Truth to Power

By now, most or all of you are probably familiar with the notorious and widely-cited Ron Suskind interview with a former “senior advisor”  to George W. Bush that Suskind reported in a 17. October, 2004 article in The New York Times. Suskind’s article was entitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”. Although the whole article is noteworthy (as well for apparently introducing the phrase “reality-based community”), I’ll quote the relevant passage alone,

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Such imperious “cutting off” seems to have been a favoured tactic and habit of the Bushites, judging also from the rest of the article. Power, being a jealous god, dislikes contradiction, objection, or dissent. In effect, the act of “cutting off” is a repudiation itself of the notion that the West is any longer a “civilisation of the dialogue” and of any pretense of being any longer “liberal democracy”. The passage cited (and others in the article about the Bush administration) exemplify many features of that “deficient rationality” and duplicity of character that Jean Gebser described as the decadence and disintegration of the mental-rational structure of consciousness — the consciousness structure which has, until recently, virtually defined the Modern Era in terms of the ideal of “Universal Reason”.

In the former Dark Age Blog, we highlighted that self-destructive and self-annihilating character of Late Modern civilisation by drawing attention to our own current “four riders of the apocalypse”. I named them Double-Talk, Double-Think, Double-Standard, and Double-Bind. Many contemporary instances of that were provided in TDAB as evidence for the increasing self-destructive tendencies of Late Modernity or post-modernity. We pointed out in The Dark Age Blog that these aspects of duplicity and hypocrisy had now become psychically epidemic in Late Modernity and now served as evidence for its increasing senescence and overall loss of integrity — dis-integration in other words. This disintegration of the modern structure of consciousness is what is today referred to as Late Modern “nihilism,” in which (as Nietzsche put it) “all higher values devalue themselves”.

But how do values actually devalue themselves? I described this process using an analogy from physics. Two contrary acts meet each other like matter and anti-matter, become mutually annihilate, and leave a void of meaninglessness. These contrary acts are the discrepancy between what we say we do and what we actually do, which discrepancy is called “lip-service” or double-talk or not walking the talk. This is the essential description of hypocrisy. One’s words and one’s deeds no longer cohere or articulate. This is not always a deliberate or conscious mendacity or dissembling. In that respect, I drew attention to the 19th century novella by the author Robert Louis Stevenson entitled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published coincidentally at the same time Nietzsche was writing about the self-annihilating tendencies of rationality in the Modern Era and his subsequent forecast for “two centuries of nihilism”. Stevenson’s novella, with its outcome, is prophetic of the ultimate fate of the “two-faced” and the “fork-tongued” and very much a metaphor for how values devalue themselves. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde collide and become mutually annihilate.

The aide in question above has been generally presumed to have been Karl Rove (who, I see, is active again in strategising for another controversial Republican recapture of the US White House through an activist group called “American Crossroads”). Nonetheless, the deeper, disturbing implications of what the aide confessed to Suskind have never really been drawn out, to the best of my knowledge, which is what I want to attempt to do here with this post.

I have already broached one of the more disturbing implications of the attitude expressed by this “senior advisor” — the self-destruction of the civilisation of the dialogue — made evident in the narcissistic habit of “cutting off” someone (“pre-empting” any response one doesn’t want to hear) and such “cutting off,” or pre-emption, as a form of diseased speech became formalised in the perverse doctrine of “preventive war”, which is itself a deficient form of rationality that expresses a self-annihiliating contradiction — a self-annihilating contradiction that fully exemplifies Nietzsche’s succinct description of nihilism (which also became theme of Orwell’s 1984) as given above — the insane belief that war and violence are prevented by war and violence.  This also characterises what Gebser calls “deficient rationality” (in fact Gebser uses the term “rationality” itself to describe the deficient functioning or mode of reason).

What did this “senior advisor” (if not “senile” advisor) mean by “reality-based community” if not a dismissive contempt for those oriented towards truth as well as those still retaining a capacity for discerning reason? What is true is what is real, after all. And yet this advisor was basically dismissing truth has irrelevant to the pursuit of power. Self-interest trumps all.

Power, as such, is the capacity to make. That connection between power and making is still echoed in the German word “Macht”, which means “force” or “power”, but is also semantically connected with the meanings of words like “might”, “make”, “machine”, “macho”, and also “majesty” and “magic”.  And in this case, the deeper implications of the advisor’s meaning was that power or might alone determined, as its prerogative, what was to be deemed truth and reality. Truth, as such, was subordinate to might and the will to power.

