Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 4: judgement)

(I tried to write a blog post about the March for Leave, and it’s ended up being about 3,500 words. Also available: part one, part two and part three. But this is the best bit, where I finally get to the point and judge the marches)

Settling the issues that we face as a country through the medium of hiking makes as much sense as anything. Given that Tory MPs have only just received training on what a customs union is, picking whether to leave or remain based on how good each side’s marches were is no less arbitrary than Parliament.

The Put it to the People March took place in London on March 23rd, and involved up to a million people walking through a small area of central London. The March to Leave was a hardier affair, travelling from Sunderland to London over the course of 16th March to 29th March, arriving in London to what was expected to be Brexit day but wasn’t. Both sides have mocked each other, but which one was better?

I am actually the best placed person in the world to answer this question. I’ve lectured on Brexit and hiking; and I’m a pretty keen hiker myself. I might be partisan, but I can promise to be unbiased – hiking is more important to me than the political fate of this nation.

When I attended the March to Leave in Sutton Bonnington, there was serious shade thrown at the March to Remain as being an easy stroll through London. While Remain-Twitter mocked the March to Leave’s smaller numbers, it was never intended to be a mass protest, with a limited capacity of core marchers. And attacks on the charge to the walkers missed the point: £50 was a very fair charge for accomodation and two meals a day, while preventing the march places being taken by spoof sign-ups.

A lot of energy went into mocking the March to Leave. I saw it referred to as the ‘Gammonball Run’, which sounds funny when you first hear it – but then you think about it for a second, and realise it’s a shit pun. The Guardian got some good quotes in their article on the march (“I don’t want my grandchildren being conscripted by an EU army likely led by the Germans.” LOL) but they were never going to be supportive. The march’s entire website was soon copied and rewritten with massive snark by remain campaign Led by Donkeys – a depressing and juvenile contrast to their clever billboard stunts. I do wonder how effective this scorn is, beyond amusing remainers and boosting social media page impressions.

The Leave walk also faced a challenge from nature, with appalling weather, but they kept going. Richard Tice, the man in charge, was quoted in the guardian, “We showed true grit. You softies in the guardian would’ve delayed it a day but we pushed on, we had hundreds out it was amazing.

As if no guardian reader or journalist has ever done a proper hike, right? Richard Tice cannot contemplate his grand act without comparing it to the other side. Rich, please: I read the Guardian, and I’ve kept walking in some really grim conditions. You wouldn’t believe the grit I showed crawling up Pen-y-ghent in a storm. I had a great time, and it never occurred to me to compare it to people I know who plan their walks for more hospitable months of the year.

But there are rules about hiking.

Let’s set aside the things like numbers and distance. My sympathies are with the March to Leave, as far as pedestrian feats goes. But what does it take to say you’ve ‘done’ a hike or a trail? have you ‘done’ the trail if you don’t do it in one go (“through-hiking”)? What if you’re using a baggage service and not carrying your own gear? Are you allowed to get into cars during the hike? If you miss a section through getting lost, do you need to go back to it?

Some people are very firm on these rules. Just look at Wikipedia’s article on through-hiking: Certain thru-hikers, referred to as “purists,” take this emphasis on continuity to obsessive lengths. Some touch or kiss every blaze of white paint along the trail, while others carefully line up their shoes, like Japanese slippers, in the precise spot they entered a lean-to, so as to know exactly where to resume hiking the next day.

But there are other things about hiking than just the walking. On the Pennine Way last year, one of my favourite things was meeting people along the way. We found ourselves drinking with someone who was hiking between jobs, having just finished working for a pro-Brexit think tank. I didn’t feel like ruining a hike by starting a row – some things are more important than political point-scoring. This person arrived at one pub three minutes after they stopped selling food – so I shared some of what I’d ordered. Hanging out with someone I disagree with, who I wouldn’t normally be speaking to, that was a pretty good way to spend an evening. Maybe, what we need when this is all over is a March for Moving Beyond the Brexit Fiasco.

There are rules about hiking – very definite rules. Some people condemned the March to Leave for not walking point-to-point, with buses between sections. But the thing about the rules for hiking is, you pick them for yourself. The big rule is, you should be happy about the hike you’ve done. It’s not a competitive event. Don’t compare your walk to other people’s just walk, breathe, and enjoy the world.

