Political Mindfulness and the Pandemic : an interview

In this interview  Phil Cohen discusses his latest project and two linked publications from the Left wing think tank Compass.

How did this project come about?

For me the starting point in this journey  goes back to the 1980’s , the Kinnock years, when having abolished the Young Socialists  because it was controlled by Trotskyists, they launched an initiative called Labour listens to Youth. I was invited to  give  a talk to  a constituency  Labour Party  meeting about political  listening  and I talked  about psychoanalysis as a particular form of attentiveness to what  remained unspoken in most  political discourse.  The audience  listened  politely  but never  really engaged with the ideas in discussion. Afterwards   the chairperson came up and apologized for the lack of response  ‘ We don’t   take much to Freud or psychoanalysis in the party to be honest. All that stuff about dreams and phantasies!. We are more concerned with the real world and how to change it materially for the better’.

So immediately the problem here is that a certain economism, linked to notions of   technological progress  has always been part of Labourism’s intellectual baggage.  It has  prevented  the party  from  moving  beyond purely transactional modes of  political education (i.e. propaganda /recruitment) based on appeals to rational self interest.  Fast forward to 2020  and the same narrow view has informed  the Labour Party’s approach to the pandemic. It is  good on the material inequalities in public health provision  that have become so starkly  visible, but implicitly  adopts the same  model of risk  as the Government  when it comes strategies for managing the pandemic.


Could you say more about what this model entails?

The  Government likes to tell us that their policies are ‘just following the science’, but the issue is whose science and what kind of science. It is clear in fact that the Exiteers, are being driven by a largely political agenda, and just like the Brexiteers, with whom they have much in common, they have a  Merrie England vision of  an island nation, secure in its borders  throwing off the yoke of lockdown,  and  resuming its triumphal trajectory towards the ever sunlit  beaches  of Borisville- on- sea.

However Covid 19 is a communicable disease  which  follows its own rules, rules which  are not just about its real relations of physical transmission, which in any case scientists have yet to fully fathom, but about a set of imaginary relations  transmitted  through social and cultural media, that obey  their own quite different logic. That is what my essay is largely about.

The government’s  strategy is informed  by a  rational choice theory of risk    underpinned by     nudge economics  It is a  model  which assumes that given proper health messaging, individual citizens  are incentivized by material self interest  to  make rational  decisions about  risk, and are thus ultimately responsible for their own  health outcomes. This  fits perfectly with the neo-liberal health agenda but it does not remotely correspond to the complexity of the real life situations  which many  people find themselves in, where they  face impossible choices, between equally difficult and risky situations and find themselves being pulled emotionally in several directions at once.


So what alternative way is there of thinking about  the pandemic?

To understand what is at stake here I think we have to draw on some of the insights and perspectives of the human sciences, and in particular psychoanalysis and anthropology. So in my essay I explore  some of the different ways risk is perceived and acted upon, or ignored, mapping out a kind of emotional geography, and in particular distinguishing  between people whose model of the world is of a basically safe place, with a few dangerous or thrilling hotspots in it, and those for whom  conversely the world is a basically dangerous and hostile place, with a few safe niches or  bolt holes, to which they cling for dear life.

I look at how these emotional dispositions might shape peoples responses to Covid, and in particular to lockdown.  At the same time, these responses, which are first learnt from parents and peers,  are a function of the degree of  material  and symbolic control   which people exercise over their environment, and this in turn is obviously affected by class, ethnicity, gender, and age., as well as by a host of local situational factors.

To map the political dimensions of these  personal orientations  I have drawn on the work of an anthropologist, Mary Douglas, who has   developed a cultural theory of risk,   it  was very influential in the 1980’s but today has been largely forgotten despite its relevance to the present crisis. For her,  perceptions and responses to health or environmental risk  are a function of the degree and type of social  and cultural capital  at people’s disposal, how much or little confidence  or trust they can afford in social and political institutions, and what kind of cultural resources they can draw on in representing  their relationships to other people and to power structures.  In the essay I have built on this  model, and linked it to the psychoanalytic perspective ,  to   outline four existential standpoints towards risk : authoritarian, libertarian, communitarian and fatalistic  and I try and draw out the implication of each standpoint for how different groups have responded to Covid 19 and to  the measures taken to manage it.

