Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Post-factualism


British voters have made a choice that defies logic. The reasons for this are more complex than they appear. And they are very worrying

The British voters have made a rotten decision. Worse, they have consigned leadership of their country to vocal but foolish people who cannot build but only destroy, and have no idea what to do next.  As The Economist said on June 27, the UK is rudderless, with no-one willing to take responsibility for the decision or its consequences. Predictably, all my friends’ Facebook walls and Twitter feeds are full of comments about how bloody stupid the Brexit voters are.

The Full English. With beans
I resent this. As I explained in my previous piece, I was a Brexit supporter myself only a few years ago, and I refuse to accept that everyone who voted that way is a thick bastard. The unfair voting system in Britain means that most people are effectively disenfranchised and this was their only chance to protest. There has also been a feeling that English identity is denigrated. This is not imaginary. There’s a pic doing the rounds on social media today that shows lots of supposedly delicious European food on one side, and on the other, a solitary can of baked beans. I grew up on a traditional British diet, and my mother was a wonderful cook. I found the picture offensive. Racism is the big taboo of the liberal – unless it is against the English (or the Americans). That, it seems, is OK. So I understand why people voted Out.

However, as Huffpost and others have reported, the Leave vote has led to a perceptible uptick in harassment and hate crime, with EU nationals (and non-white British people) being screamed at and asked when they are going home. This won’t, in the end, protect British or English identity; it will destroy it. As a German friend pointed out in a sincere and decent blog post (A Letter to English Racists) on June 27, for Germans, the racist crimes of one generation undermined the sense of identity of those that followed.

Moreover, while I can’t condemn Brexit voters wholesale, they should not be wholly off the hook. They are not all racist bigots, of course. But they have accepted lies and ignored facts, just as Germans did in the 1930s. Within 24 hours of the vote Leave leader Daniel Hannan staggered the BBC’s Evan Davis by admitting frankly on air that Brexit wouldn’t stop free movement from the EU, at least not if we want access to the single market. Meanwhile Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph on June 26 that: “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down.” This won’t be possible unless EU nationals can do the same in Britain. Either Johnson is lying, or this bitter referendum has been for nothing. As for the claim that pulling out would give us an extra £350 million a week to spend on the NHS, Nigel Farage now admits that won’t happen (and anyway, the figure was spurious).

But what is important is not that the Brexit leaders lied. It is that the facts did not matter. Michael Gove said the country was fed up with “experts”.  When the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that there could be a big financial black hole in the event of a Brexit, Nigel Farage said it was biased because it was part-funded by the EU. The IFS does get about 10% of its funding from the European Research Council, but this is a highly reputable funding agency and five of its grant recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.  Anyone with Internet access could have found this out in five minutes, as I did. They didn’t bother. Let it be said, Cameron and Osborne were at it as well – as Peter Oborne pointed out back in May. But for barefaced lying, the Brexiteers took the biscuit.

Why did the voters not call them out on this?

Post-factualism
The answer is something very dangerous – post-factual politics. It’s a phrase that has been flying around in the US with regard to the Trump campaign, but the idea has been around for a while. As writer and former Sanders aide David Sirota wrote in the Huffington Post back in 2007 (Welcome to the Post-Factual Era): “Why is politics the only arena where those who turned out to be right still get flayed as outcasts, while those who are known to be utterly wrong get rewarded as visionaries? In business, if you make the wrong calls, you lose money and, most often, lose your job. ...In politics, it generally works the opposite way. The people who make the right call ... are punished with elite vitriol, and those who repeatedly make the wrong calls are vaulted into the highest echelons of the Establishment. ...Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Iraq War.” Sirota says this is “to do with where the money and power is.” He is part-right. But there is something else here. Politics has moved online and few people now engage politically face-to-face.  

The morning after the vote, I wrote the following on my Facebook page: “All the people moaning all over social media this morning should ask themselves what they themselves could have been doing to prevent this disaster. With one exception, nobody I know has.” I then pasted an extract from a piece I had written three years earlier (actually after the death of Thatcher).  It was as follows:

In a 2008 Guardian article, Vernon Bogdanor pointed out that when Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 it had a membership of about 1.5 million; 30 years later it was down to 145,000. Labour underwent a similar decline between 1996 and 2008, from 400,000 to 150,000. In the 1950s one Briton in 11 had belonged to a political party; now just one in 88 did. Voter turnout, well over 80% in 1974, dropped to just 59% in 2001 (it has since recovered a little). ...There is an increasing disinclination to take part in the mainstream democratic process.

