On the Relationship Between Truth and Power

Michel Foucault observed: “we are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (Foucault, 2003:93). Foucault argued that knowledge and power are intimately bound up. So much so, that that he coined the term “power/knowledge” to point out that one is not separate from the other. Every exercise of power depends on a scaffold of knowledge that supports it. For Foucault, the idea of justice … has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power for control. 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. There is truly no universal truth at all, only systems of power creating a regime of truth.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a philosopher and social critic, emphasized the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, is more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity. Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it. The economic elite do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. In the ‘war on truth’ political elites spread conspiracies and ‘flood the zone’ with versions of events.

Jean-François Lyotard notes: Knowledge has become an irreplaceable commodity in the production process and has a definite role in the global dispute for power. 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. 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.

Billionaires do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. Hedge fund billionaire Bob Mercer and his family spent millions in GAI (Government Accountability Institute), Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 campaign to get Trump elected. Hillary Clinton did propose a tax on high-frequency trading of securities, which is reportedly a favorite of Mercer’s Renaissance Technologies. The Mercer Family Foundation gave nearly $3.6 million to Citizens United between 2012 and 2014, which sued for access to Clinton Foundation-related emails and whose president David Bossie also got a senior job on the Trump campaign. Cambridge Analytica was a data mining and data analysis company that obtained the data of 50 million Facebook users, constructed 30 million personality profiles, and sold the data to US politicians seeking election to influence voters, without the users’ consent. Mercer’s investments helped Trump win the 2016 election.

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 fueled 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.

Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told. Trump sabotages democracy by creating his own swamp where one cannot tell truth from fiction, where rational debate evaporates as he diverts, distracts, and deflects accountability. The purpose of such activities is to turn the country into warring tribes by creating unyielding one-sidedness and enemies.

The institutions of ‘civil society’ or the structures and organization of everyday life have the ability to control the social progress achieved in the past by various minorities, a buffer against potentially turning back the clock. In 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mifepristone as a method of abortion. Taken along with misoprostol, the two-drug combination is known as medication abortion or the “abortion pill.” New research from the Guttmacher Institute shows that 20 years after its introduction, medication abortion accounted for more than half of all abortions in the United States. The composition of US Supreme Court will determine which variants of behaviors and ways of thinking that are acceptable to the Religious Right, in the process defining social truth.  Judges with conservative social views have the potential to roll back past decisions that will affect social changes such as defunding reproductive rights and support for gay marriage – we are living in a post-truth society.

Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. The truth is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent that it undermines that very wealth production it relied on. Disinformation often layers true information with false – an accurate fact set in misleading context; a real photograph purposely mislabeled. The key is not to determine the truth of a specific post or tweet, but to understand how it fits into a larger disinformation campaign. Effective disinformation campaigns involve diverse participants; they might even include a majority of ‘unwitting agents’ who are unaware of their role, but who amplify and embellish messages that polarize communities and sow doubt about science, mainstream journalism and Western governments.

Donald Trump knows how to use emotional panic to shut down the rational thinking part of our brains. In other words, when we are consumed by fear, we stop thinking. Now 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. A populace that stops thinking for itself is a populace that is easily led, easily manipulated and easily controlled. Trump ran as a populist; but governed as a plutocrat. Conservative populists target those with a monopoly on representation (journalists, scholars, established political parties) rather than those with a monopoly on production.

According to Foucault ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are created by those in power. What we take to be true is the dominant worldview that we have been provided with: it is received wisdom, not truth. Foucault rejected the idea that society was progressing. The world is not getting better or getting closer to truth, it is just moving through different worldviews. Foucault adds that the essential political problem for us, today, is trying to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” (where truth is modeled on the form of scientific discourse), in order to constitute a new ‘politics of truth’: “The real political task in a society is to criticize the workings of institutions that ‘appear’ to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

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