On Political Bullshit

This article first appeared in The Cambridge Globalist on September 6th 2015

One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. (Frankfurt, p. 1). So opens On Bullshit, a book by Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Within its pages, Frankfurt delineates a crucial distinction between lying and bullshitting. Liars, he suggests, construct their stories within the context governed by what they take to be truthful. To speak a lie is to knowingly pronounce a falsehood—to modify a state of affairs in such a way that it might come to occupy the place that had previously been occupied by the truth. In this sense, “the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values.” (p. 51). Bullshitting, on the other hand, does not concern itself with the veracity of the claims that are made; the context within bullshitting occurs is more properly a truth-neutral context. As Frankfurt puts it, “The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides… is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor conceal it.” (p. 56). The bullshitter, therefore, appeals to a general sense of the way the world is, or what Tyler Cowen has called “common sense morality”.

While the work was certainly written with the author’s tongue very much in his cheek, Frankfurt’s On Bullshit offers an interesting heuristic device for assessing salient aspects of our political culture. In a recent study, Jonathan Hopkin and Ben Rosamond have used Frankfurt’s distinction to explore the political phenomenon which they have subsequently labelled ‘austerity fetishism’.  Within the mise en scène of twenty-first century Britain, one particular narrative has appeared which has subsequently cemented itself within the political imagination of the country. According to this narrative, the Labour Party, through profligate spending, bequeathed the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition a financial nightmare in which a yawning deficit had opened out between public expenditure and government revenue. The outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, even left a memo on his departure informing his successors that there was no money left. It was this fiscal irresponsibility, so the story goes, that functioned as a proximate cause for the financial meltdown of 2008. In the end, then, the Coalition government was faced with little choice than to attempt to right the economic wrongs of their predecessors, resolving the deficit that they had had thrust upon them by implementing a programme of austerity designed to rebalance public finances.

There is only one problem with this narrative: it is largely untrue. Such an admission is hardly novel. As Colm Murphy has demonstrated in an earlier Globalist piece, a number of prominent economists have made it their business to expose the myth of ‘Labour’s recession’: Robert Skidelsky has summarily dismissed it in a few hundred words; Paul Krugman regularly wages war on it in his column in the New York Times; the Oxford University Professor of Economic Policy, Simon Wren-Lewis, continues to debunk it in his blog (there is even a book devoted to the economic doctrine of austerity by Mark Blyth in which he argues that implementation of austerity logics has always been accompanied historically by low growth and an extension of the gap between the rich and the poor, an account far removed from the sort of trajectory taken by the detractors of the last Labour government). What we see, then, in the contemporary narratives of our current economic situation is a fissure opening out between the group-think of hoi polloi in modern Britain and the academic estimations of the majority of the world’s economists.

On the face of it, the ontogenesis of this discrepancy between public perception and professional opinion seems improbable. In the past, the occlusion of the truth by political ideology was achieved by stifling any credible alternatives either through an abuse of power (one has only to think of the Stalinist Purges or the actions of the South African security forces during the Apartheid years) or through some kind of media involvement (as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky have argued in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media). How, then, have we reached a point where a political narrative can gain such traction over against an almost unity of openly-articulated scholarly consensus?

Hopkin and Rosamond suggest that this question is best answered by the application of Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshit. As such, the very expectation that the narrative about ‘Labour’s recession’ might be refuted by appeals to the truth miss the fact that bullshitting is not about truth at all. They write: “If the claim that Labour’s fiscal recklessness in office caused both the financial crisis and the deficit is understood as bullshit rather than a lie, then a straightforward attempt to fact-check the claim and provide necessary correctives could never have done the job for the party leadership in the election campaign.” In light of this, the post-election ruminations of Alan Johnson, in which he questioned why more wasn’t done by the Parliamentary Labour Party to refute the Conservative narrative about Labour’s fiscal record, is brought into a new sharpness. The point is not simply that more should have been done to refute the Tory narrative during the run up to the election—of course, more couldhave been done. Rather, the point is that the Labour Party completely missed the parameters of the political bullshit which governed the 2015 general election.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that a distinction did exist between the economic policies of the Conservatives and the Labour Party itself during the last election. Where the Tories’ approach to deficit reduction involved a rigorous tranche of spending cuts, the Labour Party argued that all that could result from this full-scale fiscal austerity was a lack of economic growth. In its place, however ineffectually they articulated it, they were offering a more targeted programme of cuts designed to overcome the deficit not primarily through a net reduction in expenditure but through a redistribution of government funds into so-called ‘productive spending initiatives’. This, it was argued, would both reduce the financial shortfall whilst, at the same time, promoting economic growth. However, as time went by and the Conservative austerity narrative became slowing ingrained within the political consciousness of the electorate, the Labour Party began to fixate upon Tory bullshit rather than its own, attempting to discredit the ‘myth of Labour overspending’ rather than promoting their own economic programme. But bullshit, as we have seen, is not motivated by any concern for truth-value, and so such attempts to discredit the Conservative narratives had very little effect. All that transpired was a lack of articulation by the Labour Party of its own economic message, which simply strengthened the Tories’ position.

