Against Houyhnhnm Society! Orwell, Swift, Public Opinion and Disagreement

George Orwell had a problem with utopianism, and did not reserve his scorn for the idealists of his own era. One of my favourite of his essays is his excoriating 1946 analysis of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

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Swift’s remarkable work is fantastic adventure, an exercise in unreliable narration, and a work of satire. It spoke volumes about Swift’s own perspective on politics. The utopian component of the work is introduced with his descriptions of the imaginary ‘Houyhnhnm’ society – a civilisation of sentient horses, embedded in their natural context but plagued by the aggressive ‘Yahoos’, who turn out to be thuggish humans. In the book, the contrast between Houyhnhm and Yahoo society forces Gulliver to question his assumptions about the moral advantage of humans over nature.

Orwell, however, focuses upon the qualities that Swift identifies as being at the core of the Houyhnhm civilisation. They appear to be capable of achieving unanimous consensus on any question of importance. Orwell, always conscious of the diversity of legitimate human reasons and perspectives, saw the very definition of totalitarianism in the utopia that Swift offered up for veneration:

[P]ublic opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else. The Houyhnhnms, we are told, were unanimous on almost all subjects. The only question they ever discussed was how to deal with the Yahoos. Otherwise there was no room for disagreement among them, because the truth is always either self-evident, or else it is undiscoverable and unimportant. They had apparently no word for ‘opinion’ in their language, and in their conversations there was no ‘difference of sentiments’. They had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.

Orwell’s anti-rationalism is striking. It goes beyond simple acceptance of a kind of Rawlsian “fact of reasonable pluralism” – where “the diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away; it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy” – but also seems to chime with something like the Oakeshottian view that a belief in self-evident answers to all questions necessarily leads to a dangerous willingness to force conformity, to reject difference, and where “nothing is of value merely because it exists”:

Swift approves of this kind of thing because among his many gifts neither curiosity nor good-nature was included. Disagreement would always seem to him sheer perversity. ‘Reason,’ among the Houyhnhnms, he says, ‘is not a Point Problematical, as with us, where men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction; as it must needs do, where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by Passion and Interest.’ In other words, we know everything already, so why should dissident opinions be tolerated? The totalitarian Society of the Houyhnhnms, where there can be no freedom and no development, follows naturally from this.

Orwell is arguably being too harsh on Swift here, who comes across as firmly sceptical about rationalistic or utopian projects elsewhere in his works. It’s far from clear that Swift means for us to admire every aspect of Houyhnhnm society, but rather to draw his readers’ attention to the pathologies of his era – discrimination, racism and anthropocentrism. Orwell’s conclusion that Swift’s entire world-view “only just passes the test of sanity” therefore comes across as one blow too many.

But the critique that Orwell levels raises an important question for contemporary political theory: how many of us find something to long for when we read about the consensus-driven society of the Houyhnhnms – and how right are we to do so?

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A Crisis in British Democracy?

Prompted by an intriguing question from a colleague, I just found myself in the position of trying to set out, in one paragraph, the big overarching theme from all my lecturing and teaching on British politics. I kind of didn’t manage it, but I think that my failure may be an instructive one, and the theme I did draw out makes a certain amount of sense: contemporary democratic crisis.

Not-so-contemporary democratic crisis.

The paragraph I ended up writing speaks, I think, to the broader perspective that this blog is trying to pull together:

The unspoken overarching question … is “Is there a crisis in British democracy?”. To begin to answer this question, we have to draw upon a multitude of core trends from recent years: voter dealignment, sovereignty debates, regional nationalism, single-issue parties, electoral instability, political scepticism on the part of the public, conflict between formal and informal elements of the establishment (media vs. politicians = good example), the rise(?) of executive presidentialism, etc.

Each of these topics could form the basis for a blogpost (or journal article. Or book. Or book series) in their own right – and perhaps they will. But we might sketch out how each of these vaguely-drawn headings contribute to the sense of a broad crisis in British democracy.

Voter dealignment is a hugely important trend in contemporary politics, convincingly framed by David Denver and others. In the UK context, it incorporates the effects of the decline in class-motivated voting, a long-term pattern that was powerfully concretised by the New Labour project and its rejection of most of the ideals usually associated with a politicised working class. We are now, as a voting public, far more likely to be ‘floating voters’ than before, far less likely to maintain political and party memberships, and increasingly disinterested in emulating the voting tendencies of our parents. Economic social mobility may be rather stagnant, but political mobility remains alive and well among voters.

Our dealignment from the classic duopoly of British political culture contributes to several other trends. So-called ‘single issue’ parties are now successful enough to need to set out more broadly-framed governmental manifestos (often with mixed results), meaning that UKIP isn’t just interested in immigration reform and EU membership, but also needs to have a perspective on education and the NHS that is at least somewhat plausible. Combined with the rise of regional nationalist parties – primarily meaning the SNP, given the strangely dwindling fortunes of Plaid Cymru in Wales – voter dealignment clearly hasn’t simply resulted in more variation in party support, but in the awakening of the UK as a venue for a multitude of political perspectives and parties. This rise in ‘third’ parties is of crucial importance even in the face of the Liberal Democrats’ declining fortunes. With significant upticks in support for UKIP, the Green party, and the SNP, combined support for Labour and the Conservatives is at a historic low.

