Truth ain’t Reconciliation
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In the waning days of the WW1 one brave lieutenant of the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian army named Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a book designed to demonstrate that “what can be said at all, can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about must be passed over in silence”. It was obvious to the author, that the misuse of language he had analysed in the book, would not stop only because the analysis appeared convincing to practitioners and students of philosophy. If one compares, however, the political narratives of Wittgenstein’s lifetime to those of today, one is left in no doubt as to which are clearer, and by a large margin at that. Most political and ideological positions then were defined without the beating about the bush that is so widespread now. In their ideological battles, communists, fascists and capitalist liberals attacked each other according to some quasi-“objective” criteria based on the shared set of references and history of ideas. And each countered the attack by standing its ground instead of dismissing the very vocabulary of an opponent, as is customary today.
The dichotomy of liberal capitalism and egalitarian social justice, as that of fascism and parliamentarism, seemed so clear and played out so graphically, that we still live under their spell. When reality today refuses to submit to the old ideological mould we try to bend it with additional terms and subplots. The concept of “populists” has been introduced on both the left and the right, in contrast to the “classic” variants. “Cold war” has been resurrected, despite it signifying the extinct global stand-off between the equals on the ideological right and left. “The Evil Empire” is re-employed by implication as a notion, while Russia today is supposed to be even more evil than the communist original, which, compensating for its diminished strength, makes it at least as dangerous. China’s “communist-capitalist” super power, as well as the increased influence of Islam, are of course among the new realities impossible to capture in the romantic western terms, but it seems still possible for the “Judaeo-Christian” world to consider itself as the source of all key political and cultural references.
Now Wittgenstein’s philosophy avoided politics, and even what would be a good pathway to it — the problems of intentionality in meaning, something Bertrand Russell (in the introduction to the Tractatus) placed squarely within psychology (while phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, dealing with intentionality, would be dismissed by logicians as metaphysics). Truth and falsehood is, for the philosophy of language, an exclusively logical problem, while that philosophy’s achievement is supposed to be in the demonstration that philosophical problems arise from the misconception of the ways our language functions. Those problems include ethics (which Wittgenstein identifies with aesthetics), and continuing in this vein of reasoning such modern philosophers as Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard consider statements of ethics to be pseudo propositions that are neither true nor false. That does not make logic and the philosophy of language entirely irrelevant to the analysis of politics but it does limit the relevance of their probe of falsehood to the cases of honest mistakes. In a rare reference to lying (in «Philosophical Investigations»), Wittgenstein called it a language game, without any noticeable sense of opprobrium.
But then again, there isn’t anything like “Thou shalt not lie” among the Ten Commandments (just “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”). The question of pure truth and falsehood was perhaps too abstract for the Old Testament, but came to the fore in the New one (even if only in the fourth of the Gospels). Jesus is a witness to the Truth, while devil «is a liar and the father of lies» (John 8:44). Lying has been an important subject matter for thinkers throughout centuries, notably for Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and Kant. «As words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind» — wrote Aquinas. Whether or not we agree with the XIII century theologian that lying is unnatural, we presumably agree that it is “undue”, and we would also probably accept this definition of lying. When you claim something that you know is not true, you lie. When you genuinely believe, however, that something is a fact, while it is not, you are only mistaken, that is not guilty of lying (even if you may be guilty of negligence, laziness, fanaticism or arrogance).
The problem is that in practice, and in politics in particular, it is often impossible to distinguish between an honest mistake and a lie. Dialectical method of Post-Enlightenment, at any rate, offers a more adequate, if intellectually more challenging take on the problem of untruthfulness. Hegelian “negativity”, “false consciousness” of Marx and Engels, Sartrean “bad faith” and existentialist “inauthenticity” — all may be more helpful in analysing the circumstances of and possible reasons for the contemporary politics lacking the relative straightforwardness of the political discourse that dominated the west from, roughly, the time of Locke (and the Glorious Revolution) until the notorious “End of History” of the 1990’s.
Dancing around the truth, and the lie.
