Nowadays we hear it repeated ad nauseam that ours is the post-truth age, the age of alternative facts and fake news. It is similarly repeated that this state of affairs has contributed to some of the more surprising events of recent years, notably Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of so-called populism from Italy to the Philippines.
For some people it’s easy to pin this all on the Russians; their governing through chaos, Moscow’s interference in foreign elections and undermining of international norms, Putin’s mockingly deadpan sense of humour, etc. For others, predominantly of a liberal shade, it’s the abandonment of facts in political affairs that has let in the spectre of civil unrest and international discord.
A politics not grounded in facts – they argue – is a perfidious thing, libel to stir up the emotional and the credulous among globalisation’s less fortunate souls; inciting them into acts of self-harm such as voting to leave the cosy neoliberal bosom of the EU. As for the British parliament – slouching into the New Year in deadlock over the Brexit deal – the clamour for a second referendum continues to grow. Here we find the question of facts raised pointedly.
Leading proponents of a second poll point to notorious incidences like Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus, plastered with the claim that £350 million a week could be invested in the UK National Health Service after exiting the EU, as proof that the people were deceived and sold a pipe dream of Brexit Britain that could never have been delivered. Others say that now the terms of the deal are known people should be able to vote on the facts rather than speculations and promises.
On the face of it, there’s nothing controversial about the facts of an issue being known (as if what constitutes ‘known’ isn’t itself controversial in matters of mass democracy). But the Remainers, who argue that a politics of facts will deliver them the result they want, or heal the divisions in Britain are fundamentally mistaken, both about the Brexit conflict and the nature of politics more generally.
This valorisation of facts and the notion that if everyone has access to the same information they should come to similar conclusions is rooted in Enlightenment ideas about objective reason and more deeply an inherent liberal distrust of political contestation over values and what used to be called ‘the life questions’.
Consensus politics (liberal politics par excellence) assumes similarly that people, given the same facts and without obvious distorting prejudices, will not end up taking incommensurate positions. All that would then be needed to resolve an issue and form a general will would be a degree of compromise on all sides and perhaps some level of debate with reasoned argumentation as the leading light.
This is, of course, the logic not only of political liberalism but of that mode of quasi-anthropological thought that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries along with the scientific method more generally. The twin advent of political liberalism and modern science is well known, as are their shared premises of economic, technological and political progressivism.
Less well understood is what has been excluded in political life the more it has become a matter for technocratic horse trading and global economic consensus.
The Elimination of Conflict and the Rise of the Fact
The Brexit debacle has done much to challenge the illusion that good governance is always conducted from the centre ground. Ever since the vote in June 2016, political and social polarisation has increased, now culminating in the factional deadlock at Westminster. Liberal parliamentarism seems unable to restore what has been broken by the uncharacteristic move to hold a plebiscite on Britain’s membership of the EU.
What this breakdown has also shown up is the huge distance between the position of the governing class and that of the governed. 52% voted of the UK to leave the EU but it has been obvious from the outset that the establishment position and that of the vast majority of MPs was and still is to remain.
With the process seemingly stalled, this contradiction has become ever more apparent and is feeding the growth of the far Right who have parasitized the conflict, polarising it still further by attempts at painting remain MPs as pro-immigration, anti-democratic traitors, putting foreign interests ahead of the “native” British population.
Former English Defence League thug Tommy Robinson has become something of a poster boy for the combined forces (including UKIP and a panoply of conspiracy theorists) leaning in this direction.
From its origins in the early modern period, liberalism has forever been a means of excluding conflict from political affairs. This has been achieved substantially by a centuries-long development whereby the scope of politics has been increasingly restricted and rationalised to matters of individual rights and economic management.
Many of the most familiar terms of contemporary liberal discourse testify to this history. Common sense, the centre ground, consensus, and of course the neutrality of facts are all terms that denote a degree of naturalism and necessity which by reason should exclude serious conflict between interlocutors.
The British model is perhaps the most successful in history in this regard. Since the settlement after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British system has withstood all the revolutionary movements in Europe, the industrial revolution, the rise of the worker’s movement and seen the rise and fall of its own Empire. All the while it has stuck steadfastly to a constitutional system that absorbs and manages the changes happening around it.
If it is the case – as many Marxists argue – that Britain’s modern parliamentary system has been predominantly a way of managing and promoting the interests of the propertied classes, beginning with the landowners and nascent industrial class of the 17th century, and continuing today with the financial elites, we can see how Brexit has truly created a scission at the heart of British politics. Business and finance elites both globally and in the UK were almost unanimously against Britain leaving the EU.
The frictionless movement of goods and capital as well as a common system of rules regulating (or not regulating) their activities has been a core driver of globalisation.
But now parliament, that institution which for over three centuries has been in the front row serving the interests of capital, is tasked with striking a blow against the global consensus, against the very concept of global governance itself. More than that, it has pitted the Tories against their natural base in business, effectively alienating the ruling class from their traditional representatives in the Conservative Party.
This antagonism has led to factionalism within the Tories themselves as one side attempts to reverse the Brexit process and side with their base while the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg conjure up Churchillian rhetoric in support of building England’s post-EU Jerusalem.
All this before we even consider the divisions in the Labour Party between youth-driven, resurgent socialism and the Blairite centrists who in effect form a third party with the remain faction of the Conservatives. None of this has come about through a paucity of facts.