“Democracy & the Decline of Reason” Transcript
Guest: Dr. William Davies
William Davies: 50 percent of Americans have had no increase in their real income since the late 1970s. So the credibility of some of the stories that liberalism tells about itself have been sort of gradually falling apart.
Michael Epstein: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty Teng: And I’m Betty Teng. And together, we are your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hey, Betty. How are you?
Betty: Michael, can I make another confession?
Michael: Another one? You did that last week.
Betty: I know, but this is my only space for doing this. I hear patients’ confessions all the time.
Michael: Sure. Go ahead.
Betty: I have Headline Stress Disorder.
Michael: You have what?
Betty: Headline Stress Disorder. The news upsets me.
Michael: Headline Stress Disorder.
Betty: Yeah. It’s something they coined, I think, in 2017.
Michael: Yeah. I don’t think–
Betty: It’s a phenomenon.
Michael: I don’t think you’re alone in this.
Betty: Well it’s very overwhelming and it’s all people want to talk about. My patients, my family, my friends. I can’t get away from it so I don’t know what to do.
Michael: So what do you do? You’re a shrink. You’re helping people with this Headline Stress Disorder. Other than running a podcast, or co-hosting a podcast, who do you turn to for help?
Betty: Well, I’m going to try something out today, and I’m going to turn to somebody who is here on the line with us, a political economist. I think these are the people that can help the psychoanalysts with their Headline Stress Disorder.
Michael: I like this. A political economist to the rescue.
Betty: And without further ado, I think we should introduce our guest, Dr. William Davies. He’s got a lot of insights to share and he’s fascinating. So welcome to Mind of State.
William: Thank you very much.
Betty: William is a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he teaches on topics of culture, economics, and government. Among other books and articles, he is the author of The Happiness Industry and Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason, which will be available here in the U.S. on February 26th and is a book The New York Times Book Review called “an interdisciplinary masterpiece”. Congratulations on the upcoming U.S. release, William.
William: Thank you.
Betty: William, interdisciplinary is what caught our ear about this comment from The New York Times Book Review. Although, of course, masterpiece is a hard word to miss. That’s a ear catcher. Because, of course, you are a political economist, yet with a book like Nervous States, with a title like Nervous States, we were clued into one of the angles that you take on politics, namely psychology or mind. The title of our podcast is Mind of State. So that puts us in the same boat as you, your nervous states. We are Mind of State. So I wanted to start by asking why this book title? What is a nervous state in your view and what compelled you to write about them?
William: Well, there’s a pun in the title, which is to say that states in a political sense are in a nervous condition at the moment. I think partly there is a deep uncertainty that runs through the constitutions and future of many Western liberal democracies at the moment that I think has been widely discussed in terms of what is the future of liberalism in Europe, North American, around the world. And I think there’s a kind of fear that peace itself is not quite as secure as we took for granted for much of the late 20th century. So that’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is that I think that a lot of the book is about what is happening to knowledge and expertise and truth in our society, a topic that’s been widely analyzed and discussed in the context of the Trump presidency and Brexit in my own country and so on. And what I really wanted to sort of try to understand or grapple with, I suppose, was the way in which our condition is not just about a declining respect for objective fact and truth and expertise, although I think that that is happening, but is that we are also becoming increasingly adapted to forms of real time reactivity. That, really, our forms of subjectivity, our form of self, that is emerging in the digital age is one that is acutely attuned to what is going on right now, which is a nervous state. It is, we have fantastic infrastructures that allow us to remain in very close contact with emerging trends, with real time developments, with the news of the last half an hour. And as we develop greater and greater capacity to react, to stay in touch in the real time, to be constantly monitoring change, which is what our nervous system itself is so brilliantly designed to do, our other types of cognitive and psychological and ethical capacities to reflect in a more kind of dispassionate, more critical, more distanced way on things seems under threat in certain ways.
Michael: So the idea that, you know, you have the news alerts on your phone, you can update your life, you can see someone’s update in real time. You live totally in the present tense. And that that does something in your mind, emotionally and psychologically to us.
Betty: And that there’s no time to reflect on other things, to take all this information in and have a deeper process about them to integrate them.
William: That’s right. And I think one of the things I try to do in the book is, which is very expansive in its scope, but I mean, we can all focus on the more obvious manifestations of how crazy our public sphere and our politics has gotten with Trump’s Twitter feed and that sort of thing. But I talk about some other ways in which our contemporary society is being refashioned in this way, such as in the financial sector, where many of the greatest profits do not go to those who are, sort of, making slow and informed analyses of changes in the real economy, but hedge funds or high frequency traders that are making huge amounts of money from anticipating very, very small but very, very rapid changes in prices and developing technologies or even things like experiments in things like brain supplements and this sort of thing to try and create an edge over one’s competitors so that the reaction to change is as quick and as decisive as possible. So in that sense, the areas where progress has been made in our society technologically, politically, culturally over recent decades, and Silicon Valley is, I suppose, the absolute pioneer of this, has been all about enhancing and supplementing our capacities to react and to anticipate and to detect change as it happens and our very idea of what it means to know the world and to–
Michael: and to live in it.
William: Yeah, to live in the world perhaps has actually not been enhanced by this.
Betty: Yeah. What you’re speaking to is some neuroscience, which is a state of reactivity, kind of, truncates our prefrontal cortex, because if we react in a very emotional way and we draw on our fear centers and our literal reflexes which come from the limbic brain. And so I wonder if all this progress points to a paradox where we are not actually using the most thoughtful and thought driven parts of our biology.
