I’m what I think most would consider ‘highly politically informed’ — that is to say, I spend a considerable amount of time following and thinking about political issues, policy proposals and so on. I read quite widely; from newspapers to academic journals, and have a lot of experience researching political trends, legal developments and the like. I have taken courses in reasoning, critical thinking and have had a sense of rational scepticism, ‘no right answers only trade-offs’, ‘look at problems from multiple perspectives’, ‘challenge your assumptions’ approach drilled into me from law school.
Becoming politically informed is an incredibly time consuming process. Newspapers provide information on the issues that is a mile wide, but only an inch deep. Social media is a great way to see what different outlets are putting out there, and with what slant (much like a foray into studying the tabloids, and how people respond to them). The rest is subject-matter detail from academic papers/books — economics, history, psychology etc.
I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t have the time (or the appetite) for this. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, in the same way that not everyone is into football. But it is ‘my niche’. And with two law degrees, one in English law and one in Scots law, it is effectively why I have been hired to work in global risk. The work is a highly qualitative endeavour involving a lot of reading, fact-checking, source-weighing etc, but it also requires a basic understanding of statistics and some degree of numeracy. Let’s just say I probably know more than the average person about UK institutions, and can readily apply these methods to researching other countries, current affairs and so on.
Now: a few disclaimers. I am not an elitist and don’t mean any of the foregoing in an arrogant sense, though I am sympathetic to some of elitism’s insights into the problem of democratic citizenship. In the interest of transparency, I self-type as an interest group pluralist, and more broadly as a neoclassical liberal in general political philosophy (something akin to Third Way centrism). I’m not a conservative by any meaningful stretch of the imagination, least not socially. But I am aware of how those with little interest or appreciation for the many shades of grey inherent to political thinking may interpret my views and what my views may, to some extent, imply.
However, I also wish to clarify that I do not purport to instruct people in what they should or should not believe as a matter of faith. That is entirely up to them, and, as a general rule, is of very little concern to me. I also do not mean to single out any particular movement or tribe. Much of what I say could be applied to the hard right as the hard left, or indeed the supporters of any given party. There are idiots and smart people on all sides of the spectrum. But idiots do seem to be disproportionately represented in more extreme, hardline, or otherwise populist projects. I put this down to a mix of insecurity (psychological, social and/or economic), crowd mentality and political ignorance.
What I think is a relatively clear, if somewhat paradoxical feature of democracy, is that any robustly egalitarian or deliberative form of popular participation would be incompatible with liberal democracy, and indeed face relatively insurmountable practical obstacles that no current deliberative theory adequately addresses. Yet in times of intense populism, the calls for more ‘people power’ or ‘more democracy’ are commonplace. Indeed participation is obviously a pre-requisite for any system that calls itself a democracy. The resulting paradoxical incompatibility when taken too far, though, is backed up by research in psychology, political science, economics and the rationale of political philosophers.
It is also evidenced through my conversations with Corbynites.
1.) Political Ignorance
I have written a bit about this as a general topic before. See here, and here. The main idea is, I think, fairly uncontroversial. Meanwhile its implications are the exact opposite and form the basis of a timeless debate. The gist is that the vast majority of people are uninformed about the complex political issues they have disproportionately strong opinions about. At its core I think this is an indisputable claim. Adam Smith foresaw that the division of labour and the specialisation inherent to mass economic development would result in people exchanging job titles at a party and not knowing what those jobs realistically entailed.
The same can be said about political and policy issues that are highly complex in nature. But it is also compounded in this context by a number of other factors. For one, politics has a tendency to rouse people’s emotions and identity-biased attachments. This tendency is shared by any enterprise that depends on an appeal to, and relationship with, value systems as its driver, e.g., ideologies, such as religion. The result is that any contradiction expressed by an interlocutor is liable to offend (whether intentionally or otherwise), and, more often than not (especially, it would seem, on social media), trigger the fight or flight mechanism biologically programmed into us. This shuts down the reasoning portion of our brain with incredible efficiency. This, in turn, makes for highly charged, rather than highly measured, discourse in the public domain.
Second, the social science research that sound policy depends on is itself highly complex and contentious. Not just within ‘isolated’ disciplines, but also between them on account of their interrelationship. Law as a subject is the strongest example here because it incorporates and represents the practical manifestation of scholarship from across the social sciences as well as some of the humanities.
