This essay, on bullshit in contemporary politics, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 3 February 2019, under the headline ‘Bullshit, not lies, is the corrosive influence blighting our public life’.
‘Bullshit’, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt observed in a seminal essay on the subject, ‘is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.’ He wrote that in 2005. But he might have been watching recent episodes of This Week, BBC’s late-night politics show, presided over by Andrew Neil. Over the past two weeks, it’s thrown up two car-crash interviews that serve as textbook illustrations of Frankfurt’s thesis.
First, we had the rightwing writer James Delingpole waxing lyrical about a no-deal Brexit. If ever there were a case of someone talking without knowing what he was talking about, this was it. The simplest of questions reduced Delingpole, who clearly is as familiar with economics as Theresa May is with dancing, to incoherently mumbling: ‘I don’t know the answer.’ Michel Barnier could probably have made a better fist of arguing for Brexit.
Then, last week, we had the former London mayor Ken Livingstone eulogising Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and their glorious efforts for the Venezuelan people. If it hadn’t been for US sanctions, Livingstone suggested, Venezuela would still be a socialist utopia. ‘When were oil sanctions introduced?’ Neil asked. Livingstone couldn’t remember. ‘I’ll tell you’, offered Neil. ‘They were imposed this week.’ That couldn’t be true, Livingstone insisted, it wasn’t ‘what the Venezuelan ambassador told me‘. And so it went on.
Delingpole and Livingstone are marginal figures in politics. But bullshit has become, as Frankfurt put it, ‘one of the most salient features of our culture’. You can barely cross the political landscape today without stepping in the stuff.
After his televised debacle, Delingpole wrote an article for Breitbart (of which he is UK executive editor), in which he tried to excuse himself, saying he is ‘one of those chancers who prefers to… wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour and nuggets of vaguely relevant info’. It’s how Oxbridge graduates work, he suggested: ‘Their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’
Delingpole may be right. But while British politics has always been dominated by Oxbridge graduates, rarely has it seemed so bereft of intellectual heft.
It’s not that academics don’t inform political debate. From Anand Menon to Mary Beard and Matthew Goodwin, researchers publicly share their findings far more than previously they did and they engage in debate. Yet there remains an abiding shallowness to politics.
Many locate the problem in Michael Gove’s infamous comment that people ‘have had enough of experts’. Gove’s phrase caught the zeitgeist because so many have become fed up with technocratic politics that appears to reject values and ideals in favour of data and managerialism and to elevate a narrow stratum of experts while depriving ordinary people of a voice.
The phrase has, however, become divisive in a tellingly unhelpful way. On the one hand, it has allowed many to dismiss those who cleave to values that liberal technocrats don’t understand as being driven by ignorance or a refusal to face the facts.
On the other hand, it has become an alibi for those who do dismiss facts in favour of prejudices. I took part, not long ago, in a debate about immigration. In response to the claim that freedom of movement from the EU had raised unemployment and reduced wages, I pointed out the research that suggested otherwise. ‘I don’t need experts telling me what the impact of immigration is,’ responded one of the other panellists. ‘It’s obvious.’
‘It’s obvious, so I know I’m right and neither fact nor reasoning matters’ is a sentiment that’s become increasingly pervasive. It’s the Twitterfication of politics.
The fact that Delingpole and Livingstone were publicly rinsed might suggest the limits to bullshit, and the importance of the media in calling it out. They were, however, easy targets, whose humiliation provided cheap entertainment. Media that care more about spectacle than clarity only encourage the culture of bullshit.
We live in an age obsessed by fake news and politicians’ lies. These are issues important to tackle. We should not ignore, however, the more insidious culture of bullshit.
A liar, observed Frankfurt, knows what the truth is and wants to conceal it. To that extent, he is ‘respectful of it’. A bullshitter, on the other hand, does not care what is true or false. That’s why, Frankfurt suggested, bullshitting, even more than lying, is what is truly corrosive of politics, of society and of truth.
The image is from the film on no-deal Brexit that James Delingpole made for This Week.
One recent example (on Twitter itself): Daniel Kawczynski MP saying that the UK did not benefit from the Marshall Plan when in reality it was the biggest beneficiary. Bullshit, I assume, rather thanconscious lying.
