Today’s Metanarrative Hides an Assault on Truth and Reality

More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the ‘grand narratives,’ or a metanarrative which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth”, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalized, inevitably relativized. The typical postmodern trait of breaking down hierarchies could be seen as getting its most essential fuel from various social hierarchies around the world. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism. Post-truth politics is part of the critique of ideology that goes together with “shattering of belief” associated with postmodern thought and action.

Globalization can be said to be the great narrative of our age – at least, for as long as we keep on talking about it. Globalization, like any other cultural trend, is self-perpetuating primarily when it is an active force in the minds of the general population – which it is at the moment, whether we realize it or not. Like any good metanarrative, the globalization metanarrative begins to explain life. And when it explains life, it creates behavior, and when it creates behavior, it causes itself to become true. In the neoliberal version of globalization with competition as the defining characteristic of human relations, the market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers – creating a more efficient system than ever could be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impedes this process, such as significant tax regulation, trade union activity, or state provision, is considered counter-productive.

By the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, a network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending them against democracy. Hayek’s writing rejects such notions of political freedom, universal rights, human equality and distribution of wealth – democracy has no absolute value, in fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take. In the updated version the progress of society depends on the liberty of these ‘economic elite’ to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limits to the rents they can charge.

Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity, such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonized. The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.  Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era of today’s metanarrative.

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and into the new century, there was optimistic talk of a “new economy”, driven by the expansion of technology and the Internet. It was seemingly based on a whole generation of “symbolic analysts” – Robert Reich’s term for “the workers who make up the creative and knowledge economies” – happily living on thin air. It opened up many new opportunities for controlling information flow. So-called “spin doctors” took center stage; it was government by PR – and the Iraq War was a prime example. Facts, apparently, took a back seat. Meanwhile, in the hands of bureaucrats, what was left of the truth – “as evidence based” – was soon recognized by the wider population as a tool for use in social engineering, and largely discredited as a result. This opened the door to gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.1

Gaslighting is typically a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others. Their point is to disorient and destabilize people. They want to harness people’s self-doubts, ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically, destroy their capacity for making judgements, in order to drive them durably into submission. When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power. When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.

The digital merging and melding of text, sound and image, the advent of cheap copying and the growing ease of networked information spreading across vast distances in real time are powerful drivers of post-truth decadence. The present-day political irruption of populism is fuelled by the institutional decay of electoral democracy, combined with growing public dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and “politics. Reinforced by the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the growing influence of cross-border corporate power, worsening social inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections, the decadence is proving to be a lavish gift to leaders, parties and governments peddling the mantra of “the sovereign people”. Among the strangest and most puzzling features of the post-truth phenomenon is the way it attracts people into voluntary servitude because it raises their hopes and expectations of betterment.2

Lyotard’s postmodern condition represents a break with both the foundational philosophies of the Enlightenment and a crisis of its major secular ideologies – classical liberalism and traditional Marxism. Lyotard uses the notion of metanarrative to designate the way a set of practices and institutions are legitimated. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. The increasing economic inequality created by neoliberalism is responsible for the rise of populism and emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment. We face torrents of gaslighting: false or at least distorted tweets, video clips, and blog posts. We also observe the formation of many echo chambers, groups that reinforce those groups’ chosen visions, selecting what to accept as true, and amplifying each other’s biases.

Rising inequality has become the defining challenge of the century; it has profound implications for the health and resilience of democracies everywhere. Inequality – and the fears of social decline and exclusion it generates – feeds social polarization and the shrinking of a vital moderate center. Inequality is usually associated to an unequal distribution of resources and, therefore, it is related to the gap between the rich and the poor. It also relates to an unequal access to opportunities or benefits from economic activity. In the best-case scenario, this unequal distribution is associated to talent or effort; but, in most cases, it is the result of institutional structures that create social barriers based on: sex, age, ethnicity, social status, among other variables that define individuals’ initial conditions. Inequality can lead to social tensions, discrimination, poverty traps, erosion of social capital, regional imbalances, and an unfair access to justice. It also prevents people from obtaining fair benefits from economic activities.

It is time to reject the metanarrative of neoliberal globalization – postmodern thought and action is part of the process to address social inequality and social injustice. What the mainstream media have really supported is the neoliberal project that has reduced everything to markets, undermined regulation, stagnated wages, introduced risk, precarity and uncertainty, and brought about major economic crises. In all of this the mainstream media has been a significant enabler in the shift from the social democratic advances of the post-war period to the establishment of a corporate-financial oligarchy in which democracy in any real sense is meaningless. In this setting the media have not been the purveyors of truth. This assault on reality is the fraud used to support a specific formation of power. Neoliberalism is no longer a ‘truth’ and must be relegated to the trash heap of history along with classical liberalism and traditional Marxism.

1 Andrew Calcut. (18 Nov 2016) The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left.

2 John Keane. (22 March 2018) Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth

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