Imagine you are trying to explain our political divides to a Martian. You quickly realise that talking about what parties people vote for isn’t much use these days. So you talk about the different positions people hold on Brexit or inequality, but that soon gets complicated, and our Martian is short on patience. So you talk about ideologies, but you get bogged down there too: the socialists are not actually calling for socialism, the centrists don’t think they’re in the centre, and the populists are unpopular. You realise, in a panic, that it’s a lot harder than you thought.
Well, I’m here to help. The simplest way to cut through this muddle is to use Hanlon’s razor. In 1980, a computer programmer called Robert J Hanlon coined the phrase, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Where you stand on that statement tells us where you stand on the most fundamental divide of all: between those who ascribe most of the world’s ills to bad actors, and those who ascribe them to errors.
In an essay called “Conflict vs Mistake”, Scott Alexander, an American psychiatrist, has explored these two perspectives. “Mistake theorists” ascribe problems like poverty or homelessness to ignorance and confusion. They believe their political opponents, while wrong, are mostly well-intentioned. On this view, we are all engineers, standing around a malfunctioning machine, arguing over how to fix it. Mistake theorists put a great emphasis on free speech, since they believe that airing a diversity of views makes it more likely that good solutions will be uncovered. They try to understand their opponents’ point of view and believe in the power of persuasion.
“Conflict theorists” think this is happy talk designed to obscure the truth that politics is war by other means. Beneath all political discourse, however polite, there is a collision of irreconcilable interests. Politics is about fighting for your side, which is noble, and vanquishing the other side, which is malicious. Every problem is caused by a powerful group oppressing a less powerful one. Those who deny this are merely effacing their own privilege. Free speech is nice in theory; in practice it means giving oppressors a free pass to denigrate the oppressed.
I’ll use the shorthand of Warriors and Engineers for these two archetypes. The most influential Warrior was Karl Marx, for whom conventional politics was essentially a charade invented to disguise the reality of class struggle. Warriors are still most often found on the left. In the UK, the Labour leadership and its most prominent supporters have a Warrior mindset. In the US, the social justice movement is Warrior-led. The rhetoric of Warriors pulsates with moral disgust; many things are “utterly sickening”. Problems that others say are complex will be easy to fix once bigoted and corrupt elites are swept from power.
Warriors can be found on the right too, perhaps now more than ever. Marine Le Pen presents immigration as an elite project to destroy native French culture. In Britain, Nigel Farage fires up his supporters with talk of a war on Westminster. Donald Trump’s major political innovation has been to adopt a Warrior stance. He is the first zero-sum president. Previously, Democrat and Republican presidents have at least pretended to stand for the whole country, promising a society in which all boats are lifted. Trump says plainly that there are winners and losers – that for some to have yachts, others must sink.
Engineers are uneasy with moralising or divisive language because they believe the other side is misguided, not evil. Their inclination, faced with a social problem, is to be curious about its causes and suspicious of easy answers. When a solution is proposed, they look for unintended consequences. They are sceptical of their own side and open to the possibility that the other side might have something to teach them. None of which makes for crowd-pleasing political campaigns. Warriors tend to be more charismatic politicians than Engineers, who come across as bloodless and mealy-mouthed.
In an age when outrage spreads like fire on oil-slicked water, Warriors rule social media. They offer one-word diagnoses of every social ill (the EU! Neoliberalism!) and one-word solutions (Leave! Nationalise!). They also tend to create more Warriors on both sides: the more successful Trump or Farage get, the more that Engineers feel like throwing off their white coats and tooling up. Engineers are not very good at invoking passion. They scorn Warriors as tribal, but the truth is it’s harder to win people to your side when you don’t really believe in sides.
The downfall of Warriors is that they can’t govern. In power or close to it, their incuriosity is exposed, their bromides are revealed as hopelessly inadequate. They start muttering about constraints and trade-offs, or double down on culture wars. Engineers are often tempted to wait for Warriors to fail, in the expectation that everyone will then turn to them to put the machine back together. But society is not much like a machine, appealing though that idea might be to some (it’s no coincidence that Hanlon’s razor is popular with Silicon Valley technologists). It is as perverse and contradictory as a person.
I’m an Engineer by inclination; I don’t believe moral absolutism is much good; in fact I think it is the root of many evils. But in that maddening way of Engineers, I believe we have something to learn from Warriors. Unless politics speaks to the gut and heart it cannot engage the head. Warriors understand that, at least. People are not logical robots. They are anxious, proud, kind and foolish, roiled by fears and surprised by hope. A politics that doesn’t embody the full spectrum of our humanity is bound to fail, even on its own terms.
Now, try explaining that to a Martian.
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation