Can the poor think?

Malcolm Bull

  • Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World by William Davies
    Cape, 272 pp, £16.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 78733 010 8

Thanks to the work of behavioural economists there is a lot of experimental evidence to show what many of us would have suspected anyway: that people are not the rational, utility-maximisers of neoclassical economics, but loss-averse sentimentalists who, faced with even the simplest cognitive problem, prefer dodgy short cuts to careful analysis. Behavioural economists generously characterised those susceptible to cognitive bias as ‘Humans’ as opposed to ‘Econs’, but it has recently been suggested that, while to some degree universal, such human failings are characteristic of certain categories of person. In particular, it isn’t clear that the poor can actually think straight. Studies of the consistency of revealed preferences show a significant correlation between wealth and high-quality decision-making. No matter, as the authors of an article entitled ‘Who is (more) rational?’, published in the American Economic Review in 2014, cheerfully conclude: ‘Decision-making ability, unlike preferences, may be justifiably manipulated.’ Just give the poor a bit of a nudge, and they’ll shape up.

That was then. And as we now know, the libertarian paternalism of the Cameron and Obama governments gave us Brexit and Trump instead. As William Davies observes in Nervous States, ‘democracies are being transformed by the power of feeling,’ and ‘nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear’ appear to be taking over the world. There has been endless speculation about the reasons for this, much of it focused on the cognitive failings of the electorate. And there may be cause for concern. The same study that discovered the poor were less rational than the rich also found that, by a significantly wider margin, the old were less rational than the young. Given that in most Western democracies the old constitute an increasing proportion of the electorate and vote more regularly (according to some estimates, 50 per cent of UK voters will be over 55 by 2025), such findings are potentially of political as well as economic significance.

They suggest that if there were wedge issues on which the old and the poor could be aligned, it might be possible to form a substantial electoral bloc that did not consistently pursue its own economic interests. As Thomas Frank noted fifteen years ago in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, such issues have been the Holy Grail of conservative politics for some time. None of the things the culture wars were fought over stuck, until immigration finally did the trick, neatly combining the desire for cultural continuity with anxieties about labour-market competition, and dividing the working class along ethnic lines. Both Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote were primarily the work of affluent old people in coalition with poorer white voters. This is a novel coalition, especially in Britain, where wealthy south coast retirees have rarely if ever found themselves voting with the northern working class, and the alliance is an uneasy one.

As Davies sees it, the invisible glue that holds these pacts together is physical pain. A third or more of adults in the US and UK report that they are ‘often’ in pain. Most elderly people experience regular pain anyway, but so do the poor, since inequality makes people a lot sicker than they might otherwise be. People in pain don’t have good long or even medium-term judgment: they just want the pain to stop (hence the opioid epidemic). And if it doesn’t go away, they at least want to be able to make sense of it. An injury hurts less when sustained in a battle or a sports game than in a domestic accident, so identifying a common enemy may be as effective an analgesic as anything else. For Davies, the rise of contemporary nationalism is therefore ‘tightly bound up with problems such as physical pain, ageing, chronic illness and a sense of deep pointlessness’. Because the body in pain can be neither fully rational nor at peace, it simultaneously undermines the Cartesian divide between mind and body and the Hobbesian opposition between war and peace, and so threatens the very idea of a rationally chosen, scientifically governed society. Nervous voters make for nervous states.

What is to be done? How can the electoral power of the old and the poor be neutralised? Davies’s suggestion, that ‘it is not more intelligence that we need right now, but less speed and more care, both in our thinking and our feeling,’ only echoes the therapeutic mantras of the behavioural economists whose advice contributed to the problem. Surely some more robust solution is required. One response might be to restrict the franchise to those with superior decision-making abilities. For most of its history, after all, democracy has worked comfortably on the assumption that most of the population was in a state of minority, incapable, as one 18th-century worthy put it, ‘of judging properly for themselves … wherein their wellbeing consists’. That sentiment will certainly find adherents today. Maybe only the physically and mentally fit should have the right to vote? If that sounds drastic, a more appealing option, though one with similar effect, might be to lower the voting age to offset the growing electoral predominance of the decrepit and the pained. David Runciman recently floated the idea that six-year-olds might be given the vote, and it is easy to see how such arguments could be developed. Modern democracy likes to present itself as a superior form of risk management, but some people have a lot more risk to manage than others. Perhaps votes should be weighted according to life expectancy: children could start off with eighty votes each and then lose one with each passing year (subject, of course, to further adjustment for smoking and lack of exercise). This way there would at least be a clear correlation between the number of votes and the number of life-years affected by any decision.

