31 Dec

Where does our political consciousness begin? Lessons from the Year of Rage (2016)

The second of a two-part series reflecting on 2016

In classical Athens, the individual (man) was defined by their status in the polis. To be an individual was to be Athenian, a legal citizen of Athens. There was no distinction between the two; the personal subject existed because it was a public (=political) subject. In other words, it was not ‘I am Athenian and I am an individual’, but rather ‘I am Athenian which means I am an individual.’ One’s political consciousness began and ended at the collective level because of the political choice to be Athenian. I have always been fascinated by this aspect of classical Athenian politics, especially its relevance in public life today.

The day after the Brexit referendum, I packed my bags for Calais, France to volunteer in the refugee camps. I could only describe those three days as surreal, the word Merriam-Webster dictionary chose as their word of the year. Oxford Dictionaries choice of ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year and Merriam-Webster’s selection of ‘surreal’ reflect our collective disbelief at the political events of 2016 and our role in them. We are all grappling with this one question: ‘Where does our political consciousness begin?’

At what level am I made aware of my political sense of self, the ability to perform political action and consequently my accountability to the outcome? Is it through a recognition of my own actions (individual level) in an outcome or through a recognition of collective actions and its contribution to the outcome? Political philosopher, Karl Marx, proposed that consciousness was not a neurobiological or philosophical process but a political one. According to Marx, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’

For some thinkers, however, political consciousness begins at the individual level. The recent editorial by United Nations Associations UK (UNA-UK) , on the role of facts and evidence in international affairs, outlines the role of cognitive bias in processing information and how it consequently affects our political views. Kartik Hosanagar shares a similar idea, proposing that digital echo chambers arise in part because of digital algorithms created by Facebook and other social media but ultimately because of the online networks we build and the content we choose to engage with.

Duncan Green and Simon Moss both suggest political consciousness begins at the emotional level of the individual. In his post reflecting on post-truth politics, Green recommends we should use the post-truth momentum to improve support for global development by employing narrative over facts because narratives communicate the ideas an individual has about development, rather than the problems we face in development. He comments, ‘What kind of emotions are we trying to evoke? What is the underlying picture of the world? I would say positive emotions like trust, love, pride and self-reliance, laced with anger at injustice and discrimination.’

Simon Moss adds that narrative should appeal to people’s ideas of themselves as opposed to an aspirational view of the world. He shares, ‘Not everyone is interested in the detail of development policy, but most people care a lot about whether they feel proud of their country, and whether their efforts make a difference. And that’s our challenge now – to take our collective facts, and link them back to the feelings that have always driven politics.’

For Lahcen Haddad, post-truth politics is an individual’s active response to the status quo. For Haddad, post-truth politics is ‘to vote not to look for solutions but to express a malaise; rejection and refusal have been more important to voters than projects and policies.’ Haddad suggests this individual level of political consciousness has led to the destruction of collective political consciousness, ‘the exit of nut-and-bolt policy schemes to remedy the ills of society in place of grand, and probably unfeasible, ideas like building huge walls, deporting millions outside the country and killing predecessor’s policies.’

Haddad touches on an important point which is that post-truth politics is not just about the individual consciousness but the relationship between the individual and the collective levels. Take for example, the issue of evidence in policy-making. Cahal Moran, Zach-Ward Perkins and Joe Earle explore how public perception of experts in economic policy contributed to the nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric in the Brexit referendum. Economic policy simultaneously dictated political debates but was left to unelected and unaccountable ‘experts’ to manage. They explain,

‘But the language of nationalism and immigration filled the vacuum in the absence of a public language and spaces in which people could air their economic grievances. Nationalist and anti-immigration arguments clearly had more resonance with people’s lived experience of ‘the economy’ than abstract economic forecasts. Unless economists and politicians find a way to give people a feeling of ownership over economics and the tools to engage in economic debate, we risk economics becoming completely disregarded as irrelevant or propaganda. This outcome is a sure way to being locked into post-truth politics.’

To Howard White, transforming the relationship between the collective and individual is also key. White suggests evidence-based policy can survive the present backlash if it works to include socially excluded groups in the policy process and if the concerns of individuals (irrespective of which side of the debate) are taken to be legitimate concerns and not dismissed based on facts or evidence.

What this all means for post-truth politics in international relations is still unclear.  In his article, Marc Limon concludes that global governance is less susceptible to post-truth politics and surreal events because international relations operates on a rules-based regime rather than, ‘the ‘minds’ and ‘hearts’ of the British and American body politic.’ I wonder if his assertion holds true in collective interest issues such as climate change.

In a way, 2016 has given me hope that politics in public life is no longer ascribed to formal institutions and formal actors (i.e. political office-holders) but is slowly taking up space where it is meant to be; in everyday interactions, in language and most importantly in the way we define our individual and collective selves. 2017 will undoubtedly see more surreal events and an evolution of the way politics interacts with our digital and real persons. Digital diplomacy anyone?

To another year of transitions!

Above: Zaytouna Bay, Beirut, Lebanon

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