Monday, June 28, 2021

England, my England

England's a nice country. The weather's crap though, I'll give you that. 

Yet, journalists are addicted to painting it as some sort of nationalist hell-hole, sunk in flag-waving nostalgia, and full of callous people reeking of xenophobia. It's not true. Though the country smiles, part of it presents itself with a snarl and that's what we see. Football supporters abroad, young holiday makers bingeing on cheap booze, sunshine, and freedom from restraint, and the Brexiters. Our dysfunctional and unpleasant government has joined in the snarling too. It has released a barrage of abuse at the EU though balances it with horrible and gullible obsequiousness towards any non-European who will do a trade deal with us. 

Here's the government negotiating the Australia trade deal

And here's the government after reading the terms of the deal it has just signed.

In all the coverage it's easy to see the snarl but miss the smiles, especially when they're hidden behind self-deprecating grumbles in the drizzle. And this is the problem with politics at the moment. Everyone is obsessed with trying to please the snarlers. And they do so because they share three assumptions, none of which are wholly true. The first is cultural pessimism. 

This line, by the Blue Labour guru, Maurice Glassman, written more than a year ago is a classic example. 
The loyalty of the working-class to Labour is the fundamental reason that our country did not go fascist.
Eh? There is absolutely no evidence at all that this is true. Not a single competent social historian would make that claim. The working-class did not go fascist because they were not fascists. Fascism had no appeal. Besides, the class base for fascism was the lower middle class, together with some wealthier fellow travellers. If you add age into the equation, this was also the base for the Brexit vote. 

Blue Labour have a vision of a regressive, conservative working class wanting to stick it to the Europeans with their authenticity. Glassman's support for Brexit has nothing to do with the impact of the public policy, but the symbolism of the act. It's a common view, but Blue Labour types take it further by saying that their mythical workers are right and that they are incapable of change. The result is that rather than being representatives, they think that the Labour Party has to be the agent of white working-class anger. 

Once again, it isn't true. We don't have a snarling working class needing to be appeased by making foreigners suffer. The working classes are not homogenous - white, male, and unpleasant. This was something Hobsbawm pointed out in the late 70s. You would have thought that politicians would have caught on by now. The most important thing is that values do change, and as Sam Freedman points out have changed radically. 

The second is polarisation. Hans Rosling shows why this is based on common false assumptions.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time...

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement. 
We see the snarling polarities clearly. They are the zealots, Brexiter ultras and their Corbynite placard waving, self-righteous equivalents on the left. Yet the poles are not flourishing the way a hyperbolic press would suggest. For example GB News is sinking in a sea of indifference. But if we follow the noise or confine our observations to Twitter, we miss the ambivalence and variation that makes up the majority. People's views are fluid, rather than fixed. They are open to difference and change. Nor are they certain. People asked a question on an issue they know little about, will provide a gut instinct answer. It won't be informed or permanent. The referendum was like that. The leave campaign presented Brexit as meaning 'the same only a little bit better.' It was enough for a fragile majority to think, 'Why not?' We have treated that impulse as binding and the division as entrenched. If you fear the committed, you don't see the vast ranks of the sympathetic and persuadable. 

The third fallacy, linked to this, is the failure to appreciate that most people aren't listening. This piece by Jonathan Chait brilliantly shows why America was never Trump writ large. It's lessons apply just as much to the UK.
Just how a man like this managed to eke out a narrow victory in 2016 has been a source of torment for his critics. It is easy to understand if you begin with the fact that most Americans — and especially the most persuadable Americans — spend little or no time following political news. Many of them have stressful lives that do not leave much room for it. Deciding which candidate to cast their vote for is like trying to follow the plot of a television series they have never seen and have only heard discussed in snippets over the water cooler. 
 This is why he can say that: 
 America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president. 
It's the same with Brexit. Few of the leave voters lay awake at night craving Brexit, few understood it and the same can be said for many remain voters. It just seemed like a good idea on the day and once we had the vote we were stuck with it. Remain politicians were cowed by the referendum and refused to challenge an indecisive and narrow majority, while the zealots of leave used the mandate to radicalise their demands after the result. We are where we are because of a fundamental failure in representation, blown apart by a misconceived referendum. 