Those in power have always been prone to lying, at least as much as anybody else (despite “honesty” being related to “honesteories”, the Roman aristocratic and political class), and it is the ways they do and people react to it, that have changed. Or did they? Take, for example, the way Boris Johnson and his Brexit acolytes came to power. They made a deal with the EU, that they were inevitably going to try and break. Johnson torpedoed his predecessor Theresa May who had tried to align the UK with the EU so that there would be no customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland. Johnson promised he would do a deal without alignment, and without the border. That is simply not possible and he just lied it was. When the time of reckoning came, he and his ministers simply said that the EU is “too legalistic”, instead of admitting they had come to power on a lie. Law as in the “rule of law”, that is the control of the masses, is one (good) thing, law in holding the powerful to account ain’t so good. Should that not also throw some light on such expressions as “democratically elected politicians”?
It is known that the Northern Ireland deal was not Brexit’s only lie, and Emmanuel Macron likes pointing out the multitude of them, calling them just that, lies — a bit of unusual straight-talking between allies in the polite society. Accusing Britain’s leadership of lies Macron does not forget to “qualify” the charge and say that the EU must reform, become more democratic, “closer to its citizens”.
How laudable, but does this language make EU fare better than the UK? Johnson’s strain of lying isn’t the only kind of falsehood there is. Dialectical negativity teaches us to recognise false consciousness and bad faith in those who say the right words, but omit facing up to the unlovely states of affairs, and maybe intentionally so. “To become more democratic” may seem meaningful as a part of a proposition, but is false as a propagandistic substitute for meaningful action. “We must…” is a mode of one of Wittgensteinian language-game. While “we must” do something, we can, with total impunity, fail or avoid doing it. And there are different kinds of “must”. The ordinary subjects of the state must pay taxes in one, unavoidable, way, while rich corporations (and individuals) “must” do it in another, theoretical, avoidable manner. A head of state, or the EU, also must, and should — do many things, but may — avoid doing them, e.g. legitimately redistributing some of the enormous wealth, by making rich corporations pay a fair amount of taxes. Or to refrain from hiring U.S. multi-trillion dollar hedge funds, such as BlackRock, to draw up social, environmental and ethical (sic!) guidelines for the European financial sector (the same Macron and the BlackRock chairman have cultivated each other, while the latter lobbied for the break-up of the French pension system).
“Negating” reality is certainly very useful in dealing with external challenges. HMS Defender recently sailed from the Ukrainian port of Odessa past the Crimea and reality was clear for all to see, as a BBC (not at all pro-Russian) journalist onboard and an uploaded video and audio corroborated the Russian version of the events: the Russian forces ordered the British ship to leave, sent jets and boats to force it to, and fired warning shots with that aim specifically. The UK government said all that was just Russian disinformation, while the artillery fire was a part of a Russian “gunnery exercise”. The UK official and very public statements were demonstratively and demonstrably false and the falsehood was to demonstrate the upper hand of those accusing others of falsehood. “Not only can I do what I like physically, — the message was — but I can also publicly, falsely, call you a liar, because I am stronger politically and own the mainstream discourse”.
Nietzsche’s description of parliamentarism in «The Gay Science» (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) has not lost its relevance and still describes the multi-party political system and society well: «Parliamentarism, that is to say, the public permission to choose between five main political opinions, insinuates itself into the favour of the numerous class who would feign appear independent and individual, and like to fight for their opinions. After all, however, it is a matter of indifference whether one opinion is imposed upon the herd, or five opinions are permitted to it.» After the experience with the Third Reich it was of course easy to dismiss this last proposition. Five opinions, or parties, even in an imperfect system, is better than one. And yet the conclusion of the aphorism is spot on: «He who diverges from the five main opinions and goes apart, has always the whole herd against him.»2 And, the “main opinions” (“Grundmeinungen”) today are not even very intelligible. In Nietzsche’s days, there was not something that is now called “catch-all” or “big tent” ideology. Today both the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic (CDU) are supposed to be “big tent”. And who is taking time to ponder what “Christian Democracy”, which gave name to the German ruling party, actually means? If you think of the issues politics is supposed and promise to solve today, “CDU” is, to borrow Wittgenstein’s favourite term, nonsensical, and so, probably, are “SPD” and “The Greens”.
