I’m about halfway through writing the draft of an article that will appear at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. It’s a reply to one of the many pieces analyzing the different aspects of Brexit that SERRC co-founder Steve Fuller has published and posted over the last few weeks.
Primarily, it’s a response to his most philosophical article in the bunch: his argument that the best theoretical system to make sense of the Brexit phenomenon is Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of politics as the circulation of elites. I pitched it to Steve and Jim Collier the other co-founder and chief editor, as a Negri-inspired response to his proposition.
At heart, there's a positive argument behind my critique. I don’t write critical essays unless there’s a really strong alternative way of thinking about the same event or idea. I never present it as an either/or. I’d never argue that Fuller is wrong about this, because I think he’s exactly right.
|Steve Fuller in his video "What Is Brexit?"|
But in terms of what we can learn philosophically, epistemologically, and politically from Brexit, Steve’s insights aren’t comprehensive of all that we can learn about it. When I bounce my own thoughts off his, the illumination makes them more clear.
That – to me at least – has always been my preferred kind of criticism. In academic philosophy, we were socialized largely to argue against as a form of critique. Disprove. Attack. Tear down. Not my style.*
* ‘Then what were you doing studying and working in philosophy for so long?’ you might ask. It interested me because even though a lot of the journal articles being written and submitted were of that style, the primary texts that were the discipline’s real heritage were largely written in my style. Why join a field if you don’t aspire to the same greatness as its greats?
So what's the lesson I want to take away from Brexit, given the launchpad Fuller’s ideas gave me? My essay is going to explore the epistemic requirements of increasing democracy.
It begins with my own take on stage setting, describing in my blog-honed tone of intelligent contempt the political movements and jockeying that resulted in Brexit. At the same time, I also give my major takeaways from Fuller’s Pareto-inspired analysis.
Then my interpretation of the rhetoric surrounding the referendum. My most important result is the paradox of considering the Brexit vote morally and politically binding when the UK’s constitution itself – parliamentary sovereignty – fences the referendum into a strictly advisory capacity.
The reason for this moral/political power is that a referendum is a more democratic state activity than parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that parliament can be sovereign above citizens or residents causes weird paradoxes with democratic ideals. Antonio Negri demonstrates in Multitude that parliamentary representation isn’t really an expression of the general will.
|I very much hope David Cameron doesn't leave behind|
a political dynasty. Still, if he did, you could only go up
from his achievements.
Instead, it creates a government of elites that churns more quickly than it used to. The elites now aren’t hereditary aristocrats, but political party operatives and candidates. And you still see the return of hereditary norms. Being Canadian, I’m no stranger to political dynasties of all stripes.
Rousseau’s idea falls flat on its face once you put it into material practice. In actual parliaments – not just our imaginary and ideal ones – representation builds a barrier between people and their representative. Many layers of institutional mediation.
A referendum doesn’t have that same distance because it’s a direct expression of the will of a people. There are two problems with this. One is temporal, which is that any vote is the expression of a population’s political tendency at the precise time of the vote.
The most important is epistemic. A referendum is political campaign, subject to the same manipulations of public knowledge and the cultural imaginary as any election. And a referendum like Brexit with such high stakes meant that the side with the most desperate, committed partisans were willing to do absolutely anything to win.
That was the Leave campaign, by the way. It was the reason for all the lies about the true nature of EU regulation, single market access, and the mass mobilization of open, aggressive racism.
Instead of informing and dialoguing with your public on a matter of immense importance, the sides of a referendum campaign have an incentive to become lying demagogues. An ostensibly (or ideally) more democratic route becomes even more corrupted than the creation of a parliamentary elite.
With referendums open to such terrible flaws, is there any democratic alternative for momentous, national-scale decision making? We don’t have one ready to pull out, fully formed, at a moment’s notice. But we can think of one. And I think I have a pretty good idea.
The full potential of political and community organizing.