Michael: We’re constantly insomniacs who are just like always up for the all nighter.
Betty: Right. And driven by this news cycle. But how does that point to how people are fearing what’s going on? We’re in this sort of fear state, reactive state, and our politics and our policies and our economics are being driven by this cycle. What prompted you to sort of take nervous states and expand it into a book? What were you seeing?
William: Well, the book began with the massive political rupture in my own country, which was the Brexit referendum of summer 2016. And we still haven’t quite, kind of, found out where that’s all going to lead. But it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Michael: Yeah, get on with it. Get on with it, man. I say time is running out.
William: I think we’ve only just begun, that’s the worry.
Michael: Yeah it is. You’ll do like us. You’ll figure it out after the bell rings.
William: But I think, I mean, immediately, one of the things that many people on the pro-European side of that argument were horrified by was that it seemed that people had won by telling lies in some way. That was where this whole concern with post-truth and fake news, and then we began to wonder if there’d been, sort of, various interventions by Russian robots and troll farms and all that kind of stuff that circulated around the U.S. presidential election of 2016 as well.
Michael: Right. And in England, it was mostly about how much money the National Health Service would be having.
William: Right. And there was these particular numbers that were bandied around and effectively, the other thing that seemed to kind of horrify a lot of people on the pro-European side of the argument, you know, I’m a pro-European person myself and I voted to remain in European Union and I’m pretty unhappy with the way things are going myself, but what I was trying to do was to understand what was going on without simply sort of throwing up my hands in horror. And I think that there was a certain sort of naivety at the heart of the pro-Europe remain side that perhaps has certain echoes with what went wrong with parts of the Democrat campaign later that year, which was that people effectively trust in expert accounts of the world and they will vote in their own economic interests. And that effectively, although people may not be getting significantly better off under the status quo, they’re not going to risk everything by throwing all the cards up in the air. And clearly, there was a certain sort of impulse at large and is still at large, I think, in many in society at the moment, which precisely wants to throw all the cards up in the air and precisely wants to do some kind of violence to the status quo in certain ways. So a lot of what I was initially interested in was partly this sort of seeming declining authority of expert claims about the world, of particular facts and statistics that economists produced, but a seemingly greater emotional dimension to politics and a more combative element to politics.
Because one of things that statistics aspire to do and facts from economics and experts is to provide a minimal basis for consensus between otherwise opposing sides of an argument, say, well at least we agree that this is what’s going on in this situation right now. We can agree on the size of the economy or the unemployment rate, whatever it might be. But when people show total disregard for those numbers or are prepared to just invent their own ones, then you’re in a totally different type of politics altogether. So the book is an attempt to try and tell the long history firstly of where did these centers of expertise originate from? What was their kind of initial political pitch going back over 350 years, but then to look at some of the forces that are pitted against them, very prominent amongst which is the rise of the, kind of, real time information cycle and the rise of a more, kind of, reactivity based politics.
Michael: You know, it’s funny as you’re talking, I have friends in Virginia, very, very, very close friends who are Republicans and, you know, have told me many times that they’ll only ever vote Republican. I mean, it could be anybody. It could be an empty glass jar and they would–
Betty: Or a reality TV host.
MichaelI: It could. Well, it’s interesting. When I went down, I stayed with them, my friend, she said to me, you know, Trump’s doing exactly what we want. He’s, we wanted it all shook up. We wanted the chaos. And he’s, and we needed it.
Betty: Well, that’s interesting. How does anybody want chaos?
Michael: Well, because she felt as though the system had, and I think, William, this is some of what you’re also talking about in your book, you know, the liberal elite, of which I think all of us can comfortably say we are a part of, assumes rationality and assumes a social contract based on the English model, right. That’s the, that is our Declaration of Independence. We borrowed it from you, John Locke, right. To a lesser extent, the Scottish, David Hume, right. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All of us have inalienable rights. And the government’s job is to protect those rights. That’s the contract we see. And I think these other people see a total breakdown of that social contract because they don’t care about that, right. They don’t care about that idea. They have a different contract that they feel is broken, which is to say they don’t have work. They’ve gone and they’ve done the hard work. They go to work. They show up, right. They’ve gone to get their high school education or even technical college or even college. And the system is indifferent to them. And so the contract that, from the way they perceive the social contract, is just not, it hasn’t just failed them. They look outside and they say, well nobody’s talking about how the system has failed me. So chaos is better than this, kind of, like stasis, which feels to them deeply immoral.
Betty: Is this what you’re seeing, William? I mean, is this from–
William: Yeah. I mean, I recognized this. And I think I mean, one of the issues with, to take Brexit as an example is, I mean, Brexit was always perceived and presented as that it was going to do some economic harm. I mean, one of the people, like John Locke and David Hume, absolutely a part of this, and there’s a very important concept that comes into political and economic thinking in the 17th century that the historian of economics, Albert Hirschman, writes about, which is the idea of interests and that people have interests. And even if people don’t know what their interests are, someone else, some kind of benign technocrat, can uphold them for them. And that basically means being a little bit richer each year, a bit healthier, living longer, that there are these sort of things that obviously everybody wants. And this is the founding principle of the philosophy of utilitarianism, is that we can all kind of get a little bit more of everything over time. And effectively, I think partly that people have not been getting a little, people haven’t been getting a bit more, but also there’s something rather soulless about that as a form of politics. It doesn’t, there are some aspects of humanity that it doesn’t speak to.