Against the herd
Ideology would be today’s synonym for Nietzsche’s “main political opinion”. Surely, “neoliberalism”, and “neoconservatism” are ideologies of sorts. And they are supposed to have opponents in the contemporary left. But again, Macron is a former socialist (and an investment banker at Rothschild’s), but is now perceived by his people as clearly neo-liberal. And even if the permitted “main political opinions” are indistinct and contradictory these days, it is still the case that if you actively refuse to conform to one of them the whole herd will be after you.
This is, in a way, what happened to the famous American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald. A star of the intellectual left, he helped publish Snowden’s revelations, and exposed the lies and crimes of G.W. Bush, Obama and Bolsonaro. But he then fell out with the editors of the Intercept, which he had co-founded, when they tried to censor his investigation of Hunter Biden. The most recent challenge came from a young socialist author Nathan Robinson, who summed up the accusations against Greenwald levelled by the broad community of the left.
By constantly targeting the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, the Wall Street and Silicon Valley Greenwald has been allegedly helping Trump and his supporters. «Democratic Party, for all its flaws, hypocrisies, and capitalist inclinations, is still preferable to the racist and extremely capitalist Republican Party» — Robinson maintains.
Now the Greenwald case is just one, if rather visible, example of the dissent against the liberal and left-wing establishment, among quite a few in the whole of the west in this century. In Europe, it has been particularly noticeable in Britain and France when former Labour and Communist/Socialist voters switched to the Tories/UKIP and the National Rally (formerly National Front) respectively (the latter phenomenon described powerfully by Didier Eribon in his «The Return to Reims»). The key problem for intellectuals like Greenwald at any rate seems to be the liberals’ adoption of authoritarian methods in what they perceive as a righteous struggle against the absolute evil of racism, male chauvinism, Christian fundamentalism etc. Wokeness, BLM, MeToo, “cancel culture” are the shades of an ideology to counter conservatism, that may, like the ideology of socialism, be developing a problem of straddling the growing hiatus between intention and practice.
There is no solution to this argument, it seems to me, on the political level, but philosophy might help. In broad political terms, Nathan Robinson is right saying the Republicans are generally more “capitalist” than the Democrats, while accurate analysis of modern capitalism remains the key to the understanding of the ways the vulnerable majority is oppressed. The problem with this left-wing argument, however, is that “more” or “less” (capitalist) is not what really matters. What matters is the principle. If someone seems to mean “less” capitalism but is still caught pushing for plenty of it, they should not be surprised by being singled out for particular scorn and resentment as a hypocrite, while those who extolled capitalism in the first place would not be seen guilty of lying. If a “left-leaning” U.S. President with all the experience and knowledge society and economists must have accumulated throughout the years of rampant deregulation and “sub-prime” lies, still, after the 2008–09 near-catastrophe, shields and promotes those responsible for it, something is so fundamentally wrong with the idea that the Democrats’ politics can draw on the progressive worldview, that Trump’s specific policies such as tax cuts look trivial. Add the foreign policy to it and it is Obama and Hillary Clinton that would look like perfect globalist capitalists-imperialists, not Trump. But, even more generally, the flaw of hypocrisy may simply trigger a more deeply rooted response than the sin of being “capitalist”.
Hypocrisy is often used to describe the Democratic camp even by some who consider it a lesser evil in comparison to the Republicans, but hypocrisy itself is somehow supposed to be a lesser evil in comparison to the insolent “straight-talking” of such dreadful characters as Donald Trump. This question of language should take us back to our “philosophical investigation”. In terms of my ideal post-wittgensteinian philosophy of language which would include the problem of intentionality of falsehood (and nonsense), hypocrisy is the ultimate form of lying. It has several extreme characteristics. It uses moralistic “language games” to create an ideological complex covering up lies and failures, and sometimes crimes. But it also blurs the borderlines between lies, mistakes, miscalculations, responsibility and the chain of command, human rights and the “collaterality” of damage, but also all that and the nationalistic emotions of the invaders’ sacrifice for their cause regardless of its injustice, which makes crimes undefinable, and therefore illusory. And as far as capitalism is concerned, hypocrisy means an elaborate prevention of illuminating (let alone reforming) the destructive parasitism of the modern financial sector.
