At its heart, politics is about feeling, because feeling is at the heart of everything.
What makes people engage politically? What makes people disengage? What makes people view the world in one way or another? What makes people shift their political frameworks?
At each point, the answer comes back to feeling. What we feel is who we are. It determines what we need, what we seek, with whom we associate, when, where and for how long. Feelings are what we do, the only tool we have to engage with ourselves and the world. In understanding how to use politics as a transformative force, it’s absolutely essential to discuss the kind of feeling being produced by the political movement, and the feelings the movement seeks to tap into.
On the Left, I fear the tyranny of intellectualism. Even our language exists so much in this cerebral, mental place that may be easily made accessible on a tangible level, but doesn’t really resonate.
We don’t seem to feel much.
And yet, I have yet to meet a single theorist or activist on the radical Left who is in any capacity divorced from feeling. We’ve been radicalized through war and occupation, through rape and relationship, through oppression and witnessing.
We do this work because we feel this work. We feel it all so strongly that we can’t help but try to build a different world. And yet, our politics is lacking emotional resonance, and seems to flounder where reactionary movements prevail.
I believe the answer lies in connection, in honoring feelings, and in rebuilding community.
Emotional Crisis and the Radical Right
We’re facing an emotional crisis in the “Western world.” Our sense of community that was for so long proscribed by class, race, place and gender, put into a particular role within a social hierarchy, is eroding. Our understanding of ourselves as a part of a greater whole is withering into feelings of alienation. We are facing strong movements of individualism both politically and culturally, from neoliberal privatization to hipsters. Especially in the United States, we glorify individualism, while isolation and loneliness seep out sideways as inherent symptoms of our lack of community.
Our crisis is disconnection.
Part of what has made the radical Right so successful is, in my opinion, their as-yet unparalleled ability to pander to feelings: to engage people in politics on an emotional basis that often transcends or excludes rationality.
When we speak of reactionary politics, we speak not of reaction to events but reaction to the feelings those events produce. Our reactions happen within us, within our unique and individual emotional landscapes. The right-wing backlash against the progressive gains of the last several decades are rooted deeply in the emotions, mainly the feelings of those for whom the status quo institutions that prevailed prior offered a sense of belonging and accomplishment, but also by those who have been failed by those institutions. I speak not only of the 1%, but of the rednecks and the middle class folks who see their community and society crumbling into something different, and often (in their minds), terrifying.
The Right panders to that fear, and offers a solution: a return.
The Right has been so successful in mobilizing emotions because it preaches of a return to a world where community was felt at the heart of society. The emotional core of Making America Great Again is in an idea of people knowing their place, when the confusion of individuality wasn’t felt so strongly. (In particular, the backlash against the erosion of white supremacy as a privileged identity has galvanized an entire movement of disgruntled white people who feel they have no other place to turn to hold onto a sense of community and empowerment than in the psychological wage of whiteness.)
There has been a resounding success on the part of the Right at tapping into the emotional needs of their supporters, to bring them into a feeling of community and empowerment, and an antidote to the emotional crisis of individuality that so many “Western” cultures are facing.
The success of the radical Right begs the question: how can the radical Left, so often caught up in intellectualism, fit itself into this emotional conversation and offer solutions to unmet emotional needs through building a new kind of society?
Making Leftism Emotional Again
To secure a lasting victory, with any hope of building popularity and longevity, the Left must step into the void being produced by neoliberal capitalism and its corresponding individualist culture, and bring back a sense of community to politics. Politics must be made a space of connection and empowerment, of affirmation of individuals and the organic coalescence of groups that give people back the lost sense of communion.
What the Left can offer that the Right cannot is a lasting vision of community that affirms individuals on the basis of their individuality rather than as representatives of groups that exist within a hierarchy.
What does it mean to build community around empowering individuals?
On an emotional level, it means allowing space for individual experiences, feelings and needs to shape the culture of the politics being practiced. It means establishing structures for empowering individuals not only in an emotional sense, but concretely giving them power and the authority to decide for themselves as communities. To teach values of self-determination and consensus through compromise. This means, often, practicing radical direct democracy in associations, and within those associations, practicing a culture of empowering marginalized voices and recognizing the emotional needs of the individuals involved.
It matters that people feel seen and heard. It matters that people feel connected to on an emotional level. It matters that individual experiences be honored in a way that affirms the emotional truth of every person’s experience, and puts them into conversation with one another to form authentic partnerships.
It matters that we practice our authenticity and our vulnerability in Leftist spaces. It matters that we talk about our backgrounds and our needs, our feelings and our grievances. It matters that we allow space for spontaneity, creativity, and organic emergence of connection. It matters that we talk about partnership, friendship, communication, sex, love and care. It matters so much that we honor feelings.
On a social structure level, I believe the Left must engage in practices that build community programs that serve the needs of individuals. It matters that we find common ground with those who many not share our intellectual ideals but do share our needs. It matters that we build programs to serve people’s needs that can resist the cooptation of capital and state dominance. It matters that we make political engagement joyful, empowering and caring.
And it’s important to remember: there is no single right way to build community.
The very kind of community we’re talking about cannot be proscribed, because proscribing a community identity is the antithesis of what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to build community that is organic and affirming to the individuals involved, that is inclusive of the previously-excluded, and empowering of the disempowered.
It will, by its very nature, emerge organically out of the individuals involved.
The thing is, there is no return. Consciousness cannot go backwards. In the words of my namesake in Mister God, This is Anna, “Mister God ain’t got no bum.” The nature of our nature is forward movement, progression and change, expansion and connection.
That’s what we’re looking for.
What we seek, as a civilization, is not a return to anything we had previously, but a way forward that allows us to grow onwards beyond the present crisis of individuality and isolation. Those of us for whom the antiquated status quo doesn’t work will not go back to the shadows.
What we will see emerging, I imagine, is a new way of framing community, where community is a practice rather than a rigid unit. Coming into and out of community, of spaces of communion and mutual aid, will happen organically out of a free association based on individual needs and feelings.
We, on the Left, can tap into the desperate need for community and connection, the sense of antidote to the poisonous isolation of a culture obsessed with individuality, by remembering that we do this work because of our own emotional needs. We seek a world that feels just, that feels built on consent and cooperation, where community feels true rather than dictated, where identities are empowered and diversity is embraced. We do this work because we feel, and it is folly to divorce our emotional needs from the political work we do.