It’s still happening

I have no problem with the statue of Edward Colston being rolled into Bristol harbour, or with the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, who did so much to extend and cement white supremacy in Southern Africa. But I’m curious as to why so much more heat seems to be generated by colonialism and slavery in the past than by colonialism and slavery that is still going on in the present.

There are creditable reports that a million members of the Uighur minority in China are being held in concentration camps. (If the figure is accurate that would amount to about 8% of the entire Uighur population of China). A leaked Chinese government memo gives orders that the camps should:

  • “Never allow escapes”
  • “Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”
  • “Promote repentance and confession”
  • “Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority”
  • “Encourage students to truly transform”
  • “[Ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”

There are also reports of enforced pregnancy tests, interuterine devices, and sterilisation of Uighur women, with the aim of reducing the Uighur population, and the threat of being detained in internment camps for non-compliance. Up to half a million children may have been removed from their parents and placed in state boarding schools. There are persistent allegations that Uighurs and other minorities being used as a source of organs for transplant, extracted by force, including extractions resulting the the donor’s death.

And there are reports too of forced Uighur labour being used in factories that export goods to the west and that famous brands such as Apple, Nike and Adidas are using suppliers which are implicated in this form of slavery.

The slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean that ended in the nineteenth century was sustained not just by slave-traders and plantation owners, but also by the consumers who continued to buy products such as sugar and cotton that were harvested by enslaved people. It looks like we are doing exactly the same thing now. I daresay even some of those who pulled down the statue of Edward Colston owned an Apple phone (as I do myself) or were wearing Nike or Adidas shoes.

Easier perhaps for us to be outraged about injustices in which we were not personally implicated than to recognise our complicity in oppression that is happening now.

‘Flags’

Richard Dawkins observed that every religious person is an atheist with respect to every belief system except their own. One could quibble with that, one could point out that, if we are to agree that this is so, his own particular conception of ‘atheism’ would need to be added to the list. But the point I want to make just now is that the same is true in politics.

Religious belief is not for most people a matter of free choice, but is closely tied to geography and to heritage. Go to rural Morocco, and you won’t find many Protestants but you will find plenty of people who sincerely believe in Islam. Go to the American Midwest and the reverse is true. Even when people consciously move away from the religion of their ancestors, they tend to do so as a group.

Support for different political ideas is also not randomly distributed across the country. There are Labour areas, Tory areas, and Liberal and nationalist areas, and there are also Leave and Remain areas. Below is the referendum result map for the East of England where I live. (Pretty solidly Leave except for the small Remain island of Norwich and the larger Remain island stretching south from Cambridge.)

EU referendum results from the East of England. Blue is Leave, orange is Remain. Sourced from Wikiwand here.

I see politics as consisting of two levels. In its essentials it is the process by which different classes and groups in society jockey for position, with each class or group seeking to defend what its has and, if possible, improve what it has. However most human beings like to see themselves as good, and so every group likes to have a reason why its demands are not in fact self-interested but in the interests of everyone (and usually there is at least an element of truth in the claim). As I think of it to myself, each group flies a flag.

And, just as we see through every religion but our own, so we tend to assume that the flags flown by rival groups are either the product of delusion, or a cover for self-interest, but take our own flags at face value, and find it difficult to accept that we too might be deluded, or that we too might have chosen a particular flag because it justifies our own self-interest. Many Remain voters, for instance, argue ‘we must be right because we are clever and well-educated’, without recognising that clever and well-educated people have their own particular interests as a class.

The main protagonist of Two Tribes is a man, Harry, who, in the latter half of 2016 notices that his own group’s flag is, after all, just one of several flags. He doesn’t reject it, but he becomes suspicious of the claims his friends make for it. He meets a woman, Michelle, who, so to speak, lives under the enemy flag. Both of them are intrigued by this because in other respects they like each other very much.

The story is told by another woman, Zoe, who lives two and half centuries away in the future. The flags of 2016 are not quite as remote to her as, say, Yorkists and Lancastrians are to us, because they still have counterparts in her world. But she knows things that we don’t know about the way that the culture wars of the twenty-first century played out, and she looks back at the period in a way that isn’t really aligned with either the Remainer or the Leaver camp.

More on Two Tribes here.

It’s not my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes

I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.

When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.

But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.

I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less educated than themselves.

I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.

