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Demons, Turkeys and the Logic of Brexit

The peasants are revolting.

That’s the view of the recently deposed US national security adviser John Bolton, who said that the “fashion in the European Union when the people vote the wrong way from the way that the elites want to go is to make the peasants vote again and again until they get it right”.

A new Peasants’ Revolt – with Philip Hammond’s head on a pikestaff

Bolton is no fool. The dividing lines for present and future battles are set. It’s simply a matter of choosing sides: peasant or elite; people or Parliament; native or immigrant. These endless binary permutations, standing in artificial opposition to each other, have become reified and those on the populist side of the debate, know how powerful binary choices are in leveraging discontent and division. By reducing complex issues about identity and belonging into an either/or choice, Us or Them, Leave or Remain, the path is clear to unleash the resentment and anger of those who have been left behind.

The mechanics of this process are ancient and familiar. In The Republic, Plato saw democracy as the precursor to tyranny. The “insatiable demand for freedom” that, for Plato, defines democracy, “prepares the demand for tyranny”. The engine of that demand is the inability of democracy to fulfil the endless demands that free people make of their governments. This hunger for more, fuelled in spectacular fashion by the emergence of social networks and online retailing, combined with unprecedented disparities of income and opportunity, lead to populism. “When a tyrant grows,” Plato concludes, “he sprouts from the root of popular leadership and from nowhere else”.

In the Brexit debate, those populist leaders are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, neither of whom have much, if anything, in common with the mass of those they lead. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the core Brexit support came from households with an income of less than £20,000 a year, the unemployed, people in low-skilled or manual jobs, people who feel their financial status is declining and those with no qualifications at all:

“Groups in Britain who have been ‘left behind’ by rapid economic change and feel cut adrift from the mainstream consensus were the most likely to support Brexit. These voters face a ‘double whammy’. While their lack of qualifications put them at a significant disadvant age in the modern economy, they are also being further marginalised in society by the lack of opportunities in their low-skilled communities. This will make it extremely difficult for the left behind to adapt and prosper in future.”

Plato anticipated that Brexit supporters would have little in common with Farage, Johnson or many of their wealthy, well-educated backers, knowing as he did that populist leaders emerge from an elite they disown at the point of power. It’s a sleight of hand that shouldn’t surprise us. People ravaged by globalisation and fearful of a future where they become even more inconsequential than they are today, will seek the comfort of strong leadership that promises them a scapegoat for their misery and a better future. It doesn’t matter where the leaders come from. What matters is whose side they are on. Or appear to be on.

In On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald observed that, in Germany, the “urge to be part of some corporate body which justifies itself by invoking a higher law was particularly strong in the 1920s and 1930s under the conservative and revolutionary right.” This urge was a receptive body for the absorption of what Sebald calls “fanatical delusions” that lay behind the ordinary, upright lives of average German citizens. In the 1930s, the scapegoat was the Jew, and Sebald identifies delusions of racial impurity  as instigating “the immeasurable suffering that we Germans inflicted on the world…spread out of ignorance and resentment”.

Ignorance and resentment are easily manipulated. One of the outcomes in Germany was the violent demonisation of ‘the other’ and who knows where the populism unleashed by Brexit is taking us. One thing for sure is that it’s not going to lead to prosperity for those the JRF report identified as “most likely to support Brexit” and that’s why most Leavers and many Remainers want Brexit, Deal or No-Deal, to happen. Dominic Cummings said, “politicians don’t get to choose which votes they respect” and even a plebiscite as deceptively won as the Brexit Referendum has to be respected. The failure to honour the outcome of the Referendum will fuel division and give politicians like Farage and Johnson the justification to deepen the anger and resentment felt by the ‘left-behind’.

Dominic Cummings: architect or agitator?

Since 2016, people on both sides of the debate have hardened their positions as the centre ground collapses and this is exactly what you would expect to happen in the early stages of the Platonic drift from democracy into tyranny. Regardless of the fact that Brexit has become an end-in-itself, with the most likely social and economic outcome being the multiplication of pain inflicted on those least able to withstand it, the people voted for pain and they must have pain. The consequences of not giving them the pain they voted for will enable populist leaders to blame Parliament, the educated elite, Leo Varadkar and any number of conspiratorial cabals. By doing so, they will fuel the demons they have unleashed and deepen the tears in the brittle fabric that binds us. Like the evils that escaped from Pandora’s jar, the Brexit demons of intolerance, duplicity, anger, resentment and virulent nationalism have taken on lives of their own, leaving us to catch up with the unravelling of our political and social norms.

This is a process that no-one controls.

