Friday, 30 August 2019

Just pretending

An old joke from the Soviet era was that “the bosses pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.  It had a decent element of truth in it – the economic system worked, after a fashion, as long as everyone continued to pretend that everything was just fine.  But like any structure based on pretence and make-believe (and at the danger of wholly oversimplifying a complex series of processes) it all fell down when enough people stopped pretending.  Perhaps if the workers had truly believed, rather than just pretended to believe, that they were being paid they’d have truly worked, rather than merely pretended to do so.  And the system might not then have collapsed.  It’s conjecture, of course, but I tend to the view that ‘true belief’ can sustain the unsustainable for longer than would otherwise be the case.  Pretence by the few can be sustained if the many believe.
It was brought to mind by yesterday’s news reports which included comments by both Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Tories and Stephen Crabb of the Tories-in-Wales.  Both said that they had directly asked the Prime Minister whether he was serious about seeking a deal rather than a no-deal Brexit, both said that he had given them clear, or even ‘categorical’ assurances that he was, and both claimed to have believed him.  It was a case of the PM pretending to give assurances, and those to whom he gave them pretending to believe him.  (I could be unfairly impugning Davidson and Crabb here – perhaps they really did believe a proven serial liar who scatters categorical assurances around him like confetti before doing the opposite.  But suggesting that they’re stupid enough to believe the PM would be a greater insult to them than suggesting that they’re only pretending to believe him.)
It goes wider than that, though.  Currently, the PM is pretending that he is negotiating with the EU and that, if only he threatens to do enough damage to the UK, they will cave in – and large swathes of the media pretend to believe him, as they solemnly report on the subtleties of the different ways in which the EU are managing to phrase the word ‘no’.  (The same caveat applies – accusing the media of only pretending to believe him is the lesser of the accusations which could be laid at their door.)
Ultimately, however, the problem in all this lies not with those who are only pretending to believe, but with those who really do believe.  Pretence can and usually does collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, but true belief can withstand even the strongest application of fact.  To achieve the aim of getting people to support Brexit, the Brexiteers pretended that the UK had fallen under the control of a foreign power, pretended that that foreign power was in some way holding us back, pretended that immigration was responsible for problems in the fields of housing, education, and health, and pretended that immigration was the fault of the EU.  They knew all along that it was untrue, just a ruse to persuade enough people that their own future depended on them agreeing to voluntarily surrender their rights – or more accurately, the rights of other people.
Pretence by the few is being sustained by belief by the many, and it’s no accident that one of the key elements of the Brexit planning is a major propaganda onslaught designed to sustain that belief in those who already have it, and build it in those who don’t.  It might even work, for a while at least; the economy of the USSR bumped along for quite some time with everyone just pretending that it was working.  But the USSR also had the benefits of a totalitarian system controlling what people could read or say and spying on their every movement.  Whether a project so blatantly based on pretence can survive for long in today’s world of open and rapid communication is doubtful – the availability of alternative news sources and the inability of those driving the process to control them is at least part of the reason for the past three years of lack of progress.  Pretence eventually collapses; the question is about how long that will take.

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