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Right-brained Politics

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It has become a truism, even amongst much of the political class, that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are no longer adequate points of reference, if indeed they ever were.  For they have always been fairly arbitrary tags, based on the seating arrangements in the assembly that emerged from the French Revolution of 1789.  Those who favoured radical change, or the complete reshaping of society, sat on the left, those whose approach was more conservative and cautious sat on the right.

The meanings of left and right have shifted many times since then, and often in an apparently random fashion, more reflective of intellectual trends than subtle truths or underlying realities.  The fascist movements of twentieth century Europe have for the most part been classified as ‘right’, although they were revolutionary, collectivist and iconoclastic, attributes usually associated with the extreme ‘left’.  Mussolini began his career in Italian politics as a left-wing militant, and the German Nazi movement called itself National Socialist, a radical rival to Communism.  Similarly, in Russian politics today, the hard-line Communists and nostalgics for Joseph Stalin are designated ‘right-wing’ or ‘conservative’, although in more usual circumstances they would be regarded as unequivocally on the left.

Free-market fundamentalism, a current intellectual vogue, is also identified with the ‘right’, although it is essentially a recycling of an early nineteenth century liberal economics, which was then associated with the radical left. Yet the ideology of market supremacy is widely described as conservative, or ‘neoconservative’.  Nonetheless, free-market fundamentalism is a most un-conservative doctrine, for it reduces human beings to mere units of production and consumption, at the mercy of abstract economic forces.  Rather than stability and continuity, it favours perpetual change and the abolition of all beliefs, customs and local peculiarities that stand in the way of market forces.  Thus the free-market ideology that underlies the present phase of corporate capitalism has much in common with the revolutionary ideology of the far left, which is equally universalist, equally scornful of tradition or custom, equally reductionist in its view of human beings as economic units. In the political arena therefore, right and left are not polarities, as they appear, but intersect with and feed off each other.  The more virulent their mutual hostility, the more apparently opposed their slogans and programmes, the more the movements of right and left have in common.

Adherents of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ doctrines both make the same mistake about politics and economics.  Where there should be diversity, they impose uniformity, where there could be unity, they erect divisions: between individuals, human groups, the spiritual and the mundane, humanity and nature.  The weakness at the heart of the left/right paradigm is that it ignores and sidelines the spiritual dimension, enjoining human beings to view their lives exclusively through a material lens.  This is true even where such movements appeal stridently to faith-based values – for example the religious right – or promote a form of secular evangelism, as in the case of the radical ‘greens’ and most sections of Marxist left.  Perhaps it is especially true in these cases, with the activists’ rhetoric attempting to fill a spiritual vacuum.  Because of its exclusively material outlook, the left/right paradigm of modern politics has an inherent limitation.  It offers only a partial view of the human experience, leaving out key components of what make us human, such as the desire to develop as moral and spiritual beings, to transcend the material as well as improve material conditions, and to be more than simply producers and consumers.

This starting point, the partial instead of the whole, explains much of the behaviour of left and right wing movements.  Their partial view of human life translates into partial political programmes, based on limited and subjective interpretations, which are then treated as objective truths.  This is why left and right both tend towards intransigence and dogmatism, and why they almost always need to resort to force.  That force might be overt, as in the cases of dictatorship, terrorism and war, or the invasion of weaker countries by stronger powers.  Often, however, it is a more subtle legislative coercion, superficially benign but inflexible and rigid, inspired by a belief in the perfectibility of the human race but lacking in respect for individual human beings, or the complexity of human relationships.

The one-sided, partial approach to politics expresses itself in different ways across the left-right spectrum.  For example, the purely reactionary right emphasises tradition for its own sake, calling for the customs and habits of the past to be preserved in aspic.  Such a narrow view fails to understand the inner meaning of tradition, namely that it should be a secure base on which to build and improve, and that the best traditions survive by being tested against newer ideas and emerging as wiser or more profound.  Tradition is not good in itself, for there are many traditions in many places that can be seen to be corrupting or diseased.   However traditions prove themselves to be good, and worth preserving, when they act as useful points of reference for a human community, in short when they are part of a process of social evolution.  To make an ideological fetish of tradition from the right is as facile, and as dangerous, as to make a frenzied ideological attack on tradition from the left.  Indeed the tactics, and underlying assumptions, of reactionaries are not really traditional at all, despite their claims, but revolutionary and iconoclastic.

This revolutionary-reactionary axis is exemplified by the various types of religious fundamentalism sweeping the globe because of dissatisfaction with conventional religion and politics.  The ‘Christian right’ in the United States invokes tradition, but is populist in its campaigns, demands radical political and constitutional change and is supported in the main by a provincial lower middle class, in opposition to a metropolitan elite.  Likewise, the militant wing of political Islam, made notorious by Al Qaeda, believes in revolutionary terror as an instrument of change and finds common cause with the radical left against prevailing Western values.

