Civilisation Is A Confidence Trick

I’m trying CPT. Cognitive Political Therapy.

That’s what this blog is. I started it in the run up to the 2015 general election as a means of trying to work out what the hell was going on. With Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the theory is that you try to work out, and put into perspective, what frightens you by thinking about the worst that could possibly happen, and how you might deal with it.  The trouble with the political version is that every time I think that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, it does.

And then something even worse, unimaginably worse, happens.  A majority Tory government? It’ll never happen.  Brexit? Nah. President Trump? No way, Jose.

So why have people like me got so little understanding?  It’s not just the ‘metropolitan elite’ – it’d be some comfort if I was one of them.  At least I’d get paid for writing this stuff.  Basically, you are stuffed if you have a belief that democracy functions best with essentially altruistic politicians, inspired by their own ideological versions of the public good, competing for the trust of the electorate, who then go on to enact rational policies underpinned by evidence that they might work.

So what’s gone wrong?

Ed Miliband, speaking on Robert Peston’s show this morning, claimed that he’d had the right analysis of the scale and depth of the problem before the last election, but that the solutions they offered were “too small”.

I buy some of that. The analysis of this stage of capitalism was plausible, and the idea of finding some politically acceptable form of redistribution of wealth sensible.  But both still run up against the buffers of tone, and mood.

Or take Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer today.  He offered a leftish-liberal version of Roger Scruton’s prescription on Radio Four this morning – we need to heed the pain, suffering, and ‘identity politics’ of straight white guys.  Professor Scruton, tweed-clad, fox hunter that he is, does not want us to sneer at the ‘white working class’, whereas Cohen, at least, recognises that the key concept here is class. White, or otherwise.  I’ll even buy some of that.

But none of it is enough.  Why are we in this crisis, this train wreck of crises, carriage upon carriage of them?

It’s no accident that one of the most oft-repeated metaphors of late evokes the cartoon character who runs at full speed off the edge of a cliff, and keeps on running until the realisation hits that there’s no ground beneath the feet.  Cue the plummet.

The image works for our times, because there is sort of a consensus, across left and right, if such labels mean much any more, that the illusions that have kept our civilisations stable are crumbling into dust, and nothing is replacing them.

Certainly the 2008 banking crisis brought this long brewing problem out into the open.  I thought I understood as much as any thoughtful member of the public about how capitalism worked.  However much I railed against gross inequality, or corporate greed, I assumed that the system was essentially rational.  So to discover that behind the Portland stone, or steel and glass towers, that shade the inner workings of the financial system from view, there was little more than a gaudy Las Vegas casino of winking slot machines into which our savings were poured, yielding a trickle of coins for us, and a great stack of loot for the 1% – that was scary.

And everyone knows about this stuff, even if they haven’t thought it through, or made the connections.

Insurance?  Think it is priced according to actuarial calculations about the level of risk incurred by both parties?  Of course not.  It’s about extracting as much cash from the customer as possible.

Energy prices?  Competition has worked well there. Not.

We know things are wrong.  That most of us, working class, middle class, it doesn’t matter, most of us are less secure than we used to be.  We have to be ever vigilant that we aren’t being fleeced for things we have no option to buy – shelter, food, heat, water.  It is exhausting.

So what happens when the ground we thought was solid disappears from under us?

History suggests that there are simple solutions, but that they don’t work, and there are complex, difficult solutions, and they may well work.

At the moment, the purveyors of the simple solutions are in the ascendency.  It’s a form of modern Luddism.  Smash stuff up. It feels good, doesn’t it?  But look where the Luddites got. Nowhere.  Smashing stuff because you want things to go back to how they used to be is a tantrum, not a strategy.

The Luddites didn’t see how the economy was changing; how capital accumulation was powering technological change, which in turn was leading to massive, fundamental social change.  How could they? They were handloom weavers, and the new world of power looms and spinning machines was beyond their comprehension.

But there were people around, not just thinkers, but doers, not just in ivory towers, but on factory floors, who pieced together an analysis and a practical prescription, which was in tune with changing times.  Collective action, mass membership political parties, the extension of the franchise until it was universal.  It involved not just thinking about one’s own village, or one’s own valley.  It involved thinking bigger than ‘ordinary people’ had ever thought before.

Today we are in need of thinking, and action, on a similar scale.  Big, open, not sentimental about the way things were, but humble enough to hang on to the bits of the past that are still fit for purpose, and unafraid of being radical.

Civilisation is a confidence trick.  Thats not to disparage it.  It works when we believe in it, when we buy into it, when it gives us security and opportunity.  Right now we’ve lost confidence, and for good reason.  The trick isn’t working.

And for our next trick?

