While discourse about the era of post-truth politics was in vogue immediately after the election, Left commentary on the topic largely denied that this was really a new thing. The Left argued that the very idea that we ever reached a social state in which appeals to emotion or ideological struggles didn’t matter has been a liberal fantasy, that emotion and projection have always been at the center of people’s decision-making processes, that the hubbub was a paranoid reaction of neoliberal ideology, which had thus far masqueraded as fact, but now found that it no longer commanded faith.
But attached to the very concept of “truth” is such a gravitas, that once it is declared that we have moved past truth, reality becomes a marketplace for the circulation of vacuity and artifice. Following the somber proclamations that we no longer live in times wherein truth reigns supreme, they proved more to be prophecy. After “post-truth” came the brouhaha over Russian interference in the elections and theorizing about a Trump-Putin-Assange nexus, and we found something else to think and talk about. “Golden Shower Gate,” so post-elegantly named, interrupted this talk, or perhaps culminated it, by lifting it to soaring, irrelevant absurdity. Of these matters, we could know hardly anything for sure, making them a better candidate for heralding the advent of a genuinely “post-truth” era. Then, immediately after Trump’s inauguration, came “alternative facts,” surrounded by a rush of authoritarian gestures more sudden than most expected. Within a few weeks of his presidency, it seems that alternative facts may be a mainstay of the next few years, with Kellyanne Conway’s concoction of a Bowling Green massacre to justify Trump’s Muslim ban, and the administration’s chief propagandist Sean Spicer’s baseless accusation that Iran had attacked a U.S. naval base.
It’s clear now that we need to go back a few months and talk again about truth and post-truth. But at this point, if leftists still write off that hubbub as a neoliberal defense mechanism to a mandate of no-confidence in its purported post-ideological “truths,” this would be a paranoiac reaction of our own. Because the proliferation of post-truth in the most appropriate and existent sense—more broadly, through the proliferation of fake and flimsy news sources, and more narrowly in the form of Executive branch alternative facts—can be directly tied to the failure of the Left. Post-truth is the moment of the mirror for the Left to confront its own failures, and then, as if the world depends on it—because it does—self-correct.
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To explore how the Left has been responsible in bringing about this state of affairs, though, first it must be convinced that this post-truth state of affairs does exist as something qualitatively different from the recent past. As pertains to the Brexit and Trump campaigns, with respect to which the term “post-truth” has most been applied, the Left has been correct in that the only difference was mainly quantitative: More fake news, rather than, “oh rats, fake news!” (Which is a serious problem, certainly, but it’s more a problem of digital capitalism than anything else, as Evgeny Morozov explained.) In the Oxford Dictionary sense of the term—“[r]elating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—“post-truth” is indeed whiny ideological obfuscation. Indeed, in this sense, liberals and the Democrats themselves exist in a state of pure post-truth—how could all the liberal delusion, from the psephological pomposity regarding the invincibility of Hillary Clinton, to the Clintons’ own ascription of blame over HRC’s loss to the Russians and James Comey, have come to be, except on the basis of letting emotion and projected desires cloud proper judgment? As liberals calling post-truth themselves show, the question for politics has always been: What are the facts that are used to rouse emotion and build coalitions?
But even though post-truth isn’t valid when applied in its mainstream sense, it has been in a state of becoming. Its most manifest traces so far were visible during the Russia affair. One can see this by understanding post-truth in a more appropriate and ideologically cognizant sense. Put simply, if it is possible at a given context to point to certain claims and authoritatively say about them, “this is true” and to point to others and say “this is false” and have people listen to you, then the context is not yet “post-truth” in the sense that should be most meaningful or comprehensive. In this circumstance, truth claims as socially accepted are still obviously possible.
However, once it is announced that we do live in a post-truth context, the real trouble begins. And indeed, the announcement of tragedy, even if there was actually no unusual tragedy to make a fuss about, was followed promptly by farce: the Russia affair, an interference which, if it is true, is farcical in its scope and implications compared to the tragedy entailed by the election itself. (Recall that the fuss was never about Russia having tampered with the votes themselves, or even that it spread false propaganda , but merely that it had a hand in the revelation of information that not even the exposed party denies as fact.) Tragedy only exists in a context wherein it can be distinguished from non-tragedy—and if we decide that such distinction is not possible, all that remains, and all that will follow is farce, farce and more farce.
