Having and Being – Religious Experience and the Left
January 14, 2009
The following is only a rough version. I feel pretty tentative about this piece so comments, criticisms etc are very welcome.. (please forgive the many grammatical errors)
Those of us on the political left have frequently been criticised, and often rightly, for failing to clearly define what it is that we want. We make it abundantly clear what we are opposed to: poverty, gross inequalities in wealth, imperialist violence, the suicidal destruction of the bio-sphere, but we fail to provide a coherent vision for the future much less a realistic strategy for transporting us from our currently dire situation to that future. While there is much truth in this portrayal of the radical left recently greater efforts have been made to address the critique, I am thinking here most particularly of the efforts of those engaged in the Participatory Economy movement (or Parecon) who have provided a convincing account of what a just economy could be. Flowing from such work as yet lesser efforts have been made to extend the principle of participatory democracy to other spheres of life, for instance Stephen Shalom’s work on Participatory Polity and Justin Podur’s work on kinship.
Of huge importance though this work is it does not, at least not directly, offer us answers to certain more fundamental questions… that is what should be the goal of human existence in this imagined future? What should humans be concerned with? Is the goal of revolutionary politics purely the end of material want and coercive structures? Is there a more fundamental goal that we can identify?
Possible answers to such questions can be found in the work of the writer and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. In ‘To have or to be’ he distinguished between two fundamental modes of human existence: the “Having Mode” and the “Being Mode”. The having mode is distinguished by selfishness, the drive to possess, the absence of spontaneity and the aggressive application of technology. Fromm contended that the Having Mode as the dominant mode of existence in consumer oriented societies such as ours infiltrates and subverts all aspects of human thought and behaviour: for instance he gives the example of human conversation – if two people who are dominated by the Having Mode engage in a conversation or an argument they experience that interaction as a kind of barter – the principle concern of the two participants being the airing of their own views, they are not respectful nor genuinely interested in the others opinions and they do not view conversation as a process of learning or mutual understanding but instead as an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. In the case of an argument the participants will jealously defend the beliefs that they have, they are not interested in the other participant influencing their own views and they dread being shown to be wrong which would in effect reveal that the opinions that they possess would have shown themselves to be valueless.
In contrast the Being Mode is characterised by openness, selflessness, a cautious concern for others, and spontaneous creativity – the goal of those in the Being Mode is not that of piling up possessions (whether physical, financial or intellectual) but instead reducing the suffering of others and making possible the full flowering of human potential. In the example of the conversationalists the result of operating in this other mode is very great:
“In contrast [to those in the Having Mode] are those who approach a situation by preparing nothing in advance, not bolstering themselves up in any way. Instead, they respond spontaneously and productively; they forget about themselves, about the knowledge, the positions they have. Their egos do not stand in their own way, and it is precisely for this reason that they can fully respond to the other person and that person’s ideas. They give birth to new ideas, because they are not holding onto anything and can thus produce and give… They come fully alive in the conversation, because they do not stifle themselves by anxious concern with what they have. Their own aliveness is infectious and often helps the other person to transcend his or her egocentricity. Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities… and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right. The duelists begin to dance together, and they part not with triumph or sorrow – which are equally sterile – but with joy.” p 29 (having and being)
Another striking example that Fromm offers is the way in which the predominance of the having mode in contemporary consumerist society has come to corrupt the very language that we use – so that almost all human experience is unconsciously and inappropriately described as an experience of possession:
“A certain change in the emphasis on having and being is apparent in the growing use of nouns and the decreasing use of verbs in Western languages in the past few centuries.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced.” (p17)
Similar examples of the contrast between the two modes can easily be made regarding other aspects of life: love, sex, politics, art, pedagogy, in every area we can contrast the attitude of the loving creative way with the possessive jealously acquisitive way. It is particularly transparent if we consider the language found in love songs and other conventionally romantic material; the object of desire is commonly reffered to as a belonging and love is expressed in constrictive, possesive terms such as having and holding. In contemporary culture love is more commonly described as an object of possession rather than a process, but this view is a pathological attitude towards love, which should properly be seen as a spontaneous, creative experience that involves constant change and development.
