The Samovar


On not taking a stand

A problem for progressives is that intellectuals are more (small-c) conservative than you might expect. The reason for this is that intellectuals are frightened of making mistakes and being caught making mistakes. This comes about because of their engagement in intellectual arguments and investment in their outcomes. Combine this fear of making mistakes with an understanding that they do not have sufficient facts to make an accurate determination of the truth in most cases, and the effect is that intellectuals will often not take a stand on important issues. The problem with this is that it leaves the field clear for those who will take a stand, or leaves the decision to those who make decisions by default, i.e. the powerful. In other words, the intellectual refusal to take a stand on issues where they are not certain amounts to a de facto stand in favour of established authorities and ways of doing things.

The danger of this passivity in response to issues that are too difficult to be sure of, is that it leaves you open to a form of propaganda or public relations strategy that has been well known and exploited for a long time.

‘‘Doubt is our product,’’ proclaimed an internal tobacco industry document in 1969. ‘‘Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe.’’

It is very easy to spread doubt, and often extremely difficult to prove a positive claim beyond all possible doubt.

The counter-argument says that not taking a stand is reasonable because we don’t know, and if we don’t know we shouldn’t take a stand. This seems reasonable, but in the case of issues where a political decision needs to be taken, we have to think about the effects of both possible positions we could take. On the one hand, if we refuse to take a stand we’ll never be subject to the criticism that we expressed a wrong opinion, but we’ll be letting the political decision be taken by those with established authority or power. On the other hand, if we take a stand we might be able to have some input into the political decisions, but we run the risk of being proven wrong at some point in the future.

Being proven wrong, though, is not in itself a political problem, it’s a personal problem. So, thinking of our actions as political, rather than personal, we shouldn’t worry about the upset it will cause to us if we turn out to be wrong. Rather, we should only refuse to take a stand if by recklessly taking a stand without sufficient information we might increase the chance of a harmful political decision. Going further than this, in most cases there is not a neutral position: the lack of a position being equivalent to a position in favour of the status quo. Let’s take a look at some examples.

As quoted above, the tobacco industry’s tactic was to create doubt about the link between smoking and cancer. Although the overwhelming evidence was supportive of this link, some evidence was found that was not supportive. What about the effects of taking a stand in favour of or against the link? On the one hand, taking no stand means not pushing for regulation of the tobacco industry, and allowing them to do whatever they want, at the risk of many more cases of lung cancer. On the other hand, taking a stand would mean pushing for such regulation, and reducing the number of people who smoke, at the cost of the profits of the tobacco industry, for no reason. Given that the evidence was very much supportive of the link, the cost-benefit analysis is clear: one should take a stand in support of this link.

A similar tactic is being used today by those who want to deny a link between human industrial activity and global warming. Again, the overwhelming majority of evidence is in favour of the link, but some evidence goes against it. Not taking a stand means letting things go on as they are at the moment, and putting the entire world at risk. Taking a stand, however, is also costly: it means potentially cutting back on emissions and consequently on economic growth, which also has an effect on millions of lives. In both the cases above, there is no neutral position: you have to take a position, and either position you take has potentially dire consequences if you’re wrong. In this case, not taking a position means taking a position in favour of the status quo, i.e. gambling that there is no link and that there will be no effect.

There are many more examples of this situation that crop up all the time. I have come across it in debates with people about industrial action, about alternatives to capitalism, and many more. I want to finish though with an example that is playing out right now and is causing a great deal of tension within the left: the case of the rape allegations against Julian Assange.

