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.


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.



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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Posted in Politics

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.]


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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Posted in Politics

How to dismantle the web of lies

In the previous post, I’ve concluded, with Ben Walters, that we need to “make art that wins hearts and arguments that win minds“. The aim is to contrast the rise of populism, or, following the current slang, fight against post-fact politics. This is a hard thing to do, and unfortunately, a reactive endeavour as well. However, I do think that the challenge posed to democracy by the establishment of any web of lies is the kind or problem we have to manage: it comes with democracy itself and I don’t see how to eliminate it without undermining democracy itself.

Since there can be no general formula telling us how to make art that wins hearts, and since I know little about art in general, I will concentrate on what we know about what kind of arguments actually do win minds.

One could (probably should) start with the study of classical rhetoric. However, my inclinations are biased towards philosophy (typically modern) and standard science. Thus, I’ll draw from a range of ideas I’ve encountered in the last few years, and see if a coherent picture emerges.

To start from a very general point of view, this EGG article (with discussion) by the usual Artem Kaznatcheev offers a good launchpad. Seeing arguments through the metaphor of war very emphatically leads to disaster. That’s because it shifts the objective: instead of trying to improve knowledge (or to get closer to the truth, if you can bear the hyperbole), in a war-like argument the aim is to show that your counterpart is wrong – there are winners and losers, knowledge might improve only as an accidental by-product. More promising approaches try to focus on constructive strategies, however, as I write in the comments, the metaphor of midwifery doesn’t satisfy me in full: it still encourages me to consider my own position as privileged, creating a dangerous asymmetry. From where I stand, a better approach should incorporate the notion that both myself and my debating partner might be wrong (indeed, the assumption is that we are always somewhat wrong!) and that therefore the aim is for both to learn something from any given disagreement. Easy, uh? Not at all, but for now, I’m inclined to conclude that good old Socrates is useful, but not enough. Better strategies are needed. Where can we find them?

One place is this excellent article by Tom Stafford. Stafford draws from a wide range of primary sources, what we learn, among many other useful things, is that one effective strategy is to ask for mechanistic explanations: if someone has a belief that you consider false, a good way to find out who is right is to ask for detailed, mechanistic justification of said belief. If the belief is unfounded, such a justification will be hard to construct, and as a consequence, it is likely that your counterpart will start doubting their own position (Fernbach et al. 2013). Otherwise, you will get the chance to revise your own beliefs (one would hope). Result: someone should learn something either way…
Moreover, a recent study (Tuller et al 2015) hints at an even more profound mechanism: apparently, being asked to make your opponent’s point has a measurable effect in shifting your own position towards reconciliation, but only if you feel accountable to the opponent herself. This chimes powerfully with my beliefs (bias alert!): in order to have any hope to improve each-other’s beliefs, it is necessary to start by a position of mutual trust. Tom Stafford himself makes a very similar argument, offering a convincing explanation of why expert opinion had little if not counteracting effect on the case of the Brexit referendum.

The common thread is symmetry, and when symmetry is unachievable, mutual trust. In other words, to debate constructively, one needs to shift away from the default “I’m right, you are wrong” position, and at the very least try to figure out who is less wrong. Ideas in both debaters may shift, hopefully improving along the way. Fine, but isn’t this in direct contrast with my current aim? If I’m claiming that a web of lies has been established and that we need to disassemble it, how can I then claim that we should approach the task by assuming that we may be wrong, and there is no web of lies? Well, I don’t know, but I also don’t see any other way (I may be wrong, after all!), so let’s see if I can find some more helpful ideas.