So  yes,  as Compass folk  like to say, its bloody complicated, and it  underlines the fact that one size fits all  approaches to  tackling the pandemic are likely to fail. Issuing categorical imperatives : Stay home, Save the NHS, backed by legal sanctions, only works as long as everyone either agrees or is forced  to obey them without exception. Such imperatives  are uncomplicated because they  take no account of differences in individual  circumstances. For example if wearing masks is  mandatory and everyone wears one, they may be somewhat effective in reducing  the risk of transmission. But if only some people wear them, then their effectiveness falls  exponentially.  In contrast,    what Kant called hypothetical imperatives are subject to local negotiation,  take into account locally situated meanings   and can more easily engineer active consent but are more difficult to institutionalise. The governments public health messaging  has been so confused partly because it continually veers  between the two kinds of imperative and the authoritarian and libertarian positions which underpin them.


What other kinds of complication do you see?

A second kind of complication which I explore in the essay  is the way existing social and cultural  inequalities have not only become more transparent, but more  condensed , as they  are refracted  through  a new kind of bio-politics, new ways of defining, surveilling, and controlling  populations  of the healthy  and the sick. In the essay I look at the way Covid 19 is replaying the generation game, and also at the racial profiling of BAME communities.

Finally  the essay looks at the implications of all this for the Labour Party, in particular for its relation to a new political actor which has emerged  through the pandemic, which I call  the hands on working class,  whether they are handling people, or goods, or the  tools of various  trades, they  have found themselves  on the front line in the most risky situations; their  labour  for so long disregarded  and underpaid, perhaps unsurprising  given that so much of it is done by women and the  BAME community,  this work has now been widely recognised as of decisive importance for maintaining the fabric  of civil society. This transvaluation of labour   values must surely lie  at the core of the Labour’s Party’s  programme for recovery, both its own recovery as a viable force of opposition to the Tories, and for  communities which have mobilised long dormant forms of collective enterprise and mutual aid in response to the crisis, but which have nevertheless become disconnected  from organized politics and the metropolitan Left.    We need an exit strategy  which gets us out of current moral panic focused on ‘high risk carriers, the new untouchables,  and   builds   this emergent  moral economy  into a new political economy, in  which the health of the body politics is conditional  on the wellbeing  of the many and not the few.


You talk about political mindfulness in the essay and it is also the focus of the companion text published by Compass. Can  you spell out what you mean by this. In what was is it different from  more conventional approaches to mindfulness, which have been so criticized on the Left?

Mindfulness comes in. It comes in two modes  the first privileges the personal dimension of experience and the second the political dimension. , and one without the other  leads either to the de-politicisation of experience, or to the de-personalisation of politics: political machine politics, government by algorithm. So let’s look at each in turn.

Intensive: Covid 19 concentrates minds wonderfully, but also anxiously on the body,on our immediate tactile relationship  to the physical environment – in a way  the pandemic has turned us all into slightly hysterical materialists. Certainly   lockdown and social distancing  has made us realise how much we need and miss the embodied nature of  social interaction and personal relationships;  digital fences  and virtual communication  are no substitute for  the real thing when it comes to making new neighbours.

Mindfulness as a  technique for concentrating our attention through meditation on inner states of mind and  body, and their inter- connection  has become an important element in the psychological survival  toolkit  for people on the pandemic front line, in BAME communities,  as a way of dealing with extreme states of anxiety, stress and depression. However   maybe this  needs to be supplemented by more psychodynamic approaches  to  understanding  the long term impact on mental health, and how we are to address the likely epidemic of post traumatic stress disorders. There is also a more immediately political application : the   civil rights and other non-violent  movements  have for a long time utilised mindful meditation techniques to enable protesters to retain their composure in the face of provocation from the police and hostile counter-demonstrators.

As for the extensive mode of political   mindfulness  this refers to the capacity to make connections between different sites and practices  of power and inequality.  Unless those connections  are somehow made concretely, there is a risk of  political discourse degenerating into various forms of mindlessness,  associated  either with manic knee jerk activism, which iterates all on one note or at the other extreme, fatalism and defeatism. And under present circumstances it is all too easy to  feel  overwhelmed by the immensity of the tasks facing us.

The  political culture of the Left is very bi-polar, it tends to oscillate between optimism the will, and pessimism of the intellect.Perhaps optimism of the will is the prerogative of youth and pessimism of the intellect of age, but we certainly need one to temper the other, as Gramsci recommends.