Any rule about property will depend on economic justifications and will have an impact on the distribution of wealth. Any rule about crime will be crafted on the back of inputs from criminological investigation in addition to moral and other philosophical considerations. Any rule about family affairs will depend on the sociological relationships within a society and how these have developed historically. Lastly, any rule, particularly those in constitutional law, will arise out of a political context and the government systems studied by political scientists. And, even across each of these, there will be cultural, normative, historical, economic and psychological inputs that inform and shape them. It’s no surprise that a lawyers’ end goal is to specialise — there is simply too much interlocking and interrelated material within any given legal subject to be professionally competent within them all.
There is furthermore a pervasive view that all work in these fields is entirely subjective, ‘unscientific’ and essentially of little merit (a view held especially strongly by those who have never conducted research of this kind). And indeed everyone has an opinion on the law, as they should, of course. But these opinions have a tendency to go far beyond anything that might be considered reasonably informed by sound scholarship and thus an accurate reflection of what is actually going on, how it works, why a given rule or norm is that way and so on.
Thirdly there are many biases that limit the scope of what both laypeople and professionals can compute. Chances are that laypersons are even more prone to them, however. For one, it takes quite a few years to become skilled in a given area of policy. To continue with the lawyer example, which mirrors that of academics and medical doctors, you are looking at at least 6 years of higher education before one can even join the profession and thus refine through utilisation one’s subject-matter expertise. This training does not remove in-built biological biases (nor, I would submit, should or could it) but it at least exposes one to a dialectical method. It exposes the student/professional to imperfections and complexities in the material, and it exposes them to the need for intellectual honesty, openness and an ability to constantly challenge one’s assumptions in order to produce more reliable analysis.
This is not impossible for autodidacts to achieve. Indeed anyone is theoretically capable of learning anything they set their minds to. But that doesn’t remove the fact that this takes a lot of time, and a lot of difficult reading, practice, engagement and so on. As I say, this is not for everyone. Nor is that inherently a bad thing. But it is the reality. Everyone has different interests, skills and ways in which they use their time. On top of this, all that laypeople have access to is the new media of the internet, the print media and their real world social networks. Maybe throw in a couple of documentaries too (most of which are generally one-sided and highly dramatised so as to make the subject matter more appealing, with the undesirable result that most merely amount to an hour-long news report at best, and at worst historical revisionism that borders on negationism — like Oliver Stone’s documentaries or Michael Moore’s similarly agenda-laden expositions). The arguments about the positives of the internet for independent learning are fairly robust, but even still there is too much material out there for someone without the requisite grounding in the subject to be able to adequately assess and qualify any given work according to its merit from the ground up, especially not without a significant time investment.
As such it is likely that the bulk of people will remain politically ignorant even with new, allegedly ’empowering’ or ‘democratising‘ technologies like the internet. Some people just aren’t interested, and understandably so. There is an infinite amount of content out there, the bulk of which is at best of print media quality (many of the references to Wikipedia articles do indeed link to news reports). Blogs are of equally variable quality and cannot really be assessed without an understanding of the author’s background (assuming the author is a credible figure in the field to begin with – see, e.g., the work of Dr North, a food safety expert, lauded as a credible writer on EU law by Brexiteers). Ultimately it’s a tough slog with no clear answers or easy solutions that would enable us to snap our fingers and beautifully reform society and its institutions.
2.) Memes & Misinformation
Social media is an anarchic arena. I mean this in the sense of one of the defining principles of international relations (a field which itself is essentially an amalgamation of the study of history, political science, military studies, geography and political economy). In IR theory it means that there is no clear, universally recognised authority governing/mediating inter-state interactions. The same can be said about the internet. There is as yet no clear system or institution of social norms governing interactions over the net, though some are developing. This applies on the individual as well as macro level. Chances are that if someone attempts to make a serious point about something, they will most likely be mocked. Normal rules of interaction don’t quite apply.
Importantly, information in general is subject to even fewer normative or institutional constraints (cf. academic or professional practices which depend on peer-review and other forms of oversight, self-correction etc). In the context of social media platforms, information flows freely without a filter and without any ‘real’ or meaningful arbitration. I say ‘real’ because there are of course algorithms and individuals, but so far this combination remains wanting. Algorithms are great at ranking content based on mostly quantitative factors, but struggle severely and indeed are utterly incapable of assessing that content’s ‘truth value‘; in other words its integrity — a predominantly qualitative endeavour that requires not only a background in the relevant topic to exercise, but also the time and willingness to investigate and reinvestigate that background in light of a new claim. Individuals vary widely in what they are capable of and interested in doing (and we’ve already established that ignorance is the norm), so the combination is incredibly limited from an academic point of view.
