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The politics of abstraction

Summary:
“Migrants will be turned back to France” cheers the Daily Express – alongside a picture celebrating Emma Raducanu who is herself a migrant, the Canadian-born daughter of Chinese and Romanian parents. Of course, an Express front page should normally be beneath our notice. This one, however, is significant as I suspect it embodies a widespread phenomenon in mainstream politics – the prioritizing of abstractions over real people. The Express’s doublethink has happened because, for much of the right, “migrants” are not real people such as Ms Raducanu, or the parents of most of the England team which did so well in the summer’s Euros, or the perfectly nice people you meet at work and in shops. They are instead an abstraction, a phantom invoking a vague sense of the nation (another

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“Migrants will be turned back to France” cheers the Daily Express – alongside a picture celebrating Emma Raducanu who is herself a migrant, the Canadian-born daughter of Chinese and Romanian parents.

Of course, an Express front page should normally be beneath our notice. This one, however, is significant as I suspect it embodies a widespread phenomenon in mainstream politics – the prioritizing of abstractions over real people. Expresssep10

The Express’s doublethink has happened because, for much of the right, “migrants” are not real people such as Ms Raducanu, or the parents of most of the England team which did so well in the summer’s Euros, or the perfectly nice people you meet at work and in shops. They are instead an abstraction, a phantom invoking a vague sense of the nation (another abstraction) losing control of its borders. This is why hostility to immigration has often been stronger in areas with fewer migrants rather than in cities with many of them. And it is why Priti Patel is threatening to turn back boats carrying migrants. So what if they drown? It’s not as if they are real people.

It’s not just in attitudes to immigration that we see this abstraction. The same has happened with Brexit. This was never about improving the living standards of real people but rather an appeal to abstractions such as national sovereignty and taking back control*.

This isn’t to say that the prioritizing of abstraction over ground truth is confined to the right. It’s not. In all its reports on the state of the public finances the BBC has not, as far as I know, ever interviewed a real person who has described convincingly how high government borrowing has worsened their own personal life. Fretting about the public finances is elevating an abstraction over the real lives of real people as it means devaluing the truth that austerity probably caused thousands of deaths.

Centrists are guilty of the same thing in another way. The ground truth is that the financial crisis taught us that capitalism is more unstable and less capable of generating growth in real wages than New Labour believed. This should have led to a rethinking of how to best achieve stability and rising living standards. But it didn’t. All the political centre has to offer is abstract waffle about electability. Hence (for example) Sir Keir Starmer’s inability to answer the simple question of how to pay for increased public spending on health and social care.

Older readers will detect a puzzle here. Back in the 90s New Labour spoke a lot about evidence-based policy-making. A generation later, however, what we have is abstraction-based policy-making. The story of how one gave way to the other needs to be told – and it will be one with no heroes but many villains.

* You might object here that in causing shortages of lorry drivers and hospitality workers Brexit is driving up wages. But this is true only of a minority of workers. And the price rises that are the counterpart of their pay rises mean cuts in real incomes for others – which is inevitable if higher pay isn’t accompanied by higher productivity. Sure enough, the ONS reports that real wages have actually fallen so far this year.

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