Predictive Processing: the role of confidence and precision

This is the second post in a series inspired by Andy Clark’s book “Surfing Uncertainty“. In the previous post I’ve mentioned that an important concept in the Predictive Processing (PP) framework is the role of confidence. Confidence (in a prediction) is inevitably linked to a similar, but distinct idea: precision. In this post I will discuss both, trying to summarise/synthesise the role that precision and confidence play in the proposed brain architecture. I will be doing this for a few reasons: first and foremost, much of the appeal of PP becomes evident only after integrating these concepts in the overall interpretative framework. Secondarily, Clark does an excellent job in linking together the vast number of phenomena where precision and confidence are thought to play a crucial role, thus an overview is necessary in order to allow enumerating them (in a follow-up post). Finally, reading the book allowed me to pinpoint what doesn’t quite convince me as much as I’d like. This post will thus allow me to summarise what I plan to criticise later on.

Image adapted from Kanai et al. 2015 © CC BY 4.0

[Note: this series of posts concentrates on Clark’s book, as it proposes a comprehensive and compelling picture of (mostly human) brains as prediction engines, from perception to action. For a general introduction to the idea, see this post and the literature cited therein. As usual, I’ll try to avoid highly abstract maths, as I’d like my writing to be as accessible as possible.]

Precision and confidence: definitions.

Precision is a common concept in contexts such as measurement, signal detection and processing. Instruments that measure something (or receive/relay some signal) can never produce exact measures: on different occurrences of the same quantity (whatever it is that it’s being measured/transmitted), the resulting reaction of the device will change slightly. To be honest, it’s more complicated than that: in discussing precision, one should also mention accuracy and how both values are needed to characterise a measurement system – as usual, Wikipedia does a good job at describing the two, allowing me to gloss over the details, for now.

The point where we first encounter precision is when dealing with perception: it goes without saying that perceptions rely on sensory stimuli, and these can be captured in ways that are more or less precise. For example, eyesight can be more or less precise in different people, but for all, the precision will drastically drop when looking underwater with our bare eyes. Our vision underwater becomes heavily blurred, and I think that we can all agree to describe this situation as a marked drop of precision in the detected visual signals.

Confidence is more slippery concept: the term itself is loaded because it presupposes an interpreter. Someone must have a given degree of confidence in something else: “confidence” itself cannot exist without an agent. I’ll come to this thorny philosophical issue (and others) in later posts. For now, we can discuss how Clark uses the concept (which is typical of PP frameworks). The general idea is that perception is an active business. Brains don’t passively receive input and then try to interpret it. In PP, brains are constantly busy trying to predict the signals that are arriving; when a prediction is successful, it will also count as a valid interpretation of the collected stimulus (one attractive feature of this architecture is that it allows to collapse certain powerful forms of learning along with active interpretation of sensory input: if PP is roughly correct, they happen within the same mechanism). In mainstream PP theories, prediction happens continuously at multiple layers within the brain architecture and is organised hierarchically, different layers will be busy predicting different aspects of incoming signals.
Within this general view, the idea of multiple layers allows to avoid positing a central interpreter that collects predictions: at any given time, each layer will be busy producing predictions for the layer below, while also receiving predictions from above. Thus, having dispensed of the dreaded homunculus (a central, human-like interpreter), the concept of confidence becomes more tractable: a given prediction is now a bundle of nervous signals, which can come encoded with some associated confidence (indicating the estimated likelihood that the prediction is correct), without having to sneak-in a fully fledged interpreter. The encoded confidence can have systematic effects on the receiving layer and exert such effects in a purely mechanistic way.

Thus, we can generally expect incoming (sensory) signals to arrive along with their evaluated precision (a mix of precision and accuracy, to be fair) while the downward predictions travel with a corresponding (but distinct!) property which looks at least analogous to what we normally call confidence.

What counts, and what is proposed to explain a fantastically diverse range of phenomena (from attention to psychosis, from imagination to action), is the interplay between precision (coming up, arriving in) and confidence (going down, from centre towards the sensory periphery). Let’s see a general overview, which will allow to refine the current sketch.

Interplay and conflation between precision and confidence.

In PP, any given layer would receive two inputs, one is arriving from the sensory periphery, the other is the prediction issued by higher-level layer(s). The general schema posits that the two inputs are compared. If the two signals match perfectly, the layer will remain silent (a sign of a successful prediction), otherwise the difference will be sent back to the higher level layer, signalling a prediction error. What precision and confidence do, in the PP flavour generally espoused by Clark, is change the relative importance of the two inputs (within a layer) and the importance of each signal in general, across all layers. Thus, a very precise signal will, in a sense, overpower a not-so-confident prediction; a very confident prediction will in turn be able to override a not so precise signal. Simple, uh? Perhaps an example can help clarifying. Our eyesight is quite precise in detecting where a given signal is: we can use it to locate objects in space with very good precision. Not being bats, the same does not apply to our auditory abilities. We can roughly localise where a noise comes from, but can’t pinpoint exactly where. Thus, vision has high spacial precision, hearing does not.

When I’m slumped on the sofa watching TV, the sounds I’ll perceive will come out from the speakers; however, I’ll perceive voices as if they were coming from the images of talking people within the screen. Why? According to PP, there will be a layer in my brain that combines auditory and visual “channels”. The visual one will be producing a prediction that a given sound comes from (the image of) a given mouth, the auditory channel will suggest otherwise (sound comes from where the speakers are). Thus, combining the two is a symmetric business: it could be that a given layer (driven by vision) produces the “source of sound” prediction and sends it to a layer which receives auditory data (from below). Otherwise the reverse could be the case, and the upcoming signal is visual, while the descending prediction is informed by the auditory channel. Either way, the visual channel (when discerning location) will have high precision (if upcoming) or high confidence (when issuing a prediction), while the auditory has low precision or confidence. When the two are combined to produce the prediction error (one that applies specifically to the combination of these two channels!), the visual signal will matter more, as it’s more precise/confident. Thus, if the prediction is visual, the error signal will be somewhat suppressed, signalling that the expectation (sound should come from where the mouth is seen) is likely to be correct. Vice-versa, if the prediction comes from the auditory channel, the error signal will be enhanced (signalling that the expectation is likely to be wrong). Either way, the end result doesn’t change: because vision is spatially more accurate than hearing, the final hypothesis produced by the brain will be that the voice is coming from where the mouth is seen, and the discrepancy across the two channels will be superseded.