History has shown, including quite recent history, that governments are willing to smear their opponents with allegations of sexual misconduct. Given this, it was no huge surprise when allegations of rape against Julian Assange surfaced after the release of documents embarassing to several governments. On the face of it, it would seem as though this was a prime case for ignoring these allegations. However, there is a problem: there is a huge problem with the downplaying or denial or accusations of rape. And indeed, many articles arguing we should ignore these rape allegations have been of a decidedly misogynist character. The response of some (not all) feminists against such articles is then quite reasonable, but unfortunately I feel misses an important point about the way smears work: mud sticks. Consider, as above, our options on taking a stand in favour of or against Assange. If we take a stand in favour of him, we support those who would release important documents that reveal the way governments behave in secret, but we risk supporting someone who may be a rapist. If we take a stand against him, we show that the left will not stand by those who attempt to take on those in power, we let those in power disarm us by accusing us of rape. Yes, of course it’s the case that he might have done it, but there is no neutral stance here: not supporting him is equivalent to saying that you will not stand by anyone if they are attacked by governments in this way. And that’s true even if turns out he did it. Let’s take the logic a step further: what happens if we support him, and it turns out he did it? Our supporting him is a form of political support. The case against him is a legal one, and will hopefully proceed based on the quality of the evidence, regardless of our political support of him. If he did it, and the evidence is sufficient, he’ll be found guilty. We’ll feel bad for supporting him, but in terms of justice no harm will have been done. On the other hand, if we don’t support him, even if he is subsequently shown to be innocent, the damage will have been done.

Given the history of sexual smears in the past then, we surely must support Assange in this case. And it’s important to say that this is the attitude to take not based on looking at the smattering of details of the case that have been leaked, it’s not to accuse the women involved of being CIA agents (it’s possible that they were, but even if the allegations are part of a smear campaign it doesn’t follow that they have acted in bad faith, and we don’t need to take a position on that one way or the other), and it’s not to have an opinion on what Sweden’s sex crime laws should be.

Finally, the argument of this post, that intellectuals are more prone to propaganda because they are afraid to hold a position that might be wrong, should be compared to an earlier article in which I argue that intellectuals are prone to propaganda because they think they understand things better than they do, and oversimplify them. On the face of it, that looks contradictory but I think it’s not: they are two types of error that are not in conflict. On the one hand, we can make the mistake of overconfidence in what we think we know and our understanding of it, and on the other hand we can refuse to take a political stand in cases where we can be proved wrong. These can coexist in that different people can make these two different types of mistake, and that a single person can make the two different types of mistake in different situations. It’s even possible to make both mistakes simultaneously, for example someone who reads and understands a climate change denial article that makes a valid point which they understand, and then declares that there is uncertainty about global warming. They are both making a mistake of overconfidence in their understanding of global warming (they’ve only read the one article and don’t have the expertise or the wide scope to weigh the evidence against all the other evidence), and refusing to take a political position one way or the other on it and are therefore implicitly supporting the status quo case.



Arationality and honesty

Perfect rationality is impossible, and the limit of the scope of the concept of rationality is important. I start from an observation that many would not agree with, that there is no such thing as truth (which I’ve argued elsewhere to some extent). It’s just a heuristic concept that helps us to function in everyday situations. Dropping the notion of truth involves us in some considerable difficulties, which I discuss in the previous link, but these difficulties are not insurmountable. It is possible to have a useful conception of epistemology free from the notion of truth. In this entry, I criticise the idea that we can be ultimately rational, and look at the consequences of taking this seriously for ethics and morality.

Epistemology in some sense is a specific form of rationality, it concerns only thoughts and ideas whereas rationality is supposed to also encompass actions. An action can certainly be instrumentally rational. Someone is thirsty, so they pick up a glass and turn on the tap and drink – this is instrumentally rational, rational with respect to a given set of goals which are not in themselves analysed. But actions cannot be rational in and of themselves, they must be relative to a set of ends, and ultimately these ends cannot be described in terms of rationality. In consequence, people cannot be rational (ultimately). One consequence is that Vulcans couldn’t exist – you cannot act by logic alone. I call the aspects of our behaviour that cannot be analysed in terms of rationality, arational. This is in distinction to irrationality, which is about doing the opposite of what rationality dictates. Examples of arationality abound: emotions, tastes, etc. But also at the boundary, things like the fact that we keep breathing rather than just stopping.

So can we analyse the arational? To a certain extent yes, we can say more about it than nothing, but there are no complete answers. Later, this leads on to the ethical concepts of honesty and responsibility which I believe are related to arationality.

To start with, let’s take the trivial observation that we humans are nothing so special. We’re essentially “meat machines”, machines built by our genes to replicate themselves (this too is a simplification, but bear with me). We’re built on a physical substrate subject to physical laws. It’s surprising that we can do anything like thinking at all. It’s instructive to think about the extent to which we could call the behaviour of other animals as rational. Is a dog rational? What about an amoeba?

