Nothing is more dangerous than a government that proclaims to hold the truth. To proclaim the truth in the singular is to refuse democratic plurality and place limits upon the distribution of participation and power. This is a double denial for the denizens of the contemporary polis. It is to proclaim that this truth, which comes from this elevated position, in accordance with these rationalised constraints, from the mouth of this respectable individual, is the one truth. It is to assert that any alternative claim to truth must therefore be untrue, mistaken, illusory, fictitious, fabricated, or otherwise bogus.
There was a Te Deum, clouds of incense, infinite firings off of muskets and artillery; the peasants were intoxicated with happiness and piety. Such an occasion destroys the work of a hundred issues of the Jacobin papers
—Stendhal, The Red and the Black.
Stendhal shows us the effectiveness of the discourse of truth in rituals which establish or renew sovereign power. The truth which connects an “is” to an “ought” —or the truth which connects a particular state of affairs to a particular political response— is an exclusionary political technology. “Political technology” is a technical term for those devices which organise disparate individuals, with their unique drives and heterogeneous desires, into more or less rational multiplicities.
Simply put, political technologies, such as the proclamation of a single truth, seek to control the conduct of conduct, effecting a certain uniformity of behaviour amongst targeted individuals motivated by a definite strategic end. With sufficient popular support the proclamation of the truth makes possible or facilitates the transformation of a myopic ideological discourse into a discourse that is universal, neutral, and unassailable.
The proclamation of the truth is identical in form, content and effects to the proclamation of “the real” or “reality”. Like the one truth, the one reality is totalitarian: it excludes, displaces, marginalises or neutralises counter-realities, counter-knowledges, and counter-truths, which are local, discontinuous, and frequently pragmatic. The appeal to the real is also an appeal to an apolitical principle of coherence, which claims to be able to order counter-knowledges, or counter-truths, and place them in a hierarchy, de-link them from practice, assign to them their true value.
If the real and reality function in political discourse as the justification for coercive policy by virtue of their power to exclude or marginalise, then we, as a political community, should be gravely suspicious of any claim to reality or the one truth. And yet despite this, our political discourse is suffused with it. How many times do we hear the appeal to the one truth? How many times we are told to face reality? How many times are we told to wake up to the real world? And is this trend not especially notable in the politics of crime and criminal justice?
The regularity of the one truth and the real in the politics of crime and criminal justice seems to vary over time. Look at John Major’s 1996 speech at the Conservative Political Centre. The word “reality” does not appear, and the word “real” appears only once. We hear that political beliefs are based on principals, and that these principals are the basis of views and policy. There is no appeal to the reality of these principles. But rather a recognition that these principles are a standpoint or perspective constitutive of a set of positions that logically follow. These principles offer themselves for adjudication, and the question of democratic support is therefore twofold. On the one hand, there is the question of your commitment to the principles. On the other hand, there is the question of your view as to whether the policy is faithful to the principles.
Turn now to Tony Blair’s 2006 speech on crime and criminal justice in Bristol. The speech here is suffused with the appeal to the real, to reality. The word “view” does not appear, neither does the word “opinion”, “principle”, nor “belief”. The word reality is used nine times. The word real is used eight times. So eager is Mr Blair to demonstrate he is on the side of the truth, in the domain of the real, that he uses the word on occasion twice in the same sentence.
This powerful evocation of “the truth” is not mere rhetoric, and has a number of effects. It renders any assertion which challenges or fails to show sufficient correspondence with the reality of the real ephemeral, and thereby disqualifies it. It places Mr Blair in the truth, and those who oppose him in cloud cuckoo land. It therefore divides the polis into two agonistic groups, with one in a position of necessary dominance over the other.
For those of you who occupy that subservient space, reality accuses you: You liar! You fraud! You who are not in the truth! Your experiences are meaningless, unless they correspond to me! Your views are invalid, unless they express my truth! Your evidence is void, unless it corresponds to my form!
The proclamation of the real is the discursive equivalent of a chokehold. With enough support, it can form a formidable and paralysing “consensus” about the way things are. What makes such “consensus” most frightening is the plane upon which it operates: transcendental, and therefore at the level of intelligible possibility. It makes possible and thereby controls understanding. Like the retina on the inside of your eye: you cannot see it, and yet it limits, forms and shapes everything that you are able to see. It constitutes your affective perception of the world.
Perhaps you believe in the real, in the appeal to it, in the exhortation to others to align themselves with it… But I would like to offer you reason to pause with an exhortation not quite so noble.
Consider the following quote, taken from the speech of Mr Blair that we just discussed:
“That's reality. And the proof is that until we started to introduce this legislation, it wasn't beaten and even now it can be a struggle. The scale of what we face is such that whatever the theory, in practice, in real every day street life it can't be tackled without such powers”
“It is a complete change of mind-set, an avowed, articulated determination to make protection of the law-abiding public the priority and to measure that not by the theory of the textbook but by the reality of the street and community in which real people live real lives”
The justification of the policy is based upon its correspondence with the real, with real life, with the really real every day life cast in strict opposition to the textbooks and theories cast down from the ivory towers (where they live in complete and utter isolation, apparently).
Compare the two quotes from Mr Blair with the following, and take a guess at where they come from:
“The earlier philosophical suppositions were not founded on any perception of reality and of the facts as given. Instead, they were unrealistic theories devising their own notions of world trends. They had nothing to do with actual events and in most cases stood in sharpest opposition to them.”
“For the — ? — outlook on life is not something ingeniously devised. It is no theory, but adapts itself strictly to existing reality. The ideal of — ? — is born of experience. It is a factual and realistic outlook on life.”
The mysterious “— ? —”. Any guesses?