“This might be a good time to stop writing "Oh God I'm ashamed to be British" on your wall, and start thinking about how things change,” I added.

But why should politics on the Internet not be politics? Must we really go out on a wet winter night and huddle in a church hall somewhere with about four other people we don’t much like, arguing?

Yes, we must. 

The disputed view
We have lost the facility to argue, debate and reach consensus; we see only those arguments that accord with our own. This is true of me as much as almost everyone else; virtually none of my friends backed Brexit – yet the fact is, many other people on the Left did. But because they do not belong to the same social circles as me, I am not hearing their arguments. Had I been to a bunch of Labour Party meetings over the last six months, I would have done.  Nearly 40 years ago, as chairman of my university Liberal party, I travelled to Blackpool for a special party conference, to debate the arrangement the party then had with Callaghan’s Labour administration (not a coalition; it was basically confidence and supply). Several of our delegation were determined to end this arrangement. Halfway through a speech by the then Liberal Leader David Steel, a friend turned to me and said, “He’s right. I’ve changed my mind.” And so did I.

Would that happen now? Would we hire a draughty railway carriage and have it shunted from train to train to get to Blackpool, then listen to arguments for and against and make a decision?  Most of the people ranting about Brexiteers on my Facebook wall would not do so, and have not acquired the skills one needs to make a fellow-voter think again.

It goes deeper. Even 60 years ago, Party members were a minority, albeit a much bigger one. But people were still exposed to more debate than they are now.  For a start, they didn’t spend every evening in. Now they likely do. In December 2014 the Institute of Economic Affairs reported that the number of pubs had dropped from 58,000+ to 48,000 since 2006, a decline of nearly a fifth in just eight years.  There are a number of reasons for this decline; the IEA has ascribed it to the smoking ban, a decline in beer drinking as opposed to wine (the latter was expensive when I was young), increasing alcohol duty and more. Whatever is driving the drop in pub-going, however, it is a loss to democracy. I spent much of my misspent youth fishing cigarette-packets out of pools of beer while the person opposite me told me I was talking shit and made me defend what I had just said.

Social engagement: Central London, 1983
This is not just about pubs, or political parties. In January 1995 Robert D. Putnam published a paper called Bowling Alone. Later developed into a book, the paper posited that the propensity of people to associate with one another in civic fora was a key to a healthy democracy and to good governance. It was a thesis Putnam developed more fully in his famous (for academics) book Making Democracy Work, which examined the success of local government in northern and southern Italy. Civic engagement, said Putnam, was in decline. “The number of Americans who report that ‘in the past year’ they have ‘attended a public meeting on town or school affairs’ has fallen by more than a third (from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993). Similar (or even greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of some local organization, and working for a political party.”

Putnam suggested several reasons why this was happening. Greater participation by women in the workforce had reduced the time they had for (for example) parent-teacher associations. However, he found that men’s attendance in civic fora had also declined. Putnam pointed to online shopping replacing the corner store (a decline in human contact), the growth of the VCR and, particularly, TV. “The new ‘virtual reality’ helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?”

Should we blame TV? Putnam himself admits that changes to people’s living environment, for example slum clearance, are also a factor, breaking up social networks. This will also have been a factor in Britain, where the built environment has changed immeasurably since 1945. Indeed, as far back as 1934, T.S. Eliot could write (in The Rock):

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance.
...Nor does the family even move about together.
But every son would have his motorcycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions. 

Slacktivism
But although TV may have kept people at home, historically, in Britain at least, it recreated the space for dispute and discussion. The BBC has always been required to reflect “balance” in its news coverage, and ITV also inherited this obligation when it started broadcasting in 1955. At that time there were only two TV channels; a third (BBC2) arrived in 1964 and a fourth (Channel 4) in 1982, but they were bound by the same strictures. Moreover the fact that there were few viewing options meant that there was a national conversation.  

