This essay was originally published on September 18 2019.
Three years after the Oxford English Dictionary made the term “post-truth” the word of the year, we still live in a time in which, according to the definition, “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As both Nicholas Baer and Maggie Hennefeld pointed out in their discussions on Public Seminar, post-truth is not simply an issue that emerged in the 2010s but a predicament that has its roots in the epistemology of post-modernism and the cultural debates of the 1970s. What is remarkable today is that a conception of the truth as something changeable, historical or dependent upon discursive practices has migrated away from the academic domain and into general public discourse: our current climate is increasingly marked by a deep mistrust in objectivity and even facticity. There is a widespread sense that the eclipse of all reference points (the hallmark of the “post-truth condition”) opens the door to radical political agendas instead of fostering critical thought. In such an ostensible sommeil de la raison, can a connection between knowledge and collective decision-making still be rescued? In this article, I want to review a recent publication by the philosopher of science and social epistemologist Steve Fuller in order to comment more generally on the relationship between truth, science and public opinion and address the current crisis of knowledge politics.
In Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem Press, 2018), Fuller propagates the post-truth teaching that the changeability of all scientific theories is actually revealing of one simple fact: knowledge is dependent on strategies of gaining and keeping power. As I want to show here, the fluidity of the normative frameworks of science and society resulting from such a definition creates a space of opportunities for daring individuals who aspire to seize any chance to climb the ladder that leads to intellectual and political success. Fortune favours the bold: Fuller exploits the post-truth turn in knowledge theory and political theory to set an intellectual program that navigates the crisis of liberal democracy and the mistrust in science.
Fuller derives many of his conceptions from the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, whom he lifts to the status of “the patron saint of post-truth” (p. 2). One of the two main lessons he draws from this reactionary thinker of the early twentieth century is the anti-egalitarian 80/20 law. According to it, 80 percent of the people have always been — and will always be — ruled by 20 percent of the wealthy ‘aristocracy’ in all societies and epochs (p. 71). Fuller considers this conception to be the nemesis of the “ultimate hypocrisy of socialism” (p. 73).
Second, drawing on Pareto’s dubious reading of Machiavelli’s Principe, Fuller derives a distinction between two forms of (elite) rule: conservative lions versus subversive foxes. The two political classes of beasts control or mobilize the masses in different ways: lions defend the rules that maintain the status quo to their advantage, whereas the subversive foxes try to prevail against their adversaries by changing the rules of the power game while playing it. Because the lions benefit from a position of privilege, they always have to maintain distance from the ruled masses. By contrast, foxes are capable of establishing an emotional tie with the masses and can, therefore, instrumentalize and mobilize their passions. Although Fuller celebrates such rule as “radical democracy,” we should not be deceived — in the light of his Pareto-inspired elitist criticism of the elites, the adjective “radical” can be translated as “illiberal,” or simply, “populist.” Fuller portrays the divide between truth and post-truth as analogous to the polarization of today’s cultural field, which features the two camps of elite experts versus populist demagogues. These types were recently embodied in the USA by the “lionine” Hillary Clinton versus the “foxy” Donald Trump, aided by his campaign strategist Steve Bannon (p. 3). The seismic election in 2016 shifted the conventions of political correctness and media information while casting the stability of democratic institutions into doubt; in Fuller’s view, these political events also marked a philosophical turning point. Post-truth emerges as an intellectual compass to navigate the terra incognita we have just entered.
Thus, Fuller views an instance like Brexit as a ‘post-truth’ phenomenon with implications that go beyond politics and economics. In Chapter 1, he broadens the discussion around Brexit to an intellectual event with consequences for the future of science. Despite the sense of uncertainty into which the British decision to ‘leave Europe’ by a 52/48 referendum has plunged both Great Britain and the European Union, Fuller salutes this foxy move as an expression of ‘radical’ democracy and applauds the defeat of the leonine elites’ self-confidence. Here Fuller builds a bridge between politics and epistemology (or the philosophy of science) that exemplifies his method well. Brexit anti-elitism, the vision of “the return to popular sovereignty” against statistics, i.e., experts’ political forecasts, is compared with bottom-up pedagogy struggles in the US which target the scientific establishment. Fuller is especially supportive of the teaching of intelligent design (“a scientifically updated version of creationism”) against scientists’ Darwinian consensus; he discredits scientists as clerks who impose their creed in a manner akin to the top-down indoctrination of Catholicism. Just as the Reformation once broke the Church’s monopoly of truth, Fuller argues that the supporters of intelligent design might be able to discard the new scientific ‘dogmas.’