Two Tribes cover image

Different allegiances

Six boxes of hardback copies of Two Tribes have arrived for me to sign for those who like collecting signed new editions. (If that’s your thing and you want one, you can preorder from Goldsboro).

The book will be out on July 2nd in hardback and as an ebook.

Most of it isn’t science fictional at all, but is set in London and Norfolk in the latter part of 2016 and early 2017. But the framing device is science fictional. The narrator is 250 years in the future, constructing the story from diaries and other sources, and giving herself a fair amount of license to guess things, or even make things up.

The story itself deals mainly with an architect called Harry who has recently separated from his wife and lives in London, and a hairdresser called Michelle who lives in a small Norfolk town called Breckham, and an unlikely and unexpected relationship between them.

The thing that prompted this book -or one of the things anyway- was a map of the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as they applied to East Anglia where I live. The whole region was a sea of ‘Leave’ but I happen to live in Cambridge, which was not only one of two islands of ‘remain’ in East Anglia (the other was Norwich), but the remainiest place in the entire country (75% remain). Yet an hour’s drive away, and in the same county of Cambridgeshire, Fenland was one of the leaviest (71% leave).

I voted remain, and have always had a warm feeling for the whole European project, so I was very saddened by the referendum result, but I thought to myself, how would it be if instead of looking at all this as me living in an island of correctness in a sea of error, or an island of decency in a sea of intolerance, I was to look at it more in the way that, say, an outsider looks at the political geography of Belfast.

Some areas of that city are strongly and publicly unionist, others are equally strongly and publicly nationalist, but from an outsider’s perspective this is not one group of people who are right and decent, and another who are wrong and bad, but rather two tribes, who have been brought up to have different allegiances, and have learned to see the same question in an entirely different way.

I think that’s how the great Brexit divide will look in a couple of hundred years for, after a certain point, when we look at the conflicts of the past, the issues being fought over lose their heat. And that’s the kind of perspective I tried to write from in this book.

In the case of the Brexit vote, there are factors apart from geography that inclined people to vote one way or another, and in particular I was struck by the fact that the ‘leave’ vote was proportionately higher in poorer areas of England (Scotland is different because Scots have the SNP) and in the poorer socioeconomic classes. (Cambridge is not only the remainiest but also one of the very richest parts of the UK.) So, as well as the two tribes of ‘remain’ and ‘leave’, I was thinking when I wrote this book of the two tribes that are middle-class people (and specifically the liberal professional middle classes of which I am undoubtedly a part) and working class people.

Being middle class is definitely one of my topics at the moment. I touched on it in America City, and also in Beneath the World, a Sea, and it continues to be a theme in the book I’m writing now. Most novelists are written by middle class people (or arguably all, since being a writer might itself be defined as a typically professional middle class occupation). As a rule that fact is simply a given, the base from which other topics are looked at, rather than as a thing to be examined in itself. But that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

Needless to say, I was also thinking about Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Belief

If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief that’s referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: no amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.

Politics

Politics isn’t really about personalities. They’re just the puppet show. And politics isn’t really about ideas either, or not in the way some people seem to think. It’s about alliances. It’s about putting together coalitions of different classes or interest groups. Each group has its own ideas, its own story it tells itself, and the trick is to find some overarching idea or story which connects with enough of these different stories to allow a variety of groups to buy into it.

Historically in Britain, the Labour Party managed to be the titular party of the industrial working class but also the party of an important section of the professional middle classes, the delicado class as I have called them*. (The Democratic Party in America managed a similar alliance in the twentieth century, though it has presided over many different groupings in its two hundred year history). This is not to say that the delicados and the industrial working class see the world in the same way -they obviously don’t- or that they have the same priorities or the same values, but they had enough common interests and common enemies to make it possible to construct a story that both could buy into. It was a story, I suppose, about using the state to make society fairer, and to reduce the power of inherited privilege, which had an appeal to both these groups, though for different reasons.

I would say the last flowering of this alliance in the case of the Labour Party was the Blair era. Blair was able to draw in a substantial number of new middle class voters who had previously voted Tory, while still retaining the traditional industrial working class vote. (My feeling is that he didn’t actually earn the latter, but was able to benefit from historical loyalties which had yet to fade.)