After all, regardless of the degree of thoroughness and integrity with with this matter could be examined, satisfying and complete meaning was impossible to cohere out of the situation. All the babble, then, is farce. Even the New York Times couldn’t help but acknowledge that in the declassified intelligence report about Russian involvement ordered by President Obama, there was “no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.”
This is proper post-truth—where it is impossible for the public to even know what is going on—and it is increasing: if some degree of belief can be placed in the US government’s assertions about Russian interference, even if no incriminating information has been provided that we can know for sure, what can even be made of the Golden Showers? And right now, all but three weeks of “facts” the Trump-Bannon regime can refer to have transpired in times this regime hasn’t controlled or written the narrative for—but will we even have the means to know in two years whether claims about Iranian attacks on the U.S. have any veracity to them?
Now, this would by no means be the first time the U.S. government has told lies. Most of us in fact remember the most significant previous occasion, when the Bush-Cheney regime concocted vaporous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, one could not as legitimately say that such utter impenetrability into what is going on is the norm of the United States. While bourgeois and nationalist creed are always at play in mediating and coloring news, it is possible with some critical sense to parse through all the bullshit, to penetrate to the nub of all the objects of ideology, sublime or crass, pure or impure, and make out how things really are.
However, there is no degree of Gramsci, Žižek or Chomsky one could read to tell for sure whether or not the U.S. government is honest about the Russian government’s interference in the election, and much less, for those who think it is of any consequence for anything of consequence, whether Donald Trump has a penchant for watching Russian prostitutes piss on blue-ribbon linen. It had been a relatively long time, since the Russia business, that the foremost political or social discourse was about a topic regarding which no civic institution or public mechanism had sufficient power or granted access to ascertain.
Ascertainment by nonpartisan independent institutions, though—since even this isn’t taken for granted by many on the left—is a prerequisite for confidence in the word of the U.S. government. As so many have seemed to forget in terror of Trump, the U.S. government has hardly ever been an institution to be trusted about information otherwise. The second Iraq War was not the first time the U.S. government and its appendages in the media lied about reality for the benefit of empire and business. Nor will it be the last. Still, we could eventually find out in that case that the government lied. There was a democratic minimum we have had.
But even this is now threatened, as the new monstrous swamp in D.C. extends its tentacles across more and more organs of civil society, tightens its grip over our informational founts and conduits, and foists blindfolds over the public. Even if the non-centrality of facts to politics is hardly new and the rise of fake news is a quantitative rather than qualitative contingency, we do live in a world of post-truth in the making, since increasingly, particularly for the most-discussed topics out there, we cannot really tell what the facts are.
The left has hitherto been unerring in pointing out, as needed, that rational, non-ideological politics do not exist, that this itself is an ideological bluff, that the emperor wears no clothes. But that moment has passed, and it has neglected the crucial event, the glaring turning point, the election itself, during which the emperor has gone into the backroom and come out of a different entrance, and the clear view of him has been lost. Now, it is impossible to tell whether or not the emperor is wearing clothes, or really, who even the emperor is. The left, though, is still shouting that the emperor wears no clothes, because what else does it know, what else can it do? So accustomed has it become to there not being clothes on the emperor, that it cannot even think about clothes in and of themselves. But that is what is required now.
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It would be blustering and starry-eyed to ask what truth is here. The most relevant and least ingenuous question to ask about it instead is, when? When was truth worn, and when is it shorn? The idea of “truth” has existed as a necessary part of all systems of knowledge; however, the kind of truth that we are talking about here, the kind that is being bemoaned, is a particular, historically contingent kind of truth. A media that didn’t depend on being overblown for profits would have talked about the more limited and precise category of “knowledge” rather than the more sensational “truth.” 2+2=4 hasn’t been contested yet, but knowledge about the facts of the physical world has been, including and especially regarding its sublimations into and as society.
This is “truth,” if it must be called so, as in whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, whether Hillary Clinton took money from Wall Street, whether Donald Trump has hands smaller than the male statistical average or has less money than he claims he does. There is only one answer to these questions, and the answer, whatever it is, is the correct answer—and it is in this sense of correctness that the truth we are talking about has existed. In technical terms, this is a posteriori knowledge we are talking about, or knowledge about natural and social happenings that can be garnered from one’s own or someone’s exposure to the happenings, and deductions based on what is known from the exposure.
