Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brexit and the mystery of democratic centrism

I

Over the weekend I watched Westminster, almost to a person, discuss the UK European Union referendum result in negative terms. Everyone is just so gloomy, and it was starting to make me feel a bit depressed too.

Former London mayor Boris Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage are backing off their campaign rhetoric, saying they “didn’t mean” certain things that were clearly delivered as central arguments. For instance, the Leave camp ran advertisements about how £350 million sent to the EU every year could be spent on the NHS if the UK voted out. Mr Farage now says he can’t guarantee any of the money will be spent on the NHS at all.

What is really depressing is the government’s attempt to find creative ways around the decision. The media is frantically posting ideas that Scotland might veto the choice, or that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t have to be invoked yet, or how the referendum result doesn’t have legal effect in European terms, or the final decision will only be made when Mr Cameron steps down, or the vote was too close so Brussels might require a second referendum, etc.

To understand why these reactions are the most important aspect of the entire process, it is necessary to delve into what it means to be a democratic centrist: namely a person who supports, cherishes and revels in their loyalty to a permanent government which is immune to electoral politics.

A rule of the modern world is that anything which can describe itself as democratic will do so. To define something as democratic is to define it as good, in David Hume’s “ought” sense of the phrase – a philosophical dead end.

To quote Francis Fukuyama, democracy is “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” So in 2016, according to this theory of government, anyone else playing might as well pack up and go home.

The trick is the UK’s particular form of parliamentarianism (as with the rest of the Anglo world) is in no shape an actual democracy, understood as a system of government by the whole population through elected representatives. There hasn’t been an actual democracy for centuries, and despite what Mr Fukuyama says, it is far from clear whether this is a bad thing.

II

The present UK government configuration is actually a technocratic, oligarchic state using the idea of democracy to maintain legitimacy but run entirely by the permanent civil service. Do not let an election every few years distract you. No leader in a modern parliamentary state controls anything. This configuration mostly works fine but, as the referendum shows, is in a bit of a bind today.

Strictly speaking, the public doesn’t know about the civil service’s actual power. Or, more appropriately, the public isn’t aware of exactly how much power there truly is and what it means for a modern government to make a decision.

The public is under the impression power has been deferred to them. And in the public’s esteemed beneficence, it has chosen to elect representatives to carry out its collective will. This tight balancing act is something I like to call “psychological capture.” Every government in any era needs to accomplish psychological capture to keep power.

The success of a capture in a modern state requires a truly breathtaking series of chess moves and a bag full of tricks so deep no single person could accomplish it on their own. The most crucial aspect of this capture, the one that legitimises the state, is the concept of democratic centrism. A centrist is anyone who believes in the concept of objective public policy, or the science of government. To the centrist, government is not just one thing. It has a kind of binary structure.

Its staff is divided into two classes, elected officials and career professionals. The two have completely separate responsibilities: Elected officials make political decisions, career professionals set public policy. The media portrays decisions driven by politics as bad. Whereas policies organised by experts tend to be good. If this is surprising, pay closer attention.

Most people working in business would find this completely unworkable. But in government that pesky psychological capture requires elected officials to be present while the career professionals carry out the important work. Unless one’s idea of a fun Friday night is watching city lights burn instead as bright orange flames and for pitchforks to be completely sold out, the best thing to do is leave this model alone.

Of course, the dominant activity of the state is to teach its free, independent citizens how great democratic centrism is. And the best way to achieve that is to run elections occasionally or (controlled) referenda on impossible-to-screw-up issues such as EU membership.

III

But there is no such thing as scientific public policy. Public policy and science have nothing in common. One cannot conduct a controlled experiment on the real world.

Economic antidotes cannot be tested, diplomatic plans cannot be modelled, military tactics cannot be proven, ecological reactions cannot be predicted. At least, nowhere near Popperian falsifiability. So there is no "objective" or "nonpartisan" or "apolitical" basis for any public policy – even in government departments regarded as "scientific."

People believe the illusion of objective policy because it creates an objective centre around which a system of government can be built. To a democratic centrist, a visitor from Proxima Centauri, knowing the same about Earth as themselves, would surely create the same government. Perhaps the alien would withdraw from Afghanistan, propose to change a national flag or create a supranational bloc called the European Union.

To a democratic centrist, everything the state does is bipartisan, centrist, apolitical public policy. The same thing happens in science by using the phrase "mainstream science." It does not matter "who" the physicists, geologists, or mathematicians are. There is no German physics, liberal geology, or Catholic mathematics. There is only correct physics, correct geology, and correct mathematics.

New policies that become centrist do not wander unpredictably. The trend is always and inexorably leftward, toward more integration among states, with the goal of eventually removing borders themselves. This is described neatly by the suspiciously partial retelling of history called “Whig history.” And because the engine of Whig history is progress, there is no reason to believe the process would stop in 2016. So bureaucratic inertia continues to shift everything to the left of the room.

Progressives think of themselves as anything but pro-government due to that useful trick “objective public policy.” They bravely resist oppressive political figures such as Donald Trump, and support the civil service, which is professional and scientific. When they think of "the government," they think strictly of the latter and invest their energy on frustrating the efforts of the former. Anything that isn’t centrist is considered a vicious attack on democracy itself.