So there’s a certain, I suppose, part of what struck me in that summer of 2016, when I began work on the book, was that in a strange way, there’s sort of, what I was gonna say, the joy of sabotage, in a way. But there’s this sort of upsurge of a different spirit of humanity that a part of me slightly kind of respected it in a strange way, that this was a sort of breaking free of technocracy. Now, in a way, I mean, partly what we’re sort of dancing around here is nationalism. Because what nationalism offers people, which liberal technocracy never offers people and cannot offer people by its very constitution, is to treat them as feeling beings, as communal beings, as beings that are recognized that each life counts. I mean, part of, I talk a little bit about early nationalism in the book and of how, you know, the origins of nationalism lie in the aftermath of the French Revolution and where what happened in the aftermath of the French Revolution, was that people who became part of this nation, this popular mass that could be mobilized, also in the Napoleonic Wars, people could become part of a mass community that previously hadn’t really existed in any kind of recognized way, before. This bestows meaning on life that is not, that markets and liberal technocracy don’t. So I think in a way, what runs through something like Brexit and maybe there are resonances in the United States, but–
Michael: Oh, for sure.
William: But, you know, there’s a sense that, and you hear this from the likes of Steve Bannon on the more, sort of, radical right, that the liberals are not just, sort of, not upholding national traditions, they’ve almost, kind of, colonized a proud nation in some way. That these technocrats in Washington, D.C. or in Brussels are a sort of foreign power who have colonized people and are imposing a style of politics upon people that comes from somewhere else altogether. People like Bannon refer to the globalists, you know, the people who work in, you know, go to Davos, the I.M.F., these sorts of, the circuit of sort of nationless people. I mean, it’s got sort of anti-Semitic undertones sometimes, overtones sometimes. But a type of politics that seems to have, kind of, broken free from any sort of territorial or national or cultural base. Now, of course, that can be used in various ways, that type of politics. It can point towards some extremely frightening forms of politics. On the other hand, it also potentially taps into some more, kind of, understandable instincts that people have to be recognized, to be heard, to have their lives not disrupted in various ways. And I think that what those of us who I suppose have more liberal sympathies than national sympathies are sort of struggling with at the moment, is how to, sort of, understand some of these instincts without justifying them or, sort of, I suppose, giving them more authority than they already have.
Betty: Well, what you’re pointing to, and what you’re both pointing to, is something that our first guest, Sheldon Solomon, pointed to, which was the need for meaning and culture, which is the human condition to combat the fear of death that we, as Kirkegaard said, are aware that we’re going to die and that we have limited time on this earth. And what makes us better than an animal or even, I think his words were “stinking bag of protoplasm”, in his inimitable way of talking. But this search for meaning and this search for what we’ve been seeing a narrative, some kind of organizing principle against this cold technocracy, as you put in, which is in the realm of maybe foreign powers, maybe conspiratorial anti-Semitic groups, the other immigrants, somebody that doesn’t connect with us on the ground in our warm communities, people that we know. And so if that is the case, if it’s a dearth of meaning that has created this skepticism about facts and the skepticism about reality, how do we grapple with this?
William: Well, I think that, you know, this is the great dilemma. I mean, I think that understanding it is obviously the first step. And I think there’s a certain, sort of, I suppose, a form of, kind of, mass psychoanalysis that is underway and hopefully can move through some of this. I mean, there’s work to be done in unpacking this and understanding this and that, I think is part of it. One of the things that I talk a bit about in the book is the appeal for war, the lure of heroism. I think that partly one way of understanding this search for meaning and the way in which it’s manifested itself in the modern world is it’s been drawn towards forms of violent conflict in various ways where it is possible for a life to attain or some sort of immortality to be achieved through some kind of heroic act. Even if that means a shorter life.
I mean, one of the, sort of, I suppose, one of the great, kind of, existential lies or myths of liberalism dating back to Thomas Hobbes in 1651, and Hobbes is an important figure in my book as well, is that human beings can only possibly want to live as long and as safely as possible. Well, that might be true for most people, but it’s not true of everybody. I mean, there is a sort of aspect of the human condition that desires something more and better than just, sort of, nicer, safer, more prosperous life. And that is clearly, I think, what is flowing through our democratic politics at the moment, are some of those desires and some of those desires come from somewhere real and somewhere sometimes quite dark, but something that needs to be understood.
Now, one thing which I think is interesting is whether that can be diverted anywhere else. I mean, the obvious answer at the moment is towards what could be called the war on climate change. And, you know, the forms of heroism and forms of sacrifice and mutual sacrifice which is what all of these, kind of, Brexiteers in Britain at the moment, they’re obsessing over the Second World War. They’re endlessly talking about, oh wouldn’t it be great if we ran out of food and we need the army to, kind of, help the food get into the country. It’d be just like 1943 all over again sort of thing. But I mean, in a way, there are going to be real demands placed on us to make sacrifices, to give up some of our prosperity over the next hundred years. I mean, the question is whether some of these sorts of psychic needs and drives could be diverted towards things which I think really are, it’s always more, sort of, empirically realistic than the sorts of threats that someone like Trump or Brexiteers are pointing towards.
Betty: So rather than directing it against the other or some other minority group or identified threatening group to look at climate change, which we all suffer from. But that is in the realm of the challenge in that threat is to get people to identify that climate change is a problem, which throws us back to–
William: Well, that’s the first hurdle, I suppose.
Betty: Which throws us back to facts and, I mean, you speak about facts as being in the realm of elites and that there is a sort of debate between elites and populists in your country. And it does seem to mirror a debate that’s going on here in the United States. Can you say more about that skepticism, that facts are now in the realm of a group and if you’re not a part of that group, you’re not going to subscribe to those facts. That facts are not, how did facts and a group get stuck together?