So given that, rather than talk using high level concepts like “reasons” (X believed Y and so took action Z) that presumably are supposed to be understood in some undefined way as related to the internal state of the central nervous system, I’m just going to talk about decisions which can be analysed externally. We can say in some way unambiguously that individual X took action Z, they made a decision to take that action. The decision need not be conscious, remember we’re not talking about internal states here. So we repeatedly make the “decision” to breathe, just as the amoeba makes “decisions” to extend its pseudopodia, or what have you.

Now this way of looking at things helps us to see what we can or can’t say about arationality. To some extent it can be analysed. Obviously we mostly keep choosing to breath because we would be unsuccessful meat machines if we didn’t, and so our genes wouldn’t be replicated. This isn’t to say that we must do these things, just that you would expect to see that most individuals would make these sorts of decisions most of the time because they’re meat machines formed from recombinations of genetic material that tended to act in this way (there are some assumptions there, but that’s another story). Evolution also gives us a point of view on when we can’t analyse arationality. A new individual, either because of a particular recombination of genetic material or because of a mutation, exhibits a new type of behaviour. This happened for reasons we can understand (maybe just chance), but until the individuals interactions with the environment determine the success or otherwise of the individual in reproducing, we can’t say whether it was a good behaviour or not (from the point of view of the genes). Until that point, the behaviour just is a behaviour, and the individual is just an individual that exhibits that behaviour. What more can be said before the success of the behaviour is tested in the world? In conclusion, looking at arationality in terms of behaviours, we can obviously analyse much of arationality in a scientific way, but ultimately in certain cases all we can say is that such-and-such is the behaviour exhibited by such-and-such individual.

At this point I want to bring in the moral and ethical aspects. We like to think of morality and ethics as being about right and wrong, but just as there is no truth, and just as rationality is not entirely straightforward, there is no such thing as right and wrong. There are only decisions. There are decisions individuals make for themselves, and decisions that a political entity makes for others (social mores, codes of conduct, rules, punishment, etc.). A poor person steals from a rich person, the rich person is so rich they never notice they’ve had something stolen. Has a wrong been done?

Rather than talk about this from the point of view of whether or not the poor person made the right decision, I want to just talk about the types of decisions that have been made here, by whom, and what considerations bear on them. First of all, the thief has made a decision to break the rules. Secondly, the society has made a decision to punish people who are caught breaking the rules. We wouldn’t like to say the thief did wrong because nobody was hurt by the action, and the thief’s life was made better as a consequence. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the decision was necessarily right because if it was right then surely the society would be wrong to make the decision to punish people who are caught. It’s clear that talking about this case in terms of right and wrong is a surefire way to end in confusion. Instead it’s a calculus. The society makes its choice to punish thieves because if they didn’t – they believe – there would be a breakdown of order. The thief makes the decision to break the rules knowing the decision of society, and must take responsibility for this action. If they are caught, they will face punishment, if not then they won’t.

Suppose now that the thief was a rich person stealing from a poor person. The analysis above seems unchanged, and indeed it is. One thing that may change is that the society may choose to allocate its resources differently towards catching the one or the other sort of thief. For example, a society may decide to put more resources into catching poor thieves stealing from the rich than rich thieves stealing from the poor, or it may do it the other way round. That’s politics. In my view, society today tends more towards the former whereas it ought to tend more toward the latter, and I make political decisions based on that. These are my decisions, which are ultimately arational. I could put forward reasons for this view, but those are ultimately judged on arational criteria. Others may differ.

Equating the identity of an individual with the actions they decide to take in the circumstances in which they find themselves gives us a useful way of looking at two problems: free will, and morality. There is a classical problem which is that free will cannot be consistent with determinism (if an action was determined by physical laws it cannot have been freely chosen because it couldn’t have been otherwise). There is an extension that says that all decisions must either be determined or random. It goes like this. If an action wasn’t determined by physical laws, then it would effectively meet the physical definition of randomness. In exactly the same circumstances (including the experiences, desires, preferences, state of mind, etc. of the individual concerned at the time of making the decision) you could have different outcomes, making the decision effectively meaningless (not dependent on anything at all), or random in short. However if we identify an individual with the decisions they make it doesn’t matter whether they are determined (or random), they are still the decisions of that individual (it is just that the identity of the individual is also determined). A forced (unfree) choice would be one that no individual in the same circumstances could have made differently (e.g. you cannot choose to ignore the force of gravity).