Now, this kind of knowledge has existed and more of it has been sought since time immemorial, across all anthropological heterogeneity. However, as a process occurring both symptomatic and generative of a comprehensive economic, cultural and political overhaul, the western Enlightenment, epitomized in the French Revolution, does stand as a distinctive moment. Greatly influenced by the spread of printing technology in the previous century, this was the first time that the availability of knowledge, including social information, was regarded as an ideal not just for a priestly or noble caste, as in feudal societies, or for a special business class, as in the prior protocapitalist Europe—but for all. After all, this condition of knowledge for all, another facet of which is informational symmetry, was required for the corresponding ideal of open participation held by the bourgeois revolution, and proper function of the nascent market economy.
The imposition of policy and values, on the basis of mistaking ideals for reality, in the name of this market economy, as has occurred in the centuries since, is another matter altogether. But the point to be pursued here is that our received idea of “truth” is inseparable from revolutionary standards actualized at a significant scale for the first time in the late eighteenth century. As per this idea, maybe not everyone has knowledge, but everyone certainly can or should—a sense in which knowledge cannot exist without democratic ideals, which deny that there can be people who, whether by heavenly mandate or crude tyranny, are more entitled to knowledge or power than some arbitrary others.
Since this moment of modernity, with the global assumption of bourgeois democracy, however flawed and corrupted it has been, “truth” or knowledge as such a social phenomenon has existed in a way it had never in any prior epoch. Through media and scholarship, it has become a premise of civil society that the public can expect to know, if it desires, important things happening in the social world, and through modern science, a premise of civilization that it is moving toward ever more refined and reliable knowledge of the nonhuman physical world. This is the regime of truth, not and probably never as an actualized reality, but always—so we hope—as a real potentiality, and most so, as a constant struggle to actualize the potentiality.
The Left and all who deride the very idea of post-truth because it sounds like the whining of post-ideologues must see that even if not as a perfect regime, we have had truth, or at least had highly encouraging flirtations with it; that truth has existed, in and as imperfection, but endeavored to regardless, and constantly improved upon. It has always had pitfalls and enemies: authoritarian governments, lack of funding for the liberal arts and sciences, laziness and dogma in the liberal arts and sciences, SOPA, intellectual property, the reduction of epiphanic knowledge to anesthetic information in the name of capitalist efficiency, and Ryan Lochte, to name just a few. Still, it has existed, and only a nuanceless, peremptory leftism would shrug away its value because of its association with liberalism. While liberalism may have served as a reactionary force over time, some of its definitive contributions—liberty, egalitarianism, openness—if eschewed by the left, would spell the preclusion of any progressive and minimally democratic social order, let alone an emancipatory one.
But it is because of this reign truth has had—even if saying it has “enjoyed” it would be an overstatement—that post-truth is neither an entirely implausible nor at all a frivolous matter. In this model of understanding history and truth, we have had pre-truth, which was pre-modernity; then we have had truth, which corresponds to modernity—but we may now also have post-truth, which corresponds neither to postmodernity, so easily explainable by the very grand narratives it claims to have transcended, nor to people not basing decisions primarily on facts, which is all of hitherto society—but to despotic and murky caprice, and joyless fascism.
After all, with Donald Trump as President, there are signs that the state of obscurity that has marked this one affair of election interference will only increase. Donald Trump does not believe in openness; he does not believe in democracy. His executive orders have been violating normal chains of counsel and approval. The very fact that we can be reasonably sure about this testifies to there having been some imperfect avatar of “truth,” undergirded by some democratic infrastructures such as the press, which was allowed to report on Trump as it chose. Of course, the biases of liberal media and its fawning, deluded treatment of Clinton were extremely troublesome, but that does not mean that truth has not existed at all; it just means that like all human projects of emancipation right now, it has been a work in progress.
But it is not inconceivable that soon, even more of the phenomena we talk about all the time will be unverifiable by people’s institutions. And in the twenty-first century, this will not take the form of some tenebruous, Gestapo-enforced regime, or a WiFi-enabled 1984. We actually already have this situation wherein the matters we talk about are by necessity those which people’s institutions have no means into verifying. It is called reality TV. In fact, for all the things that he is ignobly inept at, this is one that our new President is very good at. And if the Left, with all the trenchancy of critique and solutions transcending bourgeois governance it can offer, does not recognize that we are on the brink of full-fledged and unequivocal post-truth, then American public matters will very soon take the form of a reality show, a grand, disgraceful farce. The reign of philistines, hitherto spread and enforced only through soft capitalist control, will procure the mandate of tyrannical fiat. But the reality now will not be inconsequential Kardashians or the coloration of an odd coiffure—it will be you.
