The personal and the political

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The idea that we should pay attention to our sense of powerlessness, see where it might lead us, touches on something I’ve thought a lot about in the past year or so – how our personal lives, our emotional experiences connect with the wider world. Grief has been a filter through which I’ve viewed politics and the world, but my attempts to connect my experience of loss to a wider context has also changed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In her book Foucault and Feminism the academic Lois McNay explores how “[i]ssues related to identity, which are generally deemed to be ‘private’ are politicized and opened up as sites of transformations”. Creating a connection between self-transformation and wider political transformation is essential to a modern ethics, she argues.

To celebrate my birthday I went to see the film Carol with friends after having dinner in the restaurant at Manchester’s Home. Later we talked about the film, an adaptation of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel, and the questions of not only age but class that it also raised. Identity politics has to some extent created connections between our ‘private’ or ‘emotional’ selves and the political realm, but how do we take it further?

Writing about the question of agency, McNay draws on the work of Jessica Benjamin who, in a 1982 article Shame and Sexual Politics, discusses the

dilemma in feminist politics between the need for women to enter into traditional fields of male power in order to transform them (‘transcendence’) and the need for women to stamp the field of politics with the experiences of their suffering and powerlessness in order to dissolve traditional political practices altogether (‘immanence’).

Because politics has focused on the material, economic or physical the focus of political action has been on so-called rational goals. But “there is no way to engage in a material power struggle without psychological and symbolic risk,” argues Benjamin, defining the risks required in revolution as not only physical death, but also symbolic or psychological death when the physical and emotional ties which make his life familiar are ruptured. This traumatic and destabilising rupturing is necessary “if new forms of social interaction are to be established “ and

… the transformation to a more radical form of political practice is not possible without risking the self. In other words, a radical personal politics is still absolutely central to the success of any kind of political change…

Of course, politicians know that our emotions are at play in our political decisions, but if we wish to harness that potential it’s clear that a lot more will be required of us. Can we imagine a world where we don’t just make decisions based on narrow self interest or economic expediency but take love into account, seek to do what is just, even if we have to make some sacrifice ourselves?

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