“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force,” wrote Karl Marx in “The German Ideology.” Taking this basic premise as our point of departure, is it possible to fashion some kind of theory of knowledge that adequately explains our contemporary confusing nightmare of truth and falsity?
In one of my most recent articles, I attempted to articulate why the notion that we live in a post-truth era is plainly ridiculous. At its root, these claims made by corporate media exist only to rehabilitate norms of truth and falsity and to reinscribe the traditional capitalist media hierarchy. My basic call was for “cui bono” (“to whom is it a benefit”) in analyzing truth claims—if we can set aside what we actually believe to be true or false, we can trace who would benefit from our belief in a certain fact from being true. What, then, is truth? My solution to this problem was to look towards Wittgenstein, who identified that the meaning of a word derives from its use. What is true refers to an inter-subjective agreement about what we agree to be true. I believe this is essentially the case, but this kind of claim deserves proper investigation, which we shall commence now.
One of the major claims made against the broad area of thought known as postmodernism is that it attempts to destroy the fundamental values of “Western civilization.” Truth, in the scientific sense, is often presented as an objectively existing thing that we can discover if we search for it—such as with particle accelerators or demographic polling. But this objection to postmodernism reveals that for defenders of the “West,” what is true is not the Truth, but is instead linked to a set of values that cannot be compromised or critiqued. Postmodernism, according to these critics, attacks the fundamental Western values like individuality, biologically determined gender, the free market, etc. If we wish to stay true to these values, then it is merely a matter of choosing not to believe in those nasty nihilistic claims of postmodern vagrants.
It’s also instructive to look at a more credible (in my opinion, anyways) claim under the same lens. Most climate scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and poses an imminent existential threat to the human species (not to mention the numerous extinctions of other species due to the changing climate). Climate change deniers, even as their numbers are falling, represent a certain demographic with specific values. Now, a crucial part of this understanding of truth shifts the emphasis from intention to impacts. What someone intends with a specific belief, as well as how they justify that belief, are not very important. Instead, the consequences of their beliefs are much more telling. In this example, there is a specific profit motive by multinational energy corporations to encourage disbelief in the accelerating annihilation of the environment. On the other side of the argument, people who believe in climate change do so out of a fundamental desire to protect life on Earth, human or otherwise. From these fundamental beliefs there arise specific truth claims and actions.
Crucially, I am not trying to reduce a truth claim to its underlying values or consequences and therefore argue that there is some sort of equivalency between all different kinds of truth claims. Of course, there are good reasons to believe scientific empiricism over conspiratorial claims without strong evidence-based justifications.
What I’m arguing, instead, is that one important way of analyzing whether or not something is true is to look at its foundational values—that is to say, the fundamental origins and consequences of that belief.
Now, the tension in this argument comes with trying to figure out what the actual values or consequences are. Someone who supports American notions of individualism may claim that their beliefs do not extend beyond the ability to shoot off fireworks whenever they please, or to own as many different firearms as possible. On the contrary, I am suggesting that these beliefs are never in a vacuum, but instead are always linked to a hierarchy of power—in this scenario, American individualism falls in line with the support of corporations and, in the context of firearms specifically, with the NRA. For this example, I am deliberately conflating the belief in an idea (such as Constitutional rights) and a truth claim—in the analysis of foundational values, there is no difference between the two.
The ultimate goal of this type of investigation into matters of truth returns us to Marx’s relation between the ruling ideas and the ruling class of every epoch. If we are to believe Marx, that would suggest that ideas that are generally popularized in order to maintain the masters of the present system of social relations. If the basic ideas of what is or is not true become confused on a mass scale, it is because such confusion helps continue the present capitalist system. To support those people who are exploited for the benefit of those capitalists is necessarily to challenge what is commonly accepted as truth, such as the existence of the era of “post-truth.” In doing so, we get the heart of what is truth really is, as well as what it is not.
Cormac Chester is a member of the Class of 2020 can be reached at email@example.com.