So what happens when  we don’t practice political mindfulness ? Well ,for example,  there is a way of feeling, thinking and talking about issues of  race and  ethnicity,which dissociates  them from the dimensions of class, gender, and generation in which they  are always and already enmeshed. Equally there is a way of banging on about class which tacitly colludes with, even actively reproduces,  forms of racism, sexism, and ageism.  So to be politically mindful means to develop ways of feeling, thinking and talking about these multiple dimensions of power and inequality  which grasp their interconnection imaginatively  and concretely without reducing them to one another. Political mindfulness  should not be confused with  political correctness, which tends to  adopt a  rather one dimensional essentialist  approach.

This is not an easy mind set to sustain, especially at the present time, when progressive politics is so fragmented,  the labour movement, the anti-racist movement, the feminist and gay rights movements, the green movement, have all formed their own distinctive communities of practice. Of course there are many possible points of connection, potential synergies, but at present we have to recognise that the Left is very divided..  In the social sciences,  an attempt has been made to take all these dimensions into account under the rubric of inter-sectionality but on the whole it’s a very clunky and static approach, which simple combines discrete analytic categories , and  tends to reach foregone conclusions. I call it tick box sociology :Its always capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism or racism what dunnit.  This approach doesn’t really grasp  or illuminate the lived complexity, the  fluidity and  fixity, the entanglements  of  these positions. Novelists, poets and above all playwrights  and film makers  have been much better at depicting it.,in my view.

Take for example Tony Kushner’s  play An Intellegent  Homosexual’s Guiide to Socialism, which explores  through an family psycho-drama  how  the  collapse of the political culture of  labourism in the US  and the rise of identity politics impacts on  frankly oedipal tensions between the generations, centred around the issue,at once material and symbolic, of inheritence. Then there is   the wonderful film by Celine Sciamma  Bande  des Filles (translated as Girlhood)  recently released, which follows a group of African girls living in the suburbs of Paris as they  struggle to create an aleatory space and time of freedom, in the midst of multiple  oppressions coming both from within their own communities, and  the wider society. Neither piece of preachy.  These are pieces which  show not tell about the human predicaments it portrays, and leaves the audience to draw their own  political conclusions.


So   for you  the task is about  cultivating  a mindset that connects  the intensive and extensive moments of mindfulness together, not splitting  them off  from each other?

Right! In fact these connections are being made right now, not by academics or professional intellectuals, but by millions of people across the globe  in the  sudden  upsurge of popular protest against racism triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

I cant breathe’, the  words uttered by Floyd  with his last breath as the policeman crushed the life out of him with  knee on  wind pipe  not only graphically evokes the horrendous physical symptoms of patients seriously ill with the virus, it  also expresses the sense of claustrophobia experienced  by many in lockdown, and the suffocation of so many hopes and aspirations within BAME communities, especially amongst the youth,  by the relentless operation of a carceral state, which denies them educational and job opportunities, forces them into the hidden economy for survival, and  then harasses, arrests and imprisons them. Finally the phrase  conjures up the spectre of  the environmental crisis and the negative impact of air  pollution on public health, e/g in asthmatic conditions,  something which the lockdown itself has highlighted as the streets and skies temporarily emptied of traffic, and which of course also increases the risk of Covid 19.

The  chain of associations generated by the phrase instantly connects these instances  which are so often disconnected from  one another, and  condenses them  in a single powerful  statement  about the deep  malaise  of contemporary capitalist society. But to end on a more positive note I cant breathe  also points towards the joyful human solidarity that can be mobilised against oppression.The fight to breathe  more freely  by  breathing new democratic life into the body politic   against the stifling  structures of social inequality  seems to me to demand that we mobilise both the personal and the political dimensions  of mindfulness at one and the same time.


Political Mindfulness:fresh perspectives on a multiple crisis, edited by Phil Cohen with contributions from Ruther Lister, Angela McRobbie, Dick Pountain, Michael Rustin and Valerie Walkerdine

There must be some way out of here: mapping the pandemic from Left Field  by Phil Cohen

Both publications are available free from www.compassonline/publications. Podcasts of two webinars in which a panel  drawn from the authors, with additional contributions from Lynne Segal and Ashwani Sharma  explores some of the issues  raised by these pamphlets is also available online from Compass.