Post-Truth: a Crisis of the Intellectual Bourgeoisie
In November 2016, just days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Oxford Dictionaries announced that its choice for Word of the Year was post-truth. There, it was defined as, “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Since the emergence of the term, there have already been numerous articles and even entire books written with sprawling commentary about why truth doesn’t seem to matter to people as it used to. Many of which are written by center-left intellectuals and journalists who lament the end of a time when fact was regarded with sanctity over opinion and veracity was revered.
One of the central underpinnings to these analyses is the idea that the post-truthers helped to give rise to Trump, as sites like Breitbart and even the POTUS’s own words on Twitter have warped what is accepted into popular consciousness as valid grounds for basing our belief systems. The musings I’ve seen on the concept of post-truth also tend to be dismissive, patronizing, and at times, even contemptuous of the post-truthers’ perspectives. In his book, “Post-Truth,” for instance, journalist Matthew d’Ancona asserts, “All that matters is stories feel true, they resonate….the point is not to determine the truth by a process of rational evaluation, assessment and conclusion. You choose your own reality, as if from a buffet.” Beyond this, he regards post-truth as, “the infectious spread of a pernicious relativism disguised as legitimate skepticism” (2). He even goes on to suggest that post-truthers are afflicted with a kind of psychological pathology, comparing them it to personal neuroses (31–32).
This in mind, upon further reflection, it becomes apparent that post-truth has infected a much wider swath of the population than a few fringe groups and Trump supporters. Kurt Anderson’s article in The Atlantic, titled, “How America Lost Its Mind,” lends credence to this point when he observes, with the same character of derision that seems to imbue most post-truth analyses,that:
By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God — not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the ‘media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,’ and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables — the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
When the apparent majority of the population has succumbed to belief in the speculative, conspiratorial, anomalous, or outright outlandish, the so-called “solidly reality-based rationalists” can once again stay seated on their epistemic pedestals. In their failure to critically and substantively engage with the perspectives and experiences of the post-truthers it becomes apparent that what intellectuals and journalists like d’Ancona and Anderson are really voicing in their assessments of the post-truth world is a desire to retreat back into their elitist, esoteric intellectual circles whose very foundations are threatened by society’s departure from truth as they have come to know it. Even in his own longform analysis of post-truth, d’Ancona praises the intellectual establishments as “a system of gradually evolving, rules-based institutions, a hierarchy of knowledge and authority, in which representative bodies interacted with the state according to tried and tested protocols” (64). Thus, when commentary is reduced to a defense of the status quo that has afforded them their intellectual privileges rather than one of deeper reflection, post-truth merely becomes a crisis of the intellectual bourgeoisie.
This is insufficient in a time when post-truth is having such widespread impacts on society at large. If feelings that are prevailing over hard facts in ways that significantly impact current affairs, it’s about time we explore them in more meaningful and empathetic ways rather than from a position of righteous self interest. This is not to say that the assessments of those with rigorous training in any field should be treated with the same suspicion as the blogger whose knowledge base is derived from articles ridden with unscientific conjecture that he saw online. (Yet, it should be noted that in many ways, knowledge is distributed along the same patterns as wealth in post-industrial nations like ours.) Rather, the point is that the intellectual privileging causes a disjuncture where analysts of post-truth fail to truly grapple with the tendencies of the rest of society towards this phenomenon. What’s more is that they merely scratch the surface by nitpicking facts and guffawing over the most recent absurd thing that is pervading through public consciousness.
From my evaluation, the roots of post-truth run deeper than whether knowledge claims are verifiable and robust according to our existing epistemic procedures. This collective cultural trend can tell us a lot more about the state of our society including its ideologies, economy, and power structures, when we are willing to critically examine it. If we don’t acknowledge the legitimate sociocultural, political, and economic underpinnings of which post-truth — and the rise of Trump at that — is only a symptom, we won’t ever be able to move past them. Instead, we will create yet another schism within society, now between the “solidly reality-based minority” whose ways of thinking and complete trust in existing institutions are privileged over anyone who has fallen susceptible to any form of post-truth era skepticism, which data indicates is a lot of us. This will, in turn, impede collective action at a moment where there is no time to waste.
To start making sense of the post-truth era in a more constructive manner, we need to situate it within a broader context, which illustrates that all we are witnessing now is merely a natural progression of late modernity. In doing so, we can ground ourselves more robustly in our understanding of our current state of affairs rather than succumbing to fear and distrust of one another. From there, we just might be able to find the footing necessary to devise a better path forward.
