‘Post-truth politics’ isn’t peak populism, it’s peak liberal capitalism

Political lying has taken on a qualitatively new dimension. It’s the “post-truth politics” period, apparently. Oxford Dictionaries, which crowned “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, notes that “it describes not just particular assertions, but a general characteristic of our age”. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is said to typify this new era. The Economist wrote in September:

“His brazenness is not punished, but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power … [Post-truth politics] picks out the heart of what is new: that truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance. Feelings, not facts, are what matter in this sort of campaigning.”

If the criterion for post-truth is the political appeal “to emotion and personal belief” trumping objective facts in the formation of attitudes, then you have to wonder what, really, has changed. On a 2008 autumn night in Grant Park, Chicago, president-elect Barack Obama, promoted favourably as an articulate Harvard Law graduate with a firm grasp on reality, addressed an enormous and adoring crowd. The backdrop was millions of jobs being shed, millions of homes being foreclosed on and tent cities of the newly homeless springing up on the edges of big cities.

“The true strength of our nation comes … from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity”, he said. “This is our time … to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one.” This gesture to hope was one of the finest moments for the politics of feeling, the culmination of a campaign run on vague notions of hope, change and “yes we can”.

Yet it wasn’t considered post-truth, because the sentiments, similarly articulated by almost every political leader in the liberal democratic West for the last century, were underpinned by unchallenged liberal certainties – that everyone is equal under the law, that improvement is the child of hard work, that all particular interests can be mutually accommodated within a universal national interest.

These aren’t objective facts. They are vapid expressions of an idealised, nonexistent liberal-democratic world whose promises are like a slap in the face to the lived experience of the majority of people.

So why only now do we hear about post-truth politics? Probably because the empty pledges of perpetual progress have given way to a message and tone inverted to relate to a new era of decline. And electorates have responded, delivering outcomes – such as Brexit and Trump – that are at odds with what the usual fabrications manage to deliver.

Marketing the truth

Many have pointed out that the seeds of this popular rejection were sown by the last four decades of rapacious free trade and economic and political restructuring. Inequality has soared, communities have been destroyed and people more and more are expected to fend for themselves against the forces of globalised capitalism. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian on 14 November: “The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975”, when Margaret Thatcher took over the leadership of the Conservative Party and got everyone reading, and later implementing, the work of Frederick Hayek.

It’s clear that neoliberalism has much to answer for. Yet an exclusive focus on its role in producing the “Trumpian moment” misses the universal aspect of this so-called post-truth aberration: it is immanent in the very fibre of our society. It is not peak populism; it is peak liberal capitalism: politics not only attuned to “the economy”, but governed by market logic rather than calculations about human welfare. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1848 of the rise of this system:

“The capitalist class, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has … left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’ … It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.”

The pre-capitalist feudal markets had operated, with fixed prices, guilds and heavy regulation, as limited sites of justice: there was a degree of assurance regarding outcomes and incomes. Capitalism took away these certainties, shattering the regulated social and economic order. As it did, the market was transformed into a site of “truth”: prices that reflected the real conditions of production, facilitating trade and capital accumulation at a disturbing pace and unlimited scale, rather than tending to the needs of small producers and consumers.

Michel Foucault, in a series of Collège de France lectures in 1979, noted that this in turn had profound political implications – indeed, it required the transformation of legal codes and modes of governance. The market became “a site of verification-falsification for governmental practice … The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be a good government, government has to function according to truth”.

Today we can recognise the continuity – the political content of representative institutions drained and replaced with processes of managerial governance that focus on delivering the truth of smooth accumulation. Policy cannot be writ law without passing certain fiscal tests and being run through the narrow models of the Treasury wonks.

