Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Independence Day: I always knew they'd be back

Independence day: Coming soon to a small island near you. Where are the Germans, French and Italians when you could do with a bit of help?

As I said in my last post on the Brexit issue there is a distinct possibility that the UK will vote to come out of the EU. Well, we are now here with the UK facing its "Independence Day" and a very forbidding prospect it is. No one has the slightest idea how it's all going to end. Let me say straight away that although I'm very proud of British heritage and wish it to be preserved, I nevertheless feel very European. I've worked with continental Europeans and have continental Europeans in the family. I have always thought of them as my fellow countrymen and friends. But this is starting to feel like a goodbye - I hope it isn't. 

Although it looks likely that the Brexit result is in the bag it is not yet legally binding upon Parliament and there is a mathematical possibility that Parliament reject it. If perchance the UK, on reflection, reverses its marginal referendum result and decides to stay with the EU the whole messy episode might serve as short sharp shock to focus European minds, prompting them to draw some salutary lessons about the problems inherent in the EU and think up some solutions. I wrote the piece below immediately after the vote and published it on Facebook. As I wrote it I found I was directing my annoyance less at some of the crypto-bigotry in the Leave camp than at the deep structural failings of the EU and the inability of the EU project to do justice to itself. If we get out from under this cloud overshadowing the UK (and even the world) the EU needs to take a long hard look at its self and engage in some very deep self-critical thinking about its short comings.


Among my acquaintance network the percentage of passionate Brexitors is tiny, perhaps close to 1%. So where are all those Brexit voters? This is probably evidence that voting patterns follow along cultural and community fault lines. Consequently, my acquaintance with Brexit culture largely comes indirectly via the media. Now there are, of course, intelligent, reasonable and nuancing Brexitors (Like David Owen and James Knight) but as far as my sampling is concerned this is a minority.

A good chunk of the Brexit vote were fired with the passions aroused by one issue, namely immigration and this at times seemed to boarder on a crypto-xenophobia promoted by demagogues. Added to this was a festering contingency of those enthralled by authoritarian fantasy ideologies whether of the ultra-left, the ultra-right, or the numerous conflicting fundamentalist conspiracy theorists. These latter extremists are a kind of Freudian outlier of the group as whole: They encrypt, embellish and express what’s ailing many Brexit voters with fantastic dream like narratives rich in hyperbolic symbolism. E.g. for some the EU isn’t just a faceless lumbering bureaucracy but the very throne of the anti-Christ. Rubbish, of course, because anti-Christs make sure they have faces, but nevertheless highly symbolic of a profound breakdown of relationship. The fact is the Brexit vote has in part been fed on a diet of those whole feel one or more of:: Left out, disenfranchised, uninvolved, disaffected, disinterested, disconnected, in the dark, misfitting, threatened, powerless, unable to identify etc, etc. And for some there is a dread of the spiritual open endedness of secular societies. Take all these groups out of the vote and it is likely that “remain” would have sailed through.

A lot of it is down to a failure of the EU project with its ham-stringing anonymity to appeal to its grass roots and instead appeal more to cultural elites like scientists, economists, professionals, Eurocrats, business magnates, high flying politicians, the educated, establishment religious leaders etc. This is a key failing of the EU – it connects to cultural elites, but it doesn’t connect easily with the small-town-man, particularly the disaffected folksy small-town-man. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership failed on this point.

Human beings, all human beings, have strong tribal proclivities, often closely linked to their religion and these proclivities sleep a restless sleep in the wings. They are easily awakened and especially so by failure to identify, a sense of suspicion, distrust, paranoia and fear. After awakening they shuffle on the scene ready to embrace decisive human leadership; after all, a leadership with a real face is far more appealing than a faceless bureaucracy even though that real face may hold some highly authoritarian and oppressive values. There is, therefore, a significant minority of Brexitors who are no friend of democracy, progress or the freemarket; they prefer the fundamentalist language of authority and utter certainty. It is no surprise that Donald Trump in the US and Katie Hopkins in the UK, with their subliminal fascism, are Brexit sympathisers.

Hilter succeeded because he connected with the disaffected small-town-man. Hitler was a human face promoting the black and white folksy bucolic values of cottage and farm (allied of course to the fantasy ideology of facism). He made a connection where the liberals of the German cultural elites didn’t. The EU suffers a similar huge failing: Its anonymity is less a problem with cultural and educated elites like scientists and economists but it has trouble getting traction on the thinking of the small-town-man. Although folksy kitsch leadership with a human face is all very well, it has its dangers, the chief danger being that it doesn’t look dangerous until it’s too late.


It is a strange paradox that although anonymous bureaucracies are far from ideal I personally have a much deeper dread of the potential dangers of strong leadership with a face; patriarchal leadership can be the most cruel and oppressive of all because it appeals to humanity's very strong tribal instincts and the cluster of emotions that come along with it. If we think of some of the most terrifying and evil episodes in history they all have faces at the top: Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Hilter, Islamic extremism, Jones town, David Koresh, David Berg, Charles Manson etc. 

I trace my idiosyncratic dread of demagogue leadership back to me having moved among Christians of many different persuasions. Here I've seen the oppressiveness of the Christian fundamentalist sect and cult world with its cluster of aberrant behaviors keeping people in place: Viz: Patriarchy and authority, fear of damnation, epistemic arrogance, gnosticism,  fideism, legalism, scripturalism, glib quip theology etc etc -   I could go on  forever about these potentially malign  human  behaviors. 

The lack of a human identity in the EU system, its anonymity of administration and its failure to pique the interest of its subjects leaves a huge space to be filled by the imaginative narrative weavers who have a strong unifying myth purporting to explain in lurid terms what everyone otherwise is in the dark about. An extreme example is David Ike's "Lizard conspiracy theory" which spreads fear and alienation among a few. Less extreme are the various fundamentalist Christian ministries, both charismatic and anti-charismatic, who are anti-EU and who make much of the vacuum of anonymity which surrounds EU administration and which provides huge opportunities for the imaginative and well placed conspiracy artist. These Christian gurus fill in the white spaces off the edges of the map with fantasies that are sold with unambiguity and certainty. They trade on fear of the unknown, populating vulnerable and paranoiac Christian minds with lurking monsters from the id. These gurus head up cosy self congratulating groups which provide all the answers to your pressing riddles. They are looked up to and admired by their followers who lionize them and believe they have a very direct connection with God. The less epistemic ambiguity there is the better for the security of the followers who are energized by conspiracy myths as their guru unpicks the riddles of life for them. 

In comparison with all this atheism is a very weak myth liable to collapse into nihilism. When it does succeed in gaining any traction on the human mind the atheist myth starts to show hints of what one sees in religion - for example the quasi end-time eschatology of the toy town Marxists who see the working classes on course for a glorious destiny. Another example is the exalted mystical status of larger than life leaders like Mao Tse Tung. 

If we think of social trends as a form of crowd computation then we do well to look at the extremist asymptotic tail of the computation currently in progress.  The asymptotic tail is likely to be more visible than the norm which merges into the background noise of the bulk of opinions. If we observe a shift in the asymptotic tail that is likely to be evidence of a similar shift in the norm. Hence, using this heuristic we can interpret the meaning of the increasing sense of entitlement expressed by sensationalists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing movement in the UK who have gained confidence since the Brexit vote, coming out on the streets abusing people and demanding repatriations. The asymptotic tail is not necessarily very representative of the bulk of opinions but it might tell us something about the way the country is shifting. 

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