Iridescent Centrism: Insight Over Ideology For A Truly Transformational Politics
How progressive politics can break out of the traps of ideology and the doldrums of vanilla-being centrism to forge a radically regenerative future with deep insight and truly transformational leadership
What was initially the first part of this essay was about a specific issue in progressive politics: an ideological color-blindness to the reality of antisemitism on the Left, with those on the radical side of left-wing politics blaming everyone; and taking responsibility for none of it. What you don’t own owns you; vindicated by Labour’s historic loss in the 2019 UK Election with only 1/3 of the popular vote and the loss of scores of seats to give the Tories a bigger landslide than with Thatcher. How the echo chamber many of us are in is in fact a bubble of reality-distortion.
Following anthropology Clifford Geertz’s idea of “thick description”, I realize that this specific case of the tragedy of ideology over insight, can offer us a pathway for how to build a post-post-modern, or “meta-modern” politics that is beyond ideology; and is instead driven by deep and penetrating insight into the current, not historic, human experience.
The abject denial of anti-semitic racial biases on the Left seems to me to be a specific case of a far broader and more worrisome issue: ideology – and ideologies always tend to be totalizing by nature – trumping (!) wisdom, compassion, empathy, creativity, and insight. So I am going to use this piece to explore deeper how the issue of antisemitism can unlocks insights that could deliver a far more powerful transformation in politics in general.
As former Guardian journalist Matthew d’Ancona explains, ideology has regained almost complete control on the Left.
One by one, the [Labour] party’s key decision-making bodies have been colonised by the hard Left: since 2018, the all-important National Executive Committee; the crucial decision-making groups at the party’s conferences; and, naturally, candidate selection where ideological purity is now often at a higher premium than likelihood to win. “They would rather win five out ten seats with leftwing candidates,” says one NEC member, “than ten with people they considered ideologically unsound.”
This desire has become a reality, with the worst election result for Labour in just under 100 years after 9 years of pain-inducing austerity from the Right. I sense that this rigid ideological bias is behind the reasons why so many that were once committed to Labour in the UK – and perhaps too to the Democrats in the US – are falling away. Unless the Left comes to this with a Beginner’s Mind, seeking the authentic insight that unlocks true transformation – and in my metaphysics the “universe” always provides the transformational leader with such unlocks – I fear right-wing governments for a generation.
One of the comments on my Facebook feed, from an ardent Corbynista, starts the unlock. He used the terms “Centre-Left” and “Blairite” as utterly derogatory. This is fascinating, given Blair was the only Labour leader to win in recent times.
At the heart of the issues is that Corbynites and Sandernistas seem to forget that democratic countries, rather than those who have a communist revolution thrust upon them by a small number of people, need a broad-tent politics for any form of unity. This is especially true given that the traditional “working-class” are now as likely to vote for Trump or Tory as they are the traditional parties of (organized) labor.
Traditionally “left-wing” parties need to include socially-conservative blue- and brown-collar workers and/or they need to embrace entrepreneurial-creative white collar workers to gain a consensus that can bring and sustain them real political power. To do this, they must realize that ideology generated in the times of Karl Marx cannot possibly still be absolutely true. But this means grokking that traditional Marxist-Leninist thinking must adapt with the time.
However, Corbyn apparently “sees socialism as revealed truth”. Ideological superiority is a dangerous thing. It makes it hard to reach out to others and engage them, persuade them, inspire them. This ideologically-driven hubris is why Labour failed to agree a coalition for Remain with the other smaller parties. This could have been the reality.
The inevitable corollary of such an ideological bent is always factionalism and righteousness: my intersectional/Marxist critical thinking is more right than yours. The Left then splits into cliques and factions, from the Gang of Four in Mao’s China to the Faction who oversee power in New Old Labour. Matthew d’Ancona:
Ask what the Faction wants, and we arrive at the heart of the matter. “They are not especially competent at campaigning or all that interested in governing,” says one who has worked with them. “Without even being conscious of it all the time, they are totally playing by the rules of Leninist culture. It’s all about control of the party apparatus.”
This allows the (hard) Right – always more able to suppress dissent within their own Party to win a vote than the intersectional Left – to rule both the US and the UK at present. Ken Loach capture the tragedy of ideology in his brilliant Spanish Civil War movie Land and Freedom. Whilst the Spanish Left are arguing about which collectivisation ideology is better, the united fascistic Right are bombing them and winning the war. The Judean People’s Front vs The Front For Judea anyone?
