Are Politicians Liars? Taking a Step Back from Brexit, Steve Fuller

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


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Among the most striking features of the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been the speed with which the victorious politicians promoting Brexit have rowed back from their more extravagant promises about the extra funds and fewer migrants which would follow from leaving the European Union. For their part, anti-Brexit politicians have been busily mounting legal challenges to show that the referendum is not binding, or at least not the last word on the topic. And indeed, legally speaking, the anti-Brexit politicians may be correct. But had they—specifically, UK Prime Minister David Cameron—presented matters this way at the outset, it is unlikely that the referendum would have received the highest turnout of any election in British history. 

In effect, one bunch of politicians promised the electorate the moon after the other bunch of politicians had persuaded them that the moon was at stake. Little surprise, then, yet another wave of the familiar ‘All politicians are liars’ sentiment has been unleashed. My lesson here is that when people ‘trust’ politicians in a parliamentary democracy, they should do just that—that is, trust the politicians not their words.

This judgement sounds harsh, maybe even cynical. But that’s only because people, as well as many politicians, don’t appreciate that democracy is the ultimate ‘work in progress’, especially if we think of it as involving ‘the masses’. Before the Enlightenment, the only stable democracies were ones whose members were rough cognitive and material equals—i.e. the city-states associated with ‘republican’ democracy, in which citizenship was an elite privilege. However, the Enlightenment took seriously that the scope of democracy could be extended across the population by sophisticated ideas of ‘representation’ allied to educational policies designed to trigger people’s innate capacities for self-representation. Thus, someone like Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university, envisaged a telos to democracy that started with Parliament’s paternalistic representation of its constituents and ended with a general assembly of well-educated equals, for whom ‘representation’ would amount to a direct administration of their collective will. The famous Marxist expression, ‘the withering away of the state’, originated in this context.

But exactly where are we on this trajectory?

Some would say that we are still very close to the start of the process because the trajectory itself is a product of wishful thinking: Democracy doesn’t scale. To be sure, much of Silicon Valley’s interest in politics is precisely about trying to fast forward to Humboldt’s end-state through one or another technological fix, something which the journalist Evgeny Morozov has derided as ‘solutionism’. Morozov may doubt the purity of Silicon Valley’s motives, but the deeper grounds for scepticism are epistemological: Can the mass of people ever be expected to be sufficiently ‘trained’ to arrive at a sense of self-interest which converges with the national interest, so as to enable collective deliberation to occur within a tolerable range, resulting in only win-win situations? If not, then maybe the second best solution is for the people to trust the judgement of politicians, who without being infallible or blameless nevertheless are—or at least are supposed to be—their epistemic and moral superiors. If not, then of course there is always the next election to replace them.

But once again, to trust politicians need not mean trusting their words—at least in terms of their providing a transparent representation of either the state of the nation or, for that matter, the state of their own mind. Does that make them liars? No, it simply means that politicians don’t trade in what philosophers used to call ‘ordinary language’. Just as scientists are allowed ‘technical usage’, and priests and theologians are allowed ‘symbolic usage’, politicians engage in proleptic usage. ‘Prolepsis’ is the trope deployed to conjure up the presence of events before they actually happen. In classical culture, it was invoked by prophets to express adumbration, ‘the shape of things to come’, as H.G. Wells memorably put it in the twentieth century. But politicians—as purveyors of hope and fear—are also in the same business. Thus, their words are always just proxies for what they’re really trying to say.

Once this point is appreciated, we can begin to understand Machiavelli’s infamous declaration that in politics ‘the ends justifies the means’. He was regarded as blasphemous in the early sixteenth century but not because he made politicians look cynical—today’s interpretation. Rather, it was because he would arrogate to humans—specifically ‘the prince’—a perspective that only God could legitimately command. But what is this perspective which permits one to indulge in proleptic rhetoric?