This (oversimplified) example is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, allows me to introduce another fundamental concept, which I’ll enunciate for completeness’ sake (I will not explain it in this post). In PP, what we end up perceiving at the conscious level is the most successful overall hypothesis: the combination of what all the layers produced, or the one hypothesis that is able to better suppress the error signals globally (within a single brain). There is a lot to unpack about this concept, so much so that even a full book can’t hope to explore all implications (more will follow!); for now, I will need my readers to take the statement above at face value.

The second interesting point is that the description above shows a peculiar symmetry: it doesn’t matter whether auditory information is used to produce a prediction, which is then matched to what is arriving via the visual pathway (in PP, this will be itself a residual prediction error), or vice-versa. In either case, we’ll perceive the sound as if it was coming from the viewed mouth. In turn, this means that the confidence of predictions (flowing down) and the precision of sensory signals (which are, after the very first layer, always in the form of residual errors!) are always combined, and can be modelled in terms of relative weight (higher weight is given more importance). In other words, the two values matter only relatively to one another; at a given layer, the effect of precision and confidence is determined by relative importance alone. That’s quantifiable in a single number, or, if you prefer, by a unidimensional, single variable.

Third observation is that, in view of the last point, the conflation of precision and confidence espoused by Clark and most of the PP theorists (for a paradigmatic example, see Kanai et al. 2015, where precision and confidence are described as a single variable, encoded by the strength of neural signals) is justified – at least, it is justified at this level of analysis. Because of how PP is supposed to work, it seems reasonable to conflate the two and sum them up in a single measure. In practical terms, the move is sensible: to describe the effects of precision and confidence on a single PP layer, all we need is a single measure of relative weight. Conceptually, it also makes sense: after the first layer, the upcoming signal (what I’ve described so far as incoming, sensory, information) is in fact a prediction error, which is in itself heavily influenced by the predictions that shaped it along the way. Thus, upcoming (incoming) signals cannot be said to encode their own precision (as they aren’t measurements any more), they de-facto encode a precision-cum-confidence signal. Overall, to fully embrace the PP hypothesis we are asked to collapse the (usually) distinct concepts of precision and confidence (at least for the upcoming signal); failing to do so would count as an a-priori rejection of the whole paradigm.

The above might look preposterous and over-complicated, however, I would like to remind my readers that brains are the most complex objects known to humanity (How complex? Beyond our ability to comprehend!). Thus, it would be unreasonable to expect that we could make sense of how they work via a single approach that also happens to be simple. Moreover, it’s relevant to note that both the concepts of perception (intended as mere signal detection) and prediction include their respective evaluation of reliability: any system described via one of the two concepts requires to treat either precision or confidence, in order to be fully functional (as commonly understood). What use is a weather forecast if it doesn’t at least implicitly come with an assurance that what it predicts is more accurate than pure guesswork? Would you use a measuring instrument that returns random numbers? Thus, I’d argue that a discussion of precision and confidence is necessary for any serious PP model, it is not a secondary hypothesis (or ingredient), it is as fundamental as the idea of prediction itself.

Finally, in the next post we’ll see that indeed, the proposed role of the interplay between precision and confidence is also the reason why PP is such an attractive proposition: the potential explanatory power of this orchestration is indeed stunning, to the point of being, perhaps, too good to be true.

Bibliography

ResearchBlogging.org
Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011

Kanai R, Komura Y, Shipp S, & Friston K (2015). Cerebral hierarchies: predictive processing, precision and the pulvinar. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 370 (1668) PMID: 25823866

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Posted in Consciousness, Neuroscience, Philosophy

Partisan Review: “Surfing Uncertainty”, by Andy Clark.

Sometimes it happens that reading a book ignites a seemingly unstoppable whirlpool of ideas. The book in question is “Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind” by Andy Clark.
Why is this a partisan review? Because Clark himself had already convinced me that the general idea is worth pursuing, well before writing the book. To use a famous expression: I want to believe. However, since I keep obsessing about my own biases, I also want to be as critical as possible – call it overcompensation, if you must.
In this post I will briefly review the book in general terms, the whirlpool of ideas mentioned above is mostly about the criticism I have to offer, which will come later (with the vague hope it might be useful).

As the title suggests, Clark’s book is about a subject I’ve touched before: the brain as a prediction engine (for an introduction, see previous posts: The Predictive Brain, part 1 and part 2). Clark himself summarised the arguments developed in the book via a series of posts published at the brains blog (starts here); for a review that also describes how the book is organised, see Andrew Buskell.
For my part, my previous discussion (links above) did not even mention a fundamental concept: confidence. When issuing a prediction, or even when detecting a signal, one important element that should never be overlooked is the evaluation of how much confidence can be attributed to the result. I’m using the word “confidence” here in order to keep the idea fairly general, for the time being. Clark does an exceptionally good job at explaining why the concept is indeed foundational, and how introducing it allows to move the generic predictive approach from the level of being a nice idea, all the way up to a research framework in the making. I mention this because, after appreciating the crucial role that confidence estimations play, my older presentation of the matter starts looking incomplete to the point of being misleading.

An important feature of the book is the emphasis it places on embodiment. However, it’s worth noting that the book starts by adopting mainstream assumptions of the computational kind – indeed, an overarching aim of the book is to bridge the gap between computational and embodied approaches. I was a little surprised to find that the computational assumptions are not really discussed: the fact that brains and neurons process information is taken as self-evident (Note: I agree!). The book proposes the “Predictive Processing” label (PP) as an overarching definition, able to point to a whole family of separate approaches. The “processing” word is telling: we are dealing with a solidly computational outlook. As the book proceeds, however, the ’embodiment’ promise in the title gets gradually fulfilled: PP isn’t merely applied to perception, instead, the book shows how the same framework can be used to model action and action control. The result is a continuum, from perception to action, which cannot possibly brush aside the fact that behaviours are physical: actual body parts move. Yes, brains have a controlling role over action, but, alas, much of vanilla cognitive science has been historically happy to study brain function without giving much attention to the role that bodies have in shaping what the brain does and, crucially, in defining what count as successful strategies.
Clark’s treatment has the refreshing quality of restoring the due balance in a field that has been characterised by unjustified prevalence of opposing extremes. Once upon a time, uncompromising behaviourism of the Skinner kind was accepted as the default assumption, only to get superseded by the opposite (and symmetrically wrong) stance of computational cognitivism.

Needless to say, in my view, this is one reason why this book was necessary (there are more!), and finds me in full agreement. [For those interested in this general debate, leaving aside the specific view offered by PP, I have explored (also) the relation between computationalism and embodiment in two posts at Conscious Entities: part 1, part 2. Moreover, I have recently produced my own Twitter-storm, commenting on Krakauer et. al. (2016) [Highly recommended reading!]. From the other side of the fence, my discussions (see also) with Golonka and Wilson might provide some insight on why and how classic cognitive approaches are being challenged by the school(s) of (more or less) Radical Embodiment.]

