The Greens, Russell Brand and the ‘Nirvana Fallacy’

There is a concept in critical thinking named the ‘Nirvana fallacy’. Briefly, a person ‘appeals to nirvana’ when, in a debate, they attempt to strike down an position by postulating a perfect alternative to it. Crucial to this concept is the alternative being unattainable. There are two forms this argument can take.

  • A) Positive: ‘We shouldn’t be doing that as this alternative is better.’
  • B) Negative: ‘There’s no point in doing this as it won’t reach the perfect solution.’

Earlier today, I went to hustings concerning animal welfare issues in Exeter. Only Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and the Green’s Diane Moore showed up. Ben was very good, pointing to his positive actions as animal welfare minister and spelling out a number of steps he and Labour would make to improve animal welfare in the UK and EU. Diane went on to agree with what Ben had said but with stronger positions on animal testing and slaughterhouses. However, she concluded with ‘Labour want you to look at this election like it’s a game of top trumps, and their policies trump the Tories, so you should vote Labour to keep them out rather than voting Green. This is wrong. Vote for what you believe in if you want to see real change.’

All very inspiring, right? Except here’s the thing. It doesn’t hold up to any rational analysis. It gives me no pleasure to defend tactical voting and effectively tell people they are disenfranchised, but you cannot simply get around the facts of FPTP’s existence but pretending it isn’t real. If enough left-leaning voters in Exeter did vote Green rather than Labour, the seat would fall to the Tories. These voters would then indeed see a real change, but this would be the reintroduction of fox-hunting: not quite the real change they wished to see.

Sadly, this has been the reality of the Greens’ election campaign. They have attempted to gloss over the issue by painting Labour as being the same as the Tories, but this is patently untrue. By setting out a series of theoretically socially just and redistributive measures that are to the left of Labour, but by being unable to either cost these policies or have the means of getting elected to parliament in enough numbers, the party and its supporters are, sadly, guilty of this fallacy.

For there is nothing bold about promising voters the world and not being able to give them it, despite the Green Party’s claims to the contrary. We could all tell people how wonderful we are going to make their lives, but if we not only do not have the means to deliver it, but in fact make the possibility of these people’s lives worsening more likely, we would not be being bold, but reckless.

The same is true of Russell Brand’s ‘do not vote’ mantra. While he is indeed frequently right that our power to make large-scale changes is limited – sometimes drastically – by supranational organisations and corporations, it does not follow that we should therefore sacrifice whatever power we do have. Yes it is very disheartening that we do not have the democracy we deserve, but the idea that we should forgo a better option and end up with a worse one just because the perfect option cannot be attained is blatantly absurd.

Now, obviously I do not take issue with Russell Brand or the Greens being allowed to air their views; as anyone who follows this blog knows, I started it largely because I was worried about the left’s increasingly authoritarian tendency on freedom of expression. However, what I do take issue with is the manner in which they have gone about doing so. The Greens have basically settled on Labour as their main target, specifically saying ‘Don’t vote for the lesser of two evils.’ Rational in cold, capitalistic terms in that it’s the best way to pick up votes, but it shows no real solidarity with the left or the poor, despite claiming to. Russell, on the other hand, has good intentions but risks wasting the power his leftist audience could have in telling them not to vote.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this election, it’s that politics really is a game of top trumps. Radical statements, platforms and dreams are all good fun, but there is no point in sacrificing potential gain, however small, due to the large gains you desire being out of your reach. As the inestimable Voltaire said, ‘Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (The perfect is the enemy of the good.)’ As with so many of his aphorisms, their wisdom stays true to this day, and this one in particular is more pertinent than ever.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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