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Epistemic Nihilism Leaves Only Brute Force
Some modern proponents of identity politics causes, influenced a little by Marxism and a lot by postmodernism, claim that power is what matters, not truth. What we regard as “true” is merely what the powerful convince us to think, they suggest. In an age of misinformation, tech overlords, institutional capture, and activist journalists and professors… The post Epistemic Nihilism Leaves Only Brute Force appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Some modern proponents of identity politics causes, influenced a little by Marxism and a lot by postmodernism, claim that power is what matters, not truth. What we regard as “true” is merely what the powerful convince us to think, they suggest. In an age of misinformation, tech overlords, institutional capture, and activist journalists and professors explicitly pushing ideological agendas, there is a certain degree of truth to this specific point, which is merely to say that lies can masquerade as truth. A stranglehold on social institutions helps to spread lies. However, the truth remains as important as ever, since truth is the way things really are regardless of lies and manipulation. Truth is coextensive with reality, and reality is immune to wishful thinking and politics.
It is important to emphasize that actual truth is not in anybody’s power to control; only lies, distortions, and falsehoods are, and it is one thing to note that those in power, depending on circumstance, can promote lies as truth and another to endorse this fact as the way things really are in all circumstances. The postmodern leftist takes a sociological fact, that corrupt regimes and corrupt people lie and distort and try to convince people that falsehoods are true, and then converts this sociological fact into an epistemological one, pretending that we can never know the truth because those in power determine what we can know. In their dreams, perhaps; a dream of such utter world domination that all human beings are forever cut off from reality and must rely on what other people tell them to be true. This is a gross overestimation of what human beings can do. There will always be a gap between state sponsored lies, and what people can see for themselves. You can try telling someone that everything is fine, but much good it will do you if everything around him is falling apart. Using a combination of censorship and propaganda, the leftist actually aspires to the power to control all thought and communication and they do it explicitly. The President and Members of Congress are open about their desire to control these things, even, at one point, proposing something like The Ministry of Truth, from the dystopian novel 1984. Cynicism about political corruption, which is understandable, is converted into giving themselves permission to lie; to participating in the corruption. Certain Gnostics did the same thing. The world is a sewer, sewers cannot be made filthier than they are already, therefore we have moral permission to engage in filthy behavior. Instead of fighting lies and corruption, you just pretend to think that lies are all we have. Ironically, they do this with a “higher truth” in mind. They believe their political goals are good, true, and beautiful. This they claim to know. And this higher truth gives them permission to lie to achieve it as the ends justifying the means. One name for this is “noble cause corruption.”
The postmodern cynic makes a false epistemological claim indicating epistemological skepticism and nihilism. Nobody knows anything thanks to the influence of the powerful. This can be combined with the claims of a postmodernist like Jacque Derrida, that everything is a “text” open to interpretation. On this view, there is no reality versus the text and thus nothing to compare the text with. If there is an objective reality, we have no access to it. It is interpretation all the way down. This means that there is no way to settle debates by appeal to the evidence. Whose point of view prevails will thus be a matter of violence and power since there is no legitimate way to judge between perspectives. In this way, epistemic nihilism leaves only brute force.
This chain of reasoning contains a contradiction and is thus false. The postmodernist claims to know that epistemic nihilism is true and thus that all agreement about how to interpret the world seen as a text can only be a matter of one person or group imposing its will on to another. But, if epistemic nihilism is true, they cannot possibly know this and thus they can have no justification for their imposition of force. If we do know that epistemic nihilism is true, then it is in fact possible to distinguish fact from fiction, text from reality, and truth from lies, and thus epistemic nihilism must be incorrect. The person promoting it is throwing sand in people’s eyes, shutting down debate or differing points of view, and sees no reason to confine himself to reason and logic, nor to avoid contradiction. He is a power-hungry psychopath. Reason and logic can only hurt him, so he disparages them. Why limit yourself to what is rational and logical? If power is everything, then I will shut you up. That is how they have decided to win a debate. By not having one in the first place.
Anyone who claims that power matters, not truth as a matter of epistemology is confessing that he is a liar, bully, and not to be trusted. They slide from a false assertion about epistemology, to justifying ignoring the truth sociologically. He should be excluded from any reasonable discussion as much as a family would not hire a nanny who made the same declaration. In fact, no schoolteacher, politician, policeman, social worker, prison guard, or restaurant manager should be hired or trusted who valorizes power over truth. Psychopaths may live among us, but they have the good sense not to advertise the fact and as with psychopaths, the person who declares that “power matters more than truth” should be avoided whenever possible.