That was, in fact, the implication of a statement also made by Donald Rumsfeld during a press conference I once watched. “I believe truth has a certain usefulness”, I heard him say. I was astonished that no one amongst the mainstream press objected then or later.  They were already compromised. That “utility” of truth (the deficient phase of a crass utilitarian ethic) means that truth must also have a disutility also. In the deficient mode of rationality, where truth is considered as a “utility” or mere means, truth is no longer respected as an end and purpose in itself — as something to be realised — but as a mere means to some other goal or end, and only to be regarded or disregarded in respect of that end, which is acquiring, holding, and keeping power. Power — “winning” — becomes an exclusive end in itself whatever the cost.

This is why, it was said by Lord Acton: “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But this is the very thing that both Rumsfeld and the unnamed aide of Suskind’s interview were now extolling as being virtuous (and which Vice-President Cheney also called “the new normal”).

The reversal of fortune or enantiodromia here is this: power was indeed the goal of science (originally called “natural philosophy”) from Francis Bacon onward.  “scientia potens est” — knowledge is power. The discovery of truth was considered the means to power, so will to power lies at the root of scientific activity from the beginning. Power was the reward of the discovery of truth. At the end of the Modern Era, however, the great reversal is that power obtained now devises to determine what is to be considered truth and reality. To a great extent, this explains also the latter day attempts by states and corporations to direct, discipline, subordinate, and control science also (which is another self-annihilating negation of Enlightenment values that few seem to concern themselves with). In effect, we only respect science and truth to the extent that it serves self-interest. And at the root of all self-interest is will to power.

Suskind himself is reduced, in the face of this onslaught, to merely “murmuring” in defence of reason and truth. That stuttering defence was his deficiency also. Both men, in their own ways, were participating in the self-destruction of the foundational principles of Western civilisation (or, indeed, of any kind of civilisation worth the meaning of the word). Suskind could not summon the enthusiasm or inspiration to actually defend discerning reason, or truth and reality against the will to power of this senior advisor because he was full of doubts and uncertainty himself! This is not his fault, actually. It has been the case since the First World War shattered all optimistic Enlightenment expectations for human moral improvement and “infinite progress of Man”. That is why he could only “murmur” and mumble a defense of truth as such. He was reduced to basically stammering about the very foundational values of the Enlightenment and the Modern Era.  His shock at the aide’s profession of faith in will to power alone has more to do with the fact that he himself  had no ultimate faith, certainty, or confidence in his own assumptions and first principles. And this “senior advisor” caught him off guard.

That is the problem that characterises Late Modernity (and the very reason perhaps why we call it “late”). It is a tactic that the fascist propagandists, who sought to roll back 2,000 years of history, knew full well how to employ against the “reality-based community” also — their loss of confidence in reason alone to determine the good. Power as such will always attempt (and will often succeed) to subordinate truth and reality — or the perception of truth and reality — to its own ends.

In the Dark Age Blog, we once gave how “Promethean Man,” with a fire in his belly and his mind for coming to just such “judicious discernment” of  truth and reality, stood at the beginning of the Modern Era, but who has lately been displaced by his brother “Epimethean Man”. Epimethean Man no longer has any stomach for truth or reality or for the exercise of discerning reason. As his very name signals, he is the man of “after-thought” or retrospection. The one sought truth and reality as a means to power, while the latter, in his deficient mode of functioning, now exercises power as means for  making reality and truth in his self-image.

There is an odd conjunction between these two approaches — a coincidence of opposites — for it is true that we create the reality we know, which is creative power. But the responsibility to use this power creatively (and that means in a way that is life-enhancing as even Nietzsche understood — and wanted it to be understood — as “will to power”) has been perverted, deformed, and distorted into the creation of power for its own sake and as an end in itself which, ultimately unhinged from any connection with truth and reality, becomes self-destruction. In other words, the values of winning and losing, which are issues of power, have subjugated and enslaved the vital issues of the relation of power to truth or falsehood. Power now only utilises these values as the auxilliaries of  its own exclusive dominion.

Which is narcissism.

The moral of the story, as Suskind’s interview makes plain, is this: the early Modern Er, which believed that the discovery of truth through judicious reason and discernment would lead to power, now ends with power presuming to determine what is to be considered reality and truth (propaganda, perception management, public diplomacy, delusions of all kinds). That is part of the total value inversion that now heralds the end of the Modern Era, and which marks the transition from Promethean Man to Epimethean Man.

One response to “Truth to Power”

  1. amothman says :

    Excellent envisionising. It is a testimony under God.Suskin has no faith that is why he stattered and mumbled in front of the senile advisor.I have faith that this universe, in every things in it, is run by wise and knowledgable energy that we can not comprehend,that is why He referred me to his creation in order to come to grasp part of His unlimited creationality.The one in essence , the multiple in names.That is what Ibn Arabi talks about when he tackles the creation as manifestations of the divines names,warning from falling in the wells of knowledge and forgetting the springs of obligations.

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