Like a Slow-Motion Car Crash

fugue-for-a-darkening-island-vgI’ve sometimes wondered what it must be like to live in a time when you can see that your society is wilfully racing towards political disaster – war, say, or violent revolution, or fascist supremacy – and no appeal either to reason or to empathy seems able to stop it. I’m starting to feel that I am living in such a time. On 13 June, as Leave forged ahead in the EU referendum polls, Polly Toynbee wrote in The Guardian about Labour Party volunteers struggling to get Labour voters to listen to the arguments for Remain. These people’s minds were made up; they didn’t want to listen to reason, even when it concerned their own self-interest, let alone the well-being of others. Toynbee’s article ends on a dystopian note, saying that the referendum campaign has whipped up a fury of xenophobia that it will be difficult to tame whichever side wins, and framing the UK situation as part of a broader drive towards right-wing extremism across Europe.

The Leave campaign will dismiss that sort of thing, like other arguments, as ‘scaremongering’. For a science fiction reader, it seems routinely familiar. The descent of society into a nasty libertarian dystopia has become the normative assumption of most near-future science fiction. For many books and films, it’s simply a default ‘dark’ setting for exciting violent action. Others are more critically engaged with what’s at stake. Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island, published back in 1972, depicts Britain collapsing into war and anarchy at a time when huge boatloads of refugees are arriving from Africa. Priest is in no way right-wing, he does not blame the African migrants for what’s happening, but neither does he flinch from depicting the interracial violence that ensues amidst the chaos. His story taps into the tendency, when the going gets tough, for people to take sides with their own tribe against the other. It’s an impulse that Stephen Baxter, in Evolution, his epic novel of human evolution, presents as rooted in a pre-human hostility to the stranger; an instinct that can only be overcome by the cultivation of empathy and cooperation.

It strikes me that much of the stubborn defiance of reason that Toynbee reports is propelled by feelings of resentment towards immigrants which the right-wing press has systematically cultivated for years. It is classic right-wing rhetorical strategy: to create false consciousness – to win the allegiance of ordinary working people to the political interests of a wealthy conservative elite – by misdirecting them to blame their economic frustrations on people even more disadvantaged than themselves, such as immigrants, or people on welfare.

The reason that I will vote Remain is not because I think one option will predictably benefit Britain’s economy more than the other, but because I think that the principle of cooperation – between the states of Europe as well among people of different ethnicity who live alongside each other – is crucial to weathering the economic, environmental, and political crisis in which we’re already embroiled. I fear that Britain’s departure could trigger the unravelling of the EU as a whole and return Europe to an anarchy of competing nation-states in which, as Clausewitz said, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, and there will be scant hope of dealing with challenges like mass migration and the pollution of atmosphere and ocean which demand international cooperation.

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4 Responses to Like a Slow-Motion Car Crash

  1. mikeevans2016 says:

    Your premise is apparently that a vote to Leave the EU is unreasonable; Labour voters don’t want to listen to reason; there is a “stubborn defiance of reason”.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood, but twenty million and more UK citizens are intending to act in defiance of reason on Thursday? Only those who share your views can possibly be reasonable? Let’s just think about that…

    I don’t dismiss what you and Toynbee say. But, I take issue with it, because I am a reasoning and reasonable person who has thought about it, and I disagree.

    I disagree because I don’t believe there is a deterministically right answer to this Leave / Remain question. Given that no-one can know the future, surely we cannot be sure which outcome will be most favourable to the people of the UK, Europe and the world. Necessarily, this is a question of judgment, philosophy and intuition as much as of facts.

    Because I don’t believe in the “right answer” I don’t start from the premise that everyone on the “other side” is wrong. I think to do so is unreasonable!

    So, I don’t think Toynbee is scaremongering, but I do consider her arrogant and patronising in her assessment of her fellow citizens. I also take a different view of the rise of European extremism, which I think the nature of the EU is exacerbating, as I touch on briefly here: (esp. sections 8 and 9).

    One can bemoan a lack of reasoned debate (and I certainly do), but I believe the fastest route to the political disaster you envisage (war, violent revolution or fascist supremacy) is to persist in dismissing the opinions of those with whom we disagree. That is not reasonable.

    And, there *are* reasonable alternative opinions to the Remain orthodoxy. For example, one does not need to resent or hate migrants to be concerned about levels of migration:

    You highlight the adoption of “right-wing rhetorical strategy to win the allegiance of ordinary working people to the political interests of the wealthy conservative elite”. Ironically, for many that elite is now the EU, the established political parties, and big business which benefits from an (effectively) unlimited supply of cheap labour, to the detriment of ordinary working people.

    The projected strength of the Leave vote is, in part at least, a reflection of the desire to put two fingers up to the elite, not to support it.

    To repeat my point, you don’t mitigate extremism by dismissing opinions and ignoring root causes, and there is more to current sentiment than the malign influence of the press. In the thirties, would Hitler have been as horribly successful if the Treaty of Versailles had not included economic conditions which, as Churchill put it, were “malignant and silly to an extent that made them obviously futile”? Were the victors of the Great War reasonable in what they imposed on Germany in 1919?

    You are concerned about society racing towards political disaster – war, violent revolution or facist supremacy.

    I would wager I’m as concerned about this as you are.

    It is my principal reason for voting to Leave.


    • jananson says:

      Thank you, Mike, for responding at such length. It is not my premise that no one who wants to vote Leave is willing to listen to reason. It is rather my observation that many of them are unwilling to do so. Your rhetorical question ‘Only those who share your views can possibly be reasonable?’ generalises something I said about a subgroup of Leave sympathisers to the entire group; that’s not good logic. Manifestly there are many people, such as yourself, who favour Leave and are willing to reason. And I, for my part, am open to reason and accept many of your insights both in your writings on this subject.