Ideological socialism has risen after years of what we might call vanilla-beige centre-left politics. I understand why the years of Labour/Democratic government disappointed many. The Iraq War; Guantanamo; failing Private-Public Partnerships; the enrichment of the Liberal elites etc. etc. etc.
Much of this was frustrating to many of us. But I believe that the issues of this kind of centrism were less about selling out left-ish values; and more about a fundamental error in how Clinton, Blair and Obama tried to move beyond ideology. They dropped into vanilla-beige centrism as opposed to rising into what I call “iridescent centrism”.
The Labour/Democrat victories of the last few decades were premised on a “3rd Way” between Left and Right that I believe was “Lowest Common Denominator” rather than what is possible: “Highest Common Factor”. Ironically, the architect of the original Third Way, Tony Giddens, had a much more inspiring vision for it than the version adopted and enacted by either New Democrats or New Labour. But it still didn’t have alive, sparkling, dynamic vibrance at the heart of it.
I believe that the many failures of progressive politics in the Blair-Brown and Clinton-Obama years were a result of trying to bring Left and right Wing sensibilities together through the lowest common denominator: rationalist analysis, metricization and technocratic hierarchy. Like many of us, Blair/Clinton saw the 20th Century socialist ideology – of the State being able to solve all problems with central planning and distributed resources – was hopelessly outdated and naive.
However, their solution was to temper the free-market with (always intellectual) regulations, a culture of metrics and evidence-bases, and byzantine financial vehicles (which far too often privatize the profit and socialize the pain). They failed to find a more emotive, passion-fueled and purposeful marriage of traditionally left-wing compassion and civil rights with traditionally right-wing realizations that everyone must be responsible for, and sovereign enough in themselves, to not rely on the State to solve (all) their problems.
The “Millennial mindset” – which is available to all generations but came of age in their – demands organizations, whether employers, brands or political parties, deliver on what we call the 3 Ms: meaning (purpose and sense of human-scale aliveness); membership (a sense of belonging, and meaningful relationships and genuine supportive community); and mastery (empowerment and support to step up, grow, develop and expand our consciousness and capabilities).
We can see in the failure of Clinton femme, Biden and Miliband to capture hearts and minds the perils of vanilla-beige centrism. They all fail to engage the masses with meaning, mastery and membership. They are all too intellectual, heady, cerebral and lacking in life’s sparkle. We can’t feel their hearts burn with purpose – which is as much as spiritual thing as it is a rational one.
So younger voters turn to the excitement of Sanders, Warren, Corbyn and their ideological cousins – who have the fire of radical ideology in the heart of their offer but leave the centre to do so; thus leaving it open for the Right to occupy. I fully understand why the passions of radical-ish socialism are so tempting: I was seduced by them for decades and could still be if I allowed myself. But I have come to appreciate how the see-saw of revolution/reaction – Obama/Trump – doesn’t get us very far in real terms.
This is because traditional Leftist ideology comes with a diminishing either/or mentality: either you’re for the 1% (Capital / bourgeoisie) or the 99% (the Proletariat). As Matthew d’Ancona writes, “[i]t is a dualistic style with which Corbyn remains most at ease. In his campaign launch speech on October 31, he declared that “the big question of this election is: whose side are you on?” Such thinking, grounded in ideology not insight, is always already out-of-date in a fast-changing world. Such an ideological stance can cost enormously in unexpected returns. Think of the flight of necessary money-folk and possible “broken industries. No-one over 40 needs reminding of the suckiness of British Telecom and British Rail in the 70s.
Dualistic thinking is inherently violent and vengeful because its seeks to push someone away, judging them as morally bankrupt, rather than embracing our shared humanity. Hurt people hurt other people until their protective patterns – developed in their formative years to get their needs met – are transformed. Either/or ideology does not see this as possible or optimal. It simply judged the few in order to fight for the many. There can be no genine unity: dualism always divides. Jess Philips MP, potential new Labour leader:
We have to turn away from a politics that is reductionist and binary and that can only push so many people further apart. To be in government is not to pick a side but to build a bridge and demonstrate what can unite
The problem with statism (and anti-semitism) is that it is driven by historically created, and so not eternal, 19th/20th Century historical materialist ideology. Ideology is fixed. It is rooted in the time and place it was generated. It cannot change with the times. It is not adaptable or agile. So ideologically-driven statist solutions ignore the enormous mass upgrading of consciousness and distributed digitally-driven empowerment that has occured since 19th Century and early 20th Century socialists formed their ideology. Remember that the Left/Right Wing split comes from where people sat in 1790s Paris after the Revolution; not where their consciousness has evolved to in the 2020s.