This last point has a moral and ethical component. If we accept all the choices we actually make are not forced in this sense, then we have to take greater responsibility for them. An ugly choice that we were put under great psychological pressure to make is still our own choice because it is we ourselves who are choosing to respond to that psychological pressure. It is not an external thing acting on us in the same way that gravity is. Even if we were offered the choice between one option which would lead to our death, and another option, it’s still a free choice because we are free to choose how to weight the significance of our own death. Evolutionary processes explain why so many people will weight the significance of their own death so highly, but since the identity of the individuals themselves is the output of that process, we cannot consider that process as an external force acting on us.

The general point here is one of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and being honest about their status as one’s own actions. Often, we attempt to excuse our actions by giving the reasons why we took them, as if these reasons were themselves external forces acting on us which we couldn’t ignore. However, as we have seen, an action itself cannot be rational, it can only be instrumentally rational with respect to an arational core. We rarely think to deeply analyse our own arational cores, but the considerations given here suggest we ought to be more aware of them and identify with them more explicitly. It may be that to do so, we must become more aware of our own logical inconsistency (even incoherency). We are often in the situation, for example, of wanting a thing and also wanting not to want it or even believing that we don’t want it. If we make the mistake of thinking of ourselves as having a core identity that is coherent and consistent in some sense, then we are inevitably led into confusion. It may be this that underlies the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Following this logic through and acting on it is actually a very difficult thing to do. It means really coming to terms with the inconsistency of our very identities (which the word alone suggests the difficulty of). It means realising that much of what we do we do without reason (our arational cores), and that we  have made choices that we both like and dislike not by mistake or because external forces acted on us, but because that is our nature. It means taking responsibility for every choice we have made, being honest about them, and analysing ourselves. Self-analysis is unavoidable if we do not have a consistent and coherent unitary core (and can be done by introspection and by looking at our choices and identifying those choices with ourselves). Finally it means living with all that inconsistency.

In particular, it can be very difficult to honestly appraise the inequality of society, our own place in it, and live with that. Most reading this will have been the recipients of more than their fair share of luck and will have benefited disproportionately from the work done by everyone. Born into (relatively) wealthy families, receiving (relatively) good educations, etc. It would be easy to fall into the habit of thinking, as many do, that we deserve what we have because that is an easier idea to live with. Choosing not to engage in this sort of self deception requires us to honestly face up to our arational cores, and the experience may not be pleasant. Why do we not give away all our wealth to those who are in need? If we even asked ourselves the question, we would probably find some reason that explained how it couldn’t be otherwise. Perhaps the prospective recipients of our wealth wouldn’t be able to make correct use of it, perhaps charities are essentially corrupt and wasteful, etc. I don’t want to say that we don’t do this because we are selfish. It is more like the choice to keep breathing, there is no need to find a reason for it, it is just a decision we keep making. The danger in finding a reason why we don’t give all our wealth away to others who need it is that it may stop us from giving any away. If there were a good reason why we shouldn’t give our money away, then presumably we shouldn’t give any away. Similarly, if there were a good reason why we should give our money away, we probably ought to give almost all of it away. If we must act by the one sort of reason or another, then we’re faced with the choice of giving away all or nothing, and most would give nothing in that situation.

This may explain why the poor tend to give more money away than the rich. Suppose the choice were not between all or nothing, but between nothing and everything except the minimum necessary for my own survival and that of my family, dependents, etc. For the rich, this choice would then be between nothing and maintaining their lifestyle, or of changing their lifestyle to one of poverty. For someone who is already poor, it wouldn’t involve any change of lifestyle to give away enough money to leave them poor as they already are. By choosing to live by the idea that we do what we do because we have reason for doing so, we put ourselves in the absurd situation that those for whom it would be easiest to give are least likely to do so. The alternative is to say that the amount we choose to give away is our own choice and is not dictated to us by our reason. To take responsibility for the choice, and not to try to pretend that we are acting by a coherent code that dictates our behaviour.