So far, so good: the assumptions on which the book rests look more than reasonable to my eyes, which made my reading sympathetic from the start. Additionally, one of the overarching aims of the book, reconciling computational and embodied approaches fits my own agenda perfectly. What’s not to like? Well, I must also report that some my own expectations did not find satisfaction.
Clark is a philosopher, so I was hoping to find a book that revolved around known philosophical issues, and showed how PP helps surpassing them. Pretty much like Hohwy’s “The Predictive Mind“, Clark’s book isn’t taking this approach. Instead, it begins from general considerations or observable phenomena, and methodically ties them to existing scientific literature. The result is a book that organises and summarises an astonishing amount of scientific (empirical, theoretical and frequently pretty arduous) work. Not what I was hoping for, but it turns out that sometimes you do get what you need. The works cited by Clark are usually scientific papers: as such, the vast majority isn’t suited to discuss the big picture at length, and is even less able to provide an overview of how different pieces fit together. Thus, we needed Clark to do this hard work, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done better.

If you are trying (like me) to gain a better understanding of where PP-centric research is heading, what it assumes, and what are the main conceptual pillars on which it rests, this book will satisfy your hunger and might even leave you feeling bloated. [Personal note: while reading the second half of the book I found that I was studiously slowing down. In part, this was to avoid overload and to make sure I was assimilating as much content as possible. In part, I just didn’t want the book to finish, as reading it was a genuine pleasure throughout.]

What of my aversion to standard academic publishing? [I.e.: my claim that peer-reviewed monographs frequently spoil the joy of reading by being overly cautious and pedantic.] Once again, my expectations proved to be misplaced (I love to be surprised! 😉 ).
On caution: the need to be fairly uncontroversial does transpire in many ways, you could say that it is ubiquitous. For example, Clark keeps adding caveats like “if the story I’ve been constructing is on the right track“, which went duly noticed and appreciated. We are, after all, dealing with an emerging, still to be established, research programme. The field is solidifying quickly, but we are far away from having a fairly complete and coherent jigsaw. On the other hand, treatments of thorny issues such as consciousness itself (why do we perceive some predictions?) are cautious to the point of being disappointingly sketchy, if not overlooked.

The flip side is how Clark leverages support from existing literature, which did surprise me in a good way. While reading, a recurring pattern characterised my reactions: judging on the primary text itself, I was frequently inclined to conclude “yes, the argument is promising, but I’m not convinced that it is strong/watertight enough to abandon due scepticism”. However, when the book relied on a body of evidence that I did happen to be familiar with, my initial reaction was regularly overridden (sometimes after checking the references): I ended up realising that Clark’s arguments are backed by wide and deep evidence (empirical and/or theoretical), to a point that wasn’t immediately evident by reading the text itself. Thus, my recommendation for future readers is obvious, but important: if you find yourself unconvinced, do read the relevant references. It is likely that you’ll find plenty of reasons to be convinced in the supporting bibliography. Needless to say: despite my bias against academic (peer-reviewed) monographs, Clark’s book struck me as an example that it is possible to get it right – chapeau.

Another pleasing consequence of how the book is organised is that, by offering a clear overview of the research field, it helped me in identifying the areas that failed to convince me in full. Since I know that I want to believe, I am very determined to use my resources to find and explore the reasons why the PP framework might not hold water. I found some, technical, which I plan to discuss separately. I also found what might be summarised as “gaps”, both at the beginning of the story (in the form of philosophical foundations as well as the lack of a convincing evolutionary perspective), and at the end (mostly in the lack of explanation of what we experience as our mental life).

The first consideration is a little worrisome; it seems to me that the research field is at risk of doing the usual mistake: oversimplifying. As for what I perceived as gaps, I see no reason for concern: if I’m right, these gaps should be treated as opportunities, to be seized by theorists coming from both philosophical and scientific perspectives.

In follow-up posts, I will try my own luck, and see where my criticism might lead – with apologies for being so openly and unjustifiably haughty.

Bibliography

ResearchBlogging.org
Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011

Hohwy, J (2013). The Predictive Mind Oxford University Press DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199682737.001.0001

Krakauer, J., Ghazanfar, A., Gomez-Marin, A., MacIver, M., & Poeppel, D. (2017). Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias Neuron, 93 (3), 480-490 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.12.041

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Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology

Perspectives…

In the past few months I’ve spent some time looking for trouble on Twitter. I’ve found some (mild and polite), which translated into plenty food for thought, and eventually allowed me to put some order in my thoughts. The matter stems from the urgency of finding ways of having a positive (no matter how small!) effect on the political landscape, but inevitably extends far and wide, touching philosophy, psychology and more generally, how (one may try) not to be a jerk. The gist: nobody can ever fully grasp someone else’s point of view, that’s why dialogues are useful, but also the reason why getting it wrong is so easy.

This song is OT, I’m adding it here as a collective hat tip to the many wonderful women who enrich my life and keep me on my toes. Thank you all, I owe you a lot! © Morcheeba

To get started, I’ll draw from two twitter episodes that didn’t actually involve yours truly. The first went globally viral at a serendipitous time, you can read it here. It reports an all too common history of sexism and implicit bias. For my current purpose, the relevant observation is that Martin R. Schneider (the author of the twitter thread) clearly isn’t (and wasn’t, at the time) your typical douchebag, he most likely was already well aware of widespread sexism and the problems it creates. Nevertheless, he was taken by surprise when he finally got to experience sexism in first person. I suspect the thread got shared so widely because the story did surprise many (including, I confess, myself). Question is: why? Personally, I try hard to be aware of these issues, I work in an environment that is perhaps among the best places to rise awareness, and yet, my reaction was disappointing, all I could think was: “D’oh, I shouldn’t be surprised”.

To get closer to an explanation, another (related) Twitter thread might help: Eve Forster tried a similar experiment (summary here, while this is a Twitter search encompassing the length of the experiment), and guess what? She managed to surprise herself. Pretending to be a male made her self-image and attitude change in ways she didn’t expect. [Update, May 13 2017: Eve has now written a thoughtful piece about her experiment on Vox, well worth your time!]

Finally, here is an important report (HT Zara Bain) by the late Harriet McBryde Johnson on her encounters with Peter Singer. [Side Note: when I wrote this article I was willing to give Singer the benefit of doubt, reading Johnson’s article convinced me that he is indeed culpable of epistemic arrogance.] Why is this relevant? Because it makes the crucial point obvious: we can try to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, but our consequent understanding will usually be miles away from the real thing.

