Fighting the politics of confusion

Post-factualism and incoherent political narratives are the right's new anti-opposition strategy — here’s what we must do.

Julian Ratcliffe
7 August 2016
 Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

"People in this country have had enough of experts,” Micheal Gove told Faisal Islam before the referendum. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The lead up to and aftermath of the Brexit vote was and is extremely concerning for multiple reasons, but one in particular has gone unnoticed. When Michael Gove, being interviewed by Faisal Islam, said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, the first response was to laugh. It turns out, however, that he was right. And that’s terrifying. 

While it’s easy to argue that the IMF, World Bank, Bank of England, ECB, industry leaders and corporate heads who pleaded for a Remain vote merely represent an array of vested interests, that academics, charities, social activists, artists, and independent economists who were also overwhelmingly lined up against Leave shows that the weight of the ‘objective’ Brexit debate fell on the side of the Remain camp. That voters rejected these opinions signals more than a protesting frustration at political elitism or a so-called cosmopolitan condescension: it signals the first major British legitimisation of a dangerous anti-intellectualism.

But I don’t think that’s a lucky coincidence for the Leavers. I don’t think that the rejection of the ‘facts of the matter’ involved in the Brexit debate was a fortunate (for some) instance of an unfortunate trend to be found amongst the British voting public. Indeed, we’ve seen time and time again that a significant portion of the American voting public reject the facts on such black-and-white issues as manmade climate change. But not in the UK, right? Actually, I think this ‘post-factualism’ is the central component of a broader right-wing strategy to nullify any and all opposition political narratives, and as a thoroughly ubiquitous form of social control. Let’s call it, for reasons that will soon become apparent, the politics of confusion.

The first thing to note is that political, social, and economic facts, with predictive force, do actually exist and are ‘discovered’ by political scientists, sociologists, and economists; that is, that there were actually facts of the Brexit debate to be ignored. What exactly do I mean by this? Surely it’s the case that facts about the social world exist only relative to the circumstances of the social world. Increasing taxes on the rich, for instance, has a variety of predictable effects, such as reducing the current account deficit, but those predictions make sense only in reference to a liberal, capitalist, welfare-orientated social world. Comparatively, under feudalism, the notion that a lord should be taxed would not just be outlandish, it would be incomprehensible – the lords collect taxes, not pay them, in return for allegiance to a central monarch.

That we are the creators of the social world means that we, collectively, can influence it, in turn meaning that facts about the social world are contingent upon our decisions as social creatures. But surely that’s not how facts work? Facts are statements like ‘the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066’, ‘the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference’, and ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’. If we determine the conditions under which social facts do or do not obtain legitimacy, then surely they lack a required objectivity?

I don’t disagree with any of this. I actually think that there is no objectivity to the social world precisely because of it. But just because we create the social world, it does not mean that facts about it are not objective given that social world. This all means that social facts have an objectivity, but only in reference to the broader social framework in which they arise, a framework that determines objectivity. Therefore, I am limiting my discussion to facts about the social framework that we actually inhabit – to globalised liberal capitalism – even though they simply would not apply in a different one.
This ‘post-factualism’ is the central component of a broader right-wing strategy to nullify any and all opposition political narratives.
For now, I’m interested in facts with predictive power that constituted the warnings against Brexit – those about how the economy operates, about the social effects of increased isolationism and so on. I take it to be a fact that, relative to a globalised, liberal, capitalist economic and social framework, increasing import tariffs, for instance, forces up the prices of imported goods and thus the sales of those goods down. Similarly, as a more surprising yet equally legitimate example, I take it to be a fact that “returning to a pre-First World War immigration regime would contribute $40 trillion to the global economy over the next twenty-five years, and more or less end poverty at the same time” (Goldin and Kutarna, 2016, Age of Discovery, p. 57). And, as warned in a joint statement made by the UK’s three leading independent economic institutions, I take it to be a fact that, in post-Brexit Britain, there will be “lower real wages … higher prices for goods and services, higher borrowing costs and higher unemployment”. 

Despite rarely-seen unanimity on the issue, the British voting public did not heed these facts. The point I’m making here is that the Leave campaign was invested in that public rejection of the facts not merely to achieve Brexit, but rather as part of a broader strategy for the entrenchment of hegemonic power structures.