How We Arrived Here: the Failings of Neoliberalism
To understand post-truth and other cultural crises that we are currently facing, we need to contextualize the ethos and narratives that have preceded it. Out of the failings of these to suffice in justifying the current material conditions increasing numbers of Americans are facing, post-truth is a direct response.
In postindustrial western societies, since the 1980s during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, our dominant economic system and set of social values has been neoliberalism. In material economic terms, neoliberalism ushered in a slew of deregulation and privatization policies in the name of austerity. It saw the scaling back of social services and the development of new frontiers for profit at any cost to human life or to the natural environment. Neoliberalism has given rise to the military and prison industrial complexes as well as to the existence of the multinational corporation. It has been the underlying logic behind hazardous oil extractions at home and abroad. The dissemination of unpaid labor in the form of internships and the militarization of the police on the domestic front can also be attributed to neoliberalism.
Subsequently, in terms of cultural narrative, it was from this set of ideologies that the rich were deemed moral under the ideation that wealth was a sign of intellect and merit while poverty was the result of laziness, impulsive behavior, and other such vices. Neoliberalism is what conditioned us to view welfare recipients as greedy leeches to the tax base, while the proportion of federal funding allocated to the military simultaneously continued to soar. It justified disdain for the homeless, the needy, and the otherwise marginalized. It continues to fuel competition over resources and infighting among different social groups for better spots on the socioeconomic ladder.
The narratives associated with neoliberalism functioned well for middle class whites, who stood at the core of society, for some time. These ideologies reconciled a social order of increasingly stark inequality and explained why certain groups were relegated to the periphery by fortifying the core with the idea that they were where they were because they deserved to be. After all, the free market was believed to be a self-regulating economic system that rewarded hard work.
All of this really began to crumble following the 2008 recession, whereas the neoliberal ideologies started to become increasingly insufficient in masking the actual material realities of our exploitive zero-sum capitalist system. While the wealthiest financial players and institutions received bailouts instead of penalties for their reckless and irresponsible self-serving financial practices, the middle class has continued to shrink. As is asserted in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, Too Big to Fail, what has been exhibited with increasing displays of shamelessness is that our system is actually one of socialism for the rich and ruthless capitalism for the little guy.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, estimates now dictate that nearly half of the American population lives at or near the poverty line. What we’ve begun to see is the more visceral truth, something which is, indeed, felt beyond any market analysis or recitation of statistics on the campaign trail. The true failings of our economic system — including for the core of the white middle class — manifest themselves in crippling medical debt, the rise of increasingly flexible labor relations with no social benefits, the epidemic of opioid addiction spreading across the country, persistent joblessness, the tighter concentration of wealth within a proportion of society that grows more miniscule every year, and the growing numbers of homelessnessamongst all demographics.
With the failing of these ideological presumptions, the political establishments and mainstream media outlets who promote and benefit from them are also losing their holds over public consciousness and the decisions people are making. The divide between the stark economic realities people are facing and our governing institutions’ continual insistence in pushing the same old neoliberal narrative within mainstream consciousness has, in turn, wreaked havoc on the American collective psyche. The masses now regard the establishment with suspicion and conspiracies come creeping into collective consciousness as a result. Nothing exemplifies this better than the progression of rumors about Obama’s citizenship to Hillary Clinton’s failure to be elected in conjunction with pending FBI investigations and, of course, the “pizzagate” scandal that escalated to violent proportions.
In other words, as the dominant cultural narrative renders itself insufficient in the face of increased economic uncertainty, an immense sense of disillusionment spreads over the populace, an ideological rift, one that exposes the great insecurity of the average person. People are scrambling to fill the void with new narratives and ideations that make sense of the current state of affairs with a motivation for self-preservation at the fore. This same widespread sense of distrust in the status quo was undoubtedly an underlying theme in Trump’s ascendency and his appeal for “offering something different”.
We see the power of such rhetoric and ideology, as hollow as the alt-facts that underpin it, in Trump’s simple but baseless assertion that he will make things how they used to be, that he will bring back manufacturing jobs and restore the winner-loser mentality that gave white middle America existential security. This alone was enough to secure many of their votes. In a country with few sufficient social safety nets and one that shames those who rely on any support from the public sector, a return to this mindset feels like the only feasible way to reconcile and rationalize their experiences. This is also a contributing factor to the rise of far-right extremism.