Another possibility would involve interpreting votes according to both the identity of the voter and the extent of their knowledge, so allowing election results to express the will of the people as it would have been expressed if only they had known what it was they were doing. Everyone could still vote but expressed preferences would automatically be adjusted to take account of ignorance and cognitive bias. (Don’t mock: if you are a Remainer, you will probably already have employed this type of argument in post hoc interpretations of the Brexit referendum.) Jason Brennan, the American political theorist who has proposed this idea, calls it ‘epistocracy’ to distinguish it clearly from the less obviously appealing ‘aristocracy’, though in many ways it collapses the traditional role of an aristocratic second chamber into the electoral process. More straightforward is what Davies terms the ‘bravado rationalism’ of technocracy, which argues that ‘political institutions should celebrate the aloof, apolitical, unyielding nature of the rational expert’ and that ‘democracy comes second.’

But there’s a hitch. It has become clear that it is possible for experts to be completely wrong about matters of real importance: the presence of WMD in Iraq before the Second Gulf War; the stability of the world economy before the 2008 crash; the probability of Trump’s winning the US election. So why should they not also be wrong about climate change, the desirability of vaccination, and the consequences of Brexit? These aren’t unreasonable questions, and in recent years the easy availability of information on the internet, alongside the decline of the gatekeeping role of traditional media and group polarisation online, have encouraged the confident repudiation of the authority of experts in every sphere. One striking example of this is cited by Davies: ‘86 per cent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton expressed trust in the economic data produced by the federal government, compared to just 13 per cent of those who voted for Donald Trump.’

If that’s how it is going to be in the future, then Brennan’s epistocratic ideal is already out of date, because there’s no longer any agreement on the facts against which political knowledge can be tested. Perhaps the problem is not with the franchise but with democracy itself. Yet the irrationality of the electorate isn’t necessarily an issue for democratic politics, provided it is competently exploited. Governments should be able to build political capital indefinitely simply by satisfying voters’ intransitive preferences. For example, if most people prefer Leave to Remain, and a soft Brexit to no deal, and Remain to a soft Brexit, then a political party that facilitated a smooth transition between these preferences could stay in power for ever. It is easier in theory than in practice, but it has to be said that the Conservatives, who took the UK into Europe in the first place, then provided the opportunity to Leave, before negotiating a withdrawal agreement which most people would have rejected in favour of Remain, have very nearly managed to complete the circuit.

Democracies, like dictators, can be as mad as they want to be. But the irrationality of the electorate can become a problem if it collides with the rationality of the market. From the perspective of pure capitalism, democracy is superfluous since everyone’s preferences are already revealed by market choice, and the only possible function of democracy is to give those who left money on the table an unfair opportunity to grab it back. As Milton Friedman explained, in the market ‘each person gets what he pays for. There is a dollar-for-dollar relationship.’ Democracy just introduces a bias in that voters have an inbuilt incentive to form factions designed to bring economic rewards to themselves at no cost. And while the economically irrational never get their money back and find themselves squeezed out of the market, voters who make irrational decisions have an undiminished capacity to make bad decisions of equal consequence in the future.

One of the benefits of having a property qualification for the franchise was that, by restricting political choice to those with capital, it served as a rough and ready mechanism for aligning democratic decision-making with market choice. Without this we are left with the inherent contradiction of ‘democratic capitalism’, which, as Wolfgang Streeck has argued, is ‘a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation’. According to Streeck, beginning in the 1970s governments tried various methods to redress the politically unacceptable outcomes of market allocation: first the toleration of inflation, then public debt, and finally the deregulation of private credit that led to the crash of 2008, at which point democratic capitalism appeared to have run out of options, and some countries abandoned all pretence of democracy in favour of technocracy.

Since then, however, democratic capitalism appears to have reinvigorated itself through new and creative forms of populism, with political participation increasing, and the unprecedented emergence of new parties, unexpected leaders and surprising election results. Is this the labile revolt of feeling against technocratic austerity, as Davies suggests? Or does it represent a new chapter in the story of democratic capitalism itself, in which rather than acting in their own interests, or against everyone’s economic interests, irrational voters are acting both against their own economic interests and in favour of the interests of capital holders? Not just leaving money on the table but transferring it to someone who knows what to do with it? If you can get the old voting against state-subsidised healthcare, and the poor voting in favour of cuts to inheritance tax, then democratic capitalism really is workable after all.

At one time it was fashionable to use the term ‘false consciousness’ to explain this type of behaviour. But in an irony of intellectual history, Marxists were embracing rational choice theory at the very moment behavioural economics entered the scene, and so missed the opportunity to develop an account of false consciousness grounded not in the theory of ideology but in cognitive bias and heuristics. Yet it’s not so difficult to come up with an explanation for contemporary populism in terms of overconfidence, loss aversion and status quo preference, combined with an availability heuristic that attributes negative outcomes to visible local changes like immigration. Such an account does not have to assume a dominant ideology that everyone shares, or a common experience, such as physical pain, in which false consciousness is grounded. An assortment of economically irrational judgments, which may be combined into either pro or anti-systemic bundles, is enough.

