Saturday, June 15, 2013

Future Primal - an old/new vision of politics

In Ursula Le Guin’s parabolic novel, ‘The Telling’ an alien society has appropriated and zealously applied a one dimensional view of human culture focused on the technical, the mechanistic and the consumerist. The traditional culture of Aka is repressed and takes upon itself a counter cultural and subversive form in the practice of embodied spiritual practices and in a communal story telling that allows space for wider, deeper vision of things than that of the monologue of materialism.

Louis Herman’s book ‘Future Primal’ has as its subject the loosening of the binds of a similar imprisoning ideological commitment, whose once impressive value is delivering ever decreasing returns, namely that of ‘Classical Liberalism’ and by reinstating in new forms a primal culture that places at its heart a quest for truth and an on-going, enriching conversation about what constitutes the good life against the background of a wider and deeper story of human origin and direction.

Classical Liberalism, built on the foundations of Descartes, Locke and Newton, radically separated truth from any notion that it was grounded in a complex dialogue between subjectivity, our inner life of experience and perspective, and an objective external reality that had its origin in mystery and was evolving, complex and dynamic. What is out there was, for Classical Liberalism, law-like, quantifiable and static, completely malleable to our purposes. These purposes were essentially allowing autonomous individuals, secure in their property rights and the safety of minimalist government, to accumulate and dispense with wealth according to their lights. It is a world view that launched impressive progress (for some) and whose defense of the rights of the individual has meant liberation (for many) from varied forms of oppression. However, as the engine of growth grinds on, it over reaches itself both in fraying and fracturing a sustainable world and in alienating us from community both with one another and with the wild.

What can be done? 

The first step, Herman cogently argues, is an epistemological one in that we grasp what the political philosopher, Eric Voegelin, called the ‘paradoxical nature of consciousness’. We are all born in a particular place and time, in a particular body and culture and in both our inward and external looking our gaze, though illumined, ultimately fades into what we do not know, into mystery. We are born out of a ‘story telling us into being’, what Voegelin called the ‘It-reality’, which is ultimately the mystery out of which we emerge, into the ‘thing reality’ of objects, institutions and relationships that have been made and shaped by humans. We participate ‘in-between’ both of these and we cannot step out of either to get a whole, clear view that we can grasp hold of with certainty.

All our knowing is an enterprise after the truth and our task is to continually embody in our lives, communities and societies ever more encompassing, more compassionate and just versions of our enterprises, never assuming that we can rest content or that we finally ‘have it’!

Since the tendency towards ideological certainty is a hard one to easily surrender, we need a renewing vision of ‘politics’, of how we organize ourselves, that places the ever renewing quest for truth at its heart. What might keep this quest honest and focused on our flourishing in a sustainable world?

To answer this question, Herman offers us a ‘Mandala of Primal Politics’. At the heart of the circle is the ‘truth quest’ surrounded by four, inter-weaving quadrants: the whole person; face to face Socratic discussion; the whole community practicing direct democracy and the big picture, story or myth. Outside the quadrant are three concentric circles: civilisation embraced by wilderness resting in the cosmos.

Accompanying this structuring are two extended examples of where this patterning of politics has been lived out imperfectly but compellingly. The first is of the San Bushman of Southern Africa, our closest connection, genetically and culturally, to the first self-conscious humans, who emerging out of Africa, populated the globe. The second is of the Greek polis which gave birth to, and under the pressure of collapse, killed Socrates. Herman traces eloquently how, at their best, both cultures exhibited an ability to balance the needs of the individual and of the community and how they utilized both the resources of endlessly talking things through and the boundary crossing potential of individually experiencing the ‘big picture’ in a renewing experience of wilderness and wholeness.

This shamanic ‘boundary crossing’ is at the heart of the book. Both cultures used spiritual practices - the trance dance with the San, the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece - to allow people to break down their ego bound identities and experience a transformed and deepened sense of self within a wider, wilder mystery that embraces the unfathomed yet connecting wilderness of mind and nature. The book is worth reading alone for its beautiful account of the relationship in San culture between art, dance, hunting, wilderness and the practice of communal living that marvellously blends first person engagement, multi-disciplinary investigation and a touch of poetry to bring a culture alive as both utterly valuable in itself and as hopeful parable of future possibility.

These practices were an essential component both of individual and communal healing and of anchoring the practices of truth seeking through discussion and democracy in a context of humility (my descriptor not Herman’s). Humility, whose original root, is ‘of the earth’, of discovering your place, here and now, and speaking from it, recognizing that this is one perspective only, real yet bound. They are experiences that give you both a confirmation of a deeper sense of being and belonging but one too that anchors you in a recognition that the space that is beyond ‘you’ is always wider than ‘you’ can know. They are an education in the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ and in the importance of a shared quest that continually tests what you know with the wisdom of others and their questing journeys.

Herman then takes these models of a ‘primal politics’ and asks where we might see it being practiced today whether in individuals or communities, always alert to the fact that the embodiment is always imperfect, and finding it in diverse places from the original impetus that founded the kibbutz movement to the intentional ecological and spiritual community that is Findhorn, as well as in the practice of individuals. One of the most moving parts of the book is when he maps the life of Nelson Mandela from his native South Africa onto the pattern of the mandala and shows how Mandela’s remarkable achievement of moving his country away from apartheid and a race war into more peaceful, egalitarian possibilities illuminates his thesis.

Running through all of these models is a re-envisioning of what it means to live within the arms of an evolving cosmos that has wilderness at its centre, a reality that connects us all - and if you think that does not apply to Mandela you only have to refer to his rich reflection on the importance of gardening in his political and spiritual journey to be corrected. It is both an original story and a new one, one whose implications we are invited to explore both cognitively and in our experience as we pass back and forth between our civilised norms and our primal experience as embodied beings in a vast, inter-woven, evolving cosmic whole and allow the former to be refreshed by the latter.

Finally, one of the book’s essential merits is that it mirrors many of the features of which it speaks. It balances first person subjective testimony with rigorous argument. It expresses the virtues of creating a new synthesis whilst recognising that any account of such a synthesis is going to be an enterprise after the truth of things rather than a declaration of ‘the truth’.

In an open ended fashion, it invites further discussion and practicing of its offered model. 

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