The endless fact checking that flooded the election did nothing to reverse a generalised epistemic
cynicism as political parties even began creating their own fake fact checking sites. Its not primarily the quality of the evidence that
matters its how (and how fast) they circulate. Many people who voted for Johnson’s had already priced his lies into market place
of wild assertion and spin. In a landscape of lies, they reasoned, you may as well opt for the apex predator.
Here in the US, what's said about the British elections is: "OK, so Trump will definitely win." I will never say that and will act to the contrary, but it is obvious that the final years of the 2010s have marked a turning point. For better and for worse you can say goodbye to mid-twentieth century liberalism, the sociopolitical world order that emerged in the wake of WWII.
Liberalism had an institutional comfort zone, often cubical and painted white. There you could say anything for the thrill of it, whether humorous, shocking, abject, violent or utopian. It was there because the technocratic "rule of experts" had been nailed down tight in all domains by a plethora of procedurally rational administrations, and the role of art and intellectual culture was to allow unreconciled individuals to let off steam. It didn't matter too much what happened in there, because the 1960s had proved that any emergent social trend or movement could always be coaxed into mainstream culture by the mass media under technocratic rule. So bootless freedom shaped the multifarious cultures of the late twentieth century, all the way up to the early days of the Internet. Tactical media is a fine example.
Now we have a networked corporate media system that gives any well-resourced and strategically constituted group the means to stimulate and aggregate the humorous, shocking, abject, violent or utopian fantasies of isolated individuals. Fringe emotions and ideas can be "majoritarianized" with creative statistical profiling and lots of communicational nudges. Ask Brad Parscale how it's done. Contemporary politicians have the means to engineer effective political constituencies on the fly, as long as they draw on the archaic but plentiful universals of sexism, nationalism and racism. What we do not have, in response to this new fascism, are the discipline, convictions and willingness to act of the millions of people who put their life's work into the creation of twentieth-century liberalism.
I think the situation looks very bad. It is dismaying to read and recognize the truth of the following quote, found in an essay by Dominic Cummings:
"'We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.’ Carl Sagan."
The dismaying thing is that Cummings says that, while the so-called left remains leaderless and without any aspiration to form a coherent movement. The lack of coherence is directly attributable to the disinterest in science, on the one hand, and in political philosophy, on the other. Science provides a guide to what is possible. Political philosophy provides a basis to choose or refuse. Only when the two have a continuous and dynamic relation to each other can a stable world order emerge. This is why I am so interested in David Garcia's notion of "epistemic communities." But David, surely you know that the same phrase is used to describe the construction process of the postwar liberal order, with its international institutions and eventually the European Union itself? It would be worth continuing to explore the meaning of this little phrase.
As someone engaged with art and culture, I have begun to work with the concepts of Earth System Science and the Anthropocene. I see my role not only as someone who critiques, interprets or popularizes these ideas, though all that is definitely a good thing. The main thing is that we need a culture and a professional/political system capable of acting on our best collective perception of the Earth and its evolution, humans included. To get to that point we need epistemic communities who acquire knowledge and test its value with respect to their philosophical concept of the good life. However, such communities do not only have to learn about science and technology. They also have to continually check their philosophical ethos against that of others, to reach a strong universalizable consensus about what constitutes the good life under twenty-first century conditions. This is the only way to produce effective professional representatives who can bring widely held beliefs into the sphere of action.
For sure, it is well known that universals are dangerous, but how about the war of all against all? How is that going to look with 2020 vision?
Humpty-Dumpty just fell off the wall. The shattered effigy of mid-twentieth century liberalism will not spring magically back together again. Either we create and collectively codify a new ethos, or we struggle and die in the ruins of the old one.
Happy new year, BH