In my last posts on politics I’ve made a few predictions. Wrong predictions! In this post, I want to acknowledge my errors, reflect on what they mean, and perhaps make a few more in the process. In a nutshell, the root of my mistakes is clear: the initial directions taken by both May’s government and Trump’s administration have been openly fascistic and seemed to encounter little resistance, especially in May’s case. This sent sending me down the path of the gloomiest predictions. Luckily, I was wrong (with my immense relief), but unfortunately, not quite wrong enough.
What I got wrong.On the US side, keeping in mind that I only have second-hand knowledge of the situation, I had underestimated the strength of constitutional checks and balances (along with the volume of bottom-up dissent). I don’t think I had also overestimated Trump’s capacity to exploit the situation, if anything, I was expecting him to make more mistakes, driven by his massive ego. The specific prediction I got wrong was that Trump would exploit, if not facilitate, internal unrest, and use the consequent emergencies to suffocate the system of checks and balances that limit the executive powers of the presidency. I also predicted that this kind of scenario will unfold really quickly, and I can’t emphasise enough how happy I am to realise that I was wrong. Happier every day. I honestly have no good explanation on why I was wrong, but I do fear that the reasons why unrest might explode at any time are still valid. I am also still convinced that riots, or any form of civil unrest that is widespread enough to disrupt productivity, can still be exploited by Trump’s administration to undermine the democratic institutions of the country. Thus, I’m left in a state of fearful hope: what if I got only the timing wrong, while my worst fears are still valid? I can only hope I was entirely wrong!
On the UK side, my fear was that the authoritarian inclinations of Theresa May, and a good proportion of her Tory supporters, was backed by a decent amount of competence and that her fascistic aspirations could go unrecognised by both the main stream media and by a sizeable proportion of the electorate. Luckily, a crucial assumption was entirely wrong: despite the fact that May did have a reputation for high competence, Theresa May called a snap election without having a convincing reason to do so. She then ran the worst campaign I’ve ever witnessed, and in doing so, demonstrated to the country and the whole world how utterly incompetent she is (along with her whole team, one would think). I feel that my mistake was entirely justified: yes, you can never overestimate human stupidity, but assuming that your adversaries are a bunch of witless morons is a very obvious act of self-harm.
From the seminal mistake above (it appears that May herself, as well as her strategist, genuinely don’t have a clue), a second mistake followed. I have also predicted that “Corbyn and McDonnell are sleepwalking into their own obliteration“. Under the assumption that the Tories wouldn’t shoot themselves on the foot by their own initiative (an assumption that one is forced to make, when thinking about strategy), this could have been the case. However, I did underestimate two things: (1) Corbyn’s ability to appear genuine, along with the renewed appeal of his sensible domestic policies. (2) How well the deliberate ambiguity of Brexit would work.
There isn’t much to say about (1). Corbyn appears sincere, and he probably is, broadly speaking; I am 92% sure that he does mean well, although I can’t be persuaded that he genuinely believes in the open approach to decision-making he advocates (I can’t, because he never follows his own advice!). On point (2), there is much to be said, giving me the chance of making even more (hopefully wrong!) predictions.
Mistakes you need to make.
Along with problems that are good to have and problems that should not be solved, another mantra of mine is that some mistakes need to be made. The typical example is when there is a lesson to be learnt: sometimes making a mistake (preferably under controlled circumstances, where the consequences can be minimised) is the only effective way to permanently learn the lesson and reduce the likelihood of making the same mistake again, when stakes might be too high. [There is an interesting argument about the roles of parenting and education to be made here, perhaps something worth a separate discussion.] In the case of one of the wrong predictions I’ve made in the past 6-8 months, however, the mistakes I’ve made were mistakes that should not be avoided, which is different, and interesting in itself (to me, at least). It’s useful to learn to detect and react appropriately to these kind of counter-intuitive situations, so I’ll write down my reasoning here, doing so solidifies it (useful for me) and might be thought-provoking to my occasional readers. It is also very relevant to the current political situation, so please bear with me.
Mistakes that should not be avoided are a specific case of mistaken predictions, which may happen when the act of issuing a prediction can influence the outcome. In my case, I’m living in a society that is manifesting numerous warning signs: there is a very visible drive towards authoritarianism/fascism. Making the prediction that other parts of society will counterbalance this drive automatically and inevitably weakens the defences is question: if you are confident there is no danger, you will not spend your energies resisting it. If everyone involved feels the same, they will not push in the other direction, leaving the original drive free to steer society in the wrong direction. Thus, anyone who recognises such an unusual feedback is faced with a choice. One option is to issue the prediction one would hope is right (or, more weakly, choose to remain silent, because of it): people will recognise and reject fascism. This prediction automatically undermines itself, so in terms of predictable effects, it helps brining about the undesired outcome. The other option is to sound the alarm, hoping to be wrong. Doing so makes it more likely that things will turn out well.