As a result, Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit  offers a useful hermeneutic by which to read Labour’s response to the general election. Following the shock defeat in which a ‘minority government’ transpired as a ‘majority government’, the Labour Party has allowed the austerity lie to be assimilated within the cultural psyche of modern Britain. Adopting the semantic of ‘listening carefully to the electorate’ and the claim that ‘it is not enough to be in opposition, you must get elected’, the Party has taken up a position on the battleground of political bullshit upon which the Tories triumphed rather than attempting to engage them upon more favourable territory.

In many respects, such a development was inevitable. The helplessness that the Labour Party must have experienced in the face of a world pervaded by austerity bullshit is not difficult to comprehend. If the attempt to overcome the bullshit by triangulating it with the truth had failed catastrophically, then the alternative solution, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, acquires a certain level of attraction. The result is a Labour Party divided between those for whom austerity economics is not completely deleterious (not least, those within the PLP for whom election guarantees their livelihood) and those for whom it is (one has only to think of the Corbynmania which is sweeping through the Labour Party at present). ‘Tory-lite’ has become a reality precisely in the face of the general acceptance of the idea that you can have any government you like as long as it is located in the centre-of-an-already-quite-right-centre.

Yet by fixating upon the Tory bullshit and allowing the political narrative to swing rightwards, the Labour Party has presented itself with a problem. In assenting to the political territory of austerity fetishism, the Tories have been given the upper hand. For when it comes to austerity politics, nobody does it better than the Tories. By mutely accepting the austerity logics of Conservative economics without remainder, the Labour Party, despites its protestations that it is the ‘party of the working people’ is in danger of normalising an economic approach which is entirely dispassionate to the needs of the most vulnerable in society. This, however, presents a future Labour Party with an impossible double bind. For to offer a preferential option for the working classes ideologically while simultaneously squeezing them economically through welfare cuts and the implementation of policies which will increase the gap separating them from the wealthy would be for the Labour Party to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this instance, the Labour Party would find itself faced with two forms of death: a death at the hands of a culture of political bullshit which neutralises Labour’s appeal to the electorate, or a death by accommodation in which it sacrifices itself to the god of Tory bullshit itself.  Does the Party die alone in pain, clawing at the bedsheets as it gasps out its last breath ignored by the general populace? Or does it die in dignity in the assisted suicide clinic of austerity politics?

Were the story to end here, the result would be bleak for the Labour Party. However, there is a way out of this ideological conundrum. For as Simon Wren-Lewis has argued, the ‘austerity fetishism’ that the Tories have harnessed in their narratives of modern Britain may not be as innate as some within the PLP seem to think it is. He writes: “At first sight, deficit fetishism seems to be innate, because it appeals to the basic intuition of the household and the morality of good housekeeping. However households also borrow to invest (such as in a house), and most people understand that this is what firms also do. The reason why the bullshit involving paying back borrowing may have been particularly powerful over the last five years is that this is exactly what many households have also been doing.” In other words, political bullshit is not completely devoid of the truth, but is constructed in the face of a reality which will, in time, impinge upon it. Consequently, as Wren-Lewis goes on to suggest, a changing economic climate will inevitable throw up a different context against which the claims of political bullshit will come into new focus.

This recognition of the truth-contexts which play out behind the scenes of political bullshit offers a possible opportunity for Labour. As Wren-Lewis forecasts, within the context of the current economic climate in the UK, “[a]s individuals start to borrowing again (or at least stop running down their debt), perhaps they will become more tolerant of governments doing the same”. With the gradual increase in economic growth, slow as it has been under Osborne’s swingeing approach, what will result is a political reality within the UK that increases the attractiveness of the sorts of political bullshit that the Labour Party itself might want to spout. Increases in welfare spending, continuing to develop the National Health Service, a drive to nationalise public services, the narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor—all these will become progressively more appealing to the collective subjectivity of the electorate as they find themselves within a slowly changing world

It is precisely because of this truth-context which encroaches upon our political bullshitting that a warning has to be issued to the Labour Party. For by following after the Tory bullshit and allowing the populace to swallow that narrative whole, the Party will have nothing left to fight for when the political landscape in modern Britain changes and the electorate are themselves calling bullshit on Conservative austerity fetishism. In his concluding remarks, Wren-Lewis notes: “Many political parties on the centre left in Europe (such as the UK) currently seemed resigned to deficit fetishism remaining a powerful force that can sway elections. So, if you cannot beat them, join them (and never mind what is good macroeconomics). This assumption at the very least seems debatable.” For the Labour Party to survive, then, it must face up to the bullshit. This is not to say that it has to seek to dismantle the Tory narrative as much as it can; as we have seen, the attempts to triangulate bullshit with truth have failed them in the past. Rather it must remember how to bullshit on its own terms so that, when 2020 general election comes around, the people of Britain make the right decision and vote against austerity fetishism. As Frankfurt has shown, the pursuit of bullshit is not to be confused with the pursuit of truth. However, the truth will inevitably impinge upon our bullshitting so that, in the end, it will be shown to be the right bullshit or not.