Category Archives: Politics

The Politics of Love

Political faultlines are determined by the limits of love. When analysing politics we typically focus on the areas beyond those limits, where the absence of love can be interpreted as hate. But no one wants to be identified as a hater because we like to see ourselves as lovers. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, despite the upswell of racism, Brexiteers deeply resented being identified with racism because they felt their own motivation to be one of love: love for their country as they understand it; love for Britishness as they know it; love for their community; love for people like them.
It is of course our own likeness that we vote for, that we see reflected in the political mirror. We want to vote for and with people like us. This is the meaning of identity politics, and it is much more powerful than any rational debate about policy. We are like, and we love a certain group of people and because we are voting for their interests we feel our intentions to be noble. Therefore we feel offended if people disparage or criticise us for our voting decision.
But what we forget about is people outside our circle of love, whether they be Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, the white working class, trade unionists, or single mums. And whereas billionaires own the media in order to continually remind us of the importance of their interests, some other groups can do little more than mew plaintively when they find themselves outside the circle of love.
It is warm and cozy inside, but bleak and lonely outside. Inside the circle of political love, contented voters warm themselves on the log fire of steadily-rising asset prices and well-paid jobs. Outside, through the window, the working poor try to peer in, as the step-ladder is chopped up beneath their feet for firewood. The fat and contented voters inside just can’t see the poor outside the window, so consumed are they by the love and admiration they feel for each other, and by their concentration and chumminess as they observe the etiquettes of hospitality and pass round the canapés, with such refined manners!

The Politics of the Soul


This is my remembrance / reworking of some of the many ideas in Prof Milbank’s paper.

Prof. Milbank started by stating that the soul (psyche) is what makes us human, it is the human realm par excellence. He cited Aristotle’s ideas from De Anima, talking about the bodies of humans and animals being the nature of their souls, and yet the soul as transcending mere matter.

He then moved on (or back) to Plato, citing the ‘Gorgias‘ where Plato relates politics to the soul, saying that politics is to the soul as medicine is to the body, and that the politician’s function is to make people’s soul’s good just as the doctor’s function is to make people’s bodies well. Politics is therefore psychological, but it is about collective psychology and the collective good, so the politician does not correspond to the modern psychologist who treats individuals.

Plato warned against the possibility of a type of personal political narcissism in which the individual learns too well to govern himself and subdue his passions, just for its own sake. Plato compares this to a general who undertakes unnecessary battles for the sake of glory.

Plato prefers to look upwards and outwards, locating the individual soul as an active participant in the polis (city), with the political function helping to minister to the individual’s soul just as the individual enriches collective life. Psychology is therefore political.

Plato talked about the importance of ritual, myth and liturgy in connecting the polis to the Divine, and of the necessity of a religious community within the polis. In Plato’s case this was the class of religious philosophers, but Prof. Milbank said it could be the Sangha, the Ummah, or the Ecclesia depending on the culture. This religious community performs a public function and is neither secret nor elite.

Prof. Milbank provided an extensive critique of liberalism. He argued that 17th century liberalism was a reaction to the European religious wars of the preceding centuries. These had been wars over ‘the truth’, with different Christian sects fighting for their own versions. Liberalism sought to create a neutral metaphysical space as a basis for public life, replacing feudalism which had based itself on a particular view of the human soul in relation to God. But liberalism’s neutrality has degenerated into a materialist metaphysics and is no longer a neutral space, and my displacing the soul from public life it has displace humans. Liberalism is therefore anti-humanistic.

Within the modern and post-modern world the human has become debased or at least marginalised from public life. Classical economics, with doctrines such as diminishing marginal utility, does not take account of truly human phenomena pertaining to the soul such as sentiment and virtue (whose utility does not diminish as they increase). Instead it emphases the trivial functions of human base matter such as food, shelter and copulation. Materialist ideologies appeal to base human instincts such as hatred of the other (immigrants, classes, races, religions). On the other hand the individual is disempowered from political involvement through liberal doctrines such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which pretends that these occasionalist, individual consumption patterns have some aggregated force. Even when liberalism attempts transcendence it debases humans further in its search for a soulless ‘brave new world’ of augmented bio-technological humans. Milbank calls these two modes of liberalism disenchanted immanence and transcendence.

