Brexit and the crisis of representation

I didn’t think Brexit would happen, nor did I want it to. This lack of any mental preparation and a genuinely dismissive attitude towards the possibility perhaps explains my sense of grief — actual grief! — that I woke with on the morning of 24 June (bolt upright at 5:30 am, as though in the aftermath of some spectral visitation) and that has been with me in various permutations ever since.

I keep thinking of a conversation, years ago, round the kitchen table, that had politely divided a group of friends. We were talking about books, authorial license, representation. The book in question was Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and the real question was: How can a white writer write on behalf of black people? How, with their privileged vantage point, could they possibly demonstrate the empathy required to tell a story that credibly captured their perspective?

In some significant way, I think that the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the low-grade queasiness that was felt around the dinner table speak to some broader social trends and in particular to what could be termed a crisis in representation.

Representation, to bring it down to its most basic, is to speak on someone else’s behalf — to (implicitly) take some idea and (explicitly) re-present it. It is a crucial concept in politics, art and communication. It is first of all, an abstraction — a thing that begins in the mind and that gains and loses in the translations that occur from to articulation to activation. In Western thought it goes back to Plato’s Cave and the notion of Platonic forms. It is inextricably linked to concepts such as truth, knowledge and power — the positions and views of the representer influencing that which is represented — and crucially how it is interpreted by others. It is also linked to process and infrastructure in that there is a practical side of bringing about a representation which also plays its part in interpretation.

Representation is therefore, highly problematic and always has been so. There has arguably never been a golden age of representation. Or perhaps more appropriately — an age in which there was a broad consensus across a defined constituency that they were being represented (political, economic and cultural terms) in appropriate terms.

In the political sphere there has never been a shortage of gripes across all manner of affiliations, from Churchill’s comments about the strictly relative virtues of the democratic system (i.e. it being the worst system of government apart from every other) and Marx’s comments that “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”

But today, representation is running scared. We are more dubious of the ability of others to stand in for us. About their ability to understand our context and to empathise with it, to convey our views with the subtlety, nuance or straight-up vitriol that is appropriate, to resist their own agendas from entering into the mix like rogue ingredients and changing the taste and consistency in some let’s order takeout way. We do not trust our representatives.

Ipsos Mori’s Veracity Index, published early in 2016 found that ‘politicians generally’ were bottom of the pile in terms of trust at 21%, followed by government ministers at 22%. Journalists (25%) follow, in a tie with estate agents, those perpetual bottom-feeders. Business Leaders round out the bottom five at 35%. All — bar estate agents — positions of leadership, accountable to the various constituencies who they represent.

Today’s situation may not be unique but it does have its own unique characteristics and drivers:

