Now the elite wants to colonise our brains

As the election date is announced, it’s becoming clear that the political class views the electorate as an incomprehensible, inscrutable blob.

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Politics UK

In March, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill was invited to speak at the Battle for Politics in London on the question: ‘Do they know what we’re thinking? Changing attitudes to the electorate.’ His speech is published below.

The main problem we face today is not that the political elite doesn’t know what we’re thinking – it’s that the political elite doesn’t care what we think.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the political oligarchy which rules Britain looks upon the mass of the population as simply the targets of its various initiatives. It doesn’t look at us as rational political actors whose minds should be engaged; it looks at us as an incomprehensible, inscrutable blob whose behaviour must be managed. It is not interested in what we think; it is only deeply concerned about how we behave.

We live under an elite which conceives of itself as an isolated bastion of liberalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and official anti-racism, and which conceives of everyone else as caricatured Daily Mail readers with base instincts and vulgar passions who must somehow be remade.

It’s worth casting our minds back to the last UK General Election, in 2005. By far the most revealing and memorable slogan from that election was the Tory Party poster that said: ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ There were all these ads around Britain saying ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking…’ and then the slogan was followed by statements like ‘it is not racist to impose limits on immigration’, ‘the education system is in disarray’, and so on.

There were two very revealing things about those posters. First, they revealed that the political class hasn’t got a clue what we are thinking. The Tory Party was basically crying out: ‘What is on your minds?! Please give us a clue.’ It really captured the chasm that exists today between the rulers and the ruled.

The second revealing thing was the way in which liberal sections of the elite responded to the posters. Because although there was no chance of Michael Howard and his ridiculous Tory Party winning the 2005 General Election, those posters really freaked out the liberal elite, who thought that the Tories might win by successfully tapping into the public’s apparently warped mindset.

One newspaper columnist said it was irresponsible of the Tories to try to connect with people’s minds in this way, in what he described as our ‘hypersensitive’ era of racism and immigration concerns. Another liberal columnist said that every time he saw the posters he thought to himself: ‘Actually, what is this country really thinking?’ He said he was worried that whatever it was, the Tories might unleash it and exploit it and romp to victory in the election.

The fuss around those posters revealed both the political class’s cluelessness about what we think and its fear of what we think. On one side we had the Tory Party’s incomprehension of the masses, and on the other side the liberal elite’s fear of the masses, to the extent that they would rather have not known what we were thinking. It was too terrifying for them to contemplate and they were angry with the Tories for asking us in the first place.

This kind of attitude, this a priori assumption that the electorate is made up of strange, unpredictable, cartoonish Daily Mail readers, now infuses mainstream politics. The political elite really thinks of itself as a superior race – a superior race of liberals, if you like, with the rest of us as a mongrel race of reactionaries.

Take an issue like the recession. What was the elite’s first reaction to the recession? One of the first things the government did was publish a report called ‘Real Help Now for Women’ in which it promised to protect women from an expected rise in wife-beating. New Labour’s Baroness Scotland warned that ‘domestic violence will rise with increased financial worries’.

The next thing it did was launch a campaign against what one government minister described as ‘credit crunch racism’. Government officials said that the ‘permanent and embittered underclass’ (their words) might take their anger out on ethnic minorities. Then the government announced that it would train an army of therapists to deal with what it labelled ‘the epidemic of anxiety’ that the recession would cause.

The elite is not interested in what you think about the recession, or the economy, or capitalism – it is only concerned with controlling your inner Daily Mail demon. You see this in virtually every political issue these days. From immigration to terrorism, from the recession to the workplace, the political oligarchy doesn’t care what we actually think about any of those important issues – it is only concerned with regulating our passions in relation to them, with managing our behaviour, with bestowing some of its enlightened cosmopolitanism on to the moronic masses.

This becomes particularly clear when we consider the growth of the ‘politics of the brain’, the ‘Nudge industry’, the new psychosocial nonsense that all of the parties have bought into, which says the new site of politics should be the nerve endings in the human brain itself.

This politics of behaviour, as some of them openly and shamelessly call it, this idea that people can be ‘nudged’ into new forms of behaviour by having their brains massaged in a certain way, is built on the premise that we are not rational beings to be engaged with. Its very foundation is the elite’s view of us, not as people to be talked to, argued with and potentially won over, but problematic beings to be remade. In the words of the Royal Society of Arts’ Social Brain Project, which is spawning many of these ideas, ‘people are often systematically irrational’. And why would you care what irrational people think? You wouldn’t. You would only care about making them rational somehow, by reshaping their nature.

This is all deeply Orwellian. There’s a powerful element of Doublethink. We have already heard [from another speaker on the panel] the term ‘libertarian paternalism’ to describe the power of nudge politics to steer people in the right direction – which brings to my mind the slogan ‘freedom is slavery’ from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. And the entire politics-of-the-brain project, the growth of psychosocial approaches and behavioural management techniques, brings to mind O’Brien, the torturer in Nineteen Eighty Four. As O’Brien says to Winston: ‘We create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.’ That is clearly what today’s superior race of liberals thinks, too.

But we are not infinitely malleable. We are not putty for the elite to play around with as it sees fit. I think we should go into this election telling them that the grey matter inside our heads is off limits, our relationships are off limits, our homes and personal lives and all the other arenas where they think we are doing disgusting things are off limits. They should engage with us as free, rational beings who have lots of ideas, or not engage with us at all.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at the Battle for Politics, organised by the Institute of Ideas, in London on 20 March. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called for a fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. He also argued that immigration had been turned into a tool of social engineering. Stuart Derbyshire explained that brain dysfunction did not cause the recession. Martyn Perks called ‘nudging’ the very antithesis of choice. Neil Davenport criticised those hoping the recession will correct human greed. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

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Topics Politics UK