How to obscure an anti-neoliberal backlash: Daily Bullshit, August 2, 2016


It’s useful to know that concern for Britain’s National Health Service seems to have been a factor in the ‘Brexit’ vote.[1] However, Mateusz Tomkowiak makes a couple of instructive errors that illustrate the deficiencies of traditional social sciences. First, he reduces what may have been an anti-establishment or anti-neoliberal backlash to components. He deflects blame for this onto multiple unnamed “commentators,” writing that such “commentators have zeroed in on four potential reasons: fear of immigrants, voter dissatisfaction with a weak economy or the status quo, loss of national autonomy, and age,”[2] but this is not an excuse for “zeroing in” at all: The fallacy here is of reductionist analysis and in this case, he piles reductionist analysis on top of reductionist analysis, as he diminishes three of these factors in favor of age, which he argues is a proxy for concern for the NHS.

Reductionist analysis flows largely from positivism, which favors a linear view of cause and effect, which is to say that under positivism a single effect has a single cause. In systems theory, we see that this is almost always never the case, that events occur in a context which governs how an event develops even as the event affects the context. This is known as mutual causation.[3] Tomkowiak acknowledges the fallacy in admitting that the Brexit vote was the result of multiple factors among millions of voters. But his emphasis on concern for the NHS at the expense of other factors, at least one of which he doesn’t even consider,[4] betrays his quest for a single overriding explanation.

I need to re-emphasize that I’m not saying that concern for the NHS wasn’t an important factor. The trouble is first that as a political scientist, Tomkowiak is blind to what really amounts to a backlash against the authoritarian system of social organization but which authoritarian populists generally misdirect at “other” subaltern groups but whose true colors appear in resentment against centralized (almost always urban) cultural, political, economic, and intellectual elites. In the ‘Brexit’ vote this appeared in a disdain for so-called “experts.”[5] As Jean Pisani-Ferry put it, “A pre-referendum YouGov opinion poll tells why: ‘Leave’ voters had no trust whatsoever in the advice-givers. They did not want their judgment to rely on politicians, academics, journalists, international organizations, or think tanks.”[6] Tomkowiak does not consider that poll in his analysis. Such blindness is not unusual, by the way, as nearly all social sciences, albeit some more than others, suffer not only from foundational biases premises (which by definition are considered beyond challenge and are therefore unexamined) but dubious “theories” which are treated as paradigms or general “laws” rather than as explanations applicable only under particular conditions. A contribution of human science is to resist these tendencies.

Reliance on experts is also a serious problem for Hillary Clinton, whose neoconservative[7] and neoliberal[8] tendencies—notably on so-called “free trade”—essentially claim to voters that powerful experts know better than voters do and deny or devalue voters’ experiences.

Why this angry attitude toward the bearers of knowledge and expertise? The first explanation is that many voters attach little value to the opinions of those who failed to warn them about the risk of a financial crisis in 2008. Queen Elizabeth II spoke for many when, on a visit to the London School of Economics in the autumn of 2008, she asked why no one saw it coming. Furthermore, the suspicion that economists have been captured by the financial industry, expressed in the 2010 movie Inside Job, has not been dispelled. Ordinary people feel angry about what they regard as a betrayal by the intellectuals.

Most economists, let alone specialists in other disciplines, regard such accusations as unfair, because only a few of them devoted themselves to scrutinizing financial developments; yet their credibility has been seriously dented. Because no one pled guilty for the suffering that followed the crisis, the guilt has become collective.

The second explanation has to do with the policies advocated by the cognoscenti. Experts are accused of being biased, not necessarily because they are captured by special interests, but because, as a profession, they support the mobility of labor across borders, trade openness, and globalization more generally.

There is some substance in this argument: although not all economists, and certainly not all social scientists, advocate international integration, they are undoubtedly more inclined toward highlighting its benefits than the average citizen is.

This points to the third and most convincing explanation: while experts emphasize the overall benefits of openness, they tend to disregard or minimize its effects on particular professions or communities. They regard immigration – to which Cameron attributed the Leave campaign’s victory – as a net benefit for the economy; but they fail to pay attention to what it implies for workers who experience downward wage pressure or for communities struggling with a scarcity of affordable housing, crowded schools, and an overwhelmed health system. In other words, they are guilty of indifference.

