Can Politics Ever Be Compassionate?

Yves here. While the headline question comes off as naively idealistic, since politics is seldom nice, it does serve to direct attention to the fact that in the US, our commercially-minded culture became even more so as the result of a concerted, well funded campaign to move values to the right so as to allow for the dismantling of the New Deal and other social safety nets. Google “Powell memo” if you don’t believe me.

However, one can also attribute at least some of this shift to economists becoming the only social scientists to have a seat at the policy table. None other than John Maynard Keynes was uncomfortable with the deference with which members of his discipline were treated (this makes even more sense when you realize that Keynes didn’t believe that economies have a propensity to self-correct, a belief that is hard-wired in mainstream economic models and is necessary for forecasting; see ECONNED for details). As Keynes said: “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”

As readers probably know, studying economics makes people more selfish. The law and economics movement helped drive these values deeper into the fabric of American life. From ECONNED:

The third avenue for promoting and institutionalizing the “free market” ideology was inculcating judges. It was one of the most far-reaching actions the radical right wing could take. Precedents are powerful, and the bench turns over slowly. Success here would make the “free markets” revolution difficult to reverse.

While conservative scholars like Richard Posner and Richard Epstein at the University of Chicago trained some of the initial right-leaning jurists, attorney Henry Manne gave the effort far greater reach. Manne established his “law and economics” courses for judges, which grew into the Law and Economics Center,
which in 1980 moved from the University of Miami to Emory in Atlanta and eventually to George Mason University.

Manne had gotten the backing of over 200 conservative sponsors, including some known for extreme right-wing views, such as the Adolph Coors Company, plus many of the large U.S. corporations that were also funding the deregulation effort.

Manne is often depicted as an entrepreneur in the realm of ideas. He took note of the fact that, at the time, the University of Chicago had one of the few law schools that solicited funding from large corporations. Manne sought to create a new law school, not along conventional brick-and-mortar lines (his efforts here failed), but as a network. He set out to become a wholesaler, teaching law professors and judges.However, although Manne presented his courses as teaching economics from a legal perspective, they had a strong ideological bias:

The center is directed by Henry Manne, a corporate lawyer who has undertaken to demolish what he calls “the myth of corporate responsibility.” “Every time I hear a businessman acknowledge public interest in what they do,” Manne warns, “they invite political control over their activities.” At Manne’s
center in Miami, interested judges learn how to write decisions against such outside political control couched in the new norms of market efficiency.58

Manne approached his effort not simply as education, but as a political movement. He would not accept law professors into his courses unless at least two came from a single school, so that they could support each other and push for others from the law and economics school of thought to be hired.

The program expanded to include seminars for judges, training in legal issues for economists, and an economics institute for Congressional aides.

By Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder of Compassion in Politics. He has worked for a number of social and environmental causes including the Nobel Prize Winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which secured the passage of a law banning nuclear weapons at the UN, and the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign which successfully lobbied to allow mixed-sex couples the right to get a civil partnership. Originally published at openDemocracy

Every now and then you come across a book, a film, an article or a TV show that helps you to make a little bit more sense of the world. I had such an experience recently when reading Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind. Rich in evolutionary theory and practical advice, Gilbert’s book describes how the coming together of our ‘mammalian’ and ‘human’ brains has created seemingly incompatible capacities for love and destruction. Modern society, he argues, has been structured in such a way as to encourage the latter while diminishing the former through our economies, the stories our politicians tell, and the examples they set.

It is, perhaps, unusual for a book focused on the evolutionary history of our brains to plant the seeds for a new political movement, but that’s what Gilbert’s book did for me, along with works by other authors from Daniel Dennettto Martha Nussbaum. I also found a friend and colleague, the author and activist Jennifer Nadel, who was on a similar journey to mine, having just published a bookon how to live a more compassionate life – though hers had begun by following the progress of the Charter for Compassion, founded by the historian Karen Armstrong.

It struck both of us as absurd that there was no bridge between cutting-edge research on the value of compassion in helping people to overcome mental illness and live better lives, and the figureheads in society who are most responsible for setting the values by which societies live: our politicians and the media. In fact the opposite is true: a neoliberal model of economics developed in the 1980s and devoid of scientific value has convinced people that they are defined by selfishness, greed and vice. It’s also created a political system that puts party above universal progress, majorities in parliament over collaboration, and the attainment of power over the means that are used to get it.

