#Brexit: how systematic lying reduces democracy to a farce

I am shocked, horrified, incredulous, scared, very angry and, above all, sad. The UK has decided to turn its back to common sense, its best values, its own self-interest, and voted to leave the EU. A lot of ink has been spilled, trying to make sense of the result, analyses abound, making what follows a mere drop in the ocean. I still need to write it, because it is the necessary premise of what I hope can become a constructive interpretation. This post is intended to be the first of a series of three articles: to get started, we’ll look at the minimal list of lies that allowed the UK to shoot itself in both feet (or worse) – it’s a long list, with origins that can be traced back to the glossy eighties. The second post will look at how systematic lying affects politicians themselves, the third will do the same for electors. My hope is to identify a reasonable strategy to try counterbalancing the current trend.

The fact that the EU referendum result has been somewhat influenced by systematic lies, and that at least some of these lies were allowed to reach the status of pseudo-facts is well known, even passionate Brexiteers will admit that their side has proposed somewhat misleading arguments. Lots of people have already explored this outlook, see for example Peter Yeung  for the Independent, this analysis by Will Davies, Jonathan Freedland, and Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian. Examples from the blogosphere abound as well, I’ll cite only Eleanor St Clair‘s eloquent article , because she speaks for my anger as well.

The bottom line is: Britain was conned (pun intended), the Brexit side won because a large proportion of the population was systematically misinformed. This is bad, but it entails a much darker consequence: in the process, democracy has been subverted and reduced to a despicable farce. Doublespeak is not just normalised, it is either expected or required. I am sorry, but I am not going to oblige. If you voted leave, what follows will be hard to read: I can’t help it, please do read it and please do let me know the reasons why you may disagree.

[Note that links are hereby used as evidence: with one exception (on the marginal subject of Neo-Liberalism) they link to sources selected on the basis of their reputation and independence.]

My main thesis: one of the main purposes of democratic institutions is to make sure decision makers do not systematically favour the already privileged. There is much more to democracy, of course, but this important aim is the one that has been violated more blatantly. In this context, the EU referendum was conceived as a con (it was not called exclusively in the interests of the electorate), and ended up being much worse: we’ve got to a situation where upholding the democratic process requires either to act against the best interests of the population at large (invoke Article 50 – no matter the consequences) or to ignore the “democratically” expressed preference of the very same population. It’s a lose-lose situation, but I will be arguing that doggedly proceeding towards Brexit, in the name of the Will of the People is manifestly not our best option. Why? Because a vast proportion of the population was systematically misled, and brought to believe in a sky high, steaming pack of lies. A vote cast on the basis of systematically disseminated, hardly ever challenged lies, is not and cannot be a democratic expression. On this basis, it should not be acted upon without further reflection.

In other words, my aim is to demonstrate that many leavers did vote on the basis of false information.

A key narrative of Thatcherism was that self-interest, when channelled through competitive markets, can be transformed into a force for good. There is some truth in this claim, with the keyword being “can”, under certain circumstances. However, the first foundational lie which made the current situation possible is that, thanks in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it is now fairly uncontroversial to imply that competition and market regimes can be used to solve almost any problem (Lie#1). This is not the place to debunk this idea, so I’ll have to appeal to my readers’ charity and ask to provisionally accept that perhaps there are some problems that markets can’t solve (or even that markets actually create their own problems, just like everything else). For the current purpose, it’s important to note that such a Neo-Liberal idea  has become commonplace since the early nineties, so much so that it is now assumed as fact: it is so pervasive that it is almost invisible. In this context, the Labour governments of Blair/Brown did not have any chance (and perhaps no intention) of challenging said assumption. As a consequence, an excessive (culpable) degree of laissez-faire allowed the financial sector to spin out of control, while the government temporarily enjoyed increased tax-revenues. We all know the result: by gambling with other people’s money, the financial sector undermined its own viability and had to be rescued with vast amounts of public money. Within weeks, tax-revenues dropped dramatically and at the same time the government had to spend unprecedented amounts of money to ensure the very structure of our financial institutions could survive. The above should be uncontroversial, it’s merely a dry description of what happened.