To see the aggressive nature of lying in “peaceful” hypocrisy one needs to apply the negativity method and question: what is it that the hypocrite is not saying while avoiding direct lying by engaging in language-games? That omission, that glib absence, the glossing over, the “purpose-built” politeness and eloquence in moralistic pseudo-propositions, imperatives and modalities, in their totality, may be called positivity.
The Positivity of falsehood
‘Positivity’ is a complex of the self-assertion of (and as) a reality combining rationality and morality in the Kantian vein, which admits of a possibility of an honest mistake, and criticism thereof, but not of the lie and other deliberate wrongdoing (the “end justifies the means” mode would in this system fall under an honest mistake category, at worst, or, most likely, some kind of honest — and moral — zeal). Such positivity is a kind of anti-dialectic, which allows no questioning of the self-assertion. It controls the very distinction between an honest mistake and a lie. For example, even in such an extreme case as the reasons for the invasion of Iraq, the lie ultimately, “in the grand scheme of things”, qualified as — was processed into — an honest mistake, because the system’s basic self-assertion is incompatible with doubting its own morality (nor the category of morality).
‘Positivity’ is everywhere; turn on the radio and listen to a programme on an “important issue”, be it climate change or corporate social responsibility: you will have, for example, a successful banker, lecture you on both. You can count on him or her to say all the right things. Dialectical negativity, however, is about going beyond the correctness of a narrative. Negativity is asking, for example, why if the banker is so correct in his assessment, nothing really changes in accordance with his/her positive vision. For such “negative” question to be itself genuine (in contrast to the propositions of ‘positivity’) it has to have an element of struggle, and question, for example, the banker’s own role, and, maybe, even the role of the subject posing the question. Struggle implies personal risks and ability to self-sacrifice. But positivity ensures not only the un-dialectic correctness, but also the unassailability of its self-assertion. Those running the show will simply not allow any real struggle, any negativity.
‘Positivity’ exists, however, within the logical realities where you cannot ultimately suppress dialectics, and so it has to co-opt and sham it, by throwing in a kind of a logical, and emotional, red-herring. For example, accusing a geopolitical rival of human rights violations, and substantiating the accusations with the claims from interested parties with vested interests, western agents of positivity would “dialectically” criticise some, apparently, in their own camp, say, the western business community, for co-operating with the foreign human rights offenders in question. Such “self-criticism” is done not in addition to but instead of running a full due diligence on the initial accusatory claims, and seeing them in a dialectical context of history, “lost-in-translation” cultural and political semantics, geopolitics as well as the double standards sparing the west from genuine painful self-criticism that would have taken the moralising sting out of accusing others.
For each scandal where the suppression of truth by ‘positivity’ is at least partly visible, as in the Iraq war case, there are countless others in which that truth-control remains on the informational “dark side” of the Earth. Some cases, like whistleblowers accusing OPCW of manipulation and bias in the investigation of chemical attacks in Syria, could not be suppressed but were severely underreported or written off as a conspiracy theory. In other cases, the public is just told to believe something it has no possibility of verifying at all, not even by comparing different sources in the media. There are plots involving Russia, for example, where the guilt of its government has not been proven, but even Russia was not able to distribute an alternative version, as, despite the horror stories of its ability to spread fake news, today’s Russia is in reality reduced to using mainly the communications channels controlled by the west (and even by its ideological brethren in Russia itself).
