SAID THE JOKER TO THE THIEF Political Mindfulness and the Crisis of the Left Part 2

There must be some way out of here

The title of this discussion  might at first sight appear to be a plea for some kind of radical escapology.  We are in a mess, how do we get out of it?  There are currently a number of escapisms on offer on the Left. An escape into the past via  nostalgic evocations of a world  of working class community  support which has been  lost . Escape into the future of utopian projects, with dreams of reaching the sunlit uplands of fully automated luxury communism courtesy of AI  and Universal Basic Income.

These responses merely mirror  the ‘one leap  and we are free’ mantra  of the Brexiteers, with their vision of   Albion unbound at the stroke of midnight on January 31stst ,  magically freed at last from the oppressive Brussels Yoke, fortunately no longer to be accompanied by  a  version of the   national anthem re-written for  the juvenile  fans of  Peppa Pig : bung a bob for bing bong ben  .

In the context of the Bob Dylan song  ,All Along the Watch Tower  a rather different interpretation emerges.   The phrase you will remember is extracted from a conversation between two archetypal outsiders,  the Joker  and the Thief. The Joker or Fool is a trickster figure, a shape shifter who speaks truth to power in the forms of riddles, aphorisms  and coded references . As a Tarot card  the Joker represents new beginnings, having faith in the future, the capacity to  improvise and a  belief in ultimate success ,all qualities which the candidates who aspire to succeed Corbyn might well aspire to.  However as Batman’s arch enemy the Joker also takes on more sinister overtones  as  an agent of chaos , a psychopathic clown, an enemy of the political establishment  exposing its many hypocrisies. It is not surprising that The Joker became a mascot of the Tea Party movement  in the USA ,  an anti-hero of the alt-right and the subject of a popular cult. At first sight the thief , seems  a more straight forward character, except that , as Bob Dylan tell us   elsewhere ‘to live outside the law you must be honest’ , and lets recall that in Greek mythology Hermes , the guardian of the crossroads, is the patron  god of  travellers, poets , athletes, orators and yes thieves who all in their different ways transgress social norms..

So these two characters have more in common with each other than you might imagine in offering a perspective which challenges  conventional wisdoms .In the song they find much uncommon ground. It goes on :

There is too much confusion

I cant get no relief

We can all identify with these lines . I think. The scale of Labour’s defeat has certainly sowed a lot of confused responses  : some blamed the Tory media, other  internal failures, none  of these knee jerk reactions gets to grips with the deeper causes and consequently brings no relief.

Then  the source of confusion is identified :

Businessmen, they drink my wine,
Plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth

Listening to this today, I think, brings to mind  the debased currencies of our post truth political  culture,  dominated as it is by fake news; any notion of the good society where people enjoy the fruits of their labour  within a  moral economy of worth , framed by values  of social equality and economic justice , all that  goes unrecognised  and unvalued, unless it can somehow be marketised, turned to  commercial purpose or corporate advantage or perhaps worse still, abstracted  into a moralistic principle , in strenuous exercises of virtue signalling..

The problem is not just that political messaging is so confused , it is that so many   people can’t get any relief from the anxieties and insecurities  which crowd in on them  from all sides  as a result of more than a decade of  austerity, making  them feel hopeless and helpless before the onward march of platform capitalism and the gig economy; it is not surprising  that in this situation   we  seek  escape routes. So we escape into various kinds of addictive crazes and cravings,  we become shopaholics,  workaholics or alcoholics, we pursue alternative careers as  drug or sex addicts ,  or , in my case, compulsively  watch Newsnight.   We flick channels, surf the net, in search of some ultimate fix of meaning  . So many different ways of institutionalising attention deficit disorder.   And  then  inevitably there are the therapies which promise instant  dis-alienation, which  offer to liberate us from the  24/7 culture of distractions,    to disentangle our selves from the toils of  commodity fetishism and find some more authentic and meaningful  path to fulfilment. Let’s  take back control of our inner lives,   shake off  our mind forged manacles and embrace – well what exactly?

For increasing number of people it is about embracing the here and now. Living as fully as possible in the present. Finding   a way of  shrugging off the burden of a  past which cannot be changed and a future which seems either beyond  reach or else a horizon of horrendous possibility .  Presentism  comes in many forms and one of the most popular is called mindfulness.



