Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn and the nirvana fallacy

A politician who uses the nirvana fallacy gains an easy rhetorical advantage. But it's a double-edged sword.

On the morning after his first address to conference as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was pressed by Sarah Montague on the question of whether, as prime minister, he would ever use the nuclear button. “No” said Corbyn. “I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons. I am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons.”

This puts Labour’s leader at odds with his own party’s policy (the position in which Jeremy Corbyn has, historically, felt most comfortable). It also, of course, undermines the rationale for holding nuclear weapons, which is to deter others from using them on you, in case you use them back (which is why Corbyn’s own shadow defence secretary immediately deemed his answer unhelpful).

In a sense, none of this matters, since Corbyn is never going to be in a position to take such a decision, partly because of unserious answers like this. There is a respectable case that Trident shouldn’t be renewed – it’s just that he didn’t make it, and wouldn’t know where to begin. This exemplifies a problem that extends beyond the issue of national security, and beyond Corbyn: the way in which false dichotomies of perfect versus good shut down serious thought.

Corbyn told Humphreys: “I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons. I am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons. I want to see a nuclear-free world. I believe it is possible.” Like many of Corbyn’s statements, much of this is impossible to disagree with. Even the most hawkish American neo-cons do not pretend that using nuclear weapons is a good idea – it’s more that they argue that holding them, and signalling your willingness to use them, is the best way to stop any being used.

And who wouldn’t want to see a nuclear-free world? President Obama shares Corbyn’s aspiration, though not the belief that it will come about if America, or its allies, unilaterally disarm. But the unpleasant truth is that there will never be a nuclear-free world, for the simple reason that knowledge, once acquired, cannot be unlearnt. Even if all the nuclear powers got together and agreed to dispose of their nuclear arsenals, they would still be nuclear powers, just latent ones, with the expertise and facility to quickly re-arm. The game theorist and arms control specialist Thomas Schelling has questioned whether a nuclear-free world is even desirable:

“In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to pre-empt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to pre-empt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or pre-empt. It would be a nervous world.”

The nuclear question – perhaps the most serious question of our age - does not yield easily to idealism. To grapple with it, you have to put to one side your wish for a world in which nuclear weapons don’t exist, and think hard about the one in which they do.

In a paper from 1969, the American economist Harold Demsetz distinguished between two approaches to public policy: the “nirvana” approach, and the “comparative institution” approach. The former presents the choice as between an ideal norm and the imperfect existing arrangement; the latter as between alternative, real world arrangements, imperfect and less imperfect.

This is colloquially known as the “nirvana fallacy”: the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a problem. A politician who uses the nirvana fallacy gains an easy rhetorical advantage. He can paint inspiring pictures of his perfect world, and attack the existing state of affairs for not living up to it. He can accuse anyone who doesn’t accept its plausibility as cynical, lacking in vision, or principle.

But this advantage comes at a cost, because the nirvana fallacy makes you stupid. It stops you from doing the hard, gritty thinking about how to improve the world we have, since, faced with a series of complex, imperfect options, you overleap them to reach the sunlit uplands of an ideal scenario. Soon, you forget how to think about the real world at all.

The left is particularly susceptible to this problem. Should we intervene in Syria? No, because we want a peaceful Middle East. Fine. That saves you the onerous work of confronting the truth that Syria is on fire, that hundreds of thousands have died there, and that many of the survivors are now pouring into Europe, and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Should we be making hard choices about public spending? No, because we want a high-growth economy in which only the rich pay more tax. Should we reform the way in which the NHS allocates resources, or schools are run? No, because we want a country in which everyone, regardless of background, receives the best healthcare and education, for free. Thank you for the applause, comrades.

Ideals are necessary, but so are plans, and the most admirable idealists are also cold-eyed realists. Abraham Lincoln didn’t think it was enough, as some of the abolitionists of the north did, merely to shame the slavery-supporting politicians of the south. He trimmed and hedged and compromised his way towards abolition. Martin Luther King was not the airy figure of myth, but a highly astute politician and campaigner who out-thought and out-manoeuvred his opponents. He had a dream, but he wasn’t content to live inside it.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Jeremy Corbyn to disavow the nirvana fallacy; after all, he owes his current position to it. Many of those who voted for him find it almost impossible to grasp that the choice is not between an imperfect Labour government, and an ideal one, but between an imperfect Labour government, and a Tory one. They revile the Blair government, but don’t stop to think what the country would be like today if the Tories had won in 1997, and kept winning.

I want to see a Labour Party which gets beyond nirvana fallacies, and engages with the world as it is. I believe it is possible.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.