U-Turn on Akrasia Avenue

So, after a tragi-comic autumn of increasingly pitiful attempts to project normality, here we are back in lockdown. How did we get here? Here’s Stephen Bush:

In both cases, the real problem is not the Chancellor but a Prime Minister whose mode of operation is to pander to which-ever voice is currently shouting the loudest: in the summer, that meant reopening; in the autumn, trying to lock down and cut costs at the same time.

We could go further. In the spring, it meant hoping it wouldn’t cause too much trouble and trying not to annoy the racing lobby. A little later, it meant desperately trying to catch up with the public and the rest of Europe as everyone withdrew into self-isolation. Later still, it meant responding to random photos in Tory WhatsApp groups with draconian rhetoric and grabbing at magic solutions. In the early summer, with suppression of the virus in sight, it meant scrambling to “save summer”. Later still it was all about sandwiches for some reason.

Johnson and Sunak were finally spooked back into action by panic over a forecast that suggested virus deaths might peak on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t, apparently, that people might die but that it might ruin our special day, and that would look bad. When the prime minister finally broke cover, his broadcast was timed so as not to delay Strictly.

The standard interpretation of all this is that there exists a trade-off between “the virus” and “the economy”. We could specify this better by saying there is an inverse relationship between new cases and GDP, something like the Phillips curve relationship between unemployment and inflation. If you’re willing to tolerate more cases you can have more GDP. The government has occasionally asserted such a thing, talking about “running it hot” – i.e. doing the equivalent of accepting more cases/inflation in order to have full employment.

I’m not sure this is real, though. This government is part of the international populist movement and its response is of a piece with it. Rather than arguing about a GDP/cases tradeoff, their colleagues in Washington, Brasilia, and elsewhere have instead operated along an axis between denial – literally saying, in Donald Trump’s words, that the virus would go away, or that it does not exist at all – and panic, when the anosmia kicks in. The political debate is between people who have been radicalized into accepting the movement’s standards more or less thoroughly, in as much as there is a debate at all.

Really, though, there is no debate. Rather, there are greater or lesser degrees of acracy, the state of being unable to govern yourself through weakness of will and a lack of self-control.

Look at the evidence. There’s the tendency to make important decisions for trivial reasons – sandwiches, Strictly, summer holidays, turkey day. There’s the tendency to please the last lobby group who called. And there’s the inability either to stay the course with suppression, as in June, or to abandon the back-to-normal-for-Christmas narrative on the media grid, as in September. Of course there’s also the personal chaos like something out of a Blair-era poverty porn series, just with Old Etonians, that made Johnson another milestone for Tory diversity after the first Jewish and first woman prime minister in his unique position as the first homeless prime minister, with nowhere to go but No.10 despite having earned or at least received £800,000 the year before. When will community leaders call out this culture of irresponsibility?

The concept of acracy is useful here because it makes clear that inflexibility and U-turns are not necessarily opposites, but rather the same trait of character. You can continue mindlessly down Akrasia Avenue towards the brick wall because you can’t will yourself to accept you’re going the wrong way, just as you can flap ineffectually because you can’t will yourself to choose. You’ll probably convince yourself you’re doing so out of ice-cool confidence and iron determination, or else agility, sensitivity, and flexibility, whichever happens to apply.

For example:

“I think why they haven’t pivoted is that this has happened so many times that they’re now getting U-turnphobia and deciding to get macho after the event. It’s ‘we must hold the line’. Well, that’s how armies get defeated – they hold the wrong line, right?”

Acracy is the opposite of the political virtue kratos, the rationality and self-control that supposedly fits the citizen for their role in the polity, and it’s fairly obvious why. That said, I am beginning to think it might also be a political tendency in itself. Many, many critics wiser than I have made the point that there’s more to life than reserve, self-control, and rationality, and that it’s a very specific view of the citizen. There’s an appeal to letting go of these things, and perhaps especially if you’re someone who is usually expected to project them. Eventually, though, you need to do the washing up.

To take an example from Brexit: the Leave campaign promised to host the Jolly Roger of piratical anarchy. However, from here, it looks more as if the ship of state were flying the two black balls the international signal code uses to warn others that the ship is not under command. So we go on, boats without a rudder, drifting here and there on the indifferent tides.

7 Comments on "U-Turn on Akrasia Avenue"

  1. Been said before, but at least part of the “populist appeal” of Trump or Johnson is about reassuring that noisy bloke in the focus group that he can still do what he wants. Other people (snowflake youngsters?) will have to show discipline and prudence and work in the fields for the national good – but yer man will be able to do 50 in a 30 area in his JezClarkson approved car, call out the ethnic types who moved in next door for lowering the tone (Kauffman/Goodhart) etc etc.


  2. Is this anything to do with the “servant’s heart” notion that Sarah Palin came out with?
    Making the right noises to those from the Big House.


  3. There’s definitely something to the idea of populism as performative akrasia. Ignore everything except the most urgent problems, and then go over-the-top whenever something hits the top of your attention.


  4. There’s an appeal to letting go of these things, and perhaps especially if you’re someone who is usually expected to project them. Eventually, though, you need to do the washing up.

    I was gonna clean the room…

    (Does Johnson smoke? I feel it would explain a lot, not least the proposal to abandon the Irish Sea bridge and build a tunnel instead.)


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