In philosophy, it is frequently assumed that progress is made via an ever evolving argument: people propose a thesis, someone objects, thesis is refined to account for objections and so forth. In this context, Daniel Dennett in “Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking” (2013, page 33 in my hard cover) has been advocating the four rules of criticism (an approach first spelled out by Anatol Rapoport). The key point is that criticism needs to start by trying to re-express the idea you are criticising in the best possible light. As Dennett himself specifies, the power of this method is that “your targets will be[come] a receptive audience of your criticism”, but to me, the even more important point is that proceeding in this way will give me a chance to fully appreciate what makes the idea I’m opposing convincing to some. You have to start by accepting the possibility that there might be something valuable in the idea you find disagreeable, making it possible that instead of producing a counterargument you might end up shifting your position. In other words, this strategy is an honest way of earning the trust of your debating counterpart: what could have been your opposition becomes a partner.
This leads me to an interesting detour: in Bayesian approaches to psychology, what counts are priors. How people evaluate new evidence is a function of what they already believe. Let’s go back to Brexit: a well-known interpretation is that people have rejected experts’ opinion and voted against the status quo. Could this strategy be wrong, but nevertheless rational? Sure it could. Imagine you’ve led a life where your birthplace and the social status of your original family meant that (honestly earned) success was almost impossible to achieve. The reality you have experienced is that the elites (including teachers, university professors and politicians) constantly assume they know better. The same people are also evidently busy protecting the status quo and their social standing. Under these circumstances, would it be irrational to assume that all advice to vote remain (offered by the same people who demonstrably have enjoyed the upside of an uneven playing field) cannot be trusted? Perhaps not! From a Bayesian perspective, the Brexit result immediately becomes less surprising and shows that playing the anti-establishment card was decisive. The Brexit camp has successfully managed to be perceived as anti-establishment and by doing so it has mischievously earned the trust of too many people. Naturally, I don’t believe this trust was justified: thinking that people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are anti-establishment is like believing that the Pope is Buddhist. Nevertheless, this view allows to see why the web of lies constrained those who defended the status-quo while simultaneously enabling those who didn’t. It also allows to see why certain life experiences would automatically make people more subjective to this particular set of misbeliefs, without having to conclude that most of those who voted to leave are stupid or despicable bigots. I still think they are mistaken, but are so for very understandable reasons. I can also recognise how I could have been mislead in the same way (quite some time ago). Moreover, this reading is in full accord with Stafford’s evidence-based (speculative) explanation, and concurrently allows to approach a debate following Rapaport/Dennett’s recommendations.

Before painting the final picture, I wish to mention another short essay, by Deepak Malhotra: “How to Build an Exit Ramp for Trump Supporters” (paywall alert. HT SelfAwarePatterns). Malhotra’s academic profile specifies that he “is a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His teaching, research and advisory work is focused on negotiation, deal-making and conflict resolution”. Sounds promising! Reassuringly, Malhotra starts from noticing that:

[H]aving facts and data on your side is not enough. If someone’s ego or identity is on the line, overwhelming them with evidence will do little good.

I couldn’t agree more. I do have some reserves in the “building an exit ramp” metaphor (not symmetric enough for my taste), but nevertheless his 7 rules feel exactly right to me. In his case, the bottom line is that you ought to avoid direct confrontation at all costs (the whole approach looks entirely compatible with the midwifery view).

Overall, it seems to me that the art of (honest) persuasion is hard but not impossible. A few general principles emerge:

  1. Don’t assume the debate is one-sided. Being ready to learn will help at each step.
  2. Avoid confrontation and earn the trust of your debating partner instead.
  3. Try hard to understand the position you oppose. Don’t hide your effort.

To dispel misbeliefs via mere argument it is necessary to be trusted. Furthermore, instead of offering evidence in favour of our own beliefs, it seems that it is more useful to (honestly) ask your opponent to explain in detail what grounds their beliefs. This should be especially efficacious in case you can’t find these grounds yourself: gives you a chance to learn something while concurrently building mutual trust. Finally, swapping parts and ask each other to explain what the other believes is likely to foster better mutual understanding.
Because trust is a prerequisite, it’s important to approach this kind of exchange with an open mind: if your opponent will be led to believe that nothing she say may ever change your mind, trust will be withdrawn, jeopardising the whole enterprise. Overall, the art of persuasion looks very much as the art of mutual understanding: if it seems that I’m asking you to become a Zen master, it’s because I am. The best way to win minds is to stop trying, and try to learn from disagreements instead.

Bibliography and disclaimer.

Please note: this post draws on a couple peer-reviewed papers which explore psychological mechanisms and effects. For the full disclaimer, see previous post. ResearchBlogging.org

Fernbach, P., Rogers, T., Fox, C., & Sloman, S. (2013). Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding Psychological Science, 24 (6), 939-946 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464058

Tuller, HM., Bryan, CJ., Heyman, GD., & Christenfeld, NJS Volume 59, July 2015, Pages 18–23 (2015). Seeing the other side: Perspective taking and the moderation of extremity Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 18-23 : 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.02.003

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Posted in Politics, Psychology

Web of lies and the public

In the previous two posts I’ve gone through the depressing exercise of exploring the misconstrued world-view that led the UK to leave the EU. The picture that emerges is not limited to the UK, but is a paradigm example of how misinformation and systematic lying is enough to derail the whole mechanism 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 of government.