Which is why it’s so weird that the March to Leave is so insistent on comparing itself to the March to Remain. The March for Leave should have been a grand gesture, a celebration of… something. It was self-evidently an interesting and worthwhile project, and the people on that walk obviously thought it was worth doing.

The fact that Richard Tice had to continually defend the March to Leave against the Remain March suggested he has no real confidence in it. Just the same as Leave keeps defending their stupid, shabby and failed project of Brexit, when it’s success ought to be self-evident by this point. The depressing thing about the March to Remain, and the entire Brexit project, is that nobody seems to believe in it. Which turns them both into mindless, pointless fucking slogs.

Tory pop culture and magic metaphors

Once the extension to the Article 50 people is agreed, I should get on and finish my essay on Brexit, Hannan in Spandau. I have about 16,000 words to wrangle, but in the meantime, Cat Vincent asked me about “the Tory use of pop culture magic metaphors”.

I’ve been collecting references to children’s literature and fantasy related to Brexit, and have copied a few of them below. Please let me know of any I’ve missed.

Game of Thrones

Tolkien

  • Daniel Hannan in Conservative Home: What I Learned about the Hobbit From Reading it to My Children: “When the editor of ConservativeHome phones me, he often begins by wryly declaiming some line or other from Tolkien. If I can, I reply with the next line, and so on. He tends to get the better of our exchanges: his knowledge of the text is encyclopaedic.
  • In his book What Next? Hannan compared his years campaigning on Brexit to Galadriel, “fighting the long defeat”.
  • From Aaron Bank’s book The Bad Boys of Brexit, describing his visit to Donald Trump: “we found ourselves walking down Fifth Avenue towards the famous skyscraper which the liberal cry-bullies had officially designated as America’s answer to Barad-dûr.
  • From 2005 in Conservative Home: J R R Tolkien: Lord Of The Rings (Tory Version)

Watership Down

Others

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 3)

(This is the third part of a series. The first post discussed the background to the march to leave and the second post described our arrival there.)

On a sunny Sunday morning, having missed the march to remain, my Dad and I popped along to the march to leave. Mainly because it was nearby and we wanted to check it out for ourselves – which was why we were in a car park full of union jacks before breakfast.

Generally, when one sees a lot of union jacks in my hometown, it means the March for England are visiting. But, with two exceptions (see below), the leave march were a pleasant enough group, a great contrast to the facist supporters intimidating people in parliament on Friday evening.

The Leave Bus drew into the car park and started setting up for the march. Once they were ready to leave, Richard Tice, founder of Leave.EU gave a speech from the bus’s upper deck:

“What a wonderful sunny day! Doesn’t the sun shine on the righteous. And we’ve all grown up to believe that the sun shines on democracy. But the truth is, ladies and gentlemen, democracy is under threat in this nation. Dark days lie ahead… tomorrow, MPs are going to try to wrest control of the government agenda… almost like a mini-coup in Westminster… thousands of people marched through a few hundred yards of London yesterday, they didn’t march miles and miles the length of the country… they also don’t believe in democracy… we’re marching for the future of our great nation. We believe in Britain.”

Tice is not the first person to claim that the weather will be better under Brexit (see, for example, Angela Leadsom referring to the “sunlit uplands” ahead of us). Better weather seems as likely as an economic boom, something that used to be raised as a Brexit dividend, but is mentioned less these days. Now, the argument relies on points about democracy, that the referendum decision needs to be enacted at any cost. But a new dimension to the debate is that of hiking and marching, the idea that your belief in democracy can be performed by marching across the country in a sort of magical performance.

Fired up by the speech, the march set off. My Dad and I lingered back so as not to be counted among the supporters. This meant that we got to listen to a man ranting on a loudhailer about “traitor” Anna Soubry. He said that she had lied about being told by the police it was not safe to go home, since she had been in London for the remain march. Soubry is the MP for Broxtowe, in the Nottinghamshire area of London: the man in question was as ill-informed as he was unpleasant. Democracy cannot survive an atmosphere of death threats and hostility, and this rant was not a good look for the march.

It was at the edge of the car-park that we found a small group of remain campaigners. One of them was singing loudly, “They tried to make us leave the EU, I said no, no, no!” This group were zany and wacky maybe, but they looked a lot more fun than the dour plodding of the marchers.