William: Well, I think the first thing to recognize, I tell some of the history of this in the book, is that well facts have belonged to a group actually. We have to recognize that there is a kind of a core truth to some of the populist critique. This isn’t to say that facts are not real or true, but through the history of modern expertise, dating back again to the late 17th century, the ability to make objective, dispassionate, consensual claims about either nature, in the form of the natural sciences, or about society, in the form of statistics and the social sciences, has always been something that self-appointed groups of experts, scholars, gentlemen, some of them were merchants and some of them were, sort of, more like, kind of, data geeks, really, but who pioneered these mathematical techniques and experimental methods in the late 17th century mostly and began to circulate their findings within a fairly niche group of people. And these were fairly tightly controlled groups.
So there is a certain sort of, they weren’t democratically elected. They were self-appointed. And this remains, I think, the suspicion that maybe has lurked there ever since, that there are certain professions, and within this we include journalists, politicians, academics, and other forms of experts, who seem to have seized a monopoly on the ability to make claims about the world. And when they get challenged by people who are somehow sort of outside of that cartel, they can be quite sniffy about it. So there is a political problem here. I mean, this is not, it’s not the populists, sort of, you know, invented, sort of, the fact that experts are not democratically accountable in a simple way is a genuine problem. Now there is a whole kind of field of science studies and science policy studies which tries to, kind of, grapple with this and talk about, you know, how should scientists engage with the public and how can they become better at sort of deliberation and democracy and that sort of thing.
But I think the one thing that has happened, which I think is very dangerous over the last 30 years to bring it much more up to date, I suppose, is the distinction between these different groups, these different elite groups, has started to blur in important ways. I think that the professionalization of politics, which has been a real problem in Britain anyway, where it’s not really that clear who’s an expert adviser, who’s a politician. The rise of these spin doctors who are sort of, you know, former journalists who then go and work in politics or the revolving door between Goldman Sachs and the White House and this sort of thing where the sense that, oh they’re all the same and they all went to the same kind of Ivy League colleges and they all know each other and so on. Which is, this is also huge for a problem in French politics, where, you know, the people who work for Le Monde newspaper are the same people who go to Macron’s dinner parties or whatever it might be. This sense of a sort of cloistered, unaccountable elite. It’s a real sociological phenomenon. So it’s not imagined.
So that’s one ingredient and then the second ingredient, in addition to that professionalization of a sort of technocratic elite, the second ingredient is social media, because until 10, 15 years ago, you might have had all of these thoughts about these elites as you were sitting on your sofa watching CNN or reading The New York Times or whatever it might be. But you had no, very few ways, other than going down to your local bar and mouthing off or whatever it might be, you had very few ways of connecting with other people who had similar thoughts about all of this. So technologically, the monopoly on the capacity to report on the world has been broken by YouTube, Facebook, you know, by these people like Alex Jones and Infowars and others. So the technological monopoly on the capacity to tell the truth about the world has been broken. And then it just looks like a cultural monopoly. It just looks like, well, those are the insiders. So that, I think, is what’s happened over the last sort of 30 years or so.
Betty: So there’s a divide between social media and the legacy media. Legacy media being in the realm of the elites in this club and these people who are all of a socioeconomic background of a class. There’s the, power is in the realm of a high class group and–
Michael: So we’re just left with mob rule.
William: Well, I mean, the question is, how do we deal with what kind of dialogue is possible between the so-called elite and the so-called mob?
Michael: With Mark Zuckerberg as the fulcrum, right. I mean, that’s the problem.
Betty: Well, that’s also driven by economics, right?
William: In my utopia, these platforms get closed down overnight.
Michael: Can we talk about that, right, like–
Betty: The impact of social media is very serious on all realms now. You know, even as a trauma therapist, I have patients who encounter their perpetrators online by not their choice. And then they’re also stirred by events in the media because they have their notifications on. And these are things that are stirring people from the micro to the macro. So, yeah, say some more about social media. Like you would close down these platforms.
William: Well, I mean, I sort of at the end of the book, I raise a kind of thought experiment. Imagine it was 1945 right now and we’d just come out of a long war and we could plan a kind of postwar peace in the way that the Bretton Woods meetings of 1944 did, which set up the postwar financial system. What would you demand? What would you do? And I think, you know, quite unambiguously, I think that Facebook and Twitter and so on are of no sort of social value. I mean, they, what do they sell? They sell friendship, the oldest social value of them all, and they’re claiming to kind of repackage it and sell it back to us. I mean, it’s sort of absurd, really.
Betty: Well, they are also in the hands of advertisement. They are really using people’s information to sell to other corporations that are funding Facebook.
William: Sure. Of course, sorry obviously that’s their commercial product. But I mean, in terms of what is it that, they work to trap people, we know that some of their former employees have come out and said that they’re frightened by the extent to which platforms like Facebook are seeking to kind of cultivate addictive behaviors and they exploit insecurities in the way in which they sell advertising space. You know, there was a leak in the Australian Facebook, it was bragging about how it could identify insecure and anxious teenagers and could target messages directly at them and this sort of thing. I mean, these are malign institutions and–
Michael: Right. And then there’s Myanmar, which is even more pernicious and deadly.
William: There’s what?
Michael: Myanmar, you know.
Michael: For how it was used. And it seems to me that part of what you’re discussing here, if I may, is this notion that there’s no way in which Facebook sees itself responsible for the content with which it disseminates. It talks about itself solely in the context of a sort of platform without value. It doesn’t value one thing over the other.