Milbank characterised as ‘optimistic’ the pre-liberal Christian idea that people are fundamentally good even though this goodness is obscured by sin. He characterised as ‘pessimistic’ the Hobbesian liberal idea that people are fundamentally bad and must be restrained if we are to avoid the natural state of the ‘war of all against all’. He noted that Rousseau painted a more optimistic liberal picture of isolated people being good in the state of nature. However, following Rousseau, liberalism tends to rely on a system of contracts to bring about good behaviour once people are placed together, whereas non-liberal traditions like anarchism and socialism point to natural existing societies as manifesting harmony without the need for contracts.

Milbank promotes an ‘enchanted transcendence’ which he believes is the message of William Blake and other Romantics. He contrasts this with the ‘enchanted immanence’ of Spinoza and Goethe which he suggests compromises the (Western) monotheistic tradition. However Milbank’s vision is Christo-centric.

Political Vacuum

In the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ Aristotle writes: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.”

Aristotle defines politics as the master art with the other arts and sciences its servants. Politics is responsible for prioritising the other arts and sciences and allocating resources to them. In recent years the political structures of the state have abdicated this role to ‘the market’. In effect, political power has been transferred to the market, meaning the banks and global financial institutions.

The financial markets allocate resources to the most financially lucrative trades, those with the highest rates of return. They prefer to pay no attention to the human or environmental effects of these trades. Our political system is the rule of money, where money chases ever more money with little regard for anything else, and all other ends are subservient to this. Money has incorrectly become an end in itself.

We need to replace this pathological system with an alternative politics which allocates resources where they will benefit people and the environment. To accomplish this we need alternative definitions of wealth, based around human well-being and the true value of the natural world.

The Fetishisation Of The Market

Regarding public good vs business good, Anna Minton’s book ‘Ground Control’ describes how the urban planning process has been distorted in recent years in favour of business and against the public interest. Large sections of our cities (e.g. Liverpool 1) have now been privatised in order to provide lucrative shopping environments. Undesirables (e.g. young people, old people, homeless people) are excluded through various means, such as the ASBO.

The fetishisation of the private sector knows no bounds. The current Neoliberal Party government is being warned that withdrawing investment from the public sector too quickly will deepen the recession, because the private sector is not ready to take up the slack. One reason for this is because the banks are failing to lend. The proposed solution is more ‘quantitative easing’ – increasing the money supply so that the banks have more money to lend. But the evidence so far shows that banks use any additional money in the system to fatten their own balance sheets and pay bonuses, not to lend, no matter how many times Vince Cable ticks them off.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to miss out the middle-man? If the Bank of England has money to pump into the system, the best way to bring us out of recession is to invest directly in public infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals, and public transport. The banks don’t need to stand in the middle, taking a cut through interest payments. This model of investment is different from PFI, the Neoliberal Party’s preferred mode of infrastructure ‘investment’ since the time of John Major, but why should the private sector sit in the middle of transactions between the government and the people, syphoning off our wealth and adding no value? The banking system in this country is just an organised form of corruption, and the government is entirely complicit.

The Moral Economy

Opposition to neo-liberalism can be summarised under the heading ‘the moral economy’. In a moral economy, human beings accept moral responsibility for what happens in the economy. We stop pretending that if everyone pursues their own selfish interest an ‘invisible hand’ is going to magically bring about our collective good.

Accepting moral responsibility does not entail taking control of every aspect of the economy. We can accept that, in some areas, properly regulated markets work reasonably well. However, the provision of universal public services should not be left to the market but should be performed by the public sector. Natural resources such as oil and metals belong to us all, and should not be left to small cabals to exploit and profiteer. We need to consume only as much oil as we need to create new renewable energy systems – the rest should be left in the ground if we want to have a future.