Knowledge, here particularly self-knowledge, is always better than delusion, even when it hurts. When we allow ourselves to be deluded, things always end worse than when we are clear and honest about what is going on. There are many applications of these ideas: religion in this view is obviously problematic because it attempts to externalise our moral choices (indeed, our wish to externalise them may explain why religions are so prevalent); much ethical and moral philosophy, secular or otherwise, is problematic for the same reason, it supports the pretence that there is a coherency or could be such a thing, which stops people from coming to terms with the lack of it. Finally, I want to focus on just one more example, propaganda.

In a previous entry I talked about Jacques Ellul’s book “Propaganda” and the idea that intellectuals are most subject to propaganda because they want to believe that they understand the world, but lacking sufficient time to really do so they rely on answers provided to them by others (putting them in the power of those others). The other aspect of propaganda is what Ellul calls “integration propaganda”. The idea is that once you have participated in an action, you will rationalise that action and create a justification for why it was the right thing to do. The propagandist only needs to get you to participate in an action and you will do the intellectual reorganisation yourself. This is an aspect of propaganda that most people don’t understand (believing that propaganda is just a way of getting people to believe something by repeatedly saying it, or some other such simplification). This is essentially a form of cognitive dissonance: nobody wants to consider themselves the bad guy. Or in the framework of this essay, people want to think of themselves as coherent and consistent, so if they took an action they must have had reason for doing so. Recognising that we are not consistent, rational beings working to some perhaps unknown moral code then has the potential to free us from integration propaganda. Taking our own arationality and inconsistent as a given, we would no longer feel the same requirement to create a self-justifying rationalisation, and so the propaganda would not have its desired effect.



Democracy

Democracy is one of those words that everybody uses but about which there is not a great deal of clarity as to what it means. The first ideas I can remember having of democracy were that it means a government elected by the people, or a government representing the will of the people. The first idea led me to declare that democracy was not a good thing, the second to declare that we do not live in a democracy (for various reasons to do with the biases and influences in our political process, and the impossibility of designing a perfect voting system). I no longer believe these. Instead, I now say that we do live in a democracy, that this is a very good thing, but that it means a lot less than many people think it does, and that we can do better.

For the past few years I’ve been considering an alternative view of democracy, which although it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t appear to be widely considered (Wikipedia’s article on democracy doesn’t mention anything like it anyway).

Democracy as elections, and democracy as government by the will of the people both have problems which relate to each other. The main problem with the democracy as elections theory is that it doesn’t explain why this should be a good thing. The most obvious response is that this process ought to result in a government that is representative of the electorate. Likewise, if you try to define democracy as meaning a system with governments that are representative of the people, you then have to explain how the system ensures that. Both of these views of democracy rely on the other, and they each have meaning only if they can be satisfactorily connected. Democracy as government by the will of the people is the intent, democracy as elections is the process used to try to ensure that.

It’s usually considered that you also need to have free and fair elections, secret ballots and a free press. It’s intuitively obvious at first glance that these things are all good ideas, and that not having them creates problems. The question is: does having them guarantee a representative government as a result? I know of no convincing argument that it does. Indeed, it misses out what I consider to be a fairly major additional requirement: that there is a certain level of equality of wealth and power in the society concerned. Even adding this in as another basic requirement for democracy, it’s not clear that this would guarantee a representative government. Maybe you also need a certain universal level of education and political awareness? How do you specify and guarantee that? You could go on and on.

There’s also the problem of what these requirements themselves mean. What is a free press for example? Is it just a press free from censorship? Or is there a requirement for a certain level of diversity? Can a press in a ruthlessly competitive free market, relying on advertising for most of its income be considered enough to satisfy the requirements of a democracy? Other questions you might need answers to are: what level of equality is required? What level of education and political awareness? Which form of voting system should we use (FPTP, PR, etc.)? This last question is related to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what exactly is the will of the people? What does that even mean? These are all enormously complex questions, and without answers to them it’s not clear that we can say we know what democracy means in the standard view.

My alternative view doesn’t explain away the problems mentioned above, but I believe it clarifies the problems, connects the theoretical issues with reality more firmly, and suggests more useful ways of moving forward.