Obvious? Yes. Important? Obviously. Neglected? You bet! It’s the neglect that interests me.

We can only reason by leveraging the cognitive resources we already possess; when trying to understand what it’s like to be someone else, we may amplify the weight of some experiences, transpose some others to a different context, suppress a given family of feelings and so on. But no matter how we try, whatever happens to be qualitatively different from our past experience will be forever out of reach (echoes of Mary). However, try we must, and because we do, our exercise will usually produce some results. The trouble happens when one remembers that, to say it with Kahneman (2011), our brains easily produce the impression that what you get is all there is. In other words, if the imaginative exercise produces an impression that feels coherent, we are inclined to believe it – what else could we do? Thus, Singer is inherently unable to grasp why and how Johnson’s life feels unquestionably worthwhile from within (including why this feeling matters!), and Johnson has her own trouble in understanding how could Singer be so blind. Similarly, merely acting on the pretence of being someone else produces experiences that, being qualitatively new, Forster herself could not predict. In Schneider’s case, knowing that sexism is vicious and ubiquitous wasn’t an adequate substitute of experiencing it first hand.

This whole picture chimes extremely well with the growing interest in the idea that our brains are best understood as prediction engines, especially when modelled as Bayesian engines (for a gentle, very broad introduction, see here). Clark (2015, footnote #1, Chapter 10, p328), makes the point perfectly:

[A]t the very heart of human experience, PP [Predictive Processing] suggests, lie the massed strata of our own (mostly unconscious) expectations. This means that we must carefully consider the shape of the worlds to which we (and our children) are exposed. If PP is correct, our percepts may be deeply informed by non-conscious expectations acquired through the statistical lens of our own past experience. So if […] the world that tunes those expectations is thoroughly sexist or racist, that will structure the subterranean prediction machinery that actively constructs our own future perceptions – a potent recipe for tainted ‘evidence’, unjust reactions, and self-fulfilling, negative prophecies.

I took the liberty of transcribing the note almost in full because it highlights the core intuition that I’m wishing to put in writing. What we experience, and importantly, how we interpret it, is necessarily shaped by what we have and haven’t experienced already (this is tautological, that’s why it matters). Thus, it is not sufficient to realise that we are blind to our own systematic mistakes, doing so is just the first step. What is important is to realise that different world-views are mutually blind to each other’s differences and then blind to their own blindness. Thus, we finally reach my own misdeeds.

I have been exploring this train of thought for quite a while; in my efforts, I try to do as I preach, and actively sought criticism on Twitter. I was not surprised to find it easily, but on calmer reflection, it is surprising that I did manage to enact the kind of mistake I was trying to uncover. Surprising and ironically beautiful. The first conversation happened here, the second (sub)thread is this (apologies for the length). In both cases, I failed miserably (I’ve selected two sub-threads, picking the ones that showed my failings clearly). In the first case, I failed to deliver my main message (I’m trying to explain it better in this post), in the second, I got it wrong in more complex (and somewhat sinister) ways. Why? My conclusion is once more the same: I failed to fully grasp how my blabbing would be perceived, and I concurrently failed to spot the first failure. Failure and Meta-failure, hurray!

Conclusion

Hopefully, the direct and indirect experiences I’ve summarised here all point in the same direction. Bridging different points of views is hard, especially because each point of view would (usually) feel both complete and coherent from within – even when we are imagining someone else’s perspective. These differences are typically the direct consequence of different life experiences (cfr. Clark’s quote above), as such, they are in and of themselves entirely justified. Moreover, because two people can never share the same experiential trajectory, imagining someone else’s point of view is hard and frequently misleading. That’s why dialogue is important, but also why it is always dangerous to assume the other is simply mistaken. Reason does not help in bridging the gap, because it usually can’t: what is needed is an experiential bridge.

Why does this matter? Because politics. It’s no mystery that Western societies are dangerously veering to the right. What is less visible is that right-wing propaganda is exceptionally good at building and exploiting  experiential bridges. Conversely, the progressive side is spectacularly bad at winning hearts, and unsurprisingly, mostly blind to its own failure (do I need to mention Corbyn?). Thus, trying to understand what we’re doing wrong isn’t simply important, it’s an existential matter. Right now, we should all try to help people realise how profoundly they are being misled. Our game should not be about winning arguments, much less sneering at the gullibility of the masses. We should be busy changing minds, and to do so, we must begin by erasing our false sense of superiority.

Bibliography and further reading.

Kahneman, D (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN: 978-0374275631

Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011

ResearchBlogging.org
Abeba Birhane recently published a relevant article: Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’, which explores, from a very different point of view (!), some of the themes I’m developing here. Highly recommended.
For those interested in my own trajectory, one of my earliest articles here also discusses a connected mechanism, which I’ve called ‘cognitive attractors‘.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Stupidity

The shitstorm ahead: it’s time for action

Unlike most of my previous writing, what follows is not going to strive for balance. We are well past the point where careful assessment of opposing perspectives can help. Now is the time to mobilise every person who is able to see beyond their own nose. Why? Because a shitstorm of global proportions is approaching, and every minute counts.

Volcano erupting

Image by Yosh Ginsu © CC0

The shitstorm matters to you (wherever you are).

Predicting what happens next in the USA is, even for an outsider like me, disarmingly easy. What do you think will happen the first time racial tension re-ignites anywhere in the US? Trump’s administration will enthusiastically turn against their own people. That’s what. They are currently busy arresting brown people who happen to be foreign and travelling. To start doing the same, Pinochet-style, with non-whites US nationals, all they need is an excuse. People are angry, so the excuse will be provided in a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, when it will happen (and it will), the tipping point will be reached. After that, every single person on the planet will implicitly be aligned with one or the other side: those happy to tolerate dictatorship and war on one side, those who are willing to defend peace and democracy on the other. Whoever will not actively put their view on record, or try to support their cause in more concrete ways, will automatically be in the former group, unfortunately. That’s how bad the current situation is.

After the next escalation, Trump’s room for manoeuvring will narrow down at an accelerating pace. Stakes will rise, and to remain in play, he will stretch the law more and more. This is the first thing we have learned beyond reasonable doubt in the last 72 hours: Trump isn’t playing safe (predictably), he is already stretching the law. As a consequence, soon enough appeasing his core voters will become a matter of life and death: his vociferous supporters, and the threat of generalised unrest (in a nation where vast numbers of citizens are armed and itching to shoot), will quickly become the only reason why he won’t get impeached and arrested. There is nothing that Trump won’t do, once his own skin will be on the line. Thus, the first convenient enemy will be chosen and depicted as the source of all ills, a war will soon follow. I cannot predict who this enemy will be, that’s because China is manifestly the most convenient, but even Trump should hopefully be able to realise that an open conflict against China is pure madness. It’s likely that Trump will try to use ISIS for this role, but ISIS is not strong enough to be credibly responsible for the upcoming internal unrest, so I don’t think the move will work.