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All this said, though, given that over the decades the Left has been a social force more in the sense of a train wreck rather than an engine of change, it is hardly a surprise that it has been nonchalant through this ongoing massacre of democratic truth. Indeed, many leftists reading this right now may already have thought, “Why does this even matter? What difference will it make if we knew exactly what the connection between Trump, Putin and Assange is?”
As for that particular nexus, it could have interesting geopolitical implications, including some on the global strength of democracy, no less. It also might not. The very point is, we do not know. The point is that events of arguable significance are taking place in which the only honest reaction of the public would be to scratch its head, and that this is being normalized.
Still, even to this, it is possible that many leftists think that this has no implications on the tasks of anti-oppression to be performed to fight racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. This can be continued by promoting equality and justice through popular movements based on a priori principles, it would seem.
Or can it? Would Black Lives Matter have taken off without information being collected and circulated about police brutality? (And here we can see the pragmatism of believing that at least in a soft sense, truth does exist—or is someone willing to argue that the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and hundreds of other black Americans are subjective not-quite-truths mediated by metanarratives?) Maybe the Fight for $15 would have taken off just by people not being able to make ends meet, but by everyone knowing that minimum wages in the US are subpar by any advanced global standard, does the fight draw no more significant legitimacy and support?
The more telling fact, however, is that in recent times, these are the only two significant movements that can be referred to for making this point. The majority of the Left’s energy has indeed gone to campaigns that are not very much reliant upon current a posteriori knowledge. Principles of egalitarianism, when first developed, must have relied at least to some extent on a posteriori knowledge, but these principles have been resolved for the majority of society, and do not require subsequent and continual empirical validation. It is on the basis of these principles that the Left today conducts most of its activity. Consider, for example, the Women’s March on Washington itself, along with the solidarity demonstrations globally. It was based on strong principles, even if a potpourri of them: Equality, justice, inclusion, love, etc. There is no need for present-day empirical facts to advocate for the implementation of these principles. This advocacy is what the Left does.
However, there is a need for up-to-date knowledge about happenings to take power or acquire agency at scale. There is a need for that to engender infrastructures and effect laws, which at large occasion the application of these principles to people—and this, more and more, the Left does not do.
With this, we can finally specify the direct line between post-truth and contemporary leftist politics. Only in and through struggles to change the world did social processes emerge to produce reliable knowledge. Likewise, it is the abandonment of struggles to change the world—by definition tied to progressive or emancipatory politics—that leads to the withering of these social processes, coagulated over time as a system of norms, protocols and institutions. Put in classical terms, the abandonment of constant and vigilant revolutionary praxis is leading us right back to an age of ignorance and opacity.
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Dub it pre-truth redux or post-truth, it does not matter. Matter is what matters, rather than substanceless “politics” of behavioral correction, which have come to form the preponderance of leftist praxis. As put in a pamphlet on anti-oppression politics written by an Oakland-based coalition of POC, women and queer activists,
“According to the dominant discourse of ‘white privilege’ for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Whiteness simply becomes one more ‘culture,’ and white supremacy a psychological attitude, instead of a structural position of dominance reinforced through institutions, civilian and police violence, access to resources, and the economy. At the same time a critique of ‘white privilege’ has become a kind of blanket, reflexive condemnation of any variety of confrontational, disruptive protest while bringing the focus back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. We contend that privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that the psychological attitudes of individuals are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague programs of consciousness-raising will somehow transform oppressive structures.”
The lack of knowledge required for conducting this kind of politics is startling. After all, today on the Left, deeply knowing a person is considered unnecessary for understanding them. Their superficial identity categories say all they need to about them, and based on that, not only are any and all assumptions fair, but so is ostracization based on them. This is the topsy-turvy neoliberalization of leftism, locating problems and solutions at the coordinates of individuals. This is a politics that celebrates and almost exclusively engages in symbolism, as if renaming college buildings or renaming Columbus Day makes the slightest dent in materially felt racism. This is the vacuous moralization of politics hitherto having philosophically weighty underpinnings, be they dialectical or with a view toward indomitable deterritorialization. It works under the historically dozy, feel-good assumption that if we can just change people’s behavior toward each other, the world will be changed.