This was certainly the case in the European referendum of 1975. In particular, two days before the vote, millions watched the Oxford Union debate between Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe on one side, and Peter Shore and the great Barbara Castle on the other. Castle (who spoke for Out) later felt that she had been a failure, but I remember the debate 41 years later, and I suspect I am not alone. To be sure, one shouldn’t be too starry-eyed about the quality of the 1975 argument (as this piece from Prospect demonstrates). But was there an event like the Union debate this time, in which the main players were picked up upon what they said, and made to defend it? I didn’t feel there was.

To an extent, this reflects a decline in the quality of the political class. That of 1975 understood history because they’d been part of it. Heath had taken part in the Normandy landings and seen the destruction in Europe. Castle had been brought up in the North during the Depression and her mother ran a soup-kitchen.  Cameron, by contrast, has never worked outside politics, and a growing number of the political class are the same.  But there is something else going on here: Slacktivism.

There are a few definitions of this, but broadly, it’s the use of social media to express one’s views, followed by a feeling that one has done what one can. In fact, posting on Facebook and “liking” posts about racism require no real commitment. Or risk; I am just old enough to remember the civil rights and Vietnam protests in the US. The cost to those who took part, and the fear involved, could be high. (If anyone doubts this, they can watch the remarkable documentary Freedom Riders – a story of a time when activists, African-American but also some white middle-class liberals, did more than just click ‘like”, and were threatened and beaten for their pains.) No problem now. Click Like and all your friends will roar approval, because, of course, your friends mostly share your views. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

Just how this works was described very well by sociologist Joel Busher in his excellent recent book on the English Defence League, The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest. A recurrent theme through the book is the way in which activists’ beliefs, lifestyles and relationship reinforce another. Much of this happens online. It is as true of people like me, on the Left, as it is of the EDL. There are no more draughty church halls. There are no more cigarette packs soaked in slops. No-one need watch Newsnight anymore. Politics has become a dialogue of the deaf. No-one who does not share my views will hear my arguments, and I will not hear theirs.

This is why we had a disaster last Thursday. All the information about the consequences of this vote was available beforehand; the threat to the Northern Ireland peace process, the fact that we would still have to have free movement of people (or limited access to EU markets), the fact that the UK would break up, that the pound would fall, that markets (and thus pensions) would have millions of pounds wiped off their value; it was all there. But no-one thought of these facts when they went to vote. They had felt no need to acquaint themselves with them.  People’s interactions are now grouped in vertical silos, into which no information may enter from any source that they have not chosen. It has thus never been easier to manipulate people, for they are complicit in their own deception.

Few people outside Britain welcomed the Brexit vote, but those who did included Marine Le Pen and Greece’s Golden Dawn. “A direct consequence of Brexit will be the empowerment of patriotic and nationalist forces across Europe,” said Golden Dawn’s spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris.

I can hear the drip, drip, drip of factoids being fed into those vertical silos right now. It’s the Poles. They’re scrounging bastards. They’ve taken your job. Those bastards. It’s the Romanians. It’s the Tutsis. It’s the Gypsies. It’s the Jews. The Jews. The Jews. The Jews.


was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)


 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

12 comments:

  1. Good thoughtful analysis, Mike. Because so many citizens are displeased with "elites" and "experts" does that mean we should turn for leadership to liars and charlatans? Skepticism and disillusionment shouldn't make one's brain stop working. Do people lack skills of critical thinking or just reject them as passe in the present climate?

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    1. Good question. I wonder if it's a bit of both. People have become very cynical, but one suspects also that the target-led culture in education means there's less emphasis put on thinking for yourself and being discriminating in where you get information.

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  2. I agree with pretty much everything, but one small point - in the past few years I've attended numerous rallies, protests, marches and candle-lit vigils, and obviously I haven't been doing it alone. Personal engagement is not yet dead!

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    1. That's true Nicky. I don't think people have stopped caring about their world. What is alarming, is the way they no longer discuss it in a polite way with those who don't share their views.

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  3. A Full English with beans. I could eat that!

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    1. So could I. It's not hard to find the beans in New York but I wish the deli next door would serve them for breakfast!

