Brexit: what I got wrong

In April, I posted the following anticipated timeline on Facebook regarding Brexit. Looking at it now makes me laugh, sort of, in a hysterical kind of way.

1: Tories tell angry right-wing voters that they will A: insist on a change to the relationship with Europe. B: Hold a referendum.
2: Tories mop up votes and win election.
3: Tories create fudged Europe arrangement with no real change.
4: Boris aligns with angry right-wing voters to capitalize on fury after staged referendum.
5: Tories announce referendum, list reasons to be afraid.
6: Public told ‘leave’ and ‘stay’ support almost perfectly balanced.
7: Now. (As in April 18th)
8: Labour effectively compromised by appearing to support Tory government position.
9: Staged referendum returns ‘stay’ vote of surprising strength.
10: Tories use apparent mandate to promote unpopular social programs held in reserve for after result.
11: Boris capitalizes on the fury generated by social programs to hijack Tories.
12: Weakened Labour now faces panicked, furious right-wing re-aligned under Boris in next election.
13: Etc.

Wow. How wrong I got that! Really. But despite that, I’m still proud of that post. Here’s why.

1: The referendum was staged

Only now is it becoming clear just how staged it was. The market expected a Remain win. So did the Conservatives. So did Boris. Everything was designed that way. But things did not run as planned, and so now we get this morning’s stunning reveal that Boris won’t run for prime minister after all. Why? Because it’s one thing to capitalize on a nation’s fury. It’s quite another to be responsible for cleaning up the mess that fury causes. I don’t believe for a moment that Gove has somehow pushed him aside. That’s a ridiculous interpretation. Boris has run for the hills.

2: The result did look balanced before the vote, as intended

This is the new pattern. Politicians don’t even have to work at this one—the media does it for them. They sell more clicks if they can make a political contest look charged and close. Which the politicians then use to whip up the appearance of public engagement before tipping the result in their favor.

What’s darkly hilarious about the Brexit outcome is that this time, Britain had lost so much faith in its politicians that they actually did press the death button, rather than shying back in fear. Wow.

3: Labor was handed a sucker’s choice, but Corbyn didn’t take it

The Conservatives presented Corbyn with a heads-I-win-tails-you lose scenario. He could either get up on stage with Cameron and vote Remain, and look compromised, or he could avoid doing so, and look weak. He was supposed to get up on stage, but Corbyn saw that one coming and refused to do so, much to the frustration of the Conservative political machine, I’m sure.

The irony here is that in the wake of Brexit, it’s clear that Corbyn is as out of touch with his own electorate as the Conservatives are. Traditional white working class voters in the UK aren’t so bothered about international compassion or grand federal visions at this point. What they want is their standard of living back, their jobs, and their culture as it was before immigration started to ramp. Corbyn finds himself at the helm of a voter-base of would-be national socialists. That’s not all Labor voters, of course, it’s just far more of them than anyone wants to admit.

The extra irony here is that none of those who’re looking to tear down Corbyn seem to have clued in to this yet. They still think the answer is more Blairism, but that ship has well and truly sailed. You can’t even see it on the horizon any more.

4: Unpopular measures were being held in reserve

The unpopular measure in question, I strongly suspect, was TTIP. Who knows what’s going to happen with that now?

5: I also, in another post, predicted a looming surprise

We had inklings of this outcome before the vote. I smelt trouble in the wind in my last post. I just didn’t put two and two together. I wasn’t spending enough time in the country. I underestimated was how close Britain was to the clifftop of its own rage.

Ironically, I was in the UK for the day of the vote, as it turned out, as my father was having open-heart surgery on the exact same day. His condition was extreme. We half-expected him to die. As it is, he’s making a stunning recovery. My birth-country, not so much.

Maybe the Leave vote will lead to a golden dawn for England, released from the shackles of Brussels, and forging ahead into the future on its own terms. However, I’m not holding my breath.

Why I got it wrong

I think the reason I misread the tea-leaves on this subject was the same reason why many others did. We overestimated the placidity of the British people. We should have known better.

Human beings are designed to seek out low-risk opportunities to exact social punishment, because punishing others is dangerous. It is a form of violence. And the best way to reduce the risks of an aggressive act is to surprise the one being punished. What this means is that human beings don’t become predictable when they’re angry, though that’s what many would like to believe. In some ways, they become easier to organize, but only so long as you’re providing them with an outlet for their rage. Stop doing that, and you become the target. The French Revolution springs to mind.

