Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend overlooked books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.
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Rather than unleashing an era of liberal democratic orthodoxy, as many predicted, the end of the Cold War produced a world where grand narratives ceased to exist. The disappearance of these narratives has led to an erosion in the value of truth and objectivity.
This is one of the arguments put forward in This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, a new book by the journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev. As Pomerantsev writes:
“If the need for facts is predicated on a vision of a concrete future that you are trying to achieve, then when that future disappears, what is the point of facts?”
Many articles have been written about how the internet has encouraged us to create our own ‘filter bubbles’. However Pomerantsev’s book delves much deeper than similar accounts. It is not merely ‘information abundance’ that is screwing with our politics. The root of the current crisis also rests in our loss of faith in the future and, with it, the Enlightenment notion of objective truth.
One hundred and thirty-seven years ago Nietzsche declared God to be dead. Yet while the Enlightenment ‘killed’ the possibility of belief in a deity, religious faith persisted under avowedly secular guises. During the 20th century communism partially filled the void left by the retreat of religion. The materialist conception of history held out an answer to every question just as the Gospels once had.
In time the communist God failed, and the future was viewed as one of liberal progress, an ‘end of history’ as Francis Fukuyama termed it. Yet the global financial crash – and arguably the Iraq war with it – destroyed faith in this narrative too.
If the 20th century was the age of ideology, it has been replaced by an era of subjectivity and competing truths. A few on the extreme fringes still cling to grand narratives – the Islamic State for example – but most big ideas have slipped away. Today we each shape our own narrative. We choose what is true based on our own solipsistic inclinations. The result is a hyper-individualised political climate where concepts such as objectivity and impartiality have passed out of fashion.
The proliferation of information produced by the internet has made it easier to blur the distinction between truth and falsehood. Conspiracy theories increasingly fill the void where ideology – and certainty about the future – used to be. When there are so many competing truths that few individuals have the time to adequately parse, we are inclined to accept the narrative (however far-fetched) that chimes with our emotional predispositions.
The triumph of contemporary identity politics has helped to turbocharge this notion that feelings are more important than facts. The ethos of the Sixties trumpeted “feelings as an antidote to corporate and bureaucratic rationality”, as Pomerantsev puts it. Objectivity is merely subjectivity in disguise, according to the purveyors of this identitarian creed.
Of course, this great transformation in our politics would not be possible without the highly specific model of laissez-faire capitalism that triumphed 40 years ago. It is within this framework that identity has become a marketable commodity. We each choose our own ‘truth’ – our sacred cause to rally behind – just as we choose from ten different brands of soda in the supermarket.
This “future-less present” arrived first in Russia in the 1990s. During this chaotic decade, people behaved according to rules they made up for themselves. “The image of a common mankind is impossible, and no alternative has emerged,” writes Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Vladimir Putin’s early spin-doctors. “Everyone invents their own ‘normal’ humanity, their own ‘right’ history.”
It isn’t hard to see how this personalised, identity-specific (and highly subjective) notion of reality has ignited increasing political polarisation across the developed world. Individuals are no longer the vehicles through which political ideas are transmitted. Instead, ideas are interwoven with identity. To disagree is increasingly a personal affront – a ‘microaggression’ – rather than a mere argument over competing visions of the future.
Social media amplifies this trend by encouraging individuals to stake out extreme positions in order to stay relevant and boost their personal brand. As Pomerantsev writes, “Social media is a sort of major-narcissism engine that can never quite be satisfied, leading us to take up more radical positions to get more attention”.
A highly subjective version of reality has been adopted by states too. In the contemporary era states make up their own rules and “murder people and indeed whole peoples according to their own ‘sovereign’ logic,” Pomerantsev writes, drawing on the work of the Russian historian of the Holocaust Mikhail Gefter. We can see this logic play out everywhere from Syria to China to Myanmar.
The success of political leaders such as Trump, Erdoğan and Orbán rests on the “anarchic liberation” from constraint they provide to their followers. That crude rejection of civility is comparable to the “suicidal escape from reality” Hannah Arendt wrote about in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Yet unlike the tyrannical regimes of the 20th century, authoritarian governments no longer strive for omnipotence. Instead they pretend there is no objective reality, only competing visions.
In depicting one man’s struggle against a totalitarian state, George Orwell wrote that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. Unlike Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith, the danger we face is not centralisation. We are slipping into a world not of a single truth set down by an infallible one-party state, but of an infinite number of truths that are impossible for the ordinary citizen to navigate.
To counter this, we must become better as individuals at distinguishing between information that is accurate and information that merely confirms our biases.
But ‘the West’ – for want of a better term – must also rediscover a sense of purpose if it is to combat the threat of disinformation. Liberal democracies are more amenable places to live than societies that have come before and are likely to come after. We live longer, are freer, and however mediocre the current political crop of political leaders are, we do at least have a realistic chance of removing them.
This is not mere propaganda, to paraphrase the title of Pomerantsev’s brilliant and unsettling book. The threat to democracy may have changed since Orwell’s time but it is nevertheless real. Freedom is still the freedom to point out that objective reality exists – regardless of how you or I or Vladimir Putin may feel about it.