In truth, it should be noted that neoliberalism has always been a system to favor the ultra-rich at the expense of the rest of us, and ideology only served as an illusion to beguile the reality of its actual precariousness. When the most marginalized were the targets, it was easy to justify neoliberalism under the ideals purveyed as a part of it, but as the middle class erodes, there is no sensible narrative left that can justify such an exploitative system.
While it is unfortunate that a demagogue has been the one to harness these sentiments only to exploit the plight of middle America to an unforeseen extent in his kleptocratic presidency, there is a fundamental need to change the narratives and ideologies that hold society together for the sake of creating a better future. In order to do so, however, we need to critically examine how neoliberal ideological assumptions infiltrate public consciousness in oppressive ways. This will require us to do some digging into the origins of our epistemic principles in the hopes of developing more accurate cultural narratives.
The Epistemic Implications of Post-Truth
As neoliberalism crumbles, we can take it as an opportunity to reflect on how this ideology infiltrates our knowledge producing institutions and, in turn, our understanding of the world around us. In particular, many of the ethos associated with neoliberalism were derived from western principles that originated during the era of the Enlightenment.
Some intellectual byproducts of the Enlightenment include the development of a streamlined process for scientific reasoning, the idea that people have inalienable rights including personal freedom, and the legitimization of secularism that helped give way to pluralism. While there are certainly some undeniable merits to these concepts, according to theorists of late modernity including Jürgen Habermas and Anthony Giddens, we often regard the Enlightenment too uncritically. This results in a failure to recognize that the principles born out of it are in themselves incomplete. We have subsequently failed to correct certain epistemic flaws in our existing systems for producing knowledge, which plays a role in the widespread skepticism of scientific institutions evident in the post-truth era.
Our conception of knowledge is largely dictated by the cultural narrative that leads us to believe that total objectivity can be found through science, when in reality, knowledge derived from science is often affected by our ideologies. As French philosopher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard explains, our western, post-Enlightenment cultural metanarrative is heavily entrenched in the importance of economic progress and individualism. Thus, according to this conceptualization of late modernity, these same values of progress and individualism also frame our scientific pursuits.
Indeed, science, statistics, and technology are often used to feed neoliberal agendas from big pharma to multinational industrial agriculture, to building bigger, badder militaries, and more surveillance infrastructure. What’s more is that on a basic level, our very conceptions of objectivity, which underpin much of our scientific reasoning are used to enforce the social stratification necessary for neoliberalism to function where people of different social groups are placed in competition with one another, largely based on identity characteristics.
Deconstructing the Objectivity Framework
This skepticism of our knowledge producing institutions could, however, serve as an opportunity to make them more truly objective and robust in their findings. A good place to start would be to conduct ideology critique and reflect on the ways that facts and statistics, or at least their applications, are oftentimes not as objective as we’d like to think they are.
To start, let’s return to the origins of the privileging of objectivity as part of Enlightenment era thought. The Enlightenment was heavily focused on the concept of the universal, abstract individual who held certain inalienable rights and characteristics supposedly despite any external markers of identity. For example, one famous manifestation of the abstract individual came in the form of the Declaration of Independence, which stated that, “all men are created equal”. Although this may sound like a universal, all-encompassing claim on the surface, when we look deeper, we find that it is largely skewed to one minority component of society, white men.
The result of this restrictive perception of a universal truth was and still is a society that privileges certain perspectives and relegates other ones to the periphery. In turn, it can be said that Enlightenment theorists, all of whom were themselves white men, remained at the center of social life where they developed the realms of science, politics, economics, and philosophy as we know them today. Thus, this demographic is seen as the glorified human ideal to which the economic system and governing bodies that emerged from the Enlightenment are tailored.
In his 1903 publication of The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois challenges the concept of the abstract individual as the centering of the white male perspective by discussing identity in terms of the perspectives of African American slaves, a heavily devalued and underrepresented demographic. The existence of African Americans was, and in many ways still is, characterized by experiences of structural injustice, oppression, segregation, and prejudice. The lived realities of slaves stood in direct contrast to prevailing viewpoints of western society as emancipatory and egalitarian, exposing that these characteristics were not objectively and universally true in this context. Rather, it had only been perceived that way from the white male standpoint, which stood as central to the public sphere of thought.
