Against Factoids

As most reading this will know, recently on Question Time Jacob Rees Mogg attempted to defend British concentration camps in the Boer war. He did so by claiming that the death rate in the camps was comparable to Glasgow's at the time. This, of course, is entirely false, as shown by this excellent article here. But by the time this and similar articles were put out, the damage was already done. A much larger number of people will have seen Mogg's defense than the refutations; moreover, the audience he is targeting is precisely the one which will not read the latter. The desired effect is achieved, and Mogg will almost certainly be able to avoid all too much further scrutiny of that particular point.

Why did this work? The easy explanation would be to blame the other members of the panel. Couldn't they have called him out on this in real time? This would be almost impossible without taking a significant risk. In order to assert, without prior preparation, with confidence that Mogg's comments were false, you would not only have to be someone with a good working knowledge of the Boer war, you would also have to be someone who happened to know rather a lot of precise information about the demographics of Glasgow at the turn of the 20th Century. I am not sure how many people in the world fit this description. I would not be surprised if the answer was zero.

This is of course not the same as being able to sense right away that his comments are dubious. When I first saw the clip, my initial reaction was that the comparison sounded rather implausible. But I had to wait for a while to be able to confirm that it was definitively false. A participant in a televised discussion like Question Time would have to act on that hunch, and in doing so take a significant risk themselves. They might well be able to tell that something is not right about what is being asserted, but it is very difficult in that situation to know if the remark is false per se, or merely misleading (imagine, for example, that there was a particular outbreak of disease in Glasgow at that time). In this sense Mogg's claim was a factoid par excellence. It is almost impossible to falsify on the spot, as without some time researching, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to say exactly what is wrong with it.

This strategy is quite a common one in televised discussions. The strategy is to use a fact that, even if it were true, would be so obscure that nobody will be able to refute it in real time. Mogg has done this several times before. In March 2017, he claimed on the Daily Politics that a no deal Brexit was nothing to fear because of a little known paragraph in a WTO agreement allowed for a new party to maintain any existing trade relations for up to 10 years. Once again, this was, eventually, refuted, and you can read the refutation here. But once again, nobody could realistically have done this in real time. How, after all, can you be certain that there is no paragraph in any document in the history of the WTO which might contain something which loosely fits his description? You would either need to exhaustively search databases or find something directly in contradiction.

These incidents paint a disturbing picture. It is quite possible to achieve your desired aim in a televised discussion by bamboozling your opponent with statements designed to be for all intents and purposes irrefutable. This has become a standard strategy of the alt-right. The only defense against it requires a change in broadcast culture. It requires broadcasters to either refuse to have on air participants who repeatedly and maliciously use this kind of factoid, or, at the very least, they should face real and specific scrutiny every time they appear on air subsequently and be taken to town on previous false or misleading statements. The latter is probably not even enough, as it gives further publicity to these individuals. But even that would be an improvement on the status quo.

What does the Labour split mean for the People's Vote campaign?

The split of 7 Labour MP from the party is something of great significance beyond what it implies for Brexit, but, for better or worse, that's where my thoughts are now.

What does this split mean for the People's Vote campaign? Spinning Hugo (I don't know him by any other name but his pseudonym) believes it signifies the fact that the chances of a second referendum had become slim. If there were a prospect of moving the leadership in that direction, the newly formed Independent Group would have waited at least until after Brexit to form a group, in the hope of influencing the party leadership beforehand. This seems plausible enough to me, but it's a distinct question for what effects this move will have on the campaign.

These surely depend on how both the independents and rest of the Labour Party respond. If the Independent Group don't show any interest (in this case very soon) on forming a new party, the impact will be small. What limited impact it will have is likely negative, as key proponents of a second vote are now longer in the party.

If, on the other hand, they do, and opposing Brexit is a part of their policy platform, what happens next very much depends on how the Labour leadership read the situation. A clever response would be to recognise that the new danger this presents to Labour electorally is a move of socially liberal, europhile voters to whatever party this new group ends up forming. This does not have to be large to represent a real threat to Labour's hopes of forming a majority government. The easiest way of stemming any move in that direction would be to announce support for a second referendum. This would also eclipse any negative discussion of the split in the news. For this to work, it would have to happen very soon indeed. I am, however, not optimistic that it will.