In case one wonders if a strawman argument is being made, read the following: “Each episteme [new structure of knowledge], for Foucault, is the servant of some rising power, and has had, as its principal function, the creation of a “truth” that serves the interest of power. Hence, there are no received truths that are not also convenient truths.”[1] Epistemologically, if it were true that truth is merely what the powerful make us think is true, then this truth could never be known. The politically and socially powerful would successfully pull the wool over our eyes and make us believe the lies they tell us. The postmodern leftist is claiming access to a truth that the powerful do not want us to know. So, the powerful are not all-powerful. There is a difference between what we can know to be true and what we are told is true. So, the postmodern leftist is wrong. Once lies and propaganda are exposed by reference to the truth, those engaging in lies and propaganda are in danger of losing power. If the ideologue can know a truth not sanctioned by the powerful, then so can we. And in fact, powerful regimes are routinely overthrown and thus do not have a stranglehold on what people think.
The epistemic nihilist claims to know that there is no objective truth as a matter of objective truth. The postmodern cynic is merely pretending to be an epistemological skeptic so she has the freedom to lie and propagandize. And, she does this due to noble cause corruption; her “higher truth” permits lower lies. And she bases this fundamentally on her sociological assessment; namely that capitalism and democracy are badly flawed, which they are. The question, of course, is then with what to replace them? In a book called The Strange Death of Marxism, Paul Gottfried notes that Marxism has been largely replaced by identity politics. Marxism divided the world into oppressors and the oppressed. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat; the owners of the means of production (factories) and the workers. In the twentieth century, the middle-class academics who promoted Marxism got more and more frustrated and disillusioned that the working class rejected communism. Political parties that used to be devoted to working class causes have abandoned them. Whereas the Labor party politicians in England once had plenty of working class trade unionists and the like, now the politicians are frequently blue-blood graduates of elite schools and universities with no sympathies for or connections with the working poor. In fact, they hate them and despise them as ignorant, backward, and uneducated. The same thing can be said of the American Democrats and the elites in general. In both parties, identity politics has replaced concern for the poor of all types. In terms of political support, this has worked out much better for the politicians. Love when thwarted can turn into its opposite; hatred. The failed seduction of the proletariat generated the fury of the scorned. A new group of victims was found who turned out to be far more amenable to the overtures of the middle-class proposed saviors. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the powerful, who should be the “oppressors,” are in fact embraced, such as the tech overlords, and the powerless and dispossessed, the working class and lower as a whole, are vilified as the enemies of progress and the counterrevolutionaries. There is the pretense that the working class, bemoaning the loss of many of their manufacturing jobs overseas, are somehow the ones oppressing everyone with their ”white supremacy.”
One possible motivation for the elites of various types, such as the unelected World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, to embrace identity politics is to have us fighting each other rather than questioning them and their influence. It is simply a fact that the power-hungry, moderately smart and unscrupulous will and do figure out a way to game any system, communism as much as capitalism or identity politics. The same people were at the top and bottom of society under Hungarian communism as under capitalism other than a thin layer of party officials at the very top.
As mentioned, a prominent proponent of reducing everything to power was Michel Foucault. Hospitals, schools, mental asylums, and prisons, he regarded as instantiating power, and a power guided by surveillance. Foucault was never clear what he meant by power, but he admitted in an interview that “for him, power was coextensive with the social body.”[2] Any order will employ power for its maintenance, but not necessarily for the covert benefit of one person or group. Hospitals embody hierarchies and power structures but the desire to heal the sick is not a matter of exerting dominance over patients. Foucault wrote: “I believe that anything can be deduced from the general phenomenon of the domination of the bourgeois class.”[3] Or rather, he could deduce bourgeois domination from any phenomenon. Foucault detested imaginary “bourgeois domination” so much that he goes so far as to recommend that after the Marxist revolution, anything associated with the judicial and penal apparatus must be eliminated. He writes approvingly of the Revolutionary Tribunals during the French Revolution which abandoned due process. Judge, witness, and prosecutor were combined into one person, the “Representatives on Mission,” who carried their own private guillotines with them. The accused had no right to reply. Thousands of executions were carried out in this manner. Combined with other atrocities during the Revolution, there was a frenzy of violence. The idea that this “rebellion against the judiciary” represents some kind of improvement is a travesty. The Moscow Show Trials were similarly awful. “Proletarian justice” eliminates any defense for the accused. In his distaste for bourgeois dominance, he advocates a far worse unbridled power. The rule of law does involve exercises of power but the whole point is that it includes safeguards, rules of evidence that favor the defendant, a right to face and respond to your accuser, to hear exactly what the charges are against you, and applies equally to all, at least as an ideal and innocence until proven guilty. The rule of law is the opposite of arbitrary dictatorial tyranny.
