Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Problem with Post-Truth

Hillary Clinton (Photo: Magnus Manske/ Wiki Commons)
The word "post-truth" has started cropping up a lot in the media. You might have seen it or even googled it. But you're less likely to have used it yourself. That's because it's a highly unnatural coinage, appearing in the language as the name of a vague frustration. It is a custom-made word designed for a specific purpose, invented by people who believe that by naming a thing that annoys them, they explain it. It can hardly be self-applied, but rather names the actions of others whom one dislikes. 

What is implied by the term "post-truth"? What social phenomena is it supposed to identify and explain? To answer these questions we need to identify who is actually using it. It lacks the requisite specificity to originate in any sort of academic discourse. But neither has it appeared spontaneously in "natural" English. If the phrase belongs to anyone it is salaried professionals, particularly journalists. The closest any of the latter have come to explaining "post-truth" is the Guardian's Jonathon Freedland, who says: "Technology now allows politicians to communicate directly with their followers, with no need to transmit their claims through the fact-checking filter of a news organisation." Politicians no longer feel the accountable to the guardians and regulators of truth. They feel they can lie and get away with it because new technology lets them bypass the traditional authorities supposed to regulate public life and keep it on the straight and narrow. So it's all Twitter's fault, according to salaried professional journalists. No doubt the profession in question feels particularly sore about new tech taking their jobs. But Twitter hasn't made retweeting, uncritical zombies of us all.

This is not to argue there is no general crisis of representation. It is not to argue that the only people who feel befuddled are middle-class professionals scrolling down their newsfeeds in quiet disgust. The crisis of representation goes back a long way: to the erosion of postwar modes of social inclusion and political representation; to the fragmentation of national economies and the internationalisation of global production; to the recent constitutional crises in even advanced capitalist states. It is not easy to produce cultural representations of a society in that kind of flux, at least not ones that feel valid. The traditional working class is utterly bewildered by its own sweeping marginalisation. The displacement from power of the corporatist patrician classes by affectless, deracinated youngsters has left our rulers equally disoriented. Meanwhile, financialisation, inequality, war and global migration are constantly remaking populations and the social relations between them. Hard right political formations mutate by the month: from elitist euroscepticism, to populist Islamophobia, to plebeian street movements in the course of a single year. The well-behaved, reformist variant of social democracy has almost completely vanished.

The problem with "post-truth" is that it registers all of this in the form of a simple conceptual frustration. The question for most journalists surveying the series of disasters that has rocked their world in 2016 has been: "Why don't Trump supporters, Brexiters, Corbynistas, or disabled people fighting welfare sanctions see the world the way it really is? Why are they so deluded?" Hence the word is summoned by journalists to explain the problem: they're all "post-truth" is what they are. They've collectively lost the ability to tell the difference between truth and fiction. They're addicted to social media and not sophisticated enough to question the information they're getting. In other words, they're "post-truth" because they're thick. Or rather, as the Financial times columnist and George Osborne biographer (!) Janan Ganesh put it in reference to Corbyn voters, they're "thick as pig shit."

Now, even if some people are thick, it's clear this won't do as a sociological explanation of Brexit, Trump, and UKIP or Corbyn, Podemos and Sanders. It's also clear that some are guilty of participating in this "post-truth" world for their own ends. It used to be called postmodernism and it was fun: voters were déclassé consumers; politicians were salespeople; articulating what the public wanted was a matter of artifice and technique; underlying truths were ultimately malleable, subject to the vicissitudes of the society of the spectacle. Anything could be said or done as long as it played well and as long as it fed into a broader narrative. Indeed this was precisely what was celebrated in George Osborne. So presumably the people who voted for his naked manipulation of the global financial crisis in order to shrink the state must also be "thick as pig shit." To a certain extent, this is what that generation of politicians and journalists believes: the public is thick as pig shit and can be won over to anything as long as it sounds good. Well, Brexit actually proved that the public was sceptical of media narratives. And it also proved that reality could come back and bite apparently Teflon politicians like Osborne in the arse.