But one can only hope that young leftists have noticed that if we focus mainly on changing people’s behavior toward each other, the bigots and fascists will take power, and in about a mere week of doing so, begin the rollback of the ACA, resurrect the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, reinstate a global ban on U.S. funding for women’s health programs, remove all references to climate change and civil rights on the White House website, announce the defunding of 17 government agencies (including the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, Office of Violence against Women, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and Department of Justice Environmental & Natural Resources Division), put a gag on climate scientists discussing their research, call the media the real “opposition party” and decide to ban refugees from countries the U.S. is bombing due to their religion.
Be that through college newspaper op-eds or on leftist Facebook groups, the transfiguration of the Left from something that attempts to change the world into a purveyor of stay-in-your-lane politics is starkly clear. Now, these are potentially very fruitful times for the Left, when so many people are coming to check out what we are about, inspired by Bernie Sanders and drawn to the traditions that have historically opposed fascism. However, as soon as they may click on a seemingly leftist article on a millennial-produced mainstream website, or join leftist groups on Facebook or follow leftist banter on Twitter—all of which are natural steps for people in 2017—they will find no significant discussions about socialism or anti-oppression organizing.
They will find, however, a bombardment of exhortation about matters almost completely disattached from those that actually create and bind world-changing coalitions, such as: The genitals a person of a stated sexuality must find attractive to be accepted as a “good leftist”; the cultural appropriativeness of mass interest in “spirit animals”; and the cisnormativity one perpetuates by using the seemingly inclusive enough “folks,” instead of the politically correct “folx.” (The alleged logic behind that one, since one must stay woke, is that “folx” is gender-inclusive, while “folks” is merely gender-neutral.)
Whether or not these are the legitimate positions on these issues—and they may well be—Sanders supporters and fledgling anti-fascists are not venturing to check out “actually existing” socialism in further detail to have individuating, moral reformation imposed upon them. They come to build democratic socialism (at the very least) and prevent corporeal damage caused to minorities by fascists. They do not come to be part of keyboard inquisitions dedicated to set ablaze subhuman infidels who refuse to “self-crit” at the stake of leftist purity, but to be part of embodied, physical movements that change material structures of scale.
To this, one may argue, and think it obvious, that if one actually goes to radical spaces and socialist meetings, one will find discussions about these matters. This is true—but this takes us a layer deeper into the shambles that the Left is in.
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On going to current socialist meetings and seeing the real radical discussion going on, one is confronted with pure atrophy. As a friend recently commented after a recent socialist “What do we do now?” meeting after the election, one could have found the talk going on now, to at least three-fourths congruence, by walking into any arbitrary socialist meeting in the West anytime in the last one hundred years. The go-to instinct of Left organizing is still toward the same modes of affect, organization and resistance that it has used for decades, while social, technological and physical conditions are now drastically different.
This is true whether the Left is on the offensive or the defensive, but then, a prior problem is that most activity today is reactive, on the defensive, looking to stop bad things from happening rather than building new, better things. This is somewhat understandable, since currently capital is enjoying dominance over labor, and other dominated groups are by definition under domination. However, even most resistance here is woefully lacking strategy, and is afflicted by the maladies of semantic politics and obsessive compulsive purity that guide the preponderance of leftist moralizing activity already discussed.
Consider two recent political actions undertaken by the Left: First, the so-called resistance at airports around the U.S. in response to Trump’s anti-immigration orders. At San Francisco International Airport at least, during the first 24 hours of resistance, it was more deemed more important to show that there are a lot of people who are opposed to the immigration ban, rather than oppose and prevent the implementation of the ban. Note, this implementation could have life and death consequences for people getting deported; the stakes were indeed of full substance. But instead of keeping steady pressure and presence around the entrance to the security checkpoints, a node of possible disruption and thus power against Border Control authorities illegally enforcing Trump’s ban (since the court stay halting it had already been issued), the organizers chose instead to have masses gather in the completely inconsequential and nonconfrontational arrivals area. While thousands were gathered downstairs fanglessly at arrivals, the potentially preventable deportation of an Iranian man took place from SFO.
