Brexit and the Empty Core of Liberal Centrism

All dressed up and nowhere to go. Referendum supporter, June 2016.

In the same period during the 17th century that saw England’s finest hour when the head of Charles I was divorced from his body, it was determined, in the wake of the wars of religion and the English revolution, that politics would take place on the plain of artifice. As a result, political life would progressively be delimited to a specialised and exclusive administrative art. ‘The life questions’, to say nothing of contestation between forms-of-life would come to be banished from the public realm.

Consequently, over the past three centuries matters of ethics, the good life and of course religion have been increasingly determined as purely private concerns, matters of conscience. This is the backdrop to the formation of liberal parliamentarism that extends deep into the social fabric not only of Britain but of Europe as a whole. And it is this same structural exclusion of substantive conflict over values that is causing parliament to grind to a halt over Brexit.

Thomas Hobbes epoch-defining description at the introduction to his masterwork presages not only the direction of English politics but of the modern “globalised Leviathan” for which his national model was the prototype:

“Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, (in Latin Civitas) which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty is an artificial soul as giving life and motion to the whole body;…” Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan (1651)

Here stated plainly is the most significant gift bequeathed by the 17th century; the mechanistic model of nature as an enclosed system of efficient causes with man at its centre. The “artifice” of statecraft is in mimicking the rational form of natural processes as closely as possible, thus bringing the realm of artifice (politics) and the realm of nature into a harmonious totality.

A correlate of this naturalistic and supposedly scientific view of political life is that anything which does not conform to it, that bases its communality on other values, is excluded as irrational, unnatural or simply groundless opinion. This wasn’t yet the dominion of empiricism that we live under today, but the work of theorists like Hobbes, Grotius, Pufendorf and Locke substantially delimited the scope of politics, laying the foundations for what was to come.

Looking further back it was the intractable series of conflicts during the Reformation that began the process of relegating ‘the life questions’ to the private sphere. In the wake of the reformers return to the Gospel, scholastic speculation gave way to scriptural objectivity, which rather than settling truth claims about religious doctrine by grounding them in the Word, instead opened up endless conflicts over interpretation. Magisterial and radical Protestants, united in their rejection of the authority of Rome, fought each other over the meaning and extent of their reforms.

Sola Scriptura, so seemingly simple a notion, opened up a whole new plain of conflict. And since such questions could never be settled agreeably between all parties they were either settled by authority, through the creation of confessionalised states and universities or deemed not to matter in political life. Thus they were relegated to the private domain of individual conscience.

Religion was progressively neutralised as a site of political conflict just as politics was increasingly secularised. An attendant result of this process was that politics increasingly became an arena for rational technocratic solutions, administrative problems and questions of good governance rather than a contestation over values and forms-of-life. This is political liberalism’s basic epistemological ground.

Neutralisations and Big Data

Each of these developments share a commonality in that they sought a form of knowledge and politics that excluded the possibility of conflict between different forms-of-life. In doing so, the scope and potential for political contestation became increasingly circumscribed. The “centre ground” and English common sense have their roots here, as does the valorisation of rational empirically based political claims rather than assertions of values. The result has been that the things which give people’s lives meaning have become entirely separated from political life, all the while our lives have become increasingly controlled by impersonal forces we scarcely understand.

The German jurist Carl Schmitt in the first half of the 20th century described this process as one of “neutralisations and depoliticizations”. He glosses the history of the last four centuries as one of shifting “central domains” from which politics has attempted to govern from a position of neutrality. From the theology of the late middle ages to the metaphysics and science of the 17th and early 18th centuries, then onto the moral and economic centrality of the late 18th and 19th centuries; each time the central domain became a site of struggle politics shifted towards another supposedly more neutral domain.

