March 01, 2007
In an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald. Barry Jones paints a bleak but realistic picture of the political process. It is an edited excerpt of the eighth Manning Clark Lecture, which Jones will deliver at the National Library tonight.
The op-ed is short and to the point. Jones says:
Ideology has largely dropped out of politics, to be replaced by convergence. Oppositions have generally ceased to oppose, or propose an alternative basis for policy, and the concept that "there is no alternative" has been broadly accepted. Parliament has lost much of its moral authority and the public service has adopted the cult of managerialism and been increasingly partisan, committed to promoting the government "line".
That is the old Tweedledum Tweedledee view of politics updated into an account of a profound transformation of political life as the administration of things. What then of public reason? What then of critique?
Jones addresses these questions by considering the effects of the dominance of publicity in public life:
Universities have been forced to become trading corporations, the media are preoccupied with infotainment, while lobbying and the use of consultants ensures that vested interest is more influential than community interest. Public life is dominated by the black arts of "spin" and "framing": the concept of the dialectic in which alternative cases, based on evidence, are debated vigorously has become anachronistic. Appeals to emotion, especially fear and gullibility, and to immediate economic or cultural self-interest ("wedge politics") are exploited cynically and ruthlessly. Establishing the truth of a complex proposition (evolution, stem cell research, climate change, going to war in Iraq, industrial relations changes) is less significant than how simple arguments, once called "propaganda", can be sold.
It is a picture that fills in the details of Hannah Arendt's view of politics in modernity.
So how does Jones respond to this bleak account? Minimally. He says that 'Australia must make a commitment to restoring the primacy of reason, rejecting a paranoid view of history and "telling truth to power". ' How can we do this. Does blogging help in this? Don't bloggers plug away with their media criticisms, their political critiques , and their demands for greater accountability from the political and media institutions that have been so profoundly failing the country? Or does he view the blogosphere as a frivolous and inconsequential echo chamber?
Jones' "telling truth to power" connects to Foucault, who sees "the political problems of intellectuals not in terms of 'science' and 'ideology,' but in terms of 'truth' and 'power", and who holds that the question of how to deal with and determine truth is at the base of political and social strife.
Foucault explored truth to power in terms of an account of power relations in which power flows simultaneously in different directions and different volumes according to the various forms of "power relations" in the "network" of power exchange. The political mode of goverannce is successful because it creates truth::
The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn't outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn't the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.
Foucault argues that each society creates a "regime of truth" according to its beliefs, values, and mores. Foucault identifies the creation of truth in contemporary western society with five traits: the centering of truth on scientific discourse, accountability of truth to economic and political forces, the "diffusion and consumption" of truth via societal apparatuses, the control of the distribution of truth by "political and economic apparatuses," and the fact that it is "the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation." "Truth," is the construct of the political and economic forces that command the majority of the power within the societal web.
Since there is no truly universal truth so intellectuals cannot convey universal truth. The intellectual must specialize, specify, so that he/she can be connected to one of the truth-generating apparatuses of the society. Thus Al Gore is traveling around the world telling us how we must fundamentally change our civilization due to the threat of global warming. Another example is bloggers watching the media and detecting and criticizing the lack of adversarial reporting.