A British-American hedge fund manager convicted in Russia of aggravated tax evasion can claim the conviction is politically motivated even if such motivation would not make sense as the manager was an outspoken supporter of the Russian president and government at the time the investigation into the tax evasion was undertaken. The European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that the Russian investigators had legitimate reasons to suspect the hedge fund manager’s accountant of the tax evasion in the very case the fund manager was convicted for. That would normally give credence to the conviction, but the fund manager responds by orchestrating a campaign accusing the Russian government of, essentially, targeting him for accusing the Russian government. The circularity of such an argument would be obvious if not for the political Russia factor. Politics trump logic, and the fund manager is considered a “critic of the Russian government” and not a convicted tax evader. To further solidify such politics-based false alibi, he supplies the media with an unsubstantiated, but a vaguely plausible story of money laundering; and as a result, others are accused, while he, the accuser, becomes a prominent money-laundering expert. The fact that the accused are subsequently acquitted changes nothing in the perceptions of the public, as the media are unable and unwilling to re-trace the story to its true causes. Importantly that is not a story of the financial sector fending off some critics of capitalism, but, on the contrary, it is about guilting the banks and bankers, and that, dialectically, is what makes for efficient defence and perpetuating the system. Is that perhaps in compliance with the American “pragmatic theory of truth” which teaches us to see the truth’s “cash-value” (William James)? Can such truth be verified? Yes, of course, according to James. «Truth for us — he writes — is simply a collective name for verification-processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc. are names for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue them.» Such theory would explain why verification of information in the “post-truth” era is in a state it is in, and also why it is not all Trump’s fault.
Who needs an ideology?
Some of us, like Glenn Greenwald, are faced with a choice: either to switch off dialectical thinking and submit to ‘positivity’ or suffer the painful awareness of a life in the world of lies. The debate with Greenwald’s socialist opponents, however, has still this to be said about: it is an argument on ideological terms, and in those terms, Greenwald is indeed inconsistent. In his response to Nathan Robinson’s criticism Greenwald rejects siding with the right, but argues that a cooperation between people of different creeds, including right-wing populists, may be welcome on an “issue by issue” basis. That seems to be a departure from ideological thinking, which may well be a good thing. But as an example of a progress to be made in the “issue by issue” mode Greenwald cites the societal acceptance of the LGBTIQ. Well, LGBTIQ is an ideological issue, and even if some right-wingers made truce with it at some point, there is never a guarantee they will not violate it anytime, or that the acceptance of LGBTIQ is not in itself one of the phenomena that is used to fortify the ideology of the right. As Murray Bookchin pointed out «society’s irrationality is deep seated, (…) its serious pathologies are not isolated problems that can be cured piecemeal but must be solved by sweeping changes in the often hidden sources of crisis and suffering.»
And what is it that would make a socialist, like Nathan Robinson, consistent? The answer, I am afraid, is: aiming for a revolution. No half-measures, no empty talk, no useless berating bankers for excessive greed selling subprime mortgages etc. — no, scrap private ownership of land, nationalise the natural resources, turn private companies into cooperatives etc. Theoretically, a government with such a programme can be elected democratically; or can it? Have there been precedents of that? Talking of the far left and far right sharing goals… Well, some on the far right were allowed to come to power in the west more or less peacefully in the past, but the real “far-left” — never. From a consistent socialist point of view, reform is illusion. Or a lie.
A question one should be entitled to pose to a socialist today is whether the aspired socialism in any specific country shall stop at its borders. A well-known American commentator Krystal Ball, who describes herself as a social-democrat and was involved in the above mentioned important debate between Greenwald and Robinson defines her project as forging a multiracial working class coalition. That includes trying to convince the white working class that immigrants from the South are not a threat. Does this amount to socialist internationalism? The protection of workers of one’s own country is something that can be aspired not only by a socialist, but also by a national-socialist. The exploitation of other countries would be then expected to benefit the workers of one’s own. That is not, of course, what Krystal Ball means. But by using terms developed in the past centuries, such as socialism or social democracy, we sometimes forget that what appeared consistent and logical a hundred years ago may be inapplicable now, in the world, which is, while still split into hugely unequal and disparate economic, political and cultural units, is “globalised” — a term that may have exploitation hard-wired into it. And perhaps the point where some of the left and the right overlap is precisely in trying to “unglobalise” the world. But, surely, the right and the left should mean different things by that. The right may want to repatriate industrial production, but would still keep whatever aspects of globalisation that benefit their nation’s economy. Would the left give them up?