If the above scenario will unfold as above (or in a comparable manner), every nation on the planet will need to decide whether to support the USA or not. If the prospect doesn’t scare you, you’re either cruel or a fool.

I will use the UK to exemplify why this division will happen, why it will be automatic and unavoidable, and why taking a stand right now is necessary. Unfortunately, it applies to all nations, and therefore to every human being on earth.

Brexit, May and Trump.

Arguably, the UK has already picked its side. That’s the other thing we’ve learned in the last three days. May was happy to be photographed hand in hand with the most dangerous person on earth. She is also happy to provide high tech weaponry to Erdoğan, despite the fact that Turkey is currently not even trying to present itself as democratic. Why? Because the UK is already trapped in a corner: a direct consequence of Brexit. May knows that she will desperately need every bargaining chip she can grab. She needs to make sure that the British 1% (her core constituency) remains able to keep piling up more and more money. This would be easy enough, if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that she also needs to retain the support of the useful idiots who happen not to be rich, but do support Brexit.

You don’t need to be a genius to realise that the game she’s playing is already difficult: faced with Trump’s antics, it is clear that the only option she has is to walk the tightrope. May needs to keep Trump happy, while finding a way not to enrage every sane UK elector. Not easy, but she has to try. Unfortunately, once Trump will start deliberately murdering his own people (I reiterate: when this happens depends only on when someone will be fool enough to start a riot in the USA), the only way that May will have to retain Trump’s support without losing her job will be to actively spread more and more lies – she will have to actively deceive a significant proportion of the UK population, failing to do so will inevitably lead to a change of government. Unfortunately, she already is beyond recovery: the course for her is set, and with her, probably the course of the whole UK. The only option that remains is to unseat her. What should worry us all is that the time to do so before she will start using all the power of the state to save her own position is limited, and therefore, every single UK citizen needs to activate RIGHT NOW.

Looking beyond our own borders, sooner or later every other government on earth will face a similar situation. Trump doesn’t understand subtlety, you are either with or against him. Any government that will not oppose Trump’s methods to retain power (and again: he will soon start shooting his own people in city squares, I’m afraid), will be henceforth trapped: governments will start lying to try justifying their choices, and as lies will pile up, their possibilities to change course will vanish.

What can we do? (UK)

In the UK, it’s quite simple, but the time available for action is horribly short. Given the current situation, all parties (including the vast majority of the Tories) can harvest the support of all the voters who happen to be decent human beings. The mindlessness of Trump has abruptly lowered the bar to an unprecedented low threshold. All that is needed is to be able to communicate how bad Trump’s administration really is, and refuse to support him. Labour and the LibDems could do this in a blink of an eye, if they could find the courage to cooperate. Unfortunately, it seems that the current leadership of Labour is happily wearing the most tight ideological blinkers that I’ve ever seen. Based on what they are doing (forget what they say!), it seems that they are convinced that:

  1. The EU is irredeemably Neo-Liberal, and therefore an eternal enemy of Socialism. Thus, leaving the EU is moving one step towards the realisation of their Socialist ideals.
  2. They must have some hope that May will make some massive mistake and turn the polls around, all by herself… How this may happen, I have no idea.
  3. They also think that it’s impossible to change the minds of enough electors, explaining to the population that the current hardships are not caused by immigration, but instead, by the Neo-Liberal delusions of much of our ruling class (that is: the belief that markets can solve all problems. Yes, of course, this delusion is gripping also vast numbers of EU bureaucrats).

In other words, Corbyn and McDonnell think they can use Brexit as tool to bring about some socialist reform. Concurrently, they seem unable to realise how bad the situation is about to become. They are sleepwalking into their own obliteration. Once article 50 is invoked, the UK will be without respectable friends and the room for manoeuvre of whoever voted for Brexit will be reduced as a consequence. Stakes will rise, May will rank-up propaganda, helped by the right-wing media. May will also have a pre-packaged scapegoat: the evil EU bureaucrats will get all the blame. In this situation, how would Labour find the strength to command a change of course? It won’t, that’s how.

It doesn’t have to be like this: any Labour MP and/or Labour official who would like to retain their seat and, concurrently, avoid supporting fascist regimes (that is, one would hope: all Labour MPs), could immediately ask for change, if and when they will realise what the Trump and Brexit combination means for the UK. They should stand up for democracy and against state-sponsored violence. How difficult can it be? The current situation, horrible as it is, is also a huge opportunity: May’s position is about to become indefensible – but she can be effectively challenged only while the current course is still reversible. It will soon be possible to successfully challenge her, as long as you haven’t tied your hands already. Unfortunately, Labour’s current position is to support Brexit, and with it, its own pile of lies. Thus, Labour is currently busy tying its own hands, instead of preparing for a huge comeback, what a pack of fools!

Failing to challenge May, right now, by refusing to join forces with whoever is willing to uphold democracy, is effectively helping May to put us into an irreversible course. Brexit is the turning point, because it will make the UK irrelevant: during and after Brexit, the only way to retain some international weight is to snuggle up to the US. Befriending the EU will be impossible, so other options will be closed.

Call for action: please write to, or call your MP. Right now, it doesn’t matter what their party is. Ask them to stand up for democracy. Any price is acceptable as long as we can avoid supporting Trump. If you are a Labour member, a member of a union or a supporter of Momentum, please use your internal contacts to ask for the same. We cannot be seen to passively support Trump’s authoritarian turn. Refusing to do so will maximise Labour’s chances to return in government. [After publishing this, I will follow my own advice and do exactly how I preach.]

What can we do? (Rest of the world)

What can be done? I don’t know, it depends on where you are. If you are lucky enough to be based in the EU, you can help by showing just how horrible Trump is, and demand to your government to distance itself from the murderous policies he is busy implementing. It shouldn’t be difficult. The same probably applies to all the other American nations as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, it is imperative to do two things: (1) everything that slows Trump down would help, but above all, (2) it is crucial not to provide him with excuses to escalate internal violence. Please see the guidelines compiled by people who know (much) better than me. I don’t know about all the other nations, my ignorance blinds me, I’m afraid.