Suppose we believe in an overarching creative deity whose transcendent status enables it to operate everywhere all the time. This may be a difficult starting point in today’s secular world, but it has made perfect sense to Christians down through the ages. In that case, the deity’s actions will often appear strange or even perverse in terms of human expectations, which admittedly are based on decidedly inferior knowledge. Integral to this cast of mind, which by the early eighteenth century Leibniz called ‘theodicy’, is the belief that such moments of strangeness are resolved in the fullness of time as we come to realize the greater divine ends that they serve. All modern secular utopias have retained features of this sense of what the US historian Carl Becker called ‘the heavenly city’ in the distance—often inspiring both significant sacrifices and significant disappointments.

Now suppose you can imagine yourself as a vehicle of divine agency in the above sense. Moreover, you don’t feel the need to secure the approval of the Pope or any other religious authority purported to have more direct access to the deity than you. In that case, you’re ready to enter politics! So then, what are you doing when you communicate with your constituents? Consider a concrete example.

Suppose you say that your policies will raise income levels. But income levels as such aren’t really the thing that matters. They are simply the means to express some larger sense of the quality of life. So, if your opponents or events beyond your control disable you from delivering on the relevant income levels, you admit this, apportion blame as necessary and carry on with your general vision by appropriating the next most expedient vehicle. Of course, it’s unfortunate if some people actually believed in your quite specific policies for raising incomes on which you failed to deliver. But if these people are politically savvy, they—like you—will be able to roll with the punches and subscribe to the next set of promises you offer, as long as they believe that you’re going in the right general direction.

In short, people—politicians and non-politicians alike—can cope with the world of politics if they can adequately trade off their short term against their long term interests. This requires a capacity to convert one’s immediate ends into means by which some further, and perhaps quite distant, ends might be pursued. Some might regard this move as ‘selling out’, if not a polite admission of outright failure. However, such behaviour simply reflects the long time horizon over which politics is played out. So not surprisingly, politicians will do all they can to keep their vision appear steady, even as they launch and abandon ships with alarming regularity.

Because science operates on a still longer time horizon than politics, we are more forgiving of the shifts in position that diligent scientists invariably make as they pursue the ‘truth’, which once revealed is often profoundly different from what had been initially expected. Perhaps we should extend the same charity to politicians.