The first view is that democracy shouldn’t be seen as a positive guarantee of good government, it should rather be seen as a negative guarantee: a guarantee that the extremes of bad government are excluded. It’s clear that all our voting procedures, our not-quite-free press, our unequal society and so forth do not necessarily guarantee a government that is good in any sense of the word. But, it’s also clear that in this system it would be very difficult to get a really awful government that acted manifestly against the interests of everyone in society. In England, this view is a historically accurate one. The Magna Carta came about not because the barons wanted a good government that worked in the interests of everyone in society, but because the King was abusing his powers too much and it was hurting them. Further extensions to democracy in England came about gradually, slowly increasing the number of people whom the government could not systematically abuse. Each increase was hard fought for and was a reaction to abuses by the government, rather than an attempt to create a positive system of government. We should not expect a historical process that advances in reaction to abuses to have produced a system that goes far beyond the prevention of abuses to guarantee positive good government that works in the interests of all.

This view has several consequences. First of all, we should realise that the democracy that we have has been very hard fought for, and we need to preserve those aspects of it which prevent these extreme abuses. A danger of thinking of democracy in purely positive terms (how can we make government work better for everyone rather than how can we prevent the government abusing its power), is that by underestimating the importance of the negative aspect it potentially opens the door to precisely those abuses which democracy evolved to exclude. If you believe that the democratic process guarantees a government that is good in some positive sense, then it doesn’t make any sense to put restrictions on what that government can do – why hamper their good efforts? The present Labour government in the UK has introduced or attempted to introduce several pieces of legislation which reduce the limitations on its own power, supposedly to allow it to serve us better (to protect us from terrorism). The now infamous Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill attempted to give ministers the power to overturn legislation without consulting parliament. It’s important to realise that our democratic process doesn’t guarantee positive good government, and that’s why it’s absolutely essential to maintain those aspects which stop the government from abusing its power, even if that also makes it more difficult or stops them from doing some things which might be considered positive. Our democracy is not yet secure enough that we can forget about this fundamental negative aspect of it. In fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1928 in the UK when women were given equal voting rights to men that the majority of the population participated. Even now, the 21% of the population under the age of 18 cannot vote (see this fun age pyramid).

A second consequence of this view is that democracy develops by narrowing the window of opportunity for abuse. Advances in democracy are moments when an old form of systematic abuse ends. This can be a progressive notion. For example, at the moment I would argue that there are various structural aspects of our democracy and capitalist economy that mean that a series of governments which systematically favour the interests of the wealthy is possible. Changes in our society that made governments that were systematically biased in favour of the wealthy impossible or unlikely would be an advance in democracy. I would go further and say that the democratic case for socialism is strong, but that’s another story.

The obvious criticism of this view is that it misses out the positive aspect of democracy. Sometimes elected governments do things which are positively in the public interest, and the reason for that is that they were elected to do so. The creation of the NHS or the welfare state might be a good example of this. There are a few responses to this. First of all, there is a question of whether or not the creation of the NHS and welfare state were positive acts, but rather acts taken to avert further dissent (i.e. defensive manoeuvres). Secondly, the alternative view doesn’t say that positive acts are impossible, just that there is no guarantee that they will happen. To argue for the positive view of democracy you would have to argue how democracy makes these outcomes more likely. It’s not obvious to me that this is possible even if we had a good idea of what socially good outcomes might mean. Indeed, there is some good evidence that democratic structures don’t encourage such outcomes. For example, the median voter theorem is a mathematical idealisation of two party democracy which suggests that governments will tend to suggest policies which favour the median voter. This is clearly not encouraging policies which are representative of the electorate, but it is encouraging policies which exclude the worst extremes (although actually, the median voter theorem is a sort of perturbation analysis so it doesn’t say anything about extremes). A good example of this was Brown’s last budget which increased the tax burden on the rich and the poor, but decreased it for those in the middle. The third response to the criticism is that where abuse of a system is possible, it seems that it tends to happen. This makes understanding the extent to which democratic structures exclude possibilities for abuse much more important than understanding how they enable positive acts.

