The aim of this series of conversations is to explore the question of “post-truth”.
Let us begin by briefly outlining what this phenomenon refers to. In general, the term refers to a certain priority given in the public space to emotions and personal beliefs, to the detriment of or above facts.
This is related, in turn, to a political phenomenon relevant to our discussion: a kind of generalised anguish on the part of citizens regarding the truths that bureaucratic authority and corporate power seek to establish in our time.
Postmodernism and Post-Truth
Analyses of the post-truth phenomenon generally adopt two strategies.
On the one hand, from a philosophical point of view, what is attempted is to trace the origins of the phenomenon in the history of philosophy, in order to identify in explicit doctrines, backgrounds of meaning, social imaginaries, institutional forms and practices crystallised in theories. Obviously, it is not claimed that theories are the source of the phenomenon, but that the moral orders of modern and contemporary societies are made explicit in them, and are therefore informative.
There are those who identify in the modern epistemological revolution, in the subjectivist turn that characterises it, the remote origin that has led to the current devaluation of truth. Others, on the other hand, point out that it is in the Kantian transcendental revolution, focused on the insuperable subject-object “correlation”, where we will find the explanation of our present course.
In any case, idealism, nihilism, cultural relativism and postmodernism lead in this account to the death of truth, the counterpart of which is the exacerbation of today’s emotivist culture, in which truths are no longer sought in facts.
In this story, the figure of Nietzsche is crucial. Postmodernism, the enemy to beat.
Acceleration and Alienation
On the other hand, from a sociological point of view, the problem of post-truth is analysed by paying attention to the processes of alienation and acceleration to which current capitalism leads, especially in relation to the profound and vertiginous technological transformations that have disruptively modified the spatio-temporal foundations of our experience of life.
For those who choose this analytical approach, the new technologies lead to the progressive loss of substantive and stable references, which entails, for the subject, modifications in all the dimensions of his or her experience:
In the connative dimension, individuals seem disoriented in the fragmented moral space they inhabit. In part, this is due to the impoverishment or dissolution of horizons articulated on the basis of substantive values. This gives rise, on the one hand, to an exclusively instrumentalist orientation of action, or to the return of all kinds of tribalism.
In the attentional dimension, individuals seem to be captive to the exhausting logics imposed by existential precariousness, the exacerbation of consumption, especially in the digital market, and the relentless harassment of propaganda. All this in the context of a market economy in which agents perceive themselves in the image and likeness of the capitalist company, obliged to continually reshape their profiles in order to be competitive, and to submit obediently to the continuous demands of evaluation imposed by the systems of competition. All this in the context of widespread precariousness, open exploitation of the bureaucratic and corporate managerial strata, and generalised uncertainty.
In the cognitive dimension, individuals seem captive between (1) the indecision imposed by indeterminacy in discerning what is apparent and what is real in itself (calling into question the very rationality of the market, as claimed by rational choice theory); and (2) a kind of cognitive decisionism or voluntarism, which is better suited to the monological experience of social networks and digital consumption than to the “communicative action” that, theoretically, underlies liberal democracy.
Finally, in the affective dimension, individuals oscillate between insensitivity and hypersensitivity. These phenomena are closely associated with the way in which events are treated by the media apparatus or discussed in the public sphere. They sometimes reveal an undeniable irrationality on the part of citizens, who (1) are either exacerbated by their emotions when confronted with manufactured or even imaginary dilemmas, or (2) respond apathetically to real threats.
While these critical analyses are very interesting and in many ways correct in their diagnosis, our approach to the issue is different. The first thing we will do is to challenge the very term “post-truth”. Its use obscures rather than illuminates the problem we face.
We would say that it is a “conservative” device of the current regime of social and ecological relations – a regime that today is contested by its victims all over the planet, sometimes expressing itself in unpleasant ways, as when it adopts the rhetoric and forms of the extreme right or radical anarchism, without diminishing one iota the justified unease that animates these expressions.
In this sense, somewhat paraphrasing Foucault in his famous debate with Habermas, we refuse the blackmail of the establishment that forces us to choose between the current hegemony and the retrograde responses that apparently oppose it. Among other things, because we are convinced that these retrograde responses are part of the same conservative device, insofar as they serve to deactivate the potential for real transformation, which inexorably poses a threat to the privileged elites and the bureaucratic and corporate strata at their service in the current order.