Du Bois proposed that the African American perspective offers a unique point of view, which he describes in The Souls of Black Folk as, “double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (405). He asserts that western society has developed with the deeply-seated notion that white is viewed as the norm. Where whites are oblivious to color and racism on a daily basis, people of color have to account not only for their own perceptions, but also for the dominant perspective of white personhood.
Today, of course, this continues to ring true. White men’s perspectives are often deemed as the mainstream, objective reality, their standpoints not really evident at all. Instead, they have been invisibilized, something that feminist epistemologist Sally Haslanger has termed, aperspectivity. Here, she means that white men have epistemic privilege in forming dominant ideologies, but this is often rendered invisible in the goings on of everyday life because this perspective of the world is described as objective and therefore, “neutrally observational”. This is a guise through which certain groups are given the privilege of being able to make such definitive observations, so what is called objective is actually very much filtered through the perceptive lens of a very distinct group: white men (68).
Objectivity as Oppression
In a society where the white male perspective is regarded as objective fact, the lived realities of social others are inherently less credible because their standpoints are ones of subjectivity in relation to the male-oriented objective framework. Through the leveraging of their perceptions as objective and neutrally observational, they are poised to call the shots in terms of constructing knowledge in ways that preserve their dominance. This alone is a major contributing factor to the stratification present in western society where stratification is largely maintained through the projection of oppressive social norms that silence, exclude, and devalue the perspectives of social others, under illusion of objective observation that implies all of this is the naturally occurring order of things.
While women, POC, and other groups continue to contradict these assumptions by achieving higher and shattering oppressive structures within society, but it is not happening without backlash. As social others continue to make strides, the white male objectivist framework must maintain itself by seeking to construct a reality, which confirms their position of domination. What’s more is that these kinds of ideological biases spill over into social life as well. Today, we are witnessing this in many pervasive forms, including in the rise of neo-fascism and alt-right white supremacist groups. Their ideologies are derived from the science of Social Darwinism, which has also served to justify eugenics.
A recent example of this is in the memo released by a Google employee, James Damore, who cites biology to justify his claims that women are less capable than men in the workforce. Obviously, his assertions were preceded by certain ideological presumptions and not conducted as a genuine, open-ended inquiry. For starters, Damore’s naturalizing conclusions are preposterous considering that office life and business as we know it are social constructs that only originated in the past 100 years or so. Through this example, we can begin to see the ways in which a white man’s subjective desires drive his observational beliefs about women’s nature, yet objectivity as we have come to know it invisibilizes his biases. This is especially precarious considering that white men still dominate most positions of power from politics to business to science itself.
Perhaps one of the staunchest contemporary examples of the ways that so-called objectivity is problematic in its erasure of the observers’ social standpoint comes in the form of our cultural conceptions of looting. Here, we see the way aperspectivity plays out as white men’s role in this phenomenon is utterly removed from public discourse on the subject. As such, they get to play the part of the passive supposedly unbiased observer. In his article, “In Defense of Looting,” Willie Osterweil points out that in many ways, looting itself is a response to white exploitation and thievery, which for black people dates back to the slave trade itself. When rightfully contextualized, it becomes clear that white men played the ultimate role of looters.
In modern times, another form of white exploitation comes in terms of corporate property, which has infiltrated poor black communities to the point where locally owned businesses are few and far between. Looting is, therefore, an act of defiance to this corporate exploitation as well as to white domination more broadly. Therefore, it is portrayed as violent in the media controlled by the white male agenda specifically because the destruction of white property is a threat to the entire system of neoliberalism and white supremacy. Due to the way that white-centered cultural discourse is so often guised as objective fact, people of color have been living in the post-truth era longer than the rest of us. Whereas, their perspectives are overridden by the supposedly objective white mainstream who portrays them as criminal or lazy and punishes them for their oppression. These socially constructed stereotypes begin to transpose their subjective experiences as well as their very identities.
It is also worth mentioning here that the social acceptability of police brutality towards black people in America — often under the claims that they are brutish, criminal, or otherwise threatening — is a way that the dominant white perspective serves to maintain itself and to thwart the dignified existence of people of color within society. Philosopher Kate Manne cites in her article, “In Ferguson and Beyond, Punishing Humanity,” that racialized police violence is a mechanism for punishing the obvious humanity of black people by dehumanizing them.