In a moral economy we should not be afraid to make qualitative as well as quantitative judgments: just because gambling and pornography are lucrative doesn’t mean they are useful parts of the economy. There needs to be clear understanding of the relationship between business good and public good: there are areas where they overlap and areas where they are mutually exclusive. Where business goes against the public interest it should be discouraged through regulation and taxation, and in some cases banned.

Manipulative technologies such as genetic modification are too dangerous to be left in the private sector. The trivial profit motive should not be involved in decisions which affect thousands of future generations. Harvesting and enclosing genes through patents is something that the public can have no truck with – how can it ever be in our interest? Amartya Sen’s research shows that small-scale farming by peasants is the most productive use of land and resources. We can feed the world with land reform, micro-finance and education. Genetic modification is an unnecessary, greedy innovation.

Babylon Must Fall

Neo-liberalism is an ideological blind faith in markets. Like all dogmas or pseudo-sciences, its adherents continue to grasp at it, regardless of how many facts and events prove that markets do not work. They endlessly chant the mantra “public bad, private good”.

As Derek Wall discusses in his book ‘Beyond Babylon’ there is a range of alternatives to neo-liberalism, ranging through Keynesian, regulatory, localist, eco-feminist, socialist and anarchist approaches, to name a few. They all have positive contributions to make, and all of us need to unite to slay the neo-liberal dragon.

I watched Ken Loach debate with Michael Heseltine on Newsnight last night. Loach attacked the Thatcher government’s record on unemployment and Hezza retorted that unemployment had also been high under Labour. Loach said that he should not be associated with the Blair and Brown government, but the exchange showed how the current political system hinges on the pretence that different factions within the Neoliberal Party offer genuine choice. The message is that once you have tried another faction (to no effect) you may as well lie back and let the Tories shaft you – which is where the British public is currently at.

Unless the Greens clearly articulate the message that we oppose the single Neoliberal Party with its blue, orange and red livery we will always be squeezed at general elections. Last time the political establishment was able to trick the voters that the orange faction offered some change, next time it will be the red faction etc etc ad infinitum (but Babylon must fall!).

Varieties Of Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology is normally associated with Latin American Catholicism. However, it can be understood as a radical tendency existing within all the major world religions, which each contain currents emphasising the following themes:

* working with the poor
* challenging authority
* seeking liberation in this life as well as the next
* favouring activism over contemplation

Liberation theology focuses on the needs of the poor and, in their interest, is prepared to challenge political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. In Latin America, the prototype was Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484 – 1566), a Dominican priest who became Bishop of Chiapas (the area which in recent times gave birth to the Zapatista movement). Against the grain of Spanish colonialism, De Las Casas envisioned a just society where indigenous people would co-exist peacefully and freely with the colonists instead of as slaves.

In the 20th Century, an important figure was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, assasinated in 1980. Previously a conservative, Romero inclined to liberation theology after a Jesuit colleague was killed for creating self-reliant groups among poor peasants. When the government refused to investigate, Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assasinations and torture, until the death squads killed him too.

Within Hinduism, Gandhi pioneered liberation theology. He successfully challenged the colonial power, and he also challenged the orthodox Hindu authorities, particularly with regard to untouchability, which led to his assasination by a Hindu extremist in 1948. Gandhi practiced karma yoga, the path to liberation through work, which in his case meant social and political activism. Gandhi combined the traditional Indian ideal of non-violence (ahimsa) with the Christian ideal of active love, to produce satyagraha, the theory and practice of non-violent direct action. Later, satyagraha was successfully adopted by Martin Luther King, another major figure in the history of liberation theology.

Sheikh Amadou Bamba of Senegal (1853 – 1927) offers a great example of liberation theology in an Islamic context. Founder of the Mouride Sufi movement, Bamba led a non-violent struggle against French colonialism. The French exiled and tortured him, which only strengthened his movement. Notably, Bamba emphasised work as a spiritual practice, and his followers are renowned for their industriousness, being involved in many economic enterprises throughout Senegal, such as groundnut cultivation.

In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement uses traditional Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Wheel of Life to improve worldly conditions such as sanitation and food cultivation.

Reflections On Satyagraha

Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.

At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.

Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out  as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.

Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.