Because it is dead and frozen not alive and agile, ideology needs to be defended and perpetuated. This necessarily turns its proponents into dogmatists and zealots: and they then need enemies, class or otherwise: Tories, Zionists, Americans, Companies. Jews. Matthew d’Ancona: “The list of enemies goes on and on. This is the legacy the Labour leader cares about most.” Ideologies must enact violence, psychological and/or physical, to oppose those that don’t agree. This is what has happened in the last few years as ideologues have hit social media. We now have exponential dogmatism; a digital version of the enforced Sovietization which caused endless and needless suffering for tens of millions.
Ideology gets cemented in by emotions in our interoceptive bodies: like the understandable but not useful fear of Trump or BoJo. Ideology then causes us to project its radical dreams onto figures like Corbyn and AOC. We turn them into saints who can do know wrong rather than flawed and foible-rich humans. Such emotions, that anchors in the ideology, are locked into our nervous system by trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (which over 75% of us have had). We become fixated. We see everything through the lens of our ideology.
The next thing we know is that otherwise well-meaning people are denying essays like this have any truth at all; they are dismissing the multitude of socialish people who have witnessed anti-semitism on the Left; they are viciously in-fighting with members of their own movement; and they are judging those who are not PC enough whilst pronouncing universal human rights. As d’Ancona writes: “In the hard Left worldview Corbyn swallowed whole in his travels, Jewish people are on what the sociologist David Hirsh has called “the wrong side of the line: powerful, white, aligned with imperialism.” This version of socialism is about power before it is about values.”
What’s happening today on the Left – the denial of institutional anti-semitism and the dismissal of all forms of free-enterprise – reminds me of the autobiographical books of the Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn. He wrote that Soviet ideology was so strongly held that if the Party said that no such thing existed, then people could not see them. Ideology like this had Party members give their superiors the wrong numbers about production outcomes, which then created an enormous famine which killed millions; which was then denied because Soviet ideology would never allow a famine.
Ideology of Left or Right will always lead us down a cul-de-sac. We can’t be transformational and be right about our ideology; just as we can’t be married and right either. We have to anchor ourselves to something else that is as stable as ideology but that is also liquid and agile too. It must be powerful like ideology but also alive and dynamic. It must be as exciting as extreme ideology but also compassionate and caring.
I believe there is only one thing that can replace ideology: and that is realising our true nature as one with all things and experiencing this connection as love. This is the quintessential spiritual-mystical experience of enlightenment. As I write about in a recent book, we can allow this experience into our hearts – cleansing, healing, inspiring as it is – without losing our rational genius and scientific prudence. The connection/love we can reliably tap into through spiritual practices can come into our life and leadership choices as purpose. Purpose, love-in-action, grounds us in the chaotic crazy world.
The path of conscious self-mastery through spiritual enlightenment (and psychological healing) means we do not deny our emotions, as materialism is won’t to do; but also taking full responsibility for owning them and transmuting them into compassion, forgiveness, and inner peace. We “purify” ourselves by healing our own rage and trauma. Then our hearts become healed rather than hurt, and we no longer need ideological rule-books to be moral. We cannot be ideologues and have a genuine spiritual practice: for all genuine wisdom practices are about freeing our minds from conditioning, whether Marxist or Miltonite.
With this process we release the anger and righteousness that fuels so much of the “mean green meme”. It is the lost shadow of the eco/social justice warrior that has them post on my feed that the tens of millions of Trumpians/Brexiteers are dumb, brain-washed and under the control of the (Jewish?) elite. It has them say they could never be friends with, let alone date or marry, a Tory or Republican. This is not brotherhood. This is bigotry, superiority and righteousness. Dismissing our brothers and sisters whilst claiming to be the movement solidarity is hardly modelling the values that are the best of the Left.
It is our moral and societal duty not to claim that 50% of the electorate are selfish or stoopid and instead to improve our own empathy for their worldviews, their very real concerns, and their beliefs about how they want the world to be. At the very center of a transformational politics is profoundly compassionate empathy for those on the other wing. We reach out across the aisle – just as Mandela reached out to FW De Clerk on national TV to declare brotherhood with the minority “oppressor” – and model the inclusivity, brother/sister love and commitment to tolerance and equality that is the very best of the Left.