However, this narrative is not the accepted version, it has been in fact replaced with a lie: the Labour governments of Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by spending too much (Lie#2). This is false, Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by failing to prevent excessive financial speculation. They did end up spending too much, but this was an effect of the financial crash. Lie #2 is a lie because it inverts the causal chain: what was a consequence is now described as the root cause. Why did this happen? Because spinning the false narrative allows those who can to make more money. Pretending that “spending too much” caused the crash directly justifies reducing the size of the state, e.g. reducing the volume of public services. Reducing public services creates the opportunity of delivering the same services for a profit, it’s not rocket science. Now, I’m not saying that a big state is always better, it is not. All I’m saying is that the policies that followed were based (at least partially) on a lie, and a lie that was allowed to spread and be accepted as fact.

This leads us to Lie#3: to rescue the economy, the only option is/was austerity. At the propaganda level, this lie was sustained by maintaining that “we were living above our means” and that austerity is/was needed because the state budget works like a the household one, which is blatantly false, but feels reasonable. Why is it false? Because the state prints money and legally enforces its use (at the very least by collecting taxes in the state currency), families don’t. This tiny detail immediately breaks the analogy: if the state merely needs more money, it can print more. It is entirely true that doing so without limits would be suicidal (via hyperinflation), but it is nevertheless not true that it all works like a family budget. For example, it is an uncontroversial fact that Keynesian stimuli can work; conversely, it also uncontroversial that austerity harms the economy, even the IMF has now been on record saying that it harms the economy more than  expected. Do I need to highlight the key implication? “More than expected” implies:”yes, we already new that austerity harms the economy, we just didn’t think it was so bad”!

We all know what happened next: the coalition government implemented the Conservatives’ agenda, austerity was delivered, Britain enjoyed a double dip recession, the Chancellor’s predictions were never met, which, largely justified by Lie#3, allowed to keep pushing more and more austerity down our throats. So, what does austerity mean? It means less public spending, which means less public services. In other words, those who rely on public services are, by definition, the ones who will bear the grunt. Ultimately, living standards for the bottom half of the population (the half with less money) inevitably degraded. At the same time, inequality increased, adding insult to injury. Still, we do know that the public actually did believe Lies #2 & #3 because, guess what? They voted for more austerity, and (re)elected a Tory government. Go figure.