Betty: It’s neutral, so to speak, but–
Michael: But there’s no then civic liberal, in the way we think of it, responsibility. And ultimately, what you have to do then is somebody has to regulate the content, whether Facebook regulates it or, in your vision of a perfect world, right, the liberal elite do so by shutting it down or keeping it from ever happening. And I think it gets back to what you’ve been talking about, really what you’re at the end of the day is which, you know, which is that who has a say. And as you were talking earlier about Bannon and the sort of globalism and Trump and Brexit and all of the world that we’re swimming in now, I kind of wonder if we all don’t think that the liberal experiment is under assault, because, in fact, it is. And, you know, the liberal notion, at least as we understood it, is universal rights, right. The idea that it doesn’t matter what nation you were born into, we all share inalienable rights. I mean, that is, if we go back to your postwar model, I mean, the great document that comes out of the Second World War is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the sort of great summit, it’s the Everest, it’s the apogee of the liberal experiment.
And, you know, what’s grown up in its place recently is an attack against that philosophy, they call communitarian, right. The idea that human beings, you know, when you think about emotion, if you were asked to have moral duty to a stranger or moral duty to your child, are you supposed to really have the same value that you have for a stranger that you do for a child, your own child? You can’t, right. I mean, the liberal experiment denies, in some ways human emotion. It’s too reason based. And this is where I think we are right now. You know, people who are upset with Trump, say at the border gassing children and, you know, the denial of refugees, which is, by the way, a denial of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I mean, they are holding onto the liberal notion of universal rights and the people who support Trump, or who I think drive Brexit in your country, reject that notion, that they’re more community based. They say, you know, my moral obligation is to my family, to my wife, my children, my husband, my neighborhood, my country. And this notion–
Betty: My group.
Michael: My group. This notion that I’m supposed to take these esoteric elite values, that seems to me the fight that we have right now. Is that what you’re talking about?
William: Yeah. I mean, I think that is a fair take on what’s going on. I mean I think that one of the things that I talk a bit about in the book, I mean, the book is split in two halves. The first is called The Decline of Reason and the second half is called The Rise of Feeling. So it’s partly about how did that liberal edifice stop functioning properly? And the second is about how this more, sort of, vision of political heroism and of leadership and of belonging came, sort of, surged in its place. I think liberalism also did some damage to itself over the late 20th century, partly with escalating inequality. I mean, one of the, just to give an example, I discuss a bit about the seeming declining credibility of statistics in the book.
You take a statistic which is one of the most, kind of, prominent numerical indicators in public life these days, which is gross domestic product, and GDP has roughly in the United States grown by sort of two or three percent a year. Every year over most of the 20th century, but fairly steadily since the 1970s. But we now know, thanks to the work of Thomas Piketty, the French economist, that 50 percent of Americans have had no increase in their real income since the late 1970s. So this means that half of the population, while the headline indicators keep going up and up and up in a fairly steady fashion, 50 percent of people have actually not had any increase in their prosperity or their quality of life. Meanwhile, of course, you’ve also got these other indicators, they’re heading in precisely the wrong direction, such as these frightening rise in midlife mortality rates that Case and Deaton detected in the United States in recent years.
So you’ve got a kind of, in some ways, I think, aspects of the liberal project have concealed but under the surface, things have not been nearly as good as some of the sort of macro stories have made out. Now that, none of that in itself directly explains Trump. We know that your average Trump voter was actually richer than your average Clinton voter in 2016. I think what that does show is that the credibility of some of the stories that liberalism tells about itself have been sort of gradually falling apart. And the other thing which I think is worth mentioning in terms of your account of the kind of communitarian and the liberal and seeing liberalism as a sort of abstract defense of universals, which is in the realm of philosophy, is absolutely right. But you take something like the Iraq War and the sort of rise of neoconservative foreign policies in the late 20th and early 21st century, effectively treated liberalism not as a sort of abstract universal, but instead as a set of Western values to be aggressively asserted and defended as a weapon and dropped on countries from 10,000 feet.
And this is similar to the way in which certain sorts of figures of the so-called intellectual dark web, these sort of, you know, some of the kind of more, sort of, bullish defenders of like some of the new atheists, these sort people like Ben Shapiro and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, when he was around and so on, these people who basically say, yeah actually the West is best and I can show you that the West is best. And this always teeters on the edge of Islamophobia and so on, that liberalism started to kind of mutate into something that was itself rather a sort of hostile, identity based phenomenon, actually, really before the rise of this populism.
Betty: And something that you’ve pointed to, William, about this mobilism and the aggression and the, I’m using words that I’m going to point to, with the violence and the heroism points to something that another British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott’s pointing to in the sense that aggression is, also Melanie Klein, aggression is actually an expression, in a sense, of libido. And so you want to not be dead. You want to not be passive. You don’t want to be frozen in anxiety. You want to, I mean, we as human beings, want to be mobilized. And so perhaps we might mobilize towards aggression, maybe not even towards our own best ends. But it is a means of showing to ourselves that we are alive. And it seems like this might be something that is also manifesting in addition to what’s being shown in the economic point of view of what you’re saying.
Betty: That these two things combine together to point to a trend that is complex and alarming.
