The politics of joy

At the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out five top priorities for the UK. He listed them as follows:

  • Halve inflation
  • Grow the economy
  • Reduce debt
  • Cut NHS waiting lists
  • Stop refugees arriving by boat

It’s striking how abstract those are, certainly the first three. (The fifth should concern Christians too, but that’s a separate post) Inflation is a slippery economic concept. Economic growth may or may not mean anything to the average person. And reducing debt here refers to the government’s debt, not individuals.

Of the five, only the fourth – how long you have to wait for healthcare – has a direct bearing on an individual’s quality of life. The others are all indirect. Not inconsequential, but a step removed from lived experience. There in the background. Things we are told are important that we may or may not quite understand. They sound like the kind of thing politicians should care about.

To be balanced, we could also look to the opposition. The first of Labour’s ‘five missions‘ for a Labour government is to “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7” – a promise that is not only abstract, but framed in competitive terms.

In a recent article for the New Statesman, Marie Le Conte pointed out how Brazil’s president Lula Da Silva bucks this trend for indirect and abstract political priorities. In speaking to an audience in Sao Paulo recently, he said that he would advocate for “the right to barbecue with family on the weekend, to buy a little beef… and to a glass of cold beer”.

Whether or not our vision of a good life includes barbecue beef and a cold beer, the contrast is clear. Here’s a politician speaking about life’s little pleasures, and how the poor deserve them too – how the little things that bring us joy should be within reach of every Brazilian.

“It is truly joyous,” says Le Conte of Lula’s promise. “It is from a politician who recognises that life isn’t wholly about the place you live in and the job you have and the taxes you pay. It’s also about having a good time while we can. Who in the UK’s national mainstream politics is making that offer?” She goes on to talk about sitting in the sun and drinking beer again, but there’s a broader point here: why don’t we have the political language for joy?

One of my favourite visions of a good life is from the Old Testament. It’s found in more than one place, but perhaps the best known is Micah 4:4. “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”

It’s not “Israel shall be the highest ranked country on the food security index, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.” It’s more grounded than that, and more personal.

Again, the specifics aren’t so vital if you don’t hanker for your own fig tree. The important bit is what it represents: the leisure time to relax, the access to what you need, the sense of belonging in a place to call your own, and the long period of peace that allows fruit trees to grow in the first place. These are very tangible elements of prosperity.

This reflects the wider vision of shalom that is found in the Bible, and in Middle Eastern culture more generally to this day. Shalom translates loosely as peace, but it’s more than the absence of violence. It means wholeness and harmony, welfare and prosperity. It’s a holistic hope for flourishing, for joy.

What would this kind of vision look like in today’s politics? I think we can do better than drinking a beer in the sun, satisfying though that may well be. What are the equivalents of a vine and a fig tree? How would we describe 21st century shalom, and what kind of politics would deliver it?

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