The other thing to note is that all parties in political discourse present narratives. A narrative gives meaning to a set of facts by running an interpretative thread through them, so to speak. Taken individually, facts do not impart meaning; they only describe a small portion of the world. But woven together with other facts, their causes and effects highlighted, with other audiences noticing them — in short, by constructing a story around them — individual facts can say wildly different things. 

That the UK is complicit in industrial-levels of global tax avoidance, for instance, can mean either that tax legislation purposefully leaves loopholes to be exploited or that HMRC is ineffectual. Both interpret the same fact by placing it into a broader network of facts – it is only relative to that network that a fact gains meaning. Likewise, the narrative one accepts is that which better fits with other established narratives. It should also be noted, however, that narratives can nevertheless be ranked by plausibility because some make better sense of the facts, are simpler, have greater explanatory force, are supported by more facts, and so on.

However, discerning the ‘correct’ political narrative, attempting to authentically interpret the social world we inhabit is more complicated. This is because political narratives are constructed both by descriptive facts and by normative beliefs – beliefs about how things should be. The entanglement of descriptive and normative considerations that we’ve seen in the Brexit debate leads to a particularly difficult problem facing the left, a problem I will analyse in more detail shortly. But briefly, it arises in that normative beliefs demand respect.

Pluralism and inclusion are the names of the game in politics. Not only are these values spoken of within the discourse, but they simultaneously define the discourse; they are the values that form the grounds of political discussion, on which all must stand to allow a space for constructive debate in the first place. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense to think of a discourse if there aren’t different voices to it. This means that no one gets to decide what constitutes overarching moral goods, the achievement of which all should work towards. That conception of the good life is left to each to decide for themselves and to pursue as they see fit — within limits, of course. Politics is exactly this process of figuring out how to build a workable social world that each finds acceptable given their own, often conflicting, normative beliefs.

The exceptions to this demand for respect are those beliefs that underpin racist, sexist, homophobic or fascist doctrines. Not only do they poison political discourse, not only do they pose a real threat to people’s safety and undermine the very possibility of community, but they also conflict fundamentally with the very notion of pluralism. These doctrines do not deserve a voice at the table, nor do we need to explain why they don’t. That discussion has been concluded and we can move on, forcefully striking them down as we do so.

Unpicking the politics of confusion

 Russian government archives. Public domain.

Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin. Credit: Russian government archives. Public domain.To begin to understand this idea of a politics of confusion, we need to look to Russia. Vladislav Surkov, former Russian deputy prime minister and current chief advisor to Vladimir Putin, is a bit of an oddity. Born in Chechnya, Surkov served in a Soviet artillery regiment in Hungary, for the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), and as director of Transnefteproduct, the Russian oil and gas pipeline operator. But he also studied theatre direction at the Moscow Institute of Culture. He is the mind behind the first articulation of contemporary Russian political ideology: sovereign democracy. More pressingly though, he is the mastermind behind Putin’s 16 year long stint in power. 

As deputy prime minister, Surkov funded both leftist human rights activists and far-right anti-immigrant groups, and even backed formal opposition parties. He resigned from this position in protest at the corruption of the Kremlin’s investigative committee, but then shortly afterwards became Putin’s advisor. He did all this to transform Russian politics into a stage upon which a multitude of contradictory characters and stories can be played, all so as to undermine the popular perception of political reality. If Putin’s opposition did not know where he stood, he would become impossible to target.

These kinds of contradictions and backtrackings are, of course, commonplace in politics. Mhairi Black MP was entirely right to note that those who have “been making the argument for austerity are the very same people that are telling us that we can afford to write a blank cheque for these useless weapons”. Regardless of your stance on Trident renewal and austerity, it is difficult to deny at least the prima facie incoherence of the two policies. What sets the politics of confusion apart from simple political opportunism is that instead of holding contradictory positions one after the other, both are held simultaneously. What was new in Surkov’s case was that he didn’t attempt to hide or explain away his inconsistencies. On the contrary, he let them be known; he maintained them in the eyes of the public. 

