Hope and a politics of care (1): The morning after partygate

Hello friends. Thanks for visiting. Here’s the first of a pair of posts on hope and a politics of care. It’s a 10-minute read / 15-minute listen.

A few hours after I posted this, Boris Johnson’s prime ministership was falling apart, so some of the details are a bit dated, but the message still seems relevant enough.


I’ve recorded an audio of this post – here if you prefer to listen…


After all his lockdown lawbreaking, the case against the prime minister majors on his habit of saying one thing and doing another. But this is a politician’s weakness, hardly unusual. More disturbing is his want of care.

I think of the moment he was shown a picture of a toddler left on a hospital floor for a lack of beds and he snatched it away. And one of his speeches: people of low intelligence must go without, he said, so that people like himself may prosper. I’m reminded of his hero Winston Churchill, who told his war-weary public to dig for victory and do without while he tucked into steak tournedos topped with a truffle.

Toxic

A good leader is many things, but some conviction of care – that life beyond their own circle makes a claim on what they do – really can’t be missing. As it is, the leader we have was schooled in ‘strategic duplicity’ from the moment his parents dumped him at Eton’s gates. A gnawing need for success, the status it brings, has trained him ever since, it seems, to treat care as a handicap.

But I don’t think we can hurl the (other) c-word Boris Johnson’s way and have done with it. We might well wonder why the prime minister doesn’t have more care. But the question that presses is how someone so marked by its lack can rise to power with ease, even in our serially unrepresentative representative democracy. He didn’t give himself the country’s top job after all, we the public surprised him with that one, nuclear codes and all.

Though surprise it doesn’t. It’s no mystery, given our political diet, that care seldom swings our collective political choices. Our parliamentary representatives sit on either side of a room literally to moo at each other, like cows but without the grace. The press we most often consume treats our times not as a cluster of challenges that need facing but as a deluge of threats to keep at bay by pelting brickbats at anyone on the margins. Our social media is fast becoming the democracy of every needling meanness, a daily pile-on thousands of tweets deep. Boris Johnson didn’t cook up this slumgullion, he’s just the truffle on top of it. When he rolls off, a jarful more are ready to take his place to the fanfare of a fresh start, and round we go again.

As to how toxic leaders seduce so successfully, the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal offers the most persuasive account I know. We’re drawn to leaders who offer to do the violence that we ourselves harbour but are too ashamed to enact, she writes, or perhaps too squeamish. Hence the eternal return of the ‘strongman’ leader, promising to bludgeon a better future into being. The appeal of their ruthlessness, their dereliction of care, grows particularly attractive in societies under strain, anxious and liable to lash out. Think of Putin’s rise to power through the ruins of the Russian economy after the fall of the Wall. Think, for that matter, of Armed Forces Day on the island fortress of Brexit Britain.

But our prime minister is no strongman. He’s more ‘showman’, closer to Trump than Putin. His psychic allure issues not from his hunger to destroy – though destroy he does – but from his whim to distract. For as long as the maverick clown entertains, we can shrug off the demands of attention that the life of the world makes of us. Don’t worry about all that, we’re gonna make life great again – so promises the showman, though all he gives us is permission to self-destruct in peace.

Triage

I’ve often heard said that the body politic wouldn’t make such destructive choices ‘if only people were more educated’, but then our prime minister was incubated at Oxford University. More hothouse schooling with its ‘culture of contest’ – its competitive, economically-driven preoccupation with the accumulation of knowledge over the cultivation of wisdom – can’t plug the hole where care should be. The assuredness of clever, as a matter of thorough drilling, and the openness of thoughtful, are almost opposites.

Many pin our political somnambulance more precisely on a dearth of critical thinking. Why else would we so struggle to sift difficult truths from the slew of comforting lies spilling from the mouths of mendacious leaders, the drawing boards of marketing executives, the pens of our billionaire-owned press? Clearly, a democracy without criticality of thought isn’t one, but thinking clearly doesn’t amount to a politics of care. What counts most is not how lucid the thinking, but in whose favour the thinking is done. Some of the sharpest minds, and Churchill was a razor, are also the architects of oppression.

The matter of how clearly we think may not be as important as how deeply we feel. Some research suggests a long-term decline in empathy, even a dimming of emotion itself. But injured animals still release compassion in torrents. Fellow-feeling hasn’t dried up, it’s just no guarantor of care. Most of the animal-loving public is OK with melting down Moscow with all its children – because if you buy into nuclear weapons, that’s what it says on the tin. Justice stands uneasy on empathy’s shifting sands.

When I call to mind the people who most inspire me, what lands first is not how critically they think or fulsomely they emote, but how faithful they are to the life in and around them. They feel involved with it. It matters to them, so its integrity matters also, urging them towards attentiveness. I think of the Czech dissident and playwright, Václav Havel. His criticality and empathy ran deep, but his dignity as a leader lay in recruiting both to his fidelity to the people and the land. His care as a political actor melded with his congruence as a person, and then you couldn’t miss it. It showed up in his bearing, in all senses of that word: directedness, poise, persistence.