Fromm was by no means the first to recognise the two possible modes of existence, as he noted similar descriptions can be found in the writings of the great religious traditions – the authors of the gospels and later contributors such as Meister Eckhart within the Christian tradition. In ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that all of the major world religions and lesser mythologies have throughout history transmitted similar attitudes and the journey of Campbell’s ‘Hero’ can be seen as a journey from having to being in which the hero must slay the demons of the ego: greed, lust and the craving for earthly power. However it is within the Buddhist tradition where the importance of shifting from the having to the being mode is most transparent. Buddhist writings have not merely described the two modes but have provided a detailed practical methodology for attaining the paradigm shift from having to being. Fromm also took inspiration from the writings of the radical left – for instance in his work on Marx (marx’s conception of man) he argued that Marx’s work was so vulgarised by orthodox “Marxists” that it was utterly emptied of its spiritual (here I do not mean spiritual in the sense of belief in a deity nor any other magical phenomena but of the transformation from one mode of being to another) and genuinely revolutionary content, instead of being a harsh critic of the effects upon human psychology that the birth of capitalism instigated Marx was instead transformed into an arch-materialist who supposedly believed that humans are driven by a fixed and innate fetish for material objects:
“Marx’s “materialistic” or “economic” interpretation of history has nothing whatsoever to do with an alleged “materialistic” or or “economic” striving as the most fundamental drive in man… He differentiated between constant or “fixed” drives “which exist under all circumstances and which can be changed by social conditions only as far as form and direction are concerned” and “relative” drives which “owe their origin only to a certain type of social organisation.” Marx assumed sex and hunger to fall under the category of “fixed” drives, but it never occurred to him to consider the drive for maximal economic gain as a constant drive.”
In fact rather than being an advocate of this vulgarised materialism Marx recognised the conflict between the two fundamental modes of existence and the disastrous consequences of living in the having mode:
“The less you are and the less you express of your life – the more you have and the greater is your alienated life”.
Similar views are to be found in the left-marxist tradition, much anarchist thought, the French situationists – most obviously Raoul Vaneigem, the lesser known works of Aldous Huxley and coming up to the present day the writer and media critic David Edwards, the activist writer Robert Jensen and the popular psychologist Oliver James.
Spiritual poverty and the failure of the left
“A society that scorns intrinsic religiousness and trivialises the pursuit of meaning discards thousands of years of insight and can only suffer for it.”
Clive Hamilton ‘Growth Fetish’
As runaway climate change threatens the lives of billions, as the threat of nuclear war increases, as species after species are driven to extinction one would imagine that the search for a way out of current crises might lead to a heightened interest in those proffering solutions – the left. And yet outside of Latin America the left remains small, weak, divided, marginalised and sectarian. Why? There are many answers – the hostility of the mainstream media, the material poverty of the left, in some countries the persecution and repression of leftists organisers, the relative lack of focus on tactical and strategic questions, historical amnesia, and the aforementioned lack of material on questions of visions and goals. These are all important factors but I would like to concentrate on factor that is rarely considered – that of the ethical motives, both professed and real, of the radical left.
