Postmodernism challenges all truths and concludes that there is no such thing. If you look closely at atoms and electrons, it is hard to find any mass at all. Similarly, the more closely you challenge scientific and other truths, the less absolute truth may be found. Postmodernist truth is hence that there is no truth. There is convenience and illusion, but nothing that we can declare as complete truth – only as interpretations. Some may say postmodernist philosophers made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. However, there is plenty of evidence that fake news and post-truism has been around for quite some time before postmodernism became fashionable theory. In fact, a close look at historical facts illustrates that postmodernism makes something out of already existing reality. Rather than blaming those who predict a post-truth world, we should be thanking postmodernism for giving us frameworks and vocabularies to make sense of the world we live in.
The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels defined the big lie technique as “when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it” and that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Cognitive dissonance causes the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternative one that often defies reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of.
During the 1940s, the tobacco companies promoted the health benefits of cigarettes – preventing colds and relaxing individuals. Lung cancer was rare in the early 1900s but by the mid-20th century it had become an epidemic. A 1950 medical report described a casual association between the smoking of cigarettes and lung cancer. In 1952, a Readers’ Digest article decried the negative health consequences of cigarette smoking. The following year was the first year in two decades that the sale of cigarettes dropped. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research. This meant denying the health consequences of smoking – deceiving customers about the true nature of cigarettes through marketing and PR, as well as damaging the credibility of industry opponents. The tobacco companies joined many associations who typically oppose taxation and promoted themselves as supporters of freedom of expression, but blocked making available any information linking smoking to death or any negative outcomes.
In the 1980s there were people who were skeptical of market fundamentalism in general and big banks in particular. In order to decrease the cognitive dissonance, bankers linked home ownership to financial instruments and complex securities. They borrowed upbeat language from the IT world, including the positive message that innovation was good. This was part of a targeted message that Wall Street was good for America. In particular, that complex securities could help low and middle-income families own homes was a key message to disarming any suspicion. Over time, this message alleviated any remaining concern many had about mortgage lenders and investment bankers. The image of the large banks evolved from untrustworthy to being part of the American innovation scene, creating innovative new products that would supposedly improve the life of everyone. This illusion quickly disappeared after the crisis of 2008.
During the 1980s lots of other misinformation programs were initiated. Reagan’s massive tax cuts of the 1980s which were promised to spur rapid growth to pay for them, instead created deficits three times larger than Jimmy Carter bequeathed. However, a public reaction set in as the regime proposed to make radical cuts to Social Security and Medicare to make up the shortfall. Neoliberal planners then realized that entrenched programs could only be weakened and dismantled through disinformation programs. Now it became necessary to pretend saving the system that you are trying to unravel. This included having think tanks talk incessantly about a crisis and challenge the credibility of the system. Then public confidence in the system will wane which will create an opportunity for new initiatives on reductions to health care, pollution regulation, climate changes, unemployment insurance, and democratic accountability.
What happens to this stealth program when an honest politician like Obama comes into power? The economic elite still retained control of the Senate, and eventually Congress. The government response to the 2008 economic crisis increased the budget deficit significantly. The neoliberals claimed that there would need to be significant cuts to social programs to counter any further deficit of an infrastructure program – introducing austerity planning. What economists generally mean by austerity is a reduction in the “structural deficit” of the government, that is, ignoring the effects of the economic cycle. The “austerity lovers” that repeat the Great Neoliberal Lie have created a revisionist history in which they switch cause and effect. The deficit is not the cause of the economic crisis, in fact the deficit is only growing so rapidly because the real economy was shrinking in the wake of the financial sector crisis the neoliberals triggered with their deregulation mania.
The consequence of forty years of lies is a powerful wealth / income concentration machine joined to a series of precarious and suffering minorities, including many urban Blacks and poor whites. Labor unions are also caught in the squeeze. Donald Trump could then play on the prejudices and insecurities created, he thus found himself in a position to incite key elements of white labor and middle classes to return to the old ways, while retaining the support of the wealthy donor class. The neoliberal disinformation campaign easily slides into the ‘Big Lie’ campaign of Trumpism – that includes nationalism, the reduction of progressive social movements to the socialist mob, a militant anti-immigration campaign. The stealth program and Trump, the con man, both achieve ends essentially through trickery – deceiving people about the real intention to go to a place, when on their own given complete information, they would not go. An example is “repeal and replace Obamacare”, while planning to only make the first move.1
One of the key innovations of postmodernism is to accept that the concept of truth and even basic factual accuracy can “evolve,” which gets us pretty close to a place where so many Americans find themselves accepting that so many things that Trump says – things that an old-fashioned journalist would call “false” and even “lies” – are accepted as a kind of it-feels-true-to-me truths, or, perhaps, “alternative facts.” Postmodernists scream out that any phenomena are open to infinite alternative accounts and conspiracy theorists seize on the opportunity. By dismissing the “truth” presented by established institutions, conspiracy theorists explicate their own version of “truth”. By rejecting the modern explanation of social and political phenomena, by employing open interpretation that requires no reference to established scientific facts and by creating a discourse which forms “truth” and thus a notion of “reality”, modern conspiratorial phenomena finds its foundations in Postmodernism.
Postmodernists believe that the westerners’ claims of freedom and affluence continue to be nothing but empty promises and they have not met the needs of humanity. They affirm that truth is relative. It means truth is something that it is up to the individual to determine for themselves. The road to this near dystopia of public apathy and cynicism is not littered with the specialized scholarship and writing of late twentieth century continental thinkers. It is littered with the debris of cynical political manipulation and deception, obscene concentrations of wealth, tax evasion by the wealthy, fictional WMDs, unpunished bankers, intrusive tech companies and a docile or even complicit media class and the steady stagnation of life quality for increasing numbers of citizens. The postmodern interpretation: the neoliberal project is unable to predict the direction of the social world, and after forty years fails to provide a sense of security and freedom for most individuals.
Postmodernism rejects any theoretical approach or ideology that tries to explain everything while asserting and maintaining political and economic power. No one is expected to believe anymore that neoliberalism will deliver diversity, choice, increased control for individuals over their own lives. This raises the old question: we have the material needs to feed, clothe, and keep everyone in culture – why, then, don’t people have these things? We got to stand for doing less work. This becomes about politics of time: recovering the kind of time that can’t be accounted for in terms of traditional business economics. This is the time when almost anything interesting in cultures actually happens. We’ve been told the opposite by neoliberals, that the engine, the dynamo of culture, is business, and being busy.2 We need living wages and more time in order to meet our goals and desires – the interests of the individual must take precedent over the interests of the economic elite.
1 William E. Connolly. (27 Oct 2018) Neoliberalism and Fascism: The Stealth Connection. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/27/neoliberalism-and-fascism-stealth-connection
2 Paavo Järvensivu. An Interview with Mark Fisher: Is Capitalist Realism Moving Aside? https://mustarinda.fi/magazine/keynes/an-interview-with-mark-fisher