Its an excellent article, about probably the number one issue regarding the quality of public debate in the UK, but you choose a terrible example regarding the impact of immigration on wages.
All economics courses teach that if there is an increase in the supply of labour, without there being an equivalent increase in the supply of capital ( factories, offices etc) that will result in a reduction in the real wage. It has been received wisdom since Adam Smith and tested many times. However, it may be some economist can take a specific data set and claim that the data shows some particular additional labour has not coincided with reduced wages – but the likelihood is that this data is skewed, and does not allow for other factors. To argue that increasing the supply of labour does not depress wages really does defy common sense and economic theory. In fact what you were probably witnessing is someone using an economic study IN ORDER TO BULLSHIT. Academics engage in bullshitting, just like everybody else.
I’m afraid you are relying on two false assumptions: that there is a fixed number of jobs (and so an increased labour supply would reduce jobs available and wages) – the so-called ‘lump of labour fallacy’ – and that migrants are direct competitors for a fixed number of jobs. But neither is often true. Immigration can help create new jobs – because migrants consume goods and services, because migrant labour allows employers to increase production, because migrants often fill jobs that may not otherwise remain vacant, and so help expand the economy, and because they often directly create jobs themselves – and raise wages of native workers. Whether or not it does is an empirical question, and empirically most studies have shown that EU migration has had little impact on either jobs or wages of native-born workers. There is some evidence of a distributional effect – that those at the bottom may lose out even if average wages rise. However, this effect is very small – the economist whose work is often cited by those claim that migration reduces wages has in fact described the impact as ‘infinitesimally small’ – and overridden by other positive effects, such as fiscal and productivity gains.
The same ‘lump of labour’ arguments were used in opposition to women joining the workforce and have been shown to be untrue with respect to older workers, too.
I’ve never understood this properly, but couldn’t we have just as high a standard of living with a smaller population? Bigger populations create larger demand and higher GDP, but also need a lot of infrastructure building and altering of existing towns and cities. On a small island like Britain, too many people can cause congestion as we all try to get about on the overburdened transport and road infrastructure. And you can’t make the National Parks and south coast beaches any less crowded when everyone tries to get to them on summer bank holidays.
The story goes that we needed immigration after World War Two, but during the same period we were encouraging emigration out of Britain to Australia and Canada. Sending thousands of children away and offering ten pound fares to Australia. Plus a couple of million soldiers were also coming back into work after being released from the army. Also there was the posibility of women continuing in the workforce as they had been doing.
So I have sometime wondered if the story about needing and asking for so much Commonwealth immigration, is another one of those BS stories. It possibly is I think.
The issue I was addressing was not the question of whether one can have ‘as high a standard of living with a smaller population’ but the claim that immigration necessarily lowered wages. The evidence, as I showed, suggests otherwise. As for the population being too large, it’s an argument that’s been made since Malthus (when, at the time of his birth, the population of Britain was round 8 million). The Mathusians have yet to prove themselves right.
isnt there a difference between overall immigration and EU ( free movement ) immigration ? I often see these 2 things mixed up in conversation. But they are different aren’t they ? Not just regarding the numbers involved but also the cultural mindset of many migrants from non EU countries.
I’m not sure that the ‘cultural mindset’ of, say, a French RN voter or an Italian Lega supporter is preferable to that of a Syrian or an Afghan who believes in democracy and quality. One should not confuse peoples and values.
No one who cares about the health of our democracies would take issue with your objections to ”the insidious culture of bullshit.” Nor would they dispute the fact that the media ”care more about spectacle than clarity.” Bullshit and spectacle have always been features of societies on the brink of decline. The last few decades of the British Empire are a case in point. That the last days of the United Kingdom should resemble the last days of Empire ought to surprise no one with an eye for historical irony. What did Marx say? History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. That is certainly true of Brexit, just as it was true of Imperialism and its mirror twin – Socialism.
But on one point, Kenan, I think you’re mistaken, although I don’t have the research to contradict you, only the experience. That experience may not be extensive or broadbased enough to disprove what your research says about the free movement of people from the EU to the UK – that it doesn’t raise unemployment or reduce wages – but it shouldn’t be dismissed as nonsensical either.
