A God that Knows how to Dance

A couple of years ago I was asked by the Portuguese magazine Electra to write a very short response to this quote from Nietzsche – ‘I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance‘. I’ve been meaning to post it for a while, but it seemed in pretty poor taste while the pandemic was going on and none of us could go out and dance. But I’ve been inspired by the simply extraordinary tele-cinematic event which has been the broadcast of Steve McQueen’s film Lover’s Rock: surely the greatest screen representation of social dance that’s been produced to date, and a powerful tribute to the radical creativity of black British culture.

Anyway, here’s the Nietzsche dancing God thing…

I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.

-Nietzsche 

The dancing god features in many mythologies. In the ‘Western’ tradition, Pan dances at the border between shamanic prehistory and classical paganism; and is said to have died with the advent of Christianity. But even Christ can take a dancing form, in the modern imagination. Sydney Carter’s 1963 song ‘Lord of the Dance’ – sung by generations of British schoolchildren – imagines Jesus as Nataraja: the dancing form of the Hindu god Shiva, whose dancing generates the energy that both creates and destroys the universe. Carter borrowed his melody from a Shaker song: the Shakers being a charismatic Christian sect that included ecstatic dances in their worship practices, when they believed themselves moved by the Holy Spirit. In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God’s immanence to the material universe.

 It’s no surprise then, that Nietzsche – the great philosopher of immanence, the enemy of body-hating dualism and Christian transcendentalism – should be prepared to believe in a dancing God. Nietzsche loved dance and described his love of it in explicitly spiritual terms. Of course ‘dance’ for Nietzsche would not have conjured the kind of images that it might for us today. But all dancing -from the Waltz to the ballet to the rave – exists somewhere along the same continuum, between individual, gravity-defying gymnastics and the irreducibly collective physicality of a rhythmic, mobile crowd. 

Dance as mystical practice – from shamanic rites to Sufism –  erases two boundaries at the same time. It suspends or erases the distinction between matter and spirit: an elevated mental state induced by corporeal practice. It breaks down the boundary between self and other, between individual and group. The dancing crowd is unified and differentiated at the same time. It is in motion but in formation. It is one and many. The god who dances is an immanent force, a force of multiplicity and inherent creativity. 

This is surely what makes the image such a potent one for Nietzsche – who is always a philosopher of multiplicity – and for other thinkers trying to express a reality that cannot be adequately defined by categories of enumeration and individuation, or by ordinary understandings of space and time. In his new age classic, The Tao of Physics, Fritoj Capra refers to the inherently mobile and creative nature of matter as ‘the cosmic dance’. He points out that the the entire thrust of theoretical physics since the end of the nineteenth century has been to develop an understanding of matter as dynamic, energetic, processual and strangely unpredictable (an understanding that traditions like Taoism have always shared). This stands in direct opposition to the classical theistic and  dualistic assumption that inert matter can only be animated by an immaterial force that is always distinct from it: God, spirit, mind or soul. 

In the culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, all of these elements – secular spirituality, the erasure of dualism, the suspension of individualism – can be found where bodies congregate to dance. The late 60s / early 70s saw the birth of the rock concert and the disco as the key socio-cultural expressions of the counterculture: democratic and utopian spaces that would only be captured and colonised by capitalism with great difficulty, whose radical spirit has been carried into the twenty-first centuries by raves and festivals of many kinds. 

The psychedelic godfather of Disco (and so of all modern dance cultures), David Mancuso, once said to me that he often felt that all parties are just local expression of the ‘one big party’ taking place everywhere, all the time, that occasionally we manage to tune into or express through our own bodies and gatherings. The profundity of this remark has stayed with me ever since. What David seemed to sum up in this single image was the fact that the joy of dancing in groups is an intense expression of the inherently creative capacity of the social relations that always constitute all of our being: what I call the ‘infinite relationality’ of existence. The cosmic dance of matter, the multiplicity of the multitude, the creative power of complex groups: to acknowledge the god who dances is to acknowledge them all. 

We Lost Because We Weren’t Big Enough…

Here’s the latest long, long analytical essay for open Democracy. It’s basically trying to look at the whole conjunctural situation of the left in the UK and the US, after the defeats of Corbyn and Sanders and under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The title might seem like a tautology, but my editor Adam, who’s a very good judge of these things, liked the phrase and pulled it out from the main text to use, and it certainly captures something at the heart of what this is about.

You should definitely read it all or else you’re lazy and a bad comrade. But if you must have a very short summary…

•The left in the US and the UK has been through a very similar process over the past yew years. We built a significant democratic movement for the first time in decades, we tried to take control of the main party of the ‘left’, we had limited success and eventually were denied any chance to form a government.

•We got beaten by two forces….

