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Great article on “designer demagogues”

Douglas Murray argues that in today’s supposedly anti-politics culture, a distrust of the current crop of folk in power does not translate into genuine liberalism and accountability – such as would happen if Whitehall and Brussells were cut down to size – but something potentially very nasty indeed. And he takes a look at the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand as symptoms of a wider problem:

Writing about those rioters who in the summer of 2011 smashed, burned and looted shops across Britain, Brand writes that their actions were no worse than the consumerism which he describes as having been “imposed” upon them. And this, I cannot help thinking, is an especially revealing phrase — entirely at one with a popular world view. That view sees “us” as poor victims of forces and temptations which are not only pushed upon us, but to which, when they are pushed upon us long enough, we will inevitably and necessarily succumb. If you are in a “consumerist” society long enough how could you be expected to just not buy crap you can’t afford when you don’t need it? No — the answer must be that of course you will succumb. And from there any bad behaviour — even looting and burning — will be excused because it will be someone else’s fault.

This is the world view of an addict. And the answer to all our society’s problems of the addict Brand is one answer which some addicts seek for their addiction — which is that everyone is to be blamed for their failings except themselves. Grand conspiracy theories and establishment plots offer great promise and comfort to such people. They suggest that when we fail or when we fall we do so never because of any conceivable failing or inability of our own, but because some bastard — any bastard — made us do it, has been planning to do it and perhaps always intended to do so. Of course the one thing missing in all this — the one thing that doesn’t appear in either of these books or in any of their conspiratorial and confused demagogic world view — is the only thing which has saved anyone in the past and the only thing which will save anybody in the future: not perfect societies, perfectly engineered economies and perfectly equal, flattened-out collective-based societies, but human agency alone.

This analysis is spot-on, and it explains why, even though concepts such as “the ruling class” or “establishment” can have some sort of value in explaining how groups of people act and think, they can become very dangerous without understanding that people respond to incentives, and that we make a mistake in seeing events as being driven by close-knit cabals or groups wielding enormous, but somehow secret, power. In other words, what I have learned from subjects such as “public choice economics” or the insights of writers such as Milton Friedman or a Henry Hazlitt is that seeing dark forces at work to explain things like bank crises or environmental problems is more about what people find emotionally satisfying than what actually happens 99 per cent of the time.

Although I should not have to spell it out, in the past, a lot of the sort of thinking that is being described here took the form of anti-semitism. And it is probably no great accident that this is also on the rise at the moment.

11 comments to Great article on “designer demagogues”

  • I think some people just have too much time on their hands. Perhaps they are young people with nothing to do at the weekends apart from an hour of homework, the unemployed with hours to fill every day, perhaps perfectly normal independently functioning adults who just need a constructive hobby.

    Marketing only works if you have the time to view it. The covers of lifestyle magazines, talk shows, TV advertisements, all these things that are passively consumed and which could conceivably be the source of brainwashing power, what they have in common is that if you are busily engaged in any sufficiently challenging project then all that crap is the first thing to go. If you are driving your agenda, no-one’s marketing is going to distract you.

    However, the one thing that let’s people sit and relax and consume media that way is the division of labour in free markets, and anyone who is not too busy to think should think themselves grateful. Grateful they are not out doing laundry at the river, castrating sheep on a hillside, carrying heavy loads home from the market, cleaning shit etc, rather than sat at home pondering conspiracies in the warm and dry.

  • Let me explain addiction to you. People in chronic pain chronically take pain relievers.

    There is nothing else. And that includes all the addictions except stimulants which I have not studied. Anything that produces endorphins, produces oxytocin, cannabis ingestion, opiate ingestion.

    I really wish people didn’t get their information on addiction from the sensationalist press.

    Note: I’m not talking physical dependence which is a different question.

  • Rob

    “This is the world view of an addict”

    It is also the worldview of someone whose wealth and goods are securely held against those who would steal them. I wonder what Brand’s attitude would be if these rioters could simply smash a window, walk in and steal his millions. Quite different, I suspect.

