Saturday, 25 June 2016


So post-truth politics won the day and in a grotesque act of national self-harm Britain has voted to leave the EU. Within hours reality began to bite back as the warnings of the much-derided experts started to become true. Stock markets around the world were in free fall, the pound crashed through the floor, and companies began to announce plans to move jobs and investment out. All through the campaign leavers braggingly talked of how Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy. Not any more it isn’t. Within just a day it has become the sixth largest. Again as warned, Scotland made the first moves towards what will undoubtedly be independence, and Northern Ireland might well follow or in any case faces turmoil. Calls to shift the British border back from Calais began. The Prime Minister resigned but not with immediate effect and so a complete political paralysis now exists, and there are rumours that senior civil servants are likely to resign en masse because they know that what they are going to be expected to deliver is completely impractical. This is just day one of what will be years of uncertainty and chaos.

Reality bit in other ways, too. Before the sun had set leading Brexiters disowned the claims that there would be £350M a week more spent on the NHS, and that there would be reductions in immigration. So that was two of the three central planks of their campaign discarded. And what of the third, ‘taking back control’? As had again been said all along, it immediately emerged that the Brexiters have not a single idea about what it is that is now going to happen, when, or how. Having with anarchistic, reckless glee booted down the central pillars of decades of foreign and economic policy they had literally nothing – nothing - to say other than that a ‘glorious future’ beckoned. Suddenly, having won their prize they do not even want to begin the process of leaving and seem amazed and outraged that the rest of the EU is saying that they need to do so. Out is out.
There are no good outcomes for England now. The best that can be hoped for might be some kind of Norwegian-style arrangement, although it is by no means clear that this will be available. Even if it were it would be very tricky, politically, although there would be a parliamentary majority for it, because it would mean free movement of people. But as the effects of Brexit get clearer, and the lies of the leave campaign are exposed, there are already signs that some who voted to leave are regretting it (‘Regrexit’ is the word du jour) and if opinion polls bore that out in large numbers it’s just about conceivable that such an arrangement could be agreed without a further referendum. It would just about honour the letter of the vote to leave the EU and frankly since the leavers refused to spell out what leave meant they would just have to accept that. But it would lead to decades of claims of ‘betrayal’ and ‘we did not know what we voted for’.
Whatever happens, the economic consequences are going to be dire for years to come. Anyone thinking that it represents a triumph of working-class solidarity over global neo-liberalism is in for a very nasty shock indeed when jobs start to haemorrhage and public finances and services collapse. A very chilling lesson in reality is about to administered and although it won’t only be those who voted leave who suffer it is likely to impact them the worst.  But the real catastrophe is a cultural one. It is a massive defeat for Britain as a place of tolerance, cosmopolitanism and openness; a victory for every sort of prejudice, for sullen and bitter anti-intellectualism, for resentful small-mindedness. Huge rifts between classes, generations and regions have been opened and they aren’t going to be healed any time soon. My European friends living here are shocked and scared, whilst friends abroad look on in bemusement and horror at what has happened.
As for me, I feel distraught and physically sick. As the Brexiters crow of having ‘got their country back’, I feel that I have lost my home and now live in exile.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The sleep of reason