My Dad and I stood by this remain group as we watched the tail-end of the march set off. On the other side of the gates, a posh-voiced man had a loud-hailer, and was ranting poison. He mocked remain as “socialist workers who’d never worked a day in their life”, before telling us to leave the UK if we didn’t like the referendum’s outcome: “You know where the door is”. I could unpack the ironies of this for hours, particularly given that the leave vote is engaged in stripping away many of my rights to free movement. He also made the claim that remain were supported by elite financiers such as George Soros – a nasty anti-semitic conspiracy theory.

A few marchers stayed to argue with the remain side, the debates centering on democracy and fishing rights. The claim that remain was managed by the elites emerged again, which is baffling. I know you are not your job, but it is worth pointing out that Tice is CEO of Quidnet capital, which has about half a billion pounds worth of property under its control.

I chatted a little with the remainers, all of whom had made it to London the day before. “If they’re in your village you can’t just do nothing,” said one. We were interrupted by someone yelling at us about how leave was walking two hundred something miles, and remain had managed just one. Someone shouted back that the person making this claim was in a landrover

A landrover that was heading away from the march.

I think it’s positive that people are debating fisheries policy at 9am on a Sunday morning. And it was good to see that, in contrast to the shocking scenes in London on Friday, there was no need for police in Sutton Bonnington. Just before we left, a man arrived for the leave march and was disappointed to miss it. One of the remain protestors told him not to worry and gave him directions. “They only set off about ten minutes ago. If you hurry you’ll catch them”. This co-operation was the most positive thing I’d seen about Brexit in some time.

(Continue to part 4, where I finally decide which march was better)

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 2)

(In the previous post, I discussed some background of the march to leave, and how come I ended up there. Here, I’ll talk a little about my visit to the march itself)

When we arrived at the carpark in Sutton Bonington, a car was parked across the entrance. A man beside it greeted me as we passed: “Hello, mate”. Like all members of the metropolitan liberal elite, I feel nervous when a stranger calls me mate without a bar between us. We continued into the car park, where the March to Leave was gathering.

Welcome to part two of a longer essay in which spend about 2,500 words trying to talk about Brexit – but instead talk self-indulgently about hiking. Having missed the March to Remain in London the day before, my Dad and I were checking out the March to Leave.

I was definitely in the wrong place: I voted remain in the referendum, think article 50 should be revoked, and loathe much of what leave stands for: the dog-whistle racism of some proponents, the childish economics and the mockery of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Walking into that car-park, I felt like Agent Philip Jeffries walking into the Black Lodge meeting – and we know how well that went.

That charge of racism is incendiary, and many leave voters would protest it. It’s undeniable that there is a racist element to the leave vote (as shown by the 29th March protests in London). Having the renegade leave.eu campaign running allowed leave to have the unsayable said, while standing aside from it. As former-MP Matthew Paris said of Daniel Hannan, “he has ridden a tiger, and knows the tiger he rides”. But I was also aware that many leave campaigners were not racist, talking about democracy and economics instead. I came with as open a mind as possible, while being very cautious about what I would find.

The march had travelled from Sunderland and is due to arrive in London on March 29th, Brexit Day on Earth-Three. It’s been mocked for the fact that it has not walked the full length between points, and the daily route maps had disappeared from the website, making it harder to find the marchers. Emails about the meeting place were sent quite late, with a time of 8am to 10am for gathering, and a stern warning that we were here at our own risk.

Sutton Bonington is a sleepy English village, with attractive cottages and green open spaces. The march was gathered in a small car-park there, with a playground at one end. Standing by the entrance was a lorry with a video screen. This had been hired by pro-Remain group Lions Led By Donkeys,. Nearby stood a man wearing a keffiyeh, with a sign reading ‘Let my people go’, foreshadowing Boris Johnson’s front page Telegraph column, published the following day.

After passing the parked-car barricade, we walked down a short track. Most of the people there were middle-aged men, but everyone seemed friendly enough. People milled around, waiting for things to get going, and talked about how the walk was going and its representation in the media. Some of them mocked the previous day’s march in London, which might have had the crowds, but was slight compared to what they were doing.

Most of the attendees seemed, you know, OK. I mean, as normal as anyone who is too interested about one particular thing, right. If these men are too interested in Brexit, and they like walking, then they are, in a way, my people. We have the same hobby, we just disagree about how it should be followed, right?