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2 replies

  1. Markova Lyudmila
    I agree with Steve Fuller that such an event as brexit should be studied from the standpoint of philosophy and sociology. However Fuller’s philosophy is suitable for this purpose, in my opinion, much more than any other. And it seems strange that he doesn’t use his own ideas for the understanding of today transformations in society. As for me, I have come to the interpretation of thinking in the light of social epistemology first of all in the mainstream of Russian philosophy of the last decades. Of cause there are differences in my positions with Fuller’s, but the main in them is alike.
    I hope Fuller will agree with my interpretation of his understanding of what is social epistemology. The main idea in Fuller’s fundamental question of social epistemology is the necessity to overcome in some way an inevitable diversity in the conditions of scientists’ activity, if we want to receive a result, which could be recognized by all members of a given community as true. The difficulty is to explain how we receive a true result, if we need to preserve the varying degree of scientist’s access to the existing knowledge in different laboratories and at different times. If we neglect the fact that the contexts of the same study, conducted in different places and at different times, may not be reproduced in all their parts (they are all the same), we will be dealing with one study and one result. In another case (a lot of different contexts, many results), we will have to deal with many truths. In science, the problem of pluralism and relativism emerges. It is difficult in this case to answer a question: in what way is it possible to establish a link between them?
    Let us look at a society. The EU has never been concerned about the saving of individual characteristics of the countries entering in it. The laws are the same for all of them. Both political and economic systems are sufficiently rigid. We can say that EU’s social system is authoritarian. Even in the Soviet Union there were not rules that would define the size and shape of cucumbers designed for market or the amount of fish that is allowed to catch in a particular place. And now, of cause, countries want to determine themselves the number of refugees they can take. Certainly there are many advantages to EU member states. Until now the benefits outweighed the inconveniences. But finally the desire to regain independence and the ability to decide their destiny begin to dominate.
    I believe that the population of the GB wants to live as they want, in accordance with their own, historically formed, habits and rules. The British have their history, culture, as well as their attitude to religion, political structure of their country. I believe that people in the first place, and not the elite, felt the discomfort of the situation. To my opinion it would be better for the GB to develop outside of the EU.
    Now a few words about democracy in connection with the discussion on the topic of brezit. I believe that the US, for instance, is a democratic country if we look at its internal policy. I am not speaking now about the additional safety measures, related to the terrorist threat. They are necessary. Inside the country domestic laws defend every citizen. Any citizen has a right to preserve his religion, culture, political views. Let us put a question: is it not possible, even necessary, if we want to be democrats, to look in the same way at foreign countries? Can we consider every country as a living organism, which has its own history, culture, religion, habits at last? May be we do not like their political systems, because they are not democratic, for example, systems of Iraq or Libya. But is it a reason to destroy them using a military force? I believe that it is forbidden for any democratic country. If you are a democrat, your behavior must be democratic always, in any situation, both inside your own country and abroad. All countries are different, in the same way as all human beings are different, and communication between them will be successful only if there is a respect for the singularities of each of them. In the EU such respect is absent.
    One could say that such a thing as globalization implies the existence of some common beginning for all countries and nations. It really is. But there are two features in contemporary world that are equally important. Globalization is the result of the formation of a specific type of civilization, informational- technological civilization, where we have instead of vapor-machine, computer as a basis, instead of energetic technology we have informational technology. Transmission of information on the other end of the world may take a fraction of a second. The world is changing radically, and the new type of technology brings people closer together. But at the same time we are witnessing the awakening of national consciousness, seemingly long-forgotten customs, norms of behavior in everyday life, religious rituals and so on. It is not always this return to the past makes modern life better. Religious wars are one of such adverse consequences. At the same time the relationships between nations cannot be realized without taking into consideration their difference from us.
    The same is true in science. If we want to prove the superiority of one theory over another, we need to know this other theory, what we deny in it and for what reason. Only in this case we can establish relationship with our predecessor, the relationship, which we need not less, then it. But the past theory is set in the context of our day’s knowledge. This is not the place to discuss the features of modern science, but some of the main ones I would like to mention. Context, which is a kind of soil for the birth of a new knowledge, contains not only knowledge of the past, but many other things that are not directly connected with scientific knowledge. Fuller calls some of them when formulating the main problem of social epistemology. It means that in the result of scientific study these not scientific elements must be present in some way; they have for this the equal with scientific elements rights. From the beginning the aim was not only to get answer to scientific issue, but to resolve at the same time social or economic problem, without waiting for the applied science uses the knowledge gained to practical needs. The same is vice versa. Solution Brexit problem once again justifies social epistemology as an expression of the essence of our thinking.
    I believe that Fuller is interested in such an event as Brexit because it coincides with his thinking in the frame of social epistemology and helps us to understand its main ideas.

