While finishing off my new book ‘Radicals…’ I decided to try something different. I want a book tour, I grandly told my editor Tom, at the time. Tom, who is a very agreeable man, agreed this would be a good thing to do.
I did this for two reasons. The first was to get out there and sell books (of course). Second, I wanted to hear what people had to say about it. It seems quite plain that ‘mainstream’ political ideas are under siege, and radicalism is back. I wondered what people outside my circles thought of it all. Lots of my liberal friends complain that Brexiteers / Trump voters et cetera are stuck in a information filter bubble, without realising they’re in one too. It’s incumbent on everyone to escape the comforting draw of surrounding yourself with views you hold.
So between 15th May – 17th June 2017 I spoke at 23 events in 11 cities (Maidstone, London, Bristol, Brussels, Birmingham, Swansea, Hay, Leeds, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Carlisle). These talks took in three pubs, my office, two festivals, two universities, a comms agency, the European Commission, three independent book stores, two private members clubs and a Mosque. One, in a basement in Leeds, could only be accessed via a fancy dress shop.
I fielded an awful lot of questions. At least 200 questions or comments about politics. (At least 30 per cent of questions in ‘Q&A’ sessions are not questions at all, they are comments). I realise this is a very self-selecting crowd; people who go to book events aren’t ordinary people. But with that caveat in mind, I found that, although my book ‘Radicals’ is a series of stories about fringe politics, audiences didn’t want to talk about stories. They wanted to talk about the ideas.
What will a new economy look like?
How can we create a zero-growth economy?
How does bitcoin work?
How exactly can we introduce more direct democracy, and will people care enough?
What are the prospects for de-criminalising psychedelic drugs, and how to do it safely?
I was amazed by how much interest there was in the practical questions about radical politics. Public appetite for big ideas is back.
Above all other things, people wanted to talk about artificial intelligence. This is a major change from even two years ago, when hardly anyone had heard of it. My fourth event was a talk at the UK’s oldest mosque, Fazl mosque in South London. I was geared up for a long conversation about Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme. But no-one cared about Prevent, they wanted to talk about A.I: a) what jobs were under threat; b) what it might to do our morality; c) how society should respond. This has become a genuine concern for more and more people – by the next election, assuming this Parliament runs its full course, the main political parties will have to talk to these concerns.
Everywhere I went there was a low-level frustration; and it was tangible even among the generally well-off book reading public that attends book talks. A frustration that’s undirected and visceral: against the system, against the power, against the migrants, against the government. But there was also an appetite too: for the big ideas, for different ways of thinking, an openness for different politics. Yes, this included Jeremy Corbyn: but also psychedelics movement or radical libertarian thinking. The idea, for example, of creating a brand new country on the Croatian-Serbian border animated by anarcho-capitalism really got people excited.
Possibly above all other things, even the looming artificial intelligence revolution, everyone seemed worried about the coarsening of political debate. That we increasingly seem to hate our political enemies, refuse to engage with them, ignore their ideas, and demonise them. Anne Applebaum calls this ‘hyper-partisanship’: you cannot just disagree with your enemies, you must detest them, and everything about them. I see this, especially in online debates and discussion – and increasingly on television too. Otherwise sensible people howl and puff and bray at each other. It’s making politics more angry and distorted. It makes compromise and serious discussion, the essence of politics, far more difficult.
But in my 11 cities and 23 events I found the opposite. Everywhere, there was a real openness to opposing views, and a willingness to think and talk about them respectfully. I talked variously about futurists, psychedelic pioneers, anarcho-capitalists, climate change hardliners, anti-Islam groups. People didn’t always agree, but they were always ready to at least consider it, and not assume the worst in their opponents. In an age of increasing polarisation and radicalism, I suspect the answer will be to get out there and actually speak to people. You get far more from it. I did.