I think recent electoral politics in Britain have shown that this old alliance no longer holds. In Scotland, Labour has been displaced as the dominant party by the SNP (I don’t know enough about Scotland to understand the alliance which this represents, but clearly it has drawn support from both of Labour’s traditional constituencies). In England, the Brexit vote and the recent election show that Labour can no longer take for granted the support of the voters it was originally set up to represent. The Conservatives have managed to find a story -and like the SNP’s, it is a story about nationhood and independence- which suits many of these voters better. A new alliance is forming between the non-delicado section of the middle class, and the old working class.

If we see politics as just being about ideas, and we are convinced that our idea is simply ‘right’ (as opposed to being the story our particular grouping prefers), we don’t respond effectively to the loss of an ally, because we conclude that our former ally is mistaken, or misled, or no longer worthy of us. And so we keep plugging away at the same idea, waiting for others to see the error of their ways, when the fact is that our story simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. No group can expect to have things exactly the way it wants. We need a new idea.

It seems to me that the political ‘right’ (I actually hate the lazy simplification that divides politics into ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ but I’ll use it here for brevity), understands this at the moment better than the political ‘left’. You need to find out what different sections of the population want, not just in a practical sense (jobs, public services etc), important though that is, but in the sense of symbols and stories, and you have to deliver enough of what people want to make them feel like joining, or remaining part of, your alliance.

*See America City.

Trust

In this article, John Harris makes a point that I have made here a number of times ( a monotonous number of times, I fear) about the contemptuous dismissal by middle class liberals of those who had the audacity to vote against their wishes and preferences in the Brexit referendum of 2016 (another nice piece on this can be found here).  As Harris points out, Leave  voters, scolded for being lazily indifferent to evidence and suckers for simplistic explanations, are also frequently characterised as  idiots and racists, even though this in itself is of course a lazy and simplistic  generalisation. (But it seems it’s okay to make sweeping generalisations as long as it’s our side that’s doing it.)

‘It’s pretty simple,’ tweets a Remain voter, simplistically, before going on to accuse Leavers of expecting life to be simple.

Harris refers to an ugly and fatuous Venn diagram retweeted by Ben Goldacre (which is painfully ironic, given that Goldacre has made an entire career out of challenging lazy thinking, dodgy statistics and poorly reasoned claims).  So let’s do a mental Venn diagram.  Let’s start with a circle for Leave Voters and a circle for Remain voters.  This is straightforward: the two circles are separate because you can’t do both.

If we were to add a circle for racists, I fully concede that it would overlap a lot more with the ‘Leave’ circle than with the ‘Remain’ one, because disentangling oneself from foreigners is, on the whole, something that would appeal to racists.  There is no evidence to suggest that the ‘racist’ circle encompasses all or most of the 17m leave voters, or that some racists didn’t vote remain -after all, the idea of a powerful union of the predominantly white nations of Europe is not without fascist resonances- but yes, probably most racists voted Leave, just as most Islamist terrorists are probably practicing Muslims, so feel free to put a smaller ‘racist’ circle on the diagram that has a largish overlap with the ‘leave’ circle and a smaller overlap with the ‘remain’ circle.  Just remember that to conclude from that that all leave voters are racists is as lazy and unfounded as saying that all Muslims are terrorists.

But how about a circle representing voters who are less well off and more economically insecure?  The evidence suggests that a larger part of this ‘left behind’ circle overlaps with the ‘leave’ circle, than overlaps with the ‘remain’ circle. (Of course a part of it overlaps with neither, because a lot of people didn’t vote at all).

On the other hand, a circle representing relatively prosperous voters -the ‘doing alright’ circle- overlaps more with the ‘remain’ circle, rather than the ‘leave’ one.

‘Ah,’ the doing alright remainers are prone to retort to this news-and I speak as a doing alright remainer myself- ‘but that’s because we’re the better educated and/or more able part of the population.  Those left-behind people do not not understand the issues, and so are ruled more by prejudice, and are more easily duped.’

Yes, but we would say that wouldn’t we?  It’s more comfortable for us than, say admitting that we voted for a status quo that has looked after us pretty well, or admitting that many leave voters may have voted the way they did because they were fed up with a status quo that (under Tories and Labour alike) hadn’t served them particularly well at all.  It’s certainly more comfortable than admitting that a lot of us didn’t show much interest in whether they were doing well or not.