Power is indeed an element of many human interactions. Parents have power over children, bosses over employees, teachers over students, principals over teachers, school boards over principals, parent-teacher groups over school boards, and so on. It is not true that it is differences of power that are the most salient, important aspect of these relationships. The overarching dynamic between parents and children, for instance, should be love. Teachers should be focused on teaching, primarily, and thus with care and concern for their students. The classroom discipline needed for teaching students should be a background element, only coming to the fore when required. Even romantic relationships have aspects of power differentials within them, not to be abused or exaggerated. It is only if something has gone badly wrong that power would become prominent.
Foucault’s outlook is fundamentally paranoid. Bourgeois society is a conspiracy and nothing is what it seems. The irony is that truth-rejecters and the power-hungry like him have created conditions where paranoia is justified. See the growth in HR departments as morality police ready to sever employees from their jobs. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault claims that diagnosing someone as severely mentally ill and putting him in a mental asylum is merely an exertion of power. The sane demonize the insane, label them, lock them away, and surveille them. Meanwhile, mental illness is a very real problem that frequently has a biological basis. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault sees prisons also as power trips. The more moderate the prison, the more insidious it is. The prisoner might even reform himself, God forbid. Prisons are coercive with no legitimate purpose, he thinks. Foucault even praises crime as evidence of an irrepressible human spirit; a refusal to conform. The victims of violent and property crime will beg to differ. Criminals prey on members of their own community, killing, raping, assaulting, and stealing from them, reducing the quality of life for all who then live in fear. Far from joyful “irrepressibility,” it is a malignant antisocial tumor. If Foucault were not already dead, it would seem appropriate to lock him in with someone violently criminally insane and see how much he likes this exemplar of the unrepressed human spirit. Such attitudes can be described as “luxury beliefs;” the consequences of which their purveyors never have to face. Foucault did not live in a crime-ridden neighborhood where the police and jails were the only sources of protection.
The evolutionary psychologist Edward Dutton points to studies that look at the psychological profiles of strongly left-wing people like Foucault, particularly those who favor redistributive policies. They tend to be a more intelligent than conservatives, while conservatives tend to be more prosocial, agreeable, and low in neuroticism. The left-wing person, on average, is more likely to be antisocial, and thus more individualist, while being high in neuroticism. Neuroticism, as one of the Big Five personality traits, is the tendency to feel negative feelings of all kinds especially strongly. These include anger, envy, resentment, jealousy, sadness, fear, and so on. For someone high in neuroticism, the world is a frightening, emotionally overwhelming and frankly, bad place. Such a person tends to be insecure and unsure of his abilities. A highly self-confident neurotic would be an oxymoron. A plausible response to experiencing the world in this way and feeling incapable of overtly directly competing with other people because you are unsure of your abilities and suspect you would lose, is to seek power using covert means in order to try to control all this negativity. This is a more womanly tactic. Being smaller and weaker, passive aggression and indirection are a safer route.  One way to do that is by virtue signaling; broadcasting the idea that you are more caring, compassionate, and moral than other people, and are thus narcissistically superior to everyone else. American Puritans were virtue signalers too and competed for status in this way. They considered themselves more moral than other Christians. The truly upper class do not need to compete along these lines, being already ascendent, and the working class do not tend to participate in these games, having problems of their own and not being as good at navigating word-driven social games. A person can strive to achieve moral superiority by claiming to be the defender of some group of people who might be considered oppressed – an outgroup. You can also try to destroy your competitors for status by claiming they are immorally insufficiently concerned about members of the outgroup. Thus, a power struggle arises between liberals with each one upping the ante and trying to prove that he or she is more prosocial and compassionate than his neighbor. If successful, the left-winger can expect to be promoted and to gain positions overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion, for instance, many of which pay extremely well. The average salary for a chief diversity officer in New York State is $185,000 with the highest hitting well over $350,000. For the less successful, getting a job in a human resources department is also remunerative.
