Cultural Solutions for Political Problems

In my activist work, I have gravitated toward organizations that intervene in our contemporary crises at the level of culture. Unlike politically oriented organizations that lobby legislators, and seek to influence public policy, the organizations with which I work tap individual and collective consciousness through programs that introduce “new” ideas, “new” behaviors, and “new” forms of sociality. I should note that I use scare quotes around new because our work isn’t literally new, in the sense of creating programs, relationships or behaviors that have never existed on the world stage. Rather, what we have come up with is new insofar as it departs from the status quo and resurrects subjugated knowledges and ways of being that were intentionally suppressed by the existing power structure over the past several centuries. In this way, the term ‘renaissance’ may be more fitting.

The difference between our work and that of our colleagues is not one of ultimate objective. It seems to me that we all want to bring about a better world, a world that is more equitable, loving, joyful and regenerative. Yet, when we seek to redress contemporary conditions through transactional politics, we do so within the existing cultural norms, and we do so for an immediate issue that may not touch generations to come. In other words, we may alleviate a present danger for a specific group of people, but we may not create a lasting structure or set of habits that prevent such dangers from resurging years, decades or centuries later. Furthermore, by acting within the existing political culture, we validate its sense of legitimacy, its norms and its underlying ideologies. This, to me, seems shortsighted even as it has the power to help some people in the moment.

When we understand that mainstream North American political culture depends upon a set of ideas, shared ideologies, shared assumptions, and a shared language around rights, obligations, duties, and so on, we see that changing the impact of legislative and juridical outcomes requires us to change the way people think about a whole range issues. For example, we are now bearing witness to an egregious violation of a vital resource: Water. As oil continues to surge into the Gulf of Mexico and marine life dies, fishermen lose work, executives run for cover and politicians wrangle over whom to blame, we are still operating under several spurious assumptions.

  1. We continue to believe that “humans” (by which I mean the ‘human’ of liberal humanism) have a  “right” to own natural resources, partition waterways, and claim them for competing collectives, while doing so at the expense of the environment.
  2. We continue to believe that we, humans, are separate from the environment in which we find ourselves and therefore can instrumentalize the objects, resources and materials around us. (This is also true of how we see each other.)
  3. We continue to believe that we can penalize corporations through the existing political system even though corporate wealth has irreparably compromised the impartiality of political representatives.
  4. We continue to believe that profits are more valuable than people and the natural environment.

Given the basic assumptions that guide how clean-up, reparations and penalization will occur, the likelihood of another BP disaster is ever present. Simply imposing financial penalties, firing high and mid-level executives and placing a short-term moratorium on off-shore drilling is not a thorough solution. It’s a superficial solution to a deep-seated problem. Another great example is playing itself out in Arizona.

While I honor and respect the courage it takes to stand arm in arm in front of hostile police forces and civilians as one protests the criminalization of Latin-American immigrants, I am also quite aware that challenging racist legislation does not uproot the potential for racist legislation to appear in our state capitals. Addressing the immediate political impact of racist legislation helps those of us who are hurt by such legislation today. But, what of the days to come? If we do not address the underlying ideas of who is allowed within the border, or indeed the very idea of a ‘border’ itself, then we find ourselves dealing with xenophobia and racism again a few years down the road. In all fairness, this is not a critique of progressives and lefties who utilize the existing political infrastructure as a means of redressing sociopolitical injuries. This communiqué is written in the spirit of furthering our work and making it more effective over the long haul.

So, what is to be done? How can we effect lasting changes that are both remunerative and progressive? In other words, how can we transform our world in a way that rights historical wrongs and the daily experiences of those injuries while crafting a way of being that is regenerative and lasts for generations to come? It seems to me that two things are in order, both of which fall under the umbrella of culture in my mind. Changing our minds seems to be the first answer to our problems. That is, shifting and redefining our master categories of thought and supporting those changes by creating institutions that enable our new way of thinking to reverberate through the socio-cultural fabric of our communities. But more than this, I believe spiritual transformation is required, and indeed may be a prerequisite for the deep epistemic shift I feel is needed.

By ‘spiritual transformation’ I do not mean a return to a specific theology, but rather a re-enchantment of the world whereby we re-cognize that we do not have lives, but rather, that Life has us. We must remember that our subjective experience of being in the world is not greater than the Isness of the universe as such. Whereas all living things come in and out of existence through the cycle of birth and death, as far as we can tell Being itself never ceases to Be. In this way, the human ego might be right-sized again, and resituated alongside other life forms in the community of life on Earth, rather than situated in a position of domination over other things. A spiritual shift would remind us that we humans belong to the Earth, and not the other way around. And that the Earth is in, and is a part of, a mysterious cosmic entity of which we know very little. Thus, the spiritual transformation I have in mind reaches into human psychology, transforming our conceptual system and healing the underlying belief in separation that is ravaging our world today.

From this humbled and reconnected space, we might rethink how we define what it means to be human. We would be in a position to reimagine our relationship to the trees, the water, and other animals. Overall, I’m suggesting that we would be in a position to change our minds about who and what we are, a change that has enormous implications for how we might be with each other and the kind of normative behavior that would follow from this cultural-ethical revolution. Furthermore, in rethinking who we are and what our relationships could look like, it follows that the exercise of power would shift and from here we would see a different kind of political culture sprout from the new seeds of our transformed consciousness.

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