  2. Lyudmila A. Markova

    Justice and Laws in the human activity

    Steve Fuller pays attention to a very important peculiarity of the current thinking and corresponding activity. He tries to understand the role of moral, the significance of difference between truth and lye in light of Brexit. Really, what does it mean to follow rules in politics? If a politician promised something to his electorate, is he obliged to fulfill his promise? And if he does not do it, is he a liar? Fuller begins his article in such way:
    “Among the most striking features of the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been the speed with which the victorious politicians promoting Brexit have rode back from their most extravagant promises about the extra funds and fewer migrants which would follow from leaving European Union”.
    In Fuller’s reasoning I would like to distinguish two issues. The first one is that if we should be able to consider a politician, who did not fulfill his promises, as a liar. The second issue is that if an act is contrary to law or moral standards, but is just, we can approve it. Fuller has in mind a honest politician, who aims to benefit the future of the country or even of the whole world, but not of his own interests. Let us agree with this, but with some reservations. The same goal can be perceived as noble by one politician and as criminal by the other, there is no oneness here.
    Fuller’s opinion is that some great idea plays an important role in politics if the people believe in it. There are two reasons for this belief. Few understand the essence of the idea and agree with it. The other reason is that most do not understand the far end of the policy, they are not immersed in the political life, but they believe in their political leader, in his human qualities. In both cases it is important if they are ready to convert their “immediate ends into means by which some further and, perhaps quite distant, ends might be pursuit”.
    I think that nevertheless most know and understand the basic idea which is to them the purpose of their life. It was so in the Soviet Union, where Bolsheviks were able to make the idea of building socialism attractive to the majority of the population. When in the middle of the last century the faith in socialism weakened, the state has collapsed. No one can keep power without the support of population, at least of the majority. I mean real majority, not as a result of vote.
    For me it is important that Fuller uses moral notions when reasoning about any political event, for instance such as Brexit. Is it important for a politician to be moral? May he be a liar in some cases for to be able to fulfill better his promises? Usually it is considered that it is necessary to obey in politics the laws and rules fixed in constitutions, in the documents of the United Nations, in the prescriptions of religion and culture. Indeed, without such a submission, no society can exist. But in the real life it happens that we are forced to break the law, and not because we are criminals. In the modern policy we see that in some cases international laws are violated, and sometimes with best aims. It is possible that with time some laws should be changed, for instance laws of the United Nations, which were adopted in the middle of the last century. However, in any case a law is an indication how you need to act. Religious prescriptions are sometimes even more severe for a believer than political laws.
    I remember a discussion between Steve Fuller and Adam Riggio about Fuller’s “Knowledge: the Philosophical Quest in History” (2014). Fuller expresses there an important idea that readiness to do something forbidden, for instance to kill, “need not be something imposed from the outside (even by God) but can – and should – be something that is voluntarily assumed on one’s own part” (KK, Part III). In other words, a man expresses himself in such an act, and not only. He forms his personality in opposition to the existing laws, human or religious. He can do it on the basis of his ethical beliefs. He makes a choice, which is sometimes very difficult; it can change his whole life. But he takes responsibility on himself. Brexit is a very serious event for the GB and for Europe in general. However I do not think that the consent or refusal to Brexit means for the politicians the violation of the EU laws.
    I am not going to discuss the laws of the EU or the GB, it is not my aim. I want to say that moral and ethics play a serious role in current politics. And it is connected with the fact that much more often than in previous time we face the incapability of religions, cultures, domestic habits, ways of life. Globalization brings peoples closer, but at a short distance differences are more noticeable and communication more difficult. Now tension reaches a maximum between migrants and indigenous habitants of the West Europe. Brexit is a political event, which contains many moral, ethics features. Even in science it is difficult to predict the result of investigation. Imre Lakatos wrote about this, taking as an example the math. Fuller also compares politics with a science: “Because science operates on a still larger time horizon than politics, we are more forgiving of the shifts in position that diligent scientists invariably make as they pursue the “truth”, which once revealed is often profoundly different from what had been initially expected. Perhaps we should extend the same charity to politicians”.
    Events like Brezit occur as an extension, on the one side, of the existing order, in which appeared, however, some problems, to the future; and at the same time, on the other side, these events are actions of some politicians who are trying to overcome the emerged difficulties in their country by breaking the existing laws and creating new ones. We can take as an ideal example the problem of the theodicy, which was discussed by Fuller and Riggio ( I had referred to it above). I believe that if a man always knew beforehand what is good and what is bad, if he did not need to think, what choice to make in these particular circumstances, we could not say that we are created in the image and likeness of God. After all, Jesus made a choice between death and faithfulness to his convictions. I’m more on Fuller’s side in this discussion.
    As for Brexit perhaps it would be better in this case, like in many others, to pay more attention to the idea of justice and not on the need to obey the laws.

    P.S. Just as I was writing my comment to Fuller’s “Are Politicians Liars?…” I got his post “Why I’m not Afraid or Ashamed of Cosmopolitanism” and I decided to react to it with a very short remark. Both socialism and democracy cannot be good for every country and every people. The Soviet Union tried to spread socialism all over the world; we know what the end was. Do we want the same end for the United States, which follow the way of the Soviet Union? The difference is only that they spread not socialism, but democracy.

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