Second, a few days later, the protest against the far-right blogger Milo Younnopoulos, who was going to speak at UC Berkeley. The motivation behind shutting down Younnopoulos was that hateful and hate-inspiring ideals such as Younnopoulos’s should not be given avenues in civil society to express themselves. Which is fair, Younnopoulos’s talks and tweets have inspired or perpetuated harassment and threats of violence. However, if the goal was indeed to prevent such bigotry from having a platform, which is the gist of what everyone justifying the protest has been saying, the execution was completely miscued. As long as the Left doesn’t have the subsequent means to control or occupy the narrative following its protests, shutting down Younnopoulos from reaching a thousand people is inevitably, every single time, going to give him the means to reach tens of thousands—which is exactly what happened after this protest and riot. If indeed the goal was to minimize the legitimacy of bigotry (and legitimacy is largely a function of reach), rather than simply express that we are against bigotry being legitimized, then the Left failed.
But the goal probably was just hollow expression, as it was at SFO. To a great extent, as noted above, this is understandable, whether or not acceptable. So impotent is the Left today that it can’t do anything but express what it’s for and against, rather than go and get what it’s for and directly prevent what it’s against. Essence follows existence, consciousness follows being, the tactics follow the plight. But to the remaining extent, which is also great, there is a common answer to all three problems identified so far—why so little leftist activity is toward bringing about a new world, why so much activity is symbolic and why so much of it is toward legislating individual behavior—which is that, simply put, leftists have lost sight of what things are actually like today. In other words, a problem of good knowledge.
Digitization, for example, is a fundamental facet of reality today. However, next to no leftist discourse today is about the implications digitization is having on our subjectivities, social relations, social units and governance. (A challenge: To find one lefty college op-ed, Leninist newspaper article or millennial-geared, progressive web take on the subject.) The implications, though, are nothing short of profound.
A basic economic implication has been the waning of the industrial working class in North Atlantic nations, and with that, the prime, traditional revolutionary subject of collective politics. And in the absence of a group on whose organization material transformation has historically most depended, is it any surprise that the politics that has replaced it has been unable to focus intently on material transformation? The retreat into sophistic symbolism and paralyzing purity are but a defense mechanism of an ideal without a subject to act through. But much has been written about the subjectivities and classes created under digital capitalism—it is merely a matter of having the will to read what has been written, and applying the necessary imagination on top of it.
Another implication has been the delocalization of our lives, which are dispersed across space, and compressed within time. Our lives are hardly centered around an embodied polis anymore—and without a polis, can there really even be politics, as opposed to frivolous noise affecting to be politics? Is it any surprise that in the absence of a conventional polis around which to structure politics, i.e. the institutionally executed governance over a designated polity, the stand-in for politics has become the legislation of attitudes and behaviors by and between individuals, enforced by the threat of stigma? But alternative models have been created to the modern-era conceptualization of social reality being located in nation-states and social reality being comprised essentially as oppositional states and markets—but the Left would still rather draw its praxis from the diktats of Stalin or the syndicalists.
And this is without even getting into the implications of the Anthropocene, which is no less than definitive of the age, and which not in slightest seeps into considerations of what organizing today should look like. The list can be extended, but it would be too shameful to do so.
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There are a lot of reasons for dearth of imagination about tactics and affects on the Left, but three associated ones can be brought up that return to the theme of social endeavors toward knowledge. First, most relevant to the U.S., are the beasts of McCarthyism and neoliberalism. The former made those who have traditionally written about new contingencies for praxis, i.e., theorists, by glaring, simple coercion, produce ideas of a more tame nature. The latter made theorists, by a less simple coercion, beholden to dwindling funding, and with that, declining freedom for exploring ideas, and with that, were they to explore radical ideas, fear for their livelihoods, i.e., again, coercion.
The second is the distance between theory and practice brought about by the relegation of theorists to academia in the first place, which is a phenomenon extending far beyond the U.S. To compress an elaborate historical process, in the early days of the Soviet Union, many theorists were involved in the Party; indeed, to a great extent, the line between theorist and revolutionary was not that finely drawn. However, Stalinist purges in the USSR and corresponding Communist orthodoxy through parties worldwide during the period expelled many of these theorists from the parties, and many from Eastern Europe found refuge in the West, and in particular, in universities. With this degree of separation between ideas and their application, ideas found the luxury to become somewhat more oblique, and this they did, with detrimental effects for their application, as the people who then became specialists in application, i.e. organizers and activists, found them more and more arcane.
