“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act”
— George Orwell, 1949
Of the many things which the UK’s departure from the European Union has revealed, perhaps one of the most remarkable is the post-truth political culture which it has legitimized. The UK’s current administration, led by Boris Johnson, is like none which have went before in the country. Largely, this stems from their remarkable lack of commitment to the truth and blatant disregard for consistency or transparency in their decision-making. Be it the Prime Minister’s call for a general election just weeks after ‘categorically’ ruling it out, the paradoxical remarks which spearheaded his leadership campaign or his unlawful suspension of Parliament, Johnson has constructed a government that is ruthlessly dishonest and deceptive to its very core.
But what does this notion of post-truth politics really mean? How has it become so inherent within the very nature of modern day politics and to what degree has it seeped its way in every day society? Looking back to the philosophical teaching of Michel Foucault, one of the 20th century’s great thinkers on power and truth, this article digs a little deeper into the topic, debating how we can maintain sanity in a world seemingly beyond truth and accountability. Primarily, it is important to consider how UK politics has arrived at this current epoch of post-truth.
Post-truth and UK politics
It is fair to say that it wasn’t always like this in Westminster. While not ignoring the ruthlessness of Margaret Thatcher, it was at least clear in regards to the intentions of her conservative government. She was, of course, a Hayekian, who primarily fought for the interests of the bourgeoisie. Her ideology was embedded into each and every decision, with her stand offs against coal miners and hunger strikers as two of many examples, meaning there was little ambiguity during her premiership. A similar synopsis could be given to Tony Blair, who largely governed as he had presented himself in opposition. While the build up to the Iraq War will be remembered as a cauldron of fake news and lies, which most certainly played its part in shaping the crisis of trust we witness in today, it was, predominantly, localized in one policy area. It was clearly in pursuit of a set objective; of which we were all well aware.
David Cameron’s time in office is, perhaps, where the rot was really seen to set in. While he started out promoting himself as a kind and caring environmentalist, he ended up annihilating the country’s public services and did little to seriously tackle the rising effects of climate change. Ultimately, he was at once everything and, very soon after, nothing. Perhaps, this is why the term Cameronism is yet to receive much definition. Following his convenient resignation the morning after the Brexit vote, Theresa May campaigned her way to become Conservative leader and set out to deliver a strong and stable UK, free from the supposed shackles of the EU.
In reality, her government did little to turn the tide. Admittedly, every decision that was made came under the shadow of Brexit. This proceeded to make every societal problem immeasurably more challenging to manage. Ultimately, May was faced with an impossible task. Concerns and the potential implications of a post-Brexit Britain were swept under the carpet and denied for as long as possible, in the singular hope that a deal could be passed through parliament. As we know, such a scenario never arose. But despite her administration’s massive flaws, there was at least the reassurance that we knew what she was trying to do. At the same time, we also knew she was inherently doomed.
Johnson is several steps beyond that, however. He is completely off the scale. His government is like the proverbial bull in a China shop. Their rationalized narratives of ‘do or die Brexit’, ‘the people versus parliament’ and the ‘surrender bill’ are deeply problematic, with many commentators showing concern at their potential to incite violence. Added to this, there remains great volatility in their discourse, with many statements contradicting previously clarifications. Ultimately, the last few months have shown us how the current government is post-truth in its purest, most uninhibited and unadulterated form. Their decisions have been characterized by a relativist standpoint that devalues the truth claims of their political opposition and mainstream media.
All ‘truths’ are merely expressions of ulterior interests, in the eyes of Johnson. This devaluation of truth is held to undermine the democratic public sphere. It is so obvious, however, that we have quickly become cognizant of the government’s mistreatment of truth. In turn, we have been conditioned to give up on the idea that Johnson could ever tell the truth. Accordingly, the basic notion of any objective truth in the manner government is conducted is lost; a process which helps the powerful more than anyone else. If there is no empirical basis to assess government behaviour, it cannot be held to account.
While trust levels between politicians and society were already low prior to Brexit, this era of incessant lying and unaccountability will leave them almost entirely corroded. But what does this era of post-truth politics really tell us about the exercise of government power in contemporary times? Is this an entirely new scenario or simply a reincarnation of previously exercised arrangements? By considering philosophical interpretations of the relationship between power, knowledge and truth, perhaps such questions can be answered.
Translating the teachings of Foucault
French philosopher Michel Foucault is regarded as one of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century. In particular, his evaluations of the changing nature of power overtime have received significant attention. Responding to assertions that power is solely a constraining force exercised by sovereign arrangements, Foucault’s argued that power must also be understood as a productive force which exists within all social relations. The creation of truth, Foucault suggested, is an example of this. In this sense, truth is not above or beyond power. Rather, it is inextricably linked to and reliant upon power.
There cannot be any body of true knowledge which is not supported by powerful arrangements, nor sources of power which aren’t in some way built upon particular truths. Power legitimizes what we understand as the truth as a way of serving particular interest, suppressing alternative interpretations in the process. In turn, specific truths shape social behaviour, the development of societal norms and even our ideological understandings of what is right, wrong, good or bad. So, while Foucault did not directly discuss the notion of a time where society could be beyond truth, his work emphasised how the development of truth is inherently reliant upon power. Truth is constructed to serve the interests of the powerful, meaning what is authenticated as true knowledge at one point in time may be understood very differently at other times. Foucault’s analysis of the manner in which discourses on homosexuality, disciplinary power and sanity have changed overtime are testament to this.
Ultimately, Foucault’s account of the relationship between truth and democracy suggests that the post-truth era which we inhabit is both less novel and less dramatic than it might appear. This is why we must not only be wary about truth denialism as a threat to democracy but also attentive to the way we venture to resist it. As the academic Sergei Prozorov has discussed, “we can never overcome contemporary post-truth cynicism and relativism by restoring the authority of truth, since this authority is made possible by the very same constellation that keeps undermining it. While post-truth politics denies the existence of truth, a hypothetical truth politics would deny its contingency.”
Therefore, there is a distinct advantage of following the work of Foucault when debating the topic of post-truth. Namely, that it is possible to affirm both paradoxical perspectives at once: “there exist discourses of truth that can always be questioned not as to their being or to their veracity, but as to their necessity.” It is only when truths are supported by powerful relations and recognized as existent that they can be contested as non-necessary. Thus, allowing other truths to take their place in a similarly contingent manner.
Maintaining sanity in a post-truth world
To conclude, the lesson of Foucault’s political history is that truth is neither said in vain nor uttered once and for all. This is an important addition to contemporary discussions on post-truth politics. It shows us that we do not necessarily find ourselves in a new political phenomenon. The role of truth in society will always be dependent upon power, and vise-versa, meaning that alternative arrangements will continuously arise and reconfigure themselves. While it is a worrying thought that the highest level of decision-making in the UK appears to no longer be held accountable to truth, this should not discourage us from calling out or challenging lies and corruption. As Foucault demonstrates, we should neither dispense with truth nor hide behind its supposed authority. We must remain cognizant of post-truth politics, therefore, and consider what its use is revealing about the future intentions of a government.