After the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, there was plenty to freak out about: the human cost of this shocking far-right resurgence, for example. But for those exemplary members of our species, broadsheet columnists, the biggest problem wasn’t looming economic collapse or environmental disaster or war or disease; it was the public’s apparent loss of interest in the truth. Farage and Johnson, Trump and Bannon had bullshitted their way to victory by telling their supporters just whatever it was that they wanted to hear—and no exposé of their myriad dishonesties had seemed able to do anything to stop them.
The many articles written on post-truth are concerned to diagnose its causes, yet no one is interested in what positive benefits this condition might accrue.
What we were witnessing, so the broadsheet narrative went, was the birth of a terrifying new world of “post-truth politics.” Social media echo chambers and click-driven “fake news” had led to the public—on both the left and the right, if not the “sensible” center—to favor appealing lies over the grainy, hard-bollocked “reality” journalists are (or so they tell themselves) traditionally concerned to report on.
All of which is to say: thus far, post-truth has been understood as an infection within our discourse, a virus that needs to be eliminated. The many articles (and now books) written on post-truth are concerned to diagnose its causes, to propose potential cures. Yet no one is interested in what positive benefits this condition might accrue. They should be.
Imagine, without the truth to worry about it, what we could achieve. Imagine if it wasn’t really “true” that your landlord owned your flat, and you could stay indefinitely without paying rent. Imagine if it wasn’t “true” that your boss was paying you to fulfil any particular duties at work, and you could spend your time there playfully doing whatever. Imagine if the laws of physics didn’t bind you, and you could simply flap your arms and fly to the stars.
This point is made eloquently by Herbert Marcuse in his magnum opus Eros and Civilization, still probably the greatest-ever attempt to fuse Marx and Freud in the interests of establishing a polymorphously perverse utopia in which work and sex have no hard boundary dividing them.
For Marcuse, “reality” is constructed by means of the Freudian reality principle, through which the infant psyche learns to delay gratification in response to the fact of scarcity. This process forges the ego from a portion of the id, and as the infant develops it leads in turn to the formation of the superego, in the first instance through the child’s dependence on its parents. Over time, the superego absorbs “a number of societal and cultural influences,” causing it to “coagulate” into “the representative of established morality.” The superego ends up enforcing the demands of what Marcuse calls the “performance principle,” which is his term for the “prevailing historical form” of the reality principle. In short: the superego, one’s “conscience,” acts to enforce prevailing social norms.
Of course, this process often goes awry—people are maladapted in all sorts of ways. (Indeed if they weren’t, Freudian psychoanalysis would never have been developed.) But even if it comes off perfectly, there are at least two things that might be wrong about the individuals it produces. Firstly, the society whose norms these individuals are inheriting could be straightforwardly bad—perfectly adapted individuals might end up thinking it’s OK to discriminate against members of certain ethnic minority groups, for example. The second possibility is that the norms these individuals are inheriting could have been fine for some old mode of life, but end up being delegitimized by historical developments. Sound familiar?
As Marcuse notes, the demands of the superego end up being felt as “unconscious automatic reactions”—it thus serves to enforce “not only the demands of reality but also those of a past reality,” delaying “real development” in society by “den[ying] potentialities in the name of the past.”
Today, it seems, one version of the performance principle is gradually dissolving: the post-2008 financial crisis, and all sorts of developments associated with the birth of the Internet and the rise of social media, are transforming our world and its norms. Today’s partisans of truth, perhaps, are people whose superegos were effectively adapted to the old order, and they now desperately seek to cling to it, regardless of how bad, in all sorts of ways, that old order might have been. This could also explain why these people are so often the same ones who get weird about “Trump-Russia links”—the idea of Russia as some utterly hostile “evil empire” having informed their understanding of international politics growing up, they are completing their infantile regression by deferring to it once again now.
The Marcusean reaction, however, would be to break out of our old, repressive performance principle wholesale—to attempt to establish something new and liberating in its place. Crucial to this process is what Marcuse calls phantasy: in short, imaginative play. Through phantasy, we are able to posit a world free from scarcity and thus repression, in which the necessary character of what we call “reality” never needed to take hold. Phantasy is of course disparaged by the partisans of reality as idle, childish daydreaming, but in a revolutionary, utopian mode it is able to “insist that it must and can become real, that behind the illusion lies knowledge.” In particular, Marcuse claims, phantasy accomplishes this when made concrete in art; it can also be made real through revolutionary political movements.
Were we to accept Marcuse’s analysis, it would not be hard to see how “post-truth politics” might turn out to be liberating. Of course there are dangers associated with it too—if the truth is up for grabs, then right-wing demagogues might be the ones who steal it. But no one’s going to be able to stop them from doing this by scolding the masses for not being pedantic enough. Rather, we will manage it (if we manage it) by dreaming—in a robust way that can have concrete, real-world effects—of a better world.
In the UK at least, there is good evidence that the Corbyn movement is beginning to pull this trick off. When June’s general election was called, it was as good as an established fact that Labour would be wiped out; they were polling some twenty points behind the Tories at the time. If Corbyn’s supporters had simply accepted what the “experts’” responsible for opinion polls were telling them, they would have given up, and Labour’s vote really would have collapsed. But instead, a gathering momentum of grassroots Corbyn supporters refused to accept the verdict of the polls as truth, and in almost deliberate ignorance of them built an unprecedented surge in support.
Now, with Labour’s surprisingly strong result having deprived the Tories of a majority, leftists in the UK, the majority of whom are young people, are daring to dream of ways in which austerity capitalism, which has curtailed their development for all or most of their adult lives, might be dismantled, and on its ruins built something worthwhile. These dreams have a slogan, the cry “Jeremy Corbyn is the Prime Minister!”—a deliberate insistence that things are not simply as we have been told they are, and that what we say is the case matters more than what our institutions endorse as true right now. Neoliberal ideology need hold no sway over us, and nor should the decisions of the functionaries it places in power.
This insistence on phantasy has real effects: Corbyn has spent much of the summer looking more Prime Ministerial than the Prime Minister.
And this insistence has had real effects: Corbyn has already spent much of the summer looking more Prime Ministerial than the “official” Prime Minister, Theresa May, whose minority government surely cannot maintain the fiction of governing for long. Keep pushing, the principle goes, and within our grasp will be rent controls, rail nationalization, and the elimination of student debt— just a slight change in the breeze, and we will have our chance to secure a country that is liveable.
After that, what else might we manage to remake? The Labour party itself is sadly torn between a leadership that has resigned itself to the inevitability of Brexit, and an opposing faction holding desperately to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the common market.
Is it possible to dream of a genuinely European—even global—future beyond gray bureaucracy and capitalist hegemony?
We are told, repeatedly, that humanity will be doomed by rising temperatures, that we will one day step outside to be boiled alive in our skins. Is it possible to dismantle the vested interests that compel those in power to keep poisoning the planet more and more each day?
They tell us that automation is going to eliminate our jobs, and with that consign billions of human beings to obsolescence. Is it possible to harness technology to genuinely human purposes, to transform our newfound idleness into play and with that art, to break constantly through every dead set of assumed conditions?
What matters now is the limits of our imagination. The old truth told us austerity was inevitable, but now it is in crisis, and phantasy is winning.