‘But can’t they see they’d be even worse off under Brexit?’ now howls the  chorus of doing-alright remainers.   Well, let’s leave aside how unappetising it must be to vote on the basis that ‘this lot will screw me over, but they might screw me over a bit less badly than the other lot.’  Let’s consider instead the possibility of drawing another circle, which represents those who understand how the economy really works.   How big would that circle be?  Would you be in it? And if you say you’d be in it, what exactly do you mean by that?  Do you mean you really understand how the economy works, or do you mean you’ve read some articles which made sense to you, and were written by people you trusted?   I’m certainly not in that circle, and, considering that I’m fairly bright and pretty well-educated, I do wonder how many people really are.  In fact, I’m actually not sure that anyone is.  (Ask yourself how many people predicted the crash of 2008, or what happened to that complete collapse of the Eurozone that pundits were predicting in the early years of this decade?  Or consider whether there are any questions at all on which all economists agree in the way that, say, all biologists agree on the essentials of evolution?)

All of which is not to say that there is no such thing as economic expertise, or that experts are a waste of time, but rather to make the point that even professional economists are a very long way from certainty, and the rest of us form our views  not on the basis of our own detailed understanding of how the economy really works, but on who we choose to trust.   In that respect, I suggest, remainers are not so different to leavers as they may like to think.   And I’d also suggest that ‘left behind’ folk would not be thinking in a wholly irrational way if they declined to believe experts who told them that the continuation of the status quo was in their interests.

What I keep coming back to is that no one wins elections by insulting the majority of the electorate.  Politics (as I tried to portray in America City and Mother of Eden) is about doing deals.  It’s about different groups in society, who may not have all that much in common, nevertheless entering into alliances with one or another.  If you lose an election it makes no sense at all to blame the voters who didn’t support you, because you need to win at least some of them over to your side.   The side that lost is the side that failed, the side that was trusted the least.  It should be looking at itself to find out what it was doing wrong and what it could do differently, not casting around for scapegoats.

[PS The tweet included above was intended an illustration of the way that Remainers, just like Leavers, are prone to simplify, and not to single out the guy who tweeted it, who was entirely up for a conversation about this.]

Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

(Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank.)

I’ve just read this book, but it was first published at the tail end of the Obama presidency. It articulates concerns I share and have attempted to express here a number of times: the growing invisibility of class as a social division (as compared to other divisions such as gender, sexuality etc), and the way that political parties on the political ‘left’ have ceased to identify with the interests of working class people and becoming instead the mouthpieces of the liberal professional class.  Frank is writing specifically about the American Democratic party.  This is ‘still a class party,’ he says. ‘In fact [Democracts] show admirable concern for the class they represent.  It’s just that the class they care about doesn’t happen to be the same one that Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.’*

Frank asks why the Democrats are ‘so bravely forthright on cultural issues’ [by which he means ‘culture wars’ issues such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage…] and yet ‘their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy.  What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question [massive and increasing inequality of wealth] is beyond their control?’  He notes that the standard explanation for this is the power of money and the ability of moneyed interests to influence politicians through campaign finances etc, but he suggests that this is only part of it.  He argues that there are ‘different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them -the hierarchy of money- many of the Democrats’ failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning and status.’  He goes on to say that ‘We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase “the One Percent”; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative however, what we need to scrutinise is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.’

He observes, ‘We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place…we think of them merely as “the best”.  They are where they are because they are so smart…’  Ceding authority to professional experts is, he acknowledges, ‘tolerable to a certain degree -no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example…. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”?  What happens when they abuse their monopoly power?  What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?’

Myself, I see this happening around me all the time.  I don’t mean by this – and I don’t think Frank is saying this either- that the professional class is acting in its own interests knowngly and cynically.  We human beings have a need to see ourselves as ‘the good guys’, and we rationalise our self-interest in various ways as being in the common good.  What I see is liberal professional people telling each other, sometimes pretty stridently, that they are the real left, the real good guys  (being as they are against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc), asserting that their view of how the world should be run is simply correct (because they, after all, are the class of experts), and becoming increasingly hostile to the elements of their own working class that no longer accepts their authority.  Like all powerful classes, they (and really I should say we because it is my own class I am talking about!) believe themselves to be both entitled and virtuous.  One of the great things about being a highly educated elite which is against sexism, homophobia etc etc is that you can be pretty certain that the less educated, less intellectual part of the population will tend to subscribe to more old fashioned views than you do on gender, sexuality and so on, thereby making it rather easy for you (in spite of your privileged position) to claim the moral high ground.  You just have to keep class off the agenda.