What can be done to upend this destructive narrative? Issue-specific campaigns could help, but unless the guiding assumptions we live by are changed there will be no long-term, sustainable transformation. So we decided to dip our toes into the water by launching a new initiative called Compassion in Politics at the start of 2018.

With austerity continuing to inflict pain and suffering on the most vulnerable in society and inequality rising, it’s an opportune time to get this initiative off the ground. The mental health crisis worsens year-on-year and the alarming reportissued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in early October warns that, unless we dramatically change course, then irreversibly-damaging global warming could be upon us in less than a generation. Brexit is pulling Britain apart, and in the USA, Donald Trump has benefitted from, and continues to peddle, his own toxic brand of politics.

Perhaps because of this (unfortunately) fertile ground, the response to our message has thus far been encouraging. We’ve received messages of support from a wide range of individuals and organisations including Noam Chomsky, Laurie Penny, Show Racism the Red Card, and MPs including Caroline Lucas, and our first conference took place in Oxford last weekend with a large and enthusiastic audience who helped us plan the next stages of the campaign. Coming together from all walks of life, the audience was united by a shared commitment to debunking the popular, mythological view of humans as a race of self-obsessed ego-centrics, and to building a new political system forged from compassion – a commitment to understanding others and standing with them through whatever difficulties they may face.

Of course the conference also brought up lots of questions: is compassion enough? Where does anger fit in? Do we need to have compassion only for ‘the people’ or for politicians too? And perhaps most pertinently, how do we change a culture that has been force-fed the message that we are all inherently selfish and that the only way to manage this condition is by building a society which harnesses those values through a growth-oriented, free-market economy?

On the last of these points I believe we’ve already started to reach an understanding. In his keynote speech to the conference Lord Dubs, the Labour peer and campaigner for child refugees, repeated his belief that the British public wants to ‘do the right thing’ – they want to be compassionate, and they want Britain to be seen as a caring nation. I think he is right, but I also recognise that our ability to live up to these standards is hampered by social, economic and political norms and structures that give precedence to money-making, possession-hoarding, and status-seeking behaviour.

So we need to change the language that’s used by politicians and the press, and we need to share our own stories, examples, and commitment to compassion in practice as a way to undermine the existing cultural hegemony. And that means transforming institutions in concrete terms by, for example, encouraging much more cross-party collaboration, ending the tit-for-tat style of debate in parliament, and establishing a new compassionate code-of-conduct for MPs.

Every new policy issued by government should have to prove that it will – and has – improved the lives of those most in need of help; that it was developed through a spirit of cooperation with other parties which utilizes respectful debate to improve policies with the proper degree of scrutiny; and that it does not impinge negatively on the lives of future generations. The legacies of austerity and climate breakdown are proof enough that this has not been the case in the past. Think of this is a kind of ‘compassion test’ to be embedded throughout decision-making.

In the media world we need new codes of conduct that commit newspaper editors to steer clear of personal slander and stereotyping language. Under such a code, corrosive attacks on the press as “enemies of the people” by President Trump and others, or Boris Johnson’s incendiary description of Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes,” would never be allowed or tolerated.

It’s also important to work with politicians on reforms to the policy-making process that make cross-party working easier, while helping to boost the numbers of representatives in parliament or Congress from less privileged backgrounds so that those entering politics have a better understanding of the lives of the people they govern.

Naturally, ideas like these will come up against those who argue that compassion is too weak or vague to guide the political or economic sphere and that only cold-hearted rationality makes for good decision-making. To those detractors I’d raise a number of responses.

First, being compassionate in a world that teaches you to be otherwise is courageous. To turn towards and not away from suffering, and make that the centerpiece of your decisions, takes guts and determination.

Second, to deny the role of emotion in politics is to deny that human beings are central to the way politics works. Emotions are who we are, and so we want people who enter politics (and in doing so become responsible for the lives of millions) to understand their emotions, the emotions of others, and how both influence their decision-making. This kind of emotional intelligence should be an essential requirement for anyone who is thinking of a career in politics, business or journalism.