Within popular movements, to the extent that it is even considered, the relationship between what we believe is right and our practical behaviour is viewed in a highly mechanistic way with little recognition of the realities of human psychology. So according to this point of view we recognise what is the just thing to do and proceed to follow the correct path, and if we fail to identify the correct path – for example if we choose to engage in direct action say at a point in time when this may be counter productive this is nothing to do with the psychological motivation of the participants but rather due to a lack of data – our tactical thinking is flawed due to a lack of information and thus a mistake occurs. However although we act for the most part as if this were the case we all know that the mistakes of the left can often be attributed to psychological factors – the drive for power, recognition, careerism, defensiveness and so on. We live in a society that promotes and rewards cruelty, expressions of dominance, and rampant egotism it is deeply naive to suppose that one can the escape years of conditioning which entrenches such anti-social attitudes and our disastrous historical inheritance merely by identifying as a leftist. I would suggest that most left-activists and I would certainly count myself in this case, are motivated by a variety of factors some positive and characteristic of the Being Mode and others that are highly destructive and indicative of the persistent resilience of the Having mode even amongst it’s avowed enemies. So within each of us envy, compassion, the craving for status and the altruistic concern for others sit uneasily. However despite the transparent obviousness of this fact we continue to act as if we have no psychological failings – we do not consider how we can help each other to become more compassionate and less concerned with ourselves. This neglect of human psychology is remarkable considering the extremely debilitating effects of our negative drives and the apocalyptically high stakes game we are now playing. And not only do we do little to counter the power of these drives we sometimes even view them as positive. For instance consider the question of “righteous anger”…
Raging against the machine
On the left anger is often viewed as a positive emotion – angry militancy denotes the strength of a movement, and proof that said movement cares deeply about the people at the sharp end of governmental or corporate policy. This view of anger as positive pervades leftist culture – think of the comedian Bill Hicks or hip hop’s Public Enemy – and anger often colours our political activity. Consider for example the attitude of many demonstrators towards the police. Now why do we have demonstrations? What are they for? We demonstrate in order to build popular movements – to enlarge the number of left participants, to develop a feeling of community, to boost our confidence. We also do it to raise the costs – by demonstrating we threaten the ruling sectors of our society – we demonstrate to them that if they persist in a particular policy – the occupation of Iraq say we will threaten their privilege – we will cause so much disruption within our society that the perceived gains of engaging in such policies will be outweighed by the the threat to their privilege and control that we represent. As Michael Albert notes in his memoir ‘remembering tomorrow’ when American congressmen turned against the Vietnam war they did not do so because they had been convinced by the left of the cruelty and violence of US policy in Indo-China instead, as they themselves explained, they turned against the war because they believed they were ‘losing the next generation’ that is the mostly young demonstrators were displaying such militancy and such hostility to so many of the central institutions of American society that it appeared doubtful that they would go on to accept their allotted role in that society – thereby threatening the privilege and power of domestic elites.
Now on a some demonstrations a minority of protesters exhibit hostility towards the police – how well does such hostility towards the police aid us in achieving our goals? Does such hostility aid us in building popular movements? No. Hostility towards the police scares people away. Such hostility is used by the mass media to demonstrate to the population that protest movements are not about concern for others and combating monstrous crimes but instead are about promoting chaos or “anarchy” in the pejorative sense of the term. But if violence or even low level hostility is so counter productive why do any people on the left engage in it? The answer is obvious – when leftists engage in such behaviour they do so because at that moment concern for those at the sharp end is pretty slight – instead what is motivating people is anger, hatred and vengeance – a desire to make perceived oppressors suffer – however damaging this might be for those we are supposed to be trying to aid. And this I would suggest explains many of the failings of the left – far too often suffering people are not foremost in our minds – too often we are venting our own anger or we rank our desire for prestige or status above more altruistic concerns.
There is of course an argument that anger concentrates the mind, builds momentum, and aids our determination to end suffering. This seems unlikely to me. Imagine for a moment that your house is on fire – caused by a simple accident – and in an upstairs bedroom your child is trapped and you have to attempt to rescue them from the flames – now would it in any way aid your efforts to rescue your child if you were to discover that the fire was no accident but a deliberate act of arson? It’s a little hard to see how. It’s easier to see how the reverse could be true – that anger can cloud judgement, can cause recklessness and shifts attention from what should be the real concern – in this case the trapped child – to the object of our anger – the hated perpetrator.
John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd once famously sang that ‘Anger is an energy’. However if anger is an energy it is in my opinion an energy that exhausts us, an energy that poisons us, an energy that does not aid us in reaching our goals but deflects us from them, an energy that does not draw others to us but one that forces people away. If we are to build movements that will transport us to a better world the emotion that should be most dominant is the one prized by religious tradition: compassion, concern for others, in particular concern for the most vulnerable. Before we engage in any political action we should ask ourselves ‘will this action aid suffering people or harm them’? This may seem so obvious as to not be worth stating but however obvious it is the reality is that we engage in actions and make choices which harm, however indirectly, the people we are supposedly trying to help all the time. And a major reason for this is that there is often more anger in our hearts than there is compassion and that these two emotions do not coexist well if at all.