The third reason sees the second from a different vantage point. While the obliqueness of contemporary theorizing about leftist politics is by no means exaggerated, a corresponding shift has also taken place along the opposite vector—were theory today still of the same transparency as a century ago, there would still be less people capable of digesting it, and even less actually taking up the task. The withering of a culture of reading, globally but especially in the U.S., has directly influenced the unimaginativeness of the Left. Put simply, everyone, activists included, read worse and read less. This is less due to personal failure or an “objective” drop in the potential intellectual rigor of this generation, but due to behavioral shifts brought by digital technology and the neoliberalization of education. Consumption through lit screens, infinite scrolling and Now This-styled “news” has destroyed our cultural will for engagement with more difficult writings, be they in the realm of theory, journalism or literature.
Difficulty, though, is but a manifestation or interpretation of other qualities, such as novelty or richness. Works can be difficult because the ideas they present are drastically rich. Sometimes the number of disparate threads being connected per unit content is higher than usual, which makes the work difficult—but another way to look at it is as being more fertile. Length, too, is a casualty of our age of ready-to-swallow media and thought, but some forms of complexity require space for their unraveling. In a prior age, we used to read books; while today, we skim our news feeds. Earlier, we would chew over complexity, and at the end of it, potentially, find profound pleasure and find ourselves, beholden with epiphany over experience; today, if something requires more than two seconds of attention, it will be scrolled over, and if is worth attending to, the most we ever get is a tiny hit of dopamine, with the vigor of a pathetic little burp, at the end of which we return to our default state of numbed null-intensity.
That said, this third reason is one that people can actually act on. Indeed, for the further tangible success of politics vying for the liberty of all rather than the few, it is necessary that organizers demand knowledge. One way of doing this is by going through the hard work of studying political theory and analysis responding to novel times, which, out of the very novelty that it attempts to parse, may be difficult. We need to resume engagement with traditions of history, philosophy, economics and even literature, for we are blind moving ahead without engaging with these. We need to confront our decreasing ability to process knowledge that can’t be represented within a meme. We need to read books again. (This last admonition cannot be overstated. As just an indication of its exigency: a prominent figure on Left Twitter, a blogger at a hip online news website who shall remain unnamed, last month posted a few New Year’s resolutions. One of them was to read a book per month. This is a person who is apparently well regarded in left social circles, and can boast of over 34 thousand followers. However, could one truly take seriously the trenchancy of critique produced by a lefty journalist who struggles to read one book per month? To be heinously prescripitivist, a book per week per capita is a much sounder metric of a civilization healthy and ripe with prospects for revolution.)
It is not just about books and theory, however. It is also about journalism, perhaps more importantly so. Journalism has slowly but surely been morphing into infotainment, much like every single moment of our non-working waking hours. This is fundamentally an economic problem, mediated by new platform technologies, and thus, a problem of collective politics. To condense again an entire discipline worth of dynamics: With the Internet, and particularly, with social media platforms, far more information is out there, and attention becomes the prime concern of creators of information. A good way to do that is to draw immediate reactions, rather than provoke thought, because the latter takes time, while there is so much more content to explore, and so little time. Thus journalism has naturally moved toward producing ready-to-swallow bytes of “news.” It also helps that the more clicks that are generated by continual fluttering between webpages, the more ad revenue is generated. And the ravaging of our scholarly and artistic institutions and innate biological proclivities toward instant gratification haven’t helped the prospects of resisting this cultural decline.
But there are still the age-old standard-bearers of journalism, as well as newer outlets, which are still committed to providing real knowledge, as dry, heavy and sad as it may be. Vox, however obnoxious one may find its incurably liberal stands and tonality, comes to mind as an admirable example of the latter, as does the Los Angeles Review of Books, as a marvelous non-liberal source for depthful commentary on theory and literature. These must be patronized.
Correspondingly, we must desert the circuses of infotainment, regardless of how “fun” they are. For it is not a far leap, when the priority is attention and entertainment, from rendering news cheap and useless, to forgoing veracity altogether—because in both cases, veracity or usefulness is not the primary point of the news.
