Thursday, 23 June 2016

The sleep of reason

The expression ‘post-truth politics’ is one which I have only just become aware of, and I am not sure who coined it. The earliest usage I have found is an article about the 2012 US presidential election (Parmar, 2012) but it seems to already have been a term in use at that time.
It has come to the fore in the UK now as people begin to reflect upon the EU Referendum. Since the vote is being held today I don’t know what the outcome will be but the polls suggest the result will be close. Much of the campaign has employed familiar techniques of political rhetoric which inevitably include partial facts, selective interpretations, spinning and sloganizing of all sorts. But it has also seen repeated lies told, especially those which I have written about before concerning the size of the UK budget contribution to the EU and the assertion that Turkey is joining the EU.
It is not that telling lies in politics is new, and it isn’t that which in itself constitutes post-truth politics. It is the sense that the truth does not even matter, or that there is not even a truth to be told and, therefore, that it is meaningless to speak of lies being told. The political roots of that in the UK are associated in my mind, at least, with the way that the case was made for the Iraq War in 2003 and, more generally, with the newly relentless emphasis on ‘news management’ by the New Labour governments.
There was nothing new about spin either, of course, but this was something different. In particular, one of Tony Blair’s distinctive skills when in difficulty was to ‘break through the fourth wall’. This expression, derived from the theatre, refers to an actor speaking directly to the audience and in the process revealing the artifice of the stage. It’s just a play, after all – which we already know, but suspend our knowledge of until that knowledge is shattered. In politics this has the effect of simultaneously acknowledging but re-enforcing the idea that it is all just a game.
For skilled politicians like Blair this is a strangely disarming way of having the cake of playing the game whilst eating the cake of ironized authenticity. The blustering humour of politicians like Donald Trump or, in the Referendum context, Boris Johnson when ‘caught out’ in some particularly preposterous claim is somewhat similar. It draws the audience into a knowing acknowledgment of artifice, whilst inviting applause for the actor’s ‘honesty’ in exposing it. It’s this, rather than the telling of lies as such, which defines post-truth (and therefore post-lie) politics.
The intellectual roots of post-truth may lie with a (bowdlerized) version of post-modernism or of social constructionism: there is no truth, only interpretations. Something like this is apparent in the way that the campaign has been covered by the BBC, in particular, where a commitment to ‘balance’ has meant that every claim by one side has always been accompanied by a report of a counter-claim from the other. Again there is no truth, just opposing representations of truth; thus for every five minutes airtime saying that Turkey is not joining the EU there must be five minutes of airtime saying the opposite. Never mind that Turkey is not, as a matter of fact, joining the EU. I had a conversation at the weekend with someone about the EU debate and she suggested that whatever the facts about – in this particular conversation – immigration these didn’t matter for those concerned about it since what they claimed to be the facts were ‘true for them’ and that was what mattered.
If that is so then we have to give up on any sense of rationality in political discourse, and indeed the campaign can be read as a kind of battle between rational and post-truth politics. Thus the remain campaign deployed endless statements from various experts in economics, trade, security and so on. In response, leading leave campaigner Michael Gove opined that “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Incredibly, he subsequently compared pro-Brexit experts to the Nazis using scientific experts to denounce Einstein’s theories as wrong, in support of anti-semitic ideology. This from a former Education Minister!
Although usually less colourfully expressed, this trope of experts being in some way corrupt or untrustworthy has run through the leave campaign. It fits very neatly – like the rest of the leave campaign – with a populism in which ‘ordinary folk’ or consistently done down by ‘the elite’ – often, the ‘liberal elite’. The logic is completely circular – the evidence that they are the elite is that they disagree; the reason they disagree is that they are the elite. In this hermetically-sealed world anyone from global corporations to trade union leaders to ‘faceless bureaucrats’ to ‘the politically correct brigade’ to ‘so-called intellectuals’ are all part of an orchestrated conspiracy. Unless, of course, someone from one of these groups comes out in favour of the populist cause, at which point they become the fount of all wisdom, ‘courageously’ speaking out.
There is an interesting and important overlap between post-truth politics and the cosmopolitan and local split which I have talked about elsewhere. For the polling evidence suggests that views on EU membership are very clearly socially stratified: the more educated people are, the more likely they are to favour EU membership; the higher their social class (which is linked to educational level) the more likely they are to favour EU membership. As with Trump’s appeal, the cleavage is between those who gain from, or at least can cope with, globalization and those who suffer from its effects. In this way, post-truth politics are inextricably linked with the consequences of neo-liberalization. And in a way there is a connection between postmodern relativism and neo-liberalism: in the marketplace of ideas you pick the one that best expresses your economic interests.
These things probably connect with the media and social media culture in which ‘passion’ is the dominant value. Thus every game show contestant is judged on how passionately they want to win, just as post-truth politicians assure us of how passionate they are about their cause. What matters most is how strongly you feel. In that calculus, it is irrelevant whether what you feel is justified by evidence or argument; the strength of the feeling is its own validation. And why not? If, as my friend told me in the conversation I mentioned earlier, what matters is what people think is true then between all the different things that people think are true the only way to adjudicate between competing beliefs is the strength with which they are held.
But there are huge dangers here. The Spanish artist Francisco Goya captioned the most famous of his Los Caprichos etchings thus: “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters” (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos). This inspired the title of The Sleep of Reason (1968) a novel by C. P. Snow about whom I have written elsewhere on this blog. It is a reminder of the dangers of the abandonment of rationality, which are just as great as those of an over-attachment to rationality – dangers which include technocracy and totalitarianism. Tomorrow we will learn whether post-truth politics have won the EU Referendum but, even if it has not, its appeal and its consequences will not disappear.
Parmar, I. (2012). ‘US Presidential Election 2012: Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight 3 (2): 4-7
Snow, C.P. (1968). The Sleep of Reason. London: Macmillan.

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