For as long as there have been politicians they have lied, fabricated, and deceived. However commentators are beginning to tell us that something has changed in the last few years. It is not that politicians have ceased to tell lies or to pretend that the facts are other than they are. It is rather that they have begun to speak as though there is no such distinction as that between facts and fabrications. We live in a post-truth world – such is the mantra. Two books entitled Post Truth have just appeared, explaining the matter, one by Matthew d’Ancona and one by Evan Davis. For Matthew d’Ancona the post-truth culture explains much that troubles him in public life, not least the election of President Trump and the Brexit vote. Evan Davis, writing about what he calls ‘Peak Bullshit’, concurs. Somehow the boundaries between true and false, sense and nonsense, opinion and reality, thought and bullshit have been erased, and no-one really knows how to reinstate them.
That is one way in which the Brexit vote is explained by those who cannot stomach it. If there is no truth, then opinions are no longer true or false, but simply yours or mine, ours or theirs. And since the Brexit vote was about identity, ‘we’ were bound to win over those who still thought there was something to argue about. As for the ‘experts’, why should we listen to them, when they were trying to phrase the argument in a language that no longer applies, as though there were some objective ‘fact of the matter’ that we could all agree upon?
When it comes to President Trump, the ‘post-truth’ accusation definitely seems to stick. This extraordinary person, whose thoughts seem shaped by their very nature to the 140 permitted characters of a Twitter account, makes no distinction between the true and the false and assumes that no one else makes such a distinction either. Should the FBI show that Trump colluded with the Russians in manipulating the Presidential election that would not be a fact, but simply ‘fake news’, of no greater authority than his own home-grown alternative, which will have the added advantage of being contained in 140 characters, so that we can read it quickly and move on.
One thing is certain which is that the concept of truth has been the victim of massive cyber-attacks in recent decades, and it has not yet recovered. The most recent attack has come from the social media, which have turned the Internet into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still small voice of humanity. Mr Trump is a creation of the social media, and has an astute way of using his smart phone to by-pass all the filters designed to exclude people like him from high office.
We have yet to get used to this, and to the damage the social media have done to rational argument. Maybe someone will discover the software that will worm through the system, systematically deleting all that is false and destructive. Even if that can be achieved, however, it won’t undo the damage of the previous great cyber-attack, which came from the intellectuals themselves, when they rushed to discard the idea of truth as an obstacle to an academic career. D’Ancona recognizes that the post-truth culture swept through the academy a whole decade before the Internet began, cramming the syllabus with fatuous nonsense from Deleuze and Baudrillard, and ensuring that no humanities student would ever again read a book for pleasure.
The inspiration was Marx, whose theory of ideology put power above truth as the motive of political thinking. For the sixties Marxist my thinking is science, yours ideology: mine is the true voice of history, yours the ‘false consciousness’ of the bourgeoisie. Foucault rephrased the idea in terms of the episteme of a culture – the fabric of concepts and arguments that the ruling class lays over society so that every voice speaks with its terms. This was the dominant approach to the humanities in the seventies and eighties of the last century, and the way of thinking that has come recently to the surface in the apostles of the Momentum movement. It defined the position of the polytechnic left, who believed that ideas, beliefs and arguments are not to be judged in terms of their truth, but in terms of the ‘class’, ‘hegemony’ or ‘power structure’ that speaks through them. The question to be asked of every adversary was not ‘what are your arguments?’ but ‘where are you speaking from?’ That, to me, was the beginning of the post-truth culture.
But this is where a bit of realism is needed. Politics is an opinion-forming and opinion-manipulating art. However much people can be influenced by slick advertising, mendacious promises, and intoxicating slogans, they are influenced by these things only because the idea of truth lurks somewhere in the background of their consciousness. In the end we all respond to an inner ‘reality principle’, and will amend any belief when its refutation is staring us in the face. It is only someone buried in a social science department, lost in the turgid pages of Deleuze, Badiou and Habermas, who will go on believing that there is no truth, and therefore no real differences of opinion.
And that is why we should, when considering the Brexit vote, be guided by the truth of the matter. As d’Ancona insists, the debate was not conducted at the highest level, and there was a tendency on the ‘leave’ side to dismiss the assembled experts as merely experts, who didn’t count because they were assuming the existence of some fact of the matter. But we should recall the history of the EU, and how we became a part of it. We were invited to join a ‘customs union’, a ‘common market’, and nobody said that we were to surrender national sovereignty, to open our borders, and to submit to a new legal order that would dictate to us from a point outside the kingdom, regardless of Parliament and the Common Law. We were told a whopping great lie, not from a post-truth standpoint, but from the standpoint of politicians who seriously wished to deceive us, and seriously wished us to believe as true what they knew to be false. That was Sir Edward Heath’s great act of treason, and I blame him for it.
The experts were to many voters simply a proof that the original lie persisted, the lie that membership of the EU is a trade agreement, a matter of mutual economic benefit, and nothing to do with our identity as a sovereign nation state. The people voted as they did in large part because Parliament had refused to discuss their principal concern over EU membership. This was not a post-truth response, but an appeal to the politicians to take truth seriously.
Of course, d’Ancona has a point. All plebiscites narrow the political process to a single question, and force us to think in terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, rather than ‘maybe’ or ‘yes, with qualifications’. We were not asked to consider the real solution to the sovereignty problem, which is to tear up that old treaty and replace it with another one, in which the national interests of all the signatories could be considered anew. And here, I suspect, we do encounter the thing that most troubles d’Ancona, which is the change to the human psyche brought about by the social media, and the belief that you can decide even the most deep and difficult issues by a one-click response.