The expression ‘post-truth politics’ is one which I have only just become aware of, and I am not sure who coined it. The earliest usage I have found is an article about the 2012 US presidential election (Parmar, 2012) but it seems to already have been a term in use at that time.
It has come to the fore in the UK now as people begin to reflect upon the EU Referendum. Since the vote is being held today I don’t know what the outcome will be but the polls suggest the result will be close. Much of the campaign has employed familiar techniques of political rhetoric which inevitably include partial facts, selective interpretations, spinning and sloganizing of all sorts. But it has also seen repeated lies told, especially those which I have written about before concerning the size of the UK budget contribution to the EU and the assertion that Turkey is joining the EU.
It is not that telling lies in politics is new, and it isn’t that which in itself constitutes post-truth politics. It is the sense that the truth does not even matter, or that there is not even a truth to be told and, therefore, that it is meaningless to speak of lies being told. The political roots of that in the UK are associated in my mind, at least, with the way that the case was made for the Iraq War in 2003 and, more generally, with the newly relentless emphasis on ‘news management’ by the New Labour governments.
There was nothing new about spin either, of course, but this was something different. In particular, one of Tony Blair’s distinctive skills when in difficulty was to ‘break through the fourth wall’. This expression, derived from the theatre, refers to an actor speaking directly to the audience and in the process revealing the artifice of the stage. It’s just a play, after all – which we already know, but suspend our knowledge of until that knowledge is shattered. In politics this has the effect of simultaneously acknowledging but re-enforcing the idea that it is all just a game.
For skilled politicians like Blair this is a strangely disarming way of having the cake of playing the game whilst eating the cake of ironized authenticity. The blustering humour of politicians like Donald Trump or, in the Referendum context, Boris Johnson when ‘caught out’ in some particularly preposterous claim is somewhat similar. It draws the audience into a knowing acknowledgment of artifice, whilst inviting applause for the actor’s ‘honesty’ in exposing it. It’s this, rather than the telling of lies as such, which defines post-truth (and therefore post-lie) politics.
The intellectual roots of post-truth may lie with a (bowdlerized) version of post-modernism or of social constructionism: there is no truth, only interpretations. Something like this is apparent in the way that the campaign has been covered by the BBC, in particular, where a commitment to ‘balance’ has meant that every claim by one side has always been accompanied by a report of a counter-claim from the other. Again there is no truth, just opposing representations of truth; thus for every five minutes airtime saying that Turkey is not joining the EU there must be five minutes of airtime saying the opposite. Never mind that Turkey is not, as a matter of fact, joining the EU. I had a conversation at the weekend with someone about the EU debate and she suggested that whatever the facts about – in this particular conversation – immigration these didn’t matter for those concerned about it since what they claimed to be the facts were ‘true for them’ and that was what mattered.
If that is so then we have to give up on any sense of rationality in political discourse, and indeed the campaign can be read as a kind of battle between rational and post-truth politics. Thus the remain campaign deployed endless statements from various experts in economics, trade, security and so on. In response, leading leave campaigner Michael Gove opined that “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Incredibly, he subsequently compared pro-Brexit experts to the Nazis using scientific experts to denounce Einstein’s theories as wrong, in support of anti-semitic ideology. This from a former Education Minister!
Although usually less colourfully expressed, this trope of experts being in some way corrupt or untrustworthy has run through the leave campaign. It fits very neatly – like the rest of the leave campaign – with a populism in which ‘ordinary folk’ or consistently done down by ‘the elite’ – often, the ‘liberal elite’. The logic is completely circular – the evidence that they are the elite is that they disagree; the reason they disagree is that they are the elite. In this hermetically-sealed world anyone from global corporations to trade union leaders to ‘faceless bureaucrats’ to ‘the politically correct brigade’ to ‘so-called intellectuals’ are all part of an orchestrated conspiracy. Unless, of course, someone from one of these groups comes out in favour of the populist cause, at which point they become the fount of all wisdom, ‘courageously’ speaking out.
There is an interesting and important overlap between post-truth politics and the cosmopolitan and local split which I have talked about elsewhere. For the polling evidence suggests that views on EU membership are very clearly socially stratified: the more educated people are, the more likely they are to favour EU membership; the higher their social class (which is linked to educational level) the more likely they are to favour EU membership. As with Trump’s appeal, the cleavage is between those who gain from, or at least can cope with, globalization and those who suffer from its effects. In this way, post-truth politics are inextricably linked with the consequences of neo-liberalization. And in a way there is a connection between postmodern relativism and neo-liberalism: in the marketplace of ideas you pick the one that best expresses your economic interests.
These things probably connect with the media and social media culture in which ‘passion’ is the dominant value. Thus every game show contestant is judged on how passionately they want to win, just as post-truth politicians assure us of how passionate they are about their cause. What matters most is how strongly you feel. In that calculus, it is irrelevant whether what you feel is justified by evidence or argument; the strength of the feeling is its own validation. And why not? If, as my friend told me in the conversation I mentioned earlier, what matters is what people think is true then between all the different things that people think are true the only way to adjudicate between competing beliefs is the strength with which they are held.
But there are huge dangers here. The Spanish artist Francisco Goya captioned the most famous of his Los Caprichos etchings thus: “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters” (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos). This inspired the title of The Sleep of Reason (1968) a novel by C. P. Snow about whom I have written elsewhere on this blog. It is a reminder of the dangers of the abandonment of rationality, which are just as great as those of an over-attachment to rationality – dangers which include technocracy and totalitarianism. Tomorrow we will learn whether post-truth politics have won the EU Referendum but, even if it has not, its appeal and its consequences will not disappear.
Parmar, I. (2012). ‘US Presidential Election 2012: Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight 3 (2): 4-7
Snow, C.P. (1968). The Sleep of Reason. London: Macmillan.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Rotten business

I’ve written previously about the collapse of retailer BHS. This week, some of the grisly details began to emerge, as a parliamentary select committee began its investigations. Particularly striking was evidence given by former executives about its owner Dominic Chappell. Chappell – a thrice bankrupt former racing driver with no retail experience – bought BHS for £1 in in 2015. In the hearing, former finance consultant to BHS Michael Hitchcock called Chappell a Premier League class liar with his fingers in the till whilst Darren Topp, the former CEO, claimed that Chappell threatened to kill him.
Next week, Sir Philip Green, who, having ransacked the business, sold it to Chappell is also due to appear before parliament to answer questions about what happened to the pension fund. He is facing pressure to make good the fund’s £571M deficit and there are calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood.
BHS is now being wound down, with its 11,000 employees facing redundancy, because no buyer could be found. Yet, according to Chappell, there was a willing buyer who was dissuaded from the purchase by Green (something Green denies). This buyer was Mike Ashley, who is now to be called to give evidence about this.
By a strange coincidence, Ashley – founder and owner of retailer Sports Direct – also appeared before a parliamentary committee this week (despite attempts to avoid doing so). Sports Direct stands accused of failing to pay staff the minimum wage, and a litany of unpleasant practices with the effect that:
I suppose there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that these cases are being investigated by parliament, and the increased power and activism of select committees is, I think, a positive development. And, of course, there are plenty of good and responsible employers.
Yet these two stories taken together seem to disclose something about the dire state of management practices in some and perhaps many parts of British businesses today, and about the, let’s say, unappealing characters who lead those businesses. And it’s not just in Britain. Last month Oxfam reported that chicken farm workers in the US were being denied toilet breaks and forced to wear nappies. This won’t come as a surprise to readers of my book, where (p.133) I give the example of a Californian factory in which workers were told to urinate in their clothes rather than take toilet breaks. Indeed, the poultry workers are rather humanely treated by comparison: at least they are allowed nappies.
The foundational study in Labour Process Analysis from which (to simplify) grew Critical Management Studies, was Harry Braverman’s (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital of which the subtitle was ‘the degradation of work in the twentieth century’. Half a century on and we seem to be seeing degradation at work as the defining feature of the labour process; an all too literal labour process when women give birth in toilets to avoid losing their jobs.