Each time this occurs the previous domain is deactivated as a site of political importance, rendered a matter of personal preference (in the case of religion and morality) or incontestable objectivity (in the case of economics and metaphysics).  Whether we accept Schmitt’s schema or not, he is I think correct in asserting that today’s central domain is not – as is it usually understood – the economy, it’s technology:

“Unlike theological, metaphysical, moral and even economic questions, which are forever debatable, purely technical problems have something refreshingly factual about them. They are easy to solve, and it is easily understandable why there is a tendency to take refuge in technicity from the inextricable problems of all other domains”. – Carl Schmitt, The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations (1929)

Big data and the digital revolution are the latest stage in this development, portending of a “post-political” world of algorithms and managed outcomes. German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has in a series of books detailed the possibilities of this new technology of power. He argues it leads to an era of “psychopolitics” in which big data technologies are increasingly used to bypass any form of “subjective arbitrariness” in decision making.

Intuition, context or deeper understanding of cause are all irrelevant in the mass collection of data. He quotes ex-Wired editor Chris Anderson’s 2008 article, The End of Theory, to emphasise the attendant attitude of the big data gurus: “Out with every theory of human behaviour, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.

This barbarism of data as Han calls it is just the latest stage in the centuries-long process I have sketched above. The progressive elimination of values and possible subjective conflict from politics reaches its apogee in big data’s correlationist utopia, in which knowledge itself is reduced to its lowest common denominator. Every click and digital interaction contributes to a vast storehouse of correlations that can be deployed to micro-target individual voters or groups with political advertising, smear campaigns directed at opposition politicians, rage-fodder or outright fake news.

The individual subject of rights – in modern liberal parlance – is reduced in the era of big data to the totality of preferences as expressed through their digital interactions. This totally empty and artificial individual will be the “fact” governing political decisions of the future. Is it any wonder given this direction of travel that Britain’s political system finds itself creaking at the antinomies produced by the Brexit vote, which unleashed so many disparate value-laden visions of the country’s future?

Conflict is the Irreducible Core of Political Life

It’s precisely through the lens of this modern “politics of technicity” that the liberal centre attempted to frame the question of EU membership during the time of the referendum, and continues to do so today with demands for a second poll. The question is posed as purely technical, to do with economic realities and empirically measurable outcomes. The suggestion that it might involve ideological commitments or different value systems is ignored.

But this is precisely what was brought into play by directly evoking the constituting power through a referendum. It opened a window onto parts of Britain that had been ignored by the neoliberal consensus over decades of stagnating wages, “bullshit jobs” and stigmatisation by the media. Suddenly they had the chance to remind Westminster (and much of the South East of England) that they existed. This window cannot now be closed.

In this context, it should be noted that the 2016 referendum did not create the factions we now call Remain and Leave, but it did name them. That alone was sufficient to bring the present conflict, either side of which they stand, into public actuality. What we see with the ongoing deadlock and ever more entrenched positions at Westminster is the undeniable reality of that schism within the nation. It is a real antagonism between very different value systems and visions of what a future Britain should look like.

No amount of facts about the value of the common market to UK GDP or the vital role immigration has played in maintaining Britain’s public services is going to override the immediate and irrefutable feelings of many people across the UK, that the EU and globalisation have done nothing for them. Nor will such facts placate those whose opinions are rooted in racism and xenophobia, the same prejudices that successive UK governments have played upon over the last thirty years when it suited them.

Thus, it may be the case that the notorious statement plastered across Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus was false, but it aimed at a sentiment and perspective that is real and refuting the lie will not make those sentiments disappear.

Parliament’s deadlock stems from the attempt to come to a decision regarding values and possible forms-of-life using institutional mechanisms and a type of political discourse that have developed expressly to avoid making such decisions. The persistent referral back to the facts or to economic necessity merely dodges what is really at stake, which is the potential for Britain to break with the post-war consensus and forge a path away from neoliberalism, toward something radically different.

The Brexit vote has precipitated a rupture of genuine political conflict in British public life for the first time since perhaps the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Unlike that conflict, which was settled by the authority of the state (deploying a good deal of violence in the process), it is the very authority and legitimacy of Britain’s political institutions that are now in question. As the government loses vote after vote, each side vies for control over what increasingly appears like an empty seat of power.

Photograph courtesy of Ian. Published under a Creative Commons license.