In other words, the discourse of post-truth has become a strategy of the cultural establishment of liberal democracies to contain the justified critique of the failure of the hegemonic political, socio-economic and ecological project, which, over the last five decades, in its most extreme, “neoliberal” version, has led humanity, once again, to the abyss of a world war, the obscene and lacerating inequality and exclusion of billions of people, and undeniable manifestations of an environmental deterioration that threatens the survival of the human race on the planet.
Democracy and Post-Truth
For this reason, our proposal is to move beyond the current conservative narrative that points to post-truth as a threat to our democracies, and focus on the real problem: our democracies have never been what they pretend to be.
On the other hand, let go of the idea that post-truth calls truth into question, as if our practices of collective manipulation had never existed, and we had been living in a paradise of transparency until the advent of this terrible new phenomenon.
The truth is that our Western democratic societies are characterised not only by their sophisticated systems of political representation through dubiously functioning electoral procedures, but also, as a counterpart, by being the most sophisticated and effective set of manipulative devices to lead populations to act against their own interests.
This has been the case since the very origin of the institution of our modern democratic systems, when the founders of our governmental regimes were more interested in shielding the privileges of the rich and powerful than in ensuring that the voice of the people would truly become a factor of change in their favour, and not the mimetic echo of the class interests it represents today.
It is therefore essential to move beyond the conservative narrative that points to post-truth as the current threat to the health of our democracies, and focus on the real problem, which is none other, as we said above, than the democracies themselves, and the deceptions on which they are founded.
In this sense we have to understand the usual strategy of political parties to impose cordons sanitaires on extreme right-wing expressions and radical anarchism, leaving the substance of the issue untouched. This only exacerbates the problems, precisely because we confront them with a false solution that conceals them. The extreme right, like radical anarchism, are nothing more than symptoms that neoliberal progressive liberalism manufactures in its headlong rush to perpetuate its hegemony.
On the other hand, the word “post-truth” is suspect in another dimension. The use of the prefix “post-“, which is associated with analogous terms used in the past, such as “post-Marxism”, “post-modernism” or “post-capitalism”, only muddies the debate by imposing a presumptuous and pedantic category which, as I have already said, conceals more than it reveals.
The other questionable assumption behind the term “post-truth” is related to its implications. It is said, for example, that the phenomenon calls into question the viability of democracy and healthy coexistence, exacerbating differences and antagonisms, and dynamiting the bases of the possible consensuses that democracy demands. Thus, post-truth is associated with totalitarian forms, while democracy represents, in this imaginary, the opposite of the manipulation of facts in order to reflect the truth.
Crisis of Legitimacy
In our case, we start from a less self-congratulatory diagnosis. We do not believe that we have been in possession of an ethico-political truth that technology and culture have come to disrupt. Nor do we believe that the current dispensation is the result of a communications problem, but is rooted in the deeper phenomenon of the crisis of legitimacy of the existing hegemonic order, which technological transformations have only enervated or exacerbated.
Nor do we claim that liberal democracies are in crisis as a consequence of phenomena such as post-truth and analogous phenomena in the institutional order, such as lawfare or judicial warfare.
Liberal democracy is in crisis because it cannot sustain its legitimacy in the face of the challenges that call into question its effectiveness in solving the material problems of populations, and the ad infinitum mutiplication of the excluded who are knocking at the door asking to be heard and to have their rights recognised in the light of the very criteria that our democracies claim to represent.
Against the liberal-conservative history in vogue in North Atlantic societies, we believe that, if we really want to understand what has brought us here, to the deep civilisational crisis affecting humanity as a whole, we must recognise that the marriage between so-called liberal democracies and capitalism is the prime suspect.
World wars, the current threat of a new cycle of planetary war destruction, inequality, famines, violence against large sections of society excluded from the sharing of resources, and environmental destruction, can only be explained within the framework of the suicidal competition imposed by capitalism, and the systematic manipulation of our democracies.
Article published at UOC