Corona and Conspiracy: Post-Truth Politics Revisited

13 May 2020, 2017 EDT

This is a guest post by Sebastian Schindler, Assistant Professor at Geschwister-Scholl Institute for Political Science at LMU Munich, Germany. Recently his article “The Task of Critique in Times of Post-Truth Politics” has appeared in the Review of International Studies.

Did the Corona virus really originate in an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan? Did it not rather stem from secret Chinese military labs, as early conspiracy theories claimed? Or was the pandemic planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, as some Instagram posts suggested? And is the virus really as dangerous as official sources claim? Would not simple disinfectants provide an easy cure for this “foreign” virus, as President Trump indicated just a couple of weeks ago?

Doubt and skepticism of the “official” accounts of the current health crisis are so widespread that United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres recently declared that the world had to fight not only the corona pandemic, but also a “misinfo-demic”, recalling a term coined already in 2003 during the SARS outbreak. The doubt of “official” sources may take crude and bizarre forms, yet its popularity seems undiminished since the days when “post-truth” was selected as word of the year by Oxford dictionaries in 2016. At the time, the expression was meant to capture that scientific evidence had little effect in countering gestures at the “felt truth” (about crime in American cities, or the British contribution to the EU etc.). “Appeals to emotion” were more influential than “objective facts”, as Oxford dictionaries defined the term, and truth itself had “become irrelevant”.

In 2016, post-truth politics played a key role in the successful campaigns of Trump and the Brexiteers. Today, it may once again have dire consequences for world politics, now even in a matter of life and death. This makes it all the more important to come to grips with the issue, both theoretically and politically. How should we understand the widespread tendency to doubt the “official” truth? And what can be done about it?

The form and the history of post-truth politics

Many observers have given the academy a deal of responsibility for the spread of skepticism and paranoia. Had not universities educated people to be critical of the official version of the truth? Blame was directed specifically at postmodern theories. “What the postmodernists did was truly evil”, as one philosopher of science suggested in an interview in early 2017. “Thus is postmodernism the godfather of post-truth”, claimed another in his 2018 MIT Press book. Yet this particular explanation does not look closely enough at the form and the history of the phenomenon.

As far as the form is concerned, it is important to consider the particular way in which truth is relativized. Implicitly or explicitly, the denial of truth usually takes the form of a specific kind of conspiracy-theoretical thinking. Truth is relativized, since and because it is considered to be manipulated by some set of mischievous actors – in other words, a group of “conspirators”. Thus, in the case of Corona, the “Chinese government”, “pharmaceutical companies”, “Bill Gates”, “the media”, or “foreigners” (the list could go on…) are suspected to manipulate the truth in their favor. The relativization of truth is thus accompanied by (and indeed the product of) the naturalization of one very specific and simple truth: namely the idea that “conspiracies are behind it all”. Cynical disbelief is combined with naïve belief.

Once we understand there is a combination of relativization and naturalization, the history of post-truth politics comes into view. Analyses of 20th century ideologies have clearly shown that naturalized conspiracy-theoretical thinking is an intensely ideological phenomenon. Thus Hannah Arendt noted that totalitarian ideologies involved an “emancipation from reality”: the generalized suspicion that secret interests were hidden behind every and all official truth. Similarly, also Erich Fromm showed that ideological belief was characterized by a “combination of cynicism and naiveté”. And Leo Löwenthal demonstrated in detail that blaming personalized enemies for social problems is a key feature of what he termed “agitation”.

These observations cast a different light on the origins of contemporary post-truth politics. After all, postmodern thinkers hadn’t even invented their theory at the time when Arendt, Fromm, and Löwenthal wrote their studies in the 1940s and 1950s. Critique is hence not “out of steam”, as a theorist as famous as Bruno Latour concluded already in 2004 from the spread of conspiracy theories. On the contrary, a critical understanding of the ideological character of the post-truth phenomenon is urgently needed.

Countering a resurgent ideology

Analyzing post-truth politics as resurgent ideology is not without problems. Indeed, it runs the risk of reproducing the discourse of mutual allegations that is so widespread today. One side’s ideology is the other side’s truth, and vice versa, so the argument often runs, reproducing stale conflict rather than moving us ahead. And yet it is no option to simply ignore the spread of falsehoods and lies, especially in a situation when life and death are at stake.

A sophisticated understanding of what it means to criticize an ideology can be of help. The critique of an ideology does not simply consist in uncovering “false consciousness”. Instead, it involves at its heart the search for what is right about what is wrong. This may sound paradoxical, but it merely implies the acceptance that also false beliefs have their reasons. Understanding these reasons can lead to a deeper grasp of what is going (wr)on(g) in the world today.

The aggressiveness of conspiracy theories, which suspect manipulations everywhere, gives evidence of a true social and political problem. This problem has to do with a lost sense for solidarity (Secretary General Guterres actually framed it quite correctly), with loneliness and lack of sense of place, with a political economy based on fear rather than trust. Recent analyses of the supporters of the new right in the US, in the UK, and in France provide evidence for this argument, and President Trump himself has actually reiterated many times that he speaks for those who feel unheard.

Trump is quite right (for once) with this claim. Indeed the original definition of post-truth, which emphasizes the role of emotions and “felt truth”, captures quite well that was it at stake is feelings: feelings of exclusion, feelings of despair. The denial of truth is an expression of suppressed suffering. This suffering may not result from actual economic problems. It gives evidence of social stress.

The twin character of post-truth, its combination of relativization and naturalization, indicates the precise nature of the problem. The seemingly contradictory claims that there is either “no truth at all” (relativization) or “only one truth” (naturalization) have something important in common. They both constitute flight movements away from the difficulty of finding an independent stance in a world one does not fully control. They are both forms of escaping freedom.

On the surface, post-truth politics threatens science and rational truth. Yet in a deeper sense, it reveals that contemporary social and intellectual conditions are such that they hinder many people to make full use of their freedom. Pressures of conformity, pressures to perform pervade not only the economy and work, but also school and various online forums where people compete to present the most favorable image of their self. When we are concerned about post-truth, it is to these pressures we must turn our attention.