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  4. Mike you are onto something big!! Bring back the drunken pub debate culture...and we thought we were all too gone to remember...

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    1. I can, just about, through the haze :)

      I can certainly remember the Union bar on campus and the horrible carpet that had had so much beer spilled on it that the soles of your shoes stuck to the floor, and the ashtrays overflowing with butt-ends. Pubs were like that too. Everywhere seems scrubbed clean now, and full of soulless people wandering around looking gormlessly at ice-white iThings. (rants nostalgically)

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  5. This is a well-thought out post. Politics is one subject that gets many people fired up. As an American, I know how it feels to have the world sit in judgment over our political choices. But as you point out, not everyone was for the Brexit, just like not everyone votes for the appointed U.S. President. I believe our upcoming presidential situation is somewhat like Brexit. People are voting based on emotion. They’re not looking at the ramifications. They don’t care. Their focus is on ‘me’, and from what I’ve read from Brits, they seem to have the ‘me’ factor at top level.

    As for the U.S.’s current candidates, one will leave us stagnant as her predecessors have done, and the other will leave us standing alone, like it has been pointed out with Brexit.

    For me, politics is very frustrating. I live in Germany now, but for a long time, I have been frustrated with the U.S. government system. It needs an overhaul. Two parties do not provide democracy. It does not provide checks and balances. We will continue to run in circles. I'm not a political guru, but I am a good judge in character. I vote on character, not experience. Not in my lifetime has a president stuck to their principles. Followed through with their promises. And when you're a voter stuck with the party choices and electoral votes, it's disheartening. To clarify, I'm not a party voter, therefore, I think it's unjust that I can't vote for a nominee because I don't pledge my allegiance to a particular party. That prevents many capable and intelligent people from voting—a huge flaw in the U.S. system.

    I wish Britain the best. Hopefully, in 4-years, the U.S. will have honest, capable people stepping up to be president that don't have so-called "experience" and can look outside for answers. Too bad my man, Bernie didn't get the votes needed to Bern Trump and smother the woman with a lack of integrity. *sighs*

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    1. I think you've hit the nail on the head when you say that two parties do not provide democracy. That is a big additional reason for the Brexit disaster.

      In a bilateral system, by definition, relatively few of the electorate will be offered a choice that really attracts them. Yet the winner-takes-all electoral system in both the US and UK means that no wider choice can be offered. It also delivers perverse outcomes - the current UK government got just 37% of the votes cast (and of the registered electorate, just 24%). Moreover your vote is worth a great deal more or less depending on what constituency you vote in - and in the US, the electoral college system means that votes are unfairly weighted by state. A number of presidents have been elected with a minority of the votes cast.

      The US does at least have several pillars of government and a federal structure as well, but the UK doesn't - a perversely 'elected' government can have pretty much untrammeled power. Discontent had been building up for a long time and because the elections aren't really democratic, this referendum was a very rare chance to kick the government. People took it, and I expect some only realised later that they had actually been asked an important question and, without thinking, delivered a terrible answer. I remain convinced that the 'social media silo' factor was the main reason people ignored the facts, but this was also an important reason.

      Incidentally Denise, I do understand that Bernie may be looking for a new challenge. Would you have his number? (I should explain that, in British law, there's no reason an American can't run the joint. In fact our first woman MP was American.)

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    2. Mike, you really know your laws and history. I'm at a loss, because you're so detailed with truths. Your comment about social media hit me, because I think some people in the U.S. jumped on the Trump bandwagon. Social media combined with emotions of feeling neglected is what's pushed Trump to the forefront.

      I hope Bernie finds his way somewhere in the political arena to push some important issues. WOW! That's pretty interesting that Britain allows a non-British person to take part in their decision making. I have to ask a stupid question, what is a MP?

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  6. A Member of Parliament. Nancy Astor is an interesting figure - a difficult one in some ways as some of her opinions were not attractive, and she has been accused of heading an aristocratic country-house clique that was soft on Hitler (I suspect this partly inspired Kazuo Ishiguro when he wrote Remains of the Day). She also had some very weird prejudices. But she was certainly a character, and had friends on the Left as well as Right, including George Bernard Shaw. A woman worth reading about.

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