We can make this change happen. The seeds are already there – in people’s imaginations, in their desire for a better world, and in the examples they are already setting for one another when they care for family, friends, and colleagues. We’ve done it before. The National Health Service, for example, the ‘Kindertransport’ which helped to save the lives of 10,000 Jewish children during the Second World War by offering them sanctuary in Britain, and the legalisation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage – all these things and more were built on one central idea: compassion. Society can undoubtedly be fashioned in its image.

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19 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    Politics and economics, particularly money … are connected. When it is profitable to be compassionate, then people will fight each other politically to accomplish this. Also voters. If the votes still count, then if it takes compassion to win votes (doesn’t it?) then that will also leverage in the correct way.

    1. Anarcissie

      Exactly. And if compassion is taken up as a state function, then it soon becomes performative rather than substantial, other motives (such as the Bismarckian buy-off) appear, and effective compassion is vitiated. For example, compassionately giving food to hungry people in a public place (as Food Not Bombs does) has been made illegal in many localities, and the hungry are referred to the tender mercies of the Welfare department and if possible are consigned to out-of-the-way human warehouses (unless they are simply dumped off at the county line). (Welfare department anecdotes on request.)

      Influenced by a bourgeois perspective, discussions about the compassion of the state become impossibly top-down: ‘In the media world we need new codes of conduct…’ Who is going to impose new codes of conduct on the corporate media? It would be more reasonable to examine people actually practicing compassion on the ground, as the aforesaid Food Not Bombs and innumerable other groups do, see what succeeds, and spread it around intellectually and materially.

    2. kgw

      Let me put it bluntly: what a load of misdirected b***s***. You have been thoroughly deceived, my friend.
      Compassion and profitable are located in entirely different universes…

  2. The Rev Kev

    I would contend her that a compassionate society is also a sustainable society. An objective look at the way that society is organized shows that this model cannot continue through to its end without a violent reckoning. Without doubt we are seeing how an increasing portion of the population is being relegated to poverty while their resources are transferred up the social scale. The only way that this can continue is if you militarized the police of that society, created a total surveillance system and atomize individuals.
    A problem, I believe, is that we do not have the metrics to measure the human costs of our economic policies. I will have to give an example here in relation to a compassionate society. Take poverty. In the United States there are 43 million people living in poverty and maybe another 60 million living in near poverty conditions. Now suppose that the US gave eliminating poverty the same priority in funding the Pentagon. I am not talking about ‘training’ programs or ‘move-them-all-to-cities’ sort of programs either but genuine reforms. I would estimate that in spite of what the bible says, poverty could be eliminated within a generation. Poverty is not inevitable – it is a choice that has been made.
    So here it is. If you eliminated poverty, how would you measure all that disappeared with it? What metrics could you use? I am talking about the hopelessness, the despair, the humiliation and the misery. And I am not even talking about the unnecessary tens of thousands of deaths each year. How would you measure all that cost to society?

    1. Norb

      People need something to do. They need to be employed. This effort at employment defines human culture. The currently embraced culture in the west is capitalism. Capitalism survives on the ethic that the few determine the futures of the many without any moral obligation. Capitalists are free of moral responsibility to a larger whole- only their own clan or family. Their only true responsibility is to make money and to preserve their power. Their greatest shame is to become poor.

      The failure of capitalism, is that over time, fewer people are needed to maintain the system. Fewer people need to be employed. When citizens are turned into passive consumers- passive in the sense of accepting their lot in the overall system- then only polarization remains. The consolidation into rich and poor.

      Poverty is a necessity of capitalism. Capitalism’s strength is that it pretends to eliminate poverty, all the while functioning as the main engine perpetuating poverty. Planned obsolescence and the relentless crushing of labor rights is all the proof needed to confirm this argument. All else is obfuscation.

      The danger is making poverty acceptable. Drugs, entertainments, and prisons are the tools used to control the unruly masses. Along with accepting daily drudgery in order to “survive”. As long as the masses can be contained, the world is seen as progressing along the right tract by the elite. Contain or eliminate is the policy.