There are two ways of interpreting his reasons for doing so. The first is that, in constantly shifting position on a multitude of issues, it becomes impossible for an opposition to present a coherent counter-narrative, as the one being opposed is itself left ambiguous. This transforms the utilisers of this strategy into shape-shifters, eternally unable to be challenged by counter-argument precisely because no one knows which argument to counter. Indeed, it seems that Mhairi Black failed to consider that the inconsistency over Trident may have been wholly intentional.

But the other way of interpreting this – and the one I believe to be closer to the heart of Surkov’s plan – is that Surkov found a workable method of occupying the entire discourse. In holding both pro and contra positions, no room is left in the discourse for others to propose political narratives other than those sanctioned by the powers that be. This is not because the vocalisation of alternatives is disallowed, but because all possible alternatives are all already peddled by the same voice. This leaves one able to defend against contrary political narratives by agreeing or disagreeing with them as circumstances see fit, and with the sway of popular opinion. 
What sets the politics of confusion apart from simple political opportunism is that instead of holding contradictory positions one after the other, both are held simultaneously. 
By including and excluding facts into an ever-shifting network, the established power can dominate political discourse by swallowing counter-narratives and claiming them as its own. And the point here is that the content of these narratives is unimportant, just so long as no one else can propose them. How insidious a bastardisation of democratic discourse this is goes without saying. Considering that the very definition of discourse requires pluralism, that there must be more than one voice at the table, this is not merely anti-democratic, it’s anti-political.

It’s easy to see how a popular disregard of the facts might follow from this. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the acceleration of globalisation, the increasingly interconnected social world, has seen a surge in complexity. Nowadays, the behaviour of social systems are “determined by the interaction of many dispersed … agents acting in parallel” (Goldin and Mariathasan, 2014, The Butterfly Defect, p. 22), meaning that actions and reactions are the results of “mechanisms of competition and coordination between agents,” not of a single legislating entity. That social and economic systems are becoming increasingly tangled means that causal links are often rendered opaque (see the 2011 Thailand floods causing Intel to lower their sales forecasts by $1 billion), both increasing public alienation from political decision-making processes and ensuring that institutional accountability mechanisms struggle to function effectively.

When economists and academics point to phenomena that no one else can see or has the vocabulary to articulate, people are unlikely to believe them. This is what has been exploited. The right’s goal of rendering opposition impossible is achieved by fostering further confusion and instilling an overwhelming, disheartening incoherence. Expert opinions are disregarded because they are seen as just any other opinion, one side of a contradiction that is purposefully left irresolvable. 

The waters have been purposefully muddied, only adding to the complexity that has arisen naturally since the 1990s. This complements the vested interest in maintaining a high level of political illiteracy — that is, the lack of the vocabulary to critically dissect the political narratives presented, which ensures their unpicking is all the more difficult. The politics of confusion therefore functions on two fronts: it both fosters political apathy as a result of the feeling of helpless bewilderment and actively prevents the possibility of opposition amongst those who aren’t.

Yes, the anti-elitist frustration that pushed many voters into the arms of the Leave camp (which somehow sold the myth that Brexit was an anti-establishment protest) is, of course, the result of a Conservative government and global economic system consistently failing to cater to the legitimate wants and needs of an ostracised and disenfranchised working class. No, it is not surprising that this frustration has found misguided expression in xenophobic and nationalist movements. Nor is it surprising that this expression has been used for self-serving political ends, namely the entrenchment of existing power structures and foreclosing of the possibility of more emancipatory ones. That’s not what I’m trying to say here. What I’m saying is that post-factualism is the primary symptom of a new form of social control: formlessness.

We must be attentive to it. And we must fight it.

After Brexit, a new political discourse?

Let me now return to the concern I raised earlier. A sticking point about immigration in this debate is that it has been engaged with on both descriptive, factual grounds and in normative, value-laden language. Raising Brexit as a topic for discussion can be to embark upon a dissection of macroeconomic theory and a cost-benefit analysis of multilateral trade agreements, or upon an debate on the value of multiculturalism and what defines Britain as a nation-state. The problem facing the left now is how to talk about immigration so that the complaint of cosmopolitan condescension cannot be levelled, but that simultaneously does not even allow racism, bigotry, or xenophobia a voice at the table. The difficulty is how to avoid elitism in the eyes of self-perceived anti-elitist protest voters while simultaneously sending a clear and definitive message: that we will not tolerate any infringement upon multiculturalism or pluralism because their ethical values are basic and unqualified, and because they are the prerequisites for society in today's world.

