Attempts to conceptualise the relationship between truth and political action have been pervasively hindered by the pejorative attitude of those who have tried to explain it. There is a sneer implicit in almost any academic or journalistic discussion of conspiracy theories, a knowing smirk that says, implicitly or outright, ‘Imagine believing such stupid things, when we, after all, know better!’ As the power differential sustaining this attitude has begun to collapse, the smirk has transformed into overt fear, disgust, and anger: ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’: ‘How dare they believe these things?’ In its most acute form, the reaction has been melded into sweeping Platonic denunciations of the principle of democracy itself, which present millennia-old defences of oligarchy as trendy liberal opinions. This is hardly by accident: as we can already see in Plato himself, the flight from democratic politics, indeed from all politics, and the obsession with abstract truth are intimately connected.
In reality, this devotion to ‘the truth’ has proven itself concerned with ‘facts’ in only the shallowest sense. What is striking, indeed, is how often the people who are fastest to decry ‘post-truth politics’ are simply wrong—and not just in their predictions, as Paul Krugman was when he foresaw markets irrecoverably ‘plunging’ upon Trump’s election (this may be excused). The widely circulated claim in the EU referendum campaign that there were no academic experts supporting Leave could easily have been debunked by a cursory Google search. A more recent example serves as another case in point. When Donald Trump tweeted that the costs for a replacement to Air Force One furnished by Boeing had reached the order of $4 billion, liberal celebrities like George Takei were quick to rush to the side of the multinational corporation whose image was at stake, announcing with the requisite smugness that per their own press release Boeing had only asked for a sum many times less than that. But Trump was correct: the total appropriations for the project were indeed expected to reach the region of $4 billion. Slate’s headline speaks for itself: ‘In a Twist, Trump’s Disputed Twitter Claim About Air Force One Turns Out to Be Completely True’. (The original headline remains in the URL.)
The reason for this, of course, is that the obsession with the truth is disingenuous. It is predicated on the idea that the opponents of liberalism or globalism, whatever we call that hazy mixture of ideas reproduced ceaselessly in the nexuses of global power, are prophets of untruth. By definition: because the obsession is not, as its proponents claim, a defence of rationality against unreason. It is in the first instance a defence of power. They are not interested in the facts, but in using facts as an instrument to demolish their opposition.
Yet it is not just that the liberals are hypocritical. Even in an entirely transparent form, it is not exactly obvious that ‘the truth’ is a worthy end in itself in politics. What, exactly, is wrong with untruth? What is wrong with conspiracy theories, even assuming they are incorrect?
The indignation over conspiracy theories tends to focus on the anxiety that they make politics as a whole dysfunctional. The prevalence of conspiracy theories, we are told, weakens the legitimacy of political institutions. So they do. But why is it so important that our present political institutions be seen as legitimate? Why shouldn’t Muslims disbelieve the responsibility of al-Qaeda for 9/11, as indeed they overwhelmingly do in Britain, when they receive that idea from institutions and interests that collaborated to marginalise them in the aftermath of 9/11? Why shouldn’t white Rust Belt workers, in their turn, believe that the economists and politicians whose policies marginalised them were working in the service of a conspiracy?
This is quite an imposing series of rhetorical questions. But they are getting at a fairly simple conclusion. It is entirely wrong to believe that in themselves conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ are pathological. In the end, they are an understandable, even a desirable, response for people marginalised by the structures of global power to construct theories to explain their predicament. When American liberals recall the Founding Fathers in their defences of the Electoral College, let us also remember that the American Revolution could never have been accomplished without the proliferation of conspiracy theories. There was, after all, no grand British conspiracy to enslave the colonies, not to speak of the more specific, and more lurid theories to which the British government of the time was subject.
Just as in the 18th century, indeed, the conspiracy theorist is closer to an authentic engagement with the reality of politics than the entirely uncritical establishmentarian who protests endlessly in favour of a ‘truth’ constructed by power without ever examining the forces underlying it. As Hardt and Negri noted,
The spectacle of politics functions as if the media, the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions, and so forth were all consciously and explicitly directed by a single power even though in reality they are not.
In the far more conflict-ridden era we are entering, it may perhaps be better to write that rather than politics as a whole, in much of the West it is specifically the defence against the populist tide that is functioning in this manner. We may note how many self-proclaimed leftists have fallen in with ‘the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions’ in their drive to defend the truth at any cost. (It takes a certain level of cognitive dissonance to believe that the academics and journalists who have repeatedly failed to foresee the present course of politics are superior sources of authority on it. And it is extraordinarily forgetful to continue, eight years after 2008, to legitimate the bulk of the economic profession as high priests of the truth in a stagnant and deglobalising world economy when their prognostications have been based on indefinite growth and globalisation.)
How should we understand the interest in defending this ‘truth’ at this moment in time? Part of the reason it is under attack is material: the condition of the world economy no longer supports the political hegemony of liberalism, and if the defence of ‘truth’ is a defence of power it makes perfect sense that it has just now become the issue it has. Part of it is also instrumental. The advent of new media and the ascendancy of the Internet have radically decentered the manufacturing of political discourse. Both of these claims deserve much longer analysis, but I will note a few things on the second point.
The curious claim of Angela Merkel that ‘the history of the printing press’ shows the need to ‘find the right kind of policies to contain this and to manage and steer this’ is characteristic of the liberal response to the entry of the Internet into politics. In this there is a breathtaking reversal of historical reality. It is plainly not the case that the introduction of the printing press provoked anarchy and chaos until it was tamed by the careful management of the more enlightened sort. Regulations of printed material were not extended and improved in the two centuries between the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and the First Amendment: they were abolished, restricted, and, in the American case, constitutionally outlawed. Like printed material, though to a far greater extent, the Internet is a new space of political confrontation (and on that, there is much more to be said). By its very nature it is insusceptible to cack-handed discursive regulation. The modern samizdat, whether radical or merely ‘fake news’, proliferates far more easily online than it did in the classical totalitarian regimes. It is orders of magnitude easier for a Chinese citizen to set up a VPN and a WordPress blog than for a Soviet citizen to establish an underground printing press.
Successful attempts to channel the course of online politics have not been directed at ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ it: they have engaged it organically and positively. They do not command the tides to turn back: they shape them, and ride them. The Russian propaganda programme, with its gleeful and indiscriminate promotion of conspiracy theories and a kaleidoscope of different political narratives, provides an excellent example, and we may contrast the robustness of this Russian offensive with the declining trust and influence of the traditional Western media. Its tools cannot be abandoned to the Russians or the alt-right: they mark the course that any successful politics must take in the Internet age.
To be successful, the left cannot defend forever an abstract ‘truth’ whose content is supplied by power. If such a course is incompatible with contemporary liberal doctrine, then so be it. In such a struggle between the petty short-termism of our present politics and the tectonic forces undergirding our new era of modernity, the result will never be the successful regulation of the Internet or the wider sphere of public discourse. It will be the obsolescence of liberalism as a political ideology.