William: Yeah. The language in all of this is quite interesting. We use the word mobilize. The term to move means we can move physically, but we also talk about emotion as moving and emotion itself has motion in it, so to emote is to move outwards. And so that sort of liberalism, as you just said, treats us as this kind of static object, a, kind of, particular unit in a big statistical data set. Maybe it’s, the data set is expanding from year on year in terms of population growth or GDP growth or life expectancy and so on. But other than that, it’s kind of static. And the task of government from a liberal perspective is to represent, so that you take this mass of people who are, sort of, all getting on with their potentially quite dull private lives and getting a job and having a family and so on. And then you represent their interests in a parliament or a congress or in the legal system and so on. And above all, you, the way you do that is, to uphold peace. I mean, these are the sort of core rudiments of a liberal, kind of, ideal of government.
Whereas the alternative, which is the populist one, is this one of to move people and you will move people both in an emotional sense, but you will also move them in a physical sense. You’ll move them onto the streets, you’ll move them in a, some kind of, people will come together and move from A to B. And all of the language of populism is always about emotion in some way. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn in my own country is what you might call a left populist, the leader of the Labour Party, and the organization that was set up to support him, because he was such an implausible candidate to start with, is called Momentum. It’s about trying to create this momentum around Corbyn, this constant kind of movement, so that in some ways he’s constantly in campaigning mode.
So that’s one thing and the other thing, which sometimes I always think is kind of telling about what’s going on in our public sphere right now, is that for anyone who uses Twitter, you’ll know that when you decide you want to connect with someone on Twitter, you don’t, sort of, like them or tune into them or read them, you follow them. So they are effectively becoming your, kind of, leader in some way, that you are going with them where they go. And I think that all of these, kind of, metaphors and non-metaphors of movement, emotion, momentum, leadership, followership, and so on tells us something about a very different idea of what politics is from that, well, a static ideal of representation that you find in the liberal tradition.
Betty: I think you’re right. And we talked to Lilliana Mason, who is a political scientist here at the University of Maryland, and she was talking about partisanship between the Democrats and Republicans here in the U.S. and that in the Republican base that this conflict is used to mobilize, that if you suffer from an anxiety then, you know, it was her, she who said that, then you’re frozen. And that speaks to something, this kind of language speaks to my work in trauma because we have fight flight freeze. Freeze is the most extreme. When you’re so terrified, you can’t move. And that is a flooding of the brain of cortisol. And the body shuts down because the animal determines that they can’t fight the aggressor, the predator. But fight and flight are mobile. And this is the way we deal with fear if we are not so incapacitated by terror that we freeze. And so she was pointing to the fact that the political groups in the United States, particularly on the populism front of Republicans, are mobilizing, maybe not according to policies, but according to your emotions. But that people are moving and that is something that we as humans want to do.
William: Sure. But I think, and I’m not a psychologist or even less so a neuroscientist or evolutionary neuroscientist, but I think what’s interesting there, what you’ve said about the so-called fight or flight mode, is that clearly it taps into a form of subjectivity and, no doubt, an aspect of the brain that is very different from the reflective, thoughtful one. It is the instinctive, reactive one.
William: And that’s the same aspect of the brain that interface design is constantly concerned with in relation to your smartphone or a social media platform or for that matter, to go back to my previous example, a Bloomberg trading screen, is that all of these things are designed and what Silicon Valley is obsessed with, is how to create the interfaces through which we can act without having to really think. And of course, this has all sorts of conveniences. It means that we can sort of, you know, dial up a pizza without even, you know, just say it to Alexa or whatever it might be, or you swipe, you know, your eyes get drawn to the bit of the screen that seems interesting and, you know, that you click on something because you’re appalled by it or some kind of emotion triggers you to actually click on something. But it does have the frightening prospect, the space of thinking, and this is where I think, you know, a lot of what Hannah Arendt’s work on the threat of totalitarianism, she stresses that what totalitarianism and fascism, how they prosper, is through a lack of thought. And this is what, a lot of what, she talked about in relation to the famous work on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, of that here was someone who had sort of lost the ability to think. This politics operates via a fight or flight, instinctive, reactive, nervous state, supported by interfaces that are so perfectly attuned to the movements of our eyes and the sensations of our, you know, fingers in the way we swipe on a screen and so on, that we have lost, you know, the spaces of thinking and reflection. And I don’t want to, I’m not someone who says we need to save reason. I’m not Steven Pinker saying that that sort of, you know, Western rationality is under threat, we need to sort of aggressively fight back. But what is under threat, I think, are those, kind of, times and spaces in which thought, dialogue, and reflection can take place, within which I would include the space of psychotherapy. And this is what we need to defend right now.
Betty: I think you’re right. And in that regard, these conflicts and, there’s something that I’ve reflected on with Trump, his aggression and his language and his constant tweeting really creates an atmosphere of non-thinking. It’s a cycle. It goes back and forth and back and forth. And we can’t look away from him because he’s so outrageous and what he says and what he does seems quasi-dangerous. But we can’t look away either because if we look away, something could happen or it’s just such a spectacle, it’s hard not to look away. But then we’re stuck. We’re stuck in this cycle of non-thinking, which also, I know that in social media, all the Silicon Valley corporations employ neuroscientists to hack the brain. There’ve been articles about that so that they are literally looking at ways, the likes create little dopamine rushes, so that they aggregate those lines so that we become addicted to social media because we are going back like Pavlov’s dog to get our pleasurable rush of people approving of us.
William: And there’s also, I think, you know, a major commercial problem here that the media faces as well. I mean, there has been some good work done by people like the journalism scholar Jay Rosen and populism scholars as well have tried to put out advice on how the media should deal with Trump. And one of the main parts of that advice is do not get drawn into the, sort of, you know, hour by hour–
Michael: Ignore it, right.
