Monday, 31 December 2018

A Politics of Facts will not Resolve Britain's Brexit Crisis

Nowadays we hear it repeated ad nauseam that ours is the post-truth age, the age of alternative facts and fake news. It is similarly repeated that this state of affairs has contributed to some of the more surprising events of recent years, notably Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of so-called populism from Italy to the Philippines. For some people it's easy to pin this all on the Russians; their governing through chaos, their interference in foreign elections, their undermining of international norms, their mockingly deadpan sense of humour, etc. For others, predominantly of a liberal shade, it's the abandonment of facts in political affairs that has let in the spectre of civil unrest and international discord. A politics not grounded in facts - they argue - is a perfidious thing, libel to stir up the emotional and the credulous among globalisation's less fortunate souls; inciting them into acts of self harm such as voting to leave the cosy neo-liberal bosom of the EU. As for the British Parliament - slouching into the New Year in deadlock over the Brexit deal - the clamour for a second referendum continues to grow. Here we find the question of facts raised pointedly.

Leading proponents of a second poll point to notorious incidences like Boris Johnson's Brexit bus, plastered with the claim that £350 million a week could be invested in the UK National Health Service after exiting the EU, as proof that the people were deceived and sold a pipe dream of Brexit Britain that could never have been delivered. Others say that now the terms of the deal are known people should be able to vote on the facts rather than speculations and promises. On the face of it there's nothing controversial about the facts of an issue being known (as if what constitutes ‘known’ isn’t itself controversial in matters of mass democracy), but the Remainers who argue that a politics of facts will deliver them the result they want, or heal the divisions in Britain are fundamentally mistaken, both about the Brexit conflict and the nature of politics more generally.

This valorisation of facts and the notion that if everyone has access to the same information they should come to similar conclusions, is rooted in Enlightenment ideas about objective reason and more deeply an inherent liberal distrust of political contestation over values and what used to be called 'the life questions'. Consensus politics (liberal politics par excellence) assumes similarly that people given the same facts and without obvious distorting prejudices will not end up taking incommensurate positions. All that would then be needed to resolve an issue and form a general will would be a degree of compromise on all sides and perhaps some level of debate with reasoned argumentation as the leading light. This is of course the logic not only of political liberalism but of that mode of quasi-anthropological thought that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries along with the scientific method more generally. The twin advent of political liberalism and modern science is well known, as are their shared premises of economic, technological and political progressivism. Less well understood is what has been excluded in political life the more it has become a matter for technocratic horse trading and global economic consensus.

2a) The Elimination of Conflict and the Rise of the Fact
The Brexit debacle has done much to challenge the illusion that good governance is always conducted from the centre ground. Ever since the vote in June 2016 political and social polarisation have increased and now culminate in the factional deadlock at Westminster. Liberal Parliamentarism  seems unable to restore what has been broken by the uncharacteristic move to hold a plebiscite on Britain's membership of the EU. What this breakdown has also shown up is the huge distance between the position of the governing class and that of the governed. 52% voted to leave the EU but it has been obvious from the outset that the establishment position and that of the vast majority of MPs was and still is to remain. With the process seemingly stalled, this contradiction has become ever more apparent and is feeding the growth of the far Right who have parasitized the conflict, polarising it still further by attempts at painting remain MPs as pro-immigration, anti-democratic traitors, putting foreign interests ahead of the "native" British population. Former English Defence League thug Tommy Robinson has become something of a poster boy for the combined forces (including UKIP and a panoply of conspiracy theorists) leaning in this direction.

From its origins in the early modern period, liberalism has forever been a means of excluding conflict from political affairs. This has been achieved substantially by a centuries long development whereby the scope of politics has been increasingly restricted and rationalised to matters of individual rights and economic management.  Many of the most familiar terms of contemporary liberal discourse testify to this history. Common sense, the centre ground, consensus, and of course the neutrality of facts are all terms that denote a degree of naturalism and necessity which by reason should exclude serious conflict between interlocutors. The British model is perhaps the most successful in history in this regard. Since the settlement after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the British system has withstood all the revolutionary movements in Europe, the industrial revolution, the rise of the workers movement and seen the rise and fall of its own Empire. All the while it has stuck steadfast to a constitutional system that absorbs and manages the changes happening around it.

