July 25, 2023

The idea of truth has fallen out of favour in recent years. For one thing, it’s less politically important than it used to be. In the era of the Cold War, what beliefs you held to be true counted for a lot, as one sovereign ideology clashed with another. Then, sometime in the Nineties, once the Cold War had faded, the word “ideology” fell out of use. This was partly because people don’t tend to regard their own beliefs as ideological, any more than people go around calling themselves Spotty or Fatso. Ideology is what the Other has, and one particular Other had now vanished.

Other people’s beliefs are ideological in the sense of being rigid, doctrinaire, immune to argument and detached from the practical world, whereas one’s own convictions are flexible, pragmatic and eminently reasonable. Capping child allowance so that more families are plunged into poverty is pretty much common sense in an economic crisis, while heavily taxing the oil companies springs from socialist dogma. There’s nothing ideological about revering the monarchy — like scratching your nose or gambling for eight hours a day, it’s a natural human inclination — but claiming that it provides circuses for the people to distract them from a shortage of bread is simply the talk of disaffected intellectuals.

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To be post-truth, then, is to be post-ideological. Long ago, when the middle class were revolutionaries storming the strongholds of the aristocracy, ideas like God, liberty, progress, patriotism and equality mattered to them a lot. They were vital weapons in the struggle for hearts and minds. Once they settled down to the humdrum task of accumulating capital, however, these grandiose notions weren’t so essential. Besides, by secularising and rationalising the world, capitalism created a climate in which such high-minded stuff sounded increasingly implausible. In doing so, it undercut some of its own rationales.

It’s mostly American politicians these days who talk about God, freedom, “this great country of ours” and “our brave men and women in uniform”, the United States being on account of its Puritan heritage one of the most metaphysical nations in the world, as well as one of the most materialistic. One can’t imagine Jeremy Hunt waxing eloquent about the country’s eternal debt to the Almighty, as opposed to its debt to its international creditors. As capitalist society evolves, its everyday practice comes loose from its rhetorical self-justification, which is to say that the gap between what it does, and what it says it does, looms incongruously large. This is what philosophers know as a performative contradiction. Better, then, to ditch as much of its metaphysical baggage as you decently can — in which case truth, at least with a large T, becomes increasingly redundant.

Truth is what compels our belief, but belief isn’t what binds late capitalist societies together. According to the ruling ideology of liberalism, you can believe whatever you like as long as it doesn’t stymie other people’s freedom to do the same, or pose a serious threat to their wellbeing. The state doesn’t give a toss about what you believe, a situation which would have been unintelligible to John Calvin or Oliver Cromwell, and is still unintelligible to a host of contemporary autocrats. Besides, in a relativist world, the word “conviction” comes to have a dogmatic ring to it.

This is odd, given that having convictions of some sort is constitutive of being human. To be a person is to have a point of view on the world. The convictions in question don’t need to be obsessive. You can believe that childbirth should be abolished without standing with a megaphone outside maternity hospitals. The historian A.J.P. Taylor once told a committee interviewing him for an Oxford fellowship that he had extreme political opinions but held them moderately.

Rather as religious belief was privatised some centuries ago with the birth of Protestantism, as a transaction between you and God alone, so belief in general becomes a kind of private hobby, as harmlessly idiosyncratic as Morris dancing or pigeon-fancying. What holds such societies together — consumerism, material interests, the rule of law — doesn’t really have to pass through the human mind, as it most certainly does in Islamist set-ups. This is one way in which the West’s latest bogeyman — terrorism rather than Communism — puts it at a severe political disadvantage. Solidarity in such nations goes all the way down, whereas in Britain it is largely confined to football. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic”.

It was unfortunate for the West that just when Islamism began to blow up innocent civilians, its own culture was becoming increasingly sceptical and relativist. Conviction was falling in value at just the point when it was politically necessary. Truth became subservient to material interests. In the age of Plato, truth was thought to be independent of such mundane matters. It was an absolute affair, sublimely transcendent of the everyday world of ignorance and delusion. Later, however, thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche argued that what we held to be true was largely determined by our perspective on the world, which was merely one among many such standpoints, and which was shaped among other things by our struggle for material survival. This argument didn’t deny that truth existed, but it placed it within a social and historical framework.

In our own time, this case has been reduced to a cruder version of itself: truth is simply an instrument of power. You describe the world in whatever way best promotes your interests. And since there are many conflicting interests, there are many conflicting truths. Enter Donald Trump and the Big Lie, along with those postmodernists who maintain that truth is just what’s true for me. Truth had finally been either abolished or privatised. What matters is what works — and for that purpose a blatant falsehood may do just as well. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to trump up” as “to invent a false accusation or excuse”.

All this suits a society which is continually in flux. Truth and facts seem to be static, and thus incapable of surviving in a world whose only permanent feature is changeability. In the world of postmodern capitalism, everything is fluid, unstable, groundless and provisional. Change is good, but staying the same isn’t. This may be true for the CEOs of Tesco and Google, but as a general proposition it’s clearly absurd: if permanence and consistency are uncool, why not abolish the ban on child labour and send children of five into workplaces? But there’s also something absolute about historical truth that sticks in the craw of the Trumps and Hannitys of this world. If it’s true that the emperor Tiberius died on the island of Capri in 37 CE, it was true in 37 CE, true today and will no doubt also be true in the year 3000. Of course, it may not be true at all. But that is another question.

There are other reasons why truth is being discredited. For Plato, truth was something deep, lurking beneath the surface appearances of everyday reality. Postmodernism is uneasy with this surface/depth model, for a number of reasons, one of them concerning what Lenin called the reality of appearances. In a culture of the image, star, brand, momentary sensation and instant gratification, everything seems on the surface; but if there are no depths, then there are no surfaces either, and the whole model collapses. The image is the reality, as in the term “Reality TV”. What you see is what you get. One is asked for one’s “take” on a topic, a verb borrowed from film and television. All this is convenient enough for the political Right, who also dislike the surface/depth model because it suggests that there are powerful but invisible forces which dominate our lives, not least those of the marketplace. “All the important processes,” Marx wrote, “go on behind the backs of individuals”. What we see and what we get aren’t at all the same thing. This belief lingers on in the post-truth era, but now it’s known as conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theorists have got at least two things right: that the truth can differ dramatically from what we’re officially told, and that it is usually unpleasant. There aren’t many conspiracy fantasists who claim that the world is run by a benevolent secret society which will one day deposit a fortune in all our bank accounts. There is, however, a more attractive aspect to the concept of truth. The word itself comes from the Old English “triewth”, which means faith or constancy. There’s a related word, “troth”, which means trust or loyalty. So truth is originally a moral concept. Speaking in a way which is true to the way things are is closely bound up with being faithful to others. In fact, we couldn’t do the latter without the former. Without mutual trust there couldn’t be any social existence. It’s not surprising, then, that Donald Trump’s cavalier way with the facts is linked with a foul-mouthed contempt for most of his fellow human beings.