Yet perhaps the most important benefit of genuine heartfelt wisdom entering the public/civic/political space – and that means wisdom practices as there can be no genuine spirituality without regular, daily if not hourly, wisdom practice through meditation, contemplation, movement etc – is that the issues that out-sized political egos cause begin to dissolve. Aggressively negative campaign ads; dog-whistle populism; political vanity and narcissism; resentment and targeting ressentiment; factional arrogance; oppression and repression… all begin to lessen their corrosive hold on the public domain.
By tapping into what wisdom philosophers call the absolute non-dual experience – the pervasive experience of fullness, love, and connection we gain access to when we commit to wisdom practices – the separate individuals we show up as in relative world of dualities (i.e. everyday life) often enter a resonant embodied “space” where egos fade, ideologies become meaningless and collective insights come to the for. I have witnessed this happening not just in my own decision-making deliberations and negotiations with fellow wisdom teachers and conscious entrepreneurs but regularly in innovation processes where this involved. Outrage dissolves. Divisions heal. Discussions are respectful. And dialogues are generative.
Genuine human insight has triumphed over ideology; or rather it has made conditioned, historic, and out-of-date ideology redundant in human affairs.
It is often said that expressly spiritual wisdom – which expands our consciousness as we deepen our connection – “melts” dualities and division into unity. We no longer get fixated on either X or Y, but we see that we are, and need, both X and Y. A genuinely transformative politics must reconcile the two seeming opposites of Left and Right but at a higher frequency than vanilla-beige. Such iridescent centrism has woven into it systemic human insight, fierce compassion and profound wisdom.
Hopefully, having come through decades of totalitarian regimes and the stuckness of existing Left Right factionalism, many of us want to have a genuine breakthrough in our worldview and honor:
– both the creativity of the risk-taking innovator and the commitment of the hard-working implementer
– both the power of Capital and the dignity of Labour
– both the sanctity of human and civil rights and the responsibility to step up ourselves that comes with them
– both the value-creation and impact-scaling potential of the private sector and the purpose-holding, moral-capacity of the public sector
– both the urgency of a low-carbon society and the import of a low-poverty and low -anxiety community
– both the likelihood that we all have racist and sexist implicit biases that perpetuate systemic injustice and the need to never be so worried about being PC that we use up precious resources for transformation on the wrong conversations
– both the awareness of our own hurtful and micro-aggressive thoughts and acts and the need to empower people to be free of their own triggers
This means moving away from the fiercely anti-spiritual materialism that is so common on the Left and instead embracing what I call “spiritual atheism”: where we reconcile in ourselves the warm sense of interconnection and love we experience in our hearts when they are open and healed of trauma; with the cool insights and intuitions we experience in our minds when they are free and clear. Then we are liberated to create a “palintonic “tension between Left and Right that is “highest common factor”. See more in this essay I wrote for the RSA Journal.
I see this highest common factor (HCF) creative harmony coming together most obviously and importantly in the eminently achievable vision of a Transformational or Regenerative form of capitalism. Rather the rely on statist solutions like massive taxation of the rich and nationalization of many industries to make things more equal – as Corbyn and Sanders plan – the government takes responsibility for generating the ideal material and spiritual conditions for corporate leaders to give up some ownership to workers (like the highly-evolved Julian Richer did); drive sustainability through their products and supply chains (even Emirates is on the case already); and put purpose at the heart of business (as companies like Unilever are trying to do). Regulation and redistributive taxes support this transformation; they are not the answer to it.
Transformational Capitalism can be for both those who risk their capital/livelihoods in purpose-driven innovations (from cancer-healing drugs to net-positive, carbon-sequestering energy solutions); and for those who do a lot of the work. An appropriate and sustainable ROI is tempered by shared ownership, workers on Boards, co-operatives, participatory public services, social enterprises, purpose-driven innovation in any sector, B-Corps and an empowering and distributed vs. dictatorial and centralized Green New Deal.
This fusion does not lead to a LCD vanilla-beige middle-ground of technocratic rationalism. We can be post-ideological yet full of transformative purpose and vision as long as we feel that purpose and vision in our hearts, rather than find it in our ideological heads. To be explicit: the key to finding a HCF resolution is a blown-open, spiritually-awakened heart not an indoctrinated head. Millennia of experimentation has proven that we can all find our way to this universal experience of awakening if we commit to wisdom practices. There only other universal experience is fear/anger/rage/outrage – and we know where that gets us.