William: Exactly, right. You have to try and ignore it.
Michael: You have to ignore it.
William: Of course, that’s difficult given the, you know, the financial pressures that the media is under and the rise of a kind of clickbait, sort of, rival. And so, you know, they need attention, these legacy media outlets and so on, but I think ultimately that critique is very important and needs to be taken to heart. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, I confess, you know, I use Twitter too much. I sort of–
Michael: Well, you can tweet about us.
Betty: We’re all doing confessions today.
Michael: Tweet about Mind of State. Well, you know, it’s funny you say all this, because I’ve held for a while that Donald Trump is the most popular president in American history and may be among the most popular Americans in history. And that–
Betty: In terms of how people pay attention to him, for sure.
Michael: Yeah, that the polls which talk about approval or disapproval are really irrelevant. They’re the old model, right. They’re the model of Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower or, you know, Maggie Thatcher or whomever, right. That Trump drives MSNBC–
Betty: CNN was going down hill before.
Michael: And that’s, Trump knows that. And Trump loves that. And Trump talks about it endlessly. Their ratings would tank without me. And you know what? He’s right. He’s absolutely right. And it becomes, as you say, Betty, like a dopamine hit for the Rachel Maddows of the world, right. Because, you know, you look at the hard news places or the places that purport to be, they’re all Trump almost all the time, right. They’re Trump obsessed so that, you know, something like, you know, in our country, William, you know, the crisis of opioids with opioid addiction, you know, it gets play. But on some of these cable news places, it gets like no play. You know, I was in England a lot last year making a documentary, and I was amazed when I would watch the BBC, how I just, I mean, for a while, you know, the lead story one night was on the civil war in Yemen, which prior to Khashoggi here, was completely absent from the news.
Betty: Syria gets a very–
Michael: Syria gets no play at all. We invaded Iraq along with you. You are, you know, our great ally in that. And yet the chaos that we created is utterly gone. And that, I mean, those are foreign stories. But even things like the opioid crisis, which is a very real, meaningful crisis in the lives of millions of Americans, is pushed aside by the rush of Trump and the need to respond to every tweet in real time on the news. You know, not just on Twitter, but on cable.
William: Sure, yeah. I mean, I think, you know, one of the other things that got me interested that led to this, my book actually, was I was working probably about five or six years ago now, looking at different forms of interface design and became very interested in the rise of what I described as a dashboard culture, which is if you think of the kind of way in which facts were reported in say, you know, the 19th century, you would have a kind of quarterly shareholder report and a book of accounts and a daily newspapers and so on. All this was true up until the, you know, late 20th century. Whereas now, particularly the United States, I’ve always been struck by when you turn on the TV there’s normally about five things going on on screen at once. You know, there’s like sort of stock information, there’s weather forecast, there’s someone speaking, there’s a talking head somewhere, there’s something else, there’s headlines going on. And there’s a, sort of, there’s this kind of babble, really, of a, sort of, it’s like a sort of river that’s constantly running through your living room of the real time. And you know that, I mean, the dashboard is a sort of metaphor for how we get information. I mean, the most kind of common idea of a dashboard is the car dashboard. And it’s this sort of, you know, constant feedback on how are things going right now, you know, different indicators, different lights are flashing, different, sort of, things that certain numbers are up, certain numbers are down. But it’s not really a way of getting an objective view of the world. What it is, is a way of sort of navigating, again it’s back to metaphors of mobilization and movement, and it’s ways of sort of finding out, you know, how is this right now? But that’s rather a different, sort of, you know, what that doesn’t provide you with is a, sort of, an account of the world or a story about the world that actually has any kind of narrative arc with any kind of meaning. Instead, all it does is provide a kind of a comfort blanket that I think I’m okay right now–
Michael: It’s a data dump.
William: It’s actually a rather different psychic state.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a data dump
Betty: And what you’re both pointing to is the fact that it’s fragmented. It’s all these bits and pieces of information. But there’s no, it’s infotainment, but it’s not real information. It’s, we’ve talked with other interviewees about the drama that’s going on the news, but what’s underneath the drama? We don’t have time to think about what’s going on underneath this drama because it’s spinning constantly and we’re being bombarded by these bits and pieces of information.
Michael: We don’t even know where to look. If you’re watching the news and there’s the ticker, which is the aftermath of 9/11, right. So the ticker didn’t exist in America prior to 9/11. That’s the band at the bottom of the– Betty: The running text.
Michael: And that happened after 9/11 and it never went away. And if you’re reading it, you can’t listen, right. So there’s no way to assimilate the information you’re given, because if you’re listening, you’re not reading. If you’re reading, you’re not listening and you’re usually going back and forth between both. And so nothing has any meaning anymore because nothing, there’s no value–
Betty: It’s permeating. Yeah.
Michael: Well, but one isn’t, one doesn’t have primacy over the other. And I think this is part of what you were saying, William, about previously shutting down Facebook, which I think is a great idea. I personally have left Facebook to consternation of–
Betty: Of our media.
Michael: One of our co-founders is like why aren’t you on Facebook? I was like, you know, I felt bad about myself. And I have a pretty reasonable life.
Betty: It just takes up too much time. You’re on there and you can’t be on there for ten minutes.
