Hope and Politics

I haven't written much in a while. There are numerous reasons for that, but mostly what it comes down to is that I only write when I feel I have something to say.

After my business fell over and my youthful naive optimism fell over with it, I went on a quest for knowledge for several years, during which I developed a vocabulary of concepts, a sense of history and contingency, and began setting about provisioning what my mentor would call a well-stocked memory.

Anger fuelled me through those times, and anger is a powerful force indeed. I did my best writing when I was angry and had a point to make, usually about stripping away bullshit and artifice to reveal some important truth or other.

But anger is tiring, and angry people are tiresome. What will you do once you've torn it all down? Do you have anything to put back in its place? Or does your job end there? Making is much harder than breaking, and in the end I always side with the makers. I just wish what we made was better.

I finished my quest for knowledge sometime in 2014, but probably only realised sometime during 2015. Things aren't always neat and tidy and often it takes a while when deep things change before you really notice.

The deep change is I'm ready to be a maker again, but with the benefit of a knowledge quest – the equivalent of a magical sword and birthmark. And anger isn't enough. Making has to be founded and grounded in... something.

To me, that something is hope. Tragic hope, often. Hope without expectation, if not without optimism. Things often get worse. They might not get better. But they could. And that is enough to start with.

About a year ago I wrote a short piece on hope and politics. Politics is often about anger, and is really about world-making. But not nearly often enough about hope. I wrote it for the Australian Greens, who were and still are the only mob in the land with anything like a hopeful message to sell. I hoped (haha) it would be the first of a series of reflective pieces on hope and politics. This was in the lead-up to last year's federal election. Before Brexit. Before Trump.

I should stress that I am not what you might call 'partisan' when it comes to these things. Besides the Greens, I have had dealings with the ALP and the Liberals before, and the Democrats too. I have come to the conclusion that all of them are tiresome in fairly equal measure. Beneath the anger and the grasping and the noise, there simply isn't much there to make with. There are good people doing their best of course – there always are – but the thing itself will drain you away until there is nothing left and you forget why you were there to begin with. At least that has been my experience, and that of not a few others.

Anyway, they read my piece and, after initial interest, declared it too philosophical. Which is a funny thing to say, as the Greens seem to me more in need of philosophy than any of the disaffected, the naked power-grabbers and the relentless pragmatists with whom they contest the throne. But what do I know.

The Green Institute didn't want it either, as they are an outlet for the discussion of ideas that work. Which is fine, but there is already philosophy frozen into the idea of 'what works', and to me that is where the interesting stuff is going on. Whatever happens afterwards is just detail.

I was quite proud of what I wrote, and so as at many other times in my life, I have had to decide whether I need to change to adapt to my circumstances and the world surrounding me, or whether my circumstances and the surrounding world needs to change to adapt to me.

This is a decision all of us face many times a day. I would suggest it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

I sat on it for a while, and perhaps I flattered myself to think I had forgotten about it. But I hadn't, and in the months since I have gradually lived out some kind of response. And because deep changes take a while to notice, I suppose I am only just noticing what has been happening.

I am on the side of the makers, and of hope.

I have gotten rid of or am removing myself from the things and the people in my life that are tiresome distractions from this. And when I've done this, I expect I will have more to say.

Until then, you can read the thing I wrote last year. Consider it the first example of me writing from a new place, with a deeper voice.

Hope and Politics

April 2016


As the latest election campaign begins in earnest, thousands of volunteers around the country will be knocking on people’s doors. What will they encounter on the other side?

Encountering another person is one of the hardest things we can ever do. We humans don’t like to venture very far outside our own heads, as a rule, and we do like to seek out any number of ways to confirm our own convictions. So while we may meet a great many people in a wide variety of places, it is all too rare that we have a genuine encounter with an other person.

