Putting Compassion at the Heart of Progressive Politics

Putting Compassion at the Heart of Progressive Politics

There's a phrase doing the rounds in the environmental movement at the moment: "there's no jobs on a dead planet." I can see the appeal. It offers a simple and powerful response to the airport expansionist or fracker making an economic case for their business plans.

Yet, whilst trying to rebuke the capitalist mindset, the phrase still sticks rigidly within the frame that life, the universe and everything ultimately revolves around work and jobs.

Rather than seeking to preserve our big blue office block, I think we need to go back to basics. Politics and society needs to be recalibrated to a different set of values - ones based on compassion. Using this as a basis for political philosophy would not only create a happier and fairer society, it would provide the motivation for people to protect their planet, inspired by feelings of altruism and love for their friends and neighbours and the natural environment we inhabit.

And now, a confession. In making this appeal I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said already. A smorgasbord of thinkers - from the author and commentator Karen Armstrong, to the psychologist Dr Paul Gilbert, to religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama - have long argued that we need to put compassion at the heart of our political priorities. As a result of Armstrong's work, in 2008 the UN created a Charter for Compassion. The Charter acknowledges that "we have failed to live compassionately" and called for compassion to become a "clear, luminous and dynamic force in the world" to help create "just economy and peaceful global community."

Big goals yes, but essential ones if we are to build a caring, supportive, sustainable society. The science of compassion (yes, it is indeed that) is based on a fairly straightforward idea: that, evolutionarily, we're a mess. We have two brains running at any one time. One is our primitive brain - the one that likes ice cream and gets kicks of out sex. The other, is our analytical brain. It's that part of our brain that gives us consciousness and it can be both our friend and our foe. It hovers over us everyday making connections and decisions but it also spends a lot of time ruminating, telling us what we should or should not do and chastising us either way. Its own priorities are heavily influenced by societal expectations. These two parts of our brain sit as comfortably as David Cameron at a Lord Ashcroft book signing. On the one hand, we want to satisfy very basic desires. On the other, we're constantly asking annoying questions like: why am I here? What should I do with my hour/day/week/life? Why does that person have more facebook friends than me?

Capitalism plays on these emotions like Cumberbatch plays Hamlet. It tells us that working hard, earning money, competing, getting a big car, working some more, getting a bigger car are the measure of how we should be judged. It takes away the need to develop our inner happiness by investing that happiness in external stimuli.

Compassion can counter those thought process. Firstly, it is self-empowering. It teaches us to be kind to ourselves. It's message is that you were thrown here without request and with a brain that is rarely at peace with it's surroundings. That's a tough ask for anyone to deal with so don't compound matters by critiquing your every move.

Compared with the current grain of thinking, that's a rebellious concept. It cuts at the heart of the capitalist system which seeks to manufacture hard-working, unquestioning, profit-making, worker bees in the mould Aldous Huxley's dystopian Brave New World. It's one of the factors behind the growing rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety and eating disorders and the fact that these health problems are becoming increasingly prevalent amongst younger ages. Breaking that mould will have to be at the centre of any new political programme that seeks to end the destruction of our ecosystem - put simply, you can't save a planet when the people that live there are depressed, de-energised, and self-punishing. And anyway, why would you want to?

Secondly, it can reinvigorate community spirit and save our essential public services. Compassion teaches us to put ourselves in other people's shoes. It says: not only are you bamboozled by your own existence, remember that everyone else is too. We need to help and support one another through this perplexing life and that goes for people you don't necessarily agree or get on with. David Cameron has made a major play recently of how he wishes to bring to the fore a "compassionate, caring Conservatism". Sadly, unless we see a radical shift in his political agenda, that's not being borne out in his policies. Preserving destructive nuclear weapons over investing in our ailing social care system. Introducing cuts to the most vulnerable that cause people with disabilities to commit suicide. These are not policies developed on the basis of an understanding, appreciation, and empathy with the needs of others. To reverse the damage caused to our welfare state, we need to change the motivations that lie behind our political leaders.

But actually the process of creating a more compassionate political system isn't just confined to politicians. Evidently there is a need for leaders of progressive and alternative political movements to talk, act with and advocate policies of compassion. But, something deeper also has to happen. In the same way that the Dalai Lama, Gilbert, and Armstrong have been at the forefront of arguing for compassion in society, so many other writers have shown how capitalism is breaking social bonds, damaging our ecosystem and creating unhappiness and inequality. Yet, little has changed. And that's because you can't change emotions with logical theory. One of the aims of the compassion movement is to encourage and inculcate its teachings in schools and in workplaces - changing society through practice and learning. There's no shortcut to a compassionate life but if we make it our goal, I believe we can both save the planet and make it a planet worth saving.

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