How are you feeling? Want to feel better? Something to lift you up after a crappy day or to put the seal on a cracking day? Well read this.
In it my colleague Nicola describes her first experience of a music festival, an experience so positive I nearly cried reading it. It is an experience I shared with her given that the whole Common Weal team was there (though this was a long way short of my first music festival). We all struggled with post-festival blues on Monday, none of us wanted to leave this makeshift community of revellers.
I’m telling you this not just to have a chance to relive a great weekend (recovering is part of the reason I’ve not posted anything this week yet…) but because it will help to explain to you a very important part of my political outlook. We do not take the politics of joy seriously enough.
All this took place at Doune the Rabbit Hole and we were all there because it has a programme of talks in a tent known as ‘Douniversity’ and this year Common Weal programmed the event and had a stall there all weekend.
Doune the Rabbit Hole is a particularly good festival to start you off. It is incredibly relaxed, entirely unpretentious and is particularly family friendly. It doesn’t have anything like the relentless, soul-sapping commercialism of Glastonbury or the underlying sense of the potential for imminent violence that was never far away at the gloriously hedonistic T in the Park.
Oh, and it’s comparatively tiny (about 10,000 people) which makes it easy to feel at home, in no way overwhelmed or intimidated. No, it doesn’t have the wall-to-wall household names that the big festivals can attract, but then you get to discover lots of smaller, less well-known acts (many of them Scottish).
I hope you did read Nicola’s article, because it will help you understand what it is from events like this that make people feel so good, so happy, so positive. If you untangle these and look at them closely, there is an awful lot to learn.
So why does it make you feel so good? The first thing that contributes to this is that you are under no real pressure from the moment you get there to the moment you leave. In modern society we have come to believe that worry, anxiety, stress, pressure and exhaustion are an inevitable part of life. Our mental health is correspondingly bollocks.
Take it away, give someone a protected space and time in which they know they don’t have to worry about these things and they will feel not just a mental but a physical effect. Tension slips away and you feel physically less tight, more relaxed, freer. You may well sense this as a kind of euphoria (I sometimes do).
In modern society we have come to believe that worry, anxiety, stress, pressure and exhaustion are an inevitable part of life
So let’s be aware of this. If you can ease away the tension and stress that people are subjected to they instantly feel lighter, freer, better, potentially almost euphoric. In some ways this is the rollercoaster effect; we love rollercoasters not because they are scary but because of the specific combination of the fear and then the sense of relief and safety.
The euphoria people feel when they come off a rollercoaster is ‘survivors relief’, the part of your brain that was telling you you were going to die is overwhelmed by the bit that says ‘no, I’m still alive’. I did a bungee jump once. It was terrifying on the way up. I have no memory of the way down. But I do remember a genuine sense of euphoria afterwards.
That Nicola (and I) felt a kind of euphoria tells us how much stress a person experiences in the modern world. That being relieved of it for a while enables the ‘I’m still alive!’ part of your brain take over should tell us how much damage the stress is doing to us.
We live with stress and anxiety as if it was inevitable, and of course some of it is. We can’t control all aspects of our health or that of the people we love, the people we really want to like us might not like us, we can always feel some reason to worry. But in a rich country like ours, to worry about paying bills? To fear going back to work? To wonder if you’ll still be OK this time next year? Those are damned stupid choices our society made for us.
Likewise Nicola’s ability, early in the weekend, to let go of the anxiety that she would be judged for her appearance or anything else. Music festivals are extremely liberating places to be. In the most literal sense, if you feel like dressing up as a rabbit then you are given unlimited permission to do so by the atmosphere. Likewise, if you don’t want to dress up at all, no-one will mock you.
Why on god’s earth is this an unusual circumstance? Why do we spend so much time worrying if we will be approved? Again, humans are a social animal and that means that we will never fully escape the need for approval (it is a genetic inevitability for any highly social creature that relies on a community). But why are the paths of approval so narrow?
Again, we assume that this is some kind of law of nature, but it isn’t. It is a specific law of commerce. We are bombarded with visual stimuli of what success looks like and we are actively bullied into accepting that it is indeed a marker of success. That bully is advertising, a process of making people feel miserable about themselves and then telling them they can be cured, if only they’d buy…
Finally, what is it that makes people that go to this festival so often reach for ‘friendly’ as the first adjective to describe it? Why does that sense stick with us so much? The answer is because that’s the culture which is created. You smile at strangers when you pass because they smile at you. You help people or start conversations with them because someone else did it for you.
I’m pretty sure these aren’t ‘particularly nice and friendly people’ – it’s not a weekend based on genetic selection or anything. It’s the expectations we set ourselves when we arrive. We expect to not mind taking the ten seconds to stop and say hello, or to pick up something someone has dropped for them, or to tell someone that they look great. So we do.
Happy moments which are out of our normal reality are messages from ourselves to ourselves about why we should not accept our normality
Why are those expectations not ones we hold the rest of the time? What is it that gives us permission to be better people at this event than we might be day to day? I think the main answers are community and time. No-one is rushing, things will wait and if they don’t well that’s not a disaster. You don’t have ten things you have to do with time to do only six.
And you are instantly in a community, one that is going to share much of the same experiences over the weekend. You feel together because you are together.
People think those of us on the left are driven by ideology, or academic theory, or grudges. Yes, sometimes there is some truth in that, but it is not the only thing that drives social reformers. For me it is often this; if someone is really happy, feeling really good about themselves, if a community is strong and working well and if you don’t want it to end, why is that? Why can’t we have it more often?
The truth is that we can. The truth is that if were to look properly at where people feel happy and learn from it we could make different decisions about society. We work too much. We exist in a debt culture in which we’re all trapped in a race to outrun the demands on our money. We are pushed to consume more than we want to. Advertising makes us both miserable and poorer.
Our communities have been disrupted and our personal relations mediated through the distorting filter of corporate profit. We are more stressed, more anxious, more scared of the future and less happy in ourselves than previous generations because we have been engineered that way.
And we have been engineered that way not for our own good but for those who profit from our stress, our anxiety, our fear and our insecurity. The worse we feel, the more easily our money is taken from us. The more we are fragmented, the more isolated we are, the more compliant we are.
We are sold all of this purely because it is good for GDP. The fairytale goes that more GDP makes us wealthier and so happier because ‘jobs’, jobs that are paying less and less, jobs we are trapped in because our house is too expensive and we are laughed at if our clothes are a year out of fashion. That laughter is organised by the people who are selling you this year’s fashion.
It is why perhaps the most important quote in modern politics is from David Graeber: “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently”. I believe in that more than I believe in almost anything else in politics.
Think of when you were happy, felt joy, or peace, or euphoria, or true serenity. Think about where you were, what your emotion was about, the conditions in which you felt it. Think clearly about how much of what you feel is a result not of something good that happened but something bad that was taken away from you. Think about where the bad thing came from. Ask if it is inevitable. If it isn’t, ask in whose interest it exists.
Then ask yourself if you want it to be like that. And if not, how do you want it to be? Now that you have that picture in your head, don’t let it go. Don’t return to the norm and start scrawling all over that picture with your ‘buts…’.
We think happy moments which are out of our normal reality are not reality, that they are dreams from which we must awake. They are not. They are messages from ourselves to ourselves about why we should not accept our normality. It is you telling you that you deserve better than this.
That is what drives my politics. Not dogma, not animosity, not theory. That.