And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
It has been very fashionable among populist politicians and their supporters to fulminate against ‘the blob’. The blob is:
- the civil service;
- news reporting organisations other than ones that report ‘good’ news1;
- the BBC in particular;
- scientists, especially climate scientists;
- experts of all kinds;
- the whole legal system;
- the liberal/metropolitan elite in general, however it is defined;
- the deep state, whatever that may mean;
- the reality-based community2;
- anyone who disagrees with whatever plan is in favour this week, or points out that it is not possible, will be economically catastrophic, is illegal, or anything inconvenient like that.
The blob is an amorphous group of people who all think the same way and who all are somehow trying to prevent whatever transformative programme the populist wants to embark on. Which people exactly constitute the blob varies from time to time and populist to populist. Whatever the blob thinks is wrong, and the blob must therefore be eliminated so that we can all get things done3 and, rejoicing in our inevitable victory, march forward to the sunlit uplands of the glorious future that awaits those lucky elect over whom we will rule in splendour for a thousand years.
I’m sure there are many elaborate definitions of what it means to be a populist. One fashionable idea is that populists somehow side with ‘the people’, who are good, against ‘the elite’ (aka, of course, ‘the blob’) who are bad. But definitions vary a lot depending on who is making them and when they made them4. One defining characteristic is that
populists seek to gain power by providing simple, appealing answers to complex, unappealing problems.
These answers are almost always wrong because problems which have easy answers have already been solved and are no longer problems. The definition of a ‘complex, unappealing’ problem is one which does not have a simple, appealing answer.
But it doesn’t matter whether the answers are wrong: they are appealing and easy to understand, and the populist aims to ride that to power. Consider this problem:
foreigners are coming to our country and eating our children!
Well, if you think about it, this is really not that simple to solve: there are quite strong taboos amongst humans about eating other humans – many, perhaps all, claims of large-scale cannibalism turn out not to be true – and there are even stronger taboos against eating children. So what is making these foreigners so desperate that they feel they need to eat children? Even more so, why are they coming here to do it: are there no children to eat locally? Perhaps they have eaten all their own children: but then why haven’t they died out? It’s all, really, quite complicated.
But the populist doesn’t care about this as they have a simple answer:
THROW THESE LOATHSOME CHILD-EATING FOREIGNERS OUT! LET THEM EAT THEIR OWN CHILDREN! BUILD THE WALL! REMEMBER THE SPIRIT OF THE BLITZ! ENGLAND FOR THE ENGLISH!!!
Well, that will certainly fix it, at least until the populist has ridden the wave of disgusted horror at the unspeakable behaviour of these horrible baby-eating foreigners5 to power, wealth and glory.
And what happens then? What happens when the whole problem turns out to be intractable after all? There are a range of answers to that.
People have pretty short memories so a good approach is just to try to forget, either that the problem existed at all, or that the solution was ever suggested. When you come up against people who do remember then you can simply ignore them, or deny that you ever offered the solution or in fact that the problem ever existed at all. While doing so be sure to imply that these inconvenient long-memoried people are acting in bad faith somehow, or are acting against the will of the people which you, of course, represent.
Blaming someone else is also a good approach: of course the problem would be solved by now but the liberal elite – mostly made up of foreigners6 and people who are, you know, different – is preventing the solution for reasons of their own which you will hint, but never quite say, are because they quite like a bit of children-eating themselves, as rootless cosmopolitans7 tend to do. Certainly they are enemies of the people and something must be done about them (that ‘something’ may, you will imply, involve camps).
Of course you can simply lie that the problem has been solved when it has not been. If it’s not, in fact, really a very severe problem – only one baby was ever eaten, and it turns out that the evidence for even that is pretty apocryphal – then you can just declare it solved and move on.
A final, brilliant, approach is to make up problems which do not exist and then, later, declare them solved. Foreigners certainly no longer come here and eat our children: this is, therefore, a problem our glorious leader has solved! Crime also is no longer rising and this too is something which the great chief has strived day and night to achieve and why he must be elected as leader for life. Do not mention that crime was not rising previously, still less that it now is: only enemies of the people with their annoying facts would do that.