Image by Tom Houslay ©

Image by Tom Houslay ©

We should be afraid and we should take action.

The problem is, of course: how? To explore this question, we need to give a closer look at how the web of lies affects the people who buy into it.

It goes without saying that in the case of Brexit, many people believed the lies; we’ve seen the effect this has on politicians who exploit such lies, but what about the people who happen to believe in them?  The mechanism of cognitive attraction will unfortunately take its toll: the longer the lies are believed, the harder it will become to recognise them as false. Furthermore, because of the importance of politics in society, and in particular, in shaping our public and private persona, it is likely that the views justifying our political choices rapidly acquire foundational value. They become deeply embedded in our web of beliefs, triggering all the defence mechanisms that are explored by the prolific research on human biases.

In detail, the mechanism that is likely to take hold is usually described with the catch-all “confirmation bias” label. In layman’s terms, it is widely accepted that we all tend to actively seek evidence that confirms our beliefs and concurrently overlook evidence that undermines them. For a good review of the concept, along with a hint that it may be a broad concept that actually applies to numerous distinct mechanism, see this paper (Nickerson 1998). In short, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that a set of beliefs, once accepted, will become harder and harder to dislodge as time passes. In memetic and fragility/antifragility terms, this becomes self-evident: if a set of beliefs is good at persisting, it is probably because new experiences tend to reinforce it. If this wasn’t the case, a given set of beliefs would be likely to disappear sooner rather than later. Thus, the age of a given set of beliefs strongly correlates with its tendency of being reinforced by the accumulation of experience. This tautology isn’t particularly informative, but does help recognising the crucial factor that some elements of the outside world must be able to reinforce any web of widely spread beliefs; whether such beliefs are true or false becomes secondary.

Realising this is important, because it indicates one way of opposing the overall trend, but before looking into this we need to explore what is likely to happen if any web of lies gets widely accepted as true. We’ve seen that it frequently has the effect of constraining the options available to politicians. On the other hand, a member of the public who got caught in the same web will become progressively less and less likely to change her mind, and will therefore be more and more likely to vote for whoever publicly upholds the mendacious world-view in question. The degeneration of autocratic states is an enduring testimony of this mechanism: as time passes, the web of lies grows and those who hold power become more and more constricted by it. Meanwhile, considerable proportions of the public will become more and more entrenched in their support for the collective fiction. Old examples abound, but more recent ones include Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey, and naturally North Korea. The result is that entire nations seem to progressively detach from reality, with predictable dire consequences which I will not explore. Saying that the prospect doesn’t look appealing should suffice.

The question thus becomes: how do we stop this mechanism before it leads us toward self-destructing autarchy? First thing to note is that in the UK we already have a large proportion of people who have bought in the web of lies. Two consecutive elections and Brexit testify it. Thus, there is political capital available to whoever is willing to publicly uphold the web. In other words, expecting politicians to stop lying is delusional: in the current circumstances, lying brings votes, so in case candidate 1 refuses to do so, candidate 2 will be able to reap the benefits. Once aweb of lies is established, the democratic system makes it self-sustaining. Does this mean that we should restrict democracy? I don’t think so, for pragmatic reasons: autocratic systems have an even worse record in this respect, so they don’t seem to be a decent solution. In other words, the self-sustaining element of any established web of lies entrenched in a democratic system is the kind of problem that is good to have: the alternatives are worse. That’s not to say that it’s good to have one of more web of lies established in public discourse, it is not: we should try to dissolve the web, precisely because we know that it is somewhat self-sustaining.

Unfortunately, the whole discussion above demonstrates that dissolving the web is not going to be easy. For starters, the supply of people willing to publicly uphold it is likely to be endless: as long as lying comes with positive political value, someone will. Therefore, the only general strategy available is to try reducing the political value attached to the web, which in turn means trying to reduce the number of people who believe in it. Simple, right? Of course not, so we’d better try to figure out how.

