How Do You Like The End of the Enlightenment Now?

Hoist, Own, Petard.

In his seminal essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault inaugurated– unwittingly, perhaps– a link between radical politics and the critique of truth.  Following Nietzsche, for whom truth is always relative to a perspective (the spider’s truth is not the human being’s truth, the master’s truth is not that of the slave), Foucault argued that what passes as true at any given moment is a function of the exclusion of other possibilities, not correspondence between statement and state of affairs.  “Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare, humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.  The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power … The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them.”(p. 151)  There is no doubt that Nietzsche has identified a real historical tendency, and that this tendency calls into question any facile identification of “that which happens”  with “Progress,”  and “Progress” with “Truth.”

The linkage between the train of historical events, progress, and truth was the product of the Enlightenment critique of superstition and prejudice.  As a philosophy of history, it culminates in the work of Hegel.  If we read Marx as a materialist critic of Hegel who sought to make his dialectical understanding consistent with the actual events of history (as opposed to the stylized set-pieces of Hegel’s Phenomenology and Philosophy of History) we can see his work as a development, rather than a repudiation, of the principle that the truth is opposed to the partial, the prejudicial, the perspectival, and that it will (at least help to) set us free. Indeed, because Marx works within this framework (as opposed to a proto-Nietzschean genealogy) that  radical critics and activists were enjoined to reject his work as part of the problem by post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers who dominated critical thought from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.

That period taught that truth was the enemy of freedom, that knowledge was constituted by power for the sole end of disciplining the masses and ensuring compliant behaviour; that scientific objectivity was in reality a normalizing gaze directed against the outsider (the “Other”), and that freedom, to the extent that the term should be used, was to be found in fragments, in momentary bursts of transgression.

No doubt, as a criticism of positivism (the belief that science was the only legitimate means of understanding the world and that only that which can be quantified and measured is true), bureaucratic and administrative power, and techno-science in the service of money and imperialism these arguments opened up a new terrain of insight into the epistemic structure of oppression.  Nevertheless,  many suspected, and rightly, that an ironic fate lay in store for a politics that sought to break the connection between freedom and truth. (See my Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference).   For if all knowledge is really a power/knowledge complex, then it  follows that critical thought is just another form of power (as indeed Nietzsche says it is) and therefore not legitimate on the grounds that it brings hidden realities to light.  If the problem is objective truth, i.e., if truths are made objective by power but are not objective in themselves, then it follows that opposition movements not only do not have truth on their side, they should not want truth on their side, because truth is the ally of disciplinary power.

We are now reaping the ironic effects of this critique of truth.  While I agree with little else that Jodi Dean has to say about political strategy, she is surely correct in this insight, drawn even before the advent of The Trump Show:  “the prominence of politically active Christian fundamentalists, Fox News, and the orchestrations of Bush advisor Karl Rove all demonstrate the triumph of postmodernism.  These guys take social construction– packaging, marketing, and representation– absolutely seriously.  They put it to work.”(Democracy and Other Neo-Liberal Fantasies, p. 7).  Trump’s universe of ‘alternative facts”  and “fake news” adds the crucial dimensions of playfulness and theatre to the thesis of the social construction of truth and reality.  What Trump et.al., understand, which the postmodern left never fully appreciated, is that if power and knowledge coincide, then those with power can use it to de-legitimate opposition forces, who find their claims:  about poverty, or racism, or climate change– dismissed as the self-interested product of contemptuous elitist expert opinion.  If objective truth is always the product power, and power itself seizes this argument to attack its opponents, what grounds are left for a response?

The Truth Shall Still (Help) Set Us Free

Donald Trump is the very apotheosis of postmodern values.  He transgresses the norms of the American Presidency, he is playful and ironic, he mocks, jokes and is sarcastic; he collapses the distinctions between public and private, paints scientific consensus as an elite formation and its critics as bold (transgressive?) outsiders.  He is openly contemptuous of the ‘establishment’ horrified by his refusal to play by the rules.  At the same, time he is an old school bigot and xenophobe, an opponent of everything the postmodern left stood for:  toleration, the free proliferation of differences, an experimental approach to life, playful rejection of fixed identities and binary oppositions.  That Trump is the logically consistent outcome of the politics implied by the critique of objective truth tells us that the problem was not truth, but power.  That is, the argument that  power and knowledge always formed a complex, that speaking truth depended upon the power to exclude other possibilities that could equally well be true if they had power on their side, was politically naive.  It failed to see how this argument could (and now is)  used to undercut the authority of claims about how reality is oppressive, on a dangerous environmental arc, undemocratic, and so on.

The Enlightenment conception of truth was always broader than natural science and more open to difference than its critics thought. (See my Re-Thinking Enlightenment Universalism in the Age of Right Wing Atavism).  Its essential political claim was that one could discern a trajectory in history towards making political power accountable to demonstrable facts.  Does the king really rule by the grace of god?  Prove it.  Is European civilization superiour to other civilizations?  Prove it.  The truth shall set us free not because it is the ally of power, but rather because it demands that power be made accountable to something that is not just another power, but is impartial between all political possibilities:  the facts of the matter.  The hope was to discover means of peaceful social transformation, or to provide absolute legitimacy for revolution when those in power would not yield to the demonstrated facts (that their regimes were corrupt and collapsing).

We must avoid a naive realism or kowtow to natural science as omni-explanatory, especially as regards what is ethically and politically true.  The goals of history are not to be discovered by reducing action to behaviour and behaviour to our genetic code.  If we want to understand human history we need to understand human history, not Bonobo hordes.  At the same time, there are material foundations to truth claims in history that political struggles must appeal to for their justification.  These facts concern the structures of deprivation that people have faced and face:  in their struggles is the proof that deprivation is real and harmful.  The values worth fighting for are found in the facts of life, but the facts of human life are not abstractly natural, but also social, cultural, and political.

History records the successes of this general understanding of the linkage between political struggle, justice, and demonstrated truth about the harms of deprivation.  Civil, political, and social rights, including the rights of sexual, gendered, racial, and ethnic minorities; the democratization of politics and social life, unions, increasing material equality, anti-imperialism, de-colonization, environmental legislation…  Every one of these victories turned on empirical-historical-political proofs that a given group of people was really suffering; that a given chemical really was destroying animal or human life; that an economic reform that shifted money from profits to public investment really did alleviate poverty; that blacks and women really could do anything white men could do; that the practices of a given society were in logical conflict with its principles…  In comparison, what have been the achievements of the postmodern left?

The response that their criticisms have been taken over and twisted by the right wing is no defense.  Return to the quotation from Foucault above.  Taking things over and twisting them is just what the powerful do.  Trump is unassailable to his supporters just because they do not make the comparison between what he says and what is demonstrably the case in material reality.  They fail to discipline their thoughts against reality.  And:  they love the show.

Here is a final bit of demonstrable historical reality:  the subaltern have fared better when they did not play games but demanded that the powerful justify their wealth and authority against the facts of the matter.  When combined with organized mass movement, disciplined behind a democratically decided program, focused on long-term structural changes rather than spectacle and media attention, they have won.  The achievements of democratic forces, of feminism, the civil rights movement, the union movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement, First Nations’ movements, the disabled rights movement and global anti-colonial struggles from the American Revolution onward are the facts that prove my point.

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