The Biology of Progressive Politics
The Biology of Progressive Politics
Clayton Morgareidge, Old Mole Variety Hour
March 2, 2009
The rhetoric of the Obama presidency is a lot more progressive than anything we’ve ever heard coming out of the White House. The new administration is still taking shape, and so is the way it is perceived by the public and the media. So now is a special time when we should be pressing for the most progressive agenda we can come up with. To do so, we should first try to be clear about the philosophical underpinnings of a progressive agenda.
The political left is inspired by its sense that although we are individuals, human life is deeply social. We are social beings not just because we have to have rules of the road in order to not to crash into each other as we compete for scarce resources. We do not just live next to each other: we live our lives within the lives of other people. Together we construct the forms of life that make each individual life possible, meaningful and desirable. How others talk and think and write and paint and sing and build creates the horizons of what I can see and do. How others organize and implement personal and family relationships creates the world in which I will love and hate and fear and hope. The ways in which production and distribution are carried out determines my opportunities for being productive, secure, and comfortable. Human life is never merely individual or personal. There is no way for us not to be interested, and emotionally invested, in what other people do.
Philosophers and political theorists, including Marx, have argued that we are social animals by looking at how human life and labor throughout history have been socially organized, and how the life of each individual is shaped by the kind of society in which she lives. The more we know about the beginnings of human life, the more we see that we evolved in groups working together, not as separate individuals in opposition to each other.
In recent years, scientists studying the brain have demonstrated that we are biologically made to be connected with each other. Daniel Stern, for example, in his book The Present Moment (pp. 76-77) argues on the basis of recent studies of the brain that we live in “the intersubjective matrix.” “Nature has designed our brain and mind so that we are attuned to the actions and purposes of other people.” When we see the faces and gestures of others, “we can directly feel something very like what they are feeling.” (This is thanks to mirror neurons in our brains that connect perceptions of what others are doing to the same sets of neurons that make the similar actions happen in us.) Faces and bodies continuously express emotions, telling “what we are thinking as well as what we are feeling.” As we see other people move, “we can feel what it must be like to move that way. We feel it in our body and sense it in our mind, together.” “Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from within our own. A sort of direct feeling route into the other person is potentially open and we resonate with and participate in their experiences, and they in ours.”
Stern goes on to say,
This must be seen in the light of our being highly social animals who probably spend the majority of our lives in the presence of others, real or imagined. …
[We live, in other words, in an] intersubjective world …. We [should] no longer see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated. …. … We live surrounded by others’ intentions, feelings, and thoughts that interact with our own, so that what is ours and what belongs to others starts to break down. Our intentions are modified in a shifting dialogue with the … intentions of others. Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others. And our thoughts are co-created in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves.
In short, our mental life is co-created. This continuous co-creative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.
Now if this is true, then what can we say about a politics that spends freely on war, but condemns unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and early childhood education as wasteful? What about the capitalist system itself , which permits privately owned, profit maximizing corporations to control the banks, hospitals, insurance companies, energy companies, and big employers like the auto industry – institutions which, as the economic crisis is teaching us every day, we all rely upon for getting through our lives? It seems obvious that right-wing political passions, ask us to deny, to smother, a deep part of who we are – our intense involvement with and empathy for the needs of others. It denies us the medium of our existence – our “intersubjective matrix.” In fact, to be a fully participating member of the individualistic, competitive world of capitalism causes us to repress a good deal of our natural empathy for the situations of other people.
Some of the policies, and more of the rhetoric, coming from the Obama administration, do appeal to our natural concern for each other. Listen to the opening of the President’s speech last week:
I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has: a friend, a neighbor, a member of your family.
You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost, the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread, the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope.
But more bombs for Pakistan and Afghanistan, more concern for bankers than for those who are in debt to them, more stonewalling against due process for so-called enemy combatants, more concern for private health-insurance companies than for sick and injured people, demonstrates that even for democratic political leaders, the intersubjective matrix is stratified: it has its ghettos and its mansions. Rhetorically all of us are created equal, but in practice, some are more equal than others.
In this shifting political landscape, our mission is to appeal to the better angels of our nature that live in our hearts and our brains.