Review of Political Hope by Charles Eistenstein
How we can bring back hope to our politics...
Over the past 10 days, I’ve been listening to Charles Eisenstein talk about Political Hope on the online course platform Commune. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I enjoy most of the content that Charles Eisenstein puts out into the world (thanks Charles). For those who are unfamiliar with his work, I thoroughly recommend his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, which is about, well, I think you can get it from the title...
In his course on Political Hope, Eisenstein begins by noting the hopelessness of the situation we are in. Politics has become heavily polarised, with people on the left and right engaged in a seemingly eternal battle of wills, leaving little room for constructive disagreement or civil discussion. Political discourse has become about demonising the other side – people on the right are labeled “selfish” or “stupid” while people on the left are “naive” or “out of touch”. This is happening while we are witnessing the rapid destruction of the planet, increasing inequality, the rise of anti-democratic movements around the globe and other existential threats such as nuclear war and future pandemics. The stakes seem higher than ever and yet we appear to be getting worse at dealing with them.
How can we turn this seemingly hopeless situation into a more hopeful one? Eisenstein responds by doing three things. First, he looks at what he sees as a major underlying cause of our problems. He argues that many of the problems we face in the world today stem from our warlike mentality – the way in which we see and act in the world. Eisenstein then looks at how we can view the world differently, which can help solve these problems. He then shows how this different mentality can provide us with hope, even while things are seemingly going in the wrong direction. I’ll briefly describe each of these ideas in turn and then say a little bit about how I personally relate to them.
1. The Story of Separation
Eisenstein begins by asking: what is the origin of wrongness in the world? Which is a fairly big question. He believes that, at the root of most of our problems, is the mentality of separation – the idea that we are separate individuals, in a world of other separate individuals, all embedded in a dead and ultimately purposeless universe. It follows, according to this way of seeing reality, that our survival and wellbeing depends on successfully controlling and dominating the world around us – ourselves, others and our wider environment. We exist in constant competition with those who are against us and must get and have as many things as possible to remain safe and secure.
It is no surprise, according to Eisenstein, that we are engaged in seemingly intractable political disagreements when we view the world in this way. The story of separation is a story of being at war with reality – with the bad or evil forces that prevent us from making progress. To overcome these nefarious forces, we must throw everything we’ve got at them – knock-down arguments, manipulative tactics, lobbying power, mass protest movements, direct action, violence, etc. Hopefully we will eventually win and they will lose. Job done. Success. Victory.
There are three major problems with this warring mentality. First, most political victories will be short lived. Even if we successfully get ‘our’ politician in power, for example, ‘they’ might win the following election, or the one after. Second, the evil forces we are up against may sometime be way more powerful than us – practically impossible to defeat. This is why it’s so easy to feel powerless in the face of impending climate change within a global economy controlled by major fossil fuel companies. Third, our attempts to destroy the bad guys can end up making things worse in the long-run. We can, for example, spend too much time debating prison reform, while ignoring the social conditions that cause crime in the first place. Or disagree over healthcare budgets, while ignoring the impact that inequality has on illness and disease. Or deal with the problem of refugees without questioning the trade deals that prop up the authoritarian regimes that refugees are fleeing from. These examples of focusing on symptoms rather than the underlying causes of social problems, and therefore making things worse in the long-run, are well-documented and numerous.
2. The Story of Connection
Eisenstein argues that we can begin to turn things around by changing our mentality and mythology – away from the Story of Separation towards the Story of Connection. From this different mentality, we are all intrinsically connected – each living being is an essential part of an alive and purposeful universe. It follows, according to this way of seeing things, that our survival and wellbeing depends on the survival and wellbeing of the world around us. We exist in a constant state of mutual cooperation, of giving and receiving – what is good for others is good for us, and vice versa.
Instead of simply going to war with our opponents, Eisenstein suggests we can also seek to understand them and endeavour to find zero-sum solutions to our problems. When we no longer see ourselves as separate to the bad guys, we realise we are ultimately harming ourselves in our attempts to overcome them through sheer force of will and violent means. We can see beyond the main political issues on the table, such as gun control and abortion (in the case of the United States) and ask more fundamental questions around systemic equality and sustainability.
3. Hope in Connection
You might be reading this thinking something along the lines of: “This is all very well, but what do we do about all the bad guys?!” Or, more simply: “Yes, okay, but what do we do?!”
Eisenstein admits that seeing the world differently does not help us defeat the bad guys. Seeing the world as an ongoing battle between good and evil is, according to Eisenstein, part of the problem. He wants to draw our attention to all the positive actions we can take that aren’t necessarily part of this struggle between powerful forces. When we seek to understand the views and opinions of the ‘other side’, for instance, we are more likely to have compassion and be kind in our interactions with them. This, according to Eisenstein, reinforces the Story of Connection, not the warlike mentality of separation. In the long-run, this is the direction we need to go in.
Having this more long-term perspective helps us see beyond our current political challenges and work towards a more peaceful and cooperative politics. Crucially, it is also something we can all do. Whereas the Story of Separation encourages us to think in terms of powerful groups and forces battling it out against each other, the Story of Connection exists on the scale of relationships. We can all work towards understanding and caring for each other – building intimate relationships with ourselves, others and our wider environment. This outlook on the world requires a certain degree of trust – that, as a result of the connections between us, our seemingly inconsequential actions can cause ripple effects with potentially huge impacts in the long-run. We are not isolated individuals with extremely limited power. We are individuals who exist in complex webs of relationships, whose actions change the lives of others whether we witness those changes or not.
Personally, I’m beginning to see life in this way. I would call myself a Recovering Activist. Over the past 15 years, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with my ability to make positive changes in the world – to important issues such as poverty, social justice and climate change. To some extent, this is correct. As an individual, I can do very little. But, as a result of only seeing the world in this way, I’ve become numb to the major challenges of our time, largely apathetic and inactive. My intellectual understanding of the systemic causes behind these problems doesn’t help much either. Even if I know what needs to change, many of those changes feel hopelessly unrealistic.
Although I don’t agree with everything Eisenstein says, I do agree that seeing ourselves as connected to the world can help bring back a sense of hope. I have no idea, for instance, what will happen with this blog post. Will anyone read it? Will anyone care? Will it make any difference if they did? I could easily have convinced myself to do something else with my time – something more productive or even more enjoyable. But it seemed like the right thing to do. I will never know whether or not that is true. But it feels right now, and there is hope in that. Maybe if we all occasionally did what we knew in our heart was right, without exclusively thinking about whether it’ll help bring about a desired change or outcome, the world would be a more beautiful place?