Monday 25 November 2013

Stupid Empiricism and the Conservative Party

The Crosbyisation of politics. A phrase that hardly rolls off the tongue and is, therefore, unlikely to remain a fixture of the British political lexicon for long. But what it describes is true enough. Between now and May 2015, everything conceivable will be hauled out from their dirty tricks box and thrown in Labour's path. So much for Dave's pledge to end Punch and Judy politics. Now, of course, I'm the last one likely to let the Tories off the hook. They do not have to bring politics down to the gutter level, there is always free choice. But their decision to go with a strategy that will smear, lie and traduce Labour and its allies in the broader labour and cooperative movements is heavily conditioned. There is no social force with its invisible hand up their collective arse, but the situation they find themselves in makes negative campaigning appear the attractive, if not most realistic option available to them.

Even the Man in the Moon knows the Tories are in deep trouble. Political parties as mass membership organisations corresponding to certain constituencies of interests have taken an almighty hit all across Western Europe. Labour is weathering this trouble but is more or less treading water. If it wants to secure its future, it needs to do something about it. But the Tories, well, they are beset by intractable problems. An ageing and dwindling activist base, a menacing pretender to its right, competing claims to its record, and policies starting to owe more to mercury-laced milkshakes than anything else; only a miracle or colossal stupidity on the part of their opponents can save them in 2015. The Tories are right to be anxious, and anxiety has a tendency to cause desperation.

If you open it up, you'll find nothing new cooking in the policy oven. Just a few neoliberal warm ups and burnt offerings from decades past. Privatise this, deregulate that, whip up some tiresome xenophobia and hold a suicidal referendum on the EU. It's so grey and dull, it makes John Major look colourful. Dave can't even be bothered to wrap his agenda up in a fluffy, cutesy but utterly vacuous big idea any more. The Tories are politically exhausted, a largely spent historical force about ready to topple into the grave. All it needs is a good shove and they could be out of power for a very long time indeed. Not all Tories know this, but deep down they feel it. If victory eludes them in 2015, it's curtains.

With nothing to offer, but a self-interested need to cling to power, lying and mud-slinging is all the Tories have left. Between now and election day, they will pull out all the stops. No mistake is too small. No opposition difficulty is too minor for them to cry foul and point the finger. Even if flinging crap, as they have been doing with the Paul Flowers/Co-Op Bank debacle, ends up leaving the Tories a bit whiffy.

It's going to be dirty, that much we know. There's absolutely nothing new in saying this. But why are the Tory troops so eager for such a fight. Reading Twitter feeds of apparent grassroots Tories these days is like a glimpse into group think, of a hive mind that makes your typical Borg Collective resemble a Randian utopia. Attack lines - uniformly negative, uniformly petty, uniformly attacking Labour on a sub-political level - fed by Tory Press HQ are faithfully repeated. It's a good job tweets are not in audio as the Tory mantras would sound like the shittest Gregorian chants ever. Yet there is something about the Tory mindset that is particularly amenable to this sort of behaviour.

'Empiricism' isn't a lefty swearword that gets much traction any more, but it should. Quick crash course in a few lines. Empiricism is the philosophical perspective, if it can be described as such, that holds knowledge is primarily or solely the result of sense impressions, or, of experience. Great if you're interested in experimentation by observation. Not so great if you're using theoretical models at a certain level of abstraction to describe social or natural phenomena. Sociology and Cosmology tends not to among empiricism's biggest fans, for obvious reasons. There are, of course, different permutations of empiricism. And its emphasis on philosophical scepticism is a handy corrective to those who get caught up in building abstract theoretical schemes to the detriment of analysing and explaining. Why it is handy here is that a species of the school applies to the outlook of diehard Tory activists and MPs. There is empiricism. And there is stupid empiricism.

Allow me to illustrate by way of example. A stupid empiricist values the evidence of their own senses, and nothing else. Wet summer and rough winter? Climate change doesn't exist. Half a million job vacancies? Why isn't unemployment 500,000 lower than the published figures. Bedroom tax a problem? No it isn't, I don't know anyone affected by it. And so it goes. Stupid empiricism is an absolute security blanket that denies nearly all knowledge and evidence that contradicts their worldview. It's egoism gone mad. The sovereignty of the individual taken to extremes. It therefore follows that everyone and everything else that doesn't not chime with stupid empiricism is wrong and likely to be an enemy of common sense, if not civilisation. Locked up in their philosophical bunker, certain in their own ignorant certitude, the substance of the arguments they fling at the Labour Party and anyone else they dub the enemy doesn't matter. They don't care about the Rev Paul Flanders and the Co-op. They don't care about what happened at Falkirk, except they make for handy grenades. The messy truth, the nuance of detail do not matter. It's about damaging a movement they know to be wrong. There is no point engaging with such people either. Stupid empiricism has inoculated them against reason, against the rules of evidence. They are the political equivalent of pod people.

Stupid empiricism is not the sole preserve of the unhinged Tory grassroots. It's reached all the way into the Cabinet. How else to explain their pursuit of policies that are self-evidently damaging, their mania for cuts that cost the public purse more in the medium-to-long-term? Yet more proof of their decadence.

Labour are absolutely right to not engage with this nonsense. Tying Labour up in irrelevant side-issues is part of the Tory strategy and distracts from offering positive alternatives. Labour has shown time and again it can lead the political agenda positively, as it has done with phone hacking, Syria, energy price freezes, and payday loans - to which George Osborne has caved just today. The best way to deal with the smears and lies is carry on pushing our own timetable, and leave the Tories to make themselves look even more unpalatable.


Anonymous said...

I went to school in the 1980's and the propaganda really hit home. I remember arguing in the 1980's about the USSR and the Tories would say things like, "They have a camera on every street corner, they open your letters" etc etc.

Now we see that capitalism uses cameras and spies on literally everyone. I think my Tory friends called that totalitarian back then, I guess they would call it security now.

Really, these guys can just make it up as they go along. We are held to account for every word we ever spoke.

Phil said...

Indeed. The Tories never let principle come before power, and they will tell barefaced lies to defend their privileges. Because, in a stunning act of cognitive gymnastics, they know what they say is untrue but deep down they believe it to be true.