Chris Dillow – Two types of politics

The politics of those 0.000001% who studied PPE that is touted as the only politics in state and mainstream media, has nothing to do with how most of us experience politics.

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


There’s an under-appreciated division in politics. It’s expressed in this tweet from the Sleaford Mods:

Don’t be asking me to pick sides for something I ain’t got any real idea about, at a gig. I’m a singer. My job is music. The only real thing I know about War is that I’m sick and tired of premature death like we all are. Of the murder of anyone, under whatever fucking belief grid.

Now, the thing is that the Sleaford Mods are a political band. So why are they loath to express a political opinion about Gaza?

It’s because their politics arise from lived experience, of struggling to get by in crap towns. (Jason Williamson comes from Grantham and is thus an expert on the latter). Such a politics can be contrasted to that which arises from abstract thought, be it academic reading or, more often and much worse, the media. All most of us know about Gaza is what we get from the latter, which gives us only a partial picture even with the best journalists. Hence the Sleaford Mods saying “I ain’t got any real idea about” the conflict*. They are channelling Charlie Munger’s wise words: “one skill is knowing the edge of your own competency.”

The diametric opposite of their attitude is that of the talking heads on poshcuntstalkshit shows who spout off on all subjects (or at least all of those deemed acceptable by pro-capitalist ideologues) and whose views are drearily predictable: if you know their opinion on, say, Israel you know their view on austerity, “wokeism”, Brexit etc**. The edge of their competency is a mystery to them.

We see the contrast between the two types of politics more broadly. The politics of lived experience arises from having bad jobs, stagnant wages, long waits for one’s court case or difficulties in seeing doctors. The politics of abstraction, on the other hand, is that of “stop the boats” or fretting about “wokesters”; very few people outside coastal towns have actual experience of being inconvenienced by migrants arriving in small boats, and even fewer have lived experience of being seriously incommoded by “wokesters”.

Of course, sometimes the same political position can arise from either. Hostility to trans people, for example, can be the result of being harassed in a changing room by a man in a dress or it might arise from theorizing about what it means to be a woman. And, of course, smarter people combine lived experience with theoretical learning.

Lived experience does not necessarily push one to the left. Much of Thatcher’s support in the 70s and 80s came from people having personal experience of being inconvenienced and harassed by striking workers, or from them profiting from having bought their council house cheaply. Yes, most of the press supported Thatcher, but many didn’t need to look at a newspaper to tell them to vote Tory; they only had to look at their bank balance.

Similarly, a good portion of support for Brexit – enough to tip the balance – wasn’t based on abstract arguments about the EU but upon the lived experience that things weren’t going well.

The outcome of the Brexit referendum took most of the political class by surprise. That was because much of that class was detached from individuals’ lived experience and better keyed into the chatter of talking heads. The rise of Corbynism was also a surprise for the same reason: journalists, politicians and “commentators” (the fact they are a thing at all is revealing) talked among themselves and under-appreciated the lived experience of young people with high debt, unaffordable housing and bullshit jobs.

Lived experience is not always articulated, or even articulable. It can take the form of what Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”, a gut feel that something is wrong. Just as successful entrepreneurs can have a hunch that a new product will sell well or investors an inarticulable sense that an asset is overvalued so too can voters have a feel that things aren’t right.

Which brings me to the problem with basing politics on lived experience alone. It generates only local and circumscribed expertise: people might be experts on the performance of their local GP surgery but not that of the NHS in general, or experts in how their own business is performing, but not the economy as a whole. And so on. And of course expertise in diagnosing a condition does not mean knowing the cure.

In principle, this needn’t be a problem. A sensible polity would aggregate fragmentary and sometimes inarticulated particular information into genuine knowledge in the way that Hayek supposed that a well-functioning market aggregated dispersed information. Technocrats – genuine technocrats not vacuous centrists – could then get to work on solving those problems.

But of course, we don’t have such a polity, which is why we have opinion polls and not fact polls. Part of the professional deformation of the political-media class is to overvalue the mere verbal fluency of people like themselves and undervalue the dispersed tacit knowledge and local expertise of outsiders. Worse still, that class exploits people’s anger at their lived experience of economic stagnation and failing public services and misdirects it into support for Brexit, hostility to migrants or antipathy to the sort of “elite” which comprises youngsters who can’t afford a house but not millionaire cabinet ministers or newspaper barons.

I’m not offering solutions here; there’s no point writing recipes when you don’t have a kitchen. I’m just pointing out what the distorted perception of many journalists and politicians doesn’t see – that there are ways of thinking about politics which are not heard in TV studios.

* You might reply that you don’t need especial expertise to know that bombing children or murdering teenagers at music festivals is wrong. True. This does not, however, help us solve the more difficult problem of how to stop it.

** It needn’t be so. One of my friends describes his politics as Thatcherite economics and Corbynite foreign policy. This might seem odd today, but it would have made perfect sense to, say, Richard Cobden.

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