Feeds:
Posts
Comments

At the end of the previous post Fred Mires and Chris Humfreeze had disappeared, and I was faced with a complete stranger, 

‘Where have they gone?’ I ask in a panic. I can’t face the trio of activists all by myself.

‘I’m still here,’ the grey-haired bearded stranger said with a faint Italian accent.

‘What d’you mean still here? I’ve never seen you before.’

‘It’s true you have not seen this body before, but my thoughts and values are almost the same as theirs. I explore consciousness, believe in a higher self and value forms of meditation. So, what’s missing?’

‘You look so different. There’s only one of you for a start.’

There’s an uncomfortable silence.

‘Who are you anyway?’ I ask grumpily. I’m still feeling unsettled, disappointed and under threat.

‘Roberto Ammergioli, at your service.’

The bells that name rang were audibly unmistakable. Was I really sitting opposite to someone close in thought and practice to one of my favourite therapies? If he was, then I had a powerful ally against the dogmatic activists.

‘Am I right then that you combine all that’s best in Humfreeze and Mires? How did the merger happen? I never saw it coming.’

‘Basically, I think, they felt as though they will be a stronger combination blended than they would have been as individuals. They couldn’t make up their minds about which of them should carry their image forward, so they created me instead.’

As he speaks I see him gazing intently over my shoulder in the direction of the door. Instinctively, I turn my head as I listen to him speak, and spot Indie walking towards us holding hands with Peat. Immediately I wonder whether Emmie and Indie have blended, only to hear Emmie shouting from the counter asking whether Peat wants a nibble as well as a drink. He says not.

‘Who are you?’ Indie asks abruptly of Roberto.

I don’t wait for him to answer.

‘He’s a blend of Fred and Chris?’

‘And where’s Bill?’

She doesn’t seem phased.

‘Inside my head somewhere,’ I say.

‘Well, that’s two less on your side,’ she jeers. ‘We’re in the majority now.’

‘Did you know this was coming? I ask. ‘You don’t seem in the least surprised.’

‘Why would I be surprised about anything that happens here, for heavens sake? It’s a miracle I came back, and it’s even more of one that Peat is with us, isn’t it, love?’

She smiles at him and he grins back.

‘I kind of expected that some of us could disappear at some point for some reason, just in the same way as we two did the opposite before.’

Emmie comes to the table with a tray of drinks for the three of them.

Peat looks pleased with his purple milkshake.

‘You look happy, Indie,’ Emmie greets her ‘What’s been going on?’

‘There’s three of us and only two of them,’ she smirks.

‘Come again.’

‘Bill’s done a bunk into Pete’s brain and Chris and Fred have blended into this old man. Sorry, what was your name again?’

‘Roberto Ammergioli.’ He spoke for himself this time.

Emmie sits down next to me looking slightly stunned, while Indie and Peat join Robert on his side of the table. I guess the old guard, of which she is one, whether she likes it or not, were not expecting anything like this to happen.

‘Talk me through what this means exactly, but do it slowly.’

Roberto picks up Emmie’s challenge.

‘We’re all just aspects of Pete, though it doesn’t feel like it. We come into existence to solve a problem in his mind, though I guess he feels we arrived to make trouble. When the time comes we will dissolve into something else more expressive of the current dynamic going on. When we disappear in this way we have not gone completely. We are integrated into something larger in his mind and have a broader more unified function. His ideal would be for us all to fuse together into one enriched and higher consciousness. And that day may come if we can learn to work together constructively.’

‘I’m not sure I want that,’ Emmie responds grumpily. ‘I like being me, even if I am frustrated by the way things are in here. Thank goodness we’ve got completely rid of the poet at least. I never did buy that unacknowledged legislator crap. This Jennings woman you’re so fond of at the moment, Pete, even if her poems were absolutely brilliant, sold only 225,000 copies of her stuff. You’re blog’s only just past that in terms of hits. That’s never going to change the world anytime soon. Protest songs and rap probably do better than that by a long shot. Stories are the best, though. Look at Pullman and his Dark Materials – 18 million sold by 2017 –and Rowling’s Harry Potter has reached more than 500 million, and that’s not counting the film versions. If you want to sit at your desk and change the way people think, why don’t you try that for a change?’