Being smarter than average, the liberal can keep up with the everchanging rules and he knows what attitudes it is in his self-interest to have. He is better able to brainwash himself into actually believing what it is in his best interests to believe. The question is, can you believe something if you are being offered a six-figure salary to believe it? Yes, I can, or die trying! More vitally and more biologically, do you wish to be ostracized for failing to conform? You will then be in the outgroup, and not the good kind. Historically, people in the outgroup tend not to be considered to be real human beings with real human worth. They are simply “not one of us.” In fact, they were regarded as demons; agents of chaos, enemies of the state, who need to be eradicated.
So, highly neurotic people who are antisocial can become fixated on attaining power to try to make the world around them a more manageable place. By advertising their supposedly superior moral position they can compete with the people around them for social status and for jobs. There is no downside to this competitive virtue signaling. The outgroup is used to metaphorically beat other members of your ingroup over the head. It is, however, immoral to use the suffering of others in order to promote your own job prospects and social position. The outgroup is just a tool, which you are most likely not actually helping anyway.
But, because the neurotic are insecure, they never feel like they are in power, even when they are. Why would the world be such a threatening, scary, and UNFAIR place if she is in fact the right hand of the potentate? So, they remain convinced that they are powerless and in a weak position. The world does not in fact stop being a scary, threatening place to the neurotic once power is attained. The mere existence of a different point of view somewhere makes them feel that their position is under threat and that they need to double down and keep striving to be dominant and eradicating opposition. They can be compared to monopolists who worry that they will lose everything any time since down is the only direction they can go.
Michel Foucault would seem to be a prime instance of this dynamic. He can demonstrate moral concern for the mentally ill and for criminals, both of whom can tend to be despised. They are both outgroups relative to him since he was neither insane nor a prisoner, and he can advertise his moral superiority to members of his ingroup by siding with the outgroup and using them to promote his career – very successfully, as it turned out. As someone who was presumably highly neurotic and who definitely tended to see the world as a rather horrible, unjust, unfair place, Foucault became obsessed with power. We human beings tend to extrapolate from our own experiences to other people, so he incorrectly imagines that the rest of us are obsessed with power like him, and that power is the most salient feature of human relationships. It was merely the most important thing to him. Projection may well come into it too. Being a Machiavellian schemer and power-hungry is not attractive, so accusing other people of being power-obsessed rather than yourself is a way to shift attention and blame onto someone else. Or, at the very least, diffusing the blame to everyone so it would make no sense to criticize you in particular.
On the theme that the evil desire power, in the Gorgias, Plato has one character, Polus, state that the very highest good for man is to be a tyrant. A tyrant can do whatever he wants whenever he wants.[4] If he sees something nice, he can simply steal it for himself and the victim will be powerless to stop him. If he dislikes someone, the tyrant can have him banished or executed. Socrates says he can do anything he wants too. He can hide a dagger in his cloak and stab someone in the Agora (the marketplace where people went to socialize). Polus points out that that would be no good because Socrates would be caught and executed as a murderer. Socrates replies, to paraphrase, “Good. That is how it should be.” Polus cannot believe his ears and scornfully replies that a tyrant has more power because he gets away with his crimes scot-free. Socrates comments that that is a bad thing. Power is the worst thing that an evil person can get because it just makes him eviler. It is good, right, and just, that those who do evil should be punished. It is good for them. He gets what he deserves, and we should all get what we deserve. It is possible that the punishment might even get him to change his ways and reform him, helping him to become a good person, which would be great. If he is executed, then he is prevented from doing more evil things, which is also good. And, it is also good for society to be protected from unscrupulous people who seek to do others harm.
A good person needs no power to be good. He can be good all by himself. Only an evil person needs power, in order to escape the consequences and retribution for his actions, but that would be a bad thing anyway.
Power matters, not truth, sociologically, where a tyrannical regime can do what it likes, truth be damned. Of course, the truth still matters morally, philosophically, epistemologically, spiritually, and in any other way. The dictator of North Korea does his best to suppress truth. According to refugees who have escaped, North Koreans are deprived of the most basic information about the rest of the world and are in fact fed misinformation. The dictator cares about truth. He knows it is dangerous to him because his position is immoral. Truth still matters in this context, it just becomes impotent, so long as the dictator remains in power. Impotent, but still potentially dangerous.