If it is the case - as many Marxists argue - that Britain's modern parliamentary system has been predominantly a way of managing and promoting the interests of the propertied classes, beginning with the land owners and nascent industrial class of the 17th century, and continuing today with the financial elites, we can see how Brexit has truly created a scission at the heart of British politics. Business and finance elites both globally and in the UK were almost unanimously against Britain leaving the EU. The frictionless movement of goods and capital as well as a common system of rules regulating (or not regulating) their activities has been a core driver of globalisation. But now Parliament, that institution which for over three centuries has been in the front row serving the interests of capital, is tasked with striking a blow against the global consensus, against the very concept of global governance itself. More than that, it has pitted the Tories against their natural base in business, effectively alienating the ruling class from their traditional representatives in the Conservative party. This antagonism has led to factionalising within the Tories themselves as one side attempts to reverse the Brexit process and side with their base while the likes of Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg conjure up Churchillian rhetoric in support of building England's post EU Jerusalem. All this before we even consider the divisions in the Labour party between a youth driven resurgent socialism and the Blairite centrists who in effect form a third party with the remain faction of the Conservatives. None of this has come about through a paucity of facts.

2b) In the same period during the 17th century that saw England's finest hour when the head of Charles I was divorced from his body, it was determined, in the wake of the wars of religion and the English revolution that politics would take place on the plain of artifice. Consequently, political life would increasingly be delimited to a specialised and exclusive administrative art. The life questions, to say nothing of contestation between forms-of-life would come to be banished from the public realm. Matters of ethics, the Good life and of course religion were increasingly determined as purely private concerns, matters of conscience. This is the backdrop to the formation of liberal parliamentarism that extends deep into the social fabric not only of Britain but of Europe as a whole.

Thomas Hobbes epoch defining description at the introduction to his masterwork presages not only the direction of English politics but of the modern "globalised Leviathan" for which his national model was the prototype: "Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, (in Latin Civitas) which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty is an artificial soul as giving life and motion to the whole body;..."
Here stated plainly is most significant gift bequeathed by the 17th century; the mechanistic model of nature as an enclosed system of efficient causes with Man at its centre. The "artifice" of statecraft is in mimicking the rational form of natural processes as closely as possible, thus bringing the realm of artifice (politics) and the realm of nature into a harmonious totality. A correlate of this naturalistic and supposedly scientific view of political life is that anything which does not conform to it, that bases its communality on other values, is excluded as irrational, unnatural or simply groundless opinion. This wasn't yet the dominion of empiricism that we live under today, but the work of theorists like Hobbes, Grotius, Pufendorf and Locke substantially delimited the scope of politics, laying the foundations for what was to come.

Luther publishes the 95 Theses, painting of Julius Hubner (1878)
Looking further back it was the intractable series of conflicts during the Reformation that began the process of relegating the 'life questions' to the private sphere. In the wake of the reformers return to the Gospel, scholastic speculation gave way to scriptural objectivity, which rather than settling truth claims about religious doctrine by grounding them in the Word, instead opened up endless conflicts over interpretation. Magisterial and radical Protestants, united in their rejection of the authority of Rome, fought each other over the meaning and extent of their reforms. Sola Scriptura, so seemingly simple a notion opened up a whole new plain of conflict. And since such questions could never be settled agreeably between all parties they were either settled by authority through the creation of confessionalised states and universities, or deemed not to matter in political life and were relegated to the private domain of individual conscience. Religion was progressively neutralised as a site of political conflict just as politics was increasingly secularised. An attendant result of this process was that politics increasingly became an arena for rational technocratic solutions, administrative problems and questions of good governance rather than a contestation over values and forms-of-life. This is political liberalism’s basic epistemological ground.

3) Neutralisations and Big data
Each of these developments share a commonality in that they sought a form of knowledge and politics that excluded the possibility of conflict between different forms-of-life. In doing so the scope and potential for political contestation became increasingly circumscribed. The "centre ground" and English common sense have their roots here, as does the valorisation of rational empirically based political claims rather than assertions of values. The result has been that the things which give people's lives meaning have become entirely separated from political life, all the while our lives have become increasingly controlled by impersonal forces we scarcely understand.

The German jurist Carl Schmitt in the first half of the 20th century described this process as a one of "neutralisations and depoliticizations". He glosses the history of the last four centuries as one of shifting "central domains" from which politics has attempted to govern from a position of neutrality. From the theology of the late middle ages to the metaphysics and science of the 17th and early 18th centuries and then onto the moral and economic centrality of the late 18th and 19th centuries; each time the central domain became a site of struggle politics shifted towards another supposedly more neutral domain. Each time this occurs the previous domain is deactivated as a site of political importance, rendered a matter of personal preference (in the case of religion and morality) or incontestable objectivity (in the case of economics and metaphysics).  Whether we accept Schmitt's schema or not, he is I think correct in asserting that today's central domain is not - as is it usually understood - the economy, it's technology. "Unlike theological, metaphysical, moral and even economic questions, which are forever debatable, purely technical problems have something refreshingly factual about them. They are easy to solve, and it is easily understandable why there is a tendency to take refuge in technicity from the inextricable problems of all other domains".