‘When the left party in a political system severs its bonds to working people,’ Frank observes, ‘-when it dedicates itself to the concerns fo the particular slice of high-achieving affluent people- issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.’  I have certainly noticed over my lifetime how the idea of social justice has gradually stopped being about reducing disparities of wealth, and has come to be about equal opportunities, about ensuring that everyone can make use of their talents.  As Frank notes: ‘Another term for this understanding of equality is Meritocracy, which is one of the great defining faiths of the professional class.’  He quotes the journalist Chris Hayes** who writes:

The areas in which the left have mad the most significant progress -gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination- are the battles it has fought for making the meritocracy more meritocratic.  The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality- are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.

The trouble with meritocracy, it seems to me, even if such a thing could ever be achieved (which is dubious given that successful meritocrats can easily ensure that their children get a head start in the supposedly meritocratic race), is that it has nothing to offer to people who are not especially talented or skilled: and after all, half of the population  is by definition of average or below average ability.  And this is the trouble even with the idea of meritocracy as a desirable political goal.  A meritocratic culture is one that celebrates high achievers, that fetishises exeptional ability  and exceptional attainment (Frank describes this very persuasively), and has no interest in those who are merely ordinary.

This fact may rebound on the ideology itself, though.  Frank observes that, although the Democratic Party (like the British Labour party) consciously uncoupled itself from its old blue collar allegiances, it nevertheless assumed that it could continue to rely on blue collar votes because working class voters had nowhere else to go.  Recent events, in the US and America, suggest that this assumption may be spectacularly wrong.  As the musician Brian Eno observed:  ‘There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’

 

*Frank doesn’t discuss the British Labour Party at all, but its own transition is, in a way, even more striking, given that the much older Democratic Party has represented all kinds of interests over the years (including those of slaveowners and segregationists) but the Labour Party’s very name reflects its origins as a party specifically created to ensure that the interests of the working class were represented in Parliament.

**From Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.   (A book I have not read.)

The Epistocrats

I learnt a new word the other day: ‘epistocracy’.  It means rule by experts.

It seems to me that -and I’m obviously painting with a very broad brush here- episocrats are already one of the two main ruling classes, the other being what I will call barons.

Barons derive their power from their position at the summits of pyramids of patronage.  Historically barons controlled large estates and functioned as military leaders. In some countries (Myanmar, North Korea) these days the barons are generals, but elsewhere they may be bankers, industrialists, owners of media empires.  If they are Russian, for some reason, we call them oligarchs.

Epistocrats derive their power from the utility and/or market value of their expertise.  They are journalists, civil servants, academics, doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, biomedical researchers, inventors, legislators.  They manage things, they create and propagate new knowledge (including ideological constructs that function as knowledge), they run the government, the media and the judiciary.  (And, coming from a family of doctors, lawyers and academics, I am very definitely a member of this class.)

For the purposes of argument, let’s call the rest of the population the Plebeians.   They’re the ones who don’t sit at the top, or even near the top, of patronage pyramids, and don’t have the particular kind of expertise that would place them in the epistocracy, whether because they don’t have the specialist education required (it typically takes many years of schooling to create an epistocrat), or because they lack the ability to make use of such an education.  (It’s a fact not often discussed, but we are not all born with the same intellectual faculties.)

While epistocrats know a lot and have been trained to think in complex ways, plebeians, without that training, probably rely more on heuristics such as religion, tradition,’common sense’, ‘what everyone thinks’, tribal loyalty of some kind, or reliance on trusted authority figures.  (Having said that, I need to qualify it immediately by stressing that (a) there is no reason to assume that such heuristics are necessarily always inferior as a guide to action than expert judgement, and (b) members of the epistocracy also rely a great deal on heuristics of these kinds, including tribal loyalty, ‘what everyone thinks’ and submission to authority,  perhaps much more than they realise.  But all that’s for another discussion.)

