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The politics of abstraction

Summary:
There’s a link between two of the more absurd events of the weekend: David Cameron’s boasting of volunteering at a food bank; and Natalie Elphicke’s attempt to join a protest against P&O’s mass sackings. Both are trying to repair the damage they themselves have done. Acute poverty, and hence the need for food banks, is the direct result of Cameron’s own austerity policies. And P&O can only replace its staff with agency workers because Elphicke and her fellow Tory MPs voted against Barry Gardiner’s bill to outlaw the practice. What we have, then, is an apparent absurdity – people objecting to the foreseeable consequences of their own actions. How can this happen? Part of the story is that most people have a strong urge to feel they are doing the right thing. We do not smirk like Dick

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There’s a link between two of the more absurd events of the weekend: David Cameron’s boasting of volunteering at a food bank; and Natalie Elphicke’s attempt to join a protest against P&O’s mass sackings.

Both are trying to repair the damage they themselves have done. Acute poverty, and hence the need for food banks, is the direct result of Cameron’s own austerity policies. And P&O can only replace its staff with agency workers because Elphicke and her fellow Tory MPs voted against Barry Gardiner’s bill to outlaw the practice. Elphicke

What we have, then, is an apparent absurdity – people objecting to the foreseeable consequences of their own actions. How can this happen?

Part of the story is that most people have a strong urge to feel they are doing the right thing. We do not smirk like Dick Dastardly as we take pleasure in our evil schemes but instead perform intellectual contortions to satisfy ourselves that we are in fact the goodies; this is one form of self-serving bias. It’s this instinct that has given rise to ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing with all its greenwashing and hypocrisies.

In itself, however, this instinct need not have led Cameron and Elphicke to act as they did. In many minds instead it leads only to arguments that austerity or voting for bad bosses was necessary for the greater good.

So why didn’t Cameron and Elphicke pursue this line instead? Here’s a theory: their ideology blinds them to the fact that policies hurt real people. Politics isn’t merely about finding positive-sum solutions; it’s about choosing who to throw under the bus.

But they don’t want to face this fact. Instead, for them, politics is about abstractions independent of real lived experience. It’s about what plays well in focus groups; what appeals to the media; what does well on “the grid” (to use a 90s metaphor). And politics goes no further than that.

So for example, “cutting red tape” is a sign that you oppose big government rather than are content to risk people burning to death in high-rise buildings. In the same way, austerity or voting against firing and rehiring are merely symbolic acts, signals that one is on the right side, rather than acts with consequences.

This echoes Joe Stalin. "If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics" he said. And by statistics he meant not the fact that statistics is the plural of anecdote but that they are just another abstract debating point to be manipulated on the Posh Twats Talk Shit shows that pass for politics programmes. Hence Elphicke’s discombobulation when confronted with the unavoidable fact that actions do have consequences, that politics hurts real people.

Johnson gave us a clear example of this politics of abstraction yesterday. His likening of Ukrainians to Brexit voters is of course too far beneath contempt to deserve comment. What’s also revealing, though, is this:

When the British people voted for Brexit, in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently.

This misses two things. One is that Brexiters have so far failed to tell me what I am free to do now that I wasn’t in 2016. The other is that this government is actually suppressing freedom by seeking to criminalize protest and is reducing freedom even in the narrowest Thatcherite terms by raising taxes to their highest level in decades. Johnson’s love of freedom is a pure abstraction, divorced from his actual actions.

But here’s the thing. In treating politics as a reified activity separate from lived experience, the Tories are not alone. In their book Managing Britannia Robert Protherough and John Pick describe how modern management “deals largely in symbols and abstractions” – which is how oil companies can claim to be green.

And some critics of the Tories do a similar thing. Some are more agitated about Johnson’s possible receipt of a fixed penalty notice than they were about the mass social murder of austerity. The image of hypocrisy matters to them more than the reality of tens of thousands of deaths.

It’s tempting to see all this as vindication of T.S. Eliot’s claim that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” But I’m not so sure this is all there is. Tories have not always tried to deny the consequences of their policies. Thatcher called miners “the enemy within”; she didn’t try to join them on the picket line as Elphicke would have. And Norman Lamont called unemployment a price “well worth paying” and never felt the need to do a stint in a Job Centre.

So what changed? A bit of me thinks the Tories retreat from reality is because the truths of capitalism – stagnation, corruption and inefficiency – are no longer ones that can be uttered in public. But it might instead simply be that they have become vacuous idiots.

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