      Divide and conquer. Accumulating the spoils of the world become justified.

      Measuring pain and suffering is the stuff of sadists. A healthy human culture and society would see pain and suffering, know it for what it is, and strive to eliminate it, not be concerned about its measurement or accountability. Ignoring suffering and lack of empathy is bad enough, but when a society reaches the point where active participation in overt human cruelty becomes the norm not the exception, a line has been crossed.

      This explains why leaders concerned with eliminating poverty and human suffering are killed. They are the true social revolutionaries and if their efforts are remotely successful, stand as a real danger to elite social order and privilege. Only charity is acceptable. Charity mitigates suffering but does not effect the root cause. From a capitalist perspective, this is the ideal solution. Charity provides the self-reaffirming rational that poverty is eternal, while giving cover and lessening the impact of exploitation. There are rubes and mopes that deserve to be ruled over. They are incapable of “Freedom”. They cannot govern themselves so need to be ruled- or exploited with impunity.

      All is well as long as the resources hold out. Then quite literally, all hell will break loose. Rule by Iron Fist- or rule dictated by the common good? Which will prove more resilient?

      The arch of human existence indeed- life spiraling along.

      Individual choices do add up over time to change the direction of history.

  3. Schofield

    You wouldn’t have democracy if people didn’t have the capacity to be compassionate. The problem is democracy is constantly under-mined by poor parenting. Where else do you learn your compassion in the first instance?

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3471369/

    This break-down results in absurd thinking such as a need for armed guards being stationed in every place the public gathers such as parking lots, public restrooms, etc!

  4. DJG

    I’m leery of another dose of oooshy theistic thinking: Karen Armstrong, a theologian, is the tell. We already saw where Obama’s spineless evocation of the theological virtue, hope, got us. And I don’t see in this article any evocation of the Buddhist idea of compassion, metta, which is the great leveler, much more leveling than approved Christian “love.”

    Further, the last paragraph is patently absurd. Equating the Kindertransport to the dismantling of the U.K.’s laws against homosexuality, which were even more outdated, depraved, and obsolete than those in the U S of A? (Read the work of and read about J.R. Ackerley.)

    And it was compassion that led to equality in marriage? The demands in the U S of A were for equality of treatment, not compassion. The essence of marriage is that it is a contract.

    One of the biggest issues of this baroque era is the sheer amount of florid public agonizing, florid religiosity, and florid self-reference. And codpieces! I’m seeing endless bloviating–in personal lives, in business situations, and at the national political level. Does Chuck Schumer have to become more compassionate? Does Hillary Clinton have to become more compassionate? Does Trump? Who cares? The issue here is ushering these jamokes out of the public space. What we require is some democratic severity–the rules have to be that if you want to be part of a democratic society in the U S of A, then you have to at least know what is in the Bill of Rights. What we require is a massive deflation of the current babbling, posturing, and psychobabbling. That doesn’t call for compassion.

    But endless blabber about how Hillary is my abuelita? No. Shut off her microphone. Trump’s twitter account, too. And Salvini’s. And whatever Elizabeth Warren is using to self-destruct.

    1. Susan the other

      I’m with you. I think the short answer to the title question is No. And it’s imposs not to pontificate on this stuff. I actually don’t feel much “compassion” – what I feel is a hard-wired sense of fairness and justice. It doesn’t make me feel compassionate, it just pisses me off. And it isn’t a cultural or education or parenting thing. It’s just there staring me in the face at every turn. What we need are laws and enforceable regulations and social safety nets at all levels of society. Not to “prevent poverty” but to establish and maintain society. It’s either that or let the devil take it. To create a decent society at the lowest levels requires some obvious organizing, boots on the ground. I’d love to see San Francisco take the lead here. Build housing, provide training, jobs, good food and medicine that is easily accessible, and, oh yes, lots more public toilets for god’s sake. Not just for the people sleeping rough, but for everyone – have some compassion! If just one place – San Francisco – can do this it will create an idea whose time has come and provide good momentum to move on to other cities. And the best part is that actually doing something, no matter how obvious, is very satisfying, whereas politicizing it just makes everybody’s head spin and is too nauseating. Too holier than thou.

