head v heart

IS the Good Society compatible with the retreat of reason? In so far as the Good Society depends in part on the creation of a ‘truly democratic’ society then I think there is at the very least a tension.

The problem, as I see it, is that a truly democratic society depends on a sufficient number of people being critically engaged in the process. I think there is a problem here and a consequent danger of democracy being hijacked by vested interest – a situation that is, perhaps, already happening in the UK.

My concern is a perceived retreat of reason. Here I’m focussing on the conceptual notion of reason, and concede that even if it could be shown that conceptually reason has been under attack, it is still possible that the actual level of reasoning in society has remained static even as the concept has dwindled. Evidenced adduced in two recent books called Democracy for Realists  by Achen and Bartels and Against Democracy by Jason Brennan suggests that electorates as a whole are horribly ignorant and apathetic about politics and always have been. The big difference between the two books is that Democracy for Realists makes the claim that the better educated are just as likely to make bad decisions as the uneducated, which, if true would render Brennan’s epistocracy – or rule of the knowledgeable – as dodgy as the universal suffrage he derides.

However, I believe that the fluctuating fortunes of reason and emotion go to the heart of the human condition along with its material base and ability to transcend it. In this tug-of-war, particularly over the past 200 years or so, the idea of reason has been eroded by an increasing reliance on the importance of language or narrative. It is not what words mean any more but what we say they mean. Of course, I acknowledge that this also requires reasoning so I need to make another qualification by drawing a distinction between the kind of subjective reasoning that gained ascendancy in the post-modernist world and the kind of objective public reasoning that gained credence during the Enlightenment and has since been undermined. It is the difference between what Daniel Kahneman calls thinking fast and slow with the former being ‘fast, instinctive and emotional’ and the latter ‘slower, more deliberative, and more logical’. Or perhaps Thomas Nagel’s  distinction between the ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ points of view – Dionysius versus Apollo. It’s as though politics, despite its importance in all our lives, has been banished to the fast thinking, instinctive side of our brains.

Of course, the retreat of objective reason is not the only factor. It also comes at a time when the corporate world has gained enormous power over people’s thoughts, with the help of most of the media and compliant governments, and has pumped huge amounts of money into advertising and PR. But it is a happy chance for the masters of neoliberalism that the thinning of objective public reasoning has contributed to the evacuation of the public sphere by so many people, leaving a vacuum to be filled by immensely powerful corporate interests. It is much easier for them if they are largely confronted by passive subjective reasoning, the instinctive and emotional rather than our more deliberative aspect. This is not to say that there are not people who lead an active public life but they are increasingly being seen as isolated oddballs, or so it seems to me. This ties in with the idea of Marx’s dominant ideology which is designed to reflect and serve the interests of those who hold the ideology – in this case neoliberalism.

Indefinitely malleable? 

  Perhaps Noam Chomsky  puts it best: “If in fact man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structure of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for ‘shaping behaviour’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee.” Or, as Conor Gearty puts it: “Our democratic and legal processes are already in severe danger of being captured by the rich, while our public culture is increasingly filled with the noise of demonising rabble-rousers.”

And yet Gearty also reminds us of the Blaise Pascal observation that ‘the human being is just a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but it is a thinking reed…So our whole dignity consists in thought’. Gearty adds: “It is not enough to leave everything to sentiment…” And even if we are, as Nietzsche put it, just a ‘clever animal’ it does not follow that we are simply a conduit of emotion.

So, assuming that there has been a diminishment of objective public reason, that this endangers our democracy but that this is not an inevitable or inherent trait, what is to be done? I have to factor in the possibility, of course, that poor public reasoning may indeed be an inherent trait regardless of one’s academic achievements. As David Runciman wrote in The Guardian: “once knowledge becomes a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself. It appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it. At that point it ceases to be knowledge and simply becomes another mark of privilege.” Knowledge and education is no longer, if it ever was, a guarantor of objective reasoning, but simply a clever way of protecting privilege. In this sense education itself is embedded in the dominant ideology.

Wriggle room

And yet there may be a way of wriggling out of this depressing scenario. For even Brennan acknowledges that just the practice of voting increases knowledge, if only by a few percentage points. And if that is true, what would happen if we had a massive public information structure like the one they have in Germany?

I have to acknowledge at this point that the evidence suggests that good public reasoning is simply not part of the human condition. In which case the words ‘tilting’ and ‘windmills’ spring to mind.

But if there is some hope that good objective public reasoning does have a place in our society then, in my view, it has to include a deliberative element to it. What does this mean? Importantly, as John Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer  point out: “Threats, lies, abuse and command have no place.” So, what we saw in the dispiriting Euro referendum debate is the antithesis of deliberative democracy and a prime example of what can happen when reason is banished. Dryzek and Niemeyer argue that it should ‘allow pretty much any kind of communication that is non-coercive, capable of inducing reflection, strives to link personal points of viewpoints to larger principles, and tries to make sense to others who do not share the speaker’s framework.”

Another, perhaps more controversial suggestion, is that the introduction of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) should not be unconditional, as proposed by Compass, but should at least be conditional on people registering to vote and voting (with appropriate exemptions). I realise that this suggestion is in tension with the non-coercive aspect of deliberative democracy, but it is a small price to pay in exchange for the UBI and, combined with deliberative democracy and a large-scale and free public information and education programme, might help people to engage, reasonably, with the democratic process. After all, as Bruce Hamptti points out, rationality may not be the only option in the modern world but if people have problems they want to resolve and aims they want to achieve then they are more likely to resolve those problems and achieve their aims if they apply at least a degree of rationality. Which, he adds, is why we should be rational and endeavour to become more so.

May be I am tilting at windmills but I can’t help thinking that the neoliberal establishment is delighted by our passivity and unthinking approach to politics. None of this suggests that we should bleed politics of passion – indeed this article itself is a passionate plea for more objective public reasoning. I sometimes feel that Salisbury Compass represents the flickering light of the Enlightenment – as the philosopher Simon Critchley said it’s ‘very little…almost nothing’ but it’s still worth keeping the flame alight – I think!

Dickie Bellringer