There is something happening and they don't understand it so they call it "post-truth." In fact what is actually happening is that the secular crisis of western democracy - one which these journalists and politicians once played for their own ends - has slipped beyond their control. Take Hillary Clinton: a master of spin and manipulation who once triangulated so hard on welfare she wound up calling black men "super-predators" is now vulnerable to accusations of chronic dishonesty by - of all people - Donald J. Trump. She has no one to blame for this but her own political class and generation. Clinton is, despite her own protests, one of the inventors of "post-truth." On almost every possible count, from welfare reform to crime to foreign intervention, Clinton has been a key figure in dismantling the New Deal and pivoting the Democratic Party sharply to the right. It is Clinton's generation of politicians who did all this while promising it would make life better. Want to "end welfare as we know it?" Just ditch all your party's commitments to job creation and strong unions, and instead impose sharp welfare cuts whilst signing trade deals that undercut the US workforce. This kind of nonsense was sold to people as the tough medicine that would get the great American middle and working class back on track. And look how it turned out. Donald Trump is a disgusting liar, but there are reasons his accusations about Clinton also being a liar hit home. She is by no means the worst politician of her generation, but she is not an exception to the rule either.

"Post-truth" commentators balk at lazy misinterpretation of data, forgetting the almost total failure of any major press outlet (from the New York Times to the Observer) to question Bush and Blair's spurious justifications for the Iraq War. They scorn exaggerations of this or that threat, whilst forgetting their own role in reproducing consistent Tory lies about Labour overspending causing the 2008 economic crash. They call Corbyn's economic policies "fantasy" while failing to ever critique the idea perpetuated by Osbornomics that you can grow the economy by cutting the size of the state. They played the game of "post-truth" themselves and now they feel sore that they have lost control of it. George Osborne never "made work pay" (wages fell). He didn't cut the debt or eliminate the deficit (the public debt has doubled and the deficit in public spending remains). But still we are told that it is the Labour Party that inhabits "La-La-Land" for wanting to spend £500 billion investing in targeted industries rather than subsidising private landlords and the rich. 

The problem with "post-truth" is that it blames a crisis of representation on the represented. It is the media itself which has utterly failed in its role of rendering the often unrelenting bleakness of modern life coherent or meaningful. There are reasons for this too, offered by the excellent journalist Nick Davies in his books Flat Earth News and Hacked! In these two tomes the veteran reporter documents the speeding up of media-time under intensifying commercial competition, as well as the ever-widening gulf between media-political elites and the wider public. The crushing of the print unions has led to newspapers becoming much more stressful environments. There is less time to research facts. AP reports and PR material are reproduced almost verbatim. The media's own post-truth era is, like that of wider society, a symptom of underlying developments. For the respected Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson a crisis of representation implies a crisis in the capacity of the ruling order to tell convincing stories about itself and the world. This is the real root of "post-truth": the formerly privileged groups of the old order are losing their capacity to regulate cultural production in their own interests. Their cultural hegemony has slipped and they are lashing out. "Post-truth" is the name they give to their own anxiety. 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Labour will only win if they tell the truth: public spending and immigration are good

A Crisis of Trust

Anyone who lives in Britain - including and especially those who don't really follow politics - know what Labour is widely perceived to be bad at. Those things are: leadership, spending too much, and being soft on immigration. As today's YouGov polling shows, that hasn't changed.

It's also true that Labour has been misrepresented. Public spending as a proportion of GDP fell in the Blair/Brown years and the Party was by no means lenient on welfare during the boom. The party broadly continued Thatcherite policy on spending and leadership style. Blair in particular was neurotically controlling, even autocratic. Though Blair was particularly keen on immigration from Eastern Europe after those countries' support for the invasion of Iraq, the party consistently talked tough. Blair trumpeted "tough immigration laws that work" in 2005. Brown promised "British jobs for British workers" in 2009. Even the supposedly left-wing Ed Milliband had his famous immigration mugs.

So why don't people buy the idea that Labour is a tough, no-nonsense party that favours strong central leadership, fiscal rectitude, and a firm hand toward foreigners? Maybe it's just the media. Or maybe it's because, in practical terms, Labour is less good at presenting itself as those things than the Tories are. The Tories may not be very effective in reality. They've doubled the public debt, failed on their own deficit target, increased immigration and bowed out at the first sign of trouble over Brexit. Their central pledge to the electorate was that they would eliminate the deficit by 2015. It stands today at £70 billion and they've ditched any serious commitment to eliminating it. The Tories promised to cut immigration and they increased it to a record high. Growth has stagnated, investment is in decline, there's is no real productivity in the economy. The Tories are worse than incompetent - they haven't got a fucking clue. But they are better at looking like they can control immigration and clamp down on the public finances.