Let’s start with the basics. As long as the lies can get aired and remain unchallenged, it will always be possible to believe them: remember, all lies that confer political capital are believable by definition. First rule of thumb: when exposed to a lie, we should do what we can to denounce it. This series of posts is trying, more won’t hurt – social media is there for you to use, it’s cheap and always on. However, this strategy alone can’t be very effective: to start with, it is at best only able to reduce the appeal of the lies, perhaps instil some doubts in whoever is still sitting on the fence, but not much more. Unfortunately, this strategy also comes with a genuine danger: whoever is already caught in the web, is likely to react defensively, which won’t help in any way. That’s right: the real danger is to polarise opinions, reinforcing misbeliefs as a defensive reaction against what might be perceived as an aggression. I can’t stress this enough: how do you expect people to react if you tell them that their political choices are wrong because they have been conned? They will tell you to eff off, that’s what they’ll do, and will reinforce whatever story they use to justify their beliefs.

Not convinced? Think again, the accumulated evidence looks overwhelming to me. Facts and rational discourse, don’t change minds, they polarise opinion. Google it, seriously! A few pointers: flat-earthers regard themselves as ultra-rational, but hey, they are crazy. However, the effect of evidence in entrenching opinion has been observed many times, starting at least with Lord et al. (1979), all the way up to Corner et al. (2012). [Note that the latter paper is also useful to see how these mechanisms are not straightforward, Corner and colleagues find a meaningful distinction between opinion polarisation and biased assimilation of evidence: fascinating stuff!]

Moreover, both the manifest and scientific images are clearly indicating that political discourse is getting more and more entrenched. Worryingly, social media does not contrast this, in fact, there are strong indications that it enables the creation of partisan bubbles. For details, see Nikolov et al. (2015 a summary is here), or the evidence about political discourse in Conover et al. (2012 – Note: both papers come from the work of the same group, their home page is full of good resources and well worth a visit).

Overall, one thing is clear: simply denouncing as false the various lies that are used to justify public policy, is clearly not enough, moreover, even directly challenging false beliefs in person, won’t work, not if the only strategy is to use evidence and rational discourse. Depressing. What else can be done? Well, we need to learn the art of persuasion, which we’ll explore with the next post.


The rise of populism is no accident. Front National in France, the long Italian thread between Berlusconi, Lega Nord and the Five Stars movement, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Parties in Austria and the Netherlands, Trump himself, as well as the pro-Brexit rhetoric and the unashamed fascistic turn (see: 1, 2, 3) of Theresa May’s government are part of a pattern that is visible in most or all Western Democracies. It is a dangerous path: I see no reason to doubt that it leads towards autocratic regimes. Our current destination looks very much like Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey (see also the previous post). Recognising the pattern and doing nothing would make us complicit. Problem is: what can be done? My proposal is, first and foremost, whenever systematic lies are used to uphold public policy (this includes lies used to support policies we agree with), we should use all the channels we have to challenge at least the most evident BS. This won’t invert the trend, but should help slowing it down. To go further, the only option is, unfortunately, effortful and slow: as wonderfully expressed by Ben Walters, we need to “make art that wins hearts and arguments that win minds“, in short: make it personal and take action. In the next post, I will look at what is known about how to win minds  (spoiler: it ain’t easy).

Bibliography and disclaimer.

Please note: this post draws on a few peer-reviewed papers which explore a handful of psychological mechanisms and effects. Most of my readers will be already well aware that the world of Psychology research is in turmoil, following the replication crisis. For an in-depth, comprehensive summary of the whole charade, see this post by Andrew Gelman.
Obvious question: if the science I’m citing is, as a whole, not necessarily trustworthy, why did I bother? I did because habits are hard to dislodge, but also because the bibliography I’m including does at least provide one important contribution: the cited studies should not be considered as evidence that I’m definitely right, but they do provide some reason to believe that I’m not unquestionably wrong. That’s good enough for me: my general approach is that I should nurture self-doubt, I should never take my views as obviously correct (even/because it feels they are). In this case, since reviewing the evidence that may challenge my point would be a prohibitively long task, I’ve settled for the second-best option and merely presented some evidence that (weakly) supports my argument.

[Explicit thanks are due to Artem Kaznatcheev for always providing food for thought, valuable sources, and for keeping me constantly on my toes.]
Nickerson, R. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2 (2), 175-220 DOI: 10.1037//1089-2680.2.2.175

Lord, C., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 2098-2109 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.37.11.2098

Corner, A., Whitmarsh, L., & Xenias, D. (2012). Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation Climatic Change, 114 (3-4), 463-478 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0424-6

Nikolov, D., Oliveira, D., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2015). Measuring online social bubbles PeerJ Computer Science, 1 DOI: 10.7717/peerj-cs.38

Conover, M., Gonçalves, B., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2012). Partisan asymmetries in online political activity EPJ Data Science, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1140/epjds6

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Posted in Politics, Psychology

Web of lies, policies and politicians

In the previous post in this miniseries I’ve used the example of Brexit referendum to explore how allowing lies to be systematically upheld in public discourse is poisonous for democracy itself. The bleak conclusion was that people voted Brexit on the basis of false information. In Cipolla’s terms, most of the Leave votes were stupid: their real effect will  be the opposite of what the voters wanted to achieve.

