My wife grew up in rural New York State, where many working-class families kept horses. One day her best friend came to school and told everyone about her new cream-gold Palomino, comparing it to the cantankerous ponies the girls were used to riding. “You just send the right signals and it does what you want. It's a push-button horse.”
Buttons are everywhere these days, though not on horses. They’re on our phones, cookers and washing machines; on trains, planes and buses, cars and lifts. Buttons act as physical shorthand, taking us out of danger or discomfort and getting us to the office. Smooth under our fingers, they direct our energy forwards as if by magic while our minds turn to the next need or desire. Buttons work so well that we forget they’re even there.
Rachel Plotnick’s new book Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing reminds us of their presence. The push button was first used to call servants, creating a convenient distance between commander and command. Early critics of push-button technology criticised this distancing function and the narcotizing effect of constant convenience. EM Forster's 1909 story ‘The Machine Stops’ opens with Vashti, his female protagonist, surrounded by buttons: buttons for food and clothing; buttons for music and literature; and buttons to talk to friends—as well as an isolation knob “so that no one else could speak to her.”
The Leave campaign provided a ‘No’ button for people to press for Brexit, and an isolation knob for people to ignore each other. The campaign also linked this button to an imagined reality, an ideological dream-time where, so the story went, we would control our own laws, our own money and our borders; a time when everyone would have a job, foreigners would know their place, austerity would disappear and tea would flow piping hot from taps; a fantasy as real as a Narnia with coconuts.
You have to admire their ambition. This reality was never true, and is simply unachievable given the way European economies link together in an intimate regulatory embrace, but at least they had a vision. By contrast, the Remain campaign was unable to offer any picture of the future other than more of the same, arrogantly assuming that ‘NO CHANGE’ would be the rational button that rational people would press. But this just explains the machinery, the Brexit buttons. What of the method? For this we might blame an earlier generation.
In the early sixties Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi turned away from writing books to launch a “cultural revolt.” His 1963 essay “A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds” looked admiringly at Trotsky and Lenin, who with their “thousand technicians” took the railway stations, telephone exchanges and powerhouses, leaving “the old men in the Kremlin” alone with their own irrelevance. His revolt was meant to work by similar means. Rather than overthrow governments it would “outflank” them, seizing the “grids of expression and the powerhouses of the mind.”
The Brexit campaign seized social media – our modern “grids of expression” – pushing immigration through this grid in an “invisible insurrection” from the right. All too often the mainstream media also fell in with this narrative. A 2017 report from the Policy Institute found that coverage of immigration more than tripled during the campaign, and that “migrants were blamed for many of Britain's economic and social problems” in media coverage that was “acrimonious and divisive.”
Instead of a push-button horse, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is riding a Brexit unicorn made of little else but xenophobic fantasies; a unicorn that’s approaching a very bumpy landing. An English-driven Brexit will do little to quell the desire for an independent Scotland, but much to accelerate its arrival. And though Labour MP Diane Abbott may be right in warning that a new referendum may just reawaken discontent, it’s hard to see a parliamentary path that doesn’t end in disappointment.
So as we enter a new battle of bad ideas, something obviously needs to change. Why not a change of direction from the left? Moving towards a people’s vote, a radical remain-and-reform platform could renew left forces both here and across Europe, and policies like a European New Deal (proposed by the Democracy in Europe 25 movement or DiEM25) would win converts. Or do we travel further down the populist road of a European Union distant from its citizens, a Europe where one in four voters now votes for a populist party?
The problem with buttons is the paucity of information they provide. The 2016 vote offered a binary choice of in or out, with the button pressed in anger and fear as the winner. With any new vote, the conversation should be expanded to a wider vision of social prosperity, cultivating a politics of hope rather than a knee-jerk reaction to social despair. We need an affirmation of unity rather than an affirmation of unicorns; a cantankerous politics rather than another push-button nightmare.