Since I first responded to Chris Rutkowski’s short tirade against what he calls “metamodernism” William Murphy has been “looking for [me to cast] more light upon that larger-than-forteana malady [of post-truth populism and its conspiracy theories] and its ‘cure.'” So, here, I lay out some admittedly provisional thoughts on our “post-truth” moment, that populist worldview that articulates itself by appeal to “alternative facts” and in the form of various, contemporary reiterations of New World Order conspiracy theory, e.g., QAnon or other theories woven around “the Great Reset”, etc. “Populism” as such is of course a wider and deeper social phenomenon….
Roots in the Reformation sprout in Postmodernity
In my last foray, I posited that the phenomenon of post-truth, ironically (or dialectically), finds its deepest roots in modernity, first, in the shattering and ultimate atomization of spiritual authority in the Reformation, which democratized the meaning of scripture. This religious development has its rational corollary in the Enlightenment; Immanuel Kant famously exhorted his readers to “dare to know” (sapere aude), to have the courage to use their reason independently, to think for themselves (however much his argument in “What is Enlightenment?” is more nuanced and sophisticated than that). Just as faith and reason came to be housed in the individual, in a not unrelated way, so society in general, with the advent of capitalism and liberal democracy, after a long process, arrives at a maximum of atomization, with citizens being reduced to consumers or, with the gig economy, “entrepreneurs of themselves” and with near (if hardly unproblematic) universal franchise. Ironically (or dialectically) this distribution of power results in an ever greater financial, material insecurity and a no less widening gap between the individual citizen and the political decisions that impact their lives.
Along with the crumbling of a single, unified religious authority, the edifice of Aristotlean natural philosophy began to crack under the strain of the Scientific Revolution. The consequence of these developments is that the theological notion of a ready-made world that can be truly represented by the no-less divine gifts of thought and speech can no longer be assumed, which demands a new foundation for truth and knowledge be uncovered or laid down. The attempt to secure just such a firm, first principle begins with Descartes, who, famously, grounds certainty on the self-aware subject. Descartes’ solution along with those of Spinoza, Reinhold, Fichte, and Hegel all spectacularly fail, however. Two consequences followed: on the one hand, the natural sciences, encouraged by the successes of ever-more refined specialization, continued to proliferate to the point where the thought of an underlying unity that might harmonize them, if not with each other, at least with the lifeworld, became unsupportable; on the other, the philosophical implications of this abyss at the foundation of knowledge led to, among others, the tentative, open-ended reflections of the Jena Romantics. One of the most famous of their number, Friedrich Schlegel, sets out the position of modern (or postmodern) knowledge-without-a-first-principle in two fragments: “Philosophy is an epos, begins in the middle;” thus, “Demonstrations in philosophy are just demonstrations in the sense of the language of the art of military strategy. It is no better with [philosophical] legitimations than with political ones; in the sciences one first of all occupies a terrain and then proves one’s right to it afterward.”
In the trope that governs Schlegel’s latter fragment one can see the beginning of a line of thought that can be traced through the Marxist concept of ideology, Nietzsche’s metaphor of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors…”, Foucault’s archaeologies of power/knowledge, down to today’s (parody of) “postmodern” sensibility, for which all claims to truth or knowledge are merely rhetorical ploys in a language game of domination. The post-truth mind is not so much one that denies truth or facts but one that holds that claims to truth and knowledge are all invested or otherwise weaponized to the point that partial truths, distortions, or outright lies are deployed to enforce a worldview and maintain or entrench societal control. Since attempts to maintain control must come from those already in power, suspicion is therefore directed at institutions and authorities, “elites”; post-truth is consequently a “populist” attitude that sets alternative worldviews over against that perceived to maintain the status quo.
