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Politics on the couch: Getting in touch with our inner Thabo Mbeki

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you”. So begins the British poet Philip Larkin in This Be The Verse but his wry observations are just as applicable to politics as they are, unfortunately, to many families — for who can doubt his claim later on that “Man hands misery to man” and that in this ecologically terminal age, “It deepens like a coastal shelf”?

We are, the world over it seems, ruled by individuals whose personal and structural corruption have stolen the expectations that they and we once had of words like democracy, development, human rights and — the grandest narrative of them all — socialism. Or as a memorable piece of graffiti that I recently saw on an interminably grey Budapest wall put it, “All politicians lie”!

But the politician’s fall from grace and the spin of their language in mid-flight is a timeworn platitude — as is the resultant voter apathy. The more penetrating question to ask is how different would we be if we were entrusted with office? Or, better still, how different are we as citizens?

Look around at our families, friendships, relationships and workplaces and ask yourself how many of these reflect values such as honesty and respect — let alone love? Would most of us not agree with the psychologist Arnold Mindell who, in his The Deep Democracy Of Open Forums, points out that, “Organisations often seem to be like families in which one or two nasty individuals dominate everyone else, while others watch in fear or look the other way”?

In these circumstances it is right that we first speak of empowerment but we should also by now know that power in itself does not resolve our problems. And that’s not just because power corrupts. It’s because powerlessness — a veritable nest of many-sided inferiority complexes and resentments — also does! To go back to our poem: “But they were fucked up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats/ Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats”.

Mindell contrasts — or rather circumscribes — power within awareness and in doing so echoes Professor JJ Hendricks’s wonderful insight that “democracy without awareness is a form of tyranny”.

But what is this awareness? I would say, unlike so many New Age philosophies, that it isn’t everything that intellectual isn’t but everything that it is: for our political ideas are also — and you can really feel this in reading ThoughtLeader — full of deep-rooted emotions, desires and dreams.

How really in touch are we with our “thinkings” as the analyst James Hillman aptly puts it?

Are we always a credulous shoulder to the wheel or always a critical spanner in the works? Are we often gut-wrenched or just head-heavy? Are we pessimistically dry-as-talcum powder or do we optimistically wing it?

Do we believe in heroes who can do no wrong or villains who can do no right? Do we consider our dark shadow and whom we always project it onto? Do we know how to listen to others and not to just the chattering monkey in our head?

How do we treat the different parts of ourselves — as an internal fascist or as an internal federalist? How do we deal with our failures? And how does our particular political orientation relate to our formative and life experiences?

For some time now many analyses of our presidency have focused on “ego” — looking more often at President Mbeki’s inability to admit fault and the persistent distrust brought about by the struggle’s culture of self-preservation. In fact one letter writer a good few years ago I recall went so far as to say that the incumbent needed a therapist!

Perhaps the time has come, given the universal impasse of politics as normal, to consider such a radical revaluation of what it entails? While some may no doubt see the introduction of such microcosmic perspectives as a potential paparazzi-like invasion of privacy — or worse narcissistic self-promotion — it is also, arguably, if compassionately and discreetly engaged, a potential liberation of public life.

Because one thing that we are indebted to in the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan and, in our time, Slavoj Zizek — not to mention feminism per se — is how they all have plumbed the depths to reveal the unlit icebergs and smouldering volcanoes behind the “charm offensive” (what an awful phrase) of appearances. You know the sort of boss that pretends not to be your boss but your friend merely asking you for a favour? Or the lover who says, “It’s really not you. It’s me”? Or the leaders of America or Britain whenever they reverentially speak about “respecting decisions of the international community”? Or, closer to home, our obsequious culture of leadership that with clasped hands claims to be selfless servants of the masses?

What if we were to advocate a new social contract – that our delegates had for an accompanying period of time to enter therapy both privately and because, of the nature of their duties, in some sort of awareness-group? Could it make all of us just a little wiser about the hidden injunctions of power? And whomever we decide to elect have more integrity?