In beginning upon a project of amending the post-Brexit train wreck, this means refusing to be apologetic about immigration. One of the biggest faults of Labour’s general election campaign last year was its half-hearted bandwagoning on this issue. The party failed to present an alternative narrative and instead attempted to play the Conservatives and UKIP at their own game, a game they could only lose. This is because, as Judith Butler notes, representational politics by nature “inevitably ‘produces’ what it claims merely to represent”. In creating an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ and standing (at least purportedly) for the interests of the ‘in’, politics legitimises those interests and thereby incentivises the perpetuation of the ideology that gives rise to those interests. This inescapable feature of power gives rise to problems far beyond the scope of this article, but what I wish to draw attention to now is that the left, in addressing immigration, walks a fine line between constructive discourse and establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy around the very thing we are attempting to dispel. We must be wary of how we engage on the issue of immigration, because we risk legitimising the kind of political discourse that only entrenches the very anti-immigration sentiment we do not tolerate.

How exactly to walk this fine line presents a major challenge since, as mentioned above, much of this debate blurs the line between descriptive and normative politics. Because normative language forms the battlefield upon which an anti-fascist movement fights, and because the alienation of those left behind by the globalisation and European integration has manifested in anti-elitist terms, it becomes difficult to decry racism and bigotry without coming across as elitist. 

Without facts, which have themselves already been devalued, the left finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place.

Without facts, which have themselves already been devalued, and instead relying on a normative counter-narrative, the left finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. This reveals two further faces of the politics of confusion and the political illiteracy that results. In fostering a misplaced resentment against both the so-called cosmopolitan elite and immigrants, a classic class struggle is established, duly grounding a kind of divide-and-conquer-ism. Just as with occupying the entire discourse, this prevents the left from fully wielding our strength for fear of being hypocritical and further alienating a forgotten working class.

It is vital, though, that the left address the alienation and legitimate, though misguided, anger of those who voted Leave. No, we cannot allow racism, xenophobia or fascism a voice at the table – they warrant only a loud, resolute, and definitive shouting down – but neither can we let them, as a result of persistent government betrayals stretching back to Thatcher, consume a portion of the population. This is not at all to say that racists, bigots, and xenophobes should be engaged with and ‘convinced’ in giving up their vitriol. This rather begs the question of how to effectively fight them. 

How this might be answered is, unfortunately, a question I do not know the answer to. But I think that it is almost more important to formulate the question thoroughly. That's what I’m attempting to do here. How do we separate out the unqualified unacceptability of fascism, racism, and xenophobia from the legitimate concerns of a public (sadly) expressing those tendencies? And all the while keeping in mind that those tendencies — as they have been dredged up to the surface and been made to manifest in this particular instance — are only the result of a specific right-wing anti-opposition strategy. A good answer here would be, I think, the starting point for the development of the left’s response to the politics of confusion.

In the hours, days, and weeks following the Brexit result we saw Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan backtrack on the Leave camp’s NHS and immigration claims. We saw Boris Johnson go from likely prime ministerial contender, to silent and derided coward, and then back to Foreign Secretary. And now we’ve seen Theresa May go from wanting to pull the UK out of the European Court of Human Rights to modelling herself as a centrist champion for social justice. 

I don’t deny that this kind of barefaced lying is nothing we haven’t seen before — just read the conclusions of the Chilcot Inquiry. But what is new is that this shape-shifting and discourse-smothering now serves a purpose beyond political opportunism and self-interest. The politics of confusion is an anti-political means of maintaining power, achieved by rendering political discourse impossible and smothering opposition. Given the political apathy and the post-factualism that follow from this, this presents a serious threat to the left’s ability to enact social change and to work towards the realisation of emancipatory goals.

We cannot allow our voices at the table of political discourse to be swamped.

So let’s shout louder.

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