Mindfulness  is currently all the rage . Its evangelists  urge  us to cultivate mindfulness  as form of resilience in uncertain times. Its core self-help message is to forget about the past and future, and instead concentrate on living fully in the present.  It consists of an easily learned do- it -yourself technique of   mind- and body- therapy, training  people to become more aware of internal psychological  states in relation to  their immediate environment. It is currently being rolled out across the NHS as an eight week   treatment programme for chronic anxiety and depression , a cheap alternative to both medication and psycho- therapy. It is being introduced in schools and universities as a means of helping students of all ages and stages deal with the combined stress of  peer pressure and exam pressure. Radio Three now has its mindfulness moment where they play music designed to induce a state of calm introspection. Arvo Part as a tranquilliser.  Corporates are taking it up to promote greater equanimity and productivity amongst their workforces. Even the Armed forces are experimenting with using it as a way of combatting battle fatigue and post traumatic stress.

I recently attended a packed lecture about MacMindfullness given by two of its leading exponents at the British Library; it was to promote a book they had just written spelling out its philosophy which they presented as a unique amalgam of Buddhist psychology and Western cognitive behavioural  science . We were urged to become grounded in our bodies, turn our minds away from bad news , concentrate on the joyful aspects of our lives and take back control of our capacity  to attend to what is important for our personal  development. There was  a lot of talk about  the need for compassion and making an  appropriate response to other’s predicaments. For instance we were asked to imagine a stranger knocking on our  door while hosting a dinner party .. Would you invite him or her in to join the party  , or slam the door in their face. The appropriately mindful response, we learnt was to do neither: the mindful thing was to  give the stranger  a glass of water and then tell them to go on their way   to avoid upsetting your guests. I couldn’t resist thinking that perhaps the really mindful response as here being defined was  to ask the stranger whether the glass of water was half full or half empty , and then , depending of their reply either congratulate  them on their positive attitude to life or suggest that they go sign up for a mindfulness class.

The mindfulness movement is one of a number of attempts to address the profound  psychological malaise of   contemporary society and culture; it aims  to  promote emotional well being  through a form of mass therapy.  Another example of  which is an article in last Sunday’s Observer by  Richard Layard, an ex economist who was appointed by Tony Blair as the UK’s happiness Czsar. It consists of little more than  a string of vacuous platitudes , or what Marx called ‘dumb generalities’   about the need for everyone to be kinder, nicer  and gentler to each other, to promote greater emotional intelligence   and build a more caring  and sharing society  based on mutual respect – whilst of course leaving its basic structures of power, and inequality  intact.

It is easy to ridicule the psycho-babble that goes along with  the mindfulness project and to be cynical about the motives of its gurus,  the path to hell was always paved with good intentions, or a Zizek puts it, its when we try to escape from the toils of an  ideology that we are most prone to reproduce it in another, perverted  guise.

But the success of the movement does  point to a very real set of issues which the Left has signally failed to address and which in part account for its present unpopularity; in particular the Left’s hyper- rationalism , it refusal or inability to recognise that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know , and to dismiss that as irrationalism or false consciousness; I think this neglect of what they dismiss as ‘ the subjective factor’ in history  helps  explain   the negative perceptions  and experiences  which many  who have come into direct contact with Left activism have sometimes had. This blindness is epitomised in the  mantra ‘don’t mourn. Organise’   which we heard so much of  after Friday December 13th, often accompanied by the rider:  ‘ we won the argument even if we  lost the election’.

At this point it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that that there is an alternative and more critical  concept of mindfulness which long pre-dates the current fashion for it and  which has quite different philosophical foundations – namely in phenomenology as originally elaborated by Edmund  Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century , and was further developed in the dasein analysis of Martin Heidegger in a treatise entitled Besinnung ,translated as Mindfulness   and then taken up in the humanistic psychology of Carol Rogers and Erich Fromm in the 1960’s .

I haven’t got time to go into this but let’s just say we are talking about  an attitude of mind which is at once historically grounded and attuned to the exigencies of being in the world. It is  not about being immersed in the world of the senses , or striving to become detached from it, as a pathway to Enlightenment  but an awareness of being always and already embedded in the temporal, spatial and linguistic conditions of human existence and its finitude. It also about suspending judgement , not rushing to pin down the meaning of a phenomenon through the application of some a priori concept or category, but rather  closely following the unfolding trajectory of a situation , process or event,  remaining sensitive to all its nuances and possibilities, without presuming to predict  its outcome. This is very close to what Keats called ‘negative capability-  the capacity to  remain in mysteries and doubts, with any irritable reaching after fact’. It is not a million miles from what Bruno Latour means when he recommends political scientists  to keep their analysis flat as they track  how electorates are assembled and dissembled  into binary categories, for example as leavers or remainers..