 

 

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Fascism on the rise, let’s worry

In the last post, I’ve discussed the allure of fascism, and why it is something we should all keep in mind. Worryingly, we tend to dismiss fascism as manifestly abominable, and therefore we run the risk of not recognising it when it is still in its infancy. What I did not discuss is whether the situation in the UK, Europe and USA is indeed able to favour the rise of new fascistic regimes. In what follows, I will briefly argue that the answer is “maybe”, and that therefore we should indeed worry, and make our views known.

© 1994 Daniele Silvestri. A short explanation is in the note* below.

For a brief, oversimplified account of what allowed fascism to rise in the last century, you may consult my previous post, or, if you feel adventurous, you could follow the suggestion I received from Dougald Hine and read this series of posts from John Michael Greer (I promise it’s well worth your time). The take-home message is clear: for fascism to take hold, it is necessary to simultaneously glorify and trivialise of “the will of the people”. That is, a couple of (false) things must become commonly acceptable in public discourse:

  1. Pretending that “the people” can have one, single and identifiable “will” must become normal. Of course, there is no such thing as a unique will of the people: different people will have different aspirations, and will also change their mind from time to time.
  2. The government must be understood to be the sole legitimate interpreter of such will. Naturally, democratic systems have many institutions, all explicitly designed to counterbalance each other precisely because no single monolithic institution will ever be able to do such a thing.

With these two wrong premises in place, it naturally follows that opposing the decisions of the government is equivalent to betraying the will of the people. Therefore, it becomes acceptable to punish dissent, as dissent itself becomes depicted as an immoral act.

The first reason to worry is that we have been flirting with the first (false) premise for far too long. It seems to me that the over-simplifying rhetoric of much of the national and international media has gone unchallenged for decades, preparing the cultural background for a rise of totalitarianism (in case you wonder: yes, I am saying that all populist propaganda is inherently proto-fascistic). The echo chambers generated or facilitated by social media also contribute: people can get exposed to multiple voices of fellow citizens, and find that they all broadly agree. This happens all the time, because hidden algorithms are doing their best to find voices that we are willing to engage with, and therefore they actively hide the ones we are likely to vigorously disagree with.

The second reason to worry is that belligerence is self-sustaining: if Nation X starts to treat Nation Y in manifestly inimical ways, Nation Y would be justified in doing the same. Thus, when fascistic discourse starts rising, since it is inherently tied to a national identity, it is likely that it will define itself also by depicting some other national entity as both entirely distinct (always a false over-simplification), and inimical to “our people” (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Doing this facilitates whoever is trying to build their own political fortune on the same premises, but in the supposedly “inimical” state (Is this part of Putin’s plan? I wonder). This isn’t good, because it ignites a self-sustaining feedback (see my last example here, for a glaringly obvious case) – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of war and misery.

Finally, judging on the feedback I’ve collected on the previous post, it seems that indeed people are not ready to recognise simplistic appeals to the unique (and identifiable) “will of the people” as proto-fascistic. Thus, premise 1 is being allowed to flourish, carrying us half way through.

If my analysis isn’t badly mistaken, premise 1 has almost taken hold in the UK and is on the rise elsewhere (I will not concentrate on the situation in the USA because I cannot claim to understand it well enough). The trend is very clear, Britain is currently becoming more fascistic/authoritarian, France might follow shortly, and the US is probably in an even more compromised state. This should be enough to warrant my main claim: yes we do need to worry, and more importantly, we need to stop the current trend before it becomes self-sustaining.

On the other hand, for the second premise to become possible, the first one needs to be firmly established and widely accepted. Thus, two differences between the first rise of fascism, as opposed to the present day, may turn out to produce enough resistance to the current trend. The first is that we now know why fascism is bad. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, this difference can backfire, so we can’t and shouldn’t trust that it is all that’s needed. Fascism may rise again, especially if it will manage to grow while remaining undetected.

The second difference is that financial capital is now internationalised by default. In the early 20th century, Italy, Spain and Germany had most of their capital held and invested within their national borders, but this is certainly not the case now. Therefore, whoever has lots of money right now might not be too eager to support the rise of new nationalism and the consequent rise of punitive custom duties, limiting trade and mobility of capital. However, someone will do their own maths and conclude that it’s not a bad idea (for themselves, see Trump, if you doubt it): as long as it is clear to them that they will be able to ride the tide and profit from changes ahead, some big capitalists will undoubtedly favour the current trend. As a consequence, I don’t think it is possible to know whether the 0.001% richest people on the planet will ultimately favour or resist the rising nationalist and authoritarian drives. Moreover, if we assume their motivation is straightforward selfishness, it is clear that they will not openly resist the trend if and when premise 1 will become firmly established: it would mean jeopardising their status, so you can bet that most won’t.

Overall, it is true that there are many differences (I’ve blatantly ignored many more!) between the world as it is now and how it was in 1920-30. However, these differences are emphatically not enough to consider the rise of new totalitarian and fascistic regimes as impossible. In fact, the trend indicates the opposite. Thus, anyone living in (precarious and always imperfect) democracies, currently has a choice: do nothing and hope for the best, or actively resist the current trend. We (Westerners, in Europe and the US) are lucky enough to be able to do so legally, therefore we really don’t have any good reason not to. We can and should make sure that premise 1 never becomes viable, and by doing so, stop the current trend before it becomes too dangerous. How? There are three things that each one of us can do, and luckily, the first two are easy. Yes, it may be an overreaction, after all we don’t know if the current trend is already destined to stop before it’s too late. But so what? Would you rather risk to live knowing you didn’t try to act when it was possible to stop fascism without resorting to violence?

Countermeasure one.

Make sure your dissenting voice is heard. To dispel the illusion that “the people” have one single voice, all that’s needed is that many different voices must be heard. It really is that simple: when a media outlet espouses a totalitarian and/or fascistic view, leave a comment, or tweet back, expressing your dissent – if anyone will notice, your (small) effort will not be wasted.
When someone does espouse questionable views in person, make the effort of expressing you respectful disagreement (see also below).
Contact your democratic representatives, manifesting your concern, and asking them to uphold the basic principle of Democracy: as Merkel reminded us (“[Parliamentary democracy] tolerates – no, it requires – dissent and criticism“). Dissent isn’t an annoyance, it is an essential resource of democracy.
You may also choose to join public rallies, but please do also consider the note* below (in some cases, it may be counter productive).

Overall, we can invert the current trend because we are the trend.

Countermeasure two.

Use your democratic rights. Vote, and vote wisely. These are dangerous times, our democratic rights are being challenged, if not progressively eroded. Therefore, one and only one voting criteria must currently override all others (if/when it does apply): do not vote for anyone fool or dastardly enough to promote proto-fascistic ideologies. In fact, if at the next elections only one party will actively stand for Democracy, you should vote for it, even if you disagree with many more of their policies. If you won’t, the next time the ballot may have only one party to vote for.
As per the previous point, let the candidates know your intentions well ahead of the next elections.