This provides a rich environment for memes and misinformation to thrive and a pretty challenging environment for introducing corrective insights. Ironically, and apparently without appreciating the hypocrisy, people complain about soundbite politics because of its simplicity and narrowness, yet they relish in doing the same themselves while demanding ‘evidence-based’ policy. People share pithy statements super-imposed onto small images claiming and taken to espouse some fundamental truth, rather than what they actually are: merely an expression of what those sharing it believe in, while complaining aggressively about bias in the media. What about this bias in social media? What’s the difference?
This, of course, is nothing new – in principle. It is how slogans, which are nothing more than sounbites by another name, and politics have always worked. It’s hard to rally people behind anything more complex than some reductionist claim about the current state of affairs. The only difference, in my view, is the degree of hypocrisy that this breeds. That plus the increasingly ideological isolationism it enables and reinforces. As a well known paradox expresses, freedom is inherently liberating but too much freedom actually results in oppression and insularity. The same is true of anarchy and the social media environment.
The thing is, politicians are ultimately a reflection of the society they are elected by to represent. Only the great ones exercise leadership to change values and only the great ones are able to straddle this divide: on the one hand being elected by appealing to present day values but also exercising bold stewardship on the back of that popularity. What we have currently is a hypocrisy-riddled climate where the public complains about how their representatives attempt to appeal without thinking about where this behaviour may originate.
And in an environment where anything goes, these attitudes are almost inevitable. As a tangential aside, have you ever wondered why techno-utopians champion the egalitarian nature of the internet despite the practical reality that a.) all information, including garbage, is thereby equivocated to expert opinion while b.) information coming from ‘friends’ or ‘people I know that are like me‘ is given greater value? It’s an intriguing irony, but unsurprising coming from a fundamentally absolutist, anarchic view.
Corynism is a view that espouses ‘obvious‘ solutions to timeless issues while stressing the role of ‘the new media’ in communicating them. The implication is as deeply embedded as it is fundamentally flawed. There is no ‘one perfect answer’ that is merely being kept from ordinary people by the colluding cabal of experts and ‘the establishment’ elites. Ironically this movement preaches hope and inclusiveness while the reality is one of deep cynicism and mistrust of anyone-but-Corbyn and anyone sceptical of grandiose conspiracies.
This is pure populism of the left wing variety. It represents a regression away from the Enlightenment rationalism that underpins scientific scholarship of both the social and natural kinds. It does so by shutting down the hard thinking needed to come together and address political issues in favour of portraying such an approach as the enemy of the good. “Don’t try to confuse me with complex charts and graphs; you’re just a Blairite against ‘democracy’!” The rhetoric is incredibly effective because it targets the vulnerable and misinformed by offending them in regards to some state of affairs, presenting every issue as a literal assault on them and their values, and then promising them a quick fix that has otherwise been denied to them by dark forces. Shut down the rational parts of the brain and then offer a sugar pill — it’s practically Pavlovian.
Naturally the result is strong from a rousing political point of view but terrible from a policy point of view. The Green party is a brilliant case study in the sort of frenzied hankering that results from excessive politicisation of this variety. I could go on at length and in detail about the fanciful, backward and counter-productive nature of the bulk of Green party policy (don’t worry, I won’t) but first let me reiterate that I am not ‘against democracy’ or against political participation. It’s the kind of participation and the kind of democracy that matters. Shades of grey. My position here is that the kind of engagement Corbynism and hard left populism stirs up is unbalanced and ill-equipped to deliver progress of any kind, nevermind the degree of ‘progress’ it promises. And for that I consider it incredibly regressive and insular.
Green party policy-making is a great case study here because it takes one of the most literal and direct views of political participation of any current UK party, and it justifies it on the same grounds that Corybnism does. “More” is simply “better”. What could be so bad about that? All we want to do is build the most progressive, just and sustainable society ever… What could go wrong? Let’s give everyone an equal say, stick all these views together and call it the ‘ultra-egalitarian participatory democracy model’ (OK, that’s a bad enough combination of terms and I’m only one person…).
Anyway, as the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee; and my God, has the Green party produced the least functional camel I have ever seen. And this is a result of a small band of white middle class do-gooders who all supposedly see things the same way. The result has been a website full of incoherent policy proposals, a great bunch of which display features ranging from dangerous naivety to measures that would cancel each other out, underwritten by philosophical incoherence. Let’s just have a read through some of the comments sections on social media for a glimpse of what policy-making might look like where this to be applied on a larger, more diverse scale…
Not only are the results incoherent, but the process is interminable. And it’s clear from much of what is said that it is based on incomplete knowledge, reduced to short, simplistic and predominantly reactionary comments.