She pauses for effect, then, before I can speak, thrusts in the final dagger. ‘As that’ll never happen, why don’t you join us on the streets?’

Roberto rescues me from my speechless state.

‘Everyone has a different set of skills and gifts. What counts is when you put the skills of many together into one pot. Changing the way the world works is not about some single genius best-seller breaking all records, as Rowling did. It’s about hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, contributing their efforts, however modest, to bettering the way the world works. When Rowling got rich, she used her money to make changes in the world. It’s not just the book-sales that count in her case. It’s how she uses her fame and her profits. At some point, hopefully before the climate crisis does, the numbers of those working for our collective good will reach a tipping point, and . . . ’

‘Stop right there,’ Emmie butted in. ‘That is exactly the problem. We don’t have the time to reach that positive tipping point by the methods you describe, before the climate topples into its lethal Armageddon.’

‘But,’ said Roberto, calmly, ‘if, in our impatience, we use methods that will alienate millions and divide us in our efforts, we won’t achieve anything either. We have to get the balance right.’

‘What Roberto is saying comes close to the position I am striving to believe in.’ I find my voice at last. ‘The kind of dynamic altruism and collective will needed to address this issue, and others that face us, such as polluting plastics and gross and oppressive inequality, require efforts that have to draw on the very qualities they seek to promote. As one Bahá’í thinker puts it, Noble aims must be sought through noble means. Anything less will make things worse not better. And before you tell me, I know that I am relatively rubbish as a writer, whether in prose or poetry, but in terms of my skill set as a whole, I think it’s my best bet in terms of the kind of issue we’re discussing. And …’

I say this a bit louder because I can see Emmie is about to interrupt.

‘I don’t think I have the energy now to sustain anything more than that nowadays.’

‘That’s just an excuse,’ Indie steams. ‘We can all find reasons for doing less than needs to be done right now. What we need is the guts and drive to get out there and make a difference NOW!’

Peat has stopped sucking on his milkshake through the straw, and has tears in his eyes.

‘There won’t be a world for me when I grow up,’ he whispers. ‘We can destroy in decades now what it took millions of years to create. We have to stop.’

We all fall silent. There is no way round this point at least. Humanity as a whole has to change its habits, habits that mainly in the West have taken centuries to evolve. I remember the submission to the Committee on Climate Change that a psychologist has recently made. Not just legislation, but behavioural shifts by millions of people have to start to play their part. However, I also remember what Dana Greene wrote about how Elizabeth Jennings faced formidable obstacles and yet won for herself a large following of readers, something that expanded the poetry-reading audience substantially. If she could do something like that, why couldn’t I, if I were sufficiently at one with my selves, even at my relatively advanced age?

The very idea of such a challenge sends a shiver down my spine. Am I too much of a coward to risk it? Maybe there is something I could learn from my activists inside. What they are doing may not be my cup of tea, but how they are doing it might be something I can take on board for my own purposes. I can get bolder as get older!

I decide to speak, as no one else wants to.

‘I know you and Indie see me as some dithering Hamlet, infirm of purpose, standing mammering on the brink of disaster. And maybe part of me is like that for a reason. I’ve spoken before about needing to have the courage of my confusion sometimes. But there’s another reason as well. It’s because I’m divided inside, at war with myself, one part pulling one way, other parts pulling in different directions. We’ve all seen that with our own eyes, no?’’

For once they seem to agree with me. That’s a good start.

‘If we could combine together your blazing courage and Roberto’s wisdom with my smouldering creativity, for what it might be worth, to further a purpose we could all agree on, maybe we could just get out of this bind and do something really useful. You saw me publish Elizabeth Jennings’s words earlier. You know the ones: But poetry must change and make/The world seem new in each design./It asks much labour, much heartbreak,/Yet it can conquer in a line. It wouldn’t be easy to change what I write in that way, as she says, but it would be really amazing if we could pull that off. Maybe not in poetry, though I’m not writing that off at this stage. Dylan managed to get his songs recognised as literature and he’s got a huge following. Yes, yes, I know I can’t sing, but maybe we could do something similar, if less ambitious, with our words somehow. Writing is an act, even though many don’t see it that way, and it’s more powerful if it comes from a life lived in tune with its message, so we have to act out our values as well as write about them.’

