Politicians: emoting for England

Merrick wrote here yesterday in defence of the Citizen’s Basic Income. What I find interesting about the non-debate surrounding it is how a policy so close to the mainstream among polbloggers, could be so far from the shores of ordinary politics. Now, it’s easy to psychoanalyse the bloggers, to see what they see in the Basic Income. But why exactly is it ignored everywhere else?

The answer lies in what’s happened to our politics. The political class no longer acts on the basis of projected impact. They act to say something about themselves. Policy is replaced by narcissism. So, we stay in Iraq, not because we think we can win, but because it shows our enemies the kind of people we are. We scream about the War on Christmas, not because there is one, but because it’s a cipher for our thoughts about immigration. We fight a war on drugs, not because it’s winnable, but because it paints society’s disapproval of narcotic intoxication. We battle “benefit fraud”, not because it’s a sound strategy, but because we disapprove of people sitting on their arses all day at our expense. The fact that they are anyway, whatever policy we choose, and that it might be cheaper to leave them there than to chase them, is of little interest.

Of course, sensible people know that we’ve lost in Iraq. We’ll believe there’s a war on Christmas when we see an aisle-full of Winterval cards in Clinton’s. That drugs follow the iron laws of supply and demand. And that, for all the reasons Merrick mentions and plenty more too, a Citizen’s Income is a humane, efficient and maybe even possible way to proceed.

But no matter. The politics of Western capitalism is a politics of signals; the study of it nothing but semiotics. It’s easier to sell an incontinent emote than to get intelligent people to question what they know.

And on that note, I’m signing off for 2006. I have a three-week-old to cradle, and a three-year-old to chase round the house with a dancing Santa. From everyone here at The Sharpener, have a joyous and peaceful Winterval.

  1. Nice one – infinately depressing, but spot on!

    Starting January 2007, just count up the number of times the government spokesman on this, that or the other question of the day, uses the idiom ‘we will/must/must not do such and such because it will send out the right/wrong message. They couldn’t give a toss about taking reponsibility for the results of their legislative dihorea; all they are interested in is ‘sending out the right message’ every time an ‘issue’ arises. It appears that 21st century UK government has little to do with substance but rather is all about sending out coded signals

  2. Quinn said:

    Never mind pleasant dreams about an aisle-full of Winterval cards; do you know that try as I might I couldn’t even find one at my local Clinton’s, despite spending ages hunting high and low while haranguing the shop assistants about Christmas having lost its true sense of secular commercialism? It’s nothing short of a disgrace.

  3. G. Tingey said:

    Actually, “the War on Drugs” is winnable.

    We have either got to do:
    (1) Legalise the lot, and tax and control the drugs, and imprison anyone suppiying illegaly (no tax paid) or impure …
    (2) Declare a ral war on drugs – we are an island, and Japan does not have a drugs problem.
    Yes, there would be the odd gun-battle in the streets, and we’d lose about 2-500 customs men, plus a few innocent bystanders.
    So the bystanders relatives automatically get 100xannual income as a lump sum tax-free as compensation, and we jail or waste the dealers.

    I don’t care which, but one of thes approaches would work.

    What we are doing at present, does not work.

    But that’s my engineering traing – use something that works.

    Note I make NO moral judgement at all ast to which course to follow …..

  4. G. Tingey, the “war on drugs” as it’s currently recognised would not be “won” by legalisation. That’s kind of the point really.

    On your second point; do you mind telling me where you got the idea that “Japan does not have a drug problem”? The use of illegal amphetemines in Japan is rampant, with an annual rate of “15,000-25,000 arrests amongst an estimated 1-2 million users.” (source)

    It’s true there’s next to no smack in the country. But there is a widespread belief that the lack of heroin in Japan is the result of a tacit agreement between organised crime (the yakuza) and law enforcement. The yakuza control the speed supply with minimal interference. In return they prevent heroin distribution.

    Ecstasy is also widely consumed in Japan (and – based upon first-hand reports that I’ve heard – easily available), as is cannabis.

    I’m also really confused by your assertion that being “an island” should be hugely significant with regards to drug supply. Most speed around the world is manufactured in the nation it’s consumed in. Ecstasy too is increasingly “home made”, and the trend for home-grown cannabis is also on the up. The geography of the country in such cases is fairly irrelevant.

    It’s certainly true that both heroin and cocaine are imported (in most places), but if you somehow managed to prevent all imports, what makes you believe that drug users wouldn’t simply switch to a locally manufactured / grown alternative?

    Also, are you really sure that securing a large coastline, only a handful of kilometres from a continental landmass is much easier than securing a land border? It seems to me that a smuggler sailing to the UK from, say, France, towing a submerged barrel of cocaine (to be easily jettisoned should your ship be intercepted) wouldn’t be much easier to prevent than one driving across a border in a truck.

  5. Also the notion that we can control our borders is laughable. Even with a competent government the cost of doing so in today’s world is far too high to be worthwhile.

  6. Robert said:

    Regarding the original point about sending signs and “messages”, I think the recent policy announcement to recruit a panel of 100 ‘ordinary’ citizens to help with ministerial decsion-making is a perfect example of this. The government proposes this ridiculous policy in order to send a signal that they are listening. In fact, it betrays their lack of confidence, and ineptness in decision-making.

  7. gabor said:

    Robert’s comment (no 7) is spot on. I’ve been referring to Blair’s love of “empty gesture politics”, but this description sums it up perfectly.

  8. redpesto said:

    “We battle “benefit fraud”, not because it’s a sound strategy, but because we disapprove of people sitting on their arses all day at our expense.”

    It is a sound strategy, given that the money ought to go to those who need it and are eligible to receive it. Yet, as you indicate, that is not what the endless media campaigns (you know, the ones where those Mysteron rings capture dole cheats) are about. That’s just PR to keep the Hate Mail readers happy as they fiddle their tax returns. Labour learnt from the Tories that there were plenty of votes in kicking dolies, and will continue to do so even as they bang on about record employment levels.

  9. Freeborn said:

    I’m reminded by your piece here of a classic study by Christopher Lasch who in the Culture of Narcissism described the mindset which had permeated American culture,and the political class in particular,by the late 70s.Lasch decried the substitution of symbolically mediated events for immediate experience as the base on which Americans made judgements and decisions about the world.Especially at the level of government a pervasive air of unreality befuddled decision makers.As Lasch succinctly put it “when politicians and administrators have no other aim but to sell their leadership to the public,they deprive themselves of intellible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure.”

    The example of such befuddled decision making Lasch had in mind was, obviously:Vietnam,where because prestige and credibility had become the only measure of effectiveness,US policy could be conducted without any regard to the country’s strategic importance(or lack of it)or the political situation which obtained there.
    It was this narrow,narcissitic obsession with maintaining credibility which overrode such elementary principles of statecraft as the avoidance of excessive risks,assessment of the likelihood of success or failure,and calculation of the strategic and political consequences of defeat.

    Yes,Lasch was describing political leadership in an earlier period but wasn’t he prescient given the political leadership we’ve become familiar with on both sides of the Atlantic today!

    More ominously when beset by crises(largely of their own making, of course)executive power would assert its Presidential qualities,demonstrate its determination to rise to the occasion by
    running risks,testing its mettle,refusing to shrink from danger,resorting to bold and decisive action even when an occasion called for prudence and caution.

    So now we know where Bush’s surge came from!Whether the prudence and caution came from the Iraq Study Group readers will judge for themselves,but as you observed in your piece the culture of narcissism is still very much with us.


  10. Thanks for that. I’ve never heard of the Lasch book – but I’ll hunt it down right now. Nice one.