Countermeasure three.

Take your time, but do try to win hearts and convince minds. As we’ve seen before, this is slow, painful and hard. But it must be done. Democracy is degenerating because people are being duped, systematically and effectively – as a result, populist propaganda can and does attract significant amounts of consent: instead of forcing people to recognise their mistakes (accepting a pile of lies as the unquestionable truth), it offers simple (and wrong) reasons to remain hopeful.
If you are willing to go thus far, please remember: the usefulness of dissent cuts both ways. We all feel that our views are obviously right, even when we are wrong. Thus, our aim shouldn’t be to change the minds of those who are getting it wrong: we should be visibly (and publicly) willing to explore our disagreements, in order to all learn from the exchange. I’ve written about this before, please see the full argument for the details.

Conclusion:

The current trend is clear, and should leave us all scared shitless. No one can tell if it will lead to a new kind of fascism – one or more new regimes where disagreeing will become illegal, but it is clear that it may happen in many European countries (Hungary, UK, France, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, the list is frighteningly long) and of course, the USA. Many other dangerous things are also happening, I don’t need to mention them, but I’m afraid that the rise of fascist-like ideologies is by far the most compelling danger. Why? Because once established, fascism will start getting constrained by its own web of lies. Thus, it is guaranteed that it will be unable to react appropriately to all the other problems of our time.

 

Note*:

Daniele Silvestri is a well known (and really good!) Italian singer, author and all-round musician. The old song I’m linking to is partly responsible for making me write the last two posts. It helped me understand the value of dissent. Or, more precisely, it made me realise how much I already did value disagreements, better than any philosophical disquisition ever could. Grazie Daniele!

In case you are curious, I’ll (liberally) translate a portion of the chorus: “[…] I feel the urge to shout as well. But it’s your chanting that scares me, because slogans are inherently fascistic“.

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Fascism for dummies

Brexit, the unchallenged pile of lies which enabled it, and now Trump. If you are not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. There are many visible reasons to be scared, but more worryingly, there are hidden reasons as well. I think that the hidden reasons need to be exposed, and will try to do so below. [Spoiler: I will need to start from the good side of fascism, because yes, it does have one.]

Anti-fascism of the wrong kind.

Image source (public domain)

Image source (public domain)

As a result of Brexit, it is well known and widely acknowledged that the British right wing media feels bold enough to openly promote fascistic ideas. Concurrently, the UK government is busy promoting policies that don’t smell much different, while making it very clear that they don’t find the media coverage alarming.

In this context, many are blowing the whistle, in fact, it is reassuring to see how many do. However, I fear that all the whistle-blowing is falling on deaf ears. My worry is that both the UK and the US have demonised fascism so thoroughly that they have effectively become unable to detect and repel it efficiently. The so-called elites can recognise it without difficulty, but their recognition seems to produce little or no effect. Why? Because fascism has been labelled as pure (supernaturally) evil for much too long. In fact, those who haven’t actively tried to understand what fascism is may easily recognise what is good in the current rhetoric and be consequently blinded to its fascistic stench. In particular, it seems that many are simply unable to believe that what they perceive as benevolent (maybe of the “tough love” sort) is in fact the devil personified. It can’t be. And guess what? It isn’t. Fascism solves problems (temporarily), in fact, it appears to solve lots of problems, that’s the sad and dangerous truth. It also generates its own problems, just like everything else. The reason why fascism is bad is “merely” that the problems it generates are incommensurably bigger and nastier than the ones it (temporarily) solves.

To see why, I’ll paint a brutally over-simplified historic picture (with apologies).

An historic fable.

It’s the beginning of 20th century (before and after WWI), Britain rules most of the planet, has vastly superior technology and an efficient internal organisation. This translates to superior military force and Britain is not particularly shy when it comes to using it. Immediate competitors have the real and present need of catching up. It’s important to note that at the time, imperialism was normal, actually, it was more than normal, it was what the European ruling classes unanimously recognised as desirable. If France, Germany, Spain and Italy wish to “do well” they need to establish or retain their own colonies, and to do so, they need to be powerful enough to fend off the British when needed. France has republican/democratic inheritance, so the allure of fascism finds less traction, but the others don’t.

A problem that Germany, Spain and Italy all face is industrialisation: the economy needs to be transformed, and transformed fast (for Spain and Italy, the problem is that the economy is solidly pre-industrial, for Germany, it is strangled by sanctions). For all three, the prospect of letting the economy grow towards full industrialisation (driven by vanilla capitalism), in the presence of strong protectionist measures, simply doesn’t work. Markets are primarily internal, market players can keep competing with one another, but their ability to invest is limited by the relative small size of the market, making it hard to find fast paths towards full-blown industrialisation. What can be done? Simple, an alliance between (some) big capitalists and the government can accelerate the economic wheels. The state can invest at levels that private citizens can’t; concerted action can alleviate internal competition, and thus free even more capital for private investment. For all this to happen, the state needs to be able to offer guarantees, the government will call the shots, ask for capital to be invested on concerted efforts, but investors will have adequate guarantees.

The system that emerged was able to provide such guarantees, and did so by ensuring the stability of the political scene. Fascism called for a nation-wide coming together: workers will enjoy better services and their basic needs will be met, with the help of the state whenever necessary. In exchange, political rights will be limited, allowing the government to act as and when required. The system needs to be stable and trustworthy for long years (an industrial revolution doesn’t happen overnight) so social conflict has to be sedated. At the same time, capitalists need to trust the government, and know that their investments will pay off, so once again, stability is required: big changes of policy based on a change of government are simply not an option. Otherwise, capitalists would simply hold on their capital and defend their turf as before. It is worth noting that in this context the judiciary needs to serve the government, it cannot be truly independent: once again, for the system to work, investors need to know in advance that the state will deliver what it promises, which may not happen if people can sue the government and, for example, block for years the proceeding of a new road or railway.