Indie, Emmie and Peat aren’t leaping out of their seats with enthusiasm for this idea, but they’re aren’t leaping down my throat to rubbish it either.

‘It this a plan worth pondering on then?’ I ask.

‘We’ll sleep on it,’ Indie says, with a sideways glance at the others.

‘I thought you didn’t sleep’ I react.

‘Just joking!’ Emmie grins.

At just that point there is a thunderous knocking on the front door, which jerks me out of my sleep. Yet again moving this forwards will have to wait until another day.

Yet another Guardian article this week highlights another clear warning of the climate crisis. Below are some short extracts: for the full post see link.

Oceans are clearest measure of climate crisis as they absorb 90% of heat trapped by greenhouse gases

The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet.

The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.

The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.

. . .

“The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming,” said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. “Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news.”

“We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.

. . .

This energy drives bigger storms and more extreme weather, said Abraham: “When the world and the oceans heat up, it changes the way rain falls and evaporates. There’s a general rule of thumb that drier areas are going to become drier and wetter areas are going to become wetter, and rainfall will happen in bigger downbursts.”

Hotter oceans also expand and melt ice, causing sea levels to rise. The past 10 years also show the highest sea level measured in records dating back to 1900. Scientists expect about one metre of sea level rise by the end of the century, enough to displace 150 million people worldwide.

Charles Tart

At the end of the last post I was emphasising that capitalism has begin to look like a religion and it depends upon a form of thought-control for its continuing hold on our minds. Is uprooted spirituality the only factor at work in that?

This is not, of course, the first time I’ve been here on this blog.

In his book Waking Up, which featured in an earlier sequence, Charles Tart uses the term ‘consensus consciousness’ to describe how our culture and life experiences shape our perceptions of the world. This effect is so strong that he goes onto describe it as a state of mind that is definitely not an enviable one:

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.[1]

Carrette and King in many ways are singing from the same hymn sheet. They quote David Loy – 2002:[2]:

. . . according to the U.N. development report from 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising… this constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced.

But it is not just advertising that hypnotises us into compliance.

Carrette and King argue that we increasingly see:

a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organisations and the ‘global economy’. . . . Such a move allows advocates of capitalist spirituality to use the traditional language of ‘belonging’ but this time orient it towards the need for employees to align themselves with the corporate mission statements of their employers. [3]

The next shift in their argument should make me as a psychologist more uncomfortable than it does:

We argue that the discourse and institutions of psychology have played a major part in maintaining control in late capitalist societies in the West by creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Modern government requires a social mechanism to control populations, and psychology functions in part as the underlying philosophy of what it is to be a human for a capitalist system of social organisation.[4]

The reason why it comes as no unsettling surprise is that I have been here twice before from slightly different perspectives each time.

First of all, when I read Richard Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is, and how much that has influenced our preference for the ‘science’ of psychology.

The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre in views expressed in a paper on Social Action (November 2012) is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is more highly developed than that found anywhere else.

Richard Shweder’s compelling account of his re-examination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Shweder describes his findings in his bookHis very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext.

Why is this relevant here?

Mainly because the problem was rooted in the individualistic lens of the Western researchers who were unable properly to decode the implicit communal context which lay behind the responses of the Hindu subjects of their study. They were also unable to see the limitations imposed upon them by their Western perspective, which they simply assumed must be correct. Earlier in his book Shweder spells out a correlate of this bias:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[5]

The idea of an individualistic Western lens is not just Shweder’s view. In her book Transcendence Gaia Vince expresses much the same conclusion:

Westerners, with an individualistic suite of social norms, tend to process objects and organise information into categories. In contrast, East Asians, with more collectivist norms, view themselves as part of a larger whole…[6]

Psychology would therefore seem, on the basis of evidence of this kind, to be assisting in the creation of the ‘privatised and individualised conception of reality’ Carrette and King refer to.

This is by no means the worst of it, as I discovered somewhat later.