  • Paul Marks

    People endlessly complain about politicians and officials – yet the same people want government to do more and more things for them.

    They are “anti government” and pro state – at the same time. If only “better people” were in charge they could have everything they want…..

    No amount of experience of “kicking the rascals out” has any effect on people who have been taught (by school, college and media) to look to the state for everything.

    This is the world of Thomas Paine – not the world of Edmund Burke. Indeed Thomas Paine is a moderate by modern standards.

    When people are given the charge to really oppose big government, as with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the reject it overwhelmingly – the most they will vote for is promises to cut “waste” as with Ronald Reagan in 1980 (although Reagan also promised to get rid of the Federal Departments of Education and Energy, not that this actually happened).

    Short version.

    The world is doomed.

    What did you expect? After all this is a Paul Marks comment.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: if you are reading this, please be informed that i saw your latest reply to me (wrt the King David Hotel). I did not reply because i thought you would not keep reading that thread.

    WRT your comment here, i fully endorse your first 3 paragraphs, and maybe you don’t know how right you are, if you don’t know the Southern European mentality.
    Don’t know about Paine; as for Reagan, remember that he had to deal with a Democrat Congress. As for the world, i see a lot of progress when i look beyond Western Europe and the Anglosphere.

  • Watchman

    It should be pointed out there is a mirror to the views of Messrs Owen and Jones in those who see say the man-made climate change agenda as all part of a conspiracy (in fact it is simply inate biases making it permissible to do bad science – so before anyone jumps on me, yes I think the doctrine is wrong…), or similiar point of views which would likely get a more sympathetic hearing here than Mr Murray’s examples. People tend to see those with different political views as automatically capable of being evil (because apparently only the correct political views make you a paragon of virtue), and whilst this is more common in left-wing polemic, perhaps due to a lack of actual decent arguments, it is hardly unique to any view point.

    Instead it is the call of those excluded from power, either because their views are regarded as silly (as Messrs Jones and Brands are by the vast majority of people) or because those in power are actively excluding them (either for the rulers’ benefits or for the legendary ‘common good’). The instictive response to this exclusion seems to be to set up strawmen, and to assume the motivation of the percieved enemy is something evil, because it can’t be good because it disagrees with you. Bluntly, few people in any position of power or authority in the west are evil – some are incompentent, misled, or even just working to a model of society that is already decades gone – so any suggestion of a conspiracy or organised repression without some actual evidence is the wrong reaction. I may not like the proponents of green socialism, or the likes of Messrs Brand or Jones, but whilst they believe that the ‘establishment’ or ‘capitalism’ are plotting against people, we are presumably much better off just assuming they are misled individuals and groups who are still at heart human beings. For at least if we remember they are human, we do not make their mistake of generating hate.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT the concept of “ruling class”, i submit that the fundamental problem is the mental confusion of the vast majority of people over this concept.
    If people understood that increasing/decreasing the power of the ruling class, is the same as increasing/decreasing the power of the State, they would not advocate an increase in the power of the State in order to reduce the power of the ruling class.

    NB: many “conservatives” also seem to be in a state of mental confusion over this, conflicted over whether to defend the ruling class or attack the State.

  • PeterT

    Often, people tend to confuse activity with productivity. I quite like to annoy my friends, many of who work long hours in professional service firms, by making the statement that the vast majority of professionals add very little value. This is obviously also true of politicians, who we all know add very little value and indeed detract from the economy. I digress. The point is that, if one believes that government ‘runs the economy’, which is not a belief discouraged by the statements of the likes of Gordon Brown, then it is not a big logical leap from that to blaming government/fat cats for all the ills that befall one.

  • Mr Ed

    PeterT, but of course politicians run the economy, with the help of bureaucrats and lawyers, it works a bit like running a ship.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, Mr Ed, at least the front didn’t fall off….

  • Paul Marks
    December 19, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    The folks at Reason.com make fun of that all the time. “Top Men” is the operative phrase.