Yet if the truth of government is contained in the judgment of the markets, then the latter’s seizures also expose the deceits and fallacies of politics and the institutions of state. This is what is happening today. Even in “normal” times, everything that is considered true by the rulers and architects of the system already appears dubious to a significant section of the population. When events such as the collapse of north Atlantic finance in 2008 and the decade-long economic recession/depression occur, they cannot be ring-fenced within an autonomous economic field. The entire process of truth production disintegrates; trust and certainty evaporate across the board. As Clare Malone wrote at fivethirtyeight.com:

“According to Gallup, Americans’ average confidence in 14 institutions is at only 32 percent … Starting around 2007, confidence in institutions cratered, due in no small part to the worldwide financial crisis. In 2006, 49 percent of Americans had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in banks. By the next year it was only 41 percent, and in 2016 that number is a mere 27 percent …

“When Gallup first asked Americans about their trust of newspapers in 1973, 39 percent said they had a great deal of trust in them and by 1979, that number reached a high of 51 percent … in 2016, only 20 percent of Americans said they trust newspapers. Trust in television news has charted much the same course, and it fares only slightly better in 2016, with 21 percent trust … A 2015 Pew study found that only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government always or most of the time.”

The question, given the circumstances, was always going to be how the breach of trust, the lack of certainty and honesty and the breakdown of “truth” would play out politically.

Truth in identity – a reactionary claim

Even before the great economic crisis of the 21st century, the atomisation of society, the failure of the radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s to overcome capitalism, the return of economic crises and a collapsing labour movement created a great gulf between market verities and real life. Conditions were ripe for hyper-personalised political expression. Desperate pleas for comfort in an increasingly unintelligible world were channelled into new political truths.

Political theorist Wendy Brown was one of the first to note this. “The problem”, she wrote in a seminal 1993 essay, “is that when not only economic stratification but other injuries to body and psyche enacted by capitalism (alienation, commodification, exploitation, displacement, disintegration of sustaining, albeit contradictory, social forms such as families and neighbourhoods) are … normalised and thus depoliticised, other markers of social difference may come to bear an inordinate weight. Absent an articulation of capitalism in the political discourse of identity, the marked identity bears all the weight of the sufferings”.

Brown was trying to come to grips with the increasingly toxic nature of progressive politics, searching for the reasons why “politicised identity” becomes self-absorbed, rancorous and self-destructive.

In this political universe, oppressions are deemed irreducible to a single logic or cause such as capitalism, and to be unintelligible to anyone but the bearer of the particular “wounded attachment”. The irony is that those now exasperated by Trump’s post-truth ascendancy are often the very same people who use identity as a weapon against their political detractors. Indeed, progressive brains were behind the original theorisations of post-truth, which valorised diversity for its own sake and shunned calls for class unity as authoritarian and blind to the many variants of truth contained in individual experience. As Andrew Calcutt explained at the Conversation:

“More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit ‘truth’ as one of the ‘grand narratives’ which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of ‘the truth’, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only ‘truths’ – always plural, frequently personalised, inevitably relativised.”

These ideas continue to be widely accepted and promoted on the liberal left. They are considered radical. Events now unfolding on the right of politics show their content to be anything but. The burdens of class, both working and middle, today are articulated forcefully as white racial identity (and anxiety) and in the yearning to witness humiliation as a means of avoiding it – the impulse to be uplifted by putting others down. (Something identity-obsessed progressives know a thing or two about.)

This right wing revolt shows all the signs of a movement under the leadership of Trump. “The truth has become so devalued that what was once the gold standard of political debate is a worthless currency”, wrote Matthew Norman in the Independent on US election day. “How internet-reared and internet-addled generations can be taught to venerate provable fact over the lies which reinforce whichever truth they have chosen, I have no idea.”

The president-elect certainly is a liar and a fraud. Yet post-truth commentators such as Norman don’t grasp the nature of capitalism’s marketable truth and its uneasy relationships with politics and identity. If they did, they would see that Trump, in a disturbing way, is far more real than his competitors. That his followers don’t seem to care about his brazenness shouldn’t be surprising. It is totally logical that they would delight in it.