Richard King at the Sydney Review of Books about Post-Truth, Bullshit and the new Knowledge Class War:
Academia, the news media and the arts and entertainment sectors are increasingly dominated by people with a liberal, multicultural worldview, and jobs in these sectors also almost always require college degrees. Trump’s campaign may have represented a backlash against these cultural elites.
From this point of view Clinton’s candidacy was an avatar for what Thomas Frank has called, in Listen, Liberal, ‘the professional class’ – a class that has grown in size and power as a result of the transition to a postindustrial economy that began in earnest in the 1990s. That transition involved a ‘liberalisation’ of the economy whereby the market would be given freer rein and the state restrict itself (in theory) to the provision of education and (re)training. It also involved a reorientation of the economy away from material commodities (as traditional industries moved offshore, were automated or undercut by competitors) and towards the kind of knowledge work for which a tertiary education is necessary. Now, that knowledge work is central, not only to the economy, but also to politics, where the ethos of merit and expertise that accompanied the transition to the knowledge society is represented at the policy level in so-called ‘double delegation’ – i.e. the referring of decisions up to bodies such as the IMF or the European Union, or out to non-political bodies – and at the personal or stylistic level in Clintonesque self-congratulation. Clinton’s decision to take her stand on the high ground of her own experience, and her shapeless pudding of a manifesto, which was full of micro-ameliorative measures unconnected by anything other than the fact that it was Clinton putting them forward, were projections of this professional ethos, as indeed was Remain’s decision to ignore issues of sovereignty and national identity and base its case on steady-as-she-goes economic wonkery. Heavy on experts and light on ideas, these campaigns were uninspired and uninspiring, and shot-through with technocratic arrogance.
This is a crude sketch, and a partial one, but I’m convinced that it’s within this broader class shift that the politics of post-truth has taken hold, and that a serious and cogent analysis of that shift is what’s missing from the mainstream analysis of post-truth. The point has been made by Crikey’s Guy Rundle, whose reports from the 2016 US election gave a far more granular picture of Trump’s base than the one available in most mainstream prints. Here’s Rundle reflecting on the changing character of climate change denialism in the US and elsewhere:
Climate change denialism, which rose in power about 15 years ago, had appeared to be in retreat about five to seven years ago. Now it is returning, and in great strength. Climate change activists are dismayed by it, and also bewildered. The science has got stronger, the evidence more plentiful. Why has the public become, it seems, even more resistant to the notion that global industrial activity is warming the planet to at least a disastrous and potentially catastrophic degree?
The answer, quite simply, is that we are facing a new phase of climate change denialism, working off a different basis to the old. There is less stuff about fictional ‘pauses’ in warming created by small time samples, albedo, urban heat islands … all the tendentious arguments of the Ian Plimers, and the late Bob Carter. There is now simply, among many people, a refusal to acknowledge it, or even accept it. Why? Because climate change science – pretty much all science – is now being enrolled in the great culture/class war that is consuming Western society, the brutal fight for recognition and position between the progressive-knowledge classes, and the working and middle classes, who now feel themselves to be excluded from the processes of power, wealth and legitimacy.
With the knowledge class now installed at the centre of the culture and economy, knowledge itself has been politicised. ‘Truth’ is a casualty of the new class war.
To this extent our authors come closest to a comprehensive view of post-truth when they stress the role of signalling and narrative in contemporary politics. These emphases, which are close to Salena Zito’s useful (if reductive) distinction, in The Atlantic, between those who take Trump literally but not seriously and those who take him seriously but not literally (those who didn’t vote for him, and those who did, respectively), go to the symbolic role that post-truth plays in the current environment. Davis, for example, contends that Trump’s exaggerations about unemployment and immigration were calculated, not to convince his followers, or potential followers, of a certain set of figures, but of his opposition to the liberal establishment. Similarly, d’Ancona emphasises the ‘deep story’ Trump conveys to many working and middleclass voters. Drawing on Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, he suggests that Trump-style populism is often selling a ‘feel-as-if story’ – a story that resonates at an emotional level to which disaggregated data cannot penetrate. Of course, such stories only penetrate at all because they contain a kernel of, well, truth: the communities that voted for Trump or Leave haven’t done well out of the great economic and cultural shifts of recent decades. But it is the fact that they are so often larded with falsehood that tends to obsess the liberal commentator.
Were that commentator to pick one villain for his piece, it’s entirely possible he would pick Michael Gove, the former British Justice Secretary For Gove it was who told Sky News’ Faisal Islam, ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’ – a comment that is usually shortened to ‘The people of this country have had enough of experts’ and taken as evidence of the Leave campaign’s mendacity. (Davis doesn’t mention this remark; but Ball, d’Ancona and Nichols do, and only give the shorter version.) But as demagogic as that comment was, it also channelled a widespread feeling that the technocratic character of modern politics and politicians runs contrary to the spirit of democracy – an attribute notably lacking, incidentally, from the European Union. In this sense, post-truth, which in Oxford’s definition is founded on a category mistake – on a confusion between ‘objective facts’ and ‘personal feelings’ – is itself a reaction to a category mistake – to a confusion between politics as a site of conflict between different views of society and politics as a managerial enterprise on which experts should have the final say. And it’s precisely this distinction, I would argue, that the knowledge class and its representatives frequently miss in these discussions.
The distinction is not incidental. An academic writing in a peer-reviewed journal can offer useful insights into how best to deliver services to remote communities, but she cannot prove through peer review that remote communities ought to be serviced; plainly, that is a moral question, one the answer to which will depend on your view of the good society. Similarly, there may be a right way and a wrong way to make sure that benefits are distributed equally and fairly; but there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether we should have benefits in the first place, or to what a fair allocation of them is. This is not to entertain a facile relativism; it is simply to say that politics is always about values, and that the liberal obsession with expertise is bound to instil resentment in those whose lives are neither materially improved nor morally relevant in the current liberal mix. This is, if you like, the deep story of post-truth.