The idea of this way of looking at democracy is to better understand what it actually is and how things really happen, a realist view rather than an idealist one. But I am an idealist, so I also want to understand how to make things better and believe it can be done. This way of looking at things helps in various ways. First of all, it’s always good to be realistic about what is actually going on to better understand how to make things better. Much thinking about democracy appears to be of the self-delusional form. Secondly, it already suggests a whole series of ways of improving democracy by reducing the window of opportunity for abuse. Lastly though, it provides a better framework for proposing positive improvements to our democracy. By dropping the fiction that democracy is about good government and representing the people, it concentrates our attention on systematic analyses of what different democratic structures can do. It also strongly emphasises that positive functions of democracy have to be backwards compatible with the important negative function.

One day, we will perhaps reach a stage where we have a society of rough equality, where no part of it is systematically abused by any other part of it. At that stage, our thinking about democracy and government can begin to focus on ways to achieve more directly positive outcomes, but we haven’t reached that stage yet (and if we do reach that stage, we’ll likely be thinking about everything very differently anyway). At the moment, our problem is the opposite. We have many governments of democratic nations around the world systematically attacking fundamental aspects of democracy, we have the press becoming less and less free as it reduces spending to compete for ever diminishing profits and becomes more and more reliant on government and corporate propaganda. We also have the prospect of potential crises such as climate change, which mean that the negative function of democracy will become even more important than ever if we want to avoid the worst happening to our society in the aftermath of the crisis (for example, the BNP has an electoral strategy that is designed around gaining power in exactly this sort of crisis situation).



Looking for the simple explanation

Intellectuals are more prone to propaganda than others.

That’s one of the claims of Jacques Ellul in his book Propaganda which got me quite excited about it. His explanation of this is that intellectuals want to have an opinion on every subject, they follow current events carefully, and because they’re intelligent they think they can understand what is going on. This leads to their being more prone to propaganda because there isn’t enough time to have an informed opinion on every subject, because following current events carefully means being led by the news agenda and investing energy in comprehending things from within that given framework, and because intelligence is not enough to understand complex events which require huge breadth of knowledge and experience.

I find this idea very interesting, but there’s another aspect that I want to focus on, which is that intellectuals want to try to understand the world by simplifying it. They want to reduce complex ideas to simple models of them, and to understand them by doing so. This ties in with Ellul’s claim because if you have a simple model of the world that you think explains everything, it’s very hard to give it up. You end up reinterpreting events and facts to fit the theory rather than the much more onerous and difficult prospect of giving up the theory, which would require you to rethink the whole way you look at the world. One of Ellul’s points is that one of the two main functions of propaganda – what he calls integration propaganda – is to intensify currently existing ways of looking at the world and to turn them into actions. Integration propaganda must work better on someone who has a strong personal incentive not to give up his already existing simplified model of the world.

What I would like to understand though, is why people who seem to be intelligent, caring, and even kind, can be capable of believing things that are quite mad, and have consequences which are morally horrific. The obvious example is Nazism, but there are many less dramatic examples. Some people are not upset, for example, by the sight of a homeless person freezing on the streets during the winter.

I can see two sorts of explanation for this, at the emotional level and the rational level. I’m going to come back to the emotional part in a future post, but roughly speaking it’s something like cognitive dissonance. It’s too hard to live in the world if you are to have an emotional reaction to everything that is horrible, and so we have a strong incentive to try to see the world in a way that makes unpleasant things inevitable or out of our control. The other type of explanation is that we want to try to understand things by simplifying them, but that the world is too messy and complicated for this to really work, so we end up making the facts fit the theory.

The neoconservative economist believes that free markets are always efficient, so he sees the creation of new markets as the solution to all the world’s problems. The Marxist sees everything in terms of a dialectical process and class conflict. Both see the pain and suffering that happen as a consequence of these theories as necessary, and so are not shocked by them. The theist believes absolutely in the teachings of their religion, and so cannot see the human suffering that those beliefs can entail. For example, the Catholic who opposes the use of condoms in Africa. On the other hand, the vehement atheist sees that belief in God is wrong and so blames religion for all the world’s problems, blinding himself to the political or economic cause of many of them. Consequently, they can end up supporting incredibly bloody war and torture on a scale that dwarfs the Crusades, as in the case of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for example.