The trouble with lying is it diminishes social trust, and social trust is what is needed for society to function at all well. Once social trust is lost because of chronic lying, when it is extremely important that the government and the media is believed, people will not believe it because these sources of information have already demonstrated themselves to be dishonest. When it comes to testimony, truth claims based on your word of honor, the only reason someone has for believing you is that you have demonstrated yourself to be of good character. Unfortunately, many journalists and even professors have declared themselves to be activists, not honest reporters of the news, nor scholars. The public needs reporters to report the facts so they can be evaluated, and people need scholars for the same reason. Once these people have abandoned their missions, they need to step aside so someone else can perform these tasks. If this does not happen, and it becomes impossible to get unbiased information, the resulting loss of social trust can tear a society apart and prevent it coming together for common goals.
Without truth, there is no such thing as being wrong and there is no such thing as lying. Clearly, both things exist. People are frequently wrong, and they frequently lie. And, at this point in time, one of the most common ways of lying involves lying by omission; leaving out something that is clearly relevant and important for evaluating what is true.
It is true, to a degree, that “history is told from the point of view of the winners.” But, in order to know this, there must be a point of view that is not so determined. The statement is reliant on the ability to step outside what the “winners” would have us think and find out the actual facts. There has to be a contrast between what we are told and what actually happened and we need access to objective facts to make this determination. “Controlling the narrative” can only ever be partial, otherwise there would be no such concept as “controlling the narrative.” There would just be lies masquerading as objective truth and nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Corrupt regimes fear the truth because it reveals their lies and manipulations. Corrupt regimes can try to protect themselves by saying power is everything, truth is nothing. In such a situation, there is no legitimate power based on truth and fact – merely one person imposing his ideas on someone else. Epistemic nihilism creates a war of all against all. The totalizing of power serves a Machiavellian purpose, achieving power and preventing anyone from challenging your power as based on lies. Being highly neurotic, the “activist” is prone to think that power is what matters most. They want it for themselves to tame an unruly reality that they see as threatening, evil, nonegalitarian, and unjust. They imagine that their obsession is our obsession.
Not noticing that the point of view of the activist, identity politics, is shared by every major American institution, she can say that it can be necessary to lie and scheme to overthrow a corrupt order. In reality, she is not in the business of attaining power, but maintaining it.
She and others like her have the power, but she imagines that it is the working class who reject her views who are somehow still something to worry about. They are not. It is the elites in any society who rule, never the majority. As a neurotic, she is filled with fear and never convinced she is in power, so she can justify her continued lies, manipulations, lying by omission, misrepresentations, propaganda, repressions, and censorship, by claiming to be fighting corruption, not realizing that it is she who is part of the evil tyranny. She can defend her actions by saying that lies are justified in circumstances where you are fighting the powerful, and she can reject criticisms of her position by preemptively denying the existence of objective truth – thus, her detractors have no credibility. The fact that that is a load of nonsense involving multiple contradictions does not bother her. Everything reduces to an exertion of power and that is it. Realpolitik über alles. Her opponents impotently continue to argue and play by the rules of logic and reason to no avail.
The power-obsessed neurotic person admires power and wants power. She does not like those without power. She merely uses the powerless outgroup to attack her own ingroup. She does not like her own ingroup either since she is fundamentally antisocial and individualist, though more than powerless outgroups. She does not associate with the outgroup. She neither dates members of them, nor does she move to the same neighborhoods as them. She changes her manner of speech and writing when she talks to members of the outgroup and talks down to them, unlike conservatives who do not.
Remember Plato’s insight, the power of the tyrant, though not the power of a parent, teacher, employer, doctor, nurse, prison guard, or judge, is only necessary for the evil. A power based on truth and reason has no reason to say that power is everything, truth nothing, which is a lie. And we know that because to know that power is everything, truth nothing, you have to know the truth.

 

NOTES:

[1] p. 100. Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Roger Scruton.
[2] p. 102 Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Brighton, 1980.
[3] p. 109 Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Roger Scruton.
[4] Boethius points out that in fact tyrants must be constantly protected from those who wish to assassinate them and are thus less free than hoi polloi. Also, the closer you are to a tyrant, the more power you potentially have. Thus, friends and family and especially advisors become logical replacements for you and thus a threat to your physical safety. Tyrants in fact lose what little freedom they might have had. A president can only dream of walking down the street, going shopping, seeing a movie, eating out, without consulting the secret service first.

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