Get Real! Five Spiritual Responses to Political Reality

Peace dove
Peace dove, courtesy Dan Slee/Flickr

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy on 1 June 2016.

“Get real!” they say, in a thousand different ways, but mostly as a call for conformity, not awakening.

At its best, spiritual life is fundamentally about a deeper engagement with reality, a turn towards the confounding fullness of life, not an attempt to escape it. The idea that a renewal of progressive politics might require a spiritual turn is therefore about courage, about squaring up to those neglected features of reality that have untapped political potential.

One way to get real is to consider Neal Lawson’s excellent analysis on the existential threats to social democracy. Many believe in a beneficent state that arose from an alignment of class, governance and the cold war, when politics was national and industrial. But this state is clearly failing to adapt to a global and post-industrial world.

Part of the solution, Lawson suggests, is that we need a more visceral appreciation for values and activities that are not materialistic. We can still love our homes and our gadgets, but we need to dethrone consumption as our lodestar and touchstone. That means fostering passion for the time rich, relationship rich, experience rich and purpose rich lives we want to live.

The Strategist: The Work of an Unconventional Political Scientist

Risk Board in the Middle East

This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 11 December, 2015.

In Sparrow’s narrative, the private and the public are intimately related, interconnected, and form a unity to explain relevant chapters of the American past.

Political scientist Bartholomew Sparrow has written what might be considered an unconventional work, The Strategist, a biography of Brent Scowcroft. His book is unconventional because biographies, even political biographies, are not typically written by political scientists – they are written by historians, journalists, or amateurs with a lot of energy and a fine pen. The political science community does not reward this work. We are scientists, not storytellers. We write about the science of politics, not about the lives of politicians. We are scientists who want, as professor Dietrich Rueschemeyer stated in Capitalist Development and Democracy to “go beyond conventional history’s preoccupation with historical particularity and aim for theoretical generalizations,” and consequently, the specific, the detail, and the particular are unnecessary and avoidable. Almost twenty years ago the eminent political scientist Margaret Levi argued in A Model, a Method, and a Map: Rational Choice in Comparative Historical Analysis that “the rationalists are almost willing to sacrifice nuance for generalizability, detail for logic, a forfeiture most other comparativists would decline.” In this view, Sparrow’s biography of Scowcroft is not only unconventional, but is also an anomaly in political science.

Transitional Justice as Politics

Justice with a swagger
Justice? Photo: quinn.anya/flickr.

It is widely accepted that transitional justice can and should be separated from politics. How societies and states achieve justice in the wake of mass atrocities, so it goes, is a pursuit that must be divorced from political calculations. Indeed, in the eyes of many, politics is poison to any attempt at achieving accountability and combating impunity. Justice must be above and beyond politics.

As I have written previously, the field of transitional justice suffers from a diversity of problems. It is an ever-growing conceptual minefield that has accepted so much under its mandate that it risks losing its meaning. Increasingly, transitional justice no longer refers strictly to the approaches societies take to account for the past in the wake of conflict, dictatorship or a period of mass atrocity. Instead, a broad array of issues from Security Sector Reform, forced migration, Demobilization and Reintegration Reform, amongst others, are now considered under the transitional justice umbrella.

Another problem within the field and, especially, the practice of transitional justice has been a certain denial of politics. The strength of transitional justice is that it is political and, as such, represents the possibility of building societies and peace on the basis of a good politics.

Six Million Mubaraks

Egypt's Mubarack is in a Cage
Egypt's Mubarak is in a Cage. Photo: ssoosay/flickr.

It goes without saying that Egypt has seen a revolutionary political change. Its new president is a leader of an organization that a little more than a year ago was still banned and feared. Since February 2011 Egyptians have voted four times. Yet, people-oriented policies are nowhere to be found and ordinary Egyptians feel little change for better in their everyday lives. Few dare to say this out loud: big part of the problem is the Egyptian society itself. It is still authoritarian: at work, at home and in the Arab street.

The notion of an authoritarian Arab society is not new. Brian Whitaker, a British columnist at the Guardian, in his book “What’s really wrong with the Middle East” (Saqi, 2009) talks to an Egyptian journalist who explains that not the single Mubarak is the problem but the fact that “Egypt has a million Mubaraks”.

The Triumph of Politics in Europe

A European flag and a Greek flag
Will Europe's politicians save the Euro? Photo: YoungJ523/flickr

MADRID – Economics, particularly economic theories, always yield in the end to political imperatives. That is why Europe’s fast-changing political landscape, reshaped by electoral insurrections in France and Greece against German-backed fiscal austerity, is bound to affect Europe’s economic policies as well.

Such an imperative has been at work throughout Europe’s postwar history. Indeed, Europe’s shift from the modest customs union of the European Economic Community to the single market and common currency of today’s European Monetary Union was itself a fundamentally political move, one with strategic implications, of course. France wanted to tame German power by harnessing it to the European project, and Germany was prepared to sacrifice the Deutsche Mark for the sake of France’s acceptance of a united Germany, the nightmare of Europe’s recent past.

An economically robust Germany is, without doubt, vital to the European project, if only because history has shown how dangerous an unhappy Germany can be. Indeed, it was thanks to the euro – and the captive European market that goes with it – that Germany today is the world’s second-leading exporter (China surpassed it in 2009).