Is a nuanced public discussion about Churchill possible?

One thing that struck me most when I lived in Germany is the difference between discussions about national history there compared with the U.K. This of course has a lot to do with the unique horrors of 20th Century German history. The development of public discussions, or 'Vergangenheitsbetwältigung' (overcoming the past) on these was slow, fraught with generational politics and driven at times only by major events (public trials of Nazis in the 1960s, publication of particular articles by historians etc). But the long term result has extended beyond discussion specifically of Nazism and to a popular public discourse on history which is less inclined to thinking about national heroes. Yes, there are figures like Konrad Adenauer who hold a place in national mythology, but I doubt there would much of an uproar if a major politician criticised Adenauer. This has more than once led me to wonder: however disanalogous the horrors of empire may be, might it be worth having a more open discussion about recent British history?

The events of the last week have at shown that this can have unintended consequences, or at the very least that the legacy of Winston Churchill might not be the place to start. There has rightly been uproar at Jacob Rees Mogg's comments on Question Time in defence of concentration camps in the Boer War. Robert Saunder's has written a excellent refutation of his remarks here, though others have too. What Mogg's comments show is precisely how these discussions can go wrong. It seems entirely reasonable to ask for a nuanced discussion about Churchill which includes aspects of him which we should not be comfortable with. But what if the result of that is not nuance, but simply that people now feel obliged to defend even the most horrific things he is associated with? Perversely, this could actually be worse than not having had the discussion at all. If  public discussion of a national figure is limited to a selective national mythology, the bad bits are just omitted. This may actually be more conducive to progressive attitudes than the situation in which they are actively defended.

And what kind of nuance are we hoping to achieve anyway? Deciding whether Churchill's role in the second world war on balance allows him to still be a hero in spite of the Bengal Famine is not really a useful analytic question. Sometimes totalising judgements are necessary, like when deciding who to elect. But for the most part, they are of little analytic use, and we are probably better off trying to avoid taking a position about an individual overall. If discussions about Churchill mean people feel obliged to actively and consciously take a position on this question, we might all be the worse off for it. It might be better to leave public discussion a ritual very few put much thought into, and those who do think about these questions just ignore. Honest public discussions of the brutality and cruelty of the British Empire might better start elsewhere.