Are revolutions born to ideologies?
Believing a theory, such as Marxism, to be continuously ad rem and instructive throughout history, ties in with attitudes of a religious kind. One of the exceptional qualities of Marxism seemed, at any rate, that, as a theory, it was “proven”, once at least, experimentally (mainly, by the Russian revolution), thus substantiating simultaneously its self-description as science. When the European socialist states failed one had an option to explain that as a bad application of the good theory. This option has not been very popular as the common perception is that none of the world’s socialist nations has ultimately been successful. That switches on the notion of probability and turns it against the socialist state. Yet the argument that the failure of socialist practice represents the complete failure of the theory cannot be considered as unassailably correct. The experiment with socialism was not lab-pure, it did not fail on its own, there were many outside factors, it was a struggle, while elements of socialism were adopted in the “capitalist camp”, including the U.S. Somewhat paradoxically, a far-right kind of argument (even if it is semi-consciously used by the disgruntled left) about the inferiority of some nations can be used to explain why socialism failed where it became a fully fledged state system.
The fall of Soviet-type socialism in Europe, and of the USSR specifically, soon thirty years ago, was a revolution too, a cascade of revolutions. It is only in terms of one ideological position that those events can be considered as a counter-revolution. If we’d agree that every revolution, including those Hegel had to consider (in America, France and Haiti), has a basic narrative, or ideology, we can take a view that the Marxist revolutionary ideology is just one of many, even if it purports to describe and explain them all.
The above-discussed ‘positivity’ drives those who feel humiliated by it, to fight it by any means available. That is what makes some on the left look for allies on the right, and vice versa. This might be roughly described as intellectual “tactical voting”, even if such processes may be unconscious. But it is the most powerful instinct of the spirit, as it were, the analogue of Nietzsche’s will to power (even if pejoratively it can be simultaneously seen as ressentiment).
It is the last resort in being confronted by the establishment’s stonewalling; it’s an accumulated energy of despair. If ‘positivity’ uses force to suppress a dialectical challenge, those deprived of their chance and right to argue would respond by switching the struggle from the level of logic to the level of force. They will join forces with any enemy of the enemy. So crushing an effect hypocrisy — ‘positivity’ — has on someone facing it. And it was probably the desperate rebellion against ‘positivity’, and not some nebulous Virtue, and cliched Love, that was the negative driving force in the story that culminated in the famous brief dialogue about the truth, Aletheia, between the rebel and an official, in Roman occupied Judaea two millennia ago.
Traditional philosophy takes it for granted that humans wish and try to understand as many things as possible, and put what they know into words. But there is another way of looking at why and how we learn and communicate. We are witnesses to facts and events, we try to understand what we witness and we communicate it to others. One of the things we might witness in our lifetime is a revolution. Different revolutions have elements in common, but also dissimilarities. Lenin’s “revolutionary situation” may have been a good analysis of the conditions favourable to a successful revolution he was to lead, but may have not been entirely applicable to the revolution that took place in Lenin’s country in 1991. What I can say of those events that I witnessed, is that they were first and foremost the culmination of a rebellion against lies and hypocrisy, against what I’ve here called ‘positivity’.