A woman arrived in suffragette cosplay, and people photographed and posed with her. One person commented that it was “as if a Page 3 turned up”. I saw a walker with four spare plastic union jacks in his backpack. The woman beside him wore a sweatshirt with a ‘PARIS’ logo, so I’m not certain whether she was leave or remain. I definitely don’t know her dog’s opinion, but expect they were in favour of free movement of pets, rather than the six-month quarantine we used to have. And more foreign dogs means more interesting new friends to sniff.

Looking at the gathering marchers, before the support bus arrived, my strongest feeling was that these people were fighting a losing battle. I couldn’t see the young people pictured on the march the day before. Despite being close to what they wanted, there was no sense of celebration, just gloom and defeat.

I was surprised by the defensiveness in the speeches and conversation: after almost three years, Leave have not made Brexit sound like the default option, even in their own minds. There’s a sort of flop-sweat about the whole thing. Leave might have won the referendum, but they need to “get on with it” because they know that history is against them, and this is the only chance they’ll have. Even so close to victory, the whole thing felt like an imminent defeat.

The saddest thing is, I think, that the people in this car park are going to be disappointed in the long term. As the writer Tom Bolton put it, they are flag-waving while drowning.

Anyway, that’s part 2, and the Brexit bus has not yet arrived at the car park. Continue to part 3, where I’ll talk about speeches, ask which side is being manipulated by elites, and describe a brush with the dark side of leave. I’ll also get on with actually talking about hiking. Maybe.

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 1)

We’re not going to settle the leave or remain argument, so let’s talk about who had the better march last weekend.

 

Long after all this is over, school children will write essays on the 2016 referendum: 15 marks for a summary of whose argument was more compelling, making sure to consider the claims of both sides. The marking scheme will call for answers that provide a balanced argument, with the benefit of hindsight.

None of those children will understand how batshit crazy this all feels, and how irreconcilable the two sides are. Leave or remain is not something that can be solved with rational debate. I’m not even sure it matters – the bitter division in the country might actually prove more dangerous than either option, leave or remain.

How much better if we settled this, not with anger, death threats and eventually violence, but through the medium of hiking?

 

I did a bad thing this weekend. I know I was supposed to go to London to march with the million. But I wanted to catch up with family and, you know, I still feel disappointed over the Iraq march. No, not the big one everyone went to, but the next one, in March 2003, after the bombs started dropping, when most of you didn’t bother. So I went to the Midlands instead of to London.

But then I realised that the other march, the leave one, was passing near the Burt family estate, so I decided to pop by to take a look.

James at the wrong march
Cock. I’ve turned up at the wrong march.

I missed the Saturday march, which included an appearance from Nigel Farage cameo (described by my friend DaveP as the Earth-1218 version of Sir Jim Jaspers). The times on the march invite were vague, so we went along later, arriving after the speeches happened and the walkers set off. We drove around looking for the marchers, couldn’t find them, and I realised I was near Sherwood Forest, and eight-year-old me is still disappointed at never having seen the Major Oak, so we went there instead. So that was good.

The Major Oak
The Major Oak

The Remain march took place on March 22nd. It was organised by the People’s Vote and travelled a mile or so through central London. Estimates are that a million people took part, making it one of the largest political protests in British history.

The March to Leave is a cover version of the Jarrow March, travelling from Sunderland to London. It set off on March 16th, aiming to arrive in London on March 29th – orginally planned as Brexit day, now just Friday. A core group of about 75 marchers are joined by local people each day, with speeches as they set off. These core marchers paid £50 through PayPal, and received accommodation as well as food and transfers to the start and end points for each day. This is actually a pretty good deal if you wanted to do a hike.

The March to Leave’s website describes their aims:

It is now clear the Westminster elite are preparing to betray the will of the people over Brexit. To counter this, Leave Means Leave are undertaking a peaceful protest to demonstrate the depth and breadth of popular discontent with the way Brexit has been handled. The UK has a long history of successful popular protests, where the establishment have been forced to deliver much-needed reform by widespread demonstrations of large scale dissatisfaction.

One of the most common arguments given by the leave side is about democracy, and the March to Leave claims that, given the referendum saw the highest turnout in a UK ballot, “Failing to deliver a true Brexit will permanently damage the British people’s faith in democracy.