Brexit: a policy without qualities

As James O'Brien observes, one of the many oddities about Brexit is its proponents more or less categorically refuse to define its meaning clearly in anything other than negative terms. Indeed he argues (I think correctly) that the ERG's eventual movement to favouring 'no deal' is the ultimate expression of a desire to avoid any concrete policy proposals. 
How did we get here? The ignorance of leading Brexiteers of the key issues is well known, and surely part of the story. This is at times even celebrated as either a virtue, or proof of argument. This clip of two well-known Brexiteers is a recent example. In it, Kate Hoey claims that her own ignorance of the EU is an argument for Brexit, while David Davis implies in his remarks that his ignorance some kind of proof of authenticity and ultimately authority. These particular individuals are by no means alone in making this kind of argument.
This has frequently been compared to other right wing populist movements, and not without reason. Ian Dunt, a commentator I have a lot of time for, argues here that this is the key analogue between Brexit and Trumpism. This comparison amongst other things also helps make sense of the anti-elite rhetoric behind right wing populists. If the term elite is more about education and profession than wealth or power, then it makes sense that the leaders of these movements could be wealthy individuals whose explicit appeal is lacking any particular expertise. It equally makes sense that this would go hand in hand with a rejection of institutional rationality and the rule of law and the desire to replace these with common sense action. A movement of this sort would unsurprisingly not be too keen on content. 
But beyond this, I think there are specific reasons why Brexit is liable this kind of content vacuity. As has been frequently observed, this is partly due to the way the referendum was set up. The referendum was advisory, and the absence of any legal requirement for implementation meant nobody had to define what implementing it meant. Indeed Vote Leave made it a strategy to exploit this flaw. As Tony Yates writes here, there were inherent tensions in Brexit supporters as a group, some favouring Brexit for the sake of deregulation, some favouring national isolation.
Crucially, the nature of the question itself allowed for this ambiguity. Taken literally, ‘leaving the EU’ means leaving an institutional and legal structure for upholding various arrangements and treaties. Since it is always possible to imagine a different institutional and legal structure doing analogous things, it is always strictly logically possible to advocate Brexit without opposing any specific function of the EU. So whenever a proponent of Brexit wishes to dismiss a possible consequence of leaving, there is always the retort that such a consequence can be avoided by setting up a (typically unspecified) method of achieving the same result. Of course, this should not be a very convincing kind of argument (why leave then? Shouldn’t the case for Brexit then be about the efficacy of the legal mechanism, not the principle? How is this reconcilable with any of the objectives of Brexit, which do presuppose substantial change?), but the inherent problems in the argument are too difficult to pick apart in short TV exchanges.
If this idea seems a little abstract, imagine the following analogy. A future British government decides to hold a referendum on withdrawing from NATO. The campaign supporting withdrawal talks about supposed infringements on sovereignty of the 2% defence target, mutual defence etc, but whenever they are pressed on the risks of leaving these concerns are batted away. “We could easily have mutual defence pacts outside of NATO with other NATO members. And why would those members be so irrational as to refuse our offer? They seem to want our cooperation now.”
This is one of the fundamental problems with discussions about Brexit. It is unclear whether what is being discussed is the actual content of arrangements between Britain and the rest of the EU, or the enforcement mechanisms behind those arrangements. Either are, at least in the abstract, possible to discuss. But it is not possible to have a discussion about Brexit as a course of action unless it is clear which of the two it is about. The philosopher John Searle argued that a large part of social and political reality is ontologically subjective. It exists in the way it does because it is collectively held as doing so. Bits of paper with pictures of the queen are money because we all hold them to be. What we have here is a large scale case of an aspect of social reality with conflicting ideas not just about what it means, but on a very basic level what kind of a concept we are dealing with. It is unsurprising that such a conflict should generate so much chaos, though there are plenty of other reasons for that too.

Blairite historical materialism

A recent blog post by Chris Dillow on the idea of conservative Marxism reminded me of a thought I’ve had kicking around for a while: if we separate Marxism as a analytic framework from particular normative commitments, its influence and analogues are not always found where you would expect them to be.

There has been an extraordinary volume of literature on the question of what Marxism as an analytic framework really is.  Raymond Geuss tries to trace a series of distinct traditions, each drawing on different aspects of Marx’s work: one which stresses Marx as an economic thinker, one which sees Marx as a humanist primarily focused on the idea of alienation, and one the historical materialist interpretation, which sees him as primarily interested in analysing historical processes. As Geuss himself stresses, these debates have a habit of presupposing that there is some coherent whole to be discovered, and that this whole constitutes some totalising theory of some aspect of society or human nature, rather than a set of ideas and remarks, some containing the odd useful concept or two, some less so. At its worst, this tendency extends to arguing about what the true idea of Marxism is, which simultaneously refers to what Marx really thought and what should be believed about the world generally. This odd tendency of responses to Marx as a thinker* has an obvious political dimension dimension to it, though less so since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Leaving this debate aside, the form of Marxism I want to focus on is the historical materialist interpretation. This takes as a starting point that society is structured around the particular modes of production, or ways of producing things. Roles in productive processes, including those of control or ownership give rise to social relationships. Gerry Cohen, who was a leading proponent of this school of thought, uses the analogy of a small village with a well. If the well were to provide not just drinking water but a means of irrigation, control of access to the well might well form the basis of social relations within the village. In Victorian England, the well is replaced with factories, and we have the familiar story of the bourgeoisie and proletariat, whose social status is essentially about relations of control and ownership of the means of production. In this school of thought, one of the key drivers of social change is technological. There is a certain set of possible relations given whatever particular technology is predominantly used, and these possibilities change as new technologies arise.  For any given set of social relations and any specific set of technologies, there is a fixed maximum level of human economic development. Old forms of organisation get swept aside when they prevent the exploitation of a new technology which might allow greater productive potential.