There are many reasons for this and "the media" is one. Another is deep public perception, based on historically informed, socially constructed expectations. Another still is the easy intellectual detente between the Tories' top strategy advisors and those who shape media narratives proper. The whole apparatus of the Tory Party - part state-hugging machinery, part intellectual network enveloping the top universities and the press - is geared toward shaping and in turn performing for public perceptions. 

True, this is all massively unfair. Some Labour people are good at what the Tories do - or try to be. Largely, because they are expensively educated and very wealthy, they resemble the Tories. Unsurprisingly they advocate a strategy and a path to power that mirrors the Tories. In some cases they also advocate similar policies. But that's not really the point. The point is they keep losing.

YouGov polling data confirms what they've all been saying: the public doesn't trust Labour on leadership, public finances or immigration. The current leadership is hardly going to change that. So the logical conclusion is to "meet the public where they are, not as they should be." It's true that Jeremy Corbyn can't get the country to agree with him. 

So let's assume three things. Labour gets a tough-looking leadership. Maybe it's Dan Jarvis. Maybe Labour gets a poll boost among older voters. That would be fantastic. Now, suppose Labour outlflanks the Tories on immigration. Let's say they promise to cut immigration not just to the tens of thousands but to the mere thousands. And they promise not only to cut public spending but to halve the public debt. The problem isn't that these things wouldn't be popular, it is that no one would believe a word of it.

And why not? The Tories themselves promised to cut net migration to the the tens of thousands - and it rose. The Tories also promised to eliminate the public deficit by 2015 and reduce the public debt - they have abandoned the former and doubled the latter. It's not fair that they get away with this, but they do. And Labour won't get away with it. The Tories will be trusted on fiscal credibility and immigration even if they systematically fail on their own terms. Labour, on the other hand, won't be believed no matter what they promise.

The Labour Party can do two things to respond to this: they can collectively point out the failure of the Tories and they can campaign for a convincing alternative. That is all. There's no cheeky triangulation that will pull this off. There's no spin that can cut those corners. It is hard work. It's probably boring for people to listen to. But it's the truth.

Take immigration. After years of talking tough and being perceived as soft on immigration, many senior Labour figures are now leaning toward talking tougher on immigration. Invariably these are pro-EU, pro-single market people who see being anti-immigration as a tactical and rhetorical device to win over racist little Englanders. In their world, consistency can be sacrificed for the sake of appearance. They forget that even in a postmodern world people still want convincing, persuasive stories about the world that make sense. Simply declaring yourself anti-immigration, whilst at the same time being pro-EU, won't persuade anyone. People aren't stupid and they'll just think you're duplicitous. Which is basically what everyone thinks anyway.

People have consistently been lied to about immigration. It's happened in unprecedented numbers, then they've been told it's a bad thing. Whilst they've been told that it's a bad thing and that it should be cut, it's continued to rise. As many have told them it's got out of control, some have suggested it can only fall if we leave the EU. Now that we are leaving the EU, it's becoming clear that it may still not fall.

How can anyone in the Labour Party - a party marked by lies and treachery and famed for being pro-immigration - believe that by talking tough on immigration they can win people over? The problem with rational actor theory is that it forgets people can detect bullshit. And people's bullshit antennae are off the scale when they hear Labour say "we want to cut immigration." No one believes it and they never will. Because it is bullshit.

What's the best thing Labour could possibly say on the proverbial doorstep? Here's an idea: "Fine, cut immigration. Kick every single foreigner out if you want. It might even make you feel good for a week or two. But do you really believe for one moment that this would help you get a good job? Or a decent house? Or a good school place for your kid? Or a decent health service?" And even if those questions are left unanswered, the silence they provoke will be a kind of progress.

The Labour leadership alone can't do this. Resentful backbenchers with their embarrassing subservience to the right wing press certainly can't do this. But a million fired up Labour members in every community across the country can. Nobody said transforming and rebuilding the country would be easy. But it will be easier to persuade enough people that immigration and public spending are good than it will to persuade them that Labour really intends to cut either.