What is it that makes the populist’s appealing answers so appealing? What, exactly, do they appeal to? Well, the answer is obvious: just look at the answers that populists give. They appeal to the things that, secretly, ‘everyone knows’ are true: to things that people perhaps think but, until recently and not always even now, most people have not dared to say in public for the last few decades; they appeal to instinct, to intuition, to prejudice, to bigotry. But they never appeal to rationality.
So this is because, secretly, everyone is a bigot, right? No, it’s not: a fair number people are secretly – and, increasingly, not so secretly – bigots of course, but by no means everyone is. Until fairly recently the proportion had also almost certainly been declining for decades. Rather this is because populists are dealing with an awkward truth: there is no division between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’: there are just people, belonging to a myriad different intersecting groupings, with each person usually belonging to many groups. But mostly, there are just people.
So the populist has to invent groups of people to set against each other, and then to persuade enough people that they belong to the ‘good’ group aka ‘the people’ by various rhetorical tricks. There’s no ‘white working class’8, until you talk about it enough, and then suddenly there is. Indeed there is no England, until you persuade enough people that, well, English people are not the same as Scottish or Welsh people, and definitely not the same as people who live on the wrong side of some water who, really, are barely people at all. There is certainly no blob until you persuade enough people that there is, and that the people in it are bad people and should most definitely not be listened to and perhaps, in due course, be eliminated. Not surprisingly a good way to invent these groups is by invoking bigotry, because bigotry is entirely about creating artificial divisions between groups of people.
What they are doing is something physicists call ‘symmetry breaking’, which is a process where initially tiny differences get blown up so they become very large. And they’re doing this so that they can construct a large group of people who will support them, and force into existence one or more other groups who can be identified as the enemy, and who can be blamed for all bad things. A good example of this process is sentiment in the UK about the EU: this was simply not a major issue between 1990 and 2010; yet from 2016 until COVID–19 displaced it in early 2020 it entirely dominated UK politics. The populists have, quite brilliantly, divided the country into ‘the people’ who now desperately want to escape the EU they were hardly aware of only a few years before and a despised elite who are supposed to be plotting to prevent this, and the populists have ridden the division they have invented to power. Brexit is a canonical recent example of gaining power by providing simple, appealing, and wrong answers to complex, unappealing problems.
What sort of people do this?
- Actual bigots, such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Bannon & others. They are not pretending to hate people they see as different, they really do hate them.
- People for whom personal power and glory matters above all else, such as Trump & Johnson. Populism is an easy way of gaining power if what you care about is power rather than the welfare of the people over whom you have power, so people who care about having power above everything tend to be populists when they can’t be despots, or perhaps as a route to becoming despots9. Almost all politicians are interested in personal power, of course: populists are different because anything else can be traded for power. Does anyone really think that Johnson really believes in brexit? Of course he does not: he believes only in Johnson, and he will support anything that furthers that cause.
- Cranks, such as Cummings and perhaps Bannon: the true believers. These people are often sidekicks or advisors & are by far the most interesting group, and perhaps the most dangerous one as well.
Populists are not people who merely want power, or who are involved in extracting money from their position or other forms of corruption: populists do want power, with the possible exception of the cranks, and usually are corrupt, but these things are true of almost all politicians and is not a useful distinguishing feature of populists10.
Anyone who has worked as a scientist or with scientists or in many other fields will have come across cranks. These are the people who have disproved special relativity, who can show that quantum mechanics is incorrect, who believe in perpetual motion and who want to tell you about it in endless, excruciating detail. They seem annoying but harmless until suddenly they aren’t: suddenly they’re refusing to vaccinate their children causing measles outbreaks and threatening herd immunity; suddenly they are destroying telecommunications infrastructure; suddenly they are advocating eugenics and ‘scientific’ racism; suddenly they believe the apocalypse is coming; suddenly, they are the chief advisers to the president or the prime minister.
