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The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

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* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

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It is interesting and revealing that journalists are complaining about how poor the debate was during the Presidential election campaign. With some exceptions, they speak as if journalism had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The televised debates illustrate the fissure between journalism and those citizens who rely on media to deliver meaningful public debate. The questions put to the candidates on TV were deliberate, the result of thoughtful, editorial selection. If the debate was trivial, failing to deliver for participative citizens, that was determined by the questions. It could have been otherwise but that would have involved different editorial judgement and decisions.

The questions chosen reflected the campaign, referring to the news stories that had dominated. This is in keeping with the most prominent view of what journalism is about. It is a part of being dispassionate, neutral: “We don’t make the news; we simply report it.”

Let’s consider the “question” or the questionable proposition that occupied most time: That the President is variously a millionaire, a money-grabbing man who chooses to stay in fabulous hotels and travel by government jet, that he is a landlord whose property had been upgraded at state expense, that thousands were spent by the state on having his dogs groomed, that he is utterly out of touch with reality and can’t see how his extravagance appears, that he is not to be believed in attempting to address these charges etc. etc.

Clearly this was not worth the time devoted to it. At best it was hyperbolised gossip and at worst a smear, spreading accusations of corruption against a person who in a fifty year career in public service had not heretofore attracted a hint of scandal. More importantly, yes, it was incredible but it was news. It was “true” because someone really had made the allegations. Seeing a very popular President struggle to fend off allegations might make for “good” television and if it damaged his reputation and “opened up the race”, that would be a show-biz bonus. Indeed, someone with a perverse grasp of the concept could see it as a bonus for democracy.

It might be argued from principle that everything including the accusations had to be allowed rather than censored. However, the final RTE TV debate did not operate to that principle; in an effete show of outrage, the presenter/moderator came down heavily on the explicit use of the word “liar”. In effect the situation was that anything goes as long as it’s done politely. As Joan Freeman might have phrased her frequently repeated lie, “With all due respect, a hUachtarán, you – like the three dragons – are a millionaire.” She could do this because like the others she was confident that the presenter would side with news over truth.

The dominance of news is an old problem for mass political communication and this is not the place to explore it. Suffice it to say, that not everyone wants to engage thoughtfully with politics and serving those who do will very likely reduce audience numbers.

However, it would be a waste to let this occasion of unusually widespread dissatisfaction slip by without discussion of what is actually required of political journalism and broadcast politics in particular. At the very least the editors who decided on the questions owe the citizens an explanation as to whom they thought they were serving and what service was being offered.

 

Politics, deliberation, and public action dissolve under the relentless pressure for leveraging one’s self into a position of greater human capital and competitive advantage. The state remodels itself as a firm, the university as a factory, and the self as an object with a price tag.” *

The Left in Ireland is comprised of local examples of world movements and doctrines. It loves issues and campaigns. Tackling broad theory – never mind creating a plausible alternative – is not regarded as essential. That’s a fundamental error.

You see, there’s always been your man at the bar, the drunk who has the answers, the bar-stool approach to politics. You know how it goes: everyone is selfish, politicians are all crooks and/or stupid, public servants and experts are all incompetent, thoughtful citizens are sheeple and we need a revolution to put ordinary people in charge – people power!

However, something has changed because this kind of stupidity is no longer deplored. It is tolerated beyond the drunk at the bar. It has been brought out into the open, patronised and promoted. Moreover, it is the preferred weapon of the rich and powerful who see in it the possibility of undoing a century of state welfare systems and controls on markets. Unfortunately, they are aided by too many gullible leftists who bizarrely seem to think that angry stupidity could possibly be a working class trait.**

An impoverished and downright nasty understanding of what it means to be human and consequently of human rationality is now dominant and it is rarely – if ever – questioned. Because docile acceptance has political consequences, journalism bears a heavy responsibility. Journalism generally reflects dominant viewpoints, failing to question thoroughly the driving assumptions and theory behind them. Moreover, conventional news is fed by “anti-establishment” activists providing a flow of protest and outrage over discrete issues.

The term neo-liberalism can be both useful and superficial; it is scattered around – particularly by leftists – and it works fairly well to trigger emotions over an “issue”. However, any attempt to discuss it or – heaven forbid – compare it to plain liberalism prompts groans, wilful ignorance and the patronising claim that ordinary people won’t understand or are not interested. This is precisely how the left becomes conservative – campaigning, protesting, pressurising on issues while refusing to demand – no, cause – public discourse on what makes them issues.

