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What if we are mistaking the uncomfortable and unavoidable reality of the human condition for the effect of some specific form of loss or oppression?

I can’t find the quotation but I recall someone describing the psycho analytic process as one which sought to ‘replace hysterical neurosis with everyday melancholy’.

Certainly, there are many signs of collective neurosis today. As the Brett Kavanagh saga brutally illustrates, we seem ever more susceptible to political polarisation underpinned by visceral feelings of resentment and distrust. Also, despite the many good things about the modern world ranging from longer lives to an unprecedented decline in global poverty, we strongly err on the side of pessimism about the future of society while at the same time tending to be unrealistically optimistic about our own prospects. In addition there seems to be a rise in various manifestations of psychological malaise ranging from social isolation and depression to mental illness in young people.

When we talk about these phenomena there is a tendency to blame people (e.g. leaders, the other side), events (e.g. the global economic crisis, the rise of populism) or the system (e.g. capitalism, liberalism).

It is interesting then that two recent books, ‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama and ‘Nervous States’ by Will Davies explore the possibility that some of our malaise is more deeply rooted in the human condition.

Fukuyama argues that competing identity claims drive phenomena ranging from nationalist populism and religious extremism to what Clare Fox has described as the ‘oppression Olympics’ of accumulating claims of victimisation. He concludes on an upbeat note:

"We will not escape from thinking about ourselves and our society in identity terms. But we need to remember that the identities dwelling deep inside us are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can and also has been used to integrate"

Fukuyama’s hope is attractive, but his analysis is more gloomy and compelling. How is it, he asks, that we can reconcile the universalist notion of identity – that we all deserve equal dignity based on our common humanity – with the need we all have to belong to tribes, and in so doing to associate with the tribe’s claim to special status (because it is superior, because it is the most oppressed and often both).

In his book, Will Davies asks why modern public discourse seems so visceral and anxious. He attributes this to long term shifts which have eroded two distinctions relied upon by the enlightenment project; between war and peace, on the one hand, and between the reasoning mind and the automatic reactions of our bodies on the other.

In war which tends to unite and mobilise us we implicitly accept the need for some level of propaganda as a way of strengthening our collective resolve and of not giving comfort to our enemies. But when we live in perpetual state of low level war – terrorism, cyber conflict, political polarisation and violence – what price universal truth?

Equally, when psychologists and neuroscientists have shown how much stronger are emotion and instinct, and how much weaker is dispassionate calculation, in guiding our attitudes and behaviours then the plea to reason as the arbiter of judgement sounds not only pious but hypocritical (all experts can be exposed as having their own agendas). Davies’ conclusions are more ambiguous than Fukuyama’s. Perhaps, he suggests, progressives simply need to give up on the appeal to reason in favour of fighting good wars – against climate change and human suffering.

I recommend both of these books but what interests me is less the specificities of their arguments and more the way these analysis suggest that it may be hard for all of us – and not just the disadvantaged and downtrodden - to find a way to live in the modern world.

James Baldwin said "people can cope with almost anything once they know where reality is". Of course, there is real suffering and real injustice all over the world yet many of those who are enraged and susceptible to rabble rousing have rights and resources unimaginable to the oppressed of earlier times. What if we are mistaking the uncomfortable and unavoidable reality of the human condition for the effect of some specific form of loss or oppression? 

At the heart of populism is the denial of complexity and the promotion of division. Demagogues claim that if the good people triumphed over the bad all our problems would melt away. It is obvious that this is a lie about the nature of the world and the challenge of shaping it. But it is also a lie about the human condition; how hard it is to confront and how, in important ways, it is the same for all of us.

Those who practice thoughtful forms of religion will be used to pondering the pathos of the human mortality. Great art can inspire us to confront and accept deep and difficult truths. Philosophers and psychoanalysts have long understood that to live in reality we have to live with fatalism. Is it conceivable that politics could ever be a source of wisdom?

A more modest but still unlikely goal might be that political discourse stops making things worse. I don’t just mean the manipulative rhetoric of populists. (Although let’s remember mainstream politicians were offering simplistic solutions and making empty promise long before the populists showed them how to do it on steroids.)

The other day I heard an organisational leader – whose achievements are matched only by his modesty – say that in making the case for change he always avoids blaming other people and blaming the past: not only, he said, is this self-serving it is also disempowering. Yet, blaming other people and blaming the past is core to most political narratives.

The challenges of living life in a world of incredible change and complexity where we all feel subject to huge forces beyond our control demands political leaders who can act almost as therapists, helping us move from confusion and rage to realism and benign resignation about what can and cannot be changed. Instead politicians, on the left and right, applaud our anger, reinforce our frustrations, encourage our fantasies.    

Perhaps Will Davies is right that we must respond to emotion with emotion. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama is right, we must search for what is common in identity.

Perhaps the politicians who finally manage to push back against populism and polarisation won’t be those who offer us hope, but those who confront us with difficult truths.

Listen to 'Polarised' - an RSA podcast series with Matthew Taylor and Ian Leslie

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