  1. Cronyism, corruption and coarseness in politics that is evident across the UK and around the world. From the duck houses and elephant lamps of the MP expenses scandal in Britain to the pork belly politics of the United States, representative politics has done a brisk trade in arrogant abuse of power.
  2. While the former can be dismissed (churlishly) as an in-built fact of political life, it has taken place against the backdrop of a greater sense of inequality, a rise in the Gini coefficient worldwide and the long march of austerity measures across the UK and other areas of Europe that have seen significant cutbacks to front line services. This has served mainly to accentuate the real and perceived class gap within societies, even those, as in Britain, where inequality has actually fallen in the past decade. All of this is in evidence in the analysis of Leave voters’ motivations. It is also in evidence at the rallies being held for Donald Trump.
  3. In the broader social and technological sphere, mistrust in representation is, I think, driven rather perversely by a growth in participation in many facets of life. Social media platforms give a voice and a role to play for millions of digitally connected members of the public. Companies are making a point of asking for increased input into their processes, inviting feedback, co-creation and co-design in larger numbers and in real-time. Companies, like Airbnb, Wikipedia and Uber are using platforms to give individuals the opportunity to play a leading role in the production and delivery of the products and services they deliver. While clearly there are significant problems in the way many of these platforms are organized, in the type of behaviours they allow through badly considered design, people feel they are participating in real-time. Quite clearly, social media platforms have also allowed individuals to express political views with varying degrees of subtly, insight and rage. Political institutions, by contrast, are fundamentally and almost by definition resistant to change. They are still based on a 4 or 5 year input model in which public participation is kept at a much lower level, subsidised by MP surgeries, lobbying and walk-abouts. While some political representatives are genuinely engaged, others are not and anyway, modes of engagement matter. Social media has given the disaffected and disconnected a place to shout but not be heard — to howl at the moon or offer gifts with no postage. Modes of expression and participation are out of step in the political sphere.
  4. A new form of identify politics has also made its impact. A number of different groups have struggled to gain recognition for themselves and the issues that they face in the community, as separate communities. LGBT, feminist, black activists have all engaged in high profile campaigns and grassroots activations in the past decade. However, many of these endeavours struggle with notions or representation. From #checkyourprivilege to the constant tribal sniping breakdowns within wider movements and the skepticism of activists at the notion of building broader coalitions. We privilege ‘authentic’ voices but keep narrowing our view on what constitutes authenticity, based on a whole constellation of different concerns. Incidentally I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the world of brands and large companies, there is a headlong drive towards the segmentation of one. Armed with all manners of data and communications technology and a belief in the value (economic value, principally) of customized services and products, all underpinned with a structural/cultural bias towards individualism, companies are trying to target, sell, market at the most granular level. And this, after all, has too often been the way that politics has treated its electorate — as a sea of numbers to be cut up, divided and multiplied to find the winning electoral strategy, rather than as a group of individuals to be engaged to create policy with broad support.
  5. Finally and relatedly, there has been a decline in the authority of mass narratives which are being eroded by a proliferation of disparate sources of information. These sources — journalistic, editorial, user-generated served across Twitter, Facebook and dedicated news sites where following, friending, and machine-learning algorithms that operate based on revealed presence determine what you are exposed to — are assembled and distributed in a way to reinforce pre-existing dispositions. Echo-chambers are the honeycomb of the internet, where worker bees establish sticky rooms of binding opinion (and, it should always be said, often based on the commercial requirements and objectives of the owners of the platform — you might even call it algorithmic representation — ‘your’ world represented back at you through the prism of software). Where smaller scale narratives conflict with broader narratives, the former tend to de-legitimise those narratives, regardless of the analytical quality of one side or the other and the rules of engagement make it broadly acceptable to rubbish apostates. We end up manufacturing our own, software-enabled consent on a community of interest basis (with a healthy nudge from commercial interests) and we open the door to the rejection of expertise, a priori, on the basis of affiliation rather than fact.

All of these elements are mutually re-enforcing, conspiring to debase stores of public trust further, engender cynicism about public pronouncements and make it more difficult to launch broader appeals. They also make people, especially those who feel short-changed, more open to G-ed up Charismatic leaders, who make appeals to emotion and are not penalized for their employment of post-fact narratives. This is not a new scenario: demagogue, which after all means rule of the mob, was coined in the 5th century BC.

Under these conditions, it’s easier to see how Leave could win an election. It was not really a vote for anything — which was partly to do with how it was framed and partly to do with the fact that Leave leaders were allowed to say nothing about what Leave would actually be and to get away with it. In reality, the vote was both a bonfire of grievances and an exercise in variegated fantasy, some of which had something to do with the EU, some of which did not. (Remain, on the other hand, mired in lived reality and seemingly unable to separate out how different parts of that reality could be accounted for by Europe — let alone to say much about a positive, EU future — was very much a vote for many somethings, few of them any good).

Once such furies are loosed and remain un-corralled we are left without much in the way of policy or progress, only the naked operation of power. And so we saw Boris (Berlusconi reads the classics), disemboweling the sacrificial scapegoat of Europe to ascend the steps of the Westminster temple, only to have the knife turned against him. And we have the Trump Campaign which puts a figure of outrage and comedy above a platform that serves as a kind of net to catch all of the resentments of the American people. It’s also the backdrop against which far right parties have been rising all over Europe.

