Listening to accounts of the fall-out from the UK government’s latest debacle around A-Level, GCSE and BTEC examination grades, I find myself struck by how we continue to be amazed at the extraordinary incompetence of Boris Johnson and his colleagues - and their equally extraordinary ability to get away with denials, obfuscations and lies. This is the most striking feature of today’s political populists: they are completely indifferent to truth and falsehood. The very notions of lying and incompetence are absent from their worlds.
Obvious examples beyond the UK include Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi and their responses to the coronavirus - responses that are entirely independent of anything that might actually be the case, as well as being unconcerned about their internal contradictions. How should we understand what’s going on, and how did it come about? The answers to those questions require some serious self-reflection.
One way that populism needs to be understood is through its attitude to language, and specifically how the ways in which it uses language have nothing to do with understanding, explaining, agreeing or disagreeing. Instead, it mirrors how language is used and understood by frustrated young children and all sorts of fantasists, bullies and abusers. That’s why the truth-free nature of this language is no barrier to popularity among those who use it in a similar way, which is to say, as a weapon. But where does this come from?
Part of the answer is that - in its determination to deny universal truths - postmodernism laid the grounds for the populists’ attitude to language, and in turn, much of the western Left’s espousal of postmodernism helped populists lay waste to the Left’s own hopes. To that extent, today’s populism is something for which the postmodern Left of the last few decades bears considerable responsibility.
After the disappointments of the 1960s and the destruction of the post-war settlement of the 1970s, the Left sought comfort in postmodernism, which seemed to provide a way of protecting socialist beliefs from the increasing material success of the Right. As the postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty insisted in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being re-described,” so there’s no need to pursue the hard task of justifying those beliefs.
In particular, there’s no need to engage in conversation with your opponents, since as Rorty puts it through an unconvincing example, “there is no way to ‘refute’ a…Nazi who would favour his own elimination if he himself turned out to be Jewish” - an especially silly claim that conflates the accidents of persuadability with the question of the truth or otherwise of the issue concerned.
Nevertheless in this reading, to engage with anyone who doesn’t already agree with you is a deluded waste of time. Nazis and anti-Nazis inhabit different worlds and play different language-games. They can’t communicate because they simply can’t understand each others’ claims, so - to switch examples - it’s no wonder that people who aren’t socialists aren’t amenable to socialist arguments. There’s no point in engaging with such people since differences in political outlook are enough to guarantee that such differences can never be overcome.
But by accepting the postmodern insistence that we abandon anything so naïve as truth, the Left reached its own dead end, digging itself into a hole from which even now it’s emerging only slowly. Inevitably, in this hole debates became ever more internal and internecine, since there could be no debate with people whose worldview was different and whose language constituted a separate, watertight practice.
As a result of freeing itself from the need to justify its tenets the Left paid a terrible price, since if it has no such need then nor does the Right. One effect of the Left’s luxuriation in the postmodern turn was to cede intellectual space to neo-liberalism, which made no such mistake, and which duly took the opportunity to attack the relativism of the Left. In short, the Right moved in where the Left feared to tread. As Norman Geras memorably pointed out in his essay in the New Left Review, “Language, truth and justice,” “If there is no truth, there is no injustice.”
Unhappily though, even worse was to come. In letting go of truth, the postmodern Left helped to open up the space for today’s far-right populists, who deny the idea of truth altogether. For them, what counts isn’t just the idea that what’s true for me isn’t true for you, because we are playing different games with different rules. Rather, any conception of truth is simply irrelevant, and that position changes how language is understood in ways that are even more radical.
Insofar as Trump or Johnson themselves are concerned, what they say makes no claim to be true at all; it just expresses what they happen to feel at any point in time (not what they ‘think,’ which wouldn’t be the right word to use). Hence, what populist politicians assert on one day can be merrily denied on the next.
That’s how they can repudiate the realities of COVID-19 even while catching the virus themselves - like Johnson and Bolsonaro. The purpose of making public pronouncements has nothing to do with anything that may or may not be the case, but only with winning a position. The notions of sense and nonsense have no place in what such leaders say.
The way in which these populists use language is the same as the way it’s used in a domestic row - or, worse, in domestic abuse: it’s just rule-free rhetoric, and as such it reflects all too well much of the lived reality of those to whom the populists make their appeal. This is something they and their supporters sense and recognise in each other’s fervent anti-intellectualism. We have a government - or rather a “gang” as Alan Bennett recently put it in the London Review of Books - of idiots who are proud of their idiocy.
It’s a horrible irony that the ground for such disastrous authoritarianism was prepared in part by the postmodern Left, a Left that didn’t see what was staring it in the face. Instead, it served as cheerleader for the very relativism that undermined it, mistakenly taking comfort from no longer having to demonstrate the truth of its claims to and about the world. To that extent, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Left has acted as a Trojan horse for today’s populist takeover. No wonder it has few resources for responding to the weaponization of language.