In the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind, Kelly and Kelly capture the way that psychology came increasingly to adopt a materialistic and reductionist approach to the mind that fitted snugly into the materialistic capitalistic mind-set:

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the ‘hard’ sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, ‘a purely objective experimental branch of natural science’. It should ‘never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.’ [7]:

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.[8]

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

So, it is no surprise then that an individualist, materialistic psychology should suit the needs of capitalism, in the way Carrette and King suggest it does. They make basically the same point quite explicitly later in their book: ‘ . . . in the demand for a science of the self, psychology distanced itself from the trappings of a religious self and sought to offer ideas of being human on a reductionist and measurable basis.’[9]

Psychology is not itself a form of spirituality though, so how would this strengthen Carrette and King’s case for the key role of spirituality in keeping us quiet?

When spirituality is psychologised, as it has been, for example, with mindfulness training, it can act as a powerful tool for stifling protest and ensuring conformity. The analogy they keep referring to in their book captures this potential exactly. They describe it, at one point, as ‘the new cultural Prozac,’ which brings ‘transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation’ without ‘addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice.’[10]At another, they write, ‘Capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.’[11]

They believe that, in addition to this, the misleading redefinitions of reality entailed in this process are the equivalent of what George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, terms ‘thought-control.’ They claim ‘privatised spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism.’[12]

This explains away any unpleasant feelings as resulting from deficiencies in the individual, so that:

What is never raised is the possibility that the ‘difficult life’ is itself a result of the modern psychological understanding of the self in Western consumer societies. . . . [Popular classics of spirituality] are palliative for the ills of a consumer society, rather than addressing the underlying social problems that create the need for such works in the first place.[13]

As a result:

. . . employees can be made to feel a sense of corporate community and allegiance to the company.… ‘spirituality’ provides the all-important ‘feel-good’ factor that is so important for improving worker efficiency and loyalty. . . Thus, while claiming to be ‘alternative’…, the goal is to align the employee’s ‘personal mission’ with that of the organisation for which they work.[14]

In the end, expressing the idea very strongly indeed, the authors feel that ‘Mass control and collectivism are not just features of fascist and communist societies. Rather they are reconfigured and hidden behind the capitalist doctrines of free choice.’[15]The result is that we are all locked into a toxic materio-competitive worldview:

With the emergence of capitalist spirituality the freedom of the individual to express their inner nature through ‘spirituality’ becomes subordinated to the demands of corporate business culture… [16]

Next time I will be looking in more detail at what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, and also later exploring how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies. It will be some time yet before I consider other more positive alternatives such as the Bahá’í perspective, the Doughnut model and Ehrenfeld’s ideas of flourishing.

Footnotes

[1] Tart – page 95.
[2] Page 160. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[3] Page 20.
[4] Page 26.
[5] Shweder – page 169.
[6] Gaia – page 146.
[7] Kelly and Kelly – pages xvii-xviii.
[8] Kelly and Kelly – page xx.
[9] Page 66.
[10] Page 77.
[11] Page 83.
[12] Page 68.
[13] Page 56.
[14] Pages 134-35.
[15] Page 57.
[16] Page 45.

I’m in a queue to buy a cinema ticket, but I can’t remember the name of the film I want to watch. I’m next in line. A woman barges in front of me. I’m annoyed but I don’t protest. I need time to get out my phone and check the list of films showing at this cinema even though I’m not sure what cinema it is.

The usual problem with the screen occurs. It’s full of pretty pictures but none of the usual options such as Safari for Googling the cinema house. My mind has been primed for some time to realise that when this happens I’m dreaming. I give up on the cinema and walk off to enjoy the experience. Even though I’m strongly tempted, I decide not to do anything dramatic like flying, as that usually brings a lucid dream to a quick end. I just keep aware.

I go down a corridor full of people. At one point I see an old friend from my university days in the fenlands, looking a lot younger than he is now. I say ‘Hi,’ he nods, but we don’t stop to talk.

I’m enjoying the vividness of it all, so different from my daytime aphantasia where I can’t visualize anything at all, no matter how hard I try. I go outside down a path into an evening of broken cloud by the side of a river. I enjoy the shine of the water as it catches the dying light.

It feels a bit chilly so I go back under cover into a nearby arcade. I could do with a coffee. I spot a café, but something causes me to pause before I get too close. Outside Emma, Indie and Peat are handing out leaflets. Do I really want to confront them again? It was bad enough last time, and I’m not quite ready for another battle.