Big data and the digital revolution are the latest stage in this development, portending of a "post-political" world of algorithms and managed outcomes. German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has in a series of books detailed the possibilities of this new technology of power. He argues it leads to an era of "psycho-politics" in which big data technologies are increasingly used to bypass any form of "subjective arbitrariness" in decision making. Intuition, context or deeper understanding of cause are all irrelevant in the mass collection of data. He quotes Chris Anderson's article The End of Theory to emphasise the attendant attitude of the big data gurus: "Out with every theory of human behaviour, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves". 

This barbarism of data as Han calls it is just the latest stage in the centuries long process I have sketched above. The progressive elimination of values and possible subjective conflict reaches its apogee in big data's correlationist utopia, in which knowledge itself is reduced to its lowest common denominator. Every click and digital interaction contributes to a vast storehouse of correlations that can be deployed to micro-target individual voters or groups with political advertising, smear campaigns directed at opposition politicians, rage-fodder or outright fake news. The individual subject of Rights - in modern liberal parlance - is reduced in the era of big data to the totality of preferences as expressed through their digital interactions. This totally empty and artificial individual will be the "fact" governing political decisions of the future.

4) Conflict is the Irreducible Core of Political Life
It is precisely through the lens of this modern "politics of technicity" that the liberal centre attempted to frame the question of EU membership during the time of the referendum and continue to do so today with their demands for a second poll. The question is posed as purely technical, to do with economic realities and empirically measurable outcomes. The suggestion that it might involve ideological commitments or different value systems is ignored. But this is precisely what was brought into play by directly evoking the constituting power through a referendum. It opened a window onto parts of Britain that had been ignored by the neo-liberal consensus over decades of stagnating wages, "bullshit jobs" and stigmatisation by the media. Suddenly they had the chance to remind Westminster (and much of the South East of England) that they existed. This window cannot now be closed.

In this context it should be noted that the 2016 referendum did not create the factions we now call Remain and Leave, but it did name them. That alone was sufficient to bring the present conflict, either side of which they stand, into public actuality. What we see with the ongoing deadlock and ever more entrenched positions at Westminster is the undeniable reality of that schism within the nation. It is a real antagonism between very different value systems and visions of what a future Britain should look like. No amount of facts about the value of the common market to UK GDP or the vital role immigration has played in maintaining Britain's public services is going to override the immediate and irrefutable feelings of many people across the UK, that the EU and globalisation have done nothing for them. Nor will such facts placate those whose opinions are rooted in racism and xenophobia, the same prejudices that successive UK governments have played upon over the last thirty years when it suited them. Thus, it may be the case that the notorious statement plastered across Boris Johnson's Brexit bus was false, but it aimed at a sentiment and perspective that is real and refuting the lie will not make those sentiments disappear.

Parliament’s deadlock stems from the attempt to come to a decision regarding values and possible forms-of-life using institutional mechanisms and a type of political discourse that have developed expressly to avoid making such decisions. The persistent referral back to the facts or to economic necessity merely dodges what is really at stake, which is the potential for Britain to break with the post-war consensus and forge a path away from neo-liberalism, toward something radically different. The Brexit vote has precipitated a rupture of genuine political conflict in British public life for the first time since perhaps the Miners Strike of the Mid Eighties. Unlike that conflict, which was settled by the authority of the state (deploying a good deal of violence in the process), it is the very authority and legitimacy of Britain's political institutions that are now in question as each side vies for control over what appears like an increasingly empty seat of power.

Facts are weightless things until they are embedded within a system of values and a form-of-life. Only then do they find their pathos and take on meaning, only then can they contribute to a decision. A politics of facts and technocratic administration can attempt to obscure and neutralise social conflict but it cannot abolish it. It was Carl Schmitt, in providing one of the 20th century's most acute diagnoses of the 'crisis of parliamentary democracy', who never ceased to emphasise that facts, whether of a textural, scientific or economic type cannot do away with the eternal question of who judges and who interprets. Therein lies the struggle. There is politics.

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