“Social existence determines consciousness”: desperate inspiration
However much post-truth is bound up with Twenty-First Century populism, populism itself is no more homogeneous than the beliefs held by its members. American populism (Trumpism, in its most recent iteration) must be thought differently than its contemporary Brazilian, Filipino, Hungarian, Polish, or Turkish varieties, as all these nations have markedly different histories than the oldest modern democracy (or republic, if you insist); the soil that roots these varieties differs, well, radically. Nevertheless, what can be said of all these populisms, including the French Yellow Vest movement, is that they are arguably underwritten by a frustrated impatience with the material precarity brought about by decades of neoliberalism. This crisis is aggravated by the recalcitrance of national governments and the no less opaque, indifferent workings of the global order. If nature as the object of scientific research is now possessed of a complexity that transcends the ability of anyone to encompass it in a unifying vision, then how much moreso are our cultural, social, economic, political lives, compounded as such complexity is by the wilful obfuscation of private and public institutions, whether in the form of tobacco or fossil fuel corporations’ lies about the harmlessness of their products and activities or officials speaking about weapons of mass destruction or trickle down economics?
Slavoj Žižek in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown already characterized the reaction to this situation that gives rise to our present versions of New World Order (or Great Reset) conspiracy theories:
Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess—which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.
What results are attempts to resolve the problematic complexity that are simultaneously overly simplistic (identifying that one “agent lurking behind the scenes”, e.g., “the Jew”, “the Illuminati”, “Elites”, etc.) and endlessly complicated (as exemplified by the way conspiracy theories modify themselves, shift ground and expand in response to criticisms and new “information”). Populist, post-truth worldviews (if they can be termed such) are thus a kind of vulgar ideology critique, attempts to disperse the lies that maintain an increasingly insufferable status quo and replace them with a “true” description and explanation of the workings of the world. The post-truth populist does indeed touch on a truth: society represents itself to itself (in a partial and incoherent way) that naturalizes the purely contingent, historical state of affairs to the benefit of those who materially profit from the status quo. The wild fictiveness, however, of the resulting counter “theory” of society results from at least two features. On the one hand is the aforementioned drive to (over)simplification; on the other, how the competing, conspiratorial worldview is constructed and modified: its “alternative facts” are chosen not so much because they are epistemically robust but because they are in the first instance contrary to the official story. “Facts” are chosen for their rhetorical (persuasive), not their truth, value. For example, what’s important about the numbers reported by the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System is not in fact how they are meant to be understood but how, taken in a perverse way, they contradict the official view (“vaccines are rigorously tested and safe”) and support the alternate view (“even the government’s own numbers show thousands of deaths and injuries!”). The persuasiveness of “alternative facts” is ultimately not their factual but their emotional truth. They give a “rational” support to bitterly-felt grievances and a kind of purchase to attack, even if only discursively (e.g., in the Facebook posts I share), the powers that be. Perhaps this understanding goes some little way to illuminating the irony that those who most vociferously denounce more mainstream media as “fake news” or propaganda are themselves often the first to fall for the most egregiously flimsy and unsupported counterclaims.