This criticism is largely correct. As Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University pointed out long ago, economists (and policymakers) tend to look at issues in the aggregate, to take a medium-term perspective, and to assume that markets work well enough to absorb a large part of adverse shocks. Their perspective clashes with that of people who care more about distributional issues, have different (often shorter) time horizons, and are wary of monopolistic behavior.[9]

With ‘Brexit,’ Tomkowiak is much too hasty in dismissing economic concern, writing both that unemployment is low and that “in surveys, large pluralities of Brits have — over a two-year span — consistently thought that exiting the EU would make the UK economy worse off.” Here, he utterly fails to apply the same level of analysis to worries about the economy that he does to concern for the NHS.[10]

Mateusz Tomkowiak, “The big thing almost everyone missed about Brexit,” Vox, August 2, 2016,

  1. [1]Mateusz Tomkowiak, “The big thing almost everyone missed about Brexit,” Vox, August 2, 2016,
  2. [2]Mateusz Tomkowiak, “The big thing almost everyone missed about Brexit,” Vox, August 2, 2016,
  3. [3]Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995).
  4. [4]Mateusz Tomkowiak, “The big thing almost everyone missed about Brexit,” Vox, August 2, 2016,
  5. [5]David Matthews, “Why Academics Were Ignored,” Inside Higher Ed, July 7, 2016,; Jean Pisani-Ferry, “Why Are Voters Ignoring Experts?” Project Syndicate, July 1, 2016,
  6. [6]Jean Pisani-Ferry, “Why Are Voters Ignoring Experts?” Project Syndicate, July 1, 2016,
  7. [7]Medea Benjamin, “Hillary Clinton Hasn’t Learned a Thing From the Iraq Experience,” Truthdig, October 29, 2015,; Marjorie Cohn, “Want Endless War? Love the U.S. Empire? Well, Hillary Clinton’s Your Choice,” Truthdig, February 1, 2016,; David Corn, “Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger: It’s Personal. Very Personal,” Mother Jones, February 12, 2016,; Greg Grandin, “Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton’s Tutor in War and Peace,” Nation, February 5, 2016,; Daniel Larison, “Clinton’s Reliably Bad Foreign Policy,” American Conservative, April 12, 2016,; Jackson Lears, “We came, we saw, he died,” review of Hard Choices, by Hillary Clinton, and HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, London Review of Books 37, no. 3 (February 5, 2015), pp. 8-11,; Lauren McCauley, “Critics Aghast at ‘Disgusting Speech’ Clinton Just Gave to AIPAC,” Common Dreams, March 21, 2016,; Robert Scheer, “Go Ahead, Back Hillary Clinton and Forget All About Her Record,” Truthdig, October 9, 2015,; Arnie Seipel, “Why Did Hillary Clinton Say The U.S. Is ‘Where We Need To Be’ In Syria?” National Public Radio, December 20, 2015,; Micah Zenko, “Hillary the Hawk: A History,” Foreign Policy, July 27, 2016, (link is external); Stephen Zunes, “Hillary the Hawk,” Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Winter, 2016,; Stephen Zunes, “The Five Lamest Excuses for Hillary Clinton’s Vote to Invade Iraq,” Foreign Policy In Focus, January 26, 2016,
  8. [8]Michelle Alexander, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Nation, February 10, 2016,; Musa al-Gharbi, “Hillary’s atrocious race record: Her stances over decades have been painful and wrong,” Salon, April 3, 2016,; Jonathan Allen, “The selective liberalism of Hillary Clinton,” Vox, June 10, 2015,; Dana Bolger, “Dear New York Times: The Real Reason Young Feminists Reject Hillary,” Feministing, December 17, 2015,; Robert Borosage, “As Panic Grips Clinton Campaign, The Real Question: What’s Wrong with Hillary?” Common Dreams, January 21, 2016,; Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick, “Wall Street Offers Clinton a Thorny Embrace,” New York Times, July 7, 2014,; Nick Confessore and Jason Horowitz, “Hillary