Meanwhile, UKIP and the right-wing popular press were busy preparing the ground to establish another lie. Fostering fear and xenophobia, they prepared the grounds for the ultimate con. We all know Lie#4: public services are struggling because there is too much immigration. This lie is all too easy to debunk: what do you think happens when you spend less on public services? It happens that the public sector delivers fewer services, that’s what. It is well known that immigration positively contributes to the public purse. Claiming the opposite is just blatantly false and should not be tolerated.
Conversely, another partial lie has been established: immigrants steal our jobs, making working class people poorer. There is some limited truth in this claim, so it needs to be debunked with care: it is true that an influx of cheap labour makes finding low-income jobs somewhat harder; it’s also reasonable to think that it generates a downward trend to (already) low wages. We do know that these effects are marginal, but they do exist, meaning that the consequent problems should be addressed. How? In a nutshell, one needs to limit the decrease in wages and hike protections of workers’ rights. Guess what? Tory-led governments did the opposite: they have consistently tried to undermine the power and credibility of the unions, and then also managed to deliver an impressive additional lie via the “living wage” reform. Under Labour, to protect the lowest wages, two separate mechanisms existed: the minimum wage and the unofficial, but increasingly recognised concept of the living wage. The Tory government, in a spike of evil brilliance, managed to undermine this by effectively hijacking the “living wage” label: by setting up a new system to calculate the periodic increases to the legal minimum pay (what is, if words still matter, a “minimum wage”), they concurrently renamed it “living wage”. An example of doublespeak if there ever was one: unchallenged by the bulk of the media, they did little or nothing to help low wages workers while claiming to be their champions. One has to admire such crafty cynicism. Overall, the deliberate policies of the government made it possible to transform a weak claim into an all too powerful lie: (Lie#5) people struggle to find decent jobs because of immigration. In truth, people struggle because the economy has been strangled by excessive austerity while at the same time there has been hardly any protection of the lowest wages.
In short: lies #4 & #5 blame immigrants for the negative consequences of cynical policies enacted by two successive right-wing governments.
This leads me to the actual #EUref campaign: to finish off the list of lies about the economy, it is a well known fact that the leave side has been “creative” in depicting the economic cost of EU membership, claiming that we can save money by leaving (Lie#6), while all the evidence suggests the opposite (for some reason, it’s the only lie that is now uncontroversial).
Leaving the economy aside, the other big argument in favour of #Brexit is that the UK wanted to reclaim its Sovereignty. This argument has two horns: control of our borders, and control of our legislation in general. The need for controlling EU immigration is largely supported by the previous string of lies, but also relies on an additional falsity. The leave side repeatedly claimed that we’ll be able to retain free access to the EU single market without having to accept the freedom-of-movement flipside. Nobody knows if this will happen, so Lie#7 is simply the claim that “of course, it will happen”!
Still on Sovereignty, a major issue has been about the European Court of Human Rights. The leavers’ claim is that Britain doesn’t need a supra-national institution to protect human rights. This may or may not currently be the case, but it blatantly ignores the reason why the defence of human rights ought to be enforced by supra-national institutions. Question: what kind of entities perpetrate the worse offences against Human Rights? Answer: states and para-states, always. Thus, supra-national institutions are required to effectively defend Human Rights, it’s that simple. Lie#8 is that Britain doesn’t need an external Human Rights watchdog, while it manifestly does (it’s sad and shameful, I know). Still on Sovereignty, much of the rhetoric was aimed at establishing Lie#9: this is the claim that most of UK laws are undemocratically decided by “them” (some faceless, monolithic EU). First of all, this myth has been officially debunked. Second, to sell goods or services in a given market, the rules of the market need to be respected (whether you sit amongst the market regulators or not). Third, it is true that EU institutions are somewhat opaque and byzantine, but that is because they are designed to allow national governments to exert their own influence, not the opposite, as the leave side has systematically implied.
That’s it, I’m done with the list of lies used to misinform the electorate before the referendum. My claim is that the (non binding) referendum result needs to be ignored or somehow ratified, because it was based on false information. To do so, the necessary premise is that at least some of the lies listed (1-9) are actually lies and also that they were believed by a not-negligible proportion of the electorate. You should feel free to challenge me and claim that what I’ve labelled lies are in fact true facts, but please be careful: by doing so you will inevitably reinforce my claim that they are indeed believed. Secondarily, you should manage to demonstrate that at least the majority of them are not lies at all. The burden of proof is high: because most of them have been sold as “established facts”, it would not be enough to show that they may be true or somewhat true, you will need convincingly show that they are, for the most part, manifestly true. I have provided supporting evidence for all my claims in the form of links from independent and well-respected organisations, so I don’t think it’s even possible to demonstrate such a thing. To seal off my argument, I need to add only one thing: it’s necessary to show that people voted because they actually believed one or more of the deliberate lies I’ve listed. The evidence for this comes from a post-vote poll by Lord Ashcroft, where the “reasons to leave, reasons to remain” are investigated (I’ll leave aside the vast, largely anecdotal, evidence about “buyer’s remorse”, even if it’s now becoming hard to ignore). Once again, the evidence is uncontroversial: people voted to leave to regain Sovereignty (lies 7-9, accounting for the first and third “reasons to leave”) and to limit immigration (tied to all the lies, in different ways). It’s interesting to note that people did not choose to vote remain because “all the alleged reasons to leave are false”. If a considerable proportion of the population saw through the lies I listed here, you would expect that “there is no reason to leave” should have been a popular choice, but sadly it wasn’t among the choices offered in the poll.

First conclusion:

The outcome of the referendum has been unduly determined by deliberately false and misleading propaganda. As such it is not the result of an informed choice and should not be considered as the free democratic expression of the electorate.