We could sketch out endless examples of the damaging effects of anger, greed, envy and self-concern but it is enough to say that the lefts revolutionary goals are daily torn asunder by our spiritual poverty and our refusal to acknowledge much less combat our negative drives. The value of religious insight (and also certain trends within psychoanalysis) with regard to such problems is that unlike leftist theorists or philosophers the prophets and sages of the worlds religions have, to varying degrees, not merely confined themselves to identifying the correct answers to moral problems but have considered how we can come to act on our ethical impulses and reduce the influence of our negative drives. One example is the practice of “loving-kindness” meditation within the Buddhist tradition. This is a method whereby one consciously and very deliberately attempts to increase ones concern for others and reduce self-concern. Instead of bemoaning selfishness in oneself or others or viewing such tendencies as natural or innate the practioner takes concrete steps to combat this failing within herself. The way the practice works is by attempting to slowly and with much repetition expand ones circle of ethical concern. So in standard descriptions of the practice one begins by stimulating feelings of compassion by thinking of those we most easily feel compassion for: a good friend or a grandparent and then slowly the practioner attempts to feel the same degree of love and compassion for others – at first for those whom the practioner may feel indifferent towards and eventually towards those who have previously been the object of scorn or hatred. In this way a practioner will less easily be diverted by feelings of dislike or hatred.
It is practical methods such as these which offer those of us on the left the chance to become more in tune with our ethical goals and not so easily sidelined by feelings of hatred, greed and the desire for status. We ignore the gifts of religious experience at our peril.
Institutional ignorance, accommodation to power and the failure of religion
“The devil is incarnate today as the structural violence that pervades and ruptures the interconnected world.”
Stephen Batchelor ‘Living with the Devil’
Historically religious organisations have for the most part betrayed their ethical bases and have often allied themselves with the most reactionary of regimes, defending the status quo against revolutionary forces – some of the more conspicuous examples include the evangelical churches in Latin America, the Catholic church in fascist Spain, Wahabbi Islam in the gulf states and the racist colonialist strains of Judaism within Israel/Palestine. Even Buddhism – of the worlds major religions perhaps the one with least blood on its hands – has accommodated itself to often monstrous political forms. Although many Buddhist practioners would prefer to ignore the political world and portray their religion as an ahistorical purely spiritual phenomena Buddhist traditions remain scarred by the feudal societies they developed within as Stephen Batchelor notes:
“In Asia, Buddhism tended to ally itself with powerful aristocratic patrons, thereby limiting its capacity for initiating radical social change. The detachment of monastic institutions, an inherited wariness of secular politics, and a growing bias toward introspection all contributed to Buddhism’s preference for gently modifying a status quo rather than seeking to overthrow it” (living with the devil, p176)
This accomodation to violent power structures persists and the political innocence of religious adherents is often very striking. Although there are certainly exceptions – engaged Buddhists, the Quakers to mention two obvious examples religious adherents despite often great ethical achievements in the personal sphere are often extremely credulous with regard to mainstream interpretations of world events – and so ethical concern is directed towards the victims of the enemies of the western powers rather than our own victims. Focussing on the crimes of ones enemies rather than our own or those of our friends is hardly unique to religious adherents but it is rather striking as such people have quite genuinely I believe eroded their own self concern and are filled with far more empathy than the average person. However as they do not question mainstream narratives their empathy is channelled down familiar (and for domestic power structures essentially harmless) pathways – so the empathy is directed at the victims of the Chinese, or the Taliban, or Al Queda, or Iran instead of the victims of the United States, Britain, Columbia, Israel, Nigeria etc. The reason their empathy is so easily channelled in this way is I believe because of a fundamental ignorance regarding the major institutions of western society. For instance consider the mainstream media – it is generally assumed that the western media is “free” and that it provides a tolerably realistic picture of the world. However if one has a proper understanding of the structure of the media corporations it is much harder to make this assumption. The ‘Propaganda Model’ first outlined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky provides the missing information: the mainstream media provide a picture of the world that downplays western crimes whilst boosting crimes of official enemies because of the institutional architecture of the mass media. The features of that architecture serve to filter the news providing a gross distortion of reality, a distortion that is highly functional to the maintenance of domestic power structures. There is no room here to discuss the model in depth but a brief overview of the model can be found here: http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/2002—-.htm
If one remains ignorant of the filtering process it is all too easy to take media reporting at face value and to concentrate ones ethical commitments in certain areas whilst ignoring others.