The battle for hearts and minds

My suggestion is that  we apply this more radical  notion of mindfulness not to the adaptations of the individual psyche,  but to our political culture and its transformation.

We can start by asking what does political well being consist in? It clearly has something to do with the level of public trust in the political process, in its forms of representation, and in the effectiveness and accountability of  its agencies. Britain comes just behind Russia in the league table  of public distrust in political institutions.

It also has a lot to do with the quality and extent of participations in  public decision making , the transparency of governance – or the lack of it : what is usually referred to as the democratic deficit.  What does it take to create a political culture of the Left  that encourages internal debate and dissent as well as engaging in  dialogue and alliances with  other political groupings?   A political culture that is more than the ritual observance of ideological protocols , that nurtures a spirit of curiosity and enquiry , that does not stay within its institutional  comfort zone but continually improvises new platforms of civic engagement , and  replaces the megaphone and  remote digital targeting    with human listening posts  . Is it possible to promote a form of political education which is more and other than a transactional exercise in propaganda recruitment?  Can we  politicise matters of everyday concern in ways which  do not de-personalise or massify the  people concerned, or put them into binary boxes  but instead does justice to their  complexity and  singularity  of their experience.

The Left  needs to help build a more  democratic and open  form of political culture, beyond  the intense but narrow loyalties and elective affinities of the tribe with its one for all and all for one solidarities  restricted to those  few who think , live , look and behave like us; instead it has to offer  a platform for the multitude,  for the many people  who are different from us, but who share enough uncommon ground to support a more generous vision of human possibility than is presently available.

One thing is for sure we are long way from that. We have  a Leftist  political culture which oscillates between a  paranoid/schizoid position  ( everyone who is not with us is against us ) and manic/depressive position.  This is a bi-polar culture whose mood swings from manic denial of painful realities, to feeling overwhelmed  by them, between prophecies of doom and new dawn, cenotaph and jubilee.  Against this background Gramsci’s mantra has been reversed.   Optimism of the intellect is flourishing , with    flamboyant manifestos  for post capitalism  abounding  but that  goes  hand in hand with  pessimism of the will , a total inability to spell out the practical steps that might be required  to get us from where we are now  to where we want to be.

The manic/depressive  position also  has been articulately programmatically. We have the manic accelerationists    who believe that intensifying the pace of technological change will mean that digital capitalism will implode as the rate of profit falls to zero and a new kind of society will emerge in which the old hieriarchies of wealth and power will  somehow magically disappear. On the other side those who think with Marx  that immiseration is the ‘absolute general law of capital accumulation’ and that  the introduction of automation against a background of wage stagnation means not only that the share of labour in income will continue to fall, but that the demand for all types of labour will too, leading to chronic  under employment and creation of whole new surplus populations living on the margins. But then in a sudden reversal this population is transformed into an agent of revolutionary change. Unfortunately this does not take into account  the psychological dimensions of immiseration , of living precariously, in chronic insecurity and debt  . People who have become immured to austerity, who rely on food banks to feed their children, whose time horizons extend to paying the bills at the end of the month and who are often struggling with chronic illness and bad mental health,  are not likely to be turned on by extravagant manifesto promises  of better life which suddenly drop onto their doormat like news from nowhere two weeks before an election.   As the Corbynistas discovered to their cost.

Let us not talk falsely now

What attitude should we adopt in face of this choice between a myopic culture  mired in  sectarianism,  and  political  science fictionalism spinning endlessly   around utopian/dystopian phantasies .  We can shrug our shoulders, am walk away and busy ourselves with other more concrete  projects . It is significant that immediately after the election result there was a sudden surge of people  joining local community organisations, and single issue campaigns. We can also adopt a position of ironic detachment from events, an amused or bemused acceptance of the follies of the world   and call that a space of critique , which is  all too often accompanied  by cynically  opportunistic career moves, the sublimation of political ambitions in academic ones.

In the next verse of Dylan’s song  this attitude is contrasted with one of  circumspect engagement with  the real politik of progressive  change in a way that Gramsci would surely have recognised and approved, and which has a special resonance for us in this period of post election trauma:

No reason to get excited,”
The thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that,
And this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now,

The hour is getting late.”

