I attended a panel debate recently on Brexit. It took place at an exclusive private member’s club, situated in a high-end hotel, with a price-prohibitive initiation fee. Just to get in the door, it is safe to say, a certain profile was required. A mid-week breakfast meeting, nearly every attendee was suited and booted, including mostly middle-aged white men hailing from one developed western region or another. Statistically speaking, the room was oozing with inherent bias.
Despite the superficial homogeneity of the room, the political, ideological and cultural disparities were stark, and by the end of the hour dialogue, tensions were palpable. It turned into a surprisingly heated debate, premised mostly on academic economic arguments and historical evidence.
The comments that struck me most however, came from the speaker who spent a couple decades serving under Margaret Thatcher. He almost imperiously purported that had she been in power, a referendum would have never even been conceived, and the current state of crisis would have been nothing more than a fantastical nightmare. His contention — that the primary cause of Brexit was a lack of political leadership — was reiterated emphatically, along with the a priori claim that the “rational population” was misguided through propaganda, also due to ineffective leadership.
Now I don’t challenge that either of those opinions are incorrect, indeed, I am inclined to agree with them on a surface level — particularly with respect to the propagandistic campaigning. But the reality is, the complexities associated with such a revolutionary event, cannot be so binarily reduced. Addressing these two core points, I’ve elaborated on my own views of this chaos phenomenon we’re experiencing, that I think adds some layers of nuance.
The Lack of Leadership
The geopolitical climate has changed dramatically since the days of Thatcher. The rise of intelligent and instantaneous communication has led to unprecedented political aggravation, in many ways we haven’t even yet uncovered. Consider the influence of psychometric political targeting through the likes of Cambridge Analytica, the ability for all individuals to have a voice through mediums like Twitter, and the interconnectedness of media, availing the news of catastrophic events to everyone on the planet simultaneously. I don’t know how anyone, no matter how sound or qualified, could adequately lead a nation given these internationally perplexing factors. Coupled with the growing polarity of interests and social stratification, intra-nation, it’s no wonder the United Kingdom is so confused about its identity. Quite frankly, running a nation in today’s culturally warped, instant-gratification, ultra-commodified, hyper-stimulated and environmentally poisoned world, sounds like my worst nightmare. How can you possibly appease everyone? It’s statistically impossible. This is why none of the precocious entrepreneurs world-over are even attempting to run for office — they’re smart enough to know better. Hence, we’re left in a race to the bottom, where we have reality-show celebrities and power-hungry despots making a charade of our political system.
The Assumption of Rational Actors
Rational Choice Theory assumes that humans make rational calculations to achieve future outcomes in line with their personal objectives, based on a logical analysis of their current circumstances. In an ideal world, humans would shed their emotional biases and make cognitive-based decisions through a process of forecasting. In this scenario, we would be robots.
But as of present day, we have yet proven capable of acting without emotions, and in fact, often incapable of even acting out of our own selfish best interests. Homo sapiens are herd animals, and our instincts often restrict our decision-making ability to assimilate to our peers. We are dysfunctional creatures, who regularly engage in group-think, and are highly vulnerable to manipulation. People are rarely even aware of their ignorance, because the vast majority exists inside an echo chamber of like-minded peers and self-validating news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged. Behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts, rather than on rational analysis. And while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with life in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age.
So I believe that it is a mistake, to put such faith in the “rational individual”. And this means, that the chances of Brexit being a purely rational decision, are rather low. In fact, Google reported that the most widely searched term post-Brexit, was “what is the EU?”. Clearly, the majority of voters were not informed by any facts at all.
So What Then, Caused Brexit?
The world is a brutal place right now. We are emerging from two centuries of the Industrial Era, and have entered what is now termed the Information Era. The paradigms, politics, and cultured institutions that suited a world based on manufacturing of physical assets, are no longer suitable for a world where digital data is the most valuable commodity. To put this in perspective, the combined value of the FAANG stocks — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — outpaces the GDP of India, the world’s 5th largest economy. The internet, which has caused almost as many problems as it has solved, was barely even a thought when Thatcher was in office.
So my assessment is that we, as a global society, as struggling to adapt. We are experiencing the growing pains that are reminiscent to every major geopolitical and cultural transition in history, only this time it’s being displayed publicly, in real-time, and everyone can commentate.
I believe that people are lost. They’re disaffected. The status quo of the neoliberal “democratic” institutions have failed to support many of the disenfranchised, and the only thing they can believe in, is something different. They’re grasping for anything that offers a voice for change. You can’t really blame them. Unfortunately, this means that the world feels a bit like a circus being perpetually smacked in the face by a Mercury in Retrograde. But I think it explains a lot about the antithetical decisions of the Brexiteers and the Trump-bastions.
This is clearly a highly complex, multifaceted situation, and there is simply no singular scapegoat to pin the outcome on. The world is changing too quickly for our institutions to keep up, and it’s scaring the crap out of everyone. And we know that fear-based actions are never, ever, rational.