Love Life (November)

‘Love Life’ is Bella’s Agony Aunt column… because the personal is political and the ‘state we’re in’ is complicated. See here for more background.

Dear Jamie,

I’ve been reading your column from the beginning and I still don’t get it. How does a relationship advice column help Scotland to become a free nation? We’re not just talking about helping ‘everyone live a little more freely, equally and lovingly’ here, we’re talking about independence. This is a political question, not just a personal problem.

Confused in Kirkaldy

Dear Confused,

Thank you for writing in. That’s a great question! My short answer is, it depends what you mean by freedom and independence.

Notice that numerous other former colonies of the Empire have gained formal independence. They have not necessarily become the bastions of freedom and equality which we might dream of. Indeed, some of them seem to have learned to imitate the confused notion at the root of Empire: that a good life comes from controlling others. Claim territory, extract wealth, defend borders. ‘Cause life, supposedly, is a competition: survival of the fittest. Formal independence doesn’t guarantee that Scotland will be a free nation. Unless we’re careful, it could become yet another nation that inhibits freedom.

I reckon Darwin’s theory got a bit twisted here in order to justify Empire. I think he meant that which fits well in the ecosystem survives. For Scotland to be a free nation which survives, it needs to fit into the world’s ecology. It also needs to be made up of parts which fit well together. Like nature does.

Do you know what a fractal is? It’s a pattern that looks pretty much the same whether you focus in zoom out. It’s also how natural systems self-organise. The curve of a beach, the branching of a tree, the forks of a river, or any other patterns in a healthy landscape look similar at different levels of detail. In a fractal, the parts fit well together.

The same applies to politics: the fine detail of everyday relationships looks similar to the bigger tapestry of national and international politics. War, for example, is not just in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s in Scotland, too. It’s in the ways people relate to each other, trying to be the fittest, the strongest, the richest, the most intelligent, the one who is right. This is individualism, not freedom.

Freedom, in my experience, is learning to live well together, to fit together. It’s not a war, or a state of control. It’s a loving relationship. A free Scotland might be a fractal democracy, made up of loving relationships at every level of detail, in every institution. This cannot be the simple product of an event, like formal independence, but an ongoing process in our everyday lives. And there’s no need to wait for someone else to do it. We’re all capable of love.

You might think this sounds idealistic. My point is precisely that it’s not about an idea of politics, it’s about the direct experience of relating to ourselves, to each other, to the land, to life itself. Whether dealing with a bureaucracy or a lover, we all appreciate being listened to. And there is something deeply satisfying in listening to others. As Bakunin put it, “[humans suffer] a nostalgia for which there is no remedy upon Earth except as is to be found in the enlightenment of the spirit — some ability to have a perceptive rather than an exploitative relationship with [their] fellow creatures.”

Don’t take my word for it, or Bakunin’s. Experiment for yourself. Listen to the authority of your own experience. How do you feel when you’re competing with others or trying to be right? Do you notice a certain tightness in your body and your mind? (I sure do!) And how do you feel when you’re offering your attention or your assistance to others, not because you want appreciation or reward, but simply because you sense there is a need?


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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    What a fantastic post! I particularly like the bit about Darwin – those who see themselves as Alpha males or the like think “survival of the fittest” gives them carte blanche to ride roughshed over those who they see as weak, and that this is just natural selection in action. It completely ignores the fact that life cannot exist independently of others, which is completely at odds with the idea of trying to rise to the top of the human race.

    Perhaps we need to stop using the term “human race” – something like “human grouping” would be more apt.

  2. I have a historical quibble. I don’t think it’s helpful, whether you’re pro- or anti- independence, to characterise Scotland as a colony of the British Empire. Whatever you think about Scotland’s position within the UK, we’ve never been subject the way that India, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) or even Canada were. Scots were complicit and in many ways crucial to the British Empire, and it’s important to recognise that the reason the Scottish Commissioners in 1706 agreed to the Act of Union was to give them equal access to England’s empire. This in turn helps to explain why we’re at the crossroads we are: without an Empire to equalise our relationship with England, we get very little out of the current arrangement.

    Otherwise, a very engaging piece and a very attractive blueprint for what the future might hold, should we prove bold enough to seize it.

  3. Edulis says:

    Interesting piece, but it has an inherent danger and that is that it might confuse. We need to be clear headed when it comes to politics and soundbites. You could write a thesis on why Independence would be beneficial for Scotland, but don’t expect to win arguments or the populace with that level of detail. I recognise that the article sets out a good context within which we should take our independence, but it is so crucial that we gain it that we should be creating a motorway to it without hindrance. This is for later when we come to adjusting to the new arrangement.

  4. Davy Marzella says:

    Here’s an old article by Joyce McMillan which makes a lot of links between the “personal” and “political” which I feel need to be acknowledged here and now and not wait for some “promised land” of independence……..

    What takes their place when the fairy-tales fail ?
    Joyce McMillan

    The Traverse Theatre this Edinburgh Festival there is an interesting
    show called Night After Night, by Neil Bartlett’s Gloria company. It
    promises a little more than it can deliver; but there’s something
    haunting about the questions it raises. For what it tries to do is
    examine the strange, intense relationship between some gay men working
    in the theatre, and the big romantic musicals many of them once worked on, and continue to adore.