Enter propaganda: for all of the above to work, minds and hearts needed to be won. Thus, what was offered had to be pretty convincing. At its root, the offer of fascism was to use the power of the state to eliminate internal conflict. Working people would have better employment and better services in exchange of stopping their class war against capitalists. Capitalists will get more controllable workers, and central direction for investment, earning better return guarantees and a reduced need to compete with one another. The fascist state acts as a central hub, protecting the welfare of the people and allowing capitalists to make predictable money. The result was sold as the idea of a newly found national consciousness, where the whole nation coordinates the efforts towards the common good. Crucially, for this system to work, internal conflict needs to become irrelevant. For this aim, the rhetoric becomes “if you are not with us, you’re against us”.  Overall, the picture is convincing and it does also seem to work in practice: people bought into the idea because it made sense, a lot of sense. Instead of wasting time and effort in petty fights between small interests, whole nations managed transform big chunks of their economic fabric. At the same time, a sense of shared purpose was established and nurtured: people found purpose in the effort, and relief in living in a far less conflictual society. Collaboration was offered in lieu of conflict: since the economy is (very much!) not a zero-sum game, (almost) everyone got to live better in material terms, but (almost) everyone also got the crucial added benefit of sharing a common purpose, a sense of truly (visibly, demonstrably) working for the common good. What is not to like?

[Note: we now know very well why fascism shouldn’t be trusted, but at the time little or no historic precedents existed, so it was much easier to buy into it. Only the few blessed with the gift of clear-headed foresight managed to recognise the error, and frequently paid a terrible price for it.]

Herein lies my problem. The allure of fascism is strong, because it does work (for a while).

Let’s recap, and indulge once more in an exercise of over-simplification. What defines the fascist ideology?

  1. National identity is established by glorifying the will of the people, channelled via the state. Generalised consensus is a hard requirement, even if it may be merely perceived and not factual.
  2. Dissent is immoral, because it hinders progress towards the common good. Internal conflicts, all of them, are deemed wrong, repulsive.
  3. Since the focus is on efficient, concerted efforts, the government cannot be impeded in its decision-making. Thus, counterbalancing powers are depicted as conflictual and at best, morally irresponsible.

Aside: proper, historic fascism achieves the above while retaining notional markets, private property and private investments. Fascism of the (nominally) communist variant differs a little: private property, private investment and markets are removed, while the core elements of fascism (1-3) are retained.

Before summarily looking at what makes fascism a bankrupt ideology, I wish to fast forward to today and have a look at present-day Britain (I suspect many similarities can be drawn with the US as well, for obvious reasons).

What are Brexiteers shouting from every podium they can exploit? That the people have spoken, that “Brexit means Brexit” and that whoever quibbles is betraying the democratic mandate (the will of the people). That’s point 1 for you. 52% of who voted (37.47% of the whole electorate voted to leave) urgently need to be perceived as expressing the unique, unquestionable will of the people, and the government is its only legitimate interpreter.

Remainers are branded Remoaners, asked to stop complaining and start collaborating for the common good. Dissent is immoral and should be silenced. Whoever points out problems and inconsistencies is playing Britain down, constraining our ability to proceed towards the common aim. Point 2? Check!

What is really worrying, is that even the necessary democratic counterbalances are actively being demonised. For the Daily Mail (and the whole right-wing block of newspapers), the high court judges who dared to interpret “the rule of law” (their job) and conclude that parliament has the right and duty to hold the government to account are “enemies of the people”. That is point 3, without compromise. Shouted out without fear, guilt or shame.

Why is this even possible? Because the allure of fascism is powerful. People recognise that internal conflicts are costly: a less conflictual society, where we could all share a common sense of purpose is naturally (and understandably) perceived as a good thing. Therefore, all the people shouting “but that’s fascism” must be wrong: if something is recognisably good, it simply cannot be the apex of all evil. Well, the inference is correct: fascism has good sides, it is not exclusively bad, and that is why it is dangerous. What is wrong, and the reason why I’m writing this, is the depiction of fascism as entirely evil. It is indeed very bad, but that doesn’t mean 100% bad.

The conclusion is inescapable: Britain and, worryingly, the US as well, is experiencing a resurgence of fascist or at best proto-fascist ideas. It is happening, the evidence is on the first-page titles, it is not a matter of opinion.

Wait, fascism really is a bad idea.

We come to the easy part: considering all the upsides of fascism, and considering how much better our lives would be without so much conflict and competition, why is this resurgence a bad thing? Because a fascist state is always, inevitably oppressive (from the start) and destined to become dysfunctional. The combination is the most toxic that has been ever experienced, it never leads to good outcomes, ever.

Why Oppression? It should be obvious. If a whole nation is supposed to collaborate towards common goals, whoever disagrees with the aims needs to be marginalised. Their voice needs to be irrelevant, otherwise collaboration degenerates into inefficient debate and a battle of conflictual visions emerges instead. How dissent is made irrelevant may vary, but the oppressive drive is necessarily always present.

Dysfunctionality, is it inevitable? Let’s say that in the 21st century the powers of technological progress make it “magically” possible to have a form of benign fascism, in which dissent is made irrelevant without the need of hurting anyone (a best-case scenario, which is impossible, but illustrates my point). What happens when the all-powerful government decides to implement the wrong policies? It happens that whoever can spot the error and wishes to correct it may be labelled as a dissenter, as such, whoever understands a problem that has been overlooked will be immediately marginalised. Result: the error will not be corrected. Everyone makes mistakes and governments are made of fallible people. Therefore, a fascist society is able to keep orderly moving towards the wrong destination until the bitter end, it actually does so with ruthless efficiency. History provides countless examples of the degeneration of fascist regimes: if all goes well they crumble under their own dysfunctionality, if things go wrong, they drive whole nations into the abyss.

[Note: real-world fascism has always been extremely nasty to dissenters. This is enabled whenever opposition is successfully labelled as immoral (a pre-requisite): the morality claim calls for punishment. Therefore, all fascist systems carry at the very least the danger of becoming violently repressive. As far as we can tell, they either are oppressive from the very start or do become nasty quickly enough.]

Conclusion:

Present-day fascism promises to solve the problems created by liberal democracies, mainly by providing a more efficient (and gratifying) way to coordinate efforts. Unfortunately, it comes with the upfront cost of being oppressive (despite my example, I don’t think benign oppression will ever be possible). This should be enough to repel it. Who wants to live oppressed?
If that’s not enough, the secondary effect of silencing dissent is an inherent inability to detect and correct mistakes. As a result, fascism promises to solve some problems, but is only able to deliver this promise at its onset: sooner or later, inefficiency necessarily prevails. In other words, fascism merely appears to solve the problems in question, but in fact it postpones them without resolving them, allowing them to grow out of control. In short: fascism is a problem that you really don’t want to have.

Am I saying that Britain and the USA are inevitably sliding into fascism? No. I’m saying that the danger is real, and it is real because many people who sincerely believe that fascism is bad may be unable or unwilling to recognise the current trend. They are, because they have been told lies, (mostly well intentioned) lies about fascism, in this case. Therefore, I’m trying to follow my own advice and expose these lies as much as I can.
In the next post, I plan to discuss how much we should worry and what we should do about it.

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