The Relation of Truth to Power

Each system defines its own variant of truth. Power manipulates human beings, masks reality, and therefore compromises knowledge’s claim to the truth. Ideas become ideology once they are integrated into our everyday activities, where they become normalized and naturalized (thus invisible). The relationship ideas (or knowledge) have with power hinges on false promises, which is the basis of the ideology critique. Ideology is a complex of ideas and values that reinforce the interests of the dominant group while undermining the interests of the subordinate group. The newly revived nationalists claim that politics should focus primarily on culture and religion, and all other fields of operation depend on these aspects being stable and undisturbed and not influenced by other trends in society. The power debate is divided between modern and postmodern positions. Modern holds power and truth as opposite, while postmodern view them as mutually constitutive.

Collectively, the views that make up what is often referred to as modernism include: the belief that we can know the world; that we can use our knowledge to critique and analyze the way things are; and that we can create a better world, as a result. For modernism, knowledge bequeaths power, and when knowledge is guided by reason it can give us the power to create a world that is more humane. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is a phrase coined by the Quakers during the mid-1950s. It was a call for the United States to stand firm against fascism and totalitarianism during the Cold War. It is a phrase that seems to unnerve the political right, with reason. This pamphlet initially promoted pacifism, in the belief that love can overcome hatred. It has come to mean ‘speaking out against those in authority’, and is now used in politics and human rights activism.

Modernists believe we should look beneath appearances to discover the way things work, so we can control the world and not be controlled by it. The quest to expose illusions becomes an effort to extend rational, conscious, control in the face of a cold hard world, the irrational fears of the unconscious, and the corrupt machinations of society’s deceivers, particularly those in power. For Foucault power is diffuse rather than concentrated, embodied rather than purely coercive, and constitutes agents rather than being deployed by them. Rather than episodic exercises of power traditionally centered in feudal states to coerce their subjects, Foucault points to administrative power of the 18th century such as prisons, schools and mental hospitals. These systems of surveillance and assessment no longer require force or violence as people learned to discipline themselves, and behave in expected ways. Power is a major source of discipline and social conformity.

Foucault observes it is important to recognize and question socialized norms and constraints. Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony: the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class. Cultural hegemony locks up a society even more tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language. The words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of the times. Thus they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways. For Foucault, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some absolute truth, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.1

Under Donald Trump the culture war has united with the class war. The class war has to do with the lower middle class: wages are stagnating for middle and low wage workers, union membership and its traditional benefits are on the decline, income inequality is on the rise, and manufacturing jobs have been lost to technology and other countries. The culture war from abortion to same-sex marriage, what was considered reasonable and justifiable governance and policy for one side, came to be viewed as irrational and indefensible by the other. All cultures in society have their own meaning and origin therefore it is the cultural change from which social change arises. Nationalism is used by religions as a means to an end, specifically the establishment of their own value system within society. The stronger the religious influence on the nationalist movement, the greater the likelihood of discrimination and human rights violations will occur.2

The trickle-down economics narrative is a grand illusion for those in power to promote to justify dominance over those who are less privileged. Of course, it is based on greed being a virtue, relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealistically upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants. The political and social domination of the upper class are presented as normal outcomes of the functioning of the free market. The neoliberal worldview has been embedded in contemporary culture to such an extent and now is so pervasive that any countervailing evidence serves only to further convince people of its ultimate truth. Trickle-down economics of austerity creates disruptive changes to society. On the other hand, people want constancy in their lives, which leads them to support a fairly conservative social agenda along with nationalism.

Each society creates a “regime of truth” according to its beliefs, values, and mores. Foucault identifies the creation of truth in contemporary western society with five traits: the centering of truth on scientific discourse, accountability of truth to economic and political forces, the “diffusion and consumption” of truth via societal apparatuses, the control of the distribution of truth by “political and economic apparatuses,” and the fact that it is “the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation.” Individuals would do well to recognize that ultimate truth, “Truth,” is the construct of the political and economic forces that command the majority of the power within the societal web.3 The neoliberal ideological project functions by achieving the consent of the masses to abide social norms and rules of law by framing the worldview of the economic elite, and the social and economic structures that go with it as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though they may only benefit the wealthy.

Every action and every historical event is seen by Foucault as an exercise in the exchange of power. The adoption of neoliberal ideology by an aspiring autocratic leader results in the weakening of infrastructural power through three strategies: packing, rigging and circumventing. Power is everywhere and keeps on changing. Because of new forms of power that are generated in society the issues of homosexuality, lesbianism, feminism and other minorities get a new definition in the course of history. There is truly no universal truth at all, only systems of power creating a regime of truth. The question of how to deal with and determine truth is at the base of political and social strife. Religious Right leaders helped Trump win the election in large part based on his promise to fill Supreme Court vacancies with judges in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, an ardent foe of reproductive choice and legal equality for LGBTQ Americans.

Cultural hegemony comes from the language, beliefs and traditions which are shared, linked with some group in society. In 1984, Charles Murray published Losing Ground. It was described by the New York Times Review of Books as a “persuasive . . . new variation on social Darwinism.” Its central thesis was that all government welfare programs should be abolished, supposedly because welfare hurt the very people it was intended to help by “rewarding bad behavior” such as “illegitimate babies.” In US in 2018 an alliance of fundamentalist Protestants and Roman Catholics challenge the truth on cultural hegemony. President Trump and the present Republican Senate have the power to nominate judges with conservative social views to the Supreme Court. This has the potential to roll back past decisions that will affect social changes such as defunding reproductive rights and support for gay marriage. The problem of truth is to free it from social, economic and cultural hegemony.

The truth of the cultural hegemony includes the ability to control the social progress achieved in the past by various minorities, potentially turning back the clock. The modern conception of sexuality emerges from Christian codes of morality, the science of psychology, the laws and enforcement strategies adopted by the police and judiciary, the way in which issues of sexuality are discussed in the public media, the education system, etc. These are covert forms of domination (if not oppression), and their influence is to be found not only in what is said, but more importantly, in what is not said: in all the silences and gaps, in all the discontinuities. If one idea is discussed, then it is not discussed, whose interest is served by this change?4 The composition of US Supreme Court will determine which variants of behaviors and ways of thinking that are acceptable to the Religious Right, defines social truth.

1 Power is Everywhere.

2 James Davison Hunter (Sept 12, 2017) How America’s culture wars have evolved into a class war

Shaun Rider (1999)

Discontinuity (Postmodernism)

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