I notice there’s a side door into the café, which helps me avoid getting too close to their pitch.

I creep inside, breathing a sigh of relief, only to hear my name being shouted from the other side of the room. Oh God! It’s the rest of my parliament of selves, the silver sect, skulking in a far corner pretending they’re not with the lot outside.

I have lost my sense that I am dreaming, though it was good while it lasted. My dreaming mind has become very good at inducing me back into a dream state. I can’t fight against the feeling of being trapped in this situation whether I like it or not. I smile faintly, wave and walk to the bar to order a coffee.

I’m wondering whether it might even be best to go with the flow and make the best of this opportunity. Maybe we could have another go at reconciling our differences and reaching some kind of agreement about how to move forwards. It looks a long shot even so, with the rampant activists outside collaring unwilling listeners, and the aging introverts hiding away indoors.

It’s when I can’t access my coffee loyalty app on my iPhone that I realise I’m still dreaming. I take the coffee anyway and wander slowly back to the table with the trio of Chris, Fred and Bill waiting impatiently for me to join them.

I realise I don’t want to try and pull any tricks though I know I’m dreaming. I want to use my awareness to stay grounded in my waking mind, unphased by whatever bizarre things might happen in the next few minutes. I want to get the best possible outcome.

I sit down beside Bill, facing Chris and Fred. I need to be careful not to do or say anything that might trigger the other trio outside into thinking we’ve been plotting against them in here. I guess they’ll be joining us at some point.

‘What’s taken you so long?’ Fred Mires, the obsessive psychologist asks. ‘Even Chris, with all his meditative practice, has had steam coming out of his ears. The activists have been giving us a really hard time. It’s all right for you,’ he said, speaking as the expert in the subconscious process. ‘You have no idea what’s been going on underneath. It’s been pure hell down here, believe me.’

Chris Humfreeze is nodding as if his life depends on it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so disturbed.

‘Fred’s not exaggerating,’ he confirms. ‘We don’t get a moment’s peace, except when they’re out on a mission, like now. We don’t just get their propaganda campaign in stereo. There’s three of them at it day and night. You realise we never sleep, don’t you? Even when you’re awake, or not dreaming about us, we’re fully conscious. And the hammering goes on and on and on. I don’t think I’ve had more than five minutes to myself at any time to meditate and recharge my batteries. To be honest I just wish we’d left Indie and Peat where they were, then we’d only have Emmie to deal with. And she was bad enough on her own, always banging on about protesting and demonstrating.’

His voice tails off into silence.

William Wordless is strangely silent for a poet.

‘You don’t seem so upset about them, Bill’ I say, turning my head in his direction.

‘Well, no, probably not,’ he says quietly staring at the tabletop.

‘How come?’

‘I don’t know really. I’ve just had this feeling that there’s a way out of this mess. Poetry’s got something to do with it, but just can’t put my finger on it.’

Both Fred and Chris can’t suppress a snort. Bill looks up and sees the incredulous expressions on their faces.

‘I know that seems unlikely, but the idea just won’t go away.’

At exactly this point I begin to have the strangest experience. When Bill stops speaking I can still hear his voice in my head.

He is continuing his thread.

‘It’s to do with when Pete started reading about Elizabeth Jennings. I could feel a shift in my thinking. Before I’ve always jabbered about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, without really believing a word of it. I still don’t take that on board, but I am beginning to think they can take readers to a deeper level of understanding, but they have to do this accessibly enough to create a wide enough readership to shift a whole culture upwards, not just an educated elite within it.’

This feels really weird. It’s not just that I can hear his thoughts as loudly as his voice. It’s that he is thinking much the same as I’m thinking. This has never happened before.

Chris and Fred are looking at me with a worried expression on their faces.

‘What’s going on, Pete?’ Fred asks. ‘You’ve gone quite pale.’

‘I’m not sure,’ I mumble. I turn to Bill hoping for some clarification. If this wasn’t a dream, I’d say that he was dying, or at least fading slowly away.

‘What’s happening to Bill?’ I demand of Chris and Fred.

‘Oh God!’ Chris gasps. ‘It looks as though he’s started to disappear bit by bit into you.’

‘What!’ I snap back. ‘That’s not possible surely.’