Of course, when we talk about the changing tendencies in party support, what we’re really trying to understand is the changes in voter behaviour more broadly.  Political scepticism and political apathy are powerful forces in our democratic landscape. Electoral turnout crashed significantly in the early-mid 1990s, and has only recovered a little bit since the end of the Blair years. While the importance and efficacy of voting is generally considered to be non-negotiable in most democratic contexts, there exist good reasons to doubt the meaningfulness of democratic participation in this country – and it’s telling that such scepticism seems, more and more, to be at the heart of our national debate, with various movements claiming (or being accused of embodying) an ‘anti-politics’ agenda. Various recent events have contributed to declining public confidence in the institutions of British democracy even as they form part of what many commentators perceive as being a generalised crisis in the support-base for established liberal democracies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the crisis in British democracy – if there is one – is surely reflected in the mounting tensions between the various core institutions and components of the establishment in this country. This is a democracy where the printed media claim to influence the outcome of elections even as their circulations decline and the political class seeks to introduce press regulations. The police are constantly at odds with political will at a personal and institutional level and the NHS is alternately revered and delivered to play as a viable political football.

This is a short list, and a badly incomplete one, but it gives some sense of the scale and rapidity of the trends that are reshaping British political reality. Now, more than ever, British politics is in need of a clearer understanding of its own democratic theory.

Political Ignorance and the British Public

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, considerably better final version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as On the Complex Relationship Between Political Ignorance and Democracy.

Public ignorance is a central consideration in my academic work, which encourages the idea that politics, at least in part, is best understood as throwing up considerable ‘knowledge problems’; problems that are pervasive at every level of participation and administration in contemporary democratic states. The justification of democracy must, if it is to have meaning, take the political ignorance of democratic citizens seriously.

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The media occasionally pick up on and discuss the depth and significance of the most obvious kind of political ignorance – that displayed by would-be voters. Naturally enough, these concerns can make for attention-grabbing headlines as our minds are concentrated by the rapid approach of a general election. The Independent‘s buzzfeed-imitating ‘i100’ site recently pointed out some recently-accumulated evidence:

46% of respondents were unaware that a general election is taking place this year

57% of respondents were unaware of what a general election is

59% of respondents could not name the current British Prime Minister

How trustworthy is this evidence? Well – not very trustworthy at all, methodologically. As i100 noted, the 1900-odd respondents were an unweighted sample, quizzed via email by a voucher codes website. We’re learning a lot about the political ignorance of the savings-savvy with a bit of time on their hands, perhaps, but should be wary of extrapolating such information into a generalised indictment of the state of public political knowledge.

But are these statistics outliers? Do they fail to correspond with existing (more sound) empirics on similar questions? Would an expert on public opinion be surprised by these findings?

Absolutely not. While most research around public ignorances arises from surveys conducted in the USA, there’s a growing body of work concerned specifically with the UK context as well, and the majority of such evidence confirms the realism of the statistics set out above.

For example, Denver & Hands have found that 77% of British 18-year-olds cannot reliably differentiate between the policy platforms of mainstream political parties. When the survey is limited to those who are students or former students in politics, this figure only improves to 50%.

More recently, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and KCL provided a widely-reported embarrassment of riches in this area, including:

  • the general belief that under-age pregnancies are  25x more common than they actually are
  • the over-estimation of the severity of benefit fraud by 24x
  • 29% of those surveyed thought that Jobseekers’ Allowance is more expensive to the taxpayer than pensions, when the latter costs about 15x more
  • The generalised belief that crime and violent crime rates were rising, when in fact they have been falling for decades
  • The systematic over-estimation of immigration rates

These findings are particularly interesting in that they seem to indicate a kind of pessimistic bias in British political ignorance. Is it possible that many of these areas imagine things to be worse than they actually are because of the media and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves? In a more balanced informational environment, would we cease to be wrong, or simply cease to be wrong in a systematically pessimistic way?

For now, we can at least say that there’s no need to turn to i100’s dodgy sources if we want to get a sense of the ‘knowledge problems’ at work in British democracy – but we needn’t dismiss those findings as unrealistic, either.

The next, fascinating challenge is to offer meaningful and relevant political theory in response to such evidence. Cynicism – or, at least, simplistic cynicism – need not be the only response available to us. Within the British context, the extent of public ignorance may even have the surprising effect of helping us to make peace with the various systemic and electoral features of our political establishment that make the public far less influential than they might imagine or prefer themselves to be. After all, what’s the value of a more responsive electoral system – of more democracy – if the wider citizenry is incapable of voting well?

My own research strikes a more positive note than this, and tries to offer a more encouraging justification of democracy. More on that in future posts.

Just as most empirical work on public ignorance comes from the USA, so too does most of the theoretical consideration of its implications. To those interested in reading a critical perspective on democracy due to the extent of political ignorance, I’d say that this (plentifully controversial) book by Ilya Somin is a really great starting point.