  5. marym

    Politics and the language of politics should be about equality, justice, rights, transparency, and a notion of the public good that serves us as a society even if not serving specific personal needs – people without children paying school taxes, for example.

    Compassion in the public sphere should be what we err on the side of when making or enforcing the rules for equality, justice, rights, and the public good; and what we practice privately to fill in the gaps of imperfect public policy while supporting public efforts toward “more perfect.”

  6. JEHR

    What amazes me is that the Christians who use Jesus as their guide for behaviour somehow missed his compassionate side (see the beatitudes). It seems that all things can be perverted into other forms depending on the circumstances and one of those circumstances is that the more a person accumulates in wealth the more he/she seems to lack in compassion especially compassion towards those from whom the wealth accrued.

    I have a fantasy that one day all the billionaires will declare their compassion for the poor and will pool their wealth for free education for anyone who wants or needs it. The syllabus: How to Show Compassion.

  7. Unna

    There is the often described difference between a “society” or “community” on the one hand, and on the other a collection of relatively disconnected individuals present within a defined political boundary whose behavior towards one another is managed principally by laws enacted or contracts entered into on the basis of individual self interest. “Lady” Thatcher famously said there is no such thing as society, only individuals. But, apart from this statement as her political ideal, that could equally have been an honest description by her of the world she in fact lived in, and rather then being criticized, perhaps she should have been praised as an acute observer of contemporary reality.

    The word society comes from a Latin word meaning comrade-friend-ally. The word compassion from the Latin word “to bear with” and a related Latin word “to suffer with”, i.e. to bear with another his pain or troubles. Of course, to have a friend, comrade, or ally already presumes a relationship of one’s bearing with an ally or comrade his troubles as one’s own. Compassion already inheres within the very nature of the social relationship in contrast to the contractual relationship where it is absent. How does one define a compassionate relationship contractually? Do we hire lawyers to help us negotiate the terms of a compassionate relationship?

    Thus, to call for compassion as a need which is absent is to already admit that “society” is itself absent. We exist as a collection of “Thatcher” like individuals whose relations are managed by law and contract; contracts individually entered into for purposes of self-interest. The article can be seen as an admission that “friends, allies, and social comrades” where compassion is already present as an organic function of the “social” relationship are things we must now largely rediscover. Is this even possible?

  8. Sound of the Suburbs

    The four freedoms.

    1 – The “four freedoms” of the EU.
    Free movement of goods, capital, services and labour

    2 – FDR’s “four freedoms”
    Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear

    Do you see how things have gone wrong?

  9. rd

    Theodore Roosevelt – Square Deal and National Parks
    Franklin D. Roosevelt – New Deal, including Glass-Steagal, CCC, TVA, & WPA, and Social Security
    Lyndon B. Johnson – Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Social Security expansion

    Roughly 30 year cycles between them – we are overdue for political compassion. Hello DCCC, there is an opportunity to be classified as “great”.

  10. Mike Smith

    I’m very glad Jacinda Ardern’s our Prime Minister in New Zealand with her recent call for kindness in her speech to the UN General Assembly

  11. knowbuddhau

    Thanks, not familiar with the author, but I am all for compassion. And it’s not “oooshy,” there’s a solid scientific basis for basing being human in compassion.

    It’s called “universal common descent.” By universal common descent, all living things of earth are related. So it’s most proper that we treat each other like kin.

    How many economists have ever heard of UCD? Haven’t exactly surveyed, but I’m betting most still think in 19th-century terms.

    The way we think of how we’re in the world matters very much. We are not Newton’s old balls on a table in a vacuum. Thatcher was wrong: society does exist; as a field, though, not as “a thousand points of light.”

    We are not other than each other. An economics based on the misconception that we are, and there’s nothing in between, has long outlived its day.

    But not its usefulness. And there’s the rub.

  12. meeps

    The derivation of the word compassion is to suffer with. To the degree an individual or party in power suffers the suffering of the governed, one could argue a compassionate politics is possible. When the power differential between an individual or party in power and the governed is so vast it insulates the powerful from the suffering of the governed, one could say the politics can’t be compassionate. In the latter scenario, what is the all-encompassing suffering which will affect the insulated?

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