It is paradoxical: the act of expressing a prediction is bound to reduce the likelihood that the prediction is correct. I know very well that in the case of my own prediction, its own effect is tiny enough to be well below being detectable. I don’t care. If everyone chose to play it safe, fascism would encounter zero resistance; I am not going to be complicit.
Overall, the choice above is not really a choice, not if you care about the outcome more than about your own track record. The only reasonable thing to do is pick the second option and shout the alarm as loud as possible.
In short: I could not be happier to acknowledge that my specific prediction (there is an authoritarian drive in the UK and it is not being met by an appropriate backlash) was wrong. For now. The situation might change: for as long as the worrying signs are present I will continue to call for countermeasures.
There are self-fulfilling prophecies, but also self-undermining ones, one ought to recognise them and act accordingly.
I’ve learned one lesson: I do not know enough about what is happening in the US. Situation still looks very alarming, I still think a shitstorm might explode anytime, but I know there are many forces at play, most of them unknown to me. This makes all of my predictions moot, so I may as well avoid making them.
In the case of the UK, I’m happy to keep getting it wrong: here is my assessment of the current situation.
- The macroscopic and unprecedented mistakes made by the Tories are certainly due, at least in part, to their own hubris. They thought Corbyn was a lame duck and underestimated their own weaknesses (see above: they relied on a self-undermining prediction, ha!). Assuming they will repeat the same mistake again would be utterly foolish.
- The strongest rhetorical weapon of the Tories has been somewhat weakened, but it is not neutralised. It is self-evident that some Tories have been betting on the failure of the Brexit negotiations. In such a case, there is little doubt that the plan was to put all the blame onto the evil (undemocratic, unaccountable, etc.) European bureaucracy. To make this move effective, the Tories need to re-establish their own credibility, which isn’t easy, but I am not ready to bet that it’s impossible.
- Corbyn and McDonnell might still be sleepwalking into their own obliteration. If the Tories will find a way to neutralise their own hubris, they will automatically expose the blind self-righteousness of Corbyn and the Labour left (see below). In other words, the outcome of the 2017 General Election makes it more likely that Labour will fall on the same hubristic trap that has almost destroyed the current Tory leadership. We must try to compensate for this, which requires to actively push in the opposite direction.
- As far as Brexit goes, it would be a mistake to assume that it is now likely that Brexit will not happen. Once again, making this prediction inherently undermines it. Thus, the only reasonable strategy is to keep fighting against Brexit. The best way to do so hasn’t changed one inch (for some of my ideas, see this post and the preceding ones).
One entirely positive effect of the last election is that it is now visibly wrong to assume that the neoliberal overreach (links to an excellent article by Simon Wren-Lewis, see also this equally good one by Simon Tilford) is the only kind of rhetoric that chimes with the public. The importance of this change cannot be overestimated (by Dougald Hine) and is due to the relentless efforts of Corbyn and co. (as well as many con-causes, obviously). Yes, while acknowledging my own mistakes I also want to highlight what they did do well! Specifically, this historic change of mood is happening also because Corbyn and his team have forcefully ignored all advice intended to move them towards the so-called centre ground. I applaud their resilience, with all my heart. I also worry that the same resilience will mean they will keep favouring Brexit, and do so in a covert and oblique way (as they are doing now).
Taking an ambiguous stance while working towards a covert objective will inevitably backfire (only question is when and how). Most of Corbyn’s capital is in the form of personal credibility. He appears genuine and trustworthy, probably for good reasons. However, this capital can be destroyed in the blink of an eye: it will disappear instantly, if the electorate will conclude that Brexit was a bad idea and that Corbyn backed it all along. Moreover, sooner or later, Corbyn will have to abandon the current ambiguity, he will need to choose between an act of national self-harm (implicitly affirming that he doesn’t care for the well-being of his electors, not if that means compromising on his ideals), or to revise his world-view and accept that the EU is a problem that is worth having (see here and here). Depending on his previous actions, Corbyn might find himself already forced to pick the first option, which would be catastrophic.
Brexit is bad for the country and worse for the international scene. Backing it means backing the wrong forces of history. Anyone who cares for peace, international stability and development should be busy managing or fixing the many problems that afflict the EU. Choosing to help destroying the most effective peace-making project in the history of humanity is inexcusable and foolish.
For us single individuals, the course of action is therefore obvious.
We need to keep saying that Brexit is the worst decision the UK could take. We need to point out that it was taken on the basis of false information, the public was systematically misled, we need to remind everyone that the choice of 37.47% of the electorate cannot be misrepresented as “the will of the people”. We also need to keep asking Labour to stop backing Brexit. Brexit is self-destructive, contrary to all the values shared across the party (admittedly, it is not entirely incompatible with the values that distinguish the Labour’s left); but above all, it is morally indefensible.