So, another admonition: do not encourage the bastards. If there could be one good (though late) New Year’s resolution in times of post-truth, it would be to jettison the deplorable exemplars of sensationalizing, depthless and useless news media such as Buzzfeed, Bustle, Daily Dot, Vice, Mashable, Huffington Post, etc. insofar as they offer little more than the tabloidization of real affairs, and corner the space where discussion would be of life and death matters to render it a bog of infotainment. As tickling as it may be, for example, that someone edited the Wikipedia page on invertebrates to include Paul Ryan, it really does nothing but tickle. And tickling accomplishes nothing, except, when the object being tickled is fastened immobile, constitute a method of physical and psychological torture. If all the news we expose ourselves to becomes that which diverts and tickles us, journalism that can provide us with information useful to getting out of our predicaments will be lost, we will be fastened immobile, and then the tickling media that we credit for keeping us sane and jovial today will be apparent as nothing but a torture device.
But personal consumption can only go so far; the real question is structural and political-economic. This truth is starkly visible early in the Trump presidency, as he has announced plans to cut all funding for U.S. institutions such as NPR and PBS. Which leads us back to sine qua non of the day: We need collective organization that can uphold and improve on such institutions. The Democratic Party, as Nancy Pelosi’s honest avowals at a recent Town Hall Meeting should remind one who had not already lost faith in it due to its phenomenal failures of recent times, is not the answer—it is overtly and explicitly a capitalist party, in other words, one that is not fundamentally opposed to the privatization of such institutions; the only reason it wouldn’t support the devastation or privatization of these is if they help safeguard its own socially center-left cultural hegemony, as NPR and PBS do.
But even more than defending such federal level institutions, to explore knowledge for the last time in this inquiry, we need public backing of media at local levels as well. Two simple reasons exist for this: First, this can work toward countering post-truth authoritarianism, because while it may be harder for central authorities to shut down a few big news sources, it is much harder to do so in a flourishing, speckled culture of manifold media. Second, local level affairs are a natural place to begin tangible organizing. Of course, a million disconnected local revolutions aren’t enough. We need cohesion at the scale of our global system to really alter it and all that falls under it. Yet, the identification of crevices in the system can begin at modest coordinates, which could then be mapped together to see and exploit major fault lines. But while subscribing to one’s local newspaper would be valuable, if one can manage it, supporting local and public media requires institutional organization and in neoliberal times, public pressure to maintain this institutional organization. This isn’t expression for the sake of it, or for the sake of correcting individual behaviors, or for reforming language. This is the creation and concentration of power to accomplish real ends.
* * *
Just as politics promoting private welfare needs private agents constantly advocating for their prioritization, politics promoting general public welfare needs a constant force in and of the public upholding these ideals. If the traditional political tendencies that have upheld these ideals gradually retreat from vying for institutional structures that actualize and enforce said ideals, and instead divert themselves in preoccupations of consciousness-correction, or worse, exclusive consciousness-shaming, that amounts to naïvely handing over the instruments whereby society’s goods and bads are actually distributed to the other side.
That is what the Left has done. In the noble name of resisting microaggressions and misappropriations, we have looked past blood-soaked histories of aggressions and counteraggressions, of expropriations and reappropriations. We have forgotten the larger projects of building and securing power for the entire demos. But in forgetting these, we have also shrugged aside social implements, devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, which were developed in complement to this historical task, and which would likely not have been developed were democratic knowledge not required for this task. Post-truth is a monster borne of post-praxis.
Walter Benjamin’s formulation that every fascism is an index of a failed socialist revolution can easily be interpreted in context of truth and facts. Knowledge, however imperfect, as something available and attained to by all has always gone hand-in-hand with left-wing movements for their respective times. Moreover, the creation of knowledge, truth or facts—be that in the form of science, journalism or non-scientific scholarship—takes place through social processes and exchanges. Only obfuscation by the smokescreen of bourgeois ideology makes it seem like anything else. Truth could not have occurred without specific social conditions, institutions and resolve.
The corollary is also true. If we can oversee the renewal of a social resolve that wishes to transform the very skeletal and circulatory structures of the world, rather than one that wishes to only apply misconceived balms to make everyone feel good on the surface, then that resolve will necessarily have to go through the work of creating institutions for this end. This will include creating mechanisms for the creation and transmission of reliable knowledge as well. It cannot occur otherwise.
Rather than denying or ridiculing post-truth and alternative facts, the Left today, cognizant of the exigencies and manifold singularities of the twenty-first century, is to resume its too-long-adjourned task: building democratic power. Then, again, we will live in truth—imperfect, but unmistakeable and in progression.