The Sufi Path of Service

How can we distinguish between fatal and liberating choices? That was the question posed this week by Sheikh Aly N’Daw, head of the International Sufi School. He was speaking at his book launch in Westminster, which was hosted by Ian Stewart MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Islam group. Aly N’Daw is from the Mouride school of Sufism founded by the Senegalese saint Amadou Bamba (1850-1927) who emphasised service to others as the path to God. Sheikh Aly encourages his students to study the lives of great men and women who have bridged the gap between politics and spirituality, and have demonstrated how peace within leads to peace in the world.

Sheikh Aly asked us to consider the choice that Martin Luther King made when he decided not to opt for a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago, but to take his ministry to the South and confront the spectre of racial discrimination. On the surface, it appears that Dr. King made a fatal choice, because his ministry ended with his assasination. However, in reality he made a liberating choice, because he could have suffered spiritual death by taking the easy option of remaining in Chicago, and his sacrifice contributed to the political and social liberation of millions of African-Americans.

Next we were asked to consider Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro-credit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A professor of economics, he became disillusioned with academic life and went to live with a group of peasants. Many people would consider this a fatal choice, at least professionally, but for Muhammad Yunus it was liberating because it showed him how small sums of money loaned on trust could yield massive results if targetted at the right people, particularly women. By 2008 the Grameen Bank had loaned US$7.8 billion to the poor.

Ian Stewart MP talked about his own difficult choice, to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that his motivation had been to help the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but now that hundreds of thousands of people had died as a result of the war, he could not be sure if he had been right. He described the whirl of conventional political life and how politicians, caught in the maelstrom, are on auto-pilot, without time or space to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As he is not standing in the forthcoming general election, he expressed the hope that he would now have time to learn more about what Sufism describes as the spiritual heart.

The first two books in Sheikh Aly N’Daw’s series are ‘The Initiatory Way To Peace’ and ‘Liberation Therapy’. If you would like to buy a copy, please email: . The International Sufi School’s next event is a conference in Edinburgh in May entitled ‘Nonviolence Within: Peace For All’ (

Sustainability & Autonomy

In order for any system to be sustainable (i.e. viable over a long period) all of its components must have a high degree of autonomy. The reason why natural ecosystems are sustainable (if humans don’t destroy them) is because their components such as plants and animals are autonomous. Plants, for example, autonomously photosynthesize and extend their roots to draw nutrients from the soil. Meanwhile, herbivores autonomously nourish themselves by eating plants, and carnivores by eating herbivores etc.

All systems face two principal types of threat: internal and external. External threats are many and varied: depending on the system they include strikes by meteorites, flu epidemics, bank failures and so on. A typical internal threat to a system is when one of its sub-systems predominates at the expense of the others, annexing a disproportionate share of the system’s resources and threatening the very survival of the whole, including the dominant sub-system itself.

Every viable system has a sub-system responsible for preserving the whole, and for maintaining the system’s essential organizing characteristics over time. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana called this sub-system ‘autopoietic’, meaning ‘self-making’ in Greek. The British cybernetician Stafford Beer coined the phrase ‘pathological autopoiesis’ to describe a situation where this sub-system malfunctions, and attempts to preserve itself at the expense of the whole. It starts to construe ‘self’ too narrowly, mistaking the welfare of the sub-system for the welfare of the whole system.

Our modern political sphere is full-to-overflowing with examples of pathological autopoiesis, where elements of government or public life which are supposed to benefit the whole merely seek to preserve or enrich themselves. Banks and MPs are two obvious examples. Typically these pathological sub-systems protest that they are acting in the interest of the whole when they are clearly not. How many times have we heard ‘the national interest’ invoked to justify the crazy wars in Iraq and Afganistan, even after we explained that they are “not in our name”?

Fortunately, because all of its components have a degree of autonomy, it is possible for the system to survive even when some of its sub-systems are establishing a pathological hegemony. In the political sphere this autonomy is known as ‘democracy’, and it is a prerequisite for the long-term viability and sustainability of the human race. Democracy offers us the chance to wrest power and resources from pathological sub-systems before they destroy us, and ironically themselves too.