On post-truth politics
Implied in the formulation ‘post-truth politics’ is that what went on before it was the truth, and nothing but the truth.
Let’s humour this idea, and ask, then, when did such politics begin? At what point did xenophobia and misdirected rage become the common currency of politics?
28 July 2002? Thanks to the Chilcot Report, we know that to be the day Tony Blair assured George W. Bush that he would be ‘with you whatever’ in the invasion of Iraq – just as the British public was being assured that it was not inevitable that their government would join the US invasion, and that every effort was being made to find Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) arsenal of weapons of mass destruction under UN auspices. Where is the accountability for the lie, and the incalculable pain that followed in its wake? The man responsible still walks free, with the effrontery to lecture others on their extremism.
If that seems too early, how about the UK election of 2010? To justify its austerity program, the Conservatives insisted that ‘Labour wrecked the economy’ by increasing public spending, living beyond the country’s means, and inflating public debt to an unmanageable size. This narrative, with its poisonous demonisation of ‘skivers’, public-sector workers, the unemployed and the disabled, was repeated monotonously on the national broadcaster and in every major newspaper, becoming hegemonic, a default common sense. It was also utterly false. In the wake of that falsehood has ensued the wrecking of what remains of the welfare state, a deterioration in living standards the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes as ‘the worst since the last war’, and a geographically mediated decline responsible in no small part for the Brexit vote. Yet those who propagated, abetted and (in the case of the Liberal Democrats) added to the big lie now present themselves as the guardians of reasonable, fact-based policy.
In the search for the source of toxic political xenophobia and authoritarianism, why not revisit September 2007, when Gordon Brown introduced the demand for ‘British jobs for British workers’? Those of us who fought against this slogan warned that it would pollute working-class politics for years to come: if only we had been wrong. Anyone wondering where ‘populist’ disregard for democracy comes from would also do well to look to the post-crisis governance of Italy and Greece – the former subject to the direct and unelected rule of finance in November 2011, the latter’s far-left experiment under Syriza crushed by a European extreme centre that held that ‘against the treaties there can be no democracy’.
How long did people expect all of this to continue, without something going seriously wrong?
Salvage editorial, Order Prevails in Washington