So, when the left sees the stubborn Conservative lead in the polls, their first instinct is to accuse the electorate of being uncaring or stupid or worse. It's the same analysis as Blue Labour. Both think that the people are brutes, only one of them thinks that they are to be scolded rather than appeased. If they want the real answer to their question of, 'Why can't they see what we can?' The answer is that they are not looking. And if the opposition wants them to look, it must point it out in a way that they will notice and then offer something better, something nicer, something in their own image. 

A cloud of timidity has settled over opposition politics. It's the fear of giving offence combined with liberal self-doubt. Instead, we need an opposition that recognises what a nice country we are and gives us a politics that reflects it. Sam Freedman again:
Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors, Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. That doesn’t mean being needlessly provocative or indulging in every spat. But progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

It's the stupidity, stupid

There's a fabulous little 1976 essay by Carlo M Cipolla, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. It's been reissued recently and explains much of the mess the UK is in.

It's a transactional analysis. He divides people into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. The helpless lose while the other party gains at their expense, in an exchange between intelligent people both parties gain, the bandit is someone who profits from another's losses, but then there is the most numerous category, the stupid.

This definition is from his third (and golden) basic law:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

It's a pretty good working definition of stupidity, much more precise than than the word's customary use as a vague insult. Though I would want to de-personalise it. Intelligent people can promote stupid ideas, but as a description of stupid policy, it's pretty good. 

And it defines Brexit. There are no gains, everyone has lost something – the EU, the UK, individual citizens, business, services, Northern Ireland, the arts; everyone. There have not even been any savings, it's cost far more than it has saved in EU contributions. However devoted Brexiters are, it doesn't stop it being stupid.*

Now it has happened, it has to be dealt with. That's not easy.

Cipolla points out that the other categories of people can't understand the stupid. They think that people are behaving according to rational self-interest. Some talk about Brexiters' dark motives, claiming that they are out to make money, that they are disaster capitalists and tax avoiders, that there is some EU regulation that they want to avoid, or that there is a mysterious profit that they will make, rather than them simply being people attached to a stupid idea. Stupidity is baffling to those who are not stupid. Cipolla writes:

Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation - or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

Yep, Brexit is stupid – end of.

The damage has been done, most of it is permanent. The businesses that have left will not be coming back, neither will many of the people. As for the UK's reputation, it's ruined. So, what do we do? More importantly, what does the opposition do? They face a problem. They have to win back the support of the people who voted for Brexit and, for the time being, remain attached to it. They also need the support of the more numerous of their supporters who voted against it. The solution they've chosen is to pretend either that it doesn't exist or, if it does, that there's nothing they can do, or even that we must even "embrace" it as if it wasn't stupid. They have chosen helplessness, or, at best, saying that they could do the stupid thing a little less stupidly. And that brings me to Cipolla's fourth basic law:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake...

Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.

Labour's strategy, driven by a contestable analysis of strategically important voters, is to accept Brexit as immutable, just as the tide of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. What's more stupid – a stupid policy or treating a stupid policy as if it was not stupid?

Of course it will fail. It works on the assumption that the stupid are rational. Cipolla again:

A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;
b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.
The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult - like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Dickens and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."

And this is what's happening now. As we reap the reward of their stupidity, the government attacks the deal that they negotiated, on terms they asked for, whose MPs voted for, which they lauded during the election campaign and then blame the EU for its failings. How do you fight that? 

It's also explains why the current regime of the stupid is wedded to lying. If their actions have no rational structure, they aren't tied to truth. And if truth is inconvenient, why bother with it?

Mendacity and stupidity walk together. The only way to oppose a politics of falsehood is by the radical act of telling the truth. Opposition doesn't come from obfuscation. To say that a stupid policy is, indeed, stupid, isn't comfortable, it opens up some tough battles. But to appease stupidity is to allow it to reign in perpetuity. This is the challenge the opposition faces. And they're ducking it. This is how the intelligent fail. The nation needs them to win.

*There have been collateral benefits for some. Brexit was a rebellion by the stupid part of the elite against the intelligent. It was driven by resentment at their exclusion because of their stupidity. They won but haven't a clue what to do with their victory because they are stupid. This is how Johnson became PM, a position he craved despite being manifestly unsuited to the job. Other European nations have also gained much of the business we have lost, but then they recognise that their gains came their way because of our stupidity.