Today the great religions of the world for the most part though they may rhetorically oppose the dominant ideology of our time (even the current pope – arch enemy of liberation theology and the left-wing clergy – offers denunciations of consumerism) do little to undermine this ideology. The propagation of views in tune with the Being mode – Buddhist renunciation of material pleasures or the Quaker doctrine of “plainness” are inherently antithetical to the having mode (embodied in the form of the modern corporation) but as long as the numbers who live their lives in such a spirit remain few such doctrines pose little threat to the dominant institutions of our time. However when religious movements have attempted to tackle oppressive structures directly and effect major changes in the nature of our societies they have been viciously repressed – this is not the case while religions consign themselves to rhetoric and acts of charity. The inherent dangers of revolutionary activity as compared with charitable acts is encapsulated in the Brazilian archbishop Dom Heldar Camara’s pithy remark that:
“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”
The adherents of liberation theology in Latin America, those who adopted “the preferential option for the poor” found to their immense cost that the corporate-state nexus will not countenance opposition to “business as usual” even if that opposition is situated in a usually compliant and respectable organisation such as the Catholic Church. However unless the progressive wings of the worlds religions do confront the institutional agents of the having mode they will be fighting a constantly losing battle given that there are entire industries – particularly the PR and advertising industries whose purpose at a psychological level is maintaining us in the having mode. Greed and hatred are problems inherent to human existence and as such the religious emphasis on personal struggle is correct but until religious adherents also recognise and face down the threat of institutional forms that foster the very worst aspects of human psychology the historic goals of religion will remain a distant dream.
Merging the spiritual and the political
If the critique I have offered of religious organisations and of left activism is correct then the question of practical changes arises. In the case of religious organisations the changes seem to me rather obvious; religious adherents need to accept the institutional critique offered by the left and shift their priorities accordingly, rather than buttressing the priorities of the political mainstream and the corporate media. Moreover they need to question the institutional character of religious organisations themselves – are they democratic? Do they serve or stifle their communities? Do they pamper to an elite group whilst marginalising the rest? In the case of left activism the implications seem to me slightly less straightforward but as first steps the left needs to break with the focus on relieving material poverty (not that material poverty should not be addressed but that relief of material want should not be seen as the end of the train ride so to speak – but rather as one of the steps on the journey) and instead place the eventual shift from the having to the being mode as the long term goal. And further to this the left needs to replicate an important aspect of the religious life – that is being within a “community of ethical struggle” where one is very consciously and with the help of ones community grappling with and attempting to rise above ones more negative drives.
The struggle for a world where humanity can at last be freed from the nightmare of the having mode will likely fail unless those fighting for this world acknowledge the totality of the forces arrayed against them. The struggle for revolutionary social and economic change will fail if we do not confront the destructive drives that constantly sabotage our best efforts to enact social change. Similarly the attempt at spiritual transformation, the emerging of the being mode, described in Buddhism as the awakening of our “Buddha nature” or amongst quakers as the voice of the “inner light”, will remain a preserve of the few as long as we ignore the monumental cruelty of man-made structures that breed injustice and violence. At this potentially terminal phase of human existence, as the biosphere dies under the blows of rapacious state-capitalism, the failure to recognise and combat those forces may well have unthinkable consequences for us all.
Erich Fromm: ‘To Have Or To Be’
Erich Fromm: ‘Marx’s concept of man’
David Edwards: ‘Free to be human’
Stephen Batchelor: ‘Living with the devil’
Oliver James: ‘Affluenza’
Oliver James: ‘The selfish capitalist
Erich Fromm: ‘The Art of loving’
Aldous Huxley: ‘Island’
Stephen Batchelor: ‘Alone with others’
Clive Hamilton ‘Growth fetish’
Tim Kasser: ‘The High Price of Materialism’
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky: ‘Manufacturing Consent’