On the national scale, voters have consistently voted against their best interests (if my analysis is right!), turning Democracy in a farcical caricature of itself. Assuming there is some truth in this, it calls for some serious analysis: how is it even possible? I hope you won’t spot me claiming that this question allows for one single simple explanation, but nevertheless, one claim I do wish to make is that the neo-liberal world-view (the commonly accepted web of lies[1] described in detail in the previous post) is partially responsible:

  1. It is entrenched in public discourse, so much so that it is isn’t even questioned. For example have a look at these two BBC articles (on Banking and Energy providers) and look for the assumptions they rest upon[2].
  2. As demonstrated in the previous post, neo-liberalism rests on a number of wrong assumptions (there are more technical ones: for example, mainstream economic models rely on the fictional idea that consumers act rationally – an idea that has been debunked beyond reasonable doubt by Daniel Kahneman – see Neblo 2003, Aktipis et al. 2004).

We’ll see in the next post what kind of effect this may have on the electorate. For now, I’ll concentrate on the effect it has on policies, politicians and their ability to effectively respond to the challenges posed by an unpredictable world. Before I can continue, I should make it clear that what follows rests on a big assumption of my own [3].

Assumption: any given world-view, being conceptual, must be somewhat wrong. Thus, one should compare world-views in terms of how fit for a given purpose they are, or, in more general terms, in terms of how well they work when they are adopted for multiple purposes.

I’m mentioning this because the key to understand what is happening lies in recognising that a world-view finds its justification in how it is used. The most important variable is how fit-for-purpose it is, not necessarily how well it describes the actual state of affairs. To clarify, a clear-cut example might help: if you are reading this, it is almost guaranteed that you think astrology is nonsense. As a world-view, it is almost impossible to expect it to closely match the facts: you could say that its truth-content is low enough to approach absolute zero, so why does it even exist? Well, I think it does because, despite its overt purpose of describing the real world, it actually responds to other, deeply seeded needs. For the general punter, it may be soothing, a source of mild amusement, a comfort during troubled time, a way to keep anxiety at bay, and so forth. For a professional astrologer it is the source of livelihood and is closely tied to her own personal identity. Thus, the function of astrology for the general public does not require to subscribe to an astrological outlook: you can regularly glance at the horoscopes page on the newspaper without believing anything you’ll read. At the same time, the primary functions generate a secondary one: for an astrology professional, the world-view  is a source of income – to some, a perfectly fit-for-purpose source of income. Thus it’s interesting to note that whether astrology is true or not, or how well it approximates truth, if one considers both the primary and secondary purposes, is mostly irrelevant. The conclusion so far is that not all world-views need to be tightly related to how the world actually is, in order to exist. They can be abysmally wrong and still persist.

The web of lies I’ve described in the previous post belongs to this same category: it paints a fictitious picture of the world, but it is nevertheless described as true. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of this view is to justify policy decisions – as such, it doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to believed by many (unlike astrology). Austerity was justified by the idea that balance sheets of a state work exactly as (or closely enough) those of private entities. Much of the leave vote was justified by the belief that limiting immigration will have a positive effect on the living standards of the bottom half of the population, and so forth. To be fit-for-this-purpose, such a stance needs to be convincing enough, which of course requires to be somewhat linked to reality, in the sense that it needs to appear realistic. More importantly, it needs to be an attractive world-view. People need to find it easy to adopt it, for one reason or the other (something we’ll explore in the next post). For now, what’s important to note is that this particular world-view, given the purpose of justifying policies, needs to have relatively high truth-likeness: very few would approve a public spending round justified by the alignments of the stars, after all.
In turn, the truth-likeness requirement generates an all-important constraint on policy makers. This is a general requirement: to utilise any world-view for policy-justification, its truth-likeness needs to be preserved. Which means that once a politician has publicly upheld a given world-view, and justified his/her policies on this basis, he or she will find it progressively more difficult to suddenly change his/her position. The web of lies can capture enough votes, but by doing so it constrains its proponent degrees of freedom in a roughly proportional way. Empty rhetoric is a double-edged sword.

