it demolishes any possible justification for inequality.
The Guardian (Editorial 08/06/19) quoted this from Marilynne Robinson’s essay,
“We talk about the sanctity of an individual life, but we have let so much value leach out of the word ‘sanctity’, forgetting its old associations with beauty, mystery, and inviolability.” All these qualities are invisible to economics, which can only talk about preferences. Markets desacralise. But in doing so they miss what gives life meaning. For the largely post-Christian societies of western Europe and North America, it may be difficult to discover a concept of sanctity without dogma. But there must be some value to life that can’t be measured in money, or even numbers – or else the lives thought valueless will be treated that way.” https://harpers.org/archive/2019/06/is-poverty-necessary-marilynne-robinson/.
This philosophy enquiry into the meaning of life obviously needs to incorporate all aspects of human experience. It needs to be as scientifically based as possible, as well as informed by post-modernism’s relativism. We know that we cannot define “Reality”, that our perception and understanding is always going to be partial, which beautifully avoids any dogmatism. However, we need to not deny that the Absolute exists. Increasing numbers of people are managing to embody it (see batgap.com), obviously, in a relative way, but, as far as I can see it is this that represents our destiny.
What we need is to develop as clear a vision as possible about what society could look like, to draw people towards a new vision. Recently (Guardian 29/04/19) Jonnie Wolf reviewed Paul Mason’s new book about the future, and he talked about the so-called “value alignment problem” of,
“… how to give AI the right goals and values to ensure that things turn out well from a human perspective. This problem is accentuated by our ignorance of our own values. Despite millennia of moral philosophy, we are not able to explicitly articulate in English the values that we implicitly live by …”
This is my point, this “articulation” is the enquiry that I am suggesting here, a herculean task indeed, but what could be more meaningful, so obviously needed and with such potential to bring about real change.
Monbiot, (as above) in making the case against Capitalism said,
“I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an economic system but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves that meets our needs without destroying our home.”
Paul Mason (Guardian 27/05/19) expressed this as, “… we need to spell out now the radical democratic and humanist values … We are engaged in a culture war over values and narratives.” Again, from the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty (29/05/19) confirms the point, “Yet the philosopher’s challenge is the right one. What Brexit has shown again is our inability to think anew about what the state and the economy are for, to sketch out what a different future might look like.”
What I think these three writers miss are the two vital “disciplines” of psychology and spirituality that are fundamental to this philosophical project. (I have just noticed that Monbiot has written an article (Guardian 12/06/19) about how politicians need therapy. Too true! I hope he continues to integrate psychology into his perspective.)
Research has suggested that it can take as little as ten percent of the population embodying a new level of consciousness for there to be a paradigm shift within a society. Whatever the percentage, at a certain point of accumulation things “tip”, the world changes, just as happens in personal change. Who expected the “Iron Curtain” to disintegrate in the way it did? Science was ridiculed and dismissed before it became accepted. Plus, the world’s consciousness is now functioning on turbo-charge since the arrival of the internet, expanding at an increasingly rapid rate. The intensity of our current “culture wars” is surely the result of this, with fear at the pace of change driving the many “reactionary” groups.
Ken Wilber has long argued that our “culture wars” are between people of different levels of consciousness. I know this is a very “un-pc” thing to say, especially for those of a Post-Modern consciousness who hate hierarchies, as well as those who shout “elitism” whenever it suits them. But if we accept that human lifelong development is real, and that it is towards a freedom that is defined by the undefinable “Absolute”, then we quickly see that there are steps in this process, these are the levels, or stages, that Consciousness goes through in its development.
Wilber looks at many people’s research describing these stages of development, which I will summarise as, “Survival, Tribal, Religious, Modern, Post-Modern, Integral”. Trauma and its consequential insecurity causes us to get stuck at earlier stages of development instead of naturally growing up through these stages into adulthood. This means there are plenty of adults stuck at “lower” levels and when this happens that identification becomes highly defensive and reactive. Trauma creates a powerful feeling of being defeated and unconsciously stuck in “victim mode”, which heightens reactivity. This is especially so from those at “Tribal” or “Religious” stages who project their negativity onto others, rejecting and blaming those they see as different in some way.
“Tribal” and “Religious” stages are normally gone through in childhood and adolescence, so people stuck at these stages are full of projection and blame and intolerance, unable to yet encompass complexity. Often a significant part of them has not managed to make it to the “Modern” stage with its belief in science and rational “truth”, so they are full of introjected assumptions and prejudices. I say “part” because different parts of us can develop lopsidedly. It often happens that the intellect has understood the need for rational truth-based scientific approach, but due to their feelings being stuck, split off and unconnected, they continue making pseudo rational justifications for their childish, prejudiced and need based compensatory beliefs.
This can be seen clearly in many groups from gangs to deprived communities to minority groups of a religious or secular nature. Even those who went through private boarding school, whose “tribal insecurity” is locked beneath additional layers of indoctrinated superiority which provides a kind of “bullet proof” armour. It makes them seem powerful due to their extreme self-confidence, but it also leaves a hole where compassion would be and healing and development become difficult.
It is amazing how we can fit our perception, our understanding and our justifications, to our prejudices, and how we so often do this without seeing the inherent contradictions. This is because trauma splits the connections between our head, heart and body which limits our development. It limits our emotional and intellectual maturity. People can also get stuck at “Modern” and “Post-Modern” stages, identified with their perspective as being the only valid one. It is not until we reach what Wilber calls the “Integral” stage that we can see and understand the whole structure and get free from identifying with “our level” as being the only “right” perspective.
How though do we evaluate any perspective? How do we know that our understanding has more value than someone else’s? This is about being able to see and feel these structures of consciousness. It is about knowing and understanding how all our negativity comes from trauma with all its compensatory processes. In the end it is about knowing something about our “Absolute” nature with its essence of “Goodness, Beauty and Truth” because it is only from that “higher” ground that we can see and assess the whole terrain. So, we need to accept that there is a hierarchy to consciousness and development and find ways of using this discernment in clear and practical ways, especially in the selection of our politicians and all those in positions of power. This obviously needs to be always done with humility and Love because it is part of understanding that our ongoing adult development is towards our potential in “Being”, which consists of Consciousness, Love and Presence.
We do not have to live defeated lives; I know that people can move into hope and trust in Life and travel along this road. The “big” problems of our world are surely solvable – climate change, inequality, poverty, crime, bullying, hatred, even laziness, can all be reduced through the re-orientation that can take place by opening to the extraordinary underlying “Goodness, Beauty and Truth” of human nature and its developmental trajectory. It must be possible to change the structure of our society to better enable this evolution.
It may be that we destroy our beautiful world through man-made climate catastrophe, an unimaginable tragedy, but even if this were to happen it would not diminish the truths of our existence. We live in a world of both meaning and chaos, which means the future cannot be known, but it makes total sense to me that the force that created this universe created evolution so that beings with consciousness could realise itself. Any life form in this vast universe that has sufficient consciousness will surely have choice, along with its inevitable associated struggles. These struggles are an essential part of this staggeringly beautiful evolutionary process which gives us the potential to become conscious of Consciousness and embody Love and Presence, in the act of the universe becoming conscious of itself.
Jim Robinson – Gestalt Psychotherapist – email@example.com – June 2019