The existence of other people forces us to notice that our convictions are not the only ones that exist. Worse, it means that the distance between our convictions and others’ will have to be made sense of somehow. This is often the easy part – despite any other differences, one conviction that we do share widely with most people is the assumption that those who don’t see things the same way as us are somehow in error, and persuading them over to our camp is a process of ‘fixing’ that error.

We could measure our success by how many such errors in thinking we have corrected and to what extent – this is certainly the hope that many people have in politics – but that would seem to miss the opportunity for a deeper and more meaningful kind of success that depends upon respectful encounters with others.

I know that a politics based in respect for others is what all of us want – it is part of the settlement upon which our group is founded – but what does it mean?

A respectful encounter with another depends on the power of assuming positive intent – I treat the other person as intelligent and good. This can be difficult to do if I have already started with the assumption that any distance they assert from my position is best understood as some variety of error. Respect therefore seems to demand being open to the possibility that an other person may have a point that is not in error, with the further implication that treating someone respectfully means not just setting out to persuade an other, but to be available to being persuaded too.

Respectful encounters, then, involve constantly examining your own convictions to judge if they are worth having, and constantly listening carefully to the convictions of an other to see if any of theirs are worth having. Not only must we constantly notice the gap between where we stand and where another stands, we must also be constantly traversing back and forth across that gap, making a risky and courageous journey every time we do so.

No wonder respect feels so exhausting! How much easier just to parrot a party line or let talking points do the thinking for us.

But that is not our way. Respect is the harder road, but we believe it is worth it. Respect does not always (or often) win elections, but that is a problem with our politics, not a problem with respect. We have seen where abandoning respect in politics leads us – one group who never felt burdened by the need for it to begin with, and another whose abdication of it has led to the hollowing out and crumbling of anything of value that was once there. We do not need to follow them. They might not need respect to ‘win’, but when respect is gone from public life, what is left worth winning?

To be clear – winning is important. There is too much at stake in our world today to console ourselves with notions of noble defeat. We should try to win. If we don’t try to win, if we don’t hope to win, we never will. Hope in politics is the hope of winning, and we Greens have so much to hope for.

But hope in politics isn’t enough. Hope is a fragile thing, little more than a quiet voice that whispers something can be done. If the numbers don’t go our way… if the lies and dirty tricks take hold… if the mud sticks… if deep pockets and naked power push buttons and pull strings again and again… if the system is rigged, smashed and broken… if justice is denied one last time… it can be hard to see what can be done, let alone find the strength to do it. We can lose hope in politics all too easily.

That’s why we also need a different, deeper, kind of hope. When the world has made us weary and we ache all over from the weight of disappointment… when idealism has long toughened into cynicism and we are no longer surprised by each new low… what kind of hope could compel us to knock on a stranger’s door, ready to believe that the person on the other side is intelligent and good? What power could make us ready to risk another respectful encounter, with all that we have experienced?

Why, that is the hope of politics, my friend!

The big questions of our common life – what is good, what is just, the right thing to do and how to do it, how are we to live together – will never be settled for ever or for long. These are the political questions, and the distance between where we stand and where others stand is real – we cannot wish away, stamp out or correct the convictions of others. There will always be a contest of answers to the political questions, and that contest is politics.

All of us live out some version of our answers to the political questions in our daily lives. That is to say, every day we each perform our politics.

To have hope of politics, then, is to hope for a respectful contest. Respect is hard, terrifying, exhilarating work. It can only happen in certain kinds of places. Places that are shielded from the bite and the noise of a troubled world, where the distance between ourselves and another can be negotiated safely and without fear of shame, violence or reprisal.

There are far too few spaces like this in our public life today, and in many societies there are no such spaces at all. A space where we can encounter others respectfully is a public space in the most basic, meaningful sense. When we respectfully encounter an other person, we are creating public space, even if it is in the privacy of a living room. When we have the strength to continually take the risk of making public space, we demonstrate powerfully what a better kind of politics looks like. With each public space we help create, we become the voice that whispers something can be done. And when enough people have hope of a better kind of politics, we all win.