3 thoughts on “Civilisation Is A Confidence Trick

  1. Hi Yasmin and thanks for this – as thought- provoking as ever. I’m sorry to go boring, but I do feel that the Trump fiasco highlights the importance of that legal orphan, concern for the constitution. I’ve copied below a letter to the Observer today which says most of what I want to say. We accept a narrative of Trump Triumphant that makes us all very miserable, when what in fact happened was that the US constitution didn’t work as intended. There wasn’t a lot wrong with the voters or the polls. The actual result was much as predicted and expected from a very dirty campaign that reduced turnout from the optimism of the Obama years. Hillary won by a slimmish majority (about 1.5%), rather better than JFK did in 1960. What went wrong was the Electoral College system. Hillary piled up votes where she didn’t need them (as with Labour last year) and Trump scraped by in enough States to win the College vote. In my view, democrats should now picket the College and not let the Electors out until they’ve elected the actual winner! Won’t happen, of course, but it’s a nice idea!

    Keep on writing.


    As the counting of actual votes in the US presidential elections finally draws to a close it is becoming very obvious that the narrative accepted by virtually the whole commentariat is wrong. It really can’t be said too often that Hillary Clinton was not beaten by Trump, or racism, misogyny, or ignorance, or the FBI, or angry white males, or stay at home blacks, or anybody else. She was beaten by the Electoral College system, a deeply flawed, arcane process that has twice cheated the Democratic Party, its candidates and supporters, in the last 16 years, with incalculable consequences for the US, its liberal values and the world. It is a rigged system that has distorted the actual result beyond recognition. It is that that needs changing. Democrats everywhere need to be shouting this from the rooftops: it is a very strange “democracy” where the “loser” can have over 2 million more votes than the “winner.” It is an outrage. I can only imagine the consequences had the results been reversed and Clinton declared elected with 2 million fewer popular votes than Trump.

  2. Agreed. I’m increasingly of the view that we need to fix the big constitutional and institutional issues in order to resolve other, noisier problems. The constitution is an obvious mess, but the state itself is in crisis, too. The machinery of state has been cut so much, outsourced, deskilled, as Brexit, or, indeed, the NHS crisis demonstrates. A functioning nation with a sound democracy needs a constitution fit for purpose, and a state (and local state) of the highest quality and professionalism.

  3. If you look at it from a historic perspective, there is one problem at the core of every class society, that one more or less tiny fraction of it is much richer and much more powerful than the rest of it. The confidence trick is as old as class society, i.e. the promise of the few to use their wealth and power (somehow) to protect the lower classes as well. In political science, this mechanism is being called legitimisation.
    For the last 35 years now, the British (and to a slightly lesser extent the continental European) societies have been governed by an alliance of utterly corrupt élites. By which I don’t mean the certain degree of corruption that always comes with being in power, but the total corruption it means to repeating the promises of legitimisation without ever having the slightest intention to fulfill them. And it seems that after such a long time, people are starting to realize it in masses. In the so-called two-thirds society sociologists spoke of twenty years ago, one third is absolutely necessary to keep the mechanisms of wealth production going, while the position of the second third becomes increasingly insecure. The third third has already fallen out of the equation. The point is that such an economic model becomes more and more incompatible with universal suffrage (let alone with democracy). And indeed, the pundits of neoliberalism are nowhere defenders of democracy, they felt totally at ease with the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to establish their model.
    As the parliamentary mode of legitimisation seems to be more and more exhausted (unless a political movement was able to reverse the trend I described), the establishment of other models of legitimisation seems more and more attractive, and maybe easier to reach. The reason why it took over thirty years to reach this point is that the material basis for legitimisation at the beginning of the eighties was relatively good, therefore much more could be taken away from the majority than let’s say in the twenties or thirties of the last century, when people last started to flirt with fascism and the like.
    And now comes the second confidence trick: civilisation. It was the confidence trick historically of the left wing of the enlightenment, but more specifically of Labour and the social democratic parties of Europe. The strategy of somehow talking the élites into sharing some of their wealth with the rest of society in the interest of better legitimisation. This strategy has lost its rationale at least with the upcoming of the neoliberal ideology, because they try to replace legitimisation with market logic (intentionally to evade the need for legitimisation).
    Therefore, somebody will have to organize many good old class struggles in order to reconstruct a basis on which the representatives of the élites will even be interested in negotiating. So, it is not a good idea to self-restrict oneself to “civilized” methods of poliical discourse when there are things at stake like the NHS and other basics. While the luddites of today surely are not the ones being able to lead a struggle, you certainly won’t be able to organize one without articulating their frustration and anger. So for us (you and me, in this case 😉 ) in the second third, the existential question is once again whether we stay in the orbit of the élite in the name of civilization (which the élites always have regarded as their private property), or whether we start a compromise again with the third third in order to defend civilisation as a right for all members of society. Which there is, contrary to the mumblings of the rotten baroness Thatcher.

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