This insidious and problematic form of objectivity is further evident in the very kinds of issues that are seen as real and legitimate public concerns and which are regarded as softer, secondary, or even counterproductive as far as the collective attention is concerned. In his recent article, “The First White President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates observes this quite poignantly:
The inference is that the party has forgotten how to speak on hard economic issues and prefers discussing presumably softer cultural issues such as ‘diversity.’ It’s worth unpacking what, precisely, falls under this rubric of ‘diversity’ — resistance to the monstrous incarceration of legions of black men, resistance to the destruction of health providers for poor women, resistance to the effort to deport parents, resistance to a policing whose sole legitimacy is rooted in brute force, resistance to a theory of education that preaches ‘no excuses’ to black and brown children, even as excuses are proffered for mendacious corporate executives ‘too big to jail.’ That this suite of concerns, taken together, can be dismissed by both an elite [white] economist like Summers and a brilliant [white] journalist like Packer as ‘diversity’ simply reveals the safe space they enjoy. Because of their identity.
Deploying Fact to Fuel Agenda
Another way that our existing notion of objectivity can be concerning when it comes to the conclusions that are drawn out of aperspectivity is that even when the stats themselves are accurate and the methodology is of high quality, observed states of affairs are still open to interpretation. To put it plainly, philosopher and epistemologist Helen Longino explains, “No state of affairs counts as evidence for any hypothesis without additional background assumptions; moreover, there is no uniquely correct description for any state of affairs without additional background assumptions” (41–42).
Drawing upon the aforementioned fact that the neoliberal establishment and its corresponding policy agenda are not measuring up to the weight of growing poverty under late capitalism, we can also find an example of the ways in which observations are always subject to interpretation, no matter how robust the data itself is. For example, during her presidential campaign Hillary Clinton referenced studies conducted by sociologists charting the increased likelihood of experiencing relative poverty over the life course and the changing dynamics of affluence in the US, as supporting evidence in her public statements. Meanwhile, Steve Bannon used the very same data to back up his own views.
Clinton used the findings in support of her campaign platform by stating the usual platitudes about how no child should grow up in poverty and that every family deserves a place to live. She goes on to emphasize that the solution to rising poverty can be found through incremental reforms within the same system of neoliberalism by generating more well paying jobs (for both men and women!). To combat rising rates of poverty, she promises to stimulate economic growth in conjunction with enacting policy that would create more affordable housing.
Cunningly, Bannon used these data findings on the rise of poverty rates in the United States to support his personal brand of American jingoism, namely, that the source of the poverty is the encroachment of foreigners and minorities on the job entitlements of white workers. He recently pointed to the Democrats’ identity politics as a weak spot and a distraction from the truth evident in his economic nationalism, which largely draws on the financial anxieties of white America.
Thus, the same observed states of affairs can be utilized to confirm our existing narratives and biases. Yet, this point is obscured when an individual has been given the ideological privilege to think that he has no social standpoint. To combat this, we need to subject the conclusions we draw from observing the world around us to greater scrutiny.
Acknowledging Social Standpoint in Constructive Ways
Nietzsche and Foucault are known for their feather ruffling work on what they termed intersubjectivity. They emphasized the idea that our perceptions are all heavily filtered based on our own subjective perspectives, meaning essentially that even truth itself is relative. While there have certainly been many writers and theorists who have tried to affirm this point to an unnecessary extreme, there is some validity to it. Namely, that any observation or scientific insight ought to be subject to a spirit of rigorous inspection from many angles by people coming from a diverse array of perspectives.
When science is dominated by white men, or merely even by people who all hold the same ideological assumptions, research findings themselves are affected. This is especially the case when the scientific inquiries and experiments themselves are heavily bound to social phenomena as demonstrated in the examples mentioned above. When only one powerful group controls the arena for producing knowledge for so long, we end up with partial truths, false equivalencies, and ideologies, rather than robust forms of knowledge that have been examined from many angles and perspectives.
The World Risk Society
While thinking more critically about our ideological assumptions is key to building a better path forward during uncertain times such as ours, there is one big factor that often stands in the way: fear. In fact, fear tactics are one of the primary strategies used to uphold the neoliberal order of things by causing distrust and divisiveness amongst people as they compete for resources.
No doubt, this kind of angst is only exacerbated by the unprecedented nature of late modernity. This manifests itself in myriad ways, but one that connects directly to the rise of post-truth culture is called the World Risk Society, a concept termed by sociologist Ulrich Beck. World Risk Society refers to the idea that human beings are standing on the precipice of unprecedented man-made catastrophes, largely the results of industrialization and modernity themselves. These include, but are certainly not limited to, nuclear holocaust, terrorism, climate change, and financial collapse. What’s more, is that perhaps for the first time in recent memory, even those who enjoyed the privileges of being at the core of society are susceptible to their repercussions.