The later stages of state socialism were characterised by this awareness of the lie and the impossibility to challenge it. The physical impossibility is only a part of the overall block that prevents the challenge. When an ideology posits such values as justice, brotherhood and anti-fascism, some rebels will maintain that a certain amount of social injustice is a risk worth taking in fighting for freedom, and even, as some people did claim in the USSR, that Hitler had been preferable to Stalin, as a chance to destroy communism. (The western world would have then assimilated and reformed fascism, and included Russia in a post-fascist world order forever free of the communist evil.) But that was not a view the majority would support and so those who did not, did not feel they were deprived of good opportunities to challenge the communist regime with another ideology, but rather — of a chance to exercise dialectics which would reveal all contradictions of both social justice and freedom. The suppressed energy of dialectical negativity accumulated and eventually crushed the system’s positivity, or rather — helped crush it. Because, as I stated above, the despair of the understanding that you are up against a stone-walling super lie, drives you into an alliance with any force that opposes the system, even if that force is a narrative not interested in dialectics, but just in power, and is bound to posit a new ‘positivity’ after victory. And so in 1991 in Russia people capable of dialectical thinking and surmising what disaster capitalism would spell for the country, supported Yeltsin, a communist apparatchik who became anti-communist in order to grab power.
The philosophical anatomy of the revolutions of 1989–91 in Eastern Europe and the USSR is more relevant to the present than those who tend to think in a superficially political mode imagine. Of course, my propositions could be criticised as idealist. That, however, would be done on the assumption that a certain materialistic approach is intrinsically, “objectively” correct. But it is just another self-assertion, an alleged consensus and declared axiom. The “objectivity” of materialism is a tautological proposition and not something that can be proven. It is true, that materialism was more conducive to a radical critique of society; one can even imagine that it was developed with a view of that critique, challenging traditions and aiming for a revolutionary change. And it is equally true that Marxism was and still is a useful method of dissecting economic and financial power and exploitation. The reign of the “rentiers” is very much with us, and if it is correct to say that the structure of capitalism is different today, that also means it is much more pernicious and insidious — while being more polite. That in itself can be seen as both vindication and weakness of the predictions of Marx and Engels. Every prophet is just an inevitably subjective witness for the prosecution (or, less frequently, for the defence) in the perpetual court of history, and can’t be blamed for failing to report all hints and signs with equal engagement. Marx underestimated the psychological power of capitalism, its very positive looking “black magic”, as, perhaps, Max Weber misunderstood China. What one should be sceptical about today, however, is not so much the Marxist analysis, as its monopoly over the prognostication of revolutions.
A host of thinkers in the XX century, notably in the U.S. and France, worked on bridging philosophy and psychology, and we can say today, in some parallel to Wittgenstein’s statement that “ethics and aesthetics are one”, that philosophy and psychology are one. If they appear to be completely different, it means either or both are underdeveloped and unprepared for the challenges of today’s world. One should also mention that though the “pragmatic theory of truth” sees psychology as a key factor in what is considered true, it is hardly helpful for our present investigation, as most pragmatists and neopragmatists avoid critically dissecting their concept of utility in terms of power and economic interests. Still, the provocative definition of truth by Richard Rorty, as something philosophers’ peers let each other get away with, is, whether wilful or not, an admission of the establishment’s control of the truth, even in its theoretical (academic, logical) manifestation.
When language goes to prison
The well-known line that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” is true only in the case of a certain kind of philosophical problem. Wittgenstein’s bon mot is well appreciated but requires the clarification he demanded of others. Let’s just say that some problems are created by the language on holiday, some by those who had to stay on duty while language is on holiday. Other problems arise when language is elected President, Prime Minister, or Chancellor. But perhaps the most difficult to deal with arise when language is imprisoned.
Censorship, or dismissing an opinion as “conspiracy theory”, is a philosophical, logical, not just social or political problem. The truth-functional logic seems to imply that you can reason and argue with a view of establishing the truth, but in reality, you can only do it if an authority countenances and controls the arguing, “moderates” the debate. The control should not be thought of only in terms of direct suppression of alternative narratives. Censorship and self-censorship are indistinguishable. But so are, in practice, logic in the scientific sense of the word and its “common sense” variant.
The proposition “Assange is a criminal but George W. Bush is not” — may be true if the informational “input” relies on a certain definition of “criminal”, such as having been convicted by a court. But those who disagree with that proposition consider that the court which convicted Assange was part of a system that was targeting him for political reasons, while shielding such people as George W. Bush from prosecution for crimes. Can you object to that and still agree that a criminal is a person convicted in a court of law? Is the proposition that one is innocent until proven guilty, correct, truthful, if the system is shielding suspects from prosecution?