In dealing with this other scene of political life , we have to focus our attention more on how the body politic is imagined ,  how it is racialised and nationalised, and also how it might be de-racialised and inter-nationalised.  We have no difficulty in  imagining the city with a   head quarters, a heart , lungs,  a circulatory system, and even bowels, but how do we imagine the body politic? As a Leviathan,  as a remote, impersonal, Kafkaesque castle  , an impenetrable fortress, as an arbitrary , oppressive, afflicted  or ineffectual power, or as a   ship of fools  ?

The irony of the present conjuncture is  that this is exactly how the EU is seen , in a massive projection of all the defining features of the over centralised inefficient  British State on to it. We have simply exchanged  Fortress Europe for fortress Britain. And this  in turn has enabled  us not to see  the British  body politic  for what it really is:   a  Humpty Dumpty , who once sat precariously enough on a wall of public apathy and acquiescence  , but has now had a great  fall and fractured along the fault lines of class, region , nation and ethnicity into so many  pieces  that none of the Queens horses and none of the Queens men can put back together again, even and especially if they have a large parliamentary majority.

The final verse  of the song sketches  just such a scenario in which an ancient regime is threatened with being blown away by forces it can neither understand or control:

All along the watchtower,
Princes kept the view,
While all the women came and went —
Barefoot servants too.
Outside in the cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching, and
The wind began to howl.

We start with the image of  a privileged  prospect, a commanding view of the world , which depends on the continued subservience of those whose labour  maintain its edifice of power . Meanwhile outside the walls , on the  far horizon the Joker and the Thief re-appear, disguised as  two riders of the apocalypse  and the winds of change  begins to howl. This is no longer  the fire next time, but as Australians know to their cost Apocalypse Now  . It may mark a  turning point, a moment of popular  uprising or resistance  , with wildcat strikes,  riots, and occupations , but as the trickiness of the song’s two protagonists  indicates we can never be quite sure which side of the line  populist  anti-establishment movements will fall.

So we have to be cautious about interpreting outcomes  and careful what we wish for . There is a widely shared if largely   disavowed desire on the Left, especially amongst  Remainers,   to see Brexit turn into an economic disaster, to ensure that the Tories  reap the bitter harvest of their surrender to the European Reform Group. But of course, those who will really suffer, who will lose their jobs  and sink even further into wage or benefit poverty and debt  will be those already deprived  communities who lent the Tories their vote to get Brexit done. There may also be some Lexiteers, who will not only rejoice at the prospect of the lifting the yoke of Brussels from the backs of the working class , but see  the  break up of Britain as an opportunity to create socialism in one country (England).

Perhaps they need reminding of what happened in the 1930’s, when it was fascism not socialism which reaped the whirlwind of economic recession and only  the New Deal in the USA  succeeded in stabilizing  capitalism within a social democratic frame.   Today  Social Democracy is greatly weakened by its implication in neo-liberal policies. Across Europe  the Populist Alt Right  is poised    to exploit the insecurities generated  by global flows of information,  goods and  people across  the ever more fragile internal boundaries  and external borders erected  in the name of national sovereignty. The demand ‘to take back control’, for all its echoes of  anarcho-syndicalism, is more easily translated into a  racialised  version of the body politic, in which a line of blood is drawn between citizens who belong, and denizens who don’t. And  to return to Bob Dylan , one last time : Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late…


Further Reading

Anthony Barnett The Lure of Greatness 2019

Etienne Balibar Politics and the Other Scene Verso 2012

Phil Cohen  Waypoints : towards an ecology of political mindfulness eyeglass books 2019

Colin Crouch  The Globalisation Backlash   2018

Terry Eagleton Hope without Optimism Yale University Press 2016

David Graeber The Democracy Project Allen Lane 2014

Frederick Jamieson The Political Unconscious Routledge 2002

Joe Kennedy The authentocrats Repeater Books 2019

Abdellatif Laabi In Praise of Defeat:Selected Poems (trans D Nicholson Smith) archipelago books   2016

Mark Lilla  The Shipwrecked Mind: on political reaction 2016

Bruno Latour Re-assembling the social OUP 2007

Ronald Purser McMindfulness :how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality ( Repeater Books 2019.)

Jake Schenker Now that we have your attention: the new politics of the people Vintage 2019

Nick Srnicek Platform capitalism Polity Press 2017