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UK politics

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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There’s a difference between making noise and making change

seebohmIt is quite easy to make noise in our culture. The internet and online media are like a giant echo chamber, and within a few days one angry tweet can turn into an ear-splitting feedback scream of indignation. Because of that, we can become entirely focused on making noise in our culture – getting retweeted, getting on the news, getting publicity somehow or other. Anything to get the public’s attention for a moment. But making noise is not necessarily the same as making change.

Let me compare two revolutionaries: Seebohm Rowntree, and Russell Brand.

Seebohm Rowntree was Joseph Rowntree’s son, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of Rowntree’s chocolate company. Like his father, he was also a passionate campaigner for social justice. He wanted to improve the lives of British workers. He did this by quietly and pain-stakingly building an evidence base for higher wages.

He and a small team of researchers focused on working conditions in York. They investigated how many calories a person needed to eat to avoid malnutrition, and how much it cost to get those calories, as well as the basic fuel, clothing and household items necessary for survival. Anyone who could not afford these basics lived below the Poverty Line.

18.htm99His team then visited every working class family in York – 11,560 families, or 46, 754 individuals in all –  and interviewed them about their living conditions and income. His team discovered that 27.84% of the working class lived below the Poverty Line – they were not paid enough to avoid malnutrition. He also showed how many working-class people fell below the Poverty Line at the beginning and end of their lives – the so-called Poverty Cycle.

Rowntree published his results in a 1901 book, Poverty, in which he argued that employers should raise their wages and give sick pay and health insurance, while the state should provide unemployment insurance – otherwise, as soon as adversity struck, a family was plunged below the poverty line (if it wasn’t there already).

Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, writes:

Rowntree’s book arrived like a bomb in British politics. It showed that at the heart of the Empire, with all its pomp, wealth, and self-satisfaction, around a third of people were so poor they often did not have enough to eat, and many were sunk in utter poverty as bad as that of the Czar’s empire against which the communists raged. It did this clinically and statistically, in a way that was impossible to refute.

Rowntree’s work changed things. He worked closely with the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1906-1914), which introduced many of the welfare provisions which Rowntree advocated. It also inspired (or shamed) many companies around the world to follow the example of Rowntree’s and introduce higher wages, sick pay, health insurance, free medical and dental consultations, employee pension schemes, and councils for consulting employees on management decisions.

Russell Brand has just as good intentions as Seebohm Rowntree, although I suspect he is more of a narcissist than the shy Seebohm was. Brand doesn’t just want social change, he also likes revolution as a pose, a look. He was calling for revolution on his radio show a decade ago, long before he had any idea what it would involve. It just sounded good, it felt cool, it felt naughty. Calling for revolution on Radio 2, fancy that!

517EhMdH-SLThen, last year, he published a manifesto in the New Statesman calling for ‘total revolution of consciousness’, for a ‘spiritual revolution’. This year, he expanded it into a book. Sounding like Thomas Traherne in Doc Martens, he declared that greed, power, capitalism, time itself were just ideas in the mind, and as ideas, they could be changed in an instant. We should ‘meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster.’

Well, OK. But why ‘focus our condemnation exclusively at those with power’, as if all the evils of the world come from the Illuminati? Isn’t that letting us, the public, massively off the hook? Who is perpetuating a culture of shallow narcissism? We are! Who is perpetuating a female-denigrating patriarchy? We are! Who is putting our short-term consumer demands above the long-term survival of us and every other species? We are! But it feels so good to demonize ‘those with power’ and project our guilt onto them – it makes us into the heroic warriors of light, truth, justice and righteousness, just like those righteous ISIS dudes.

And saying ‘money is just an idea’ is not necessarily going to free us from that idea. Consciousness-change can happen in an instant, but usually it takes a lot longer. It takes strong evidence to make your argument the consensus rather than just a passing gesture. But when Brand went on Newsnight, he angrily waved away any contrary evidence or data: ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph!’

Brand doesn’t know the difference between making noise and making change. Imagine Seebohm Rowntree saying ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph’. Without evidence, you merely have rhetoric, gesture, charisma, warm sentiment and good intentions. And that can help you make noise, but not real worthwhile change.

I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering how those of us working to revive Greco-Roman philosophy (and ancient wisdom in general)  can not just make noise, but make change.

It’s relatively easy to make noise, as a practical philosopher. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get on the media for a few minutes, write some articles, visit some schools, sell some books, do some cool stuff, make an OK living. But how do you really make a long-term difference rather than short-term noise?

My visit to Boston last month, for the Mind & Life Institute’s International Symposium of Contemplative Studies, was a real wake-up call. It seems to me that the people involved with Mind and Life – scientists and philosophers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson – have over the last 30 years made genuine change. They have established mindfulness as a serious and evidence-based intervention, widely used now in medical schools, in higher education, in schools, in prisons, in mental healthcare, in business.

I’m particularly struck by the success of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. Kabat-Zinn established a course that was easy to follow, and easy to replicate. He started to build up an evidence base for its success in lowering stress. He let other people use the course and test it out – he put the promotion of the intervention above the promotion of his personal brand.

600_400453522He leveraged the credibility of his institution – UMass medical school – to help bring his research into the mainstream. He built up alliances with other key change-makers in his field, through the Mind and Life and other organizations and networks. He wrote both journal articles to make his case in academia, and popular books to make his case to the public.

That’s how to do it.

I feel that those of us working in practical philosophy (such as the Stoicism Today team) are at the beginning of that process. Like the mindfulness people 30 years ago, we’re trying to marry ancient wisdom practices with modern evidence-based psychology, and then take that out into different contexts – schools, prisons, mental healthcare, companies. We’re doing well – next week, Stoic Week is happening for the third year, with over 1000 people taking part in the online course (you can read the handbook in preparation for next week here). And we’re just about to sell out all the 300 tickets for the modern Stoicism event in London, so this will be the largest Stoic event…er…ever!

We’ve got Stoicism into the cultural conversation again, which is great. And I think a great deal of Stoicism Today’s success, perhaps all of it, has been because of partnerships – putting the movement before the promotion of our personal brands. That’s how to make change.

But we need to think about how to make more long-term change. Speaking personally, this year has been great fun, but everything has felt quite ad hoc – working with a rugby club one month, then a school the next, then a prison, then an accountancy firm. I personally feel the need for more of a coherent long-term strategy.

We need, I suspect, to establish a centre, within a university or several universities. There are mindfulness centres in many different universities and medical schools, but as far as I know, only one centre dedicated to the revival of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy (at the University of Warsaw). We need more partnerships with clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. We need more simplicity and replicability in our course materials, so it’s not just about our personality. And above all, we need to build up a stronger evidence base, so the case for learning wisdom practices becomes ‘impossible to refute’.