The problem with ‘the will of the people’

What is ‘the will of the people’? Does it actually exist in any meaningful sense? This phrase has been much used in recent weeks and months to refer to not only the result of the 2016 EU referendum, but more significantly to the perceived lack of resultant parliamentary action. This failure to ‘deliver Brexit’ is being interpreted by some people as a rejection of the supposed ‘will of the people’, and, as a consequence (and of great concern to many) as an excuse to turn on ‘the establishment’. I want to suggest that this phrase is at best a gross simplification of an incredibly complex process, a convenient metaphor that blinds us to what actually needs to happen to resolve our constitution crisis, but in reality is a phrase devoid of any useful meaning.

What do we mean by ‘will’? Traditionally the will has been understood to be a psychological faculty responsible for acts of volition, that aspect of the human mind which makes decisions and initiates motion or action. Let’s put to one side any discussion of the actual psychological processes that take place in the human brain / mind and accept that decisions are made and actions are initiated, and that we refer to this process as ‘the will’. There are two very important aspects of this process that get ignored when scaled up to a supposed aggregated ‘will of the people’: that ‘will’ is a psychological process that requires a mind, an actual brain; and that this act isn’t complete once a decision has bee made, but continues, and is modified, throughout the process of enactment.

A decision to do something requires a brain / mind, an entity that ‘the people’ as a body of people do not possess. There only exist individual minds. When a mind makes a decision it does so either out of habit, because that is what it usually decides to do in a given situation so why waste valuable mental energy contemplating alternatives, or (as I would hope happened when asked to caste a vote in the referendum) the various alternatives are contemplated, all the various arguments are weighed, and a decision is reached. When this decision is finally reached, and action (voting) takes place the complexity of the internal psychological debate is reduced down to a simple decision. The problem comes when an attempt is made to aggregate these simple decisions into a one off collective decision. When an individual mind makes a decision it tends to rationalise the process that brought it about and, in effect, bring all the dissenting aspects of the thought process into line. It constructs an internal narrative that makes sense, and gives meaning to the decision. As ‘the people’ do not have a collective mind, this process cannot occur. The dissenting voices remain. The supposed ‘will of the people’ remains, at best, an aggregate decision of 52% of those people who voted. It ignores the 48% who voted ‘remain’, those who did not vote, and those who were too young to vote.

There is, however, an even more important aspect to this attempted aggregation of individual wills into a collective ‘will of the people’ that is ignored. In most situations, for individual minds, making a decision to act is only the start of the process. To make this decision meaningful it needs to result in action. But when we attempt to enact a decision we often come face to face with reality. We often find that what we thought was a straight forward desire to bring something about, say, for example, to learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language, in reality proves to be far from straight forward. We may find that learning the finger movements required for the piano or grasping the grammar of a particular language either too difficult, or (more often), requires more time devoted to it than we have available. As a consequence of this experience we modify our original decision; we either choose a different instrument or language, chose a different course of action to fill our perceived need, or we abandon the project all together. Whatever the outcome of the mental process, it will result in our amending our original narrative (that made sense of our original decision) such that the whole process now make sense and our subsequent changes of mind, brought about by the discovery of the reality of the situation, are coherent. This is totally normal. We do it all the time. Decision making is an ongoing, and often highly complex process. But it can only happen in individual mind, not in the mind of the ‘will of the people’ which, after all, does not exist!

Leadership

I have had several conversations recently about leadership, which for me is a bit of an enigma. I have always regarded myself as a bit of rebel, as someone who not only resists being told what to do, but who has a strong imperative to challenge any imposed authority. But recently, and particularly in politics, I have found myself seriously thinking that some strong leadership is required, particularly in terms of an effective opposition to our current government, and on the world stage in relation to our climate and ecological breakdown. But I have no sooner had these thoughts than the warning bells start sounding. I remind myself that strong political leaders like Mussolini were initially welcomed onto the political stage as solutions to a political crisis. And we all know what happens next.