      What I have detected in the larger public debate is a polarity in which the Leave argument has tended towards a kind of unreasoning wilfulness. For example, Remain produce a set of experts who make some detailed arguments on the basis of their expertise, and Leave respond by saying ‘that’s just scaremongering’. The interactions that Toynbee observed between Labour volunteers and Labour voters are another example. I claim this only as an asymmetrical weighting and not an absolute dichotomy; of course some Remain arguments are empty rhetoric and of course there are rigorous Leave arguments like yours. Indeed, I would have greater respect for the Leave campaign if its leaders had employed more argumentation like yours. What proportion of the 20 million inclined to vote Leave belong to the subgroup of people unwilling to listen to reason, I have no idea, but I can imagine it might be enough to make the difference if Leave win.

      I like very much that you desire an outcome that will be ‘most favourable to the people of the UK, Europe and the world’. Most of the Leave discourse I have heard has been premised exclusively on the well-being of Britain. If Britain’s departure were to trigger the break-up of the EU, I fear that the consequences for some other countries may be worse than for Britain, though the problems in question may then have ramifications for Britain further down the line.

      The EU’s promotion of neoliberal policies that favour the interests of big business is indeed problematic. That’s presumably why Corbyn is being so careful in the way he phrases his support for Remain. The EU’s punishing treatment of Greece is appalling; and Varoufakis may well be right that the mechanisms of the single currency were instrumental in the destruction of the Greek economy. The EU needs to be reformed, but the reform that I want to see is that which involve a moral advance from neoliberal ideology. Britain has been one of the strongest proponents of neoliberalism. If we come out of the EU, our people will be more at the mercy of the social and economic fallout of neoliberal policies than if we stay in, because we will lose the rights protections afforded by EU legislation.

      I think you are spot on in saying that part of the motivation for some people to vote Leave is to put up two fingers to the political establishment. I wish there could be some other way for them to do that than by precipitating such a drastic change in Britain’s relationship with the world. You are also right – if my inference is correct – that telling people they are motivated by bigoted attitudes amplified in them by the right-wing press is not going to accomplish anything. Toynbee wasn’t addressing the people she was talking about.

      One approach to engaging people who feel disengaged by politics is to cultivate a conversation in which they express what they think, what they feel, what they need, and then work out how they should act. A referendum campaign is not a situation conducive to that kind of conversation. One thing that was intended to help in this line was the Sustainable Communities Act; this began as a private members’ bill whose passage through Parliament I supported every step of the way (by writing letters when triggered to do so). It’s aim was to give local communities power over what happened in their own area. Unfortunately, after it became law it was not applied in the full way the Act specified and had little effect; and then the Coalition government sank it completely with the Localism Act, which has precisely the opposite effect, of allowing the Secretary of State to overrule the wishes of the local community, including local government and local planning authorities.

      Your comments raise all kinds of interesting and important questions. Forgive me for running out of time to respond to all of them. At the end of the day, my intention to vote Remain is not really based on an attempt to precisely calculate the consequences of either option; it is based more on the conviction that things work out better through sustaining cooperative relationships with the other than through turning away from them. Perhaps that is, in its own way, a kind of unreasoning wilfulness.


      • mikeevans2016 says:

        Anthony, thanks for your response.

        I apologise for my erroneous generalisation of your comments on reasonableness; an ill-considered overreaction on my part reflecting some of my own frustration about how I (as a “reasonable Leaver”) feel so much of the Leave side has been characterised.

        We can agree that the quality of debate has been less than satisfactory. I have despaired that everything has to come down to soundbites and the kind of yes/no or true/false polarity to which you refer. For my own part, I have listened to the experts. I haven’t ignored them but have tried to understand the basis for their predictions, their motivation for making them, and their likely chance of being right – because there are no absolutes in the prediction game. And I have listened to alternative views, and asked whether they can also be considered reasonable. And I have tried to go back to first principles and consider, e.g., what history might teach us, how the world’s population and its distribution is changing, what impacts technology is having on how we live and govern ourselves, etc. I persist in my view that there are no available facts about the future.

        I do consider there has been scaremongering on both sides: you’ve touched on the question of immigration on the Leave side; for remain, George Osborne’s threatened post-Brexit “punishment” budget cutting spending and raising taxes in response to anticipated recession – when all economic orthodoxy says the appropriate response is to increase spending and cut taxes.

        I think we’ll have to agree to differ on the risks of social and economic fallout due to losing rights protections afforded by EU legislation: presumably this is because you believe that the current UK government unfettered by EU constraints would repeal those protections? Were this to happen I would anticipate a thumping majority in 2020 for UK parties committed to their immediate reimposition. To me, that’s democracy, and I’m still unclear why we need to rely on EU commissioners to do this for us.

        I do agree that we need to cultivate a different conversation on all these points, and others. Before now I have been reluctant to discuss politics with anyone outside my own home. If there has been one positive from this campaign then it is that I am now prepared to engage in the debate, and I can only hope that others have had a similar experience. If we spend our time talking only to ourselves, and listening only to those with whom we agree then we will not build cohesion in society. I’m sorry to say I’m not familiar with the Sustainable Communities Act and its objectives; I will go and research it.

        I appreciate the basis on which you intend to vote Remain – largely because it’s not entirely dissimilar to that on which I intend to vote to Leave. It certainly is not unreasoning wilfulness. For both of us, it’s the best decision we feel we can make about the route to a better future in an uncertain landscape.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. jananson says:

    Very graciously put. I agree very much about the impossibility of knowing the future; it’s that fact, Tolkien was always keen to assert, that provides a basis for hope in the face of prospects that look bleak.

    The energy of your activity on the subject as a whole is very impressive; might a new career in public service beckon? (Irrespective of whether we end up In or Out)


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