The connection of anti-Europeanism with religiously driven anti-Darwinism and Church history is certainly surprising, to the point that one would dismiss it as groundless sophistry if one had not been cautioned in advance that the lack of ground is precisely what marks our “post-truth condition.” And yet, analogies still have implications, despite whatever Fuller might wish; because scientists would hardly win a referendum over Darwinism in the US, does this mean one could propose a biology Brexit? Fuller introduces populist reason into the realm of science. But how can a referendum decide on scientific issues? Or, to put the question in more general terms, has power ever been able to dispel any scientific controversies convincingly? Fuller’s allusion to the ‘legitimate’ reaction of the Inquisition to Galileo’s “prevarication” (p. 140) points to a concrete historical case. Does he mean to free us from another prejudice of science, the Earth’s motion?
Fuller’s alternative model of knowledge is a facile conception of knowledge as — of all things — shopping. He presents the problematic as a matter of “science customization” (Chap. 5). In the free market of ideas, theories are ‘products’ to be sold, while citizens become “consumers of science” (p. 112). The commodification of knowledge implies that we do not expect scientists to tell us the truth but only to advertise the new epistemic product to be allocated. Fuller has internet shopping in mind, rather than shopping in a mall, as the most representative place of economic and knowledge transactions. Accordingly, he celebrates the new media that enables consumers’ democratic access to information and which is destined to demolish the unity of science… just as the Gutenberg printing-press revolution constituted the premise for the Protestant revolt against Catholicism. Wikipedia becomes a “democratic cure” to the “elitist disease” (pp. 125 ff.). Fuller dismisses — as a form of “techno-illiteracy” — any skepticism about the democratic promises of Silicon Valley and the expectation that “computer programmers be held externally accountable for their claims” about the free and democratic access to information. (p. 113)
Fuller, the techno-literate (post-truth expert?), has no doubts or concerns about the effective freedom of information disseminated and accessed via the internet, in spite of the commercial and monopolist policies of Google, Facebook and the like corporations and their political entanglements. If the market is left alone it will improve by its own dynamics. Fuller revives this ideological trope from the much-admired Austrian school of economics and Friedrich Hayek, whom he refers to in order to argue that there is no absolute truth in science independent of epistemic transactions just as there is no absolute price independent of economic transactions. It is remarkable that, despite the postulated fluidity of knowledge and society, he maintains a series of reactionary myths, which he posits as absolute although they are in contrast with post-truth philosophy: first, the eternity of elite power in accordance with Pareto, and, second, the laws of the market according to the neoliberal creed.
Free market ideology, however, does not function without its most blatant contradictions also appearing, and this is why Fuller affirms the necessity to strengthen it through a form of “liberal interventionism.” The same political measures used to expand the market should be enforced in academia. At once, he writes in favor of “the military-industrial will to knowledge” which he presents as the only force that can secure the “universalism” hindered by the idle particularism of “academic freedom” (Chap. 4). The historical examples he chooses are derived from militarized Prussia and the Second Reich. The Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, the scientific society that preceded today’s Max Planck Society, instantiated the positive connection between politics, science, war, and industry in dramatic years of world history. Fuller extolls chemist Fritz Haber’s “interdisciplinary genius” (p. 94) and identifies him as a model for those who wish to exploit institutional and political circumstances. The support Haber received from the German military-industrial complex made his discovery of the ammonia synthesis process possible, which later enabled the twentieth-century agricultural revolution (pp. 92-93). Fuller only hints at the flip side of the story — the creation of chemical weapons — and never mentions Haber’s defense of the ‘gentle death’ perpetrated through gas weapons during WWI. The same gases were later used in Nazi concentration camps. Were these only undesired side-effects that scientific progress encountered along its triumphant march, as Fuller implies, or do they illuminate the problems produced by unbridled military-industrial uses of science? What sort of universalism is it? Fuller certainly misses the occasion for a non-reductive reflection on the entanglements of science, politics, and economy.
His omissions, allusions, and half-truths become even more worrisome if one considers the disturbing implication of the connection of post-truth to illiberal and anti-social movements of the Thirties. Why does Fuller, on the very first page of his book, signal that Pareto, “the patron saint of post-truth,” was “an inspiration to Benito Mussolini”? He adds that Pareto was widely regarded in his time as the “Marx of the Master Class” in Italy and in the USA. The Harvard ‘Pareto Circle’, gathered around biochemist Lawrence Handerson in the 1930s, disseminated elitist ideas into the history and philosophy of science via Harvard president James Conant and his pupil, Thomas Kuhn — the famous historian and philosopher of science. The fact that Conant “was among the last to support the war against Nazis but among the first to propose the use of the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan — Fuller claims — reveals someone who had learned his Pareto lesson well” (p. 4). Is he just pointing out the existence of sympathies towards Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Germany among the American elites of the Thirties? If such remarks were meant to signal the political risks, and not only the opportunities, of the present post-truth state of affairs, we would be grateful for his analysis. As a matter of fact, the political turmoil of the interwar period, the post-’29 crisis and the fragility of many parliamentary systems was a recognizably favorable terrain for political adventurers whose return we should not wish to see. If we can still learn something from the short-lived Weimar Republic, it is precisely the danger posed by extreme political instability that opens doors to leaders who capitalize on collective hatred and a fear of uncertainty to infringe on the most basic rules of humanity and cohabitation. Intellectuals are nothing but the accomplices of this process unless they use their critical function to remind others of these lessons from history, rather than exploiting them for their petty agendas.
