Wednesday 23 December 2020

Fantasy Politics

Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit, for example, is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.

The great appeal of fantasy politics is that you it puts you in complete control. Using the power of your imagination, you get to control not only what you will do but also how everyone else will react. Sometimes you also control laws of nature, such as economics or even physics. Unsurprisingly, this kind of politics tends to go your way. Decisiveness is the only quality needed for your actions to succeed. Everyone recognises your awesomeness and competes to serve your interests, whether motivated by admiration or fear. 

Why is fantasy politics so popular these days? One reason is that it is so much easier than real politics. In real politics we try to address multiple, intersecting, complicated collective action problems – like the high cost of housing or sexism in the labour market – while at the same time grappling with the deep diversity of beliefs, values, and interests within and between societies. Real politics is a difficult and time-consuming activity that usually requires dissatisfactory compromise with reality and what other people want. It is much easier to make-believe our way to our favoured outcomes, i.e. as Boris Johnson put it after the 2016 Brexit referendum, “Our policy is having our cake and eating it.”

Fantasy politics is also much more inherently satisfying than real politics. It gives us the opportunity to express our political values and loyalties and this is something that feels good in itself and has an immediate psychic pay off, regardless of whether anything we are doing is actually contributing to bringing about the outcome we claim to want. Raising the stakes in our imagination, for example by elevating a mundane legislative election to a decisive battle between good and evil, immediately makes us feel ourselves more vital and significant. Conspiracy theorising similarly raises the stakes, casting us in the role of a band of heroes, such as QAnon followers, fighting to bring to light and bring down depraved evil. (As movies have taught us over and over, the underdog heroes always miraculously win these contests no matter how powerful the bad guys seem.) All this contrasts with the meagre psychic rewards of participating in real politics, as merely one voice among millions of equals no more special than anyone else. 

This psychological turn is part of the decades long transformation of politics from a serious practical business into a mere entertainment that serves as a diversion from the challenges and worries of our real lives. Those who are passionate about politics thereby resemble sports fans coming together to escape their everyday concerns. Political fantasists also resemble sports fans in their willingness to set aside the respect for professional expertise that they themselves would expect to receive in their day jobs as accountants or plumbers or coal miners or whatever. Caring a lot about how well your team does is not the same thing as being interested in how the game is actually played at that level. Nevertheless, just as football fans enjoy the right to offer strategic advice to players and team-managers (and to insult their choices and judgement), so politics fans enjoy pretending that they know best how politics should be played.

The psychic benefits of fantasy politics seem especially attractive to those who feel neglected and unheard by the political system, such as the white working class in towns left behind by the modern economy. (The Brexit referendum was decided by 2.8 million ‘non-voters’ who had lost faith and interest in real politics – unsurprisingly they are even more bitter about it now.) For these losers, animated by grievance, fantasy politics offers their only way to feel politically significant. Moreover, like the victim’s dreams of revenge against their bully, these resentment driven fantasies are not kind. In the medium term, the failure of populist fantasies like Brexit will no doubt reinforce their followers' cynicism and alienation.

It should also be mentioned that fantasy politics is everywhere these days because fantasy itself is so popular (on which see Kurt Andersen's wonderful book 'Fantasyland'). The kookiness of America’s gun rights movement, for example, has a lot to do with its animating hero fantasy of the regular guy standing up against the bad guys or evil government. In these movie screenplays that they write themselves, the good guy never misses and the bad guys never manage to shoot straight; and when the police arrive they can immediately tell who the good guys is. (Disconcertingly, mass shooters seem to have a similar concern with enacting fantasies, of vengeance against social institutions that have wronged them.) 

Finally, demand creates its own supply. Political entrepreneurs like Trump or Farage or Johnson come out of the woodwork and start pitching more fantasy products for voters to buy. Of course there is no alternative to real politics in the long run – if we want to get things done. But so long as large numbers of our fellow citizens are disinterested in outcomes and prefer wallowing in fantasy, populist politicians will make hay. 

A previous version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher in The Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.