Second conclusion:

At the very least, a second referendum should be called (a general election with a credible contender pledging not to leave, or to have a second referendum, would be my preference), this time it is imperative to allow enough time for discussion, so that deliberate lies may be challenged and exposed in the public forum. The option of simply not acting on the basis of a non-binding and hastily debated referendum should also be considered, although ironically, the “leave” side would certainly be able to denounce the practice as “undemocratic”.

Final remarks.

Unfortunately, all options on offer are bad: actually leaving would be (it is now clear) catastrophic for the economy and won’t have the desired effects, either because leaving is supposed to solve an non-existent problem (Sovereignty), or because the solution won’t work (Economics). Refusing to execute “the will of the people” will undoubtedly fuel poisonous and mendacious rhetoric on the leave side. Conversely, there is no guarantee that a second referendum will allow to better inform the public, although there is in fact some hope that it may be at least a little less misguided. Overall, this last option is not necessarily disastrous, so it seems to be the only one defensible on rational and democratic grounds.
Be as it may, the fact that all the conceivable options are bad, and have concrete undemocratic qualities (either acting against the best interests of the country as a whole, or ignoring a formally democratic mandate) demonstrates my larger point: if lies are allowed to poison the public discourse for long enough, democracy becomes an empty shadow, and a dangerous one. In the next post I’ll start exploring why.
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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Stupidity
15 comments on “#Brexit: how systematic lying reduces democracy to a farce
  1. Hey Sergio,

    I was hoping that I could make you feel a bit better, given the prospect that we Americans may actually “Trump” you by electing such a (you name it) to become the world’s most powerful person. But I now see that you’re in an even darker mood, and thus perhaps you’d take four years of some kind of British Trump rather than Brexit. Well if we Americans do end up getting ours as well, I’m sure that you’ll at least smile about this. And yes misery does love company!

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Hi Eric,
      I’m beginning to think that I bring ill fortune: I’ve endured years of Berlusconi, moved to the UK and got two conservative governments is a row, the second being manifestly worse. All topped up with a third government even more awful, committed to Brexit and with Boris Johnson as foreign Secretary, which really looks like a bad joke (we have both, Brexit and the British Trump)… Turns out that the world was busy laughing at Italians, but we were just 10-20 years ahead.
      (I really don’t think Mr. tiny hands will make it on your side of the pond, but it sure is scary)

  2. Carlo says:

    Now the only hope is to at least read the message sent from people, for example, what if EU would have as first priority: common health, pension and education system? People would vote against EU?

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      (you read my stuff?!)
      You remind me that I haven’t focussed on the elephant in the room, one big enough to apply across borders, not in the UK only: the EU has a massive PR problem. Gigantic, in fact. Democratic institutions are there to promote welfare, are they not? However, the only thing that grabs the headlines is economic policy, all the rest might get mentioned somewhere sometimes, but will never attract attention. You mention education, among other areas, and I happen to know that the EU does a lot, and good stuff as well.
      I know because I’ve worked on an EU project (actually, I still work on it, albeit with low intensity) and have been to two of the connected conferences. As far as research on education goes, it was/is very good stuff, if I may say so (I shouldn’t, because we were leading the project, so I’m certainly biased). Thus, I have little doubt that also the other areas you mention are being tackled, and I would be surprised to find that the work done was generally poor. The fact is that we don’t get to know about it: a PR problem. Sends us right back to the awful situation of the media industry in pretty much all of the Western world: private media giants sell entertainment camouflaged as news, and while doing so, they manage to set the agenda of public discourse.
      We know about Berlusconi, but Murdoch’s press is without doubt one of the main reasons why Brexit is happening…
      Now, where did I put my last dose of optimism? It must be somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it! 😉

  3. Allan Seago says:

    I don’t think the voting public was short of facts. The information was there if you looked for it. The problem was that the voters didn’t believe what they were told. And if you have a situation where people do not believe evidence when it is presented, there is something else going on, something which is not going to be shifted or modified by facts and figures. This is very much the stuff of politics. Whether you vote Labour Conservative, LibDem or whatever, your preferences are going to be determined by your vision of the kind of society you would like to live in, which is in turn determined by the kind of person that you are . We know from psychology that people will ignore facts which seem to run counter to deeply held beliefs and focus on those which seem to support them.

    I include myself in this. I was never remotely going to consider voting for Brexit. Even if I was presented with irrefutable evidence that leaving the EU would result in a better, kinder, fairer, more equal and prosperous UK, I still (probably) would have voted Remain. Which I suppose makes me a bigot, of sorts. For me, it was an emotional decision , as much as an objectively considered one. I feel European; I always have, ever since I first started travelling on ‘the continent’ from my mid-teens onward. I travelled by myself, and this experience was, and is, totally tied up with the development and assertion of identity that we all go through at that age.

  4. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Allan, thanks!

    I don’t think the voting public was short of facts.

    I think you are 100% right, and had to re-read my own post to make sure I didn’t suggest the opposite.

    Facts (as in correct information) where indeed present, but bathed in a sea of misinformation. Moreover, they where framed in a worldview which is entirely fictional (the prevalent propaganda that I’m attacking here).

    We know from psychology that people will ignore facts which seem to run counter to deeply held beliefs and focus on those which seem to support them.

    Indeed, and as you point out yourself, we are all prey of this nasty mechanism. Moreover, sometimes our own actions shape the world we get to experience in such ways that our beliefs become entirely justified by the evidence, even if (or more precisely, because) the evidence is somewhat a function of our beliefs.
    This sort of thing is so important to me that I’ve even discussed it in the second post I’ve written in here (second half), it’s kind of foundational on multiple levels (see also We are all biased, but why? and the bright side as discussed in my guest post at TheEGG).
    I mention all this because it is paramount in explaining how we got to the current sorry state (Brexit, for sure, but dysfunctional Democracy is my real target). If we want to cultivate some (irrational but useful) hope, we need to start from understanding how is it even possible to convince large proportions of the population to consistently vote against their best interests.

    One approach is the one I’ve used here, it’s the easiest: just list the misbeliefs that have become entrenched in our society. Another approach is shown, at least in embryonic form, by Tom Stafford in his (very much evidence-based) Why don’t we trust the experts?

    In fact, Stafford’s analysis is so good that I’ll quote two snippets:

    So those who didn’t trust the scientist tend to believe that the scientists don’t
    care about them.
    [H]ere we have a partial answer to why experts aren’t trusted. They aren’t trusted by people who feel alienated from them.

    Putting the pieces together, the picture I find is something like the following. As I’ve discussed here, we don’t live in an equal opportunities society, the game is rigged and favours those already on top. If you don’t live at the top, the one thing you’ll learn (justifiably!) is that you can’t trust what you’re being told from above. Thus, people like you and me, who vociferously want to live in an equitable society, but who also don’t have to struggle too much to reach the payday, may even make things worse. Our talk about a fair or fairer society will inevitably (and I stress, justifiably so) sound hollow at best, mischievous at worse.
    I can’t say that I’ve figured it all out, but I do think that this line of reasoning might bear some fruits. It also exposes the apparent paradox: how come that people choose to believe scoundrels such as Farage or Bojo? I think the answer lies also in other psychological mechanisms, hopefully something I’ll cover here, one day.

    For now, I should come back to Brexit. You are pushing an open door: systematic lying isn’t the only reason why the Leave side won. There is more, I am certain there is (yes, starting with the importance of emotional reactions). However, the lies that frame the current prevalent worldview must be somewhat of a softer target, because they are so obviously untrue. We should find a way to make use of the one strategic advantage we do have: fighting against lies has to be easier than fighting truth with lies. Yes, I do know: people might want to believe comfortable lies instead of disturbing truths, that’s one of the themes I hope to explore in the next posts, if I’ll ever find the required clarity of mind.

    [Apologies for the link-rich reply: this kind of reasoning really is foundational to my own worldview, so I have written a lot about it all – I actually had to cull most of the links – for decency’s sake 😉 ]

  5. David Duffy says:

    Bill Mitchell is certainly not a mainstream economist (he champions Modern Monetary Theory, an approach often characterized as neo-Chartalist, and detests neoliberalism), but from my ignorant viewpoint seems to make some good points:
    I don’t think he is unsympathetic to the idea of a united Europe per se, just that he believes the present financial arrangements were a disaster waiting to happen.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    thanks for the links! I’ve managed to read the first.

