Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Politics of Magical Thinking

In older posts I have discussed the increasing prevalence in our political discourse of bullshit, political language that rather than being lies or simple rhetoric, has no real relation to the truth at all. The recent Brexit vote in the UK produced many excellent examples of the genre, and Donald Trump's surreal campaign is itself based on an entirely truth-orthogonal promise to Make America Great Again. But this bullshit is not the sole distinguishing feature of contemporary political discussion: we also witness a growth in what can only be termed 'magical thinking'.

Magical thinking is different from bullshit, in that it purports to make claims that are conceivably empirically falsifiable - that is, that have a relation to the truth. There is no way of testing whether Trump will indeed have 'made America great again', in the unlikely event of him actually becoming President of the United States. But we can assess the plausibility of his political proposals - both of them - in terms of real evidence and facts. It will be expensive and futile to build a wall on the Mexican border, it would be political suicide for Mexican government to agree to pay for it, and it is a logistical impossibility to ban Muslims from entering the United States. These are ideas that simply cannot work, and we can clearly show why.

The fact that Trump's supporters are enthused by these fanciful plans shows they are in the grip of magical thinking: they refuse to look at any evidence, and prefer instead to engage in dreaming about a fantasy world they would like to exist. We see much the same kind of reasoning in many other political movements around the rich democracies. Brexiters in Britain refuse to accept that leaving the EU will have a substantial economic cost, when every sensible analysis shows clearly why it is inevitable. Syriza won election in Greece by promising to extract easier loan terms from the European Union, then predictably ended up accepting an even worse deal. The Five Stars Movement in Italy claims that the country's long-standing economic malaise and endemic corruption can be solved by replacing existing elites with 'ordinary citizens', guided by online voting by party members. And so on.

The Labour Party is currently flirting dangerously with magical thinking. Despite the accumulating evidence that Jeremy Corbyn has not only lost control of his own parliamentary party, but is the most unpopular opposition leader on record, thousands of people have joined the Labour Party enthused by its new leadership. Appeals to prioritize winning power in order to actually shift British policy-making in a leftward direction are dismissed as being tantamount to unprincipled 'Blairite' managerialism. The backlash against the uninspired leadership of the party over the past decade and the huge ideological compromises imposed by Blair - who never really was a man of the left - was inevitable and understandable. But this backlash hugely overshot: not only is Corbyn an uncharismatic and uninspiring public speaker with some unpopular views and even less popular associations, but he seems incapable of running any sort of political campaign at all, 'traingate' being the latest miserable example. Yet his victory in the leadership election appears inevitable.

Why is magical thinking so popular? Partly because of the depressing nature of much pragmatic thinking. For the past two or three decades, political decision-making has been in the hands of dismal technocrats, who have presided over a drift towards ever greater inequality and the erosion of public services, whilst leading the world economy to near collapse. It's hardly surprising economists have little credibility. Moreover, politics has never been about citizens painstakingly analysing research reports before taking a position on the key issues of the day: instead, the public has vague ideas about the direction things should move, and politicians succeed when they are able to turn those vague ideas into a political strategy and a set of policies. At the moment, establishment politicians have lost trust and are entirely incapable of doing that.

So the rise in magical thinking is best seen as an expression of a very strong mood that things need to change. Previous waves of popular mobilization were similarly built around vague and naive-sounding demands, from 'flower power' to 'sous les pav├ęs la plage', which however ended up driving political change and ultimately informing policy decisions. We could be witnessing a cyclical shift from a period of 'private interest' - introspection and individualism - towards 'public action' - a more collectively-oriented form of political expression, as Albert Hirschman described in his wonderful book Shifting Involvements. If this is what is going on, it is to be welcomed. But it also carries risks: if the Labour Party is unelectable, the dominant force behind policy could well be the magical thinking of the reactionary right: an increasingly narrow, sectarian politics represented by the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party. If Labour goes for populist mobilization, it had better mobilize a lot of people, and achieve something with this enthusiasm before it wanes, as Hirschman tells us it inevitably will. The shambolic performance of Corbyn's circle so far isn't too promising.