There is a strong tendency — pronounced in volume and vitriol in the echo chambers of the web — to denounce those who are aligning themselves with these forces and to discount their grievances, even when everyone is getting a taste of where such posturing can lead. The problem is that such willful blindness only fertilizes these movements. Every time representatives fail to take account of these tensions, when they fail to care about them, they cede the initiative further to the fringes. In the process they make it more likely that divisions grow, weakening the prospects of legitimate representation further.

Democracy requires that people care, but not too much. Where the latter occurs, there is always someone ready to circumvent democracy and appeal to alternative forms of power. The ominous foretelling of John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”

So how to move forward while the world around us seemingly falls apart. How to reign in carnage, how to call back the falcon? The short answer is I don’t know, but it seems like it’s worth exploring

New forms of participation

It’s clear that representative government is failing in the UK. People are consulted every five years and then expected to let Westminster run its increasingly dysfunctional course.

Purely crowd-sourcing policy sometimes gets touted as does a pure democracy of the people, enabled by technology. The referendum result and the process around it will be enough for most people to recoil from that as an answer.

What is needed is the creation of legitimate spaces for more continual interaction with representatives and with diverse constituencies within existing communities. From experimenting with different forms of direct interaction — online and in person — to developing new ways of testing policy, we need to open up the process of building our democracy and public services.

Forget the focus grouped model of identifying the right targets. Community-design, participatory budgeting, launching time-limited policy pilots with specific targets, learning from other service providers can all help to create better policy and better outcomes for reduced costs, while also giving more opportunity to people to input into the process in a more direct fashion.

Creating more accountability in politics

Reforming the role that money plays in politics (especially in the United States) is absolutely fundamental here and should be an issue taken up by activist organisations of every stripe.

Accountability at the level of individual representatives is also fundamental though I find it difficult to light a way forward given the need for political compromise.

There are plenty of great tools out there that are being designed to hold representatives and governments to account. My Society, as one example, builds a range of tools to help individuals monitor voting behaviour of representatives, crowd-source information about those in the race and contact officials at every level of government without a name or email address. While promising, we need to make sense of how to use them in a way that allows for the facts of political cooperation and the negotiations involved, while also holding representatives accountable to the constituencies that elected them. After all, technology is no panacea, as demonstrated above and if platforms are built to be captured by those who shout loudest, they will not increase accountability, rather they will be coopted to do the bidding of new concentrations of power.

An implicit point here is around culture. The coarseness with which MPs and representatives are attacked, often without much (or sometimes any) focus on policy, nuance and context becomes the lubricant of downward spirals. This is not just the punter on twitter but also the interlocutor on television. As a friend said on reading an earlier draft of this essay: “you need a sea-change in how the mass media talks about MPs — from Nick Robinson and Humphreys on Today down to The Sun Says.”

Allowing the party system to change

The two party system is already in the process of eroding but intrenched interests provide a counter force of significant strength. As many have pointed out, first past the post in Britain makes it highly unlikely that an upstart party can mount a reasonable challenge and so those who want change put their faith in extra-parliamentary action and a shift to proportional representation.

There seems another (and possibly additional) way which is to relax party structures to the extent that they can better represent their constituencies by calling off the whip and accepting — even embracing — the turmoil that lives within and across parties. MPs also need to be better positioned to represent voters rather than kowtowing (or being intimidated by) party activists. Government and representation should not be an exercise in narrowing the views that one must accept and shout about.

Rehabilitating expertise

One version of the Brexit campaign takes place in a bowling alley. Where experts were arranged en masse by the Remain campaign only to be knocked down — strike after spare after strike — to the dismissive tune of “We’ve had enough of what experts have to say.”

A reappraisal is needed — but on all sides of this equation. Too often experts do stand aloof, white-coated, talking about the subjects of their enquiries, rather than listening to grievances, empathising across problems and inputting into solution development not just with rationally formed opinions but with an appreciation of context. Such practice is not just about pandering — it helps experts see things that they don’t often take account of; it helps them use their expertise in service of something rather than simply presiding over it.

