Which Philosophy Can Best Explain 2016?
And maybe give us some hope for the future.
But why has 2016 been so bad? And how can we take steps to ensure that 2017 might even be the slightest bit better? One of the most interesting things about 2016's badness is that it seems to have left us in a position where we basically understand nothing at all any more: the liberal political consensus, which viewed both Brexit and President Trump as impossibilities, has been left utterly fragmented, leading to the widespread belief that we have now entered some dark age of "post-truth" politics.
What can help us resolve this crisis of truth and understanding? Well, how about a group of people who have specifically dedicated their lives to studying the nature of truth and understanding? That's right: I'm talking about philosophers – we're not all precariously-employed losers who are forced to panhandle for freelance commissions their colleagues both hate and pity them for accepting; some of us might have something useful to say.
Problem is, there have been, like, 2,500 years of philosophy, or whatever. And in this period there have been a lot of ideas people have come up with that have been misguided, useless or bad. So which philosophies might be best to look at when trying to understand 2016? Here are some suggestions in that most philosophical of all formats, the listicle.
"Post-truth" might be 2016's word of the year, but the fear that we are living through the inauguration of some sort of terrible "post-truth" era is far from a new one. In particular, accusations of having abandoned any notion of objective truth were regularly levelled, towards the tail end of the 20th century, at "postmodern" philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty.
The difference between then and now, of course, was that these philosophers were usually left-leaning, and the fear was that they had abandoned "truth" for trendy and Marxist rather than bigoted and racist reasons. In place of truth they proposed a sort of all-consuming "cultural relativism", threatening the validity of – among other things – the claims of natural science.
In actual fact, however, most postmodernists did not want to abandon the notion of truth per se. Their position derived from the fairly simple observation that what we consider to be "true" now has by no means been considered true since time began – and nor will it necessarily continue to be considered true forever.
Truth, then, is not eternal and absolute. It depends on general agreement within a specific social context: something that can be called into question, become fragmented and be pulled apart. This, in fact, is pretty much what we're seeing with the phenomenon that has been labelled "post-truth politics" today: an old consensus has been eroded, and a new one is gradually being born.
The real danger for liberals comes if they stick too stubbornly to their old ideas as if they were eternal absolutes. That way, they'll never be able to define the terms of the truth now coming into existence – and as we all know this truth is, at present, looking like it's going to be a very grim one indeed.
But why might the liberal consensus be fragmenting? It seems pretty obvious that the current political crisis is intertwined with the ongoing effects of the post-2008 financial crisis. In whatever ways and to whatever degree, voters for Trump and Brexit have become disenfranchised from a political and economic system that once promised them prosperity but now seems to be unable to do so.
In short, what they are experiencing is something that Marx, in his early writings, characterised as "alienation". It is a trope of the German Idealist and Romantic tradition which Marx emerged from that the world ought, ideally, to constitute a "home" for us: exactly like a (happy) family home that provides us with the warmth and apple pie and throw-pillows we need in order to be able to freely develop an identity for ourselves.
Alienation, basically, is the state in which the world fails to function as a home in this way: that is, where the world has become something coercive, draining of our energies and resources, and unable to provide our lives with meaning. This, of course, is the condition of the worker under capitalism, as Marx describes it in his writings. And it is precisely these alienated workers that, according to Marx, will eventually obtain class-consciousness and realise that it is both in their interests and within their powers to overthrow the capitalist system.
However, this is not quite what we are seeing at the moment. The Brexit and Trump votes both constituted great "No"s to existence, but in the Hegelian parlance that Marx might use here, these were merely "indeterminate" negations. They were inchoate eruptions of anger that had no real, obtainable goals associated with them: Leave voters are already getting ready to backlash against May when "hard Brexit" turns out not to deliver the economic prosperity they assumed their victory would secure.
Which is perhaps why these anti-establishment movements have been so readily hijacked by racists and fascists who, of course, now have great plans afoot to accelerate capitalism's monstrosities still further.
But perhaps – in the context of the US presidential election, at least – how the voters felt really had nothing to do with it after all. Increasingly gaining traction is the theory that Trump won as the result of tampering on behalf of his mate Vladimir Putin, whose army of hackers were busy during the election cycle obtaining and leaking information unfavourable to Hillary Clinton, and possibly also messing with electronic voting machines. President Obama has even ordered the CIA to conduct a full review into Russian involvement in the election, although weirdly for someone who apparently believes it is a genuine possibility that US democracy has been rigged by a hostile foreign power, he has also said that he will continue to respect the result.
In this interpretation, the effects of capitalism on individuals would be relegated in importance. Instead, we're thrust into the world described in Machiavelli's The Prince, where what really matters is the geopolitical power-plays of great men and the polities they lead. Certainly this would help explain the disparity, in the context of both Brexit and Trump's victory, between what the polls claimed and the actual results. Perhaps we're not just awful racists after all: perhaps this is merely part of some grand plot by Russia to undermine NATO and the EU so that they can annex the Baltics. In the now-immortal words of a mind far deeper and greater than I: "Guys. It's time for some game theory."
WALTER BENJAMIN'S THEORY OF HISTORY
The German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin knew all about bad years: he died in 1940, killing himself on the Franco-Spanish border while trying to flee the Nazis. Benjamin's final work, "On the Concept of History", consists of 18 aphorisms in which the idea of historical "progress" is turned, with bitter irony, on its head. History is represented by Benjamin as a single, unending catastrophe – an always-ongoing disaster that can only be halted by a Messianic moment of redemption, associated with the advent of Communism. This is not something that we know solely because of how badly things are going at present: it is something, Benjamin says, "the tradition of the oppressed" teaches us in general – at no point since the emergence of humanity as a species have things been "going well" for the majority of us on this planet.
Superficially, this all sounds rather despairing: the only sort of hope Benjamin gives us, in fact, is hope for something that – from our present position, at least – seems pretty much unobtainable. But actually I find Benjamin's theory both comforting and even potentially instructive. Everything is bad now... well, sure. But in a way, that's OK, because everything has been bad for most of human history, and still some people have managed to live relatively happy lives; still some members of the next generation will survive to breed, and maybe some of those people won't be completely, insurmountably evil. If we can't seem to achieve anything more than this, then we shouldn't lose heart – because short of the Kingdom of Heaven or Communism, no one ever has done.
On the other hand, though, this doesn't mean we should just do nothing. The world's suffering makes the urgency of the disaster apparent, and we have a duty to alleviate it. But again, because we are not the son of God, our solutions do not have to be sweeping, perfect or eternal: they can just approximate to an image of a better world, slow the catastrophe down a little. That is what real hope consists in. The work must always go on.
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