Brexit, Literature, Politics

How Dostoevsky helps make sense of the Brexit & Trump backlash

The Russian literary heavyweight’s message to the Left: the smug championing of rational thought simply won’t work

In 1863 Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote a book called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ It advocates rational egoism – a theory outlining how a utopian society could be created if only people made rational decisions about how to advance and converge their individual happiness with that of the local community’s. It went on to influence Lenin’s socialist vision of Russia.

notes wikipedia
“What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”   Pic – Wikipedia

This broadly describes a liberal outlook of society and institutionalised political correctness is a by-product of this; express yourself freely but be sensitive to the wider community in your choice of language. Whilst this may seem like a sensible idea to many – including comedian Stewart Lee – Dostoevsky would have anticipated the backlash. In Notes from the Underground, whilst he doesn’t explicitly mention political correctness, he mocks Chernyshevsky vision of a socialist utopia, stating that ‘choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason’ and that Chernyshevsky’s smug championing of reason will only lead to rebellion. It’s human nature. After all, ‘what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice[?]’

A rebellion against political correctness and the mainstream media is often cited as a core force behind the rise of Trump and Brexit. Under the finger-wagging of political correctness people feel like they are being attacked and unjustifiably labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist in the process. The winning campaigns tapped into this narrative with devastating efficiency. Trump has repeatedly attacked political correctness and the mainstream media, we apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, whilst Michael Gove’s statement that Britons are ‘sick of experts’ caught great traction for ‘Leave’ supporters before the EU referendum. People became sick of being told what to think and say, invigorating the growing wave of populism.

Notes from the Underground deals with a huge range of issues not covered by this article, but when pundits have struggled to find an adequate, rational answer for why people voted Leave, it’s hard not to see sense in what Dostoevsky says about human nature. Economists and business leaders said it was a bad idea. University graduates said it was a bad idea. The Prime Minister said it was a bad idea. But this all just contributed to the rebellion: ‘one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…however wild it may be…what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.’

Feature pic: Flickr


Why democracy is overrated

Should the public be trusted on Brexit? Should inexperienced ministers be in charge of education, economics, immigration and welfare?

On the 23rd January 2013, David Cameron promised an in/out referendum on membership of the EU. It’s a sentiment you would never hear a politician (publicly) express and it initially appears undemocratic, perhaps even faintly fascist, but when are we going to start accepting that experts and academics are in a better position to make certain decisions than the general public?

The ministers who end up in charge of immigration, welfare, education and the European Union are inevitably individuals who are in no position to introduce an informed, pragmatic system that will benefit the country; they are weighed down by pressure from backbenchers, the media and the electorate and – in the vast majority of cases – lack any kind of relevant experience in the field. Furthermore, these are the people who drive the national rhetoric and shape public opinion. It therefore came as no surprise to me to learn that the general public hold drastically inaccurate misconceptions about crime, benefit fraud and immigration.

Despite an abundance of published research, pro-immigration arguments underlining the economic benefits of immigration were almost non-existent in the election campaigns. Why? Because when a voter in a marginal seat expresses his annoyance at hearing a group of foreigners not speaking English on the local bus, a rebuttal about the futile nature of this complaint followed by references to the positive effects of immigration is a sure fast way of losing their vote. Why do our leaders keep up this pretense that: a) the voter is always right; and b) politicians have the expertise to handle all of the country’s problems? Moreover, convincing people about such a sensitive, complex and emotionally charged issue takes time, patience and a willing listener. In a world of Twitter, soundbites and quick headlines, politicians will never have these luxuries. I would therefore like to see media outlets (like this one) giving more importance to those better placed than us to advise on immigration.

As education secretary, Michael Gove gained an infamous reputation for completely ignoring the advice of academics simply because they disagreed with his vision for a future curriculum. This petulancy would be just about acceptable if the only consequence was the alienation of millions of teachers and academics. The real victims however are the country’s next generation of young people who are being educated in a system that has never had the backing of education experts. The lack of respect for educational research in Britain is reflected in the slashing of research funding over the last five years. What social and economic benefits might we be missing out on by ignoring the advice of education experts?

By the end of 2016, the British people will have decided whether or not they should be part of the European Union. I find it hard to believe that Cameron – a man who has presided over austerity, welfare reform and privatisation without any consultation from the general public – genuinely feels that the British public are in the best position to make a decision of this magnitude. The fact that Cameron is willing to risk disrupting the longest period of peace and co-operation in Europe due to Conservative Euro-sceptics, speaks volumes about the contrived nature of modern politics. It’s a calculated move dressed in democratic robes. Call me a cynic, but I think that xenophobia, patriotism and scaremongering will play a bigger role in determining the referendum outcome than a reasoned, informed debate weighing up the pros and cons (just look at the negative campaigning during the Scottish referendum). If I’m right, then politicians clearly think that the public lack either the intelligence or desire to familiarise themselves with EU economics, law and politics. I am not an expert on any of the above and am therefore more than happy to let experts do what they do best when the stakes are this high.

It is nothing ground-braking to suggest that a combination of education and engagement is the way forward. This starts with teachers. Young people need learn to question everything they see and hear with a desire to seek truth surrounding complex national issues. Politicians need to stop using referendums as a political tool and need to value expert opinion over the whims of their cabinet. Let’s stop putting celebrities on panel shows and instead magnify the importance of experts. I’ve lost count of the number of times during a debate I’ve thought: “can someone well-informed just come on and tell us what the right answer is please?” More extreme views make better T.V. but it’s patronising to the general public. I no longer wish to hear two polarised views provided in the name of balance and entertainment. Because it’s the experts stood on the fence that probably have the best view.