The book’s concluding section revives Carl Schmitt’s idea that power belongs to the one who takes decisions in a state of exception. Fuller calls it “precipitatory governance” (p. 174). It refers to a politics which always confronts the worst possible scenario in order to derive the best from harm. As an example, Fuller mentions the Fascist ‘farsightedness’ of WWII Germany and Japan, which shows that “one might even lose the war yet win the peace” (p. 169). It is ridiculous to argue for the unnoticed victory of Germany and Japan, as the economic growth of both countries during the Cold War should be explained in the context of the competition between opposing political and economic blocs and the new world order that emerged out of the war. But the convenience of the post-truth condition ensures Fuller does not need to capture anything more than a soundbite. The slogan of precipitatory governance even leads him to delve into futuristic scenarios from the past about the relative benefits for the US in case of a limited nuclear war, with particular reference to Cold War analyst Herman Kahn, who dared to “think the unthinkable.”
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary of G.W. Bush’s administration who launched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (2001 and 2003) in the name of preventive defense, is one example of a militarist who provides a model for post-truth action. “In other words — Fuller writes (p. 174) — we [we?] want a society that is not so dependent on the most likely scenarios — including the most likely negative ones — that one could not cope in the event of an improbable, very negative scenario. The knowability of Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ is clearly a guiding assumption here.” Fuller suggests an analogy between recent military interventions that took place outside the UN’s international framework and the Fascist aggressions of the 1920s and 1930s, which questioned the legitimacy of international diplomacy within the League of Nations and precipitated the events paving the way to WWII. The historical echo of the dangers implied by a militarist politics that throws society into a permanent Ausnahmezustand, Schmitt’s ‘state of exception,’ resounds in the background of Fuller’s breezy account. Inevitably, the ‘unknown unknowns’ of Rumsfeld are the ‘well-known consequences’ of imperialism, colonialism, and militarism.
The book is dedicated to the Greek historian Thucydides, who described the cynicism of power and the way rhetoric can serve to legitimize violence in the context of the Peloponnesian wars that saw the rise and fall of Athens. Fuller celebrates him as the “purveyor of ‘fake news’” but he only tells half the story. Thucydides, it is true, illustrated the hypocrisy of rhetoric in the service of politics and the cruel logic of power. However, the acme of the Athenians’ Hellenic dominion, in the name of which the small island of Melos was crushed for its refusal to remain under Athens’ protection, also marked a turning point in the political parable as related by Thucydides. It revealed an excess of self-confidence, that is, the hubris that led the Athenians to ill-considered military actions (the failed invasion of Sicily), the loss of their hegemony and their eventual defeat. If, as Fuller assumes, the end justifies the means (cf. pp. 81-82 and p. 136), his half-truth philosophy should be judged by its ideological function.
Post-truth ideology constitutes a political danger owing to its function as a vehicle of populism in present-day circumstances. At no point does Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game step back from its paradoxical partisanship and provocation in order to address the more compelling historical development behind these contemporary slogans, beginning with the breakdown of the Westphalian order and the catastrophic environmental problems of our era. We fail to pay attention to this at our peril. How can we restore belief in democratic consensus and debate to the extent that we can address newfound global problems? And how can we genuinely do this as long as the elitist structures of society remain unchallenged, which reduces the citizenry to a subjected and enraged mass that can be manipulated? The resurgent race- and nation-based ideologies, so ghostly in their evocation of the Thirties, are a helplessly insufficient solution to these very pressing developments. If we only focus on the outrage that anti-political politicians and anti-intellectual intellectuals cultivate around themselves, in their different but interlinked fields, we will remain trapped within the terms of the framework they have set and which benefits them. Present circumstances, the urgency of reality, force us to acknowledge that facts and truth matter, as do science and responsibility. They are not only private tools for individual prevarication, but have public relevance, because they relate to democracy as a common good and constitute the ground for collective freedom. At no point in Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game can the reader be enlightened on the most pressing questions of today. In fact, the red thread of Fuller’s labyrinth — the quintessence of post-truth — is the constant refusal to face reality and take responsibility; but fleeing from problems will never lead to their solution.
Pietro Daniel Omodeo is a Professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice where he leads a research group on the political epistemology of cosmology.