We have long relied on abstract systems to assess these kinds of risks with statistical accuracy. Yet, as the potential impact of the catastrophes continues to rise, their statistical unlikelihood becomes irrelevant under the notion that should they occur, the damage would be so great that their purported improbability offers no consolation. As such, they become “uninsurable and unimaginable”. Once again, in the face of looming catastrophe, we witness the failure of our institutions, ideologies, and the facts deployed to support them to make us feel secure. Not to mention that with the internet, people can isolate themselves within the cocoons of their own confirmation biases. We are all guilty of losing touch with reality in our social media echo chambers and Google searches that slowly tailor themselves to fit the tendencies of whoever is sitting in front of the screen.
Our vulnerability to fear tactics certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by those wishing to preserve the power structures that benefit them, either. Fear continues to serve as the last leg in maintaining the current system in spite of its decay. It inoculates the population with new takes on the same old narratives and ideologies delivered through the ever more pervasive media, reaching us at all times through our smartphones, computers, tablets, televisions, and more. The media has the uncanny ability to capture the attention of viewers by stringing together cohesive and fearsome narratives that simplify both international relations and domestic affairs.
In material terms, Trump and his administration also profit directly from keeping a populace malleable in their fear and shock. In her book, No Is Not Enough, journalist Naomi Klein notes that, “Trump’s cabinet is packed with ‘masters of disaster,’ men whose careers have been based on exploiting shock. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s Exxon profited handsomely from the spike in the oil price after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has done more or less everything in its power to ensure global inaction on climate change.”
They are not the first in the era of late modernity, however, to fuel the collective anxieties of the masses in order to drive a political agenda. One need look no further than terrorism or natural disaster to see how this is done. George Bush capitalized on the collective fear surging through American society in the wake of 9/11 to string together a narrative that would suffice to launch an invasion in oil rich Iraq, and to erode our civil liberties through the passage of the PATRIOT Act. Meanwhile, his own Vice President, Dick Cheney, who has financial ties to the oil industry, directly profited from the Iraq War as it reaped billions for Halliburton, a company for which he formerly served as chair. Fear of Muslim terrorism also justifies the growth of the security and military industrial complexes.
Klein also recalls what she witnessed in the occupied Lower Ninth Ward following Hurricane Katrina, “I was in New Orleans during the flooding and I saw for myself how amped up the police and military were — not to mention private security guards from companies such as Blackwater who were showing up fresh from Iraq. It felt very much like a war zone, with poor and black people in the crosshairs — people whose only crime was trying to survive.”
Even dating back to the Reagan Era, where neoliberalism as we know it today largely has its roots, the media played a major role in fabricating and spreading diversive narratives. For example, despite the fact that most analysts were sure that Assad was behind a series of terrorist attacks on the west that occurred in the 1980s, with the help of the media the Reagan administration was able to string together a cohesive narrative that held Gaddafi responsible as part of a premeditated “perception management” program. The Gaddafi villain narrative was much simpler and militaristically safer than meddling with Syria and its ally Iran, and it helped justify financially lucrative American interventionism in Libya. Of course, this is only one of several ways that Reagan hid behind a guise of benevolent savior as he engaged in scandalous political dealings, the most famous of which being the Iran-Contra Affair.
The phenomenon of using terror to fuel political agenda has also spread to Europe, wherein France has remained in a state of emergency for almost two years since the Paris Attacks of November 2015. In her book, Klein also points out that in the aftermath of this harrowing event, “…it was striking that, though the attackers had targeted a concert, a football stadium, restaurants, and other emblems of daily Parisian life, it was only outdoor political activity that was not permitted” (164). Not to mention, arms stocks also spiked in the wake of the attacks.
In the context of the World Risk Society, the media as an institution itself also has much to gain through exploiting our fears and anxieties. They are financially intertwined with some of the most powerful and wealthy players in society, but even for the sake of rankings, clicks, shares, and views it is advantageous for them to do so. Even d’Ancona points out, “… the Cathedral is yielding place to the Bazaar. Hierarchical systems of information in which established brands — newspapers, television channels — decide what news is fit for consumption struggle to compete with the cosmic Speakers’ Corner of new media” (52).
