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. 

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