I am not even sure I know what I mean by leadership! Perhaps a certain quality or set of qualities / abilities that certain people seem to have? Something you can’t define in advance, but recognise when you encounter them? For example, Confucianism has described these qualities in terms of five virtues (intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and disciple) which a leader must not only have, but have in the correct balance. If this so, then how do you explain the popular appeal of politicians such as Johnson and Trump? They both seem deficient in most of these virtues. But perhaps that’s an unfair question. Perhaps it’s wrong to equate being popular with leadership, even though both of these clowns appear to have, from the perspective of their supporters, the charisma that Max Weber thought so essential to political leadership.

If a certain set of virtues is the way to understand good leadership, one missing from the above list is vision – that ability to not only possess a clear picture of what it is you want your group / community / nation to achieve with you as their leader, but to be able to communicate that picture to the group. And in many ways this vision (together with the other relevant virtues) must be context specific. Arguably Churchill was a very effective war-time leader, managing to utilise his persona and rhetorical skills to unite the nation at a time of extreme crisis, but a very poor leader of the following peace. What this country so desperately needs during our current constitutional crisis is an effective leader of the opposition – someone capable of presenting a clear alternative vision of the future that a significant number of the public could muster behind and support. Even more importantly, what we need both nationally and internationally is leadership capable of presenting a clear vision of a post climate and ecological crisis world.

A third approach to understanding leadership is perhaps to take a functional approach and argue that the role of a good and effective leader is to meet group needs. I could see the value of such an approach in certain contexts, but what if the group is unclear as to what their needs actually are? What if (as I think is the case at the moment) the needs which people think they have (to consume what they like, travel where they like, and accumulate as much wealth as they are able) are actually inconsistent with the vision the potential leader has. If the leader’s assessment of the future is accurate, yet, for the sake of acquiring power appeals the ‘needs’ of the group instead, they will surely fail. In which case, the real quality our great leader will require is the ability to change the group’s understanding of their perceived needs. Now there’s a challenge!

Facts, on their own, are not enough

I attended two meetings this last week that considered, at different levels of local government, how to respond to their respective declarations of a climate emergency. At one of these the command of Mr Gradgrind, the school board superintendent from Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, came charging into my consciousness: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Dickens was, of course, highly critical of what he considered to be the cold, utilitarian approach to education that was being promoted by various ‘progressive’ elements of Victorian society. He believed that facts, on their own, were not enough. Something else was needed to bring about social change.

The first part of this particular meeting was given over to a presentation by Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group who have my full support. They presented the meeting with, what I would consider to be, the main facts behind our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, the data that is supported by 97% of the scientific community. The main argument of this presentation was that too many people are in denial of these facts, and that consequently they need to told the truth. I largely disagree with this. Whilst much of the population may not be able to recite all the data, I am not convinced that people are simply in denial of the issues. More is at play here. More is required than endless facts. In my experience many people actually get turned off from important issues when presented with facts.

Following this presentation, the chair of the meeting informed us that having heard one perspective on the issue we now need to step back and consider the facts. The implication of this statement was two fold: that the ‘facts’ as just presented needed to be checked to ensure that they are genuine ‘facts’, and that other ‘facts’ may be available that would throw doubt on the status of these ‘facts’. From my perspective there was more than sufficient evidence to justify action, but the chair was obviously approaching from a different direction. So how do we make sense of such a conflict? It seems obvious that facts, on their own, are not enough. They need to be interpreted, they need to be made meaningful. But what is the missing ingredient here?

For Dickens it was sentiment, emotion. Whilst Dickens was a great campaigner for social change, as a novelist he is often criticised for being overly sentimental. But this, for him, was the missing ingredient. He recognised that for change to happen people not only needed the facts, they needed to genuinely feel something for the those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. To bring this point bang up-to-date simply look at the result of David Attenborough highlighting the effects of plastics entering our oceans in his documentary Blue Planet II. Campaigners had been banging on about this issue for ages, but as soon at this programme used some very emotive filming to show birds and sea life suffering it entered our national consciousness and things started to change. So yes, we need facts, but we also need to bring these facts to life with emotion. However, I have recently come to the opinion that a third element is also required.