Clinton’s Paid Speeches to Wall Street Animate Her Opponents,” New York Times, January 21, 2016,; Gabriel Debenedetti and Hadas Gold, “Hillary Clinton gets the Fox News treatment,” Politico, March 7, 2016,; James Downie, “Hillary Clinton’s unbelievable defense of Wall Street contributions,” Washington Post, November 15, 2015,; Jonathan Easley and Amie Parnes, “Chelsea Clinton goes on the attack; Democrats ask why,” Hill, January 14, 2016,; Alex Emmons, “Hillary Clinton Will Be Good for Business, Predicts Chamber of Commerce Lobbyist,” Intercept, July 29, 2016, (link is external); Lee Fang, “Top Hillary Clinton Advisers and Fundraisers Lobbied Against Obamacare,” Intercept, February 8, 2016,; Thomas Frank, “None of the Bankers Think Hillary Clinton Believes Her Populism, a Financial Journalist Wrote,” Truthout, May 12, 2016,; Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger, and Anu Narayanswamy, “Clinton blasts Wall Street, but still draws millions in contributions,” Washington Post, February 4, 2016,; Todd Gitlin, “Hillary Clinton: On Feet of Clay,” Tablet, June 5, 2016,; Jeff Greenfield, “What’s Wrong With Hillary?” Politico, March 14, 2016,; Glenn Greenwald, “Perfect End to Democratic Primary: Anonymous Superdelegates Declare Winner Through Media,” Intercept, June 7, 2016,; Evan Halper, “Why young feminists are choosing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2016,; Jesse Hamilton and Cheyenne Hopkins, “Hillary Clinton Lets Big Banks Off the Hook for Financial Crisis,” Bloomberg, October 2, 2015,; Simon Head, “Clinton and Goldman: Why It Matters,” New York Review of Books, April 12, 2016,; Patrick Healy, “Wall St. Ties Linger as Image Issue for Hillary Clinton,” New York Times, November 21, 2015,; Zoë Heller, “Hillary & Women,” review of Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, by Jay Newton-Small, and My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency, by Doug Henwood, New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016,; Annie Karni, “Clinton friend McAuliffe says Clinton will flip on TPP, then walks it back,” Politico, July 26, 2016, (link is external); Brody Mullins and Rebecca Ballhaus, “Financial Sector Gives Hillary Clinton a Boost,” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2016,; New York Times, “Hillary Clinton Botches Wall Street Questions,” November 15, 2015,; P. J. Podesta, “The case against Hillary Clinton: This is the disaster Democrats must avoid,” Salon, February 28, 2016,; Jon Queally, “Clinton Inflames Progressive Base with Choice of Tim Kaine as Vice President,” Common Dreams, July 22, 2016,; Janell Ross, “Hillary Clinton invoked 9/11 to defend her ties to Wall Street. What?” Washington Post, November 15, 2015,; Robert Scheer, “Go Ahead, Back Hillary Clinton and Forget All About Her Record,” Truthdig, October 9, 2015,; Noam Scheiber, “Hillary Clinton’s Inequality Rhetoric Is Weak: No, we’re not ‘all in this mess together’,” New Republic, July 9, 2014,; Donna Smith, “An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton from One Progressive Woman,” Common Dreams, January 23, 2016,; Yves Smith [Susan Webber], “Why Some of the Smartest Progressives I Know Will Vote for Trump over Hillary,” Politico, June 1, 2016,; Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Hillary Clinton’s Comment on Jobs Raises Eyebrows on Wall St.,” New York Times, October 27, 2014,; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “The Clintons Have Lost the Working Class,” New Yorker, February 10, 2016,; Ben White, “Wall Street donors seek to block Warren VP pick,” Politico, June 20, 2016,
  9. [9]Jean Pisani-Ferry, “Why Are Voters Ignoring Experts?” Project Syndicate, July 1, 2016,
  10. [10]Mateusz Tomkowiak, “The big thing almost everyone missed about Brexit,” Vox, August 2, 2016,

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