The reason that Liberal thought survived left criticism for so long was that it delivered security, health, education, welfare and decent jobs; it reached an accommodation with capitalism and that accommodation became the establishment.*** Liberals – now often referred to as Classic Liberals – emphasised human dignity, mutual respect and fair procedures. They tended to insist that in making a decision, possible harm should be considered and avoided. They weren’t prioritising pay-offs; they were considering wider outcomes, consequences. This is what neo-liberalism seeks to destroy. It’s not just posing as anti-establishment; it really is.

Neo-liberalism then is utterly different. It looks at life as a competition, a constant struggle for scarce resources and dominance. It is built not only on a dismal view of human nature and rationality but but also on non-cooperative Game Theory. It is worth emphasising that Game Theory was developed not for ordinary citizen relationships but for working out nuclear strategies during the Cold War. The idea is that everyone is an adversary and decision-making is based on narrow, self-interested, “rational” choice.**** This approach was imported first into business and finance, and then into wider aspects of life and society. It favours competitive market solutions to all questions, undermines solidarity, fellow-feeling, goodwill, the state, welfare provisions, expertise, human decency and values – especially the values of classic liberalism – all in a drive towards radical privatisation, reducing citizens to contractors and/or customers who conduct relationships on the basis of quid pro quo. (Remember that gobshite on the bar stool.)

In Ireland today it is certainly true that many – more likely, most – citizens believe that self determination is expressed merely in consumer choice. They have been bludgeoned into this belief by a refusal of journalism and activists to contradict the dominant view. Choice has come to mean consumer choice and the citizen has been reduced to a customer of service providers. Public service – once a well understood, honourable and decent way of life – is now a matter of reacting to customers. Government departments, county councils, state bodies and industries, having abandoned citizenship, now operate to customer charters and the like, and prefer to deal with clients.

In many instances the left has gone along with all this. Their cooperation has perhaps three causes. Firstly, they may for populist reasons be unwilling to challenge orthodoxy when expressed by “ordinary workers”. Secondly, they may not see the significance of the contrast between customer and citizen. Thirdly, they may see customer relations as an improvement on some of the high-handed carry on that brought public service into disrepute. Incidentally, for whatever reasons Dublin South County Council when dominated by a strong group of Labour councillors, declined even to discuss a move from customer to citizen relationships.

When a theory becomes dominant – even orthodox – there are outcomes across the globe and Ireland is a case in point. Irish acceptance of bar-stool guff dressed up as Neo-liberalism leads necessarily to privatisation, market-based solutions to all problems and the reduction of the citizen to a mere customer living in an endless chaos of markets.

The anti-intellectual eye-rolling at the mere mention of “neo-liberal” functions not only to stifle counter theory but to prevent critique and thus cement the doctrine. Unable or unwilling to challenge at a theoretical level, the left is reduced to skirmishing over, say, particular privatisations, guaranteeing that it will win occasionally, lose frequently and not even slow the march. Perhaps the best hope the Irish left has is that critique and counter theory at an international level will win out and leftward change will seep into Ireland. That would be passive, shamefully passive.

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* https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/uses-and-abuses-neoliberalism-debate

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** Technology has had a crucial effect on work, employment and capitalism. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

**** If this is of interest, see: S.M. Amadae, Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neo-liberal Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Anyone who thinks that acceptance of neo-liberal, bar-stool beliefs was accidental or that it can be combated by way of activism, should consider reading, Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America (Scribe UK, 2017)

There’s a reason I want to tell you about my experience teaching at a drug rehabilitation clinic but first the story:

Some years ago the then head of UCD’s Adult Education Dept. asked me if I’d be interested in presenting a lecture series to recovering drug addicts. Now generally I do politics with an emphasis on political philosophy and specifically I do political communication. I asked what he had in mind. He said the request was for a politics course and that was as much information as he had. I jumped at the chance of a new experience while doing – I hoped – some good. 

My first day was alarming. I was welcomed into an environment that I found very stressful. It wasn’t that I was scared. Far from it, the people there were nice to me. It was the chaos; I could find nothing familiar and dependable. It was the world of addiction. However, up a few flights of stairs and I was introduced to the students. Here there was no chaos but a group of people, recovered from whatever had been their problem and focused on making their futures.A short time into the course it became obvious that their primary interest was theory. Sure, they wanted to know basics about how elections worked, how the Taoiseach was elected and what was the function of the president but that was too easy for them. They were far more interested in hearing about equality, justice, democracy etc. I was fascinated and motivated by them; they were sharp.