Ideologues like Dominic Cummings are portrayed as master architects of a plan to take back control when they are little more than agitators setting in motion a process which, at the moment of agitation, escapes them. You only have to read any of Cummings’s blogs to see inside the mind of a man for whom Brexit is an intellectual game. How many of the ‘left-behind’, whose understandable disdain for politicians he has helped whip into a collective will for subversion, will ever read his 33rd blog on the Referendum titled, High performance government ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor & Seeing Rooms? They just “want our country back” and are unlikely to lie awake at night perplexed by “the extreme value” to be found in “the intersection of fields”. Big words like big ideas give the illusion of control to those who peddle them, while the divisive slogans and racist tropes that circulate on social networks are leading the way.

A recent article on the influence of YouTube on the rise of Brazilian President Jair Bolosnara shows where the real power lies. Fuelled by voracious algorithms that recommend ‘more of the same’, social networks silo people into consuming content that reinforces, rather than challenges, their beliefs. This creates a feedback loop and “the emotions that draw people in – like fear, doubt and anger – are often central features of conspiracy theories…As the system suggests more provocative videos to keep users watching, it can direct them towards extreme content they can never find”. The article quotes Carlos Jordy, a Bolsonaro supporter and YouTube influencer, saying, “If social media didn’t exist I wouldn’t be here and Jair Bolsonaro wouldn’t be President”. The end point is a “dictatorship of the like…where reality is shaped by whatever message goes viral”.

Abuse, in under 30 seconds or in fewer than 240 characters, will always trump a densely argued blog. In the end, the forces unleashed by the reduction of complexity into a binary choice, Leave or Remain, will consume the elite who believe they were leading it. Rather, the descent into barbarism, mostly verbal for now, is proceeding at a pace. And that may seem like the the best reason the people must have the pain they voted for. They cannot be given the excuse that all their pain is the result of their will being blocked by a disconnected elite. They need to see that Brexit solves nothing. For the rich and powerful, also for many entrepreneurs, Brexit will work just like most things work for the rich and powerful but for the ‘left-behind’, who have yet to face the full force of what “cognitive technologies” and AI will do to their lives, all that will change is they will be cut further adrift. They will be the losers of a battle they thought they had won.

Who, then, will they blame?

In the 1973 classic film The Wicker Man, Police Sergeant Neil Howie is lured to a remote Hebridean island where he is sacrificed inside a giant wicker man statue in the belief that his death will lead to a better harvest and save the island from starvation. As the flames gather around him, he yells down at Lord Summerisle, the leader of the islanders, warning him that the crops will fail again and when they do, the islanders will come for him. When those who expected Brexit to usher in a new era of hope and prosperity find themselves failing even more miserably, they may turn on Farage, Johnson, Cummings, Rees-Mogg and others who led them into the abyss. It is, however, unlikely that this will happen.

Far more likely, is that the ideologues will find someone other than themselves to blame, the rhetoric will become more hateful and social networks will do the rest. Inevitably, this will deepen the demonisation of  ‘the other’, be that the racial other or simply the other side of the argument, because there has to be someone to blame who is not ‘one of us’. The psychology behind this process is depressingly familiar. Biases such as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ and the ‘backfire effect’ mean that we are unlikely to change beliefs in which we made enormous emotional investment and when that investment is challenged we simply become more extreme and entrenched in our opinions.

This is the inexorable logic of polarisation that occurs when fantasy meets reality. And Brexit, or at least the Brexit we were sold, a Brexit of easy trade deals, £350m a week for the NHS, fewer immigrants and taking back control, was always a fantasy. It had to be otherwise it would’ve been defeated. The fantasy explains why so many (Welsh sheep farmers, low-skilled workers, the poorly educated)  who stand to lose most from Brexit, voted for it. Like the proverbial Christmas turkey, they are the Brexit turkeys who voted for their own demise. When reality bites and leaving the EU at best changes nothing and at worse tips us into recession where the poorest will be hardest hit, they will become more, not less, fantastical in their beliefs. When prophecies fail, most believers deepen their beliefs because the cost of admitting they were wrong is too high: no-one wants to be the turkey who voted for Christmas.

This process is brilliantly illustrated in Leon Festinger’s famous study of a cult who believed aliens were going to rescue them from a flood that would devastate all life on earth. When neither aliens nor flood appeared at the appointed time, the believers, who had hitherto avoided contact with mainstream media, became public and fervent proselytisers of their beliefs. In simple terms, they found a way to manage the pain of disappointment that justified the emotional investment they’d made in a cult of which they were now an irretrievable part

Deal or No Deal?

Perhaps, in the end it doesn’t matter, as both will end in actual or perceived failure for the weakest and the poorest, who will seek out more savage leaders to get them to the Promised Land. This inexorable logic is why the only evil that didn’t escape from Pandora’s jar was elpis, translated as hope or expectation. It may seem odd that hope should be an evil, yet we are all familiar how, when faced with a personal or collective crisis, we grasp at any straw and when it breaks we seek another. It is more honest and more resourceful, if we have the courage and stoicism to do so, to expect nothing. Then we can take real control of our lives and we will never need to seek a sacrificial victim to justify our misfortune. And that, at least, is progress.