Truth as Commodity in the Age of “Alternative Facts”

Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente examines the relationship between neoliberalism and the spread of market thinking to the proliferation of different conceptions of truth, competing truth-claims, and the “post-truth era.”

 

There’s truth that lives

And truth that dies

I don’t know which

So never mind

 — Leonard Cohen, “Nevermind” (2014)

 

Politicians’ increasingly widespread use of the charge “fake news” to discredit journalistic reporting with which they disagree has been a justifiable cause of concern for many observers. The phenomenon seems part and parcel of a wider trend of mistrust of established institutions. Donald Trump has been at the leading edge of such public charges—from the serious, such as his attacks on the FBI’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, to the less consequential, such as his quibbling over the number of people who attended his inauguration. However, the current occupant of the Oval Office is more the culmination of far-reaching trends in the economy and society that have sought to extend the logics of the market and market relations into all domains of life. Today, truth itself—or perceived understandings of the objective world—can be tailored and packaged to a consumer’s desires. In other words, the “post-truth era” in which we find ourselves is the result of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a term often used to describe the political and economic order that dominates the globe and, in my view, drives this commodification of truth. The period under neoliberalism stretches back to the 1970s and is usually associated with the renewal of conservative politics in Western countries, such as the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the United States in 1980. Austerity, tax cuts, retreat from public services and social programs, and reliance on the stock market and finance over goods production are defining characteristics of this particular form of capitalism. But neoliberalism is not an economic mode alone, or perhaps not even chiefly so. More aptly, it is a way of looking at the world, one that follows market imperatives in all aspects of life and believes them to be the natural and only way to be in the world.

reagan thatcher

Historians generally consider the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to be the first full emergence of neoliberal economics and policy.

The sudden ubiquity of the term neoliberalism in political discourse has raised questions regarding its usefulness as a descriptor. In a recent forum in Dissent, the historian Daniel Rodgers distinguishes between four phenomena that commentators often group under the word “neoliberalism”: as economy, as intellectual project, as policy, and as cultural regime.[1] He notes that, though interrelated, these are separate processes, and we only add to the confusion by referring to them all as “neoliberalism.” This is a caution worth considering. But more than interrelated, I think that there are causal connections between them and that we need to consider them as phenomena occurring in linear time, with one producing the next. For my purposes here, I am most interested in Rodgers’s fourth type of neoliberalism: the cultural regime. This type—the dominance of market thinking in most facets of life—would not have been possible without the intellectual project of rehabilitating “free” markets and without the changes in production since the economic crises of the 1970s, namely the departure of manufacturing overseas and the rise of finance capitalism.[2] This increasing reliance on market models has ultimately led to the commodification of everything, including truth—elements of life from which most people in the past would not have dreamed of trying to profit.

By pervading all aspects of life and subjecting those aspects to market demands, neoliberalism-as-cultural-regime places severe limits on what is politically possible. It subordinates political life to the economic imperatives of capitalism. As the political theorist Wendy Brown puts it, “neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities—even where money is not at issue—and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus.”[3] Thus, neoliberalism-as-cultural-regime is the acceptance of (or acquiescence to) the intrusion of market imperatives into all aspects of life, including our perceptions of the world and what we take to be the truth.

Another key element in our acceptance of the spread of markets into everyday life is the relationship of the self to consumer capitalism. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, American capitalism began its shift from the economy’s focus on production to consumption. The rise of factories, automation, and board-run corporations (as opposed to companies identified with single owners, such as Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel) suggested qualitative changes in American production.[4] For working- and middle-class Americans, the result was increasing leisure time, availability of goods, and access to credit. This was the case for white Americans of those classes, at least, since banks and real estate offices discriminated against African Americans. The consumer economy led to major booms in the 1920s (popularly remembered even today as the “Roaring Twenties”) and the 1950s and 1960s. These periods witnessed the emergence and expansion of the modern advertising industry (think, for instance, of the popular AMC series Mad Men), which helped to create and to drive consumer demand. Advertising also served to define people’s identities based on the consumer goods they purchased. Neoliberalism-as-economy and neoliberalism-as-policy soon emerged as solutions to the economic decline of the 1970s as Americans confronted the confounding simultaneous crises of stagnation and inflation. Production largely moved overseas and the US economy became one focused on services. The economy and Americans’ experiences became connected more than ever to consumption. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, consumption has been tied to self-fashioning and self-presentation. And markets and consumer choice have become increasingly important to our sense of self as well as our perception of the world around us.

IMG_20180418_084243034

Rodgers’s 2011 book Age of Fracture examines changing ideas about self, society, and the market in the late twentieth century.

Rodgers traces these changes in the late twentieth century across the realm of ideas in his aptly named book, Age of Fracture (2011). He notes how “conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.”[5] It was “an era of disaggregation” and, over the last decades of the twentieth century, “the very language for society had grown thinner, in which the ‘little platoons’ of freely choosing selves commanded more and more of the social imagination, in which block identities seemed to have grown more fractured and fluid.”[6] Partly driving this fracture and partly responding to it, society’s “conduits of communication had been multiplied.”[7]

It is in this last change that we can find the present crisis of truth manifested most clearly. Venues for communicating the truth have multiplied to accommodate different groups and confirm their sense of self. Conservatives, liberals, libertarians, socialists, and everyone in between (as well as farther right and farther left) have their go-to news outlets, online forums, and social media echo chambers. In its simplest dichotomy, we know, for instance, that conservatives rely on Fox News and liberals on MSNBC for their daily news. The information all of these political groups consume corresponds in varying degrees to reality beyond their media venues. But those venues shape the perceptions and the behavior in the world of their consumers, nonetheless. In this fractured atmosphere, it is easier than ever to find sources of information that conform to how we view the world and to shelter ourselves from conflicting reports. The very shape of reality has now been packaged for consumer preference. The steady march of market thinking into so many domains of life has finally swallowed notions of truth itself. Truth is now tailored to confirm consumers’ worldviews, one item among many to be selected in our vast marketplace of ideas.

 


[1] Daniel Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism,’” Dissent (Winter 2018). Accessed April 15, 2018. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/uses-and-abuses-neoliberalism-debate.

[2] The historian Angus Burgin’s study The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Great Depression (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) provides a compelling examination of this intellectual project.

[3] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 31. Original emphasis.

[4] For more on this change, see Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York, Hill and Wang, 1982), and Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[5] Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 3.

[6] Ibid., 261.

[7] Ibid., 270.

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