Legitimising areas of consensus and moving beyond ideology

It seems like it’s been a long time since any representative tried to have a real conversation about the areas of consensus in national politics where we could all reasonably come together to agree on ambitions. Political in-fighting, lobbying and judicial activism in the case of the United States, conspires to muddy the waters. But it remains a fact that huge majorities in the UK believe that the NHS should be free at the point of access. And in the United States over 58% of the population would ban semi-automatic weapons and 85% would require background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm.

Too often we tend to make too much of the means rather than the ends in political arguments which fall back on public vs. private arguments that are often far more nuanced as a whole and which offer different strengths and weaknesses, when applied to different areas. Even Kenneth Arrow — Nobel Laureate, solver of the general equilibrium equation, staunch free marketeer — admits that the US health insurance model is inefficient and expensive.

At a time when reality is breaking through the fog of aimless blathering in politics in the form of economic consequence, deprivation, an overstretched health system, high levels of migration driven by exogenous factors including climate change and war, we need to have a real conversation about what our society should look like, what we should commit to as matters of principle and foundation and to take it seriously. These conversations are starting across the UK. Representatives need to be part of them and bring them up to the stage of government.

Providing for uncertainty

We live in a time of uncertainty and transition. We don’t know where we’re going but we know that the future is full of threat. The current system pits high profile winners against a mass of losers. A recent study from McKinsey found that over 50% of current jobs could be automated with existing technology.

The United States, despite its name in lights successes, is currently the least entrepreneurial country in the G8 because of the risks associated with starting a business (mainly healthcare). It also has the lowest social mobility.

Systems are rigged where they afford the wealthy the opportunity to experiment while keeping a restrictive hand on the rest — but watch as the hand grows weaker as the restricted feel they no longer have much to protect at all.

If we want democracy — and politics in general — to matter less, to ensure that capturing the prize is not a matter of life and death, we need to start experimenting with new forms of minimum provision. We should think seriously about universal income — learning from the Finnish experiment and launching our own here. A government issued wage could be a way to shelter people from the excesses of our current system, to reduce inequality, to allow more people to think more broadly about what they want to do and how they want to do it.

In the aftermath of Brexit, I have felt the world diminished, smaller, all Britons somehow pulled back from one another. No doubt this has been an experience heavily modulated by my own thinking but it has also been the one grown out of conversations with friends and colleagues and reportage which shows rudderless leaders wrangling while those who don’t measure up to some notions of what Leave entails, abused on the street.

The only way out of this, however — beyond the technical components of Stay, Stay-lite, Leave, Leave-lite — is to open up, to become generous, to sound out and collaborate, to develop collectively.

There are many other potential solutions, I’m sure. One, which the more anarchic-minded of you might be inclined to, is to dump representation altogether, or at least to take steps that are more revolutionary, that concentrate power more singularly in the individual.

I would resist such temptations. Revolutions consume their offspring and rarely is it the case that the originators stand as beneficiaries. And one of the key lessons of Brexit is to engage diverse populations in order to cultivate support for change — to tell stories that use a mix of tools to create consent. Representation exists, will always exist — better to find the right system to mitigate the possibilities of exploitation.

I go back to the kitchen table, talking about books. Authors who represent whole worlds, of which they are only one component part. Where we deny prima facie the right for people to represent others, we engage in a reductionism, the logical conclusion of which is the prohibition of anyone speaking beyond themselves. Where we denigrate empathy, where we take away the ability to speak on someone else’s behalf, we restrict art and all life. Criticise the bastards for not getting it right, by all means, but come with an offering too, a way of understanding and correcting, of opening up experience rather than shutting it down. Let’s get a few things right so we can fight vigorously for others. Let’s represent the values we want to alight the world.

This essay is has been updated. Many thanks to Paul Duffy and Laura Hamm for their input and to Peter Jenkinson and Shelagh Wright for sharing some more provocative post-Brexit thinking which has been very useful in shaping my views.