Such a profound transformational vision, that unites the two wings of society together, can only come when we have the courage and creativity to move beyond tired 19th/20th Century ideology – aggressive and hierarchical unions, class warfare as the proletariat fights to become the dictator, forced and often damaging nationalization – and embrace the best of the right too (eek, I just said that): empowerment, civic duty and social responsibility, entrepreneurship and wise stability, conserving what works in our institutions and structures, over rash change for the sake of it.
We cannot achieve the higher-frequency creative tension without something as powerful as ideology but does not include its perils. On the live, liquid spirit of genuine experiences of universal connection/love can provide this without the dangers of religious or economic dogma. If you don’t believe me, how about one of the leading lights of the original European Left, Rosa Luxemburg:
Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses . . . Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror.
Without such “spiritual” love (I dislike the “S” word but it will do to discern the mystical truth), that we experience in our actions as “purpose”, there can be no genuine, fitting-the-moment morality. All we are left with is ideological ethics imposed upon us by Bentham (the cold, dispassionate calculations of utilitarianism) or Marx, Mao or Mises (the hot, violent urges of ideology). This makes leadership choices really hard. Matthew d’Ancona writes that, “[a]ccording to one person who has worked with Corbyn closely for years, “his certainty about his beliefs makes taking decisions as a leader very, very stressful and confusing.” He is entirely lacking in nimbleness and agility, or a zest for gaming out complex situations.”
The key to landing this kind of transformation – of capitalism and our socio-economic system – is always transformational leadership. Politicians need to evolve to a much higher-degree of cognitive complexity and what I call “interoceptive-affective complexity” (embodied wisdom) to be able to first grok and embed this palintonic harmony; and then to lead citizens across the political spectrum towards a regenerative future that is not locked in the ideological constraints of the past.
We need transformational leaders who are not counter-cultural but for the culture; for it to transform. We need them to be for the 100% to unite in shared regenerative purpose and not for a single percent less. Such leaders must never resort to dualities and attack any segment of the population to please the ideological home-crowd but instead how the rich and powerful what is possible if they let go of their protective patterns, around extraction and accumulation of wealth, and give wealth away (like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are doing). We don’t judge the rich and powerful. We teach them, and model to them, how to transform.
Transformational leaders are genuinely for everyone, including the few and the Jew. Rather than attack other politicians, or dog-whistle racists tropes and memes (which their followers then gaslight), they model behaviors of conscious awareness, discernment and wisdom; and they tell stories that helps us make meaning out of the chaos and find our way to transmute our suffering into thriving. Ideology has no role here. Instead, we rely on perspicacious insight: awareness of how to fulfill people’s genuine needs and assuage their suffering which always arises when we enter a compassionate, caring and empathetic relational dialogue with them; and we ensure we have a clear and open heart and mind before we do.
To be clear: the transformational politicians of our future can come from either legacy wings of Left or Right. In some ways, the Right allows for more mystical/religious truth than the fiercely anti-theist Left. However, I believe that the compassion found in most left-ish hearts will accelerate the process of moving into a post-ideological future. Gandhi and MLK remind us that the most transformational political leaders from the Left were fiercely mystical, openly talking about the import of spiritual love and truth in their work to bring about right, equality, and peace.
Ultimately, I want a political home. I want to support a progressive but broad-tent movement without a qualm: to hold the Israeli government to account yes… but also Hamas, the PLO, the Saudis, the US and every other oppressive regime. It matters not what wing this home is on (though I assume it will come from the Left). The sooner we leave the legacy ideas of Left and Right behind, the sooner get on with the urgent task ahead: transforming our economies and societies to be regenerative for all people and the entire planet.
This is the only task any of us should pay attention to. And who cares where we sit in the House or in Congress. What matters is that we are transformational leaders who actively and consciously blend both matter and consciousness; both purpose and profit; and both love and reason in all our decisions. Humanity PLC can’t out-perform the consciousness of our political and corporate leaders.
That’s why I sweat tears starting/growing two creative, agile, transformative businesses; that are purpose-driven, pro-social, and beyond-profit; and both committed to transforming capitalism through transforming people. We need mass heart-led leadership – and I mean whole hurts not heart ones, no matter how much inner work this takes – if we are going to make it as a species without devolving into factionalism, fanaticism, and fascism; on the Left as much as the Right.
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