“For now, we see through a glass, darkly.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12
2008 was a fantastic year for the UK economy: inflation was a touch over 2%, bang on the BOE target; the trade deficit fell to levels not seen since the 1980s; productivity per worker was at the highest point in British history, a record still held to this day. In all, the facts were really quite rosy. The reality, as most will remember, was not so grand.
What then, is wrong with the facts? If anything, by virtue of being retrospective, not prospective, they should be reliable indicators of social reality, indeed – they would fit right in to any self-respecting ‘factual democracy’, a state that has come and gone, apparently without anyone noticing.
The target of this diatribe, hence, is the collection of claims that have been banded around the internet following a particular regrettable election wherein voters opted for arguments from principle rather than macroeconomic ‘facts’. It is easy to see how the term ‘post-factual democracy’ gained credence, after all, it even sounds as though it has been neatly plucked from the analytic academic canon. Yet, if we are to treat it as anything but a faux-intellectual smokescreen to justify amongst the comfortably jargoned classes their disdain for the average voter, we must ask, when was the so-called ‘factual-democracy’
My argument is that there never has been a ‘factual democracy’. Moreover, we should not pretend like a factual democracy could ever be a viable option, and instead should focus on winning the broadly rhetorical battle of identity formation via principles, against those who have already deconstructed social reality to find the Derridian meaninglessness behind the politicking, the zenith of which being Trump.
Firstly: when it comes to expressing social reality, there is no such thing as an unbiased fact. Facts carry baggage that scream their perspective, methodology, and their intended point. Indeed, the challenge could be raised to one and all to locate a headline-sized catch all variable to accurately express projected changes in social reality. To be clear, which trade statistic could outstrip ‘Make America Great Again’ in bumper sticker sales?
Moreover, when, as in the recent example of the EU referendum, we consider the role of prospective ‘facts’, i.e. the iterative waves of acronym-heavy experts spelling out the future of the British economy, we must be careful of placing too much faith in the strange world of macroeconomic forecasting. To explore the implicit humanism in such forecasts, along with their inability to account for the many black swans that bob on the horizon, is beyond the scope of this invective. Let it suffice to say that wholesale human actions and reactions remain unpredictable, and the natural world too complex, to ever reduce into some M-theory algorithm that will churn out a reliable account of the supposedly foreseeable future.
In addition to this, if ‘facts’ are hurled out enough by the media, eventually they permeate into discourse and are taken as the whole picture. Take the manufactured downfall of Corbyn, if it is declared enough that he has blood on his hands for a lacklustre Remain campaign – and if individuals en masse don’t even take the time to watch or read up on his subsequent output (note how Bennet’s campaign, whilst almost identical, has never suffered the same criticism) – then people can start making ‘real-world’ demands for the resignation of the Labour leader, the germ of which being in a simple manufactured fact. For the sake of balance, consider the other end of the Labour party, where the Chilcot enquiry contains interesting facets that reflect the dialogue that ensued after the war – namely the programme of shouting ‘illegal war’ enough times for it to be considered Gospel truth. Whilst the old-school ‘Murdochracy’ is becoming increasingly diffuse thanks to the growth of social media, do not be fooled into thinking that constructed opinions are noticeably more democratic; if anything the rise of the 21st century online echo-chamber does more to enhance a homogenisation of groupthink than the dead wood press ever could. This detachment from individual inquiry provides a whole new neoliberal aspect to Rimbaud’s dictum, “je est un autre” (‘I’ is another).
Finally, we would be misguided to even want a ‘factual democracy’. ‘Non-ideological’ governments have something of a tainted history. Whether they are the Socially Darwinist White-Créole supporting positivist governments in 19th Latin America, the racialist-humanists of 20th central Europe, or the ‘depoliticising’ neoliberals of today -technocracies have never been as neutral as they claim, nor, I would argue, is it possible for any government to be neutral in such a manner.
Why is this a problem? One example is the aforementioned decision by my country to choose insular-minded atavism over cosmopolitanism, fear over hope, and protest over progress. What caused this vacuous protest? This misguided middle finger to the governing classes? I would be weary of hurling condescension at the citizenry who voted against their interests; they are by no means less enlightened than voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or London, nor for that matter, the sanctimonious cohort of privileged university students (this writer is no exception), who fell quite unquestioningly into the ‘Remain’ camp. Instead, they have fallen victim to a debate where only one side shows them as having a positive principle to rally behind; namely that of the little people uniting to overthrow the interests of big business and politicians. The other side, the ‘factual’ side, were far more interested in macroeconomic projections from esteemed institutions enlightening us to the pendants of pension payments following our passing from a prosperous programme of unity, than spelling out the wonders of an integrated peaceful union.
In this regard, the otherwise regrettable Gove displayed cutting veracity when declaring that the public are “sick of experts”. This is because, in an almost Foucauldian desire to treat oneself as a canvas for creative transformation, people want to be told what they can be; they want to be told that tough old Blighty can forge a path for herself into the great unknown. Not that the great unknowable Moloch that goes by the name ‘the markets’ will not be sufficiently appeased by the decision. Social reality is a battle of principles and not projections. Throwing evidence against the cause will only be met by a firewall of cognitive dissonance. The debate should have been about the beauty of diversity, the need for unity, and the virtues of a peaceful Europe -not the balance of payments.