Cycle four and some politics

At bottom, the problem of political decision-making only redoubles and displaces to a collective scale what is already an illusion in the individual: the belief that our actions, our thoughts, our gestures, our words, and our behaviours result from decisions emanating from a central, conscious, and sovereign entity – the Self.

Being on the left or on the right is to choose among one of the countless ways afforded to humans to be imbeciles.

This is the big lie, and the great disaster of politics: to place politics on one side and life on the other, on one side what is said but isn’t real and on the other what is lived but can no longer be said. […] Hell is really the place where all speech is rendered meaningless.

What is revealed in every political eruption is the irreducible human plurality, the unsinkable heterogeneity of ways of being and doing – the impossibility of the slightest totalization.

The Invisible Committee, Now, Semiotext(e), 2017

I spoke too soon when I wrote at the end of my last post that I had only two more cycles to go. At the very least I should have said that I had only two more complete cycles to go.

When my oncologist said that the effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, he was talking mainly about its efficacy, about how repeated administrations combine to rid a body of cancer cells. He also warned that the side effects can become more challenging as the cycles pile up. Collateral damage has indeed accumulated to become more intense with every cycle. Body, mind and spirit are taken to ever greater depths of dereliction and despair, reduced to a bare minimum existence, lifeless unmotivated stuff, listlessly there hanging on at the very edge of being.

The calm positivity I found after my initial meltdown became difficult to sustain as the miraculous powers of life, albeit perceptible beneath the accumulation, seemed inadequate in overcoming the poison of chemotherapy. I had to endure more than two weeks of burning mouth, lethargy and fatigue, of pains and discomforts in joints and muscles, of random twinges in fasciae and tendons, of extremely disturbed sleep patterns and a deathly cold lingering inside.

Again, I succumbed, overwhelmed by the bare emotion of it all and caved in to the indulgence of anger, enraged by the stupidities of the world, by the privilege enjoyed by those able still to take life for granted, by the indifference of politics to ordinary experience. But mostly it was about the disease and the unnatural agonies this body must go through in the name of treatment, everything I have lost and sacrificed, about how my future was taken away from me, how I screwed up my life with nothing to show for it. The usual self pity.

In moments such as these the manifest beauties and blessings of this life, all the love and kindness that comes my way from so many awesome people, in particular my nearest and dearest, are rendered irrelevant; while the anger is allowed free expression or to motivate my conduct, I am not mindful of others at all. Which does not make me feel very good. Nor does the fact that the disease is most definitely responding to the treatment have much effect on my emotional condition. Neither was it much assuaged by the weather, which turned from summery warm at the start of the cycle to cold and wet at the end, nor by the incessant political turmoil of the world.

The results of the European Elections and the collapse of both the UK Labour and Conservative and Unionist Parties under the weight of a surge in support for the Brexit Party PLC – an extreme right wing organisation containing some colourful characters and harbouring some very dubious opinions; the complicity of corporate capitalism in climate change activism; the refusal of the political establishment to acknowledge the existence of Scotland as more than a bit of north Britain; the march of extreme right wing populism and anti-intellectualism; the arrival in Europe of the White House supremacist; the impending extinction emergency. And so forth.


Not only was it clear from about half way through the cycle that the accumulation of poison would be too much to get me up any Munro at the end, there were no favourable weather windows. As my body returned to something like normality during the last week of the cycle, it managed short local walks, but it was sapped of resources; even short distances left me exhausted and any gradient at all stretched my shin muscles painfully.

For more than two weeks I lay in bed occupying myself as best I could with reading everything from postmodern philosophy to a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, with on the way a fascinating new look at biological theory and climate change, sadly still only available in Dutch, and the usual WordPress, Twitter and Facebook feeds. Intermittently I worked on a text about revolution, which may yet see the light of day, although the influence of too much fury combined with the chemotherapy lurgy (symptoms I have just found adequately described in the list of Docetaxel’s side effects under the euphemism cognitive impairment) made the writing jumbled, so it remains in a digital draft bin until such time as the fog has lifted and I can find mental peace. In between times I indulged myself with random tv shows on Netflix and Sky, binged some Star Trek, Friends and the final season of Game of Thrones.