Any radical change also needs to resonate with our ‘grand-narrative’, that all encompassing, but often background story that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. Our current ‘grand-narrative’ is based on the market economy – on individualism, competition, growth, wealth. It is from this narrative that we derive our sense of self and social status. It is from this narrative that we measure ‘success’. It was from this direction that I suspect the chair of the above meeting was approaching the problem. If we are asked, for very good reasons, to change our lifestyle, even if we are presented with overwhelming evidence about why we should do so, we will find these changes very difficult to bring about if they do not resonate with this narrative. In these circumstances most of us tend to acknowledge the need for change whilst carrying on as normal, often finding some small change that allows us to say that we are ‘doing our bit’. This isn’t denial. No amount of ‘facts’, on their own, will enlighten us. What’s needed is a new grand-narrative. I haven’t got the solution to the problem of bringing this about, but I’m convinced that all the time we hold onto our current narrative all the facts presented to us will be interpreted against it.

What is best for the country?

I don’t know whether it’s my age, or the pedantic philosopher lurking inside me, but certain commonly used phrases are really starting to bug me. Some, like ‘going forward’, whilst annoying and vacuous, are harmless. Some, however, are being used to justify, at best, lazy thinking, at worst, anger and aggression. The worst of these phrases at the moment is ‘what’s best for the country’ – though for ‘country’ you could easily substitute ‘Dorset’ or ‘Bridport’ depending upon circumstances. I was campaigning in Lyme Regis yesterday for a second People’s Vote to help us out of this Brexit mess, and was struck by how passionately the phrase was used, usually as an attack on particular politicians who were seen as acting in their own interests rather than the country’s.

This phrase seems to imply that there exists some objective set of conditions that constitute the best or ideal state the country should be in, and that this set of conditions is obvious to anyone who sets their own interests to one side. There are two fundamental problems with this viewpoint. First, and most importantly, no such set of conditions exist. The closest that you could come to such a set of conditions is to ask “what, for me, should be the goals this country pursues?”. And the answer to this question will vary according to your own values and political orientation. A passionate believer in free-market economics, for example, will cite a reduction in the amount of regulation governing markets and the further spread of market conditions into the public sector. On the other hand, many people on the left (including myself) would cite a reduction in inequality, particularly income inequality, and the spread of the public sector into areas which are currently dominated by the free market. These views are completely at odds with each other, yet supporters of each will consider their view to be ‘best for the country’!

Second, even if we could, to some degree, agree on a future vision for the country, on what goals we want to pursue, we would then start debating how to achieve them. Once again, agreement on this would be thwarted by the fact that no clear objective path to the achievement of any goal can be said to exist. Life, all life, and particularly human social and economic life, is inherently uncertain. For a whole host of reasons related to complexity science, it is impossible to predict with certainty the future state of any system. The most we can hope to achieve is a realistic assessment of various probabilities, but humans are notoriously unskilled in this type of assessment. Even economists, who claim to have turned this into a science, are constantly being brought up short.

When people use the phrase ‘what’s best for the country’, not only do they imply the existence of some ideal future state, they also imply that the vision of this state is clear to anyone who can stop their own self interest obscuring what is obvious to ‘common sense’ – a common sense view that they obviously have and that politicians lack. I suspect that what they really mean is that politicians should simply agree with them and do what they think is best. In my limited experience of politics, my perception is that most politicians are acting and thinking according to their own best judgements of what they consider to be best for the country. Whilst there are obvious exceptions, most politicians are not acting out of self-interest. However, what people in all honesty consider to be in the best interests of the country is both subjective and highly contested.