On top of that, Northern Europeans are past-masters at mutual punishment. It’s built into our cultures. Furthermore, the British identity features a strong through-line of collective refusal to cooperate. That’s been obvious since the Romans. In retrospect, maybe we should have expected the first break in the current oligarchical regime to happen right here. In a way, a Leave vote is about the most English thing that could have happened.

So what happens next?

Regarding Britain, I suspect that nobody is going to really want to claim leadership when what’s on offer is so likely to be a disaster. Britain will either end up with a leader who is massively opportunist, or someone who the oligarchs deem suitable for the task of cleaning up the mess.

Because I believe that that the current crop of leaders is unimaginative, weak, and pre-selected by Britain’s shadow-rulers for their predictability, no opportunist will arise. My best guess is that they will hand the PM job to a woman for the worst possible reasons. I am guessing Theresa May. Either that, or they will hand the job to Gove as a sacrificial animal and use it to destroy him.

Regarding the bigger picture, as per previous posts, I still think the West is involved in a bank war with China. However, rather than being fixated on China’s limitations, I’m now concerned about the West. Increasingly, that bank war reminds me of the Cold War.

At the end of the Cold War, America simply spent the Soviet Union under the table. This wasn’t, as some American Conservatives like to hilariously imagine, a stroke of genius by Ronald Reagan. Rather, it was that Reagan was involved in a self-defeating psychotic spend-fest for reasons of his own.

Now, the tables are turned. The West and China are over-investing  in property and financial instruments rather than nuclear weapons, but the stakes are the same: global dominance. China is wildly overbalanced, but so, as it turns out, are we.

And the cracks are appearing in the West first. The bank war cannot last. Something has to give. So what cracks next? The US, with an alarming Trump victory, or China, involved in minor resource wars with its own neighbors? Who can say?

When a tightly-coupled system gets close to self-organized criticality, each crack in the system increases the probability of the next occurring, in a pattern of escalating cascade. Chances are, we won’t have to wait long for the next exciting installment in our global political adventure. Tune in stochastically-soon folks, the future is now!

Jo Cox, Precipices, China

I’m posting a lot about politics at the moment, but there’s a reason for that. And that’s that modern politics scares me. Apparently, it also scares this guy. In his eloquently blunt article, he expresses his astonishment and concern about the state of the UK. His main topic is the murder of British MP Jo Cox. But in the same week, we also saw the ludicrous battle on the River Thames.

I join Chris in his concern, but I am not astonished. Rather, for me, I feel a kind of gnawing inevitable dread. Why? Because of something called self-organized criticality. I chant this phrase in political discussions with ever increasing frequency at the moment. The wikipedia page drowns the notion in science, so I’ll try to boil it down, and explain why I think it’s relevant.

Complex adaptive systems, like say, forests, or ecologies, or societies, have this tendency to organize themselves to max out the capacity of their environment. They try to squeeze in more and more trees, or lemmings, or dodgy property deals, until their environment collapses to some extent. The reach of the collapse is something you can never tell in advance. And after that, the squeezing begins again.

Our civilization is a complex adaptive system. The global financial industry has squeezed it to a precipice. Partial collapse is now inevitable. That doesn’t mean that the collapse will be big, mind you. The Credit Crunch was a partial collapse, and most of us are still here to talk about it.

This time, the vehicle for the collapse is the panic buying of international property by the rising Chinese executive class, and the attendant money-laundering storm that has come with it. The thing is, rather than let that bubble burst, the Chinese government keep bolstering their economy artificially. This means that the tension in the system cannot slip. Demand for property keeps rising. This makes the probability of a large cascade that much greater.

What does this have to do with the death of a British MP? Everything. Because the West is feeling the weight of that impending cascade, and it’s affecting all of us. It is our property that is being bought to sustain the overburdened system. The middle class is meanwhile shrinking. Xenophobia is growing. People are losing money and they’re starting to behave differently.

When major political shifts happen, they take people by surprise. By definition. When people can see a potential shift coming, they anticipate it. And so they don’t change that much. This means it’s always the changes that nobody believes can happen that strike hardest.