I tried to avoid becoming too exposed to news of domestic and world events, not only because these are a catalogue of indifference and wickedness, but also because I do not like being patronised, deceived, infantilised and lied to. For a while I can absorb it all by intellectualising it away with the help of radical French polemic and my favourite postmodern discourses, but at bottom the most honest response to the world according to the establishment newsfeed is fury.

Those who do not experience any hint of any rage against the big machine of capitalism (even if they have no inkling that it is capitalism, or if they have been persuaded by the circumstances of their lives that capitalism is a good thing) seem to me to be devoid of critical sense, to have switched off their ability to perceive what is going on in the world around them, irredeemably lost in a wilderness of deceit. Either that, or they are so privileged they need only engage with their lives, having reduced thought to blind, obedient, unreflective, habit, and to have been taken in by it all.

It is best not to become personal though, to not believe that individuals are to blame for their opinions, that others are at fault for believing falsity. We all struggle daily to make sense of the conditions under which we find ourselves and always we come to our own conclusions. I must also never forget that I am myself extremely privileged; although my judgements are often harsh, these are of ideas not people, I endeavour always to avoid becoming personal, and the high bar I set for myself is not meant as judgement of others. Not only am I highly (self) educated and widely read, I live in a wealthy Western society dependent for its consumer needs on the cheap labour of China and Eastern Europe. I also have a great deal of time on my hands to read, to write and to improve my mind, a privilege afforded only to those of independent means, who are precluded from or choose not to work.

Which does not mean that I should remain silent, keep my own counsel and suck it all up. There is after all a responsibility that comes with privilege. That there is so much dissembling, deceit and delusion only emphasises the impoverishment of our mental environments, the necessity of improving educational systems and raising the level of public discourse, changing circumstances such that individuals will come to realise what I describe as agency – the power autonomously to apprehend exactly what is going on, mindfully and without reserve, at every passing moment throughout the girth of history.

But … and this is a very big but indeed … and as I have discovered on my journey, this agency cannot be taken for granted; rather it must be always actively created, worked at. So it probably would be easier to turn a blind eye, to go along with it all, to accept all these so called democratic decisions with good grace. After all, we are sometimes told sneeringly, the left has been in power for such a long time, now it must surely be the turn of the right. A response which only intensifies the fury for its inane reduction of power to a dualistic battle.

In the face of which, I will take responsibility and speak my own truth, deploy my native wit, such as it still exists, with common compassion and good sense to express what I see around me, dispassionately, without either reacting immediately, and therefore to become pulled into fruitless and interminable dialectics with forces of stupidity, or to be swept along on the tsunami of history. But instead to act autonomously, pragmatically on the basis of ethical principles and actual experience, at every passing moment of history. The difference between left and right has for many years made no sense at all. The catalogue of dissembling is overwhelming. The truth is obliterated by the spinners of events before it has had a chance to reveal itself. And yet it persists. 

Despite my country being overwhelmingly in favour of remaining a member of the European Union and supporting governing parties at Hollyrood that aspire to be free of Westminster rule, while remaining a full member of the EU, it is being dragged out by the British state, sponsored by a coalition of petty xenophobes and disaster capitalists exploiting the disaffection of the English working classes. Fascism is on the rise again throughout Europe, dividing peoples against each other within the borders of nation states, infiltrating the institutions of the EU and reaching out across the big water to the supremacists of the White House.

There is precious little I or anybody else can do about any of this except to speak out, and even then it seems unlikely that this will make much difference. But we should not remain silent. German people of good conscience knew as the Nazis came to power that no good would come of it. Many spoke out, but history took the course we know. It did not start with concentration camps and Blitzkrieg, but with xenophobia, with politicians dividing people into us and them; it started with hate speech and intolerance, when people became indifferent and desensitised, and turned a blind eye.