As I said in another, considerably longer, comment about this subject some time ago, it’s been my experience – as an unskilled manual labourer on Irish building sites and as a trade union shop-steward – that the free movement of people from the EU into Ireland during the boom very definitely DID lead to lower wages and unemployment, particularly for immigrants. The first wave of immigrants enjoyed excellent pay and conditions, comparable in every respect to the pay and conditions of the native population. But with each successive wave of immigration thereafter, the wages of immigrants fell, and fell dramatically, primarily because compliance with the law was not enforced by the Irish government. Second wave immigrants undercut the wages of first wave immigrants, and in many respects forced them out of their jobs, or forced them to accept lower wages and fewer benefits. Before long many Romanians, Bosnians, Poles and Lithuanians were working on Irish building sites for rates as low as one and two euros an hour. Since nothing meaningful was done to stop the racket, employment agencies providing foreign labour to the construction industry won more and more new contracts, which led to fewer and fewer new ‘native’ workers being employed as the industry expanded with the boom. From conversations with other shop-stewards, this practice was endemic not only throughout Ireland, but throughout the UK as well.
The question is, Kenan – Why does the research you cite contradict the experiences of unbiased eye-witnesses? As I said above – personal experience, no matter how apparently extensive, may be nowhere near broad enough to accurately reflect the realities within a huge nationwide industry. That said, it’s my suspicion that the research you cite is inaccurate, due to poor methodology, biased research analysis, or both. And I say that as a committed supporter of both the EU and immigration.
I wonder what we can do – for the sake of ‘clarity’ – to allay my suspicion, and test your data. Because one of us is definitely wrong, and I’d like it very much to be me. However, even if it wasn’t me, that would be no reason to try to end immigration or curtail it in any way. It would simply mean that more would need to be done to police employment within the construction industry. The bullshit that goes on there is at least as insidious as the bullshit within British media.
I’m sure your experiences are important and I certainly wouldn’t ‘dismiss them as nonsensical’. But, equally, there are others with different experiences and anecdotes, who would talk of migrants helping to revive areas, provide new jobs, and bolster wages. Those should not be dismissed as nonsensical either. And that’s the problem: experiences and anecdotes may be valid in themselves but may also contradict each other. What studies do, in essence, is to collate many different experiences and anecdotes and try to provide them with an objective framework. That means inevitably that the conclusions of studies will appear to contradict to many experiences. That’s neither because those experiences are invalid, nor because the studies are dodgy (though, of course, they may be – that’s a different issue) but because individual experiences only reveal part of the picture.
It may be that the research is inaccurate or biased or uses poor methodology, but that has to be shown. And, as far as I know, no one has questioned the accuracy, objectivity or methodology.
None of this means, by the way, that employers may not try to use migrants to keep wages down. But the impact of immigration has not been to reduce wages or push up unemployment. Both can be true. It’s also true that the best defence against employers are not anti-immigration campaigns but organizing with migrants against attempts to lower wages or standards. That’s why unions such as the IWGB, formed initially by migrant workers, but now key to defending all low-wage workers especially within the gig economy, are so important.
Finally, it’s worth adding that it’s because personal experiences are so important that facts and figures by themselves will not win arguments. But it does not mean that facts and figures are not important, nor that mistaken perceptions should not be challenged.
I need a few more days to think about your reply, Kenan, so I hope you don’t close this discussion any time soon. It hardly needs to be said that the matters you raise here are important.
The comments close automatically after 10 days. Even now I don’t have the time to respond to all comments. Were I to keep comments permanently open (as I used to) there would be a continual flow of comments on all posts, new and old; I would either have to ignore virtually all of them, or spend so much time responding to them that I wouldn’t be able to write anything new for people to comment upon.
One of the central battles that is taking place in the world is the battle between beauty and vulgarity. Dostoevsky said that only beauty would save the world. I agree, but for beauty to save the world it must ultimately find dominance within the political, social, economic and religious spheres. Beauty allows for the expression of subtlety and nuance, whereas both these qualities are the enemy of vulgarity. Because he draws attention to important and subtle distinctions, I find Kenan Malik’s writings always worthy of giving serious attention..