    On the one hand, these men love the whole business of the musical, the
    romantic curve of the storyline, the happy climax, the sense of the
    characters finding their true destiny in one another. But on the other,
    they are inevitably excluded from the boy-meets-girl neatness of the
    plot, with its final sense of a family founded, and the happiness of the
    hero and heroine stretching on into a boundless future; so that their
    intense appreciation of the form is shot through with a sense of
    sadness, and hopeless yearning. And as I watched the show, I realised
    that it’s not only gay men, these days, who must feel a sense of
    permanent exclusion from this kind of romantic story.

    A few days later, I was in the Assembly Rooms, watching an exquisite,
    joyful Midsummer Night’s Dream from Georgia, and found myself
    weeping with sheer nostalgia for the life-affirming exuberance of it all; at
    this point, Shakespeare was so confident of the idea of erotic,
    heterosexual marriage as a key to social harmony that he made the whole
    world of nature reflect the temporary row between Oberon and Titania –
    summer buds in midwinter, green corn rotting in the fields – and come
    back to itself only when they were together once more.

    And how can any of us now watch this kind of romance without a
    profound sense of loss? Of course, the number of people who actually
    achieved great long-term happiness through the conventional pattern of
    marriage was always small.

    But today we are constantly showered with facts and images that rob us
    even of the faint hope of a traditional happy ending.
    Last week’s Scottish Office report on divorce, wanly titled Untying The
    Knot, shows that marriage is fast becoming an explicitly provisional
    contract, with no strong expectation of permanence on any part.

    The stream of media stories about the stresses on single mothers
    emphasise the ugly truth that parenthood often divides men and women
    more than it unites them. And last week, the Mothers’ Union itself
    published an article arguing that conventional marriage is overrated, and
    we ought to reinstitute some kind of ”clan” system of extended family living.
    And in a sense, all of this can be seen as a healthy development, a
    final rejection of the big lie that conventional families equal happy
    families. But the collapse of all these old assumptions has also utterly
    robbed us of our fairy-tales, our dreams, the stories with which, in our
    culture, we used to attempt to make sense of our lives.

    We have seen, rightly, that it is nonsense to bring up a modern little
    girl on a diet of Cinderella, and the assumption that some day her
    Prince will come to resolve her life. But the trouble is that we have no
    alternative that offers anything like the same sense of magic and
    coherence. We can parody the original story; we can make Cinders marry
    Buttons, or set up a menage-a-trois with the Ugly Sisters.

    We can commit ourselves to the militant shapelessness of modernism,
    which defies narrative and questions the very idea of meaning. But we
    cannot work the magic those old stories worked. We cannot take the
    common stuff of life and link it confidently to a whole order of the
    universe; we cannot imagine the deep, hard-won, richly-patinaed joy that
    came from the simultaneous fulfilment of individual needs, and those of
    a whole society.

    As individuals, we probably experience far more moments of happiness
    than our ancestors did. But our happiness has a thin quality; it lacks
    social resonance. We marry, but it is a private matter. We have
    children, but no one takes pleasure in their existence except ourselves
    and the odd grandparent. We see fine sights and beautiful things; but
    when we get home, no one looks at our holiday snaps, and the journey becomes meaningless.

    Now of course the suspicion that life may be a tale told by an idiot,
    signifying nothing, has always plagued people who survived into middle
    age; Dante in his dark forest, Shakespeare who lost the will to write
    those joyful comedies, all those who know the sense of stasis that comes
    when the long drive towards adulthood and parenthood slides into the
    past, and the only big ”life-event” left is death.

    But now it seems that even young people must share this sense that there
    is no shape, no point, no storyline, as if the whole culture had become
    a victim of mid-life crisis.
    Romance ? Don’t make me laugh.
    Fulfilment at work ? You’ll be doing well to get a job at all.
    And kids ? More trouble than they’re worth; just treat you like a cashpoint, and remind you of your ex.

    And the point about all this – the shapelessness, the cynicism,
    the entropy, the rejection of old dreams, the inability to develop new
    ones – is that it is not sustainable.

    Human beings crave meaning and need dreams. We need to know what to
    hope for; and very few are loners enough to draw the whole map for themselves.
    The rest of us like to feel part of some rhythm, some order of things;
    and the more we mouth the inadequate rhetoric of ”do your own thing”
    and ”it’s nobody else’s business”, the greater becomes the danger of
    an hysterical lurch back towards a sexual politics that is strict,
    secure, authoritarian, and ultimately fascistic. The seeds of it exist
    already, in the alarming macho imagery of video games and
    science-fantasy movies, in the screaming tabloid campaigns against lone
    mothers. And those of us who fear that kind of backlash must face the
    fact that knocking down old stereotypes is not enough.

    If we tear down an old patriarchal civilisation with all its myths and
    legends, then we must begin to build a new one, with new templates of
    joy and fulfilment, new romantic visions; and we have to make those
    visions as erotic and magical as the old ones. When an artist like Neil
    Bartlett asks the right questions, there is a faint flicker of hope that
    we may be up to the task.

    But most of the time, the only answers I can see on the horizon are
    those of the reactionaries, the ones who want to get back to some lost
    paradise of ”normality” in which papa rules, and women, children, and
    homosexuals know their place. They fill me with dread. But their creed
    has a terrible clarity, in a time of growing confusion and fear; and
    that makes them dangerous indeed. The rest of us like to feel part of
    some rhythm, some order of things.

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