Democracy is a potent weapon in the fascist armoury; or, at least, elections are readily used by ideologues and despots to determine the course of events, and by the powers that be to justify the narratives they like us to believe. At the pinnacle of this accumulation of deceit lies the notion that elections are all that democracy is, that elections are like a game of football, the means by which rival gangs compete for who gets to exercise power. 

Any pretence that the exercise of power has anything to do with taking responsibility for the common good is negated immediately by the trickle down theory of economics, by which allowing individual self interest free reign in the pursuit of profit will benefit everybody. We are living now in societies constructed on this basis, on the partial regulation of so called market forces, which are taken for granted as the natural way of things, and under the influence of which politicians can all too easily become openly venal, irredeemably rapacious and have no need to distinguish between the common good and blatant self interest, because they already know that by their pursuit of profit they are doing good for everybody.

It is no surprise that certain right wing ideologues rail against so called identity politics, for they are already immersed by acceptance of trickle down economics in this elision of the common good with self interest. The identity politics they do not like is the kind that gives voice to groups of marginal, underprivileged, oppressed and non binary people who self identify in ways which threaten the right wing consensus, challenge its deepest seated prejudices and delusions. They have no problem at all with politics expressing their own privilege and entitlement.

Again I reach the end of a cycle feeling that it has been the most challenging thus far, not only for me but also for my lovely wife, family and friends. Which does not make me feel very good. Nevertheless I also know that the experience of the last three weeks will afford valuable lessons into the future.

At the end of Voltaire’s Enlightenment satire, Candide, the eponymous hero has listened with great interest to the wisdom of Professor Pangloss, his exhortations to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds and happily to act accordingly. All of the story’s surviving characters have finally come to rest on a smallholding, without accumulated wealth or possessions and with only the labour power of their bodies and the fecundity of the land to keep them alive. Professor Pangloss holds forth, once more pointing out that only by having passed through each and every event on the way to the present is it possible that this present, here and now, be what it is, which must of course be good, for this is the best of all possible worlds. Which allows Voltaire to produce an obliquely profound political nugget: cela est bien, repondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver nôtre jardin.

That’s all very well replied Candide, but we have to go to work in the garden.

A few years ago, his Holiness The Seventeenth Karmapa published a book called Interconnected in which he deconstructs the predominant delusions of our times, with calm precision and absolute compassion, while offering strategies for activism that stray somewhat beyond more conservative traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, presenting it perhaps in a postmodern idiom for a new generation struggling to find peace and make sense of these increasingly challenging times. For a man in his thirties it is a remarkable book by any standards. We are all inexorably interconnected, always and everywhere dependent on each other and on the powers of life. We should then work at all times on ourselves so we can come to realise the depth to which this is the case, and to act without seeking individual advantage, for the benefit of all sentient beings and for the common good.

Although this position appears to engender a certain naïveté, a whiff of the object of Voltaire’s satire, this would only be possible when read superficially and quickly, from within the usual unthinking (or overthought) western perspectives. When His Holiness’s ideas are properly understood as the outcome of a strict monastic education, of a profound understanding of Tibetan teaching, it becomes much more radical.

There is no self and no identity here, and perforce neither self interest nor identity politics. Everything is in a state of flux, nothing is solid or permanent, the mind is but a series of habits, the world is not forced to divide into either one thing or the other but remains infinitely diverse, the ultimate reality is emptiness or void arising in the realisation that truth and appearance are one. There is no room here for rapacious venality, adolescent xenophobia and violent oppression of others. Capitalism is ruled out within the foundations of ethical conduct, never given any place to originate.

I have absolutely no problem at all with any of this.

Love and peace.


Thanks to my wife’s daughter and her husband for access to Sky and to my brother for Netflix, to Thomas Oudman for giving me a copy of his excellent book, De Ontsnapping van de Natuur (The Escape of Nature), and to my beautiful wife for unending patience and compassion.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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