Fake News

Yuval Noah Harari shows that the human capacity to compose and organize groups larger than 150 individuals is grounded in lying; or, if you prefer, in the capacity to invent stories that command attention and obedience among large groups. This was one of the themes Harari covered in Sapiens. And it is one to which he returns toward the end of Twenty-One Lessons.

In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws and can thereby cooperate effectively.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (pp. 240-241). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Nevertheless, Harari’s précis ignores the determinate character of fiction. Not all social formations spread the same lies, nor can they afford to, when, for example, the livelihood of my clan relies upon the reliability of the fictions we share: where is the next watering hole, when is winter coming, is that a storm on the horizon, when should we expect the herd to arrive, is that poisonous or not? So, while it is certainly true that Sapiens cannot command all of the information available to them, it is also true that the kinds of information they are asked to command and the reasons they might like to command such information differ from one social formation to another.

This specification of fiction turns out to be specially important in the capitalist social formation, in which power and knowledge are reduced to their marginal value, i.e., to ΔQ/ΔL. What is “true” in this instance is the marginal product, a ratio. If Rand Paul can convince his constituents that the medical community is in the pocket of socialists eager to deprive them of their rights and freedoms, it really does not matter whether exposure to Covid-19 does or does not grant him or those with whom he is in contact immunity to the virus. What matters is the marginal value Senator Paul and his employers, private business lobbyists, derive from the stories he is telling. But this is not to say that Senator Paul knows that he is lying. I suspect that he does not.

Harari suggests that Sapiens are not equipped to handle the information dished out to us. But is that true?

Let me propose that the capitalist social formation — like any social formation — is equipped to reproduce itself, that it has cultivated practices and forms of thought specially suited to its reproduction. And, let me propose that among the forms of thought capitalism generates and cultivates is an empty experience of “freedom,” freedom as absence, as pure void, as nothing. Capitalism generates and cultivates this empty experience of freedom because a substantive notion of freedom would fundamentally undermine ΔQ/ΔL; it would require that we specify Q as some quantity of some thing. But things, by their very nature, suffer the disability of specificity, determinacy, of being one thing and not another. That is, things are, by their very nature, constrained. Capitalism, by contrast, is grounded in the unconstrained aspiration of abstract value, in the endless expansion and flexibility of the ratio ΔQ/ΔL. Capitalism reproduces itself when and only insofar as social actors in sufficiently large numbers, enjoying sufficient power, embrace and behave on the basis of this fiction, this story.

This story is not, however, every story. It is a highly specific story. It is a determinate story specially suited to a specific kind of society, capitalist society. Is it fake?

Among the vehicles through which our story today is delivered none is perhaps more powerful than science fiction, to which Harari devotes a chapter toward the end of Twenty-One Lessons: Chapter 18. In large part, Harari is not impressed. In each, the heroine or hero (and increasingly the heroine) proves herself equipped to escape the algorithms that determine others. Without saying so explicitly what Harari finds unconvincing in these stories is their indeterminate grasp of freedom.

Most science-fiction movies actually tell a very old story: the victory of mind over matter. Thirty thousand years ago, the story went like this: “Mind imagines a stone knife; hand creates a knife; human kills mammoth.” But the truth is that humans gained control of the world not so much by inventing knives and killing mammoths as by manipulating human minds. The mind is not the subject that freely shapes historical actions and biological realities; the mind is an object that is being shaped by history and biology. Even our most cherished ideals—freedom, love, creativity—are like a stone knife that somebody else shaped in order to kill some mammoth. According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (p. 256). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Which is why Harari prefers A Huxley’s Brave New World to G Orwell’s 1984. Winston sees outside the illusion. It is an illusion. John the Savage, by contrast, kills himself because he recognizes that the illusion is freedom. He recognizes that he prefers the illusion to the reality.

“But I like the inconveniences,” says the Savage. “We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.” “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.” “All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence. “I claim them all,” said the Savage at last. Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (pp. 260-262). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But let us now suppose that this “freedom” is itself determinate, that it is specified by the commodity. What Senator Paul mistakes for indeterminacy — for “freedom” — is, in fact, the freedom of the value form of the commodity. And let us further suppose that substantive freedom is not only a form of information, the subject of the stories we tell, but is also a constraint, a limitation, a thing. Universal health care, universal education, housing, food security, sustainable energy are so deeply troubling to Senator Paul and to his private plutocratic supporters because and insofar as they show how constraints give rise to substantive freedom. Does John the Savage really want syphilis, cancer, too little to eat, typhoid, and the right to be tortured?

No. This is what radical right wing extremists want. They want to protect the right of Senator Paul to infect them.

The line separating A Huxley from A Rand is thin indeed. The story they tell, that they need to tell, is a story where constraint is malevolent. But (and I take this to be Harari’s main point) constraint need not be either malevolent or fake.

Capitalism is not fake. It is real. Were it not real we could not model it with such pin-point precision. Nevertheless, capitalism reproduces an experience of freedom that is fake, indeterminate freedom; which simply does not exist, anywhere, not even in God. But this means that the multiple layers of domination under which we labor dominate us not because they are constraints, but because they bring us to tell stories about our constraints that are not true. So, for example, the story about global climate change is not nearly as terrifying as the story that denies catastrophic climate change; the story about systemic misogyny and racism is not nearly as terrifying as the stories that deny systemic misogyny and racism; and the story about Covid-19 is not nearly as terrifying as the story that ignores the epidemiological evidence surrounding Covid-19.

Substantive freedoms — health, education, and welfare — also require stories. But they are stories that produce and reproduce a different kind of world, perhaps no less terrifying in its own ways, but also not false; perhaps simply sustainable.

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