It’s easy to think that cranks are just stupid people, but they’re not: Trump is stupid and Johnson is superficial, but whatever Cummings & Bannon are they’re not stupid. Instead I think that the distinguishing feature of cranks is that
cranks don’t realise when they don’t understand something11.
So, for example, if I try to understand Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem I very quickly realise that it is beyond my understanding: perhaps if I spent the rest of my life on it I could understand it, eventually. But in practice I couldn’t because I just don’t have enough intuition for that sort of maths, and almost certainly I am also just not clever enough. That doesn’t happen for a crank: if they start off trying to understand special relativity and fail to do so they never recognise that they have failed. Instead, when they start trying to do calculations and get answers which disagree with special relativity or are inconsistent, they conclude that everyone else is wrong: that they alone understand special relativity or that they alone understand what is wrong with it. This then leads to some bad places.
Why does everyone refuse to listen to me when I try to explain how they are wrong about special relativity? Why won’t they publish my papers? Why do they all claim to think the same thing when it’s so obviously wrong? It’s group-think! Do they really believe what they profess to believe or are they hiding something? Is there some kind of hidden conspiracy of elite scientists trying to suppress the truth, which I have now exposed? And wasn’t Einstein, the founder of the conspiracy, Jewish? Why yes, he was. What is really going on here? Why is the cosmopolitan elite suppressing the truth? Are they in league with the financiers? How are the climate scientists involved? What are they concealing from the common, decent, everyday working folk? The truth is out there, if you will only look, however hard the hidden superiors try to conceal it! THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.
Not all cranks are populists, but it’s pretty easy to see why populism attracts cranks: the intellectuals of populism are cranks.
The trouble with populist cranks is that they really believe what they profess to believe. The bigots are just little knots of fear and hatred, the power-seekers don’t really believe anything at all, but the cranks have constructed vast thought palaces which may even, at first sight, seem plausible. And the cranks are not stupid: their simple, appealing answers don’t work because complicated problems simply don’t have simple appealing answers, but they can and will argue for them endlessly in enormous and incomprehensible detail. Arguing with a crank is like fighting an octopus: whenever you think you’re winning there’s another tentacle to deal with.
And the cranks really hate the blob, because there’s a reason the blob disagrees with them: the cranks are wrong. But the cranks are now in power: they have won and they are going to destroy the blob so they’ll never have to listen to all the reasons they’re wrong again. The octopus now has an infinite number of tentacles, and a flamethrower.
Against the blob
What the blob represents is truth: the truth discovered by good journalism, the truth uncovered by the legal system, the truth discovered by scientists and economists. And the populists hate the truth because their programme is built on lies. The bigots hate truth because it exposes their bigotry for the lies it is, and also simply because they are made of hate; the power-seekers hate the truth because they have built their path to power on lies; finally the cranks hate the truth because they don’t understand what truth is.
And so the populists set out to destroy the blob, and with it any notion of truth. The BBC must be eliminated because it tries to keep its reporting unbiased12 and to uncover the truth, rather than this week’s alternative truth. Science must be discredited because the facts it uncovers may be inconvenient, and similarly economists and experts of all kind must go as they seek to point out the gaping holes in the cascade of lies the populists tell: we have, after all, had enough of experts. The legal system must be dismantled and reassembled to suit the populist agenda.
When this is done there will be no truth left: all will be lies and nothing will matter. Any facile answer to a problem can be given to anyone and anyone who points out that it is false or impossible will, if they have not already been dealt with, simply be eliminated. This is what the populists seek to achieve: the death of truth.
The revenge of the truth
Once the truth is dead, simple appealing answers to complex, unappealing problems – otherwise known as lies – are, well, simple and appealing: combined with appeals to the substantial minority of secret bigots & conspiracy theorists they’ve worked pretty well for the populists. Once the blob is eliminated who, really, will care if the answers are wrong? So the good honest people will be poorer once they have gloriously been marched into the sunlit uplands; but they won’t be much poorer and they probably won’t notice. If they do notice, well, look at those cosmopolitan elite Europeans who have made use of their elitist skills to not be so poor: it’s their fault, we should, you know, do something about them, too. So the fruit will rot in the fields for want of people to pick it but we can’t allow those elite dusky foreigners here to pick it: we never liked fruit anyway. And of course the children and grandchildren of the working folk are going to live blighted lives because we chose to treat climate change as some conspiracy of elite blob scientists and anyway doing anything about it would have hurt our investment portfolios13; but, well, we’ll be long gone by then and who really cares about their children? What sort of person even knows how many children he has?