Once more, the example of Brexit elucidates my point perfectly: Cameron called the referendum, probably because he was convinced that the leave side will easily win. We know he was wrong, but we should also assume that he is neither an idiot nor that he lacked the means to evaluate the relevant facts. Nevertheless, his decision now looks stupid, a gross miscalculation, a mistake. Why did he get it so wrong? I think there are two concurrent explanations, with the first one being almost certainly relevant, while the second is more speculative.

Reason 1: he didn’t factor the self-inflicted constraints that his publicly held world-view would impose. Having had a track record of being able to successfully convince the British public of whatever suited him best, he probably thought that he’ll be able to pull the same trick once more, without much trouble. What I don’t think he realised is that maintaining the truth-likeness of his web of lies had a relevant cost: one that would significantly hinder his ability to make a convincing argument in favour of remaining in the EU.

Let’s look at a few examples: since the 2008 crash, standards of living have decreased or flatlined for the vast majority of the British electorate. The Brexit camp could easily blame uncontrolled immigration, lack of sovereignty and EU red-tape, exploiting the real situation of the country to spin up the current web of lies, they could simply build on the already established one. However, Cameron, being tied to the official government narrative, could not: in defending the status quo, his options were limited, the only possible strategy was to explain how the current situation was not as bad as the alternative. Of course, he could not go out and simply tell the truth: “look guys, our policies are causing your distress, the EU is not responsible, or it is only marginally so“. To avoid a guaranteed political suicide, he simply had to uphold his own web of lies and find a way to spin it in his favour. The trick may have worked in the past, but this time the world didn’t comply: the lies of the leave campaign had more appeal and fitted better in the existing web. In other words, Cameron got caught in his own web. If you are not convinced, take a look a how Cameron answers a question posed by one of his electors: he doesn’t answer at all, does he? Why? Because he did blame immigration for falling living standards, he got elected (also) because of this stance, and therefore he found himself unable to keep his new narrative attractive. Given the choice of sacrificing truth-likeness or attractiveness, he could only sacrifice the latter, because sacrificing the first would inevitably kill also the second.

The mechanism is generalisable: once a politician starts justifying his policies on the basis of wrong assumptions (by mistake or deliberate deception, it doesn’t really matter), the democratic constraints (or the need of fostering enough popular consensus in general, something which is necessary to hold onto political power in all cases, not only in democracies) starts eroding his or her degrees of freedom – since the purpose is to retain enough credibility, the web of lies will inevitably constrain what our politician can say or do. Give a lying politician enough time in power (or the in the public’s attention), and he/she will find herself with less and less viable choices, ending up being effectively forced into an uncontrollable roll of the events. From actor on the political arena, s/he will become a mere puppet, forced to play a part with little or no freedom to choose what to do next.

Reason 2: what if Cameron believed his own lies? Preposterous, I know! For argument’s sake, let’s temporarily answer “yes”, and see how it plays out. Perhaps he did believe everything he said to justify his own policies. Perhaps he did think that brutal austerity was needed and beneficial, and that immigration is bad for poor people. Perhaps his answer to the question linked above was sincere, he felt that leaving the EU was merely too risky. If that’s the case, it would be self-evident that he was even more constricted by his own web of lies. He would have calculated that failing to uphold it would destroy his credibility and would also have felt that sticking to [what he believed is] the truth could also give him a strategic advantage (because not having to lie through your teeth ought to be easier!). Unfortunately, this hypothesis is unsubstantiated and impossible to verify empirically: how can we reliably find out if politicians believe in what they say?
Be as it may, if Cameron actually believed his own lies, it means that his world-view is positively disjointed from reality in the important aspects that shape his own policies; in such a case, Cameron would be officially incompetent, making the explanation of his miscalculation trivial.
I am mentioning this (unverifiable) hypothesis because the nature of the political game itself makes it surprisingly convincing: lying systematically is hard. The more you lie, the harder it becomes to avoid contradicting yourself. Moreover, each word you utter comes at an increasing cognitive cost: all the time you need to remember the details of your own fiction, just to make sure you won’t destroy your credibility without even realising it. It must be exceedingly hard. On the other hand, we know that lies used to promote consent need to be credible, after all many people need to believe in them in order to fulfil their purpose. Thus, in the political arena, those who actually believe in  a greater proportion of what they say in public will have at least a marginal advantage (decreased cognitive cost). Moreover, in order to lower the cost of incremental lies, it could also be beneficial to retrospectively convince yourself of your own lies. This mechanism is (anecdotally) visible in extreme cases such as Berlusconi: I have little doubt that he eventually managed to fool even himself…
Furthermore, being always immersed in an environment where everyone publicly upholds the same web of lies, adds peer pressure to the mix: if everyone you consider an ally seems to believe that X, perhaps X might even be true, after all [4]. If this (unverifiable) mechanism does actually happen, it means that politicians who wilfully chose to lie to the public are actively setting themselves on a path that leads to increasing incompetence (you’ll excuse me if I think this last remark makes this speculative part instantaneously more convincing).