Havel’s own view on leadership was simple: it’s an exercise in responsibility. More than the indulgence of one’s own ego, class or nation, the leader who genuinely serves their public cleaves to ‘something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success’. That’s why the people chose him to lead.

Could we choose that too? It’s what we say we most want, just not what we most vote for. Over and again, leaders showing some social solidarity get slammed by people of power who stand to lose out. The system of elite power defends itself. But antagonism also builds among those who stand to gain as the fears that Hanna Segal identified take hold. Because the leader who would have us face the world as it is becomes a sticky prospect; better the honcho who doesn’t trouble us with all that.

Perhaps this accounts in part for the unlikely alliance that emerged in the last general election between the monied classes and many – though importantly, not most – of those they marginalise. With millions of others, I’d hoped that I’d finally be able to point to a new prime minister as the only in my lifetime whose care has inspired me. Instead, we sent our showman leader bumbling back to Number 10 for another crack at the whip. Here and abroad, care in politics remains patchy indeed, or worse.

Antidote

And yet care isn’t rare, its tokens are everywhere. The Havels of the world may be few, though my hope attaches more to the very many more people who struggle fitfully to push their circle of care outward – the outcome of the effort matters, but the effort itself counts for more. For in that effort is something politically precious indeed: a presumption against voting for the pain of others.

When the circle of the life that matters reaches further than the front door, we may grow inured to the appealing lies that energise violence against the stranger and the earth. We may hold back from strewing such casual blessings over the injustices of our day. Indeed, we may hold an antidote ­– possibly the sole antidote – to the poisonous, pied-piper charm of any showman leader or screaming headline.

I wonder what might lead that way. At the least, a politics of deeper inclusion, socially and ecologically, won’t emerge unless we test what we hear from politicians and read in the press – and what we say and do ourselves – against a simple, cautionary query: Where’s the care here?

But the query I’m left with is the altogether slipperier one of whether we can learn to want to care in the first place. I mean – how do you learn a desire?

I have no recipe, I even hope there isn’t one. I only notice that the desire to care grows stronger in those not quite so captivated by the greedy institutions of our socio-economic system. They’re unconvinced by its well-marketed, peculiarly privatised hopes of a comfortable retreat to the suburbs, two cars in the drive, and so on. That would mean living ‘within the lie’, as Havel once wrote, when the choice needs making to live ‘within the truth’, or at least to try. Better to run feral than labour to contain the dissonance; better to revolt – Havel’s word again.

Yet that revolt is more than a merely instinctive recoil from ‘the lie’ and all its hurts. Certainly, care’s caution stands against harm, but its desire moves for the life in harm’s way. Such considered, active love of the life to which we belong, so bell hooks insisted, teaches us to transgress for the sake of a common freedom. And so care hitches to hope. Hope, that is, attending to the harm that care might prevent, but also to the inclusive prosperity it might yet allow – the very thing our aristocrat prime minister dismisses with a wave of the hand.

Care’s hope

I’ve occasionally asked people how their care took root in them. They reply with little more than that they kept bumping into it. ‘Oh, it was after I met…’ ‘Well, my mum taught me early on to…’ ‘It’s in the stories our people tell…’ ‘Nature’s been my teacher all along, I suppose…’ ‘I just prayed, I mean I really prayed, and it came…’

None learnt care from a script. Apparently, it propagates less by planning than by the grace of coincidence (coincide: lit. ‘to fall upon together’). It’s not much of a strategy, but the nodding heads of summer grass at my window need nothing more as they loose their DNA to the breeze. There it drifts until it meets what it didn’t know it was looking for. Then it makes. The rest is history, literally. (Forget my streaming hay-fever for a moment.)

Care likewise lives, it seems, by a sparse ecology of life-inviting, life-releasing encounters: moments when life might just tilt us its way, and we might just tilt to meet it in turn. If, that is, we can remember who we mean to be – recall our fidelity to the living, grow our democracy from that place. It’s a slender kind of hope, but real. In the choice to sink into care’s ways, in the fellowship of that choice, and in the filament threads of story and ritual that uphold that choice through time, we can at least lean into the wind.

Thanks for reading

If you found this post worth the read, please subscribe and share – thank you.

Thanks also to Arzhia and Caitlin for their thoughts on an earlier draft.

Other news

New handout. I’ve put together a sheet showing the six ‘core conditions’ of conscious hope that emerged from my conversations with various people who persist in struggling to face the world as it is.

Study guide. I also now have some simple book group guidelines for reading through ‘Hope’s work’ with others. Thanks to Tim Stead for some of the queries I’ve used there.

Hope’s work for half-price (but still all the effort)! If you’d like a copy of the book, you can get one half-price (£5) if you order direct from the publisher and use the code SUMMER at checkout. I have a few left too, for £10 inc. postage, if you’d like a signed copy – just get in touch.

Audiobook. And finally, an audio version of the book, read by me, should be out in the autumn. If you’d like to know when, just subscribe to this blog and I’ll send a message.