•On the one hand, the centrist neoliberal technocrats who have run the Democratic and Labour parties for decades ultimately succeeded in blocking us, because the threat posed to their own jobs and status by the rising Left was of more immediate concern to them than, for example, the threat of planetary destruction if the Left’s programme is not implemented soon.

• This opened the door to the electoral success of a right-wing nationalist project (and kept it open), in each case headed by a figure who is popular basically because they used to be on TV a lot and precisely because they present themselves as fundamentally unserious politicians.

•This leaves two major tasks ahead of us: building class consciousness amongst workers to challenge conservative nativism; disaggregating the social bloc that is led by the (neo)liberal technocratic political class. It’s a serious mistake to see these tasks as mutually exclusive or to prioritise either at the expense of the other.

•The big challenge that we’re likely to face in the coming years will be the attempt by the Right to de-legitimate demands for a Green New Deal (or comparable programme),with working-class citizens (especially white working-class citizens). They’re likely to do this both by pursuing culture-war tactics which will seek to associate any Green project with metropolitan ‘elite’ culture and with liberal cosmopolitanism, and by offering some material concessions (safe jobs, relatively affordable homes etc.) to key constituencies of workers.

There’s also stuff about, like, how to theorise racism. But that’s mostly in passing.

In terms of what all this means pragmatically…err….well, one thing is I think people who make viral videos and those kinds of media should really be thinking about how to persuade financially comfortable gen-x voters that the kind of politicians that they habitually like to vote for (eg. Keir Starmer, Kamala Harris) are NOT going to do anything to fix climate change, pointing out again and again that their predecessors (Blair, Clinton, Obama) had every opportunity to do so and failed, because they were ultimately in hock to capitalist interests. Of course we also need to revive the labour movements and organise workers in the rust belts. But that’s not really my area of expertise.

One thing I will say is that I think a particular problem right at this moment is that to some extent, in both the UK and the US, we’re in a holding pattern, waiting to see if Biden can win and if Starmer can ever actually build up a significant poll leads (as Blair already was doing by this point in his leadership). The resolution of either of these issues doesn’t have any overriding effects on our strategies, but it will make a difference to where some people focus their energies and attention. If these figures can consolidate their positions, then we’ll have to do almost all of work outside the party structures, trying to shift actual public opinion among key constituencies. If they don’t, well, we will still have to do that; but the opportunity to once more make a play for power inside the party structures will be too significant – and the temptation too great – for this not to become a preoccupation for at least large numbers of us, once again.

FWIW, while we will know whether Biden has won or not on one day in November (presumably…maybe not though…), the question of when we will ‘know’ if Starmer has managed to stabilise his position or not is more open. But, all other things being equal, I would expect the Labour membership to start getting very restless if he is still pursuing a totally uninspiring strategy of trying to win back centrist and socially-conservative voters, but hasn’t secured Blair-style massive poll leads, by some time next year.

Anyway, that’s enough…I got really useful feedback on this essay from Alex Williams, Anthony Barnett, Adam Ramsay, Neal Lawson and Clive Lewis. Thanks for that!

Some other recent contributions on left strategy, in the UK at at least, that are definitely worth checking out:

https://medium.com/@paulmasonnews/the-left-the-party-and-the-class-1ca7b6a959e6

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/09/labour-starmerism-movement

https://newsocialist.org.uk/guilty-men-thesis-and-labours-route-power/

Christian Werthschulte’s analysis of the 2019 election

In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 election, my friend Christian did a statistical analysis of the best available information on where Labour’s lost votes all went. It’s excellent and it’s here. Basically this is a contribution to the debate over whether all of Labour’s lost votes were leave-voters who felt betrayed by Labour embracing a second-referendum position and so either voted Tory or didn’t vote. The answer, as is pretty well-established by now, is that this is not true at all – Labour lost a huge number of votes to more Remain-oriented parties as well: probably  more than it lost to Leave and abstentions put together.  Here it is: 191215 Exit poll numbers for Jeremy 2

Remarks on Brexit

My old friend and comrade from Signs of the Times day, Stefan Howald, asked me to answer some general questions about Brexit for his political blog. The blog is in German and my complete set of answers was translated into German here.

I posted the English version here, but then the excellent George Eaton asked for it to be posted on the New Statesman website.
I elaborated a bit more on the original comments, and George gave it an edit, and here it is.

Notes Towards a Theory of Solidarity (talk from the Goldsmiths teach-out)

image.png

 

A few weeks ago, when many UK university staff were on strike against a major attack on their pension rights, I was invited to speak at the teach-out organised by the   UCU (University and Colleges Union) branch at Goldsmiths, University of London.

I gave a 20-minute talk from notes that I’d made the previous day. The talk provoked a really interesting discussion, and I promised a couple of people that I would make the notes available once I had had time to write them up. Well, I’ve written them up and they’ve become quite long, but that’s not all that surprising. This is still just notes – it’s not supposed to be a worked-out argument. But here it is in case anyone finds it useful.