I’ve thought for a long time that sooner or later there would be a reaction against the epistocracy, not only because it is a relatively privileged class, but because the hegemony of the epistocratic world view threatens and undermines more traditional sources of meaning.  What first got me thinking about this was the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the 80s and 90s, but it always seemed to me only a matter of time before something similar happened in other parts of the world.  A successful uprising against the epistocracy formed the backdrop to my first novel, The Holy Machine, represented, admittedly somewhat simplistically, as a worldwide uprising of religious fundamentalisms of various kinds against science*.

But right now we are witnessing a real life revolt against the epistocracy in many parts of the planet.  That really is what ‘populism’ is, isn’t it?  A kind of politics that dismisses the intellectual frameworks within which politics have hitherto been practiced and appeals instead to those old heuristics such as religion, ‘common sense’, tribal loyalty.

To be accurate, what I am calling a revolt against the epistocracy is a revolt against a section of the epistocracy (for the revolt itself has epistocrats among its leaders.)  But historically, a large part of the epistocracy has allied itself politically, at least to some degree, with the plebeians -the two groups had common interests in their struggles against the barons- and considered itself to be politically on or towards the ‘left’.  For many epistocrats, I assume, such an alliance was more attractive than the alternative of being the intellectual handmaidens of the the barons.  (It certainly is to me.)  In my new novel America City, members of this left-leaning but  privileged class are referred to as delicados.

But nowadays, this section of the epistocracy, the epistocratic left, the delicados, is the group that is now characterised by populists as the Liberal Elite, and their claim to be on the side of the plebeians is being called into question.   I don’t know who wrote the following.  It came to me from an aggressively populist source on twitter (‘I hate lefties… Can’t stand political correctness… Brexit…. Make America Great Again…’ etc etc) and while there are many respects in which it is unfair and dishonest, it seems to me to illustrate pretty well the kinds of charges that are laid, with at least some degree of justice, against the liberal epistocracy in Britain:

It’s a massive generalisation obviously, but, as I’ve said before, I think the liberal epistocracy has somewhat lost interest in the plebeians , preferring to direct its social conscience elsewhere.   The tweets below, which I noticed and saved in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union seemed to me at the time to be symptomatic.

These two tweeters’ concern for their East European cleaners is of course perfectly understandable.  These are people they know personally and are fond of, nothing wrong with that, and of course there is no justification for such people to be bullied in the streets.  But the wail of ‘THIS HAS GOT TO STOP’ struck me as terribly revealing.  It isn’t directed at anyone.  It isn’t in the second person.  It doesn’t even refer to the offenders in the third person, but rather to the xenophobia itself as if it was some kind of alien force that has appeared from nowhere.

Yet there had been widespread unease about the scale of immigration for some time.  For instance, the Migration Observatory at Oxford University [2011] found that ‘the preference for reducing migration is a majority view among virtually all segments of British society’, including ethnic minority groups, although its prevalence was highest among white British people, poorer people, less educated people and older people.  Another for instance, and a fact that no one seemes to remember: In the last Euro-elections in 2014, UKIP won more seats in the European Parliament than any other British party.

I suggest that liberal epistocrats (myself included) behaved as if all of this could be ignored because it wasn’t to our liking and we assumed that people like us had sufficient power to make it go away.  And now we’re finding out that wasn’t so.  A revolution is going on, not against the barons, but against us.

And it seems to me that, like many a threatened ruling class before it, many liberal epistocrats are failing to grasp the new situation, failing to see the political adjustments they need to make.  Instead of recognising that their alliance with the plebeians is important and in urgent need of renewal -important to us, I mean, as well as to the plebeians- I see many liberal epistocrats turning on the plebeians with contempt and anger.  Brexit voters are called ‘thick’.  Trump voters are called ‘deplorable’.  Both groups are dismissed as racist and sexist by people whose anti-sexist and anti-racist creditentials may indeed be shining, but whose own classism is increasingly apparent**. (The word ‘thick’ is particularly revealing, if you think about it.  If it’s not okay to mock someone for being disabled, how is it okay to show contempt for someone for not being educated or not being bright?)

In the wake of the Brexit vote, voices could be heard among the epistocratic classes saying that this was simply the wrong result and that parliament should ignore it.  (The referendum was ‘only consultative’, apparently, though no one ever seemed to mention this until the vote was counted!)  I have come across liberal Americans saying that those who voted for Trump are so vile and unforgivable that they don’t even want to try and win them back.  (Good luck on winning without any of them!)  And there are even voices these days that say that ignorant and uneducated people should be deprived of a vote.  I see, for instance, that a book by an American academic came out in 2016 (I have to admit I’ve not read it) which argued that democracy should be replaced by epistocracy in its literal sense: nations should be governed not by the representives of the people as a whole but, like Plato’s Republic. by the knowledgeable.