Let’s leave to one side for a moment the question of how plausible an account of society we find this. What interests me is where, in contemporary politics, we see something most akin to this kind of thought. The answer is quite a surprising one: not Jeremy Corbyn or, with some notable exceptions, the radical left, but from Tony Blair and what is sometimes called the neo-liberal centre.

To focus on Blair specifically, one idea he comes back to repeatedly is the idea of globalisation. This, in his view, is an unstoppable, technologically driven force, which drives social, economic and political change. It structures the possibilities of statecraft, and dictates the agency of individuals.

“Globalisation is not really a decision by government, it’s an unstoppable force that’s driven by technology, trade, travel, migration, and it’s going to carry on. However governments can respond to the stresses of it…. [the task is] to protect people from the risks and dangers of globalization, and allow them to access the benefits.” 

 “Some want a fortress Britain job protection pull up the drawbridghe get out of international engagements others see no option but to submit to global forces and let the strongest survive. Our answer has to be very clear. It is once again to help people through a changing world, by using collective power to advance opportunity and provide security for all… and the same global forces that are shaping business are at work in public services too.”

And, on the idea of social organisation and economic potential, he makes the following remarks in a 2005 party political broadcast:

“If we actually took human capital as the most precious resource of this country and we asked ‘how far are we from developing that human capital to its fullest extent?’, the answer would be ‘we have made progress, but there’s a massive amount still to do…” In order to do this we must “invest in the public sphere, whilst modernising it.”

In other words, the key drivers of social, political and economic change are technological. What policy makers can do is respond to these changes, as they in turn drive changes in potential forms of social organisation and human potential.  As Gordon Brown sees it, “the challenge is how Britain can be one of the great success stories in the next state global economy, and how every single citizen in Britain can have some benefit from that.” In Marx’s terms, it is to alleviate the "birth pangs"  of a new order. 

This leads us to a rather odd conclusion: for all the criticism of Corbyn as a Marxist, in many ways, his thinking is much more moralistic and much less Marxist than Tony Blair's. 

*The only other secular thinker I can think of who is subjected to this to the same extent is Sigmund Freud, though I'm sure there are others. 

Self Justifications

"Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness, Could never be friendly ourselves." Brecht.

It is now almost a cliché to suggest that the Conservative Party is in the process of driving the country off a cliff in an attempt to preserve the unity of their own party.  The fanaticism of members of the ERG aside, it is quite a spectacle to behold the bulk of Conservative MPs, most of whom could easily get jobs elsewhere if they had to, prioritise party unity over anything else. The temptation is to see this as some kind of moral aberration explained only by sociopathic levels of self interest. But it's worth bearing in mind the remarkable human capacity to justify this self interest in moral terms.

Ruthless self promotion can always be justified morally by self belief. Once you believe your own talents are worthwhile and ultimately contribute to others, it is easy to justify self promotion as coextensive with the greater good. The same can equally be true of a political movement. And, of course, while the dangers of this pattern of thought are obvious, it is worth noting that there is nothing inherently false about this line of reasoning.

A Conservative MP might well reason along similar lines. From their perspective, the alternative to their own party being in government is a disaster. This is particularly pronounced at this moment in time, given their own beliefs about what a Corbyn government would entail. This belief may well be totally false, but the point rather is that the reasoning that follows from it is quite familiar in its form.

Moreover, from an individual perspective, the fanaticism of colleagues can easily accentuate the extent to which the maintenance of personal position is seen as necessary. I can only guess as to what goes on in Theresa May's or cabinet members' heads, but it is quite plausible they believe throwing everything else under the bus for the sake of self preservation is ultimately an act of altruism. What, they might ask, would happen, if the real fanatics took charge?

Hannah Arendt described such moral stories as a central element of totalitarian regimes. Once individual agency is taken as limited, the individual feels compelled to preserve their own position in such a system, justifying such apparent self interest with the idea that others would carry out similar tasks with less benevolence. If someone's gotta do it, it better be me. Indeed, the transgressive nature of the task at hand can merely contribute to the individual's sense of virtue. I am doing, so the reasoning goes, something I find difficult precisely because it is abhorrent, but in doing so I am ultimately serving a greater good by preventing a worse person doing the same. Because I find such a decision so difficult, I am therefore making a personal sacrifice in doing so.