Michael: Well, for me, I think this gets back to those things that you were talking about, William, at the beginning of the conversation, you know, how in which we’ve become sort of, how the old model has been blown up and a new model, which we don’t fully understand, has taken its place. You know, in the old models, we were consumers of culture. We would read a book, we would watch a TV show, and we often did that in large groups, right. In this new model, we’re all producers of content and we’re constantly, I think, broadcasting our lives, turning our lives into content, almost programming, right. The Kim Kardashian may be the very best at this new model. And ratings are now likes. I mean, I have two young daughters who I love dearly, who, less so now as they’re getting a little bit older, but when certainly when they were in middle school, you know, they would obsess over how quickly it would take them to get a certain number of likes and how their likes were relative to other people. And, you know, it was like, oh my God, you’re like a Hollywood executive talking about your overnights.
Betty: And that is the dopamine hits that their young brains are being sort of implicated into.
Michael: Yeah, and when you live in a culture of 300 million programmers, all competing against each other, right, how do you determine fact? You know, how does, there is no–
Betty: How do you even navigate all that information?
Michael: Well and where, you know, where’s your leader in that? And I think that’s some of what you’re talking about in, you know, the assault on elitism and this notion that, you know, it’s like we’ve all been balkanized down to the individual.
Betty: But what you’re saying in terms of shutting off Facebook, just like you did, Michael, you shut it off for yourself. So we still have agency in this world–
Michael: Oh, but it comes at a cost.
Betty: Every cost has a benefit. This is the–
Michael: Oh, I feel better.
Betty: Exactly. There’s no plus without a minus. No minus without a plus. And so maybe, William, what you’re speaking to is that whereas, you know, globally we could shut down Facebook so it’s not available, everybody has a choice. But we do each individually have agency. And if we are aware of what these things are doing to us, we obviously have to take time to think about it rather than react, which is a challenge. But if we do use our agency and mobilize, maybe not in different ways and not to get on Facebook all the time, which is a certain kind of mobilization, but maybe not quite real. You know, we’re running out of time. But in terms of our nervous states, you know, this wonderful pun, we live in a nervous state where we’re constantly clicking, we’re constantly being bombarded by fragments of information. We live in these nervous societies that are under these battles between elitism and populism. Here in the United States, it’s conservatism and liberalism, Democrats and Republicans. Where do you see us going? How do we navigate this?
William: Well, I think you’re right about agency. I think that, I mean, we have to defend the spaces that already exist, which have not been permeated by some of these forces. And we need to, you know, we still have the capacity to build new types of defense mechanisms which protect human relationships and time and space from these sorts of forces. Of course, that requires political work. I mean, I think that some of these divides seem extremely intractable. But I do think that we need to be very clear about what the threat is. And I think the threat is not emotion as such, not emotion versus reason. It’s fast versus slow. That’s the kind of key sort of takeaway or conclusion in my book is we don’t, you know, rather than saying we’ve got these rational elites versus these, sort of, purely, kind of, emotional, ignorant mob. The question is how we can try and defend slowness, including emotional slowness, which is, you know, how many, kind of, caring and emotional and loving relationships are things that endure and don’t not, sort of, completely kind of so transactional and sort of move very, very quickly.
And, you know, and I talk a bit about, I mean, some of the ways in which the communication of something like climate science is changing, is partly to try and get scientists to act in a more emotional and rounded and human way about the things that confront us right now. So things like the march for science, I mean, that I think was probably the right step. It’s quite a risky thing to do, but where the scientists mobilized on the streets of Boston and Washington, D.C. and around the United States after the beginning of Trump’s presidency. But science, I think, has to become more humane and more honest about the fact that it is a community to some extent. It’s not a, sort of, transcendent set of unquestionable truths. And there are, sort of, these interesting experiments in trying to get scientists, in relation to things like climate, to open up more about how scared they are and how worried they are and what they think, you know, what this really means to them and that this is actually a kind of fight for humanity. It’s not just about abstract laws of nature and mathematics and things that go on somewhere else.
So I think that’s a key part of that in relation to truth. One of the things that I think is really fascinating, and this is a pleasant note of optimism, is if you look across various societies, including the United States, at these surveys on trust that are done, is that the trust in politicians and the media is just disastrous. It’s been kind of plummeting for years and trust in certain parts of the scientific establishment, it sort of fluctuates and so on. But the two areas where trust is very high and remains high, one is in the United States that the military, which perhaps isn’t that surprising, but the other is still in doctors and nurses. And that’s true also across Europe as well. And I think maybe, like, what those things have in common is that they provide forms of physical protection of one kind or another. I think that the elites, the professions that still in some sense are kind of like, whether aggressively or, you know, in a more caring, nurturing fashion, are in some sense, defending humanity in its full-bodied, rounded, emotional, rational way are still the centers of power and authority to which people turn when they’re afraid in various ways. Now, I suppose you could say, therefore, that a pacifist version of populism is one that extracts the caring spirit from that lesson, rather than the military one. Because I do think that mobilization has to be part of our politics. We can’t renounce both the opportunities, but also the, sort of, the feelings that mobilization offers people.
Betty: Yeah, and it’s interesting because what you talk about in terms of protection, that is a very basic need. You know, when you talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we care about food, shelter, clothing, we must, before we care about higher orders of need, and protection and safety is among the most basic tier. And so, that people still trust maybe because of the necessity, they must trust the fact that, or want to trust that, their society is secure and their health is secure, they’re physically secure, is an interesting note. Well, I think we’re out of time. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Michael: Thank you, William.
Betty: Thank you, so much.
William: It’s been a great pleasure. It’s been very interesting.
Betty: We’ve reached the end of yet another session. And as I like to say to Michael, time to take our problems home with us. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Chad Dougatz. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael: And I’m Michael Epstein. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.