Unsurprisingly, on inspection, the post-truth position falls prey to its own premises. It is not that truth and falsity have been abandoned: the populist appeal to alternative facts couldn’t function without an appeal to truth and facts: the official facts are accused of being distortions or outright lies, while the alternative facts give the otherwise suppressed or marginalized truth of the matter. The populist has grasped that claims to truth possess a rhetorical power independent of their truth value, i.e. even a convincing lie can be persuasive, and the picture of the world presented by the mainstream media and the powers-that-be are seen to be just such persuasive lies, lies in the service of power and oppression (which, in a sense, as ideology, they are, just not as an elaborate fiction constructed by a small, secretive if not secret elite that controls dictatorially the world’s media all in order to hide its nefarious agenda …). Over against the lies of officialdom are the true facts of the matter as revealed by alternative sources of news and information. Of course, as far as mainstream, consensus reality is concerned, these alternative facts are mistaken and indeed can be shown to be so. There was no “Kraken” to be released; the generals who arranged to have Trump elected to drain the swamp and oust the Deep State didn’t move to prevent Biden from taking office, nor did they arrest, try, and execute Obama and Hilary Clinton at Guantanamo; the authorized Covid vaccines were indeed tested on animals, etc. Ironically, the claim to truth of alternative facts is grounded in the first instance on their contradicting the official version, i.e., inspection reveals them to be the mere rhetorical ploys the populist accuses the official facts to be. The post-truth populist might be said to be cynical—“They lie to promote their agenda, why shouldn’t I?”—but for the fact (!) that they do in fact (!!) seem to believe their alternative facts are true. Aside from being unconscious of the irony of their thinking in this regard, the post-truth populist seems insulated against the repeated, relentless assault on the edifice of fictions that make up their worldview by cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon long recognized by social psychologists: each clear refutation (e.g., “the storm” foretold by Q failed to materialize, etc.) only inspires the believer to double down in their belief. Psychologist Jovan Byford sums it up well:
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
At root, the far out views held by post-truth populists are not in the first instance (necessarily) rooted in stupidity, ignorance, or sheer perversity, but a desperate need to understand if not alleviate real material precarity and suffering or a perceived threat to well-being or cultural identity. That this “resistance” is carried out almost exclusively at the symbolic level (sharing social media posts, collectively defending and elaborating the theory, or even waving flags or signs), even or especially when it expresses itself in the spectacle of the January 6 riots, ironically reveals the truth of a canonical formulation of the early Marx from 1859’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” That is, on the one hand, the appeal to alternative facts is a subliminal appeal for an alternative social arrangement (their material conditions and their unhappiness with them motivate the populists’ symbolic revolt), while, on the other, the elaboration of a counter discourse is insufficient to alter those conditions that give rise to the populist’s frustrated exasperation (how the populist views the world has no real purchase to “determine their existence”): the conspiratorial worldview promises to reveal how the world works with one hand, while withdrawing any solution to this horrible truth it uncovers with the other. Perhaps precisely because conspiracy theories lack that pragmatic dimension that would answer the question, “What is to be done?” they inspire such incoherent, real-world interventions, from the Oklahoma City Bombing, to Pizzagate, to the burning of 5G telephone towers, or, more generally, to the election of relatively unhinged politicians or the spread of misinformation that cultures, e.g., vaccine hesitancy, right on down to the casualties suffered during the January 6 Capital Riot. Such desperate, impetuous actions serve only to underline all the more how byzantine fictions built up around, e.g., the Great Reset, function ideologically: they are “imaginary solutions to real problems” that, materially, leave everything as it is.
We are left facing a rather melancholy impasse. The rupture of a social sensus communis we experience, e.g., in the political / cultural polarization in the U.S., has been long in coming, arguably landing with those Protestant refugees who arrived on the Mayflower. Albert Hofstadter outlines the history of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in his 1963 lecture, article, and, later, book from the American War of Independence down to his day, and many scholars since, especially since the 1980s (with the rise of militia groups throughout the United States) and 1990s (with the advent of the internet) have studied the phenomenon of what today we know too well as “conspiracy theories”, furrowing their collective brows trying to make sense of it. The approach I adopt here would see the problem as being baked into the very foundations of modern, “Western” civilization itself, both at the level of “consciousness” (what we think) and “social existence” (how we in fact live together). The problem—and it is a problem, as it causes grave troubles, from the political impasse of American political life to hindering actions to mitigate the present pandemic’s harm let alone climate change, all the way to mob violence and violent death—cannot be countered only at the symbolic level (the level of “consciousness”), either through educational reform (increased literacy, numeracy, and general education) or better communication (about, e.g., the virus itself, public health measures, the science of vaccines, etc.). The anxiety, resentment, and anger that motivate the turn to post-truth agonisms is rooted in “social existence”, and the appeal of alternative facts and theories about their causes will not lose their allure until these anxieties are addressed at their root.