Well, there’s always been a strand among liberal and leftwing folk that thinks ordinary people must be told what to do for their own good.   Lenin, for instance, introduced the idea of a ‘vanguard party’ of professional revolutionaries who would exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat on the proletariat’s behalf. 

Of course, he thus created a new ruling class that (via Stalin, purges, famines and the gulag) transformed itself at length into the capitalist oligarchy we know today, having long since jettisoned any trace of the ideology which the vanguard party was formed to serve.

I think myself that’s the sort of thing that tends to happen when any group of people decide they can’t share power and that the world should  be ruled exclusively by people like themselves.  Either that, or they are crushed completely.

*My novel Marcher, and the short stories from which it evolved, also explored this theme.

**Two points here.  (1) Given that attitudes now recognised as sexist and racist were mainstream a generation or two ago, it’s always going to be the case that the least educated part of the population will seem sexist and racist compared to the most educated part.  This is actually quite convenient for members of better educated elites who would like to have both the moral high ground and the benefits of their privileged position.  (2) It is perhaps not surprising that relatively well-to-do, educated elites might prefer to foreground social divisions like gender, race, sexual orientation, ability/disability, which cut across social classes, and pay less attention to social class itself.   I recently heard the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University being questioned on the radio about her enormous salary.  A harsh edge came into her voice and she barked back (from memory), ‘I hope the BBC isn’t suggesting that I don’t deserve the same salary as my male predecessor’.  More comfortable to identify as a member of a disadvantaged gender, than as a member of a privileged class.

The smartsplaining voice

There’s a lot of talk these days about a growing contempt in the world for evidence, for experts, for reason itself.  It’s a real concern. Not much hope for the future if decades of meticulous scientific work on climate change can all be tossed aside by know-nothing ‘common sense’.  Not much hope for a decent society if obvious lies can be uncritically accepted as true, while facts are dismissed out of hand

But another kind of ugliness that’s been coming to the fore lately is the voice that says, in effect, we smart people know best, and those thick people should just shut up and wait to be told what’s good for them.  Weary, angry, contemptuous: the smartsplaining voice, it might be called.

Clever educated people who are good at reasoning, should be careful not to assume that this alone makes them right.

I remember once in my social work days, visiting a barely literate client and her saying to me resentfully at the end: ‘I suppose you’re going to go away and write this all down, aren’t you?’  However reasonable I was, however conscientious, the fact remained that my interpretation of events was going to go on the record, and hers was not.

A few years later, after a change of job, I acquired a reading ticket for the Cambridge University Library, and had the habit for a while of sitting in the cafe over there to write.  As I half-listened to the people at the tables around me, academics and students coming and going with their cups of coffee and tea, I noticed that I could go all day without even once hearing a regional accent of any kind, only the distinctive drawl of the British private school system.

There’s no question in my mind that every one of those people in the library would have been much better at rational argument and far better-informed than that former client of mine in her council house three miles away.  But every one of their arguments, however beautifully constructed, would necessarily be based on their own experience and what they’d read, and I’ll bet that neither their experience nor their reading equipped them to know anything about that woman’s world.  (This is true of me too, incidentally, although my former job afforded me small glimpses into it.)

So when some of them become politicians, or economists, or entrepreneurs, their judgements about the world, however carefully reasoned, will take almost no account at all of what that woman feels, what’s important to her, how she imbues her life with meaning.  Their judgements will, on the other hand, be very amply informed by the needs of people like themselves, what’s important to them, what imbues their life with meaning.

And that makes me think that what may look like a revolt against reason itself, may be in fact be a revolt against a class that is very good at reasoning, and very good at explaining why the world ought to be run in a way that suits that very same class.   Not revolt against reason as such, in other words, but revolt against reasoning that (however unintentionally) is rigged in favour of the reasoners.   After all, if you’re good at reasoning, you’re good at rationalising too.

Which is why I think that members of that class, including me, would do better to think about what we’ve been excluding from our view of the world, than to dismiss whole groups of people as ignorant thugs.