Before looking at the ill effects that a web of lies has on the people buying into the fiction (in the following post), let’s wrap up the argument so far. In the first part, we’ve seen how Brexit provides an example of the institutional damage made by systematically lying to the public. If  a large proportion of the electorate actually believes in a given web of lies, democracy itself simply ceases to exist. It remains as a facade, but the substance is different. Democracy becomes a system to allow the powers that be to control the population, subverting its main purpose in one single move. Instead of electors, you have useful idiots. Moreover, the same mechanism affects politicians just as much, it constrains them into ever decreasing degrees of freedom – from puppeteers, they become puppets of their own narrative. This is utterly dangerous: if things turn out well, the politicians in question will eventually be forced out of office (cfr. Cameron himself, Clegg just before, as well Blair and Brown). If, on the contrary, stuff goes wrong, the only route that remains open is a descent towards authoritarian rule, as exemplified by far too many examples (Putin himself, Berlusconi to some extent, Erdoğan more recently, or Mussolini in the not-so-distant past).

“Yes”, you may say, “lying is bad. So what?” Well, systematically lying to the electorate is worse. Moreover, basing policy on systematic lies is downright dangerous. Therefore, we should all do our best to always challenge the web of lies spun by politicians, and perhaps more importantly, make all possible efforts to make sure we don’t buy any of it, regardless of our own political inclinations. After all, both left and right have identical incentives to manufacture their own version of the truth.

Notes and bibliography.

[1] I derive the “web of lies” expression directly from Quine and Ullian “Web of Beliefs” (1970 & 1978). The original concept applies to scientific knowledge, but is relevant in this context because of the emphasis on coherence. A web of beliefs can support knowledge and knowledge creation when the various parts are interconnected in mutually validating ways. In our case, a web of lies can justify policies only if to appears coherent both internally (between various components) and externally (with respect to the perceivable world). Failing to appear coherent would make it hard for people to buy into the fiction, reducing the web of lies to ineffectiveness.

[2] The official rhetoric forgets a simple fact: we want our money to sit safely in a convenient place, we need our bank accounts for practical reasons. We also want electricity and gas to reliably arrive in our homes. What nobody wants is having to constantly check whether we’re being ripped off, and frequently go through considerable discomfort in order to get the best possible deal. In such “markets” everyone is willing to pay a price in exchange of not having to think about energy providers or bank accounts. Thus, these are “markets” where by definition there is an upper-bound to competition, and a very low one as well. Going to the supermarket is different: we need to do it regularly: picking one chain or the other doesn’t necessarily increase the cost for us (in terms of effort). Once we are there, picking one or the other brand also doesn’t require a massive difference in effort. Thus, supermarkets can operate as functional markets, banks and utility companies simply can’t.

[3] Moreover, even if the practical examples I’m using come from the neo-liberal, conservative side, it is important to note that what I’m saying also applies to lies promulgated by the left, in exactly the same ways. I’ll stick to the right wing lies because my own biases allow me to see them more clearly and also because they are the more recent ones, fresh in my mind and presumably my readers’ memories.

[4] Plain old Cognitive Attraction would also play a role, reinforced by peer pressure in ways that resemble my interpretation of Boris Johnson’s ethical stance.

Aktipis, C.A., & Kurzban, R.O. (2004). Is Homo Economicus extinct? Vernon Smith, Daniel Kahneman and the evolutionary perspective Advances in Austrian Economics, 7, 135-153

Neblo, M. (2003). Choices, Values, and Frames, edited by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 22 (3), 491-493 DOI: 10.1002/pam.10145


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Posted in Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Politics, Stupidity

#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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