    It took me many hours and considerable willpower. Yes, Mitchell makes many good points, but unfortunately they are more than counterbalanced by plenty of mistakes, which are all too easy to attribute to his proud display of ideological blinkers.
    The overall result is so wrong that it hurts.

    His post is long enough to prevent a point-by-point rebuttal, it would take more than the rest of my day (I’ll excuse myself on the basis of the Bullshit asymmetry principle).

    I’ll limit what follows to the gist of it: an important point he makes is that the victory of leave is somewhat a consequence of neoliberalism (NL), that’s agreed. He is also right in noting that NL is entrenched in many EU institutions, and that this hurts those on lower incomes.
    What he failed to spot is that a good half of British neo-liberals (UKIP itself eagerly favours shrinking the public sector) was actively campaigning for Brexit.

    As far as I can tell, the dividing line between pro-EU and anti-EU neoliberals is somewhere near the line between those who think regulation is a necessary annoyance and those who want unregulated markets, without compromise.
    The latter are bandits: they take this position because they represent the winner-takes-all side. There is no credible theoretical position in favour of entirely unregulated markets, everyone with half a brain knows that they just create monopolies and allow the winner to extract rent with unjustifiable ease.

    So, if leaving the EU produces a new danger for NL, why so many neoliberals welcomed it? Because:
    1. (In their view) It is not a danger (I’m afraid they got this one right). People voted for Brexit for exactly the wrong reasons, they bought the fiction I’ve tried to expose above and having made their choice they will now be far less willing (or able) to recognise they have been fooled.
    2. The civilised face of NL has lost. The EU fully recognises that a capitalist society needs to protect workers and consumers rights, needs market regulations, strong antitrust enforcement mechanisms and strong controls on tax havens. Brexit means that the City will not face EU-imposed controls on its financial dealings with the underground economy (money laundering and tax havens – I believe this is the reason why Boris Johnson flipped to the any-EU camp). It also means that GB workers will lose all the protections the EU “imposed” on employers…
    3. Far from making the ills of NL impossible to ignore, Brexit makes deploying the most dangerous tactic to manufacture consent much easier. For a few years at least, Tories will be able to blame the nasty Europeans for almost everything. Because of 1., people will be eager to swallow this upcoming lie (anything is better than blaming thyself).
    4. In parallel, within and without the UK, the most destructive force in human history will (already is) gather(ing) momentum: nationalism is on the rise everywhere, and it is because questioning NL is virtually impossible. Thus, blaming someone else is getting easier and easier.

    What will happen next is truly terrifying. Putin is already fostering instability and has managed to drag Turkey inside his sphere of influence (with an ease that should terrify just about everyone!). In the EU, nationalist/protectionist movements now have enough power to influence policy, their influence is growing, and Brexit provides even more fuel. This will make it impossible to produce a coordinated response. Thus, Putin will be able to destabilise more ex-soviet states, and then offer his support as the only way to re-establish order. The middle east will remain engulfed in an high-intensity bloodbath, with various nations armed with nuclear warheads embroiled in the mix (for safety, that looks perfect!). But hey, perhaps the British Labour will manage to remove his neo-liberal members, so hey, clearly Brexit is wonderful news…
    Oh please.

    To get rid of neo-liberalism, we need two things:
    1. Systematically explain why it rests on hopelessly wrong assumptions. Explain who benefits and show why it hurts most.
    2. Produce a credible alternative. To be credible, it has to be clearly separate and better than Marxism. In the present day, anything that smells of Marx is met with immediate and automatic dismissal by everyone but Marxists.

    Mitchell clearly forgot this tiny second detail in producing his analysis…

    Otherwise, we can keep watching as NL cannibalises itself (remember Trump?), witness the final, self-inflicted collapse of Western economies and then all enjoy WW3 as new players try to fill the power vacuum. Call me Cassandra if you wish, but that’s how I see it. I’ve been frantically looking for reasons to be a little optimistic, and found none. Nationalism is on the rise (fuelled by NL-generated inequality), and historic precedents tell us that it always leads to conflict. Brexit is not the cause of this trend, it merely accelerates it, but has exactly zero chances of stopping it. I’m sure Mitchell means well, but he is getting it much too wrong.