Mostly, the partiality of the left/right paradigm expresses itself in a blinkered, almost superstitious belief in ‘progress’.  This can take the form of a straight line moving inexorably forward, as with many free-market economists, who speak in terms of ever increasing economic growth, prosperity and technological advance, without taking ethical stock of any of these developments.  Such an approach has underpinned the scientific world view that has prevailed in the West until its recent challenge by holistic approaches to science.  In the context of this discussion, it is best identified as the right-wing view of progress.  The alternative, and usually left-wing, view of progress is defined by struggle between opposing forces, in which one eventually triumphs over the other.  This is essentially just as linear as the right-wing view, because it regards progress and the ‘victory’ of ‘progressive forces’ as historically inevitable.  Such victory implies defeat for other principles and so the ideologies of struggle allow for no compromise between opposing ‘sides’.  Often, the struggle itself obscures the original purpose behind it.

Of this approach to politics, the Marxist class struggle provides the clearest example.  In its crude form, it defines human beings by their relationship to the ‘means of production’, rather than individual or cultural traits.  The political process becomes an extension of the economic struggle: between the ‘oppressed’ class and the ‘ruling’ class, with the defeat of the latter and a resulting ‘equality’ as the goal.  This model has been largely discredited, both by the failure of Marxist regimes in practice, and by awareness that human beings cannot be reduced to members of a ‘class’.  We are more complex creatures than that, because at one level we are unique individuals, and at another we have a shared humanity.  Both realities override the arbitrary divisions of economic theory.

Yet the attempt to divide humanity into opposing forces is older than Marxism and, in the West especially, retains a great hold over the political imagination and dominates a wide variety of movements thought to be ‘progressive’.  Western feminism, for instance, tends to promote a ‘gender struggle’ or ‘sex war’, in place of a creative balance of the male and female principles.  It tends simultaneously towards hostility to men and masculinity, and a desire to impose on women traditionally ‘male’ roles, whether they wish for them or not.  This inconsistency arises out of a political agenda based on opposition, struggle and superficial victory, rather than a search for balance, reconciliation and spiritual growth on both individual and social levels. Other ‘progressive’ movements, such as anti-racism and gay rights, share this struggle-based approach, and so all too often they end up hurting those they seek to assist and generating new social divisions instead of transcending old ones.

‘Progressive’ movements of this type usually claim to be rationalist, and almost always eschew the spiritual dimension as reactionary or backward looking.  Beneath the rationalism, there is a thinly suppressed anger and rage, which finds expression in rigidity of thinking, fanaticism, state coercion or acts of political violence.  Because they cannot cope with their violent undercurrent, progressive movements of the left fail even in their moments of apparent success, and become the mirror image of the ‘forces of reaction’ they oppose.  This explains why the green movement has been the greatest disappointment of the last political generation.  Its inspiring attempt to create a holistic form of politics, ‘neither left nor right but in front’ quickly collapsed because the foundations were still those of anger and struggle.  Thus the greens have become red, feminists have become macho and anti-racists have become racists.  This is because despite the aspiration towards transcendence, the narrow left/right paradigm remains in place.

So what, then, is to be done?  The results of conflict-based, ‘either you’re with us or against us’ politics are increasingly apparent, both in the obvious iniquities of the present world and the botched attempts to improve them.  These efforts fail so badly because they are based on one-sided ideological prescriptions.  Too often, reformers turn into fanatics and oppressors out of frustration, because they only operate on one wavelength, to which others cannot or will not tune in.  The left/right paradigm is itself one-sided, because the divisions between ‘right’ and ‘left’ are superficial in comparison to their shared attributes.  It is therefore more useful to think less of left-right politics and more in terms of ‘left brained’ politics.

Left brained politics appeals to only one half of human consciousness, the rationalist, the linear, the materialistic and the dynamic, the impulse towards growth and change.  These attributes are of great value to us, both individually and collectively, because they enable us to evolve as moral beings, and contribute to a process of social evolution.  But they can only do this with any success when they are balanced by complementary principles that give them a wider context.  Change becomes destructive without stability and continuity, linear thinking becomes narrow, superficial and abstract without the ability to think around issues, to intuit as well as rationalise.  Likewise, the material soon becomes philistine, sterile and cruel when cut off from spiritual nourishment.  As Pascal wisely observed, ‘the heart has reasons which reason does not understand’.  In other words reason, left to itself, quickly becomes irrational.  This is what has happened to modern politics, in both its left and right wing manifestations.

The qualities of rationalism and abstraction have come to be associated widely with the left hemisphere of the brain.  This association, part scientific, part poetic, has filtered into popular consciousness along with an awareness that Western thought patterns, in particular, have over-emphasised the left side of the brain and dangerously neglected the right.  ‘Left brained’ therefore describes the one-sided nature of political discourse, which results in dogma and conflict because it is detached from the intuitive side of human consciousness.  In Western neuroscience, this side is associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.  It is this side that is contemplative and eternal, which provides balance to the dynamic and the creative, and holds up a critical mirror to certainty.  And so ‘right brained politics’ describes the attempt to rebalance our thinking about politics and society towards a more holistic and less conflict-based approach.