All that sounds like mixing questions of jurisprudence with those of logic, but is it not what happens in the real world of language where all kinds of things are inferred by journalists, politicians, commentators, fellows of think-tanks, influential bloggers and other educated members of the public? The contemporary democracy hardly means the power of the people, but its difference from the social system of, say, the age of Enlightenment, is in the fact that the intellectual authority today is not clearly defined or clearly limited to specific institutions. But highly limited it is nevertheless, in a far less transparent way. And so if Immanuel Kant, as a famous philosophy professor was developing an authoritative narrative in both logic and ethics (inter alia), including the topic of lying, those subjects seemed, whether or not we agree with Kant’s reasoning, correlated with a high degree of good-faith and responsibility, which was a key source of those narratives’ authority. The inferences and axioms carried overwhelming logical and axiological (which looks like a tautology, but is not, as “axiological” is only formally related to “axiom” here) weight. Today a fallacy can be cloaked in moralistic worthiness serving a politically, and even militarily, powerful party, with the implied reference to the “good old”, admittedly selfless Enlightenment authority. And there is no higher authority to appeal to. One cannot go to an “authority” in modern philosophy of language at some university and complain about logical nonsense in a “high brow” newspaper piece, or a think-tank analysis. A judgement in an “authoritative” political source is, in effect, final. Not only are philosophy and psychology one, but formal logical correctness and assertions of a certain stylistic quality from a politically dominant position appear identical.
If the government says that in its decision it is “guided by science”, the decision is sanctified as “objectively” necessary, not just stemming from the government’s wish to serve its people (to say nothing about self-serving manoeuvres). Logic will still be logic as it is used in, say, computer science, but a “practical” pseudo-logic with the implied reference to a moral authority of Logic uses mass communication and lends truth-status to political authority. That is not some lying, here and there. That is what I call ‘positivity’, uncritical thinking responsible for a multifaceted complex of interconnected and largely indistinguishable unintentional fallacies and intentional deception.
A matter of revolution
Needless to repeat, the “End of history” announced after the end of Soviet socialism thirty years ago was an unintended joke. And the history that did not end is a history of wars and revolutions. They are inevitable. Some might take a “civilised” form, as it seemed to happen in 1989–1991. Philosophy today is needed to state that neither determinism nor the complete free will of human actors is a safe principle to assess developments in this world. Our actions are likely to influence our lives, politics and culture, but we cannot know the exact extent of that influence. We can try and make inferences on the basis of what we have been witnesses to, which includes our own reactions and feelings. Inasmuch there may be a general principle that governs the obtaining of conditions for a revolutionary explosion, it is, in my view, the impossibility to challenge positivity, the macro- and micro-power of misrepresentation, with any other means. And contrary to appearances, it is the establishment, the “old order” which the revolution would aim to overthrow, that is driven by an ideology, not the revolutionaries. Force determines the outcome, but the articulated claim to righteousness is stronger on the part of the establishment. At first, that helps to defend the system against the “blind”, “irrational”, “undemocratic” insurgents. But then the system’s ideology will become a liability as all words will ring hollow, nothing will be believed, and negativity will be fully activated. With the need to appear morally superior through devalued language gone, the efficiency of hypocrisy destroyed, the truth will shed the vulnerability of “correctness” and prevail in a raw, intuitive, barely articulated form.
Saying that “what can be said at all, can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about must be passed over in silence” Wittgenstein expected the truth to be always clear, but did not anticipate the truth criteria, logic, to be “usurpable”. But it is, and so that statement of Wittgenstein’s was turned, tacitly, by stealth, as the Marxist one about workers of the world, into a propagandistic slogan. Clarity has been appropriated by ‘positivity’, what is not authorised by it branded as either unclear or untrue, and condemned to silence. With the truth criteria transferred from logic to ideology the truth becomes a matter of revolution.