The course progressed well and as I got to know them, we exchanged personal stories but there was one question I wanted to ask and my opportunity eventually arrived. I asked why was I there, talking to them about politics, what had prompted such a course in this clinic. The answer was fundamental and affecting. They had looked at the list of likely courses facing them – the “practical” courses – and said, no thanks. They wanted what they called “real subjects”. They had argued their case but believed their success came down to a succinct claim to normality. It had been put bluntly by one woman to a centre manager, “I said to her, ‘Look, we’re junkies, not fucking eejits’ and she said OK, that she’d organise proper courses.”

They did get real subjects and proper courses. They were well able for them, enjoyed them and did well.

Here’s where I reveal the purpose of telling this story now but I’ll return to the students and something that will always bother me.

When I’m told that “ordinary voters” or “ordinary working people” don’t want “intellectual argument” and want only “practical answers”, I wish the patronising, elite chancers who assume such nonsense, would be challenged by the likes of that student saying, “Look, we’re citizens, not fucking eejits.”

Of course there are citizens – millions of them – who don’t want political debate, intellectual material, ideologies, values etc. Some really don’t understand, some pretend not to and may even try to flaunt ignorance as a virtue, some are culpably uninformed, and most simply don’t want to be bothered.

On the other side are republicans (real ones – unlike US Republicans or Irish nationalists) who want to participate in the affairs of their republic, who demand to be addressed with respect and who want to think, talk and come to decisions. In this they don’t need leadership.

So, there is a divide in society between, let’s call them, passive and active citizens but that division does not break along class lines. Let no one say that ordinary people or ordinary working people – never mind the working class – are on one side and cannot cope with real politics. *

Ending the clinic story, I taught two groups, as far as I can recall, at the clinic in successive years and then it all stopped. I assume there was a change in management or in the programme itself. Here’s what bothers me. Those students were clever and wanted to continue with “real subjects” but there was nothing for them when they parted with the clinic. I pointed them towards university Access courses, in particular UCD Access on which I teach but I never saw them again. I’m left with the thought that a door was opened, giving them a glimpse of higher education, and then was slammed shut again. Sometimes that seems more cruel than forcing them to do “ordinary” training courses.

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* Here’s some more on this divide: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

 

The debate on repealing the eighth amendment studiously avoids the argument on which the entire pro-life position rests.

Here’s the Pro-Life proposition: There is a person present from conception with a person’s right to life for however long that life might be and regardless of the circumstances of conception, i.e. there are no exceptions.

The Repeal side falls into the trap and ends up discussing exceptions, e.g. rape and fatal foetal abnormality, rather than the proposition. There is a suspicion, however, that they fall willingly along with the media, on whom public discourse depends, because neither feels confident about engaging the core Pro-life argument.

The pro-life argument, that a person is present from conception, is meta-physical but shouldn’t be dismissed or avoided for that. It is easily dealt with because it is a poor argument. Now, at least some of those who make the argument are used to being treated with an inordinate amount of respect because firstly, they tend to be high-ranking churchmen and secondly, it is assumed that arguing metaphysics requires great expertise and is hard work. This is a carefully cultivated impression. It is also uniquely accepted, while every other branch of philosophy is expected when necessary to engage with citizens who have no particular expertise.

Once we address and consider the argument that a person is present from conception, and assuming we find it implausible (There won’t be universal agreement that it is.) we can begin to examine abortion from a moral perspective. 

Here are two facts: 

i) Almost no one wants to permit abortion right up to birth.


ii) No one strives officiously to find and protect the lives of all fertilised human eggs (zygotes). 

The moral decision lies between i and ii. As a political issue it involves regulating abortion. It is a hard decision because it necessarily means a time limit. It is a debate that can and should go on and on as we struggle to do right, to fix a time limit that, all things considered, is moral. The pro-life amendment prevents that debate taking place; that is what it was meant to do. It prevents citizens having to consider what should be done about unwanted pregnancies. That is why it must be repealed. 

Addressing the pro-life (ensoulment) argument moves the exceptions (pregnancy by rape and viability) way down the public agenda. It removes much of the heat from public discourse, and there are many – not all of them working in the media – who thrive on heat. Incidentally, it also disposes of the silly, history argument: that a ban on abortion was fine years ago but times have changed. Nonsense, it was always cruel and evasive. It was carried because few had the confidence and courage to take on church metaphysicians.

If Repeal activists and media are unwilling or if they feel themselves incompetent to debate metaphysics, let them insist on something similar by confronting Pro-Life advocates with Patrick S. Tomlinson’s popular proposition: Faced with a choice of saving the life of one person or 1,000 zygotes, no sane, decent and honest person would opt for the zygotes.*

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* https://www.rawstory.com/2017/10/sci-fi-writer-baffles-abortion-foes-with-simple-question-would-you-save-1000-embryos-or-one-child-in-fire/?comments=disqus