The intellectual is particularly prone to this sort of thinking, because reductionism is our intellectual cultural heritage, something they are totally immersed in. Reducing complex situations to simple models of them through mathematics, physics, etc. has enabled us to make enormous leaps forward in our understanding and control of the physical world. But there is no successful reductionist model of politics or of human problems. Attempting to find reductionist explanations of politics or human behaviour is a reasonable scientific endeavour, albeit so far an unsuccessful one. But believing that we are already in a position to understand people or politics so simplistically, and – worse – acting on those beliefs, is a gross intellectual error (even if it is understandable). Empiricism is incredibly hard, even trained scientists working in much more concrete fields than politics or human behaviour find it very difficult to separate a good scientific explanation of a phenomenon from a confusion.

We cannot wait for an empirical scientific understanding of politics. We have to try to understand the world now, and make decisions and actions based on that understanding. I think it is important that we recognise that we cannot be over-reliant on reductionist models to guide our thinking on these matters, but that leaves a huge open problem of what we can rely on. My feeling is we can use these models of the world, but we need to bear in mind that none of them have a very wide scope, and that all of them are likely to be wrong in fairly major ways. In the end, we need to rely on our essentially human judgement rather than our theories as the final arbiter of our political thinking. That doesn’t mean abandoning reason and logic, it means being committed to pragmatically training our judgement and trying to make decisions as best as possible within the limits of our ability to reason about the world. It means attempting to imperfectly understand complex situations as they are rather than perfectly understanding over-simplifications of them. It means attending to the details rather than trying to find a theory that enables us to ignore them.

This is of course, incredibly difficult. One strategy that may make it more tractable is the idea of having multiple, overlapping, and weakly held principles for understanding the world rather than a smaller number of strongly held principles which attempt to explain everything in one grand scheme. Combined with this is the strategy of having multiple views on a given situation with varying degrees of conviction, rather than having a single one. These views can even be, in fact probably must be, mutually contradictory. Again, this is not to abandon reason in favour of accepting contradiction, but to remember to bear in mind that there are alternative views on a given situation rather than to put the alternatives out of mind. This may of course not be the best strategy. It would have been a bad strategy in the long term for understanding physics, for example. The test for whether or not it is a good strategy, is whether it helps us to get a better understanding of things from an empirical and pragmatic point of view. The main point is not that this strategy is necessarily the best one, but that the reductionist strategy is consistently leading us into error.

I’ll end with an example of this method applied to a reasonably contemporary political problem, the US invasion of Iraq. Before the invasion happened, there was huge debate about whether or not it was a good thing, or could be a good thing. Perhaps, regardless of the US’ reasons for wanting the war, it could have been a good thing for the Iraqi people. Well absolutely. It could, despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties, still be a good thing in the long run, although that seems a very remote possibility now. The reason I opposed it was not because I could foresee these hundreds of thousands of deaths – in fact that vastly exceeded my worst imaginings of how bad it could be – but that everything about the proposed war was dubious. The US and the UK governments lied to us repeatedly and their motives were clearly not either disarmament or helping the Iraqi people. Mostly, I felt that whether or not the war had a positive outcome would depend on the way in which it was conducted, and given that the principal agent in that clearly didn’t have the interests of disarmament or the Iraqi people at heart, I couldn’t believe that they would conduct it well. My opposition to the war was not based on predictions about what would happen, it wasn’t based on the illegality of the war according to international law (which wouldn’t concern me greatly if the war had really been a huge success for the Iraqi people), it was made in ignorance of what the US’ real motives were in the war. And yet, I believe, despite all that uncertainty and ignorance on my part, my judgement was essentially correct, and that subsequent events have shown that to be the case. You can read what I wrote about it in February 2003 here.

p.s. I’m not sure that I would recommend Ellul’s book. I haven’t finished it yet, but it appears to be rather self-contradictory from chapter to chapter and even occasionally from paragraph to paragraph.

p.p.s. When you’re reading a book about propaganda on the train, it’s weird how suddenly when you look up from it you realise that everyone around you is reading propaganda: the Economist telling you how great capitalism is; the glossy magazine telling women they have to look like these incredibly thin models; everything stuffed full of adverts, advertorials and PR-driven stories.




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