Britain, has for years imagined itself a fusty, sensible place incapable of blind panic or mindless brutality. We look on corruption elsewhere around the world, or even our own past, with confusion and distaste. We imagine that those things can’t happen at home. But of course they can. When a social system breaks, it breaks. The social contract that everyone relied on to keep things normal just goes away. Ditto the USA. Ditto Europe.

Fixing the global political problem is something that we no longer have the means to do through ordinary channels. We cannot will sensible, non-corrupt, kind, left-leaning political parties into existence, no matter how many FB posts we share. That is because the compressed mass of impending change is already too large for us to just-believe-in-democracy our way out.

Instead, what will happen is that something will cause the Chinese log-jam to break while the West retreats into Trumpian panic. Either there will be an unanticipated spike in the price of oil that the overextended Chinese economy can’t handle, or problems from within their own property market will cause a crisis. Say, for instance, the anticipated large-scale turnover of land leases in 2019. In the wake of that change, property markets all over the Western world will undergo massive, simultaneous reorganization.

When this happens, we will have a brief window for action. There will be those who will want to blame the poor, the weak, and the different, because that, unfortunately, is human nature. They will try to start wars. If we do that, things will get worse again. Instead, we should depose our oligarchs, no matter how hard that has become to do.

Whichever country in the world has the strength and far-sightedness to carry out that braver agenda is likely to come out best from the coming crisis. Leveling the economic playing field will create an arena in which functional capitalism of a sort we no longer have can actually occur. Prosperity will follow. It’ll be interesting to see who pulls it off.

In the mean time, I recommend getting to know your neighbors as well as you possibly can. Those with strong, local social ties will weather the coming storm most effectively.



Trump Slug

Slime molds are simple, single-celled creatures nevertheless capable of impressive feats of reasoning. They have a novel behavior that has been much studied. When food gets scarce and their survival is threatened, slime mold cells will bind together to form what’s called a ‘slug’. This slug then functions as a multicellular organism until it can seek out somewhere to release spores. When it does so, some cells in the slug get to reproduce. The rest do not.

I suspect that human beings are very similar. We move around, mostly doing our own thing, until we feel threatened. Then we bind together to form a slug to oppose the threat. That slug will obtain advantage via whatever is the easiest and most expeditious means at its disposal.

What makes humans feel threatened enough to bind? I’d propose that the signaling system is actually quite simple, despite our individual complexity. There are two parts to it. First, we need to feel like we’re experiencing a loss of personal wealth or freedom. Secondly, we need to have evidence from our social context that other people we consider to be like us have also experienced a loss of agency.

When those two signals are matched, we start looking around for something to bind to. But human slugs are not like slime mold slugs. Humans engage in heavy social organization. So we need a central social node. What kind of node do we look for? Once again, I suspect the system is simple.

We look for social defectors. In other words, we look for someone we know can fight and cheat. Someone who is not bound by social constraints. We look for someone who seems less socially constrained than ourselves because when death threatens, we need someone who can and will do anything.

But social defectors are dangerous. How do we know that we’ve found a good one, and not someone who’s just going to screw us over? By looking for one who is already popular. A human who is able to broadcast their defector status and yet isn’t becoming unpopular has shown that they’re a high-functioning defector. The more popular they are, the more likely we are to bind to them.

We call these defectors sociopaths. They show up in about one percent of the population. Which is also, interestingly about 1 / Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s number tells you the notional size of a human tribe. There’s evidence that sociopaths are not mentally ill, and that rather, they’re the result of a naturally selected pattern. I’d propose that this is why.

So why do we have people like Donald Trump? Because we always have. Why does he get more popular when the media tell us he’s an outrageous lying cheat? Because that’s what people are programmed to look for. That looks strong. Why does he tell everyone that people love him? Because that increases the likelihood of our binding. So, no mystery, I’d propose. Why does he remind us of Hitler? Because Hitler was a slug-head. Human slugs don’t look to right wrongs. They seek out advantage by preying on whatever source of social gain appears weak and accessible.

But Trump is ridiculous. He is not strong. He is weak and he will fail. However, while the middle class keeps being robbed, and the media keep scaring us to keep us predictable, people will keep looking around for slugs to bind to. So after Trump fails, which slug-head will the US choose? And in Britain, after the stage-managed idiocy of the Brexit referendum, where will all that social anger go? Who is going to be the English slug-head? I don’t know. Let’s find out!