The crazy thing is, progressives are absolutely right to think the idea of political government is terrible. Representative democracy is a thoroughly despicable system. It is dangerous and impractical at best, criminal at worst. In the UK, 49% of people equating to millions of humans were overruled by the remainder. Imagine if the referendum concerned a more malignant issue than EU membership. Tyranny of the masses indeed.

Democratic centrism is nothing more than democratic progressivism. And progressivism is simply a form of pro-government activism. Its faith in the state is handed entirely to the professional civil service. The mechanism by which it delegates this faith is the bizarre concept of apolitical government.

This is obvious in the EU with the dearth of politics in Brussels. This is called a democratic deficit, a term specifically invented to describe the European Economic Community. Huh, isn’t that weird?…

IV

So from the perspective of EU progressives, the Leave vote is a harbinger of a serious failing of psychological capture. I saw this on David Cameron’s face. He clearly felt forced into squeezing his entire prime ministership on the promise of an EU referendum he knew risked creating a serious obstacle for the state’s governmental direction.

He wasn’t frightened of a catastrophe, because “democracy” is tightly controlled in the modern state model. The civil service will ride over the Leave decision. Britain will remain Germany’s third largest export destination, the financial community will continue using London and Britain will integrate more of its trade with the US anyway.

Britons are like everyone else. They believe what they're told. They respond to superior authority. For the last 250 years, they were told the state is their mother and father. Or possibly both. And now, they use the official "we" when discussing the state. I have a tough time removing this pronoun from my vocabulary about New Zealand too but I do try. Brits simply cannot imagine life outside the comforting arms of their official universal uberparent.

But if they lose psychological capture, then other models of government might take over. This would be an undesirable shift. The loss of capture felt might trend elsewhere too.

(One shouldn’t worry about Mr Trump, though. His actual policies confirm he is just an uncouth progressive. This makes sense, because, after 71 straight years of solid top-down psychological capture, it would be a miracle if America produced a single politician who was not on the progressive spectrum).

Losing psychological capture is unacceptable to the elites but so too would be letting the game of actual democracy change anything. This is the tight balancing act. The job of the civil service is to ensure the continuation of the status quo. This explains why it is now trying to find legal ways to reverse or negate the Leave decision. It will find a way, there are plenty of legal avenues available. But that’s not the actual problem.

V

The actual problem is that as the civil service moves along this route, it will need to answer the question of how such a blatant display of undemocratic sovereignty will be sold to a public which thinks it has participated in a highly democratic process.

People voted because they thought it would have an effect. What they don’t realise is that the civil service will find a way – it always does – to make whatever chosen decision turn out how they want.

So we should expect a significant portion, if not all, extant UK/EU trade relationships to remain and important EU regulations to be maintained. Immigration might be tightened (that was happening anyway), but political relationships will continue. Every important EU structure representing the goals of progressivism will remain. They will simply change shape and, crucially, names.

To achieve this, Westminster and Brussels will work to deliver the mother lode of propaganda about “change” while they fiddle in the background ensuring nothing actually changes. Since the civil service is unelected and operates on a timescale lightyears longer than any politician, it will achieve this on its own calendar – incrementally. But it will be done, no matter how long it takes.

There is far more at stake than to let a little bit of political government muck it all up. And don’t even think about trying to change this. The only thing worse than a civil service oligarchy is actual democracy.

The civil service will have to be careful, and eminently professional, to sell this move to the UK public without giving up the long con. The fear and trembling leading up to and after the vote helps: you can’t con someone who isn’t paying attention.

The entire Anglo world watched the referendum. We were spellbound thinking we were observing democracy rip apart a multi-decade project. That is incorrect. We were watching a pretend decision that will have little impact on the future for either the EU or the UK. The civil service will not let it have an impact. It is its job to avoid this, and it is extremely adept at the turnaround.

VI

I really hope I’m wrong about this but unfortunately I know 20th-century history. What gave the game away was the government focusing too much on the names of things. It is the simplest trick in its deep bag of tricks to change a name and report everything fixed. This is bureaucratic inertia, and it is far stronger than any voting process.

After all, last week’s choice was between voting to be in the EU or to leave the EU. It didn’t offer a third option and definitely wasn’t about whether an unelected civil service should be organising structures such as the EU in the first place. That decision was made far above your pay grade – regardless of how much money you make.

But if this isn’t democracy, why is democratic centrism popular? Because all the state has to do to persuade huge numbers of people to support it is create a situation in which pro-government activists are more likely to succeed – professionally, socially, and financially. Hence why almost everyone living around us thinks democracy is grand and should definitely be spread to every corner of the globe.

Regardless of its genesis, the EU is an extant structure in very poor health. Its problems will need to be sorted out sooner or later. Brussels has spent every moment since 2008 figuring out what to do, but answers are slow in coming – if at all. So it has to be wondered: If the EU’s problems are solvable, would they not already have been solved?

Maybe the civil service created something even it cannot control. It wouldn’t the first time hubris undermined the best intentions.

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