In other words, the left and right hemispheres of the brain are modern expressions of principles that underlie all forms of life.  Complementary rather than opposed, they find their ancient expression in the Taoist Yin and Yang, or the Shiva and Shakti of Vedic philosophy.  Yang energy is creative, dynamic and forward-looking: it is ‘progressive’, left brained energy that leads us to invent, adapt and change.  It makes sense only when it is complemented by Yin, which is nurturing, receptive and constant.  Shakti and Shiva of Vedic tradition can similarly be viewed as archetypes of the right and left brained principles respectively.  Yang cannot work without Yin, Shakti needs Shiva, just as without the right brain, the left brain becomes chaotic and destructive instead of rational.  This creative balancing of complementary principles is at the heart of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of Integral Yoga.  The word ‘integral’ implies a wholeness made up of component parts, which together constitute a unity.  Such unity is achieved by a balance that is based not on compromise, or the abandonment of principles, but on a synthesis of complementary parts, through which they become aspects of something larger.

Writing in 1910, and anticipating late twentieth century studies of the brain and its functions, Sri Aurobindo spoke of the left and right spheres of awareness in terms of the characteristics of the two hands:

    ‘The intellect is an organ composed of several groups of functions, divisible into two important classes, the functions and faculties of the left hand and the functions and faculties of the right hand.  The faculties of the right hand are comprehensive, creative and synthetic, the faculties of the left hand critical and analytic. … The left limits itself to ascertained truth, the right grasps that which is still elusive or unascertained.  Both are essential to the completeness of the human reason.’

The ‘hands’ of Sri Aurobindo’s metaphor correspond to the hemispheres of the brain. However they also represent those complementary pairs that exist within nature and consciousness.  Heat and cold, light and darkness, spirit and matter are not opposite poles, as they are too often presented in Western thought, but need each other, indeed only make sense in relation to each other.  The problem with politics has been that the ideas associated with ‘left’ and ‘right’ have been so polarised that they no reflect ordinary human reality, let alone any higher purpose.  For this reason, the programmes of ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing movements lose their momentum or become monstrous.  Ultimately, the politics of opposition is at once dangerous and sterile.  Right brained politics will be a politics of synthesis, of transcendence, in place of polarisation and conflict.

Sri Aurobindo recognised that the problems of humanity were caused largely by the habit of adopting partial, one-sided views and then imposing them on others.  He realised that the part could not be understood without reference to the whole, that the specific cannot be addressed without placing it in a much larger context.  It was this insight that led him to abandon militant nationalism and armed struggle, in favour of spiritual contemplation and non-violent social reform.  Instead of projecting anger outwards, as in left-brained politics, he learned to cultivate inner peace.  Sri Aurobindo taught that material gain and prosperity lose their value if a spiritual awareness is absent.  Significantly, he also argued the converse. ‘Pure’ spirituality loses its positive features when it becomes abstracted and remote from human experience.  Thus the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo was based on finding a continuity between right and left brained thinking, about a synthesis of the two principles, not a polarisation, as in left-right politics.  Thus he describes the system of Integral Yoga in these terms:

  ‘Yoga means union with the Divine – a union either transcendental (above the universe) or cosmic (universal) or individual or, as in our Yoga, all three together.’

In a similar vein, the Theosophist Rohit Mehta began his career as a socialist campaigner, before rebalancing left and right brained principles within himself as well as outwards.  He realised that it was not enough to try to transform society without transforming oneself as an individual.  ‘A transformed individual alone,’ he wrote, ‘can become a nucleus for fundamental social change’. Mehta believed that the best psychological and spiritual equilibrium could be achieved by a synthesis of the two ancient systems of Yoga and Tantra.  These should be seen less as rivals than as complementary parts of a whole:

‘Yoga without Tantra becomes powerless, just as Tantra without Yoga becomes visionless.’

Tantra is based on visualisation and the formative power of thought (kriyashakti) and so corresponds to the right brain, which responds to images more than words.  Yoga, based on the rigorously directed power of consciousness (icchasakti), corresponds to the left brain, which concerns itself with consciousness and abstraction. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga contained many Tantric elements and so is compatible with Mehta’s synthesis.  Crucially, both thinkers recognised that self-transformation and social reform were intimately linked and could not exist without each other.  Aurobindo was influenced by the Mother in his rebalancing of left and right brained thinking, and in his fusion of the active and the contemplative life.  There is a sense in which their relationship embodied the balance of the hemispheres, the union of spiritual and practical endeavours.

Right brained politics implies a shift of consciousness, a form of mental evolution.  In that sense, it is the political wing of Integral Yoga.

Aidan Rankin

(Aidan Rankin has a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics. He is Research and Publications Officer for the Economic Research Council in London.)