Democracy, like science, works best when the bounds of a claim are constantly and repeatedly tested and falsified through rational, pluralistic discourse. Competing views are debated with input from the public, as well as officials and experts. We need all these groups providing input. The populist view, however, subsumes all views to ‘the will of the people‘. This presupposes that the will of this one, supposedly homogeneous, mass is indeed in the best interests of the people, nevermind minority interests (who historically have suffered greatly off the back of such movements). This the opposite of pluralism and egalitarianism because it calls for egalitarianism for ‘the people’ alone, and demands they have a direct, literalistic say on any and all matters (regardless of practical issues like whether they are qualified; this isn’t even considered, it is merely presumed as indisputably so because it is feels right). It is a sort of extreme moral authoritarianism that is fundamentally anti-liberal because it shuns diverging views and especially any view deemed a ‘special interest’. Incidentally any view that steps outside of the tightly regulated view deemed that of ‘the people’ is considered a ‘special interest’ view. The classical expression of this is in the deeply flawed notion that ‘the common man’ or the ‘little person’ is intrinsically more moral or more pure than someone of another status, merely by virtue of their status.
Unsurprisingly, Corbynism works incredibly well in a non-contested environment. Rallies, pro-Corbyn Facebook pages and networks of followers are head over heals over the man. Yet it gets ugly really quickly in contested environments, such as the real world. Parliamentary democracy in particular relies on this ongoing contest to (theoretically) produce the best results. And you cannot arrive at good results by shunning experts and ignoring the basis of sound policy-making on which the entire edifice is predicated. Ultimately those who criticise this system fail to understand how it operates and they do so on the assumption that some utopian world of perfect solutions do exist, pure wisdom exists and human nature exists as they would like it to be rather than what it is in all its complexity, frustration and glory.
My conversations with Corbynites have brought to the fore all of these things. I have had people tell me that it does not make sense that Theresa May has become PM because she was ‘not elected’ by the people, despite the fact she is a sitting MP and we do not live in a presidential republic. I have had people use media narratives to argue that media narratives are not to be trusted. I have had people query who should be responsible for the housing crisis, clearly looking for some individual politician to blame, not realising that this is a democracy and no one individual in a democracy has the kind of unchecked power it would require to be solely accountable for some policy result. It was a classic witchhunt manifest on social media rather than the village square. I have had people claim that Corbyn is electable because politics is so unpredictable at the moment that anything could happen, not realising that they are essentially suggesting that Corbyn’s only hope of victory depends on it being left to chance. I have had people tell me that what we need is inclusive debate on issues such as climate change but that the ‘big business’ should not have a seat at that table. I have had people chastise me for generalising, only to see them post the following day about how all the media/Blairites/PLP are the same.
If this isn’t hypocrisy driven by hype and ignorance I don’t know what is. I thoroughly enjoy debating and discussing this stuff, but I simply cannot tolerate abusive, intellectually dishonest dismissal of opposing views masquerading as progressivism. Progressivism depends on people accepting that no one has it all figured out, not even experts, and remaining open to the difficult realities and complexities of the social world. One will never arrive at anything good by being certain only of their self-righteousness, whose own tribe can do no wrong while prima facie castigating any and all dissent, shutting oneself off on the basis of incomplete information while claiming to be a paragon of open-mindedness. This is nothing short of intense group-think and mob mentality; the kind of tyranny of the majority that populism inevitably leads to.
This is not what democracy is intended to achieve, but it is an inherent component with which the system has always had to contend. But if you, as an individual, cannot accept that the gulf between what you know and what you don’t know is unfathomably large, and prefer the simplicity of ideology, internet memes and comedians commenting on current affairs, then Corbynism is for you. The perfect system is just around the corner, and Corbyn is ready to really tackle prejudice, injustice and inequality like no other. So believe what you want to believe, but remain humble in the knowledge that you probably don’t know as much as you feel you do or as much as your group of friends who all agree with you do. Other worlds are possible, but the route to them does not involve these levels of hypocrisy, prejudice and ignorance. Corbynism is testament to the notion that you cannot reason people out of positions they did not reason themselves into, and that you cannot effect positive change with an attitude that in actuality rejects its own imagined claims to righteousness.