And then, suddenly, not. Suddenly there’s a complex, unappealing problem which is killing people, today. Suddenly you are a faced with a problem which simply does not care about the lies you tell: it cares only about the truth. You can’t lie to something which is not sentient. Suddenly your simple, appealing answers are going to cause tens or hundreds of thousands of people to die, not over a few decades but over a few months, and people won’t have time to forget that it was your wrong answer that killed their friends and their family as they dig the mass graves. Shit just got real.
And suddenly, it turns out that the blob were, all along, not the villains they were made out to be: the boring old civil servants turn out to be good at actually administering things and understand how to deal with crises, the scientists turn out to be good at understanding what it is that is killing people and how to stop it. The BBC turn out to be good at communicating the truths people need to understand if they want to avoid dying. And experts, well, it turns out that experts turn out to be some use after all. The cranks’ tangles of mad ideas turn out to be mad. Real problems don’t get solved by a torrent of bullshit and lies: they need real solutions based on real data and real understanding. The reality-based community turn out to be useful after all. Suddenly the blob is the your best friend, at least until the crisis is over. Truth matters.
Or, well, you could just keep on piling lie on lie and hope no-one notices the piles of corpses rotting in the streets. It’s the American way.
‘Good’ news is, of course, fake news, but not ‘fake news’, which is good news. ↩
‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community”, which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. [But] that’s not the way the world really works anymore”.’ Yes, really ↩
Which things exactly need to get done doesn’t matter very much so long as they have memorable names. The important thing is to do something, something important, something transformative, something that respects the will of the people to which all populists have immediate unconscious access. ↩
I have heard people described as populists because they let the banks get away with things they shouldn’t have in the run up to the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and because they gave peerages to their friends. These are, at best, very odd definitions of ‘populism’: although these activities certainly made the people concerned popular with a group of people, that group of people was ‘bankers and the friends of politicians’, who are not really ‘the people’. ↩
Although it may not be stated there will, of course, be no doubt that the filthy baby-eaters are both ‘dusky’ and have ‘watermelon smiles’, even when they are not looking like letter boxes. ↩
Not, of course, the baby-eating kind. On the other hand you never know: what do they eat at their elite dinner parties? ↩
There is a working class, or at least there was, but does it really matter what colour your skin is if you belong to it? Is the implicit ‘black working class’ distinct in any way other than the colour of its members’ skin? Why would anyone who was not trying to create division where none really exists use the term ‘white working class’? ↩
In so far as he is capable of planning, this seems likely to be Trump’s plan. ↩
Although Trump is corrupt in a deeply spectacular way. ↩
For cranks, there are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns. ↩
‘The corporation is either “stacked full of right-wingers” (as a Guardian columnist complained) or so lefty that even its “Sherlock” detective drama contains anti-Tory messages (as claimed by the Daily Mail). Yet polling by the Reuters Institute finds that the BBC reaches an audience that is broadly in the middle of the political spectrum. This contrasts with its main commercial rivals, ITV and Sky, whose viewers lean to the right, and with public broadcasters in other countries, whose audiences usually lean left’ – The Economist, 25th April 2020 ↩
Of course we don’t have investment portfolios, because we are simple honest people, like you. Almost everyone at Eton is the first generation of their family to have gone to school, don’t you know: their fathers were down the pit at fourteen. Of course we’re not shorting the pound: I don’t even know what that means … oh, hello, sorry I have to take this call from my, ah, friend … hello, yes, yes, 14 at 330, yes, buy Euro, yes, jolly good. ↩