Then I manage to remind myself that this is only a dream after all. Anything’s possible.

I look back at Bill. There’s almost nothing of him left, only a translucent shadow of his former self.

‘Bill!’ I shout. ‘Where are you? Come back!’

There is no answer, not even in my head.

‘You’ve blended with him or he with you,’ Fred explains. ‘He was a split off part of you, as we all are, and you have both reintegrated.’

‘Why now? What does that mean?’

‘I think it means that if we continue down this road, we will all end up the same way – fused back into your consciousness, no longer separate. This is the direction these encounters have been taking us,’ Chris clarified. ‘Perhaps the way that reading Elizabeth Jennings changed your way of thinking created a perfect moment for him to join with you again.’

‘Hold on a moment! I can understand what you’re saying, but even so, I would have thought a merging with Fred, as a psychologist, would’ve been more likely.’

I look towards Fred for some kind of validation.

‘I don’t think you get why we split in the first place,’ Fred replied. ‘You were always an applied psychologist. I always wanted to study it purely for its own sake. I am an academic not a practitioner. That’s why we all split off. We were frustrated by the way you did things. Isn’t that right, Chris?’

‘Definitely. Your way of dabbling in meditation wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. Just as Fred wanted to focus intensely on the study of some aspect of the mind, I wanted to devote far more time to learning how to meditate properly. Bill was the same with poetry. He wanted to spend all his time turning experience into lyrics. But you wouldn’t do that either. You’re a jack of too many trades, and you know what that means. We were all fed up with you in the end. Emma the same of course, though her activism didn’t suit any of us most of the time.’

‘But why would Bill think I’m going to be any different about poetry now than I was before? If I am mediocre and half-hearted in terms of his passion, why would he think now was a good time to get back on board?’

‘We’re not sure,’ Fred said. ‘Maybe he knows something none of the rest of us does. My guess is that it’s partly because, since you retired, you’ve been reading and writing more poetry than anytime since the eighties. He feels more at home within you than anytime since you were studying, and later teaching, literature. And he’s had writer’s block himself for ages. It’s not for nothing he’s named William Wordless. Of course, I’m bogged down as well, in my own way. That’s why I’m Frederick Mires by name. I’ll leave Chris to speak for himself.’

‘Christmas Humfreeze, my full name, speaks for itself as well. Frozen into hesitation. Couldn’t be worse really. We’re all wanting to find a way to get unstuck and become more creative each in our different way. Trouble is finding a way to do that which suits us all. Emma Pancake’s more than a bit flat herself, as I think she knows somewhere inside. We’re all in the same boat. Indira Pindance is spinning around in small circles getting nowhere fast, and Peat Humus is even more bogged down than Fred.’

‘Stop, for heaven’s sake! You’re depressing me.’ The words are out before I can stop myself. I know my full name means a rock and Hulme comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning an islet in a fen. Not the best names to suggest focused creativity, I’ve always thought.

But this recent unexpected event is making me wonder whether I might be missing the point. Why did I meet my old friend, from my time near the fens, at the beginning of the dream. Was this a hint of some kind? Should I look more kindly on the whole idea of bogs, fens, marshes, peat and the rest. I’ve been aware for a long time that peat is a pun on my name and that the sense of connection this gives me with the earth is important.

‘Look,’ I blurt out, ‘Pete, peat and poet are also close in sound. This might explain why Bill has stepped back inside. But where would the rest of you fit in, for heaven’s sake? Until we solve that somehow, I think we’re still stuck.’

I fix my attention once more on my companions only to discover a stranger sitting opposite me.

I am sitting in a café reading a book.

‘Why are you bothering to tell us that?’ you may well ask, as you all know I read whenever I’m alone and there’s nothing else I’ve got to do.

Well, this book is a bit special.

As it happens, I’m in a café in a shopping centre, and through the glass shine the temptations of consumer heaven. Within less than 200 yards I could bejewel and reclothe myself, refurnish our house and replace all our electrical goods and gadgets, if I wished to and could afford it.

And that’s just for starters.

Instead, I am reading a short book, highlighting passage after passage as I do so, undistracted by the jangling music in the background. It’s a book that goes a considerable way towards explaining why the minarets of capitalism[1] have replaced cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as the must-go-to places for massive throngs of people in the Western world and beyond.

