For Crying Out Loud

And so it goes on. First a referendum campaign light on facts and adult discussion but heavy on divisive rhetoric and (frankly) bullshit, then similarly afflicted Brexit negotiations; all attracting mainstream press coverage apparently guided by the broadcast assumption that viewers are too stupid to process anything more complex than divisive rhetoric, or form judgements on the basis of anything more than shared prejudice.

It would seem those involved in the negotiations attach rather too much importance to personal status, personal beliefs and competing with each other to assert their status and beliefs, as well as those of the organisations they represent. In doing so they appear to have lost sight of whose interests they are ultimately representing. These are problems associated with personal values; particularly the cognitive biases associated with the competitive, self-enhancing values that tend to be of the greatest importance to those who aspire to hold positions of power.  

Philip Hammond speaks of 'the enemy'. Whether he meant it as a good natured cricketing reference or not, the message is clear: the negotiations are a competition which both sides want to win. Michel Barnier said he was going to teach the British people what leaving the EU means. This implies we are ignorant. That we are ignorant may be true, but surely no more so now than when we voted 'in' in the 1970s. Whether we voted to join the EU not knowing what was involved, or subsequent changes have been imposed without our knowledge, his words can effectively be taken to mean 'you have no idea what you have gotten yourselves into, but now I'm going to teach you'.

Barnier speaks directly for the EU as an organisation, and theoretically for the governments of its member states, who in turn theoretically represent their citizens. If the EU truly existed to represent the best interests of all its citizens, wouldn't it be happy to see them leave if they so chose? As Sting once wisely sang 'if you love someone, set them free'. Instead we are told that Britain needs to made example of to stop other nations leaving.

When a company loses a customer, by law, it is not allowed to make an example of them. Indeed it would ultimately be counterproductive to do so. The same applies to nations. Only dictatorships prevent their citizens leaving. The market operates in such a way that organisations compete to be nice to (i.e. cooperate with) their customers. When they lose customers they respond by improving their services in the hope of winning them back. The type of loyalty a company like Apple inspires is built on the quality of its offer, not on the threat of making things difficult for those who switch to Samsung. There is a political free market too but, if the conduct of its negotiators is anything to go by, it would seem the EU has more sympathy with the Tony Soprano approach to business than one might hope.

In common with the worst business leaders, what all these folks seem to have misunderstood is that cooperation not competition is the real driver of innovation and progressive social change. Companies compete with each other to cooperate with potential customers. Those who are the least cooperative tend to go out of business. Every inward looking selfish indulgence of an employee, boss or politician reduces the efficiency with which they and their organisation can help their customers or electorates. The most selfish and inward looking eventually go out of business; whether they work for the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Conservative Party or the EU. 

The EU's representatives seem to have lost sight of the fact that the EU exists only to serve the interests of 'the people'; even those of a member country which voted to leave. The British are not the enemy, even if that's how 'remainer' Hammond now seems to see us. While this resonates with evidence showing how people can become viciously tribal even when the tribes they have been allocated to are transparently arbitrary, one might have hoped that those paid to represent us would be able rise above such primal instincts.

I have gathered so little of what the issues are obstructing negotiations that I am too ignorant to comment authoritatively, but the following seems plausible. Britain has contractual obligations to the EU, and of course we should be bound to fulfil these. However, my guess is that these are so badly worded that their meaning is unclear, and so they are unenforceable; leaving each side to either demand the earth or threaten to walk away paying nothing. This being the case, how should we deal with previously agreed rewards and responsibilities that now extend beyond the date of Brexit?  I would have thought this necessitates that trade negotiations and all other relevant issues must be dealt with at the same time: i.e. the full range of rewards and responsibilities we will continue to share as citizens of the same planet after Brexit, all of which are contingent on each other. The cooperative approach would be for both sides to start from the shared position of 'how can we make this turn out in the best interests of everyone'. 

Perhaps this is what the negotiators think they are doing, but they are not. Their views are biased by notions of personal and institutional power that incline them to the view that 'what is in the best interests of me and my institution/party will be in the best interests of everyone else'. This is the competitive/self-enhancing view of life. The less popular but more constructive view is 'what is in the best interests of everyone is ultimately in my best interest too'; regardless of short-term effects on personal status and longer term effects on the institution or party one represents.

Every innovation that makes the lives of millions better, and so makes millions of pounds or dollars for the innovator, arose not because of the competitive zeal of one individual, but as a consequence of the thousands of years of accumulated and shared information they were able to draw upon and connect. The blinkered thinking of power-driven, competitive minds may be able to sort the metaphorical wheat from the chaff or sharpen the point of a metaphorical pencil but it is not capable of inventing anything: be it new forms of agriculture or better ways of communicating. Cooperation is about joining the dots. Competition concerns rubbing out the least well connected dots. Now, more than ever, in the world of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and massed ranks of conservative, follow-my-leader half-wits, we need leaders who want to connect dots rather than rub them out; whether we are 'in' or 'out'.        

   

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