I am not sure what a true Brexit is, as it was not one of the options on my ballot paper. Any research I do for this essay is unlikely to answer any questions about Brexit. And then there are the associated questions about democracy. Throughout the last two years, we’ve been talking about different ways of deciding the ‘will of the people’. Does a referendum trump MP’s votes? Does a petition cancel out a referendum if it hits the same numbers? Does a political party leader gain their power and authority from the country, their voters, their party members or their MPs?

These are not questions I am qualified to answer. Instead I will stick to my area of expertise. I am quite capable of figuring out which of the two events was the better hike: the ‘Put it to the People’ march, or the ‘March to Leave’?

 

Broadly put: remain had the numbers, leave has the distance. Does a million people walking a single mile trump a couple of hundred people walking a couple of hundred miles?

A lot of people are mocking the March to Leave, claiming they are not doing the hike ‘properly’. ‘Proper hiking’ is something I have strong feelings about. I have watched and occasionally participated in debates about whether it counts if you miss a bit, whether you have to walk to the accommodation, and what needs to be carried. I might not be able to solve the Brexit crisis, but I am qualified to judge the two marches as hikes.

But I’ll stop there for now. Next up, will be my account of my visit to the March to Leave.

 

The Battle of the Thames

Back in the Summer of 2016, on June 15th, a naval engagement took place on the Thames. Boats left Ramsgate at 3am and Southend at 6am, heading towards Tower Bridge. Other vessels came from Brixham, Berwick, and Faversham, even some from Scotland. The fleet was prevented passing the Thames Barrier by the Harbour Master, who only allowed through four large boats and eight smaller ones, leaving about twenty behind. By the afternoon the fleet had reached central London, led by Edwardian, a “luxurious river cruiser”, where they were ambushed.

The admiral of the fishing fleet was Nigel Farage, leading boats assembled by Fishing for Leave. Leading the counter-demonstrators on a ‘party boat’ was Bob Geldof. His boat had a large sound system and kept playing a thirty second snippet of classic song ‘The In Crowd’. Again and again. Among the other vessels in this group were ones captained by Charlotte Church and Rachel Johnson, sister to Leave politician Boris.

On his flagship, Farage’s discussions with journalists were drowned out by Geldof, who attacked the UKIP politician’s record, accusing him of being a fraud. He pointed out that when Farage was on the European Parliament Fishing Committee, he attended one out of 43 meetings.

Farage was unimpressed with Geldof’s response to the fishermen. “It’s just insulting to these people. Some of these lads have come from the north of Scotland, communities… where we have seen tens of thousands of jobs lost and a way of life destroyed, and they come here to make their protest and be heard, and they get a multimillionaire laughing at them.”

And, to be fair, Geldof was not the best placed person to be leading the Remain fleet, given his interesting and complicated tax affairs . And raising two fingers at the fishermen and telling them to ‘fuck off’ was not a good look.  A group of activists left Geldof’s boat because of this, with one saying “these fishermen were working-class people with genuine issues and we didn’t think they should be erased by Bob Geldof”

The police did their best to prevent an actual battle. Water cannons were sprayed by the fishermen at their opposition. And Geldof’s boat came under direct attack. In the Guardian’s account of the battle, they wrote “Richard Eves, a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, decided to launch a boarding raid on Geldof’s boat using his rusty trawler Wayward Lad… ‘We threatened to ram them first and then they let us on,’ he said afterwards. ‘They shit themselves. I was angry.’”

The Vice magazine article on this is a work of genius, and includes reports of “a spy boat, a secret In boat in with the Out flotilla, which will do a heel-turn somewhere around the Thames Barrier and unfurl “In” banners in amongst the Out fisherman

The engagement is most remarkable for how shambolic it was. The sight of two rival groups shouting at one another, while not really engaging was representative of the whole Brexit campaign. Arron Bank was on the Edwardian and described the event as “Traflagar meets wacky races”. According to his book, Bad Boys of Brexit, he bankrolled the Leave Fleet to the cost of 10,000 a boat, or 250,000 for a fleet of 70.

A map even appeared on social media, showing the battle:

According to Maria Pretzler, the image was based on a diagram of the Battle of Lowestoft.

One of the jokes abut the post-referendum period is that a lot of people have suddenly become experts on customs unions. These were barely discussed in the run up to the referendum. No, we had more important things to be talking about.

Who needs fake news when the real news is so poor?