Democracy

There seems to be no end of new twists to our ongoing political story. As this week’s chapter ends the dramatic tension has been raised to new heights by democracy itself, that most treasured and emotive of characters, being brought under threat of attack. But what do we know about this character? Before we start next week’s chapter I think it may be worth trying to examine Democracy a little closer.

Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is often used to describe what we mean by democracy, even though he didn’t actually refer to democracy as such. But it’s a good starting point anyway. Democracy literally means government or rule making (…cracy) by the people (demos). Any group of people living and working as some form of collective, or having some degree of unity, require decisions to be made at a group level – decisions need to be made that affect the whole group. These decisions could be made by a single person who holds power by force or through some form of inherited right, but under a democracy these decisions are made by group members themselves.

There are a number of obvious advantages to such a system. First, because everyone (or nearly everyone) is involved in the decision making process the welfare of the population as a whole is improved, as opposed to just the welfare of a select few. Second, it is claimed that democratic participation enhances autonomy – that when an individual group member knows or realises that their opinion counts they are more likely to actually have an opinion of their own. And third, because democracy is the best form of government for enhancing equality. This last point is crucial. There is a very strong correlation between the wellbeing and flourishing of human life and the degree of equality the group lives under. So great. Democracy is undoubtedly the good guy and deserves the accolade of hero. Yes?

Well, not necessarily. There are also a number of problems associated with democracy that tend to go unmentioned. A dark hinterland, if you like, that makes Democracy’s character altogether more complex. For now, let’s focus on just two related issues that have been revealed by economists, and a third drawn from philosophy. First, individual preferences do not generally aggregate into orderly collective preferences. When an individual makes a decision or expresses a preference they usually do so for a multiplicity of reasons, reasons that come together in a single mind (their own). This single mind operates almost like a dictator over these multiple reasons. But his process cannot be scaled up to the level of the collective, for the simple reason that individual minds will not be silenced – well, not in a democracy anyway. Second, even if it was possible to produce well defined collective preferences, many, if not most individual motivations for action will always be incompatible with that preference.

A third problem relates to what is sometimes termed ‘the fallacy of collective intentionality’. Intentionality in this respect does not refer to a person’s intention of performing a certain action, but to the relationship of their thoughts and feelings to the objects of these thoughts and feelings. So, for example, I might say that I like red wine or that I consider myself to be European. Both of these are intentional relationships. But to do this at a collective level, to say that ‘we’ like British ale or that ‘we’ consider ourselves to be British, like is so often done, is erroneous. A collective mind does not exist to form such a relationship. All three of these related problems are well illustrated by the political consequences of the 2016 EU referendum, particularly the uttering of phrases like ‘the will of the people’. There is no collective will. All utterances of this and similar phrases are useful metaphors, not statements of facts.

These problems can, to some extent, be overcome by the type of democracy in operation. Referenda are examples of a direct democracy, the type of democracy that emerged (with limited suffrage) in ancient Athens. Because of the reasons outlined above, this type of democracy becomes more and more problematic as the size of the collective increases. It was problematic in Athens (with, say, a total population of 100,000), but by the time populations reach the level of modern states it becomes close to impossible.

However, modern states usually operate some form of representative democracy. Under this form of democracy the people vote to elect a person or persons to represent them at local and national government level. However, if just one person is elected to represent a large group of people (as is the current practice in the UK) then, for all the reasons outlined above, it is impossible for them to directly represent the views of all the people that elected them. Instead, based on their perceived political beliefs and character, that person is effectively elected to make decisions on behalf of the people, and then answer for their decisions at the next election. This problem could be mitigated by a more proportional voting system, one in which it becomes more realist for people to be elected to represent particular ways of thinking.

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is fraught with problems that largely get ignored – mostly because they are complex and hard to visualise. Instead it is easier to resort to metaphors. In this sense, Democracy may still be the hero of our political story, but its character is no where near adequately understood. And whilst not understanding the character of the hero may make for good drama, it seriously problematizes the making of good decisions.