I watched a bit of that Gogglebox a couple of days ago. When it’s not bland and pointless, it’s a uniquely horrible program, I think, whose USP seems to be to pander to the viewer’s prejudices under the cover of ‘reality’. The characters are selected, edited, and manage themselves so as to conform to our stereotypes, but not so egregiously that we notice and feel bad about it. It’s as negative as that awful airport ‘comedy’ that the Walliams and Lucas blacked up in, but with the insidious subtext that Gogglebox, unlike the airport douchebaggery, is true and representative. It’s not.
Anyway, on the episode I watched ten minutes of, they did a tiny little segment on the Europe referendum. One after another, each of the characters on the show said that they didn’t understand the issues and didn’t know how to vote. Fine, you might think – a democracy depends on voters being well-informed and switched on to the political process. How refreshing, you might think, to hear people acknowledge their own need to do more research on the issues before they make up their minds. And to an extent that’s true: it’s good to recognise that there’s more to a vote than the jerk of a knee.
But when you look at why people don’t feel informed something else comes through which troubles me. The only person in the segment (before I turned off) who wasn’t unsure of their ground – who felt qualified to engage – reeled off a dull and vague series of points about economic impact. It was recycled facts about jobs and trade and regulations and how these would impact on our economy. Nothing else. No-one else said anything. No-one said that they thought that the European project was a good or a bad thing. No-one spoke about history or the emotional connection we feel or don’t feel with the continent. No-one spoke about the cultural connections we do or don’t share with them proper Europeans, or about their own personal experiences. The only reason your man felt safe to air any political views because he was doing so in the sanctioned, ‘neutral’ language of facts about moneys.
And this is the problem: ever since Tony B.Liars [satire], ideology has been leaching from the political scene in this country, to the point where any attempt to make a political argument on non-technical grounds is simply unavailable to the vast majority of us. The characters who said “I don’t know enough about the issues”, meant “I haven’t been told about the economic impact”. And in meaning this, they and we are accepting and adopting a discourse which disempowers us from the political process. As laymen, any personal engagement we might have with the issue in other dimensions (ideological, historical, personal, emotional; whatever) is rendered unspeakable – we don’t feel we have the right to bring it up in the face of technical expertise. There aren’t words for us to stand up for our own understanding. Well, that’s not strictly true – there is one ideological argument against the economic mainstream for which words are readily available: that of the ukips and the fear of garlic, which thrives on the facebooks if not the mainstream media. And I don’t want to make that one.
The argument I want to make about Europe is that the moral case trumps the economic one. Each time I hear a Leave campaigner say that we’re paying in more to the EU than we’re getting out I want to respond: “Thats’ exactly the idea; we’re richer, we spread our wealth; it’s the right thing to do”. Just like I want to respond when I hear someone trot out the ‘fact’ that everyone should arrange their tax affairs so as to pay as little as possible. I like paying tax, even though I’m not in financially a great place at the moment, I don’t claim expenses back for tax purposes because it’s a dishonest thing to do. Morally. This may not be a rational (according to the game theory on which economics is based) thing to do, but it is morally the right thing.
But this argument does not appear in the world we find on gogglebox. It is not available to us. Before we can take a side, we feel we need to have been told the economic bedrock on which this opinion must finally be based. And as we succumb to such economic reductionism, the game theory principle at the heart of economics (self-interest) will become increasingly true in the world. Choosing in the referendum will consist in choosing which rational selfish choice is presented most convincingly to us. Neither side is interested in other modes of valuing or evaluating. And without an alternative we will become prisoners of a narrative which we have no control over, just like the gogglebox characters, meekly accepting the discourse of technical self-interested politics, unable to raise our own voices and beliefs against it.
Contrast this to the other political shenanigan occurring at the moment in the US: in the Republican primaries the whole debate is led by the uninformed layman, and anyone can say anything without any rigour or fact-checking. This is just as pernicious a position as our technicalised debate, as, freed from the need to make rational argument or pay heed to facts, shits like Trump and Rubio can rise to the surface. But the other pole is no better: on this side of the Atlantic we will not come to a better decision than the Republicans because our debate is too narrow – our language too constrained; our politics too fearful. I don’t want a Trump – we’ve got a Farrage after all – but neither do I want a world run by economists and all the murky interests which lie behind them. I want to be able to aim higher. I’m trying.
I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and it’s been getting worse. No new voices emerge on either side of the EU debate to challenge the centrality of money. Radical reform of education is pushed through on the basis of efficiency and practicality. And the budget is sold to us in the same terms. In response to your man Humpheys’ questions on Today yesterday, Gideon said “I know these promises I’m making will sound like big numbers or abstract concepts, but they’re vitally important issues”. His contempt for the voting population is clear: you the people are not qualified to understand economics any more, and politics is nothing but economics, so you can’t understand politics. You’re views are irrelevant. Your feelings and beliefs are irrelevant. You are irrelevant.