Does Operation Mindfuck need Operation Mindfix?

I wrote a little yesterday about Operation Mindfuck, a Discordian disinformation campaign with good intentions. As John Higgs described it, “The aim of Operation Mindfuck was to lead people into such a heightened sense of bewilderment and confusion that their rigid beliefs would shatter and be replaced by some form of enlightenment.” The main technique used for this was contradictory stories being placed in the media.

Nowadays, we live in a media environment filled with contradictory stories. The same event can be spun in different ways according to the views of each side. The response of many people to this is to retreat further back into their own prejudices. Psychological experiments have shown that even retractions of lies do not help:

Colleen Seifert, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that even retracted information—that we acknowledge has been retracted—can continue to influence our judgments and decisions… This means that when the New York Times, or any other publication, runs a headline like “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People Voted Illegally,’” it perversely reinforces the very claim it means to debunk.

(It’s interesting that certain groups are pre-disposed to reject disinformation. One of the teens in Veles, who ran fake news sites for the 2016 US election, didn’t bother making stories for Sanders supporters: “They don’t believe anything. The post must have proof for them to believe it.”)

Operation Mindfuck appears to have run aground. This playful strategy for making the world a better place seems to have no place in a world where disinformation is common.

(It’s worth saying that Operation Mindfuck is very different to propaganda. Most political lies are made with the aim of furthering a particular goal, rather than undermining belief. However, as discussed yesterday, there are politicians using nihilistic strategies very similar to this).

In January 2017, John Higgs wrote a blog post entitled For Robert Anton Wilson’s Birthday – some words on Operation Mindfix . This discussed the idea that “if  you take the long term, pragmatic view, it could be that the use of Operation Mindfuck techniques in this way are, essentially, a trap.

Higgs compared the state of modern politics to Robert Anton Wilson’s concept of Chapel Perilous, but saw some optimistic developments coming. The designer Amoeba (who worked on the graphics for Cosmic Trigger) had used the hashtag #operationmindfix while suggesting people take more care about what they post. Higgs wrote that “Operation Mindfuck is over for Discordians because it is unnecessary in the post-2016 world. From now on, the ongoing work can be considered part of Operation Mindfix

Daisy Campbell spoke about Operation Mindfix in the Mysterium book, released in October 2017: “Operation Mindfuck failed. Perhaps it’s time to implement operation Mindfix and bring a little objectivity back.

Another response to Project Mindfix came from Dolly Turing. They questioned the idea of fixing minds, and said that to equate fake news and operation mindfuck “completely seems to miss so many layers of possibility, imagination and dimensionality. The most expansive and terrifying and exciting parts of these things… and the silliest and most fun ones.

The question is, if Operation Mindfuck is insufficient in the current climate, what does come next? As Cat Vincent tweeted way back in October 2016, “The Right basically stole Operation Mindfuck from us, weaponised postmodernism. The Discordian response is evolving…

The John Higgs post has some other suggestions beyond Operation Mindfix.

It needs the coming together of people in the real world, because empathy is rarely found online… It understands that social media can be used for finding those who chime with us but that there is no point in using it to shout at the different… It involves the virtuous circle of people being inspired by people being inspired. It centres of [sic] the understanding that meaning exists, but it needs to be self-generated.

In the year-and-a-half since that post was written, the response seems to have evolved beyond Operation Mindfix to something new. And events such as this weekend’s Catch 23 are a part of that, a chance for people to come together in the real world.

More on Discordianism

I’ve been writing a series of posts about discordianism which will be the background to the this pamphlet on Brexit and hiking. The first part, Thatcher in the Rye, is available online.

The Tragic Success of Operation Mindfuck

With  Discordianism, Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill wanted to spread confusion. They created an overtly self-contradicting ‘religion’, with the aim of amusing people while making them question their assumptions. The ideas spread during the sixties, mainly through underground media and the mail, writing about new anarchist systems and inventing conspiracy theories.

One idea they spread was that of the Illuminati. This was a secret society, based on a real organisation founded in 1776 to spread enlightenment ideals. Contrary to historical accounts, it was claimed the group had continued in secret to the present day. This idea has become a major part of modern culture, appearing in the works of Dan Brown, hip-hop etc.