Many of us are already aware that organised religion is out of favour. As the book says it’s ‘an outdated conflict-causing and ritualistic, bad thing’[2] in many people’s eyes. The process of downgrading religion, which began with the so-called Enlightenment (almost everything has a dark side, including this), was given a boost at the end of First World War, because, as the Bahá’í World Centre explains, ‘fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.’[3]

What we may not have been willing to realise so clearly is that there is a new religion on the block. It’s been hidden from us in plain sight. As the authors put it: ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’[4] And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

The book I am reading, Selling Spirituality by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, argues a strong case for the value of seeing the modern world through this lens. If you have the patience to follow me through my explanation, I think your journey will be well worthwhile. At the very least it will hopefully convey why the loss of the positive side of religion has not been compensated for by the prevalence of what has been misleadingly termed spirituality.

The writers’ main focus is to account for how a deracinated spirituality has been commandeered to help consolidate capitalism’s hold on our minds. In their view this has been made possible in the first place because the word is capable of so many possible meanings it can be harnessed to support an incalculable number of purposes. They argue that, ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality or religion’[5] and, as a result, ‘The very ambiguity of the term means that it can operate across different social and interest groups and in capitalist terms, function to establish a market niche.’[6]

It is worth noting at this point that the so-called benefits, which this synthetic brand of spirituality brings to the table, are not universally accessible. The authors describe how ‘[t]he wisdom of spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching become reduced to a philosophy of worldly accommodationism, tailored to reduce the stress and strain of modern urban life for relatively affluent westerners.’[7] In fact, as they put it more bluntly later, ‘it is feel-good spirituality for the urban and the affluent and it has nothing to say to the poor and the marginalised in society, other than offering them a regime of compliance, a new “opiate for the masses.”’[8]

Before I move on to consider in more detail how exactly that might be said to work, it’s important to spell out the way that capitalism has become not simply a way of doing business, but an ideology that justifies it. Carrette and King describe that as follows, drawing a clear and important distinction between economic liberalism and its political progenitor[9]:

The new economic and political orthodoxy in this emerging world order is known as neoliberalism and it puts profits before people, promotes privatisation of public utilities, services and resources, and is in the process of eroding many of the individual civil liberties that were established under its forerunner– political liberalism.

This shift required being legitimised widely in a credible way. Spirituality has played a significant role in this, they feel:[10]

In contemporary society the discourse of ‘spirituality’ often promotes the ideology of neoliberalism… it does this by providing an aura of authenticity, morality and humanity that mediates the increasingly pernicious social effects of neoliberal policies.

The lack of effective opposition, even from the religions whose convenient concepts were borrowed, enabled its anodyne effect to spread:

. . . traditions are becoming subject to a takeover precisely because members of these traditions have failed to see the increasingly religious quality of capitalism in the modern world.

And this was what, in their view, enabled neoliberal capitalism to morph into what is effectively a religion: [11]

. . . the economic theology of neoliberalism.… corporate capitalism – the new religion of the Market. Its God is ‘Capital’ and its ethics highly questionable.

They feel we are speaking here of a powerful form of thought-control. I will be examining the way that works in more detail next time, but for now I will simply flag up that one of the reasons this pervasive and persuasive influence continues to operate so effectively is our lack of awareness that it exists:[12]

The institutions increasingly exerting their influence upon us are multinational corporations, big business and the mass media. . . . As human beings we are able to challenge regimes of thought control, but only if we become aware of them, and of the possibility of alternatives.

Because this is a book written for the general reader, it would be all too easy to dismiss their argument here as a facile simplification introduced simply to support their main line of argument. While it will not be possible to explore in depth comparable perceptions shared by professionals in the field of economics rather than religion, I will nonetheless share quotes from two different economists who are clearly on a parallel track.

First there is Wolfgang Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End? In his introduction he writes:[13]

The problem with [the] neoliberal narrative is, of course, that it neglects the very unequal distribution of risks, opportunities, gains and losses that comes with de-socialised capitalism . . . This raises the question why the neoliberal life associated with the post-capitalist interregnum is not more powerfully opposed, indeed how it can enjoy as much apparent support as it does . . .

By ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ he means the ‘long and indecisive transition’ we are currently experiencing.