Davies has reservations about the idea of false consciousness because in its traditional form it assumes a division between the economic and the cultural, rather than accepting that ‘the economy is cultural’ (as he has put it elsewhere), and that class and identity constitute each other. But although the idea of false consciousness seems to assume that there is something that someone is conscious of that is both false and contrary to their economic interests, it doesn’t have to work like that. Falsity may lie not in non-correspondence to the facts, but in imperfect rationality. On this hypothesis, false consciousness is just poor-quality decision-making, a series of false moves that happen to benefit other, more rational agents. As such, it isn’t necessarily characteristic of social groups so much as of particular individuals at specific moments in their lives.

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Davies’s account is full of acute observations, but there are several points at which the tools of Marxist analysis might have helped him out. One of the major themes of the book is the idea that the ‘weaponisation of everyday things’ has undermined any meaningful distinction between war and peace. When weaponised, an otherwise peaceful tool is seen ‘not in terms of its intended functions, but in terms of its full range of possible impacts’. Set up a social media account to share a few of your trivial thoughts with the world and you don’t expect to find yourself trolled towards suicide, but that can happen. And not just as a result of rogue operators: by using emotional analytics, surveillance capitalism – through platforms such as Facebook – can ruthlessly exploit your every weakness. In a society ‘flooded by digital technology’, Davies argues, ‘it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict.’ It’s no wonder that ‘war of one kind or another feels almost inevitable today. In some respects, such as “cyberwar” … it is already underway.’

Davies suggests that we should ‘accept that we are all in a situation of quasi-war,’ but doesn’t make clear who he thinks is fighting whom. It sounds rather like a war of all against all, in which case how different is it from the situation Engels described in 1845 in The Condition of the Working Class in England? ‘In this country,’ he wrote,

social war is under full headway, everyone stands for himself, and fights for himself against all comers, and whether or not he shall injure all the others who are his declared foes, depends upon a cynical calculation as to what is most advantageous for himself. It no longer occurs to anyone to come to a peaceful understanding with his fellow-man; all differences are settled by threats, violence or in a law-court. In short, everyone sees in his neighbour an enemy to be got out of the way, or, at best, a tool to be used for his own advantage.

Updated to the age of social media, Engels could be describing the spiral of micro-aggression that Davies is talking about. It is unlikely, however, that the current quasi-war of all against all is going to shake down into the class war between bourgeoisie and proletariat that Engels envisaged. For one thing, the real proletariat is far, far away, working 12 hours a day assembling mobile phones in China. It is not their feelings that are transforming Western democracies. But workers are not the only people who lose out or get left behind in a capitalist economy. If anything, this appears to be a war between the more and the less rational, between the utility maximisers and the rest: Econs v. Humans.

This certainly reconfigures the idea of class war, but not in a way that is wholly unrecognisable. There is at least one analysis that resonates with Davies’s account. The manifesto of the Heidelberg Socialist Patients’ Collective, Turn Illness into a Weapon, was published in 1972 with a foreword by Sartre. The collective became notorious as a recruiting ground for the Red Army Faction, but it started out as a series of anti-psychiatry seminars with a sharp analysis of contemporary society that is, if anything, even more relevant today:

The individual in his rationality is determined by the rationality of capital which he encounters as a force of nature, which he experiences daily and which therefore must appear to him as rational through and through. His protest against this life-destroying force can therefore only be a protest of feeling or emotion. But since ‘reason’ rules, these emotional outbursts of the individual are rationalised and ‘disappear’ into stomach pains, gall stones, circulatory problems, kidney stones, cramps of all kinds, into impotence, head colds, toothaches, skin diseases, back aches, migraines, asthma, car and workplace accidents, depression, and so forth – or feelings mushroom in interpersonal relationships (emotional plague), in flat affects (‘serious’ people), in psychosis etc.

In this account it is not so much economic exploitation as illness that is ‘the common element among all those affected by the mechanisms of oppression’. But not, as Davies assumes, illness as the psychosomatic outcome of the experience of inequality, but rather illness defined by a ‘life that contradicts itself’ because it is both unable to adapt to the rationality of capital and prevented from manifesting that protest as anything other than a symptom.

The socialist patients saw themselves, in other words, as what behavioural economists call Humans. But rather than being treated, or excluded, or exploited, this cohort of the less rational thought they would take their humanness and use it to change the system so that utility maximisation no longer defined what it is to be rational. They sought to constitute themselves as a revolutionary subject ‘in the negation of the complete heteronomy of the isolated person through the collective self-realisation of the sick as a revolutionary class’. That may not be how most of those involved would put it today, but there is a sense in which Western electorates seem to be trying to form themselves into giant patients’ collectives, through which to reappropriate the human essence in a world run by and for Econs. It isn’t yet clear whether the result will be a socialist patients’ collective, or a series of national patients’ collectives, or a curious hybrid of the two.