Among the early Discordians were Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea, who were working as editors at Playboy Magazine. They were drawn into the movement through various odd pieces of mail, which they replied to. Wilson began messing with his readers by publishing as many of these often contradictory stories as he could.

Wilson says he did not consider this a prank or hoax but “guerrilla ontology”.  He became increasingly exasperated with the fixed views on both the right and left of politics and wanted people to question the information they received, and to stop seeing their beliefs as inherently true. This ongoing mission of disinformation, of anti-propaganda, was named Operation Mindfuck. As John Higgs put it in an article for Darklore Magazine “The aim of Operation Mindfuck was to lead people into such a heightened sense of bewilderment and confusion that their rigid beliefs would shatter and be replaced by some form of enlightenment.”

Over time, the operation grew, with Wilson and his associates beginning to receive letters from outside their group (as far as they could tell –  although they were becoming sceptical of everything).

Now, almost 50 years later, it appears as if Operation Mindfuck is present all around us. We are deluged with contradictory information. Both sides in the recent referendum marshalled statistics, facts and arguments to show how their side was correct. Without a decent amount of political and economic knowledge, there was no way to pick them apart. Rumours were reported as news, and those reports became news elsewhere. Truth became devalued in an era of fake news.

This has not gone entirely well. As John Higgs wrote about the results of Operation Mindfuck in January 2017, “the ideas behind Operation Mindfuck have since become a tool for those with a lust for political power, most blatantly Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov”. John linked to a short Adam Curtis film looking at Surkov’s career:

A Russian politician, Surkov came from the world of avant garde art to use the ideas of conceptual art in politics. He would sponsor various different groups and organisations, some of which were working directly against him. He then revealed this was happening, “a strategy of power that keeps any opposition hopelessly confused“. Like the Discordians, Surkov didn’t aim to put forward any particular worldview, rather to bewilder and confuse his opposition. As the economist magazine described it:

As the political mastermind for Vladimir Putin for most of the 2000s, Mr Surkov engineered a system of make-believe that worked devilishly well in the real world. Russia was a land of imitation political parties, stage-managed media and fake social movements, undergirded by the post-modern sense that nothing was genuine.

Operation Mindfuck began as a playful and active response to the world. Now it has been taken to its logical extreme in an increasingly dystopian world. Which raised the question: what next?

Disinformation in Macedonia

Veles, Macedonia, August 2016

Nobody had planned for this to happen.

Veles is a Macedonian town with a population of 40,000. It has a few small nightclubs and, in the summer of 2016, young people were partying hard. The local teens had discovered this one weird trick for making money with little effort; more money than they made going to high school, that’s for sure. The clubs could barely keep up with the demand for vodka bottles and ice buckets. Some young people bought champagne, despite not liking the drink, spraying $100 bottles of Moet about the room.

Back in the 1960s, the Discordians came up with a scheme called Project Mindfuck. The idea was to use disinformation for good. Confronted with crazy ideas, people would see how flimsy was the basis for most of their beliefs. To this end, stories about the Illuminati were planted in the underground press. The problem is that, rather than the misinformation providing a revelation of reality’s true nature, people often believed what they read.

As the 2016 US election approached, the world became aware of incendiary and inaccurate news reports distributed online, particularly via Facebook. Many of these stories linked back to small WordPress blogs, a disproportionate number amount of these coming from Veles. But the sites’ owners were not propagandists. They had simply discovered that posting particular stories brought in clicks. It started with a single locally-run website called healthyfoodhouse.com which provided diet advice – not necessarily medically proven, but the sort of thing that gets shared on the web. Then other people realised the potential of politics. The articles were copied from other sites and links to the blogs shared via social media. The stories didn’t even need to be true. Lies spread faster than any retractions and they bought in clicks, even from people who didn’t believe them.

Few people in Veles cared if Trump won or not, the election merely a way of generating clicks and making money. As Wired points out, the average wage in Veles was about $371 a month, and one person claims to have made $16,000 from two pro-trump sites in 4 months. Another claimed to have brought in $27,000 in their best month. A local nightclub organised special nights to coincide with Google’s monthly payment schedule.

This isn’t even lies in the usual sense. It’s not even bullshit in the definition used by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt: “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.” There’s no desire for persuasion here. It’s just information for people to click on.

As the election approached, President Obama would apparently talk obsessively about a Buzzfeed article on what was happening in Veles. Journalists visited the town, trying to figure out how this backwater might have turned a US election. Nobody explained why it had happened here of all places.