Of course, the totalitarian analogy is an extreme one, and we are dealing with something dramatically less brutal. But that only serves to make this behaviour less surprising, not more so. Of course, this does not mean that such moral stories really are at work now. Perhaps we are in fact dealing with a more pedestrian variety of vanity and self interest. The problem is, the two are almost impossible to tell apart.

Are shifting attitudes the root of authoritarian populism?

"Revolutions erupt when a variety of often different resentments merge to assault an unsuspecting regime." Kissenger, World Order

When thinking about modern right wing populism, one of the first places to start might be looking at it as an ideology. Part of this might involve analysing the value sets it appeals to, who holds these and why. There is a temptation, therefore, to explain the rise of right wing populist movements in terms of how certain values became more prevalent, and why these might provide ‘fertile ground’ for them. This may well be part of the story. But it also may not.

In the British context, it doesn’t seem clear that the long-term trend of popular attitudes has been in this direction. Attitudes to migration and its salience have fluctuated, but the longer term trend over the last 50 years seems to have been towards greater tolerance. Anecdotally, at least, attitudes towards race seem to have become less essentialised and less tied up with notions of nationality or community. There are of course numerous other areas, particularly criminal justice, which I have not looked into, and it may well be therefore that in important areas this argument turns out to be wrong. The point is rather that it does not have to be wrong in order for successful nativist or right wing populist movements to be possible and have emerged recently.

These movements might, rather, be more symptomatic of the trouble established political parties find themselves in. Here there are long term and short term trends at work. The long term difficulties posed by de-industrialation and the decline of trade unions to social democratic parties is well understood. Indeed as early as 1994 Eric Hobsbawn argued that this would leave a void that might be filled by nativist and separatist movements. Added to this is the ideological crisis of the centre right after the collapse of the Soviet Block. If a large part of the appeal of the centre right was anti-communism, and this unfavourable comparison with the centrally planned socialism was a key justification for policy, these parties would naturally face difficulties when that threat receded.

Moreover, in the shorter term, the financial crisis and its mismanagement have likely profoundly destabilized mainstream political parties. This is partly the familiar story of discontent with low growth and wage stagnation making incumbents unpopular. But its also about the peculiar tendency of banking crises to accentuate the existing idea that powerful institutions are fundamentally corrupt. This both provides an opening for insurgents and deprives the key argument made against them of its saliency: that insurgent movements are incompetent and do not know how to run the machinery of the state. That machinery is itself seen as something corrupt and undesirable, and the competence of established political actors is called into question (often correctly) because of their failure to deliver improvements in living standards. There are also specific difficulties for social democratic parties since the financial crisis. The third way bargain of delivering increases in social expenditure without large scale redistribution was dependent on decent levels of growth. In a lower growth economy, more difficult decisions have to be made about how to deliver the improvements in living standards for the worse off without which the left has little appeal. Had social democratic parties responded to the financial crisis with more robust counter cyclical platforms, this may not have been the case. 

It is against this backdrop that insurgent movements finally have the critical mass of support required to gain traction with the wider electorate as viable political movements. It is unsurprising that those, which are successful, will appeal to popular ideas; some of these may be authoritarian populist. But this does not require that these ideas have become more prevalent, simply that they did not previously find political expression. Indeed, to some extent an animating feature of right wing populism is the fear that certain beliefs are on the decline. The moral panic about left wing student activism, social liberalism on the media and in education provide a sense of urgency of the mission to strike while the iron is hot, precisely because of a perception that in the long term such movements may not be viable.

What would this mean about the long term? This is less clear. Even if the long term trend were against authoritarian populist movements, short term disruptions can change the direction of travel. And perhaps the premises of the argument in this piece are wrong anyway. They certainly go against occum’s razor, the simplest argument being that changes in attitudes go alongside the popularity of movements which espouse them. But at least on an anecdotal level, it seems a thought worth entertaining.