He answers his question in a way that overlaps with what I will be describing later:

It is here that ‘culture’ comes in . . . The behavioural programme of the post-social society during the post-capitalist interregnum is governed by a neoliberal ethos of competitive self-improvement, of untiring cultivation of one’s marketable human capital, enthusiastic dedication to work, and cheerfully optimistic, playful acceptance of the risks in a world that has outgrown government.

That he does not include the mortar of pulverised spirituality that Carrette and King argue holds together the bricks Streeck lists in his inventory, does not disguise the fact that he detects the same kind of counterintuitive compliance they go onto describe.

Secondly, there’s Kate Raworth in her mind expanding Doughnut Economics. She uses the metaphor of a theatre production to capture the way that neoliberalism has orchestrated ‘the economic debate of the past thirty years’ in a script promising that ‘the market . . .is the road to freedom, and who could be against that? But putting blind faith in markets – while ignoring the living world, society, and the power of banks – has taken us to the brink of ecological, social and financial collapse.’[14]

In terms of where I’m heading with this, faith is the key word.

Next time I will begin to examine in more detail whether a distorted spirituality is all there is that helps keep most of us quiescent and compliant most of the time, before addressing in a subsequent post some of the ways in which capitalism can fairly be described as the new religion on the block. Much later I will be examining whether a better balance is possible, where a pure and undiluted spirituality combined with greater coherence could help us provide a more effective resistance to an increasingly unbridled market.

Footnotes:

[1] I have adapted this from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233).
[2] Page 179. All page references in the footnotes, unless otherwise specified, refer to Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality.
[3] Century of Light – page 43.
[4] Page 23.
[5] Page 3.
[6] Page 31.
[7] Page 90.
[8] Page 107.
[9] Page 7.
[10] Page 134.
[11] Page 178.
[12] Page 12.
[13] Streeck – pages 37-38.
[14] Raworth – pages 67-70.

Christmas Break

As happens every year at this time, the footfall on this blog drops very low. Therefore, I’m taking a break till early January. When I come back on line I’ll be looking at an intriguing book which argues that there is a new religion on the block. As the authors put it (page 23): ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as Capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’

And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

More of that in January, when my Parliament of Selves also comes back into session.

Until then, Season’s Greetings! Hope all goes well over Christmas and the New Year.

‘Part of the west Antarctic ice sheet may be in irreversible retreat,’ said one of the researchers. Photograph: Handout/AFP/Getty Images

Two recent articles in the Guardian, one by  and the other by , are strongly reinforcing the urgent need for effective action to address the climate crisis. Below are some short extracts: for the full articles see the links at the head of each set of quotes.

Warning of ‘existential threat to civilisation’ as impacts lead to cascade of unstoppable events

The world may already have crossed a series of climate tipping points, according to a stark warning from scientists. This risk is “an existential threat to civilisation”, they say, meaning “we are in a state of planetary emergency”.

Tipping points are reached when particular impacts of global heating become unstoppable, such as the runaway loss of ice sheets or forests. In the past, extreme heating of 5C was thought necessary to pass tipping points, but the latest evidence suggests this could happen between 1C and 2C.

The researchers, writing in a commentary article in the journal Nature, acknowledge that the complex science of tipping points means great uncertainty remains. But they say the potential damage from the tipping points is so big and the time to act so short, that “to err on the side of danger is not a responsible option”. They call for urgent international action.

Formula for climate emergency shows if ‘reaction time is longer than intervention time left’ then ‘we have lost control’

There is a time lag between the rapid cuts to greenhouse gases and the climate system reacting. Knowing if you have enough time tells you if you’re in an emergency or not.

[Hans Joachim] Schellnhuber [ of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany] used “standard risk analysis and control theory” to come up with [a] formula, and he was already putting numbers to it.

“As a matter of fact, the intervention time left for limiting global warming to less than 2C is about 30 [years] at best. The reaction time – time needed for full global decarbonisation – is at least 20 [years].”

As the scientists write in Nature, if the “reaction time is longer than the intervention time left” then “we have lost control”.

Schellnhuber says: “Beyond that critical point, only some sort of adaptation option is left, such as moving the Titanic passengers into rescue boats (if available).”