Politics, Human Nature, Psychology
The following text was originally written for a zine that accompanies a series of regular discussion evenings at the Mensch Meier club in Berlin. Event and zine are called "Zur Sache: Fixing the Round Table"; the event took place on Wednesday evenings from late 2017 to early 2018, then took a break, and might be resumed in the future. Every discussion evening had a different title and topic, and the text tries to fuse several of them together. The title above is the working title I originally came up with, but in the zine it was renamed after one of the discussion evening topics: "Which Mindset Do We Need To Change The World?"
There's a criticism of "the Left" (whoever that may be) that I encounter often: that they're too naively optimistic about human nature. That anarchy, or communism, can't work – for people are selfish, desire authority, and cannot escape us-versus-them mindsets. That marxist materialists talk all about changing economic structures and resource allocation, while ignoring that human psychology demands these as they are. That anti-racist and anti-sexist activism idealistically ignores ingrained oppositions between ethnicities and sexes.
Such a kind of political anthropology goes way back. The ancient Romans already claimed that "lupus est homo homini" (humans are wolves towards each other; Plautus), and 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes appropriated that very thought to justify a strong hierarchical state. In the 19th century, Darwinism gave rise to explaining human social behavior animalistically, and fierce competition trampling on the weak as natural, therefore unavoidable and proper. Anarcho-communist philosopher and biologist Peter Kropotkin replied with an inversion ("Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution"): Actually, evolution breeds cooperation and altruism – therefore, humans, like all animals, realize their true nature through these.
There may be lots of valid observation in all these theories about humanity. But it's dangerous to postulate any trait of character as static, or as good through its naturalness. It's too easy then to rely on the ongoing dominance of such characteristics, or to dismiss deviations from them as fake, or as bad through unnaturalness. On the other hand, it's worthwile politically to think of people as more than just cool rationalists who are above nature. Repressive ideology has been unmasked thousands of times by rational argument, but what is dismantled intellectually can still hold sway over feelings and subconscious reflexes. Human passions and instincts are diverse and powerful, and seldom fit neatly into political ideals. Sometimes, they're harmless and beautiful; sometimes, they're terrible and destructive – to others, or even oneself. Human emotions may be a nasty mess at times, but we cannot do human politics without them. Neither should we surrender to some scarecrow of human psychology being incurably and undefeatably opposed to any progress.
If there are psychological barriers to progressive politics, then progressive politics may need progressive psychotherapy. This, too, is an old idea. It greatly influenced the western counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution (a term coined by communist psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, as title for a 1936 book subtitled "for the socialist restructuring of humans"), the use of LSD in the peace and hippie movements. In retrospect, a lot of this collective psychotherapy ended up well integrated into the machineries of capitalism and sexual exploitation. But a lot of it also shattered at least some norms of bourgeois society, spawned ongoing emancipatory developments, and still provokes telling anger in reactionary circles.
Hedonism was one important aspect of the 1960s explosion. And I think it's still a necessary therapeutic ingredient of radical politics. Basically, it's the study and practice of a joyful life, of joyful experience; a science of happiness. Hedonism does not necessarily mean drugs, sex, and partying; it might also mean things like meditation, strolls through nature, or just friendly interaction. Maybe that does not sound very revolutionary by itself. But a politics of pleasure and satisfaction, or the withdrawal of these, is central to much structuring of human relations. A lot of capitalism depends on creating or keeping desires unsatisfied, of keeping happiness scarce. Repression often works through the power of unbalanced negative emotions in those it employs and affects. Pleasure and satisfaction are rationed as a means of control, or tied to obedience. To teach people self-reliant strategies for happiness strengthens them to shake off control, to ward off intimidation, to overcome fears and insecurities that play into the hands of authoritarianism.
Hippie culture has been much maligned for offshoots into apolitical selfishness, political naivety, and New Age consumerism. But it also harbors valuable expertise in nurturing positive feelings, breaking toxic thought patterns, healing minds broken by society, and creating fun environments. Its hedonism can still teach a psychological lesson or two to other movements that want to positively transform their world. It massively disrupted western culture – and certainly not all by the power of its rational arguments. Rather, it attracted (and attracts) people by radiating sensuality, playfulness, beauty, love, even spirituality. These things answer to emotional needs of people – and they do so more attractively the less such needs are answered elsewhere. (This condition might explain part of the decline of the hippie revolution: Over time, many of its attractors were imitated and coopted by capitalism, to sell anything but radical politics to those in need.)
A movement that can satisfy emotional needs not met elsewhere has a powerful tool at its disposal. This has been understood by forces that not only appeal to existing needs, but try to grow them. Much of the often alleged darkness and weakness of human nature is cultivated and bred intentionally. Authoritarian movements lie to boost fears and insecurities, and then to promise easy scapegoating solutions to these. Proprietary social media promises answers to social instincts unsatisfied in individualist society – only to exacerbate these needs by emotional engineering, thereby creating addiction. Emancipatory movements idealistically try to refrain from such dishonest manipulation, often to their strategic disadvantage.
But being dishonest is not necessary to find grave emotional needs, and answer them – one just needs strong good answers to rival the shallow bad ones. Facebook addiction suffers tremendously under an engaging face-to-face social life – to provide such may solve many forms of loneliness. Authoritarianism becomes unattractive when people feel secure. The human mind may always be susceptible to harmful manipulation, but its weaknesses vary with outside influences, personal traumata, and training. Activism can aim to change the first one: work on improving material conditions of life; organize strong, welcoming communities that make people feel safe in them. Activism can aim to heal the second one: provide psychotherapy, individually, and communally. Activism can aim to provide the third one: educate intellectually, socially, and emotionally; teach statistics, social skills, and how to enjoy life. Workshops on dancing, or how to talk about feelings, or how to flirt might be as important politically as workshops on how to build barricades. The shaping of our psychology should not be left to those who need people to feel lonely, afraid, or deficient.
Psychedelic drugs may be one of the strongest tools available to positively affect human psychology. In just the two decades after its 1943 discovery, LSD had become used widely and productively in professional psychotherapy – until governments aggressively clamped down on it. The clampdown was less about dangers in LSD's medicinal use, and more about its strong association with subversive youth, who self-administered it. The counter-culture of the 1960s had many influences, but LSD was certainly a strong one; the peace movement mindset was heavily shaped by psychedelic experience. If LSD had stayed widely available, a whole generation might have turned hippie – a fear that explains the urge with which it was demonized and hunted down. Experimental studies of psychedelics show long-lasting effects in users such as greater concern for nature and others, improved openness to experience, and reduction of authoritarian attitudes. The struggle to free such substances from state repression is not just one for individual health and liberty, or against the racism that structures large parts of the "war on drugs"; it's about one core tool to affect deep, broad change of minds in society.
It's most certainly true that "the Left" must account for the complexities of human psychology with more than rational arguments, economic policy, or optimism about human nature. But there's lots of strategies and tools available to do so; and lots of experience in using these for good. The human mind is, after all, not static, but quite malleable.