Life is increasingly resembling the Web, as discussion gives way to ‘negation’
What a year! From Brexit to Donald Trump, we seem to have entered an age of ‘negation’; a collective movement against one system or another (usually the status quo), with absolutely no compunction to offer an alternative. Football fans have long since popularized the phrase – and ideology – ‘ABU’ (Anyone But (Manchester) United), and this logic seems to have taken hold in a political context.
The Brexit vote was presented and interpreted as ‘against’ everything from the incumbent Conservative government, or the entire political establishment, to low cost labour arriving from Eastern Europe, or a supposed ‘loss of control’ to faceless European bureaucrats. This list of ‘negatives’ was not, however, matched by a range of solutions or proposals to address the same. Upon the vote to leave the European Union being announced, the leader, of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farange, promptly resigned, as did Boris Johnson, the most vociferous ‘leaver’ in the Conservative Party. Six months on, UK citizens are no clearer on exactly what Brexit means, nor when, how or if it will be implemented.
Donald Trump’s victory appears to provoke more questions than answers; how will insulating US business from foreign competition make them more competitive, or how extraditing the lowest paid section of the community, which generated over $2.5 billion dollars last year1, will actually generate more local employment. Again, Trump’s victory has all the characteristics of ‘negation politics’; against the establishment, incumbents and foreigners, but proposing little in exchange. The absence of any tangible manifesto was beautifully reflected in the fact that – according to the Washington Post – his campaign actually spent more on baseball caps than opinion polls!2
Politics is beginning to resemble the polarizing excesses of the Internet. As anyone visiting a political – or sports – forum will attest, dialogue and discussion has long been replaced by assertion and counter-assertion. Today, the Web appears overrun by single issue obsessives who defend their cause or attack that of their rivals; there is simply no room for discussion.
Returning to my football analogy of earlier; a few years ago I received a dose of the ‘binary Web’ first hand. Commenting on tributes marking Arsene Wenger’s 1000th match in charge of Arsenal, I had published a light hearted Tweet suggesting that Arsenal FC were absolutely identical to FC Barcelona (with the exception that the former never actually win anything)… rather like me exactly resembling Brad Pitt (ignoring only the latter’s height, wealth, good looks and film career)! Anyway, I received the vilest responses and abuse from so-called Arsenal ‘fans’ for about a week. Apart from officially registering ‘the death of irony on the Web’, I also realized that it has become, not merely polemic, but exclusively confrontational. None of the respondents to my Tweet offered any evidence contradicting its veracity (at that time Arsenal had completed over a decade without winning a trophy), or any alternative interpretation of the same facts… it was all pure negation.
Earlier this year, the Financial Times columnist Tyler Brule, highlighted the same issue : “As for the comments section that hangs off the bottom of this column on the website, something very strange happens in a digital environment when people don’t need to reveal their true selves or go through the effort of having to type in an address, or the exercise of constructing their thoughts in a more formal manner… ?”
The final phrase encapsulates the politics of negation; there is actually no requirement to construct thoughts or an alternative solution. That’s what makes it so seductive.
More negation was apparent last week in Europe. Last Sunday, Italy’s citizens were invited to vote to change the constitution to limit the powers of the second parliamentary house (the Senate), making it easier to pass and approve legislation. The impasse between the two houses is notorious, fueling a political sclerosis that has seen over 60 governments in power since 1946. As things stand, it is actually impossible to govern a country with 13 separate parties in the Chamber of Deputies and also in the Senate, any of who can potentially form a simple coalition to block legislation.
Italy voted against the constitutional change, so now it can look forward to welcoming their 62nd post war Government some time next year. I’m not sure if that adds up to much of an ‘alternative solution’ but as pure negation goes, it’s perfetto.