War, truth and peace

A fascinating essay in the weekend’s New York Times from William Davies at Goldsmith’s, ‘Everything is war and nothing is true‘.  It’s a remarkably wide-ranging essay, travelling from Brexit through ‘post-truth’ regimes to martial politics, and it’s derived from his new book, published in the UK at the end of last year as Nervous states: how feeling took over the world (Jonathan Cape/Penguin) and about to be published in North America as Nervous states: democracy and the decline of reason (W.W. Norton).

Here’s an extract from the NYT essay:

The principle that military and civilian operations should remain separate has been a cornerstone of liberal politics since religious and civil wars tore through Europe in the mid-17th century. The modern division between the army and civil policing originates in late-17th-century England, when early forms of public administration came to treat (and finance) the two independently of each other. Since then, the rule of law has been distinguished from rule by force.

However, there is an opposing vision of the modern state that also has a long history. According to this alternative ideal, the division between civil government and the military is a pacifist’s conceit that needs overcoming. And it’s not a coincidence that these days nationalists are especially keen to employ the rhetoric of warfare: The wars that fuel the nationalist imagination are not simply military affairs, going on far away between professional soldiers, but also mass mobilizations of politicians, civilians and infrastructure. Ever since the Napoleonic Wars witnessed conscription and the strategic mobilization of the economy, nationalists have looked to war to generate national solidarity and a sense of purpose.

There is another distinctive characteristic of military situations that civilian life often lacks: the promise of an instant response, without the delays that go with democratic argument or expert analysis. Warfare requires knowledge, of course, just not of the same variety that we are familiar with in times of peace. In civil society, the facts provided by economists, statisticians, reporters and academic scientists have a peace-building quality to the extent that they provide a common reality that can be agreed upon. The ideal of independent expertise, which cannot be swayed by money or power, has been crucial in allowing political opponents to nevertheless agree on certain basic features of reality. Facts remove questions of truth from the domain of politics.

War demands a different, more paranoid system of expertise and knowledge, which looks at the world as an uncertain and hostile place, where nothing is fixed. In situations of conflict, the most valuable attribute of knowledge is not that it generates public consensus but that it is up to the minute and aids rapid decision making. Meanwhile, the information shared with the public must be tailored to incite mass enthusiasm and animosity rather than objectivity.

The conditions that most lend themselves to military responses are those in which time is running out. Of course, many of the emergencies that we face today are fictions: the “emergency” at the Mexican border or, perhaps, the British government’s intentional exaggerations of the threat of a “no deal” Brexit to put pressure on Parliament. Framing an issue as an emergency where time is of the essence is a means of bypassing the much slower civilian world of deliberation and facts.

There’s much to think about here, though my immediate reaction is to suggest that much of what has come to be described as a ‘post-truth’ regime is in fact about establishing a post-trust regime: setting a thousand hares running across a hyper-accelerated public sphere so that it becomes exceptionally difficult to reach a common consensus – hence evidence yields to emotion.  I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the disinformation campaigns that have bedevilled the war in Syria (see, for example, here), and working on a more general formulation of the argument, and I’ll try to return to this in detail in a later post.

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