There was no real intention behind the Veles mindfuck campaign. It just worked with a system. Writers are paid by advertisers when people click on ads; social media distributes content people like. Online news platforms had already established the best ways of persuading people to click on ads, how to craft irresistible headlines. Of course someone was going to do this. It was legal, it seemed ethically harmless, and the companies involved were willing to pay out, taking their cut along the way.

We’re living in a world out of the science-fiction of the 90s. It’s noticeable how William Gibson went from writing his futuristic Sprawl trilogy, with cyberspace and neural inputs, to a post-millennium trilogy which was set pretty much in the present day, while still maintaining the same feel. But the dangers of this new world are unpredictable.

James Bridle’s recent book, New Dark Age talks about the weirdness of how these systems are working on Youtube. Software generates potentially-lucrative titles for videos based on popular keywords; then human actors in content farms act them out. These have become increasingly weird and disturbing, and nobody seems to be stopping it.

On November 24th 2016, after the US election, Google pulled the advertising on many of the fake news sites. The gold rush in Veles was over – what Google gives it can as easily take away. Some of the teens had bought sports cars, but the more sensible ones invested in real estate. There would be fewer parties.

The problem is that we live in an information monoculture, and there is no mechanism for stopping these feedback loops. Some of these have had recent unforeseen effects including lynch mobs and sectarian violence. But the system continues to work to produce revenue, the sites becoming more addictive. As early Facebook employee Jeff Hammberbacher put it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Project Mindfuck had a goal, just like any disinformation mission. In Veles, people were simply acting out the incentives provided by the network. There was no other aim than arbitraging attention via social media to make cash appear out of nowhere. John Higgs, inspired by the designer Amoeba talked about the need for a project Mindfix. The question is, what shape this can take.

This is what the KLF is about

“This is what the KLF is about – also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu -furthermore known as the JAMMs”

Listening to Last Train to Transcentral back in 1991, I had no idea what the lyrics were going on about; but this was obviously not a regular dance track. But I didn’t have the clues to interpret it, didn’t know to read the NME rather than pop magazines. It would be a little while longer before I was given a copy of the KLF annual and started to figure things out. And a little after that I read the GURPs: Illuminati book and had a clearer explanation of Illuminatus! and discordianism.

The band were a mass of pseudonyms and aliases. The two main members, King Boy D and Rockman Rock were actually Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. They’d even had a massive number one record with Doctorin’ the Tardis as the Timelords in 1988. The following year they published a book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which laid bare the secrets of the music industry. Few people followed it all the way through, but one example was what wikipedia refers to as an “Austrian Eurotrash band”, Edelweiss, who sold 5 million copies of Bring Me Edelweiss. Do not listen to this track as it will stick in your head forever.

In 1991 the KLF were the biggest-selling singles act in the world. They performed at the Brits in 1992 with Extreme Noise Terror, firing machine gun blanks at the crowd. In May 1992, deleted their entire back catalogue. They then tried to subvert the art world, including an attempt to sabotage the Turner Prize. Then they burned a million quid before signing a contract preventing them from talking about the incident for 23 years. This is not your average pop band.

(While burning a million quid is the more obviously nihilistic act, deleting the back catalogue and disbanding the group probably cost them more money in the long run).

I loved the KLF. At university, someone had the older records, introducing me to 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). At 18, wandering through a newly opened HMV at Lakeside in Essex, I found a copy of Chill Out. I don’t know how they’d stocked that record shop, but I found a load of rarities on the racks, things that I’d been hunting for years. Chill Out is an ambient record, a 45 minute journey across America, with different sounds fading in-and-out, and still one of my favourite albums. It’s now easy to find online.

In December 2012, twenty years after the KLF disbanded, I read John Higg’s book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. I’d read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary, and was excited to read his take on one of my favourite bands. But, rather than tell a simple story about record sales and Top of the Pops appearances, Higgs took a path through the magical and counter-cultural networks linked by Cauty and Drummond.

Last year, the contract Cauty and Drummond signed, banning them from talking about the KLF, finally expired. While the JAMMs returned last year with the Welcome to the Dark ages event and the novel 2023, and there was some discussion of the burning money, the KLF has never really returned. I like the idea of keeping the legend intact, and the strange shapes that legend has taken over the last few years.