Fear serves to isolate us and cause us to search for a leader to whom we can cling to in the face of our perceived powerlessness. It pushes us to seek oversimplified narratives and scapegoats for our economic anxieties. The neoliberal establishment uses such tactics to fuel petty infighting and competition amongst ourselves as a distraction from the fact that the system itself is crumbling around us. If they can turn a profit at the same time, even better. Thus, it is in the best interests of the hegemony to keep us afraid and blind to our own collective power. This, however, doesn’t have to be the end to our story.
Building a Better Path Forward
With the onset of World Risk Society comes another defining characteristic of late modernity where, “Collective identities previously captured by class, but also gender and family relations, are being replaced by a value system of individualisation” (Cebulla: 2007). Often referred to as reflexivity, the individual begins to look for personal narratives to fill this ideological void and make sense of their realities in a way that suits them. Beck defines reflexivity as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself”.
Returning again to Anderson’s article, “How America Lost Its Mind,” he reflects, “Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective.…almost nowhere outside poor or otherwise miserable countries are flamboyant supernatural beliefs so central to the identities of so many people.” He also notes that this turning point in society dates back to the 1960s, which fits perfectly in line with the onset of late modernity. Now, for many, coping with the current precarious state of society also means regressing into an illusory past along with outright fear-based denialism, but it does not have to be this way.
Many theorists of late modernity call for us to embrace this uncertainty in ideology and identity as a unique opportunity to devise much needed alternatives to our unsustainable neoliberal system. For instance, Giddens, whose work largely focuses on analyzing the societal implications of the World Risk Society, explains that we “have to confront personal futures that are much more open than in the past, with all the opportunities and hazards this brings” (196). In other words, the breakdown of institutions that fuel harmful narratives and false ideologies that convince us that neoliberalism is natural and unavoidable, that the poor deserve their fate, that the rich are justified in their hoarding of the world’s capital, and that endless extraction of the earth’s natural resources is necessary, is not a bad thing. Within the cracks of its fragmentation and decay, we could be creating a blueprint for a better society. It is difficult to take a leap from clinging to our basic competitive survival and instead attempt to transcend the myriad sources of fear and risk that seem to be looming around every corner, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
Other prominent theorists of this era emphasize the same. One of the most significant examples of which is Jean-François Lyotard whose work focuses on the emergent potential that comes with the onset of postmodernity as we shed our old oppressive cultural narratives. In the midst of the conspiratorial post-truth paranoia, other new ideas are already emerging with more nurturing policy approaches and green technology at the fore. People are turning out in protest of the existing system of social stratification in record shattering numbers, whether the target be women, Muslims, or people of color. These trends are undoubtedly linked to the rise of identity politics in popular dialogue, another product of late modern reflexivity and the reformulation of thinking about the individual.
What I mean here is that even if the concept and our way of forming discourse around identity politics may be imperfect and incomplete, it reflects a growing awareness that certain experiences are not included under our notion of objectivity. These conversations serve to challenge existing dominant cultural narratives and ideologies that don’t take the personhood of social others into account. They invite us to begin breaking down what we automatically assume to be true based on the traditions of white men remaining at the center of dictating what are dominant and acceptable ways of viewing the world. Identity politics and the discussions it stimulates thus create an opening for different voices to be heard and demands a respect for culture and diversity in new ways, ultimately serving as a means of challenging existing systems of stratification that are fundamental to neoliberalism’s functioning.
Subsequently, this opens up new possibilities to elevate and explore other cultures and models for society with different decision making processes and better stewardship of the environment, models that provide better alternatives for basing our identities than on competition and endless consumption. In essence, through nourishing pluralism and diversity of thought, we can embrace the uncertainty of postmodernity as a means of thinking critically about our social standpoints and the ways they make us partial. In doing so, perhaps we can collaboratively compile a more accurate picture of the world we live in and begin healing the wounds of the past while drawing on our diversity to transform society. Simply recognizing how the powerful benefit, exploit, and even stimulate our fears is an important first step.
In the end, we all have a choice to succumb to fear and forfeit our power or to stand in solidarity and dare to start imagining what kind of world we want for ourselves and our children. This starts by cultivating a willingness to question the assumptions we have about the information that power holding institutions produce and perpetuate in an effort to identify ideology as such and recognize that fear-based popular narratives are being spun to the benefit of a powerful few. In the face of an uncertain future, together we have a fantastic opportunity to reclaim our agency in devising a better tomorrow if only we believe that we can. This if any, is a truth worth recognizing.