  7. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Writing the above comment left me unsatisfied, I woke up feeling stupid: did I really mention WW3? Have I lost my last marble?
    Perhaps it’s worth adding a few qualifiers. Do I think the world is about to descend in chaos? No, not quickly, at least. Do I foresee an all-out, large scale war? No, the irreversible industrialisation of slaughter, combined with the nuclear threat, makes the prospect unappealing to all but fanatic nutters.

    So why writing the above? It’s about trends and patterns: nationalism is on the rise; insular, egocentric rhetoric, fuelled by the resentment generated by rocketing inequality, is becoming appealing in the entire Western world. The problem is indeed inequality, but it is not the 1%. It is the 0.0001%. There are a handful of people in the world whose wealth is so huge that they can buy anything; even if they can’t buy everyone, they can certainly steer public discourse. Because they can, and because they are the problem, they will. To protect their position they won’t hesitate to deploy the ultimate argument: scapegoating and blaming someone else. Thus, since they won’t certainly blame themselves, some will resort to xenophobia. Actually, the use of the future tense is wrong: they are already and will keep doing the same. Unless something interrupts the current trend, insular nationalism will be normalised, Brexit-style arguments will become ubiquitous in Western “democracies”, and once they are, I can’t see how they can be eradicated without trauma.
    In this context, people like Mitchell and old-school leftists (you know who I mean!) are consistently getting the wrong end of the stick. Yes, Brexit has reasons rooted in class, but this doesn’t mean that class-identity can be used to resuscitate socialism. What changed in the mean time is that populism has changed from the status of craft to almost an exact science, it’s called progress. Being able to steer public opinion doesn’t depend on talent as much as it did 30 years ago. In the modern day, there (actually) is an App for that.

    Overall, I largely agree with the diagnosis offered today by Martin Jacques, but I also note that the framing is worrying: you can almost sense his excitement in noting that class struggles are back in the agenda. What he forgets is that the old-style left is unable to offer any compelling argument against the rise of populism; if nothing changes, also the radical or almost radical left will die along with neo-liberal policies. We’ll be left with nationalist rhetoric and protectionist policies. These will reduce international ties, slowly making it easier to blame some external actor for the falling living standards that will inevitably occur. Thus, the pattern is clear, and points to the disintegration of the EU, as it is precisely the opposite of what the EU is for.
    Overall, my original claim stands: we need to design an irresistible narrative to oppose the rise of populism. In this context, my point 1 above (exposing the lies) makes populism harder to defend, point 2 is about having some alternative offer.

    To conclude, no, I don’t think the descent into chaos is irreversible, but I do think it is an urgent problem. The current trend needs to be reversed quickly, while it is still possible, but it is not going to happen if left wing intellectuals stubbornly cling onto concepts that were fit for purpose a century ago.

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    More talking to myself…
    It seems that I might not be barking mad, after all. Or at least, I’m in good company.

    A week ago, Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard, produced Slate’s cover story, entitled The Week Democracy Died.
    He makes most or all the points I’ve tried to make above, albeit without the focus on nationalism, and from an understandable US-centric angle.
    Almost a year ago, for the New York times, he wrote something that was only marginally less ominous, concluding that “the warning signs are clear enough that it would be folly to ignore them” and that “The future of democracy is uncertain”.
    So perhaps I can stop worrying about my sanity and go back to worrying about the fate of society as I know it. Meh, not really sure what option I prefer. I need to invest more energy building some unjustified optimism.

  9. […] the previous post in this miniseries I’ve used the example of Brexit referendum to explore how allowing lies to […]

  10. […] of democracy. On one side, a well established web of lies is enough to make electors consistently vote against their best interests, on the other, it forces politicians into an ever-narrowing path that leads to authoritarian forms […]

  11. […] the unchallenged pile of lies which enabled it, and now Trump. If you are not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. […]

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. […] 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 […]

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