William Davies

William Davies is the author, most recently, of Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World.

Short Cuts: Woke Conspiracies

William Davies, 24 September 2020

In July​, BBC Music Magazine carried a column suggesting some punchy ideas for reforming the Proms, given the unique circumstances presented by coronavirus. ‘With massed choirs and a packed flag-waving audience ruled out on medical grounds,’ Richard Morrison wrote, ‘there will never be a better moment to drop that toe-curlingly embarrassing anachronistic farrago of...

The rapid expansion and consolidation of social media platforms led by Facebook has driven the logic of the ‘worm’ into everyday life. In the shadow of the ubiquitous ‘like’ button, however, the alternative to enthusiasm is often – as Schmitt anticipated – ‘silence or complaining’. Photographs, restaurants, research papers, songs, products or opinions are compared on the basis of their relative numbers of ‘likes’. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there is no equivalent of a ‘downvoting’ button (though there is on YouTube). Negative opinion is expressed either through a sheer absence of acclaim, or through outbursts of denunciation, which other users may in turn wish to ‘like’ or share. The radical difference between the infrastructure overseen by Mark Zuckerberg today and the one rolled out by George Gallup in the 1930s is that we can all now potentially act as the pollster. Here’s my dog: like or dislike? Donald Trump is a fascist: agree or disagree?

Society as a Broadband Network

William Davies, 2 April 2020

With Britain heading towards a shutdown, lasting who knows how long, it will quickly become evident how difficult it is to sustain society without everyday sociality. The triumph of the Thatcherite and Hayek­ian vision meant that we ended up with a ‘flexible’ economy in which a large number of people are entirely reliant on the near-term vagaries of the labour market for their day-to-day survival, with neither savings nor state guarantees to provide any back-up when that market crashes. Wages, rent, credit card repayments and everyday consumption are locked into their own ‘just-in-time’ supply chain, which is stressful enough even when it’s up and running. Having spent decades overhauling the welfare state to promote a more entrepreneurial, job-seeking, active populace, driven by an often punitive conditionality, Britain has little to fall back on when the most urgent need is for everybody to stay at home.

Bloody Furious: ‘Generation Left’

William Davies, 20 February 2020

When​ Britain left the EU on 31 January, led by a prime minister commanding a fresh eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons, a line (of sorts) was drawn under the most turbulent period in the country’s recent political history. The past four years have witnessed one historic referendum, two general elections, two major upsets at the ballot box, three prime ministers, the birth of...

About​ five years ago, in the course of studying the commercial applications of psychological research, I contacted the agent of Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, to inquire whether Ariely might want to speak at a conference in London. It didn’t come off: I had to explain that my ‘conference budget’ didn’t stretch to...

How to Be Prime Minister

William Davies, 26 September 2019

Where to start​ with the sheer strangeness, let alone the danger, of the current situation in British politics? One place would be with the three characters at the centre of events. As the tectonic plates of the British state rumble ominously, take a moment to register quite how strange it is that the headlines should be dominated by the figures of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Dominic...

Short Cuts: Reasons to be Cheerful

William Davies, 18 July 2019

Politics​ has never been a pursuit that requires total honesty. Nor, historically, has it been a vocation that scientists or other kinds of expert are drawn to. The New Labour era, which produced an elite career escalator linking university, think tank, ministerial advice, Parliament and finally government, was an anomaly in the longer sweep of things. The reason there are so many...

The Brexit Party is a mixture of business startup and social movement; it serves as a pressure valve, releasing pent-up frustration with traditional politics into the electoral system. Farage is in full control of the valve. He now possesses exceptional autonomy, quite free of the constraints that the media, party machines and constitutions have imposed on ambitious leaders in the past. Rival parties can neither ignore nor negotiate with this new presence. It makes the political weather.

Leave, and Leave Again: The Brexit Mentality

William Davies, 7 February 2019

It is​ received wisdom about referendums that ‘yes’ has an advantage over ‘no’. Alex Salmond didn’t get the wording he wanted for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – the Electoral Commission considered ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ too much of a leading question – but he did at least make sure...

Against Responsibility

William Davies, 8 November 2018

The phrase​ ‘hard-working families’, a staple of New Labour and Conservative rhetoric for about twenty years, fell by the wayside with the political upheavals of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 and the resignation of David Cameron the following summer. (Theresa May initially hoped to refocus on ‘JAMs’ – Just About Managing families...

Short Cuts: Jordan Peterson

William Davies, 2 August 2018

‘OK,​ we’ve been speaking for an hour and fifteen now, so you have a choice. Either we go to questions from the audience, or we carry on for another 45 minutes. It’s up to you.’ Jordan Peterson squints out into the gaping darkness of the O2 arena. ‘Everyone who’d like to go to Q&A, cheer now.’ Half-hearted cheer. ‘And everyone who’d...

It’s almost as if, on discovering that law alone was too blunt an instrument for deterring and excluding immigrants, the Home Office decided to weaponise paperwork instead. The ‘hostile environment’ strategy was never presented just as an effective way of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants: more important, it was intended as a way of destroying their ability to build normal lives.

Short Cuts: Cambridge Analytica

William Davies, 5 April 2018

There is​ at least one certainty where Cambridge Analytica is concerned. If forty thousand people scattered across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had changed their minds about Donald Trump before 8 November 2016, and cast their votes instead for Hillary Clinton, this small London-based political consultancy would not now be the subject of breathless headlines and Downing Street...

We need to know not just what kind of past the Brexiteers imagine, but what kind of future they are after. One disconcerting possibility is that figures such as Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg might be willing to believe the dismal economic forecasts, but look on them as an attraction.

Reasons for Corbyn

William Davies, 13 July 2017

The coincidence of the Corbyn surge with the horror of Grenfell Tower has created the conditions – and the demand – for a kind of truth and reconciliation commission on forty years of neoliberalism. It is too simple to cast Corbyn as a throwback, but it is undeniable that his appeal and his authority derive partly from his willingness to cast a different, less forgiving light on recent history, so that we don’t have to carry on repeating it.

The Big Mystique: Central Banks and Banking

William Davies, 2 February 2017

Early​ in 2014, the Bank of England put out a quarterly bulletin entitled ‘Money Creation in the Modern Economy’ which put to bed one of the most persistent – and false – claims in the history of economics. According to orthodox economists as far back as Adam Smith, money originates in the need to exchange one good for another. I have produced more bread than I need,...

Home Office Rules

William Davies, 3 November 2016

Home secretaries see the world in Hobbesian terms, as a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are robbed, murdered and blown up, and these things happen because the state has failed them. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers – who are rarely the victims of these crimes – then criticise the state for trying harder to protect the public through surveillance and policing. I suspect that many home secretaries have developed some of these ways of thinking. But Theresa May’s long tenure (six years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office suggests that the mindset may have deepened in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview.

Thanks to the work of behavioural economists there is a lot of experimental evidence to show what many of us would have suspected anyway: that people are not the rational, utility-maximisers...

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‘What’s​ on your mind?’ Each day, the 968 million people who log in to Facebook are asked to share their thoughts with its giant data bank. A dropdown menu of smilies invites...

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