The Irrationality of Power
The liberal, Enlightenment idea of ‘rationality’ is a concept which has been used as the external validator of human actions. If something is rational then it is deemed correct by a measure which exists outside of us, and our petty biases and emotions. Specifically, it is used as a justification for power; by those in power for their actions, and their reactions. It is presented as a context free value, which exists beyond the social, political and economic climate in which it resides.
It has become especially prominent within liberal democracies; the government of choice of the Western world in the current conjuncture. They gain their moral underpinning from the idea that they are acting within our best interests, by governing rationally, approaching political problems in a sober, analytical way. They do not do what they do because of capricious desires, self-interest or, God forbid, reinforcing a hegemonic class system — but because they are interpreting the reality presented to them and following the course of action which is most rational — and therefore externally validated, removed from ideological influences. It is not situation or agent dependent — these governments are simply passive observers, the revealers of pre-ordained truth. This conception of themselves, once disseminated among the people they wish to rule over, gives them their legitimacy and their mandate to rule — the picture of an ideal meritocracy.
Although this idea has existed in some form or other since the 19th century, it has generally been latent; not essential to the general functioning of government or for the justification of their power. However, in the past 30 years in Western Europe and the US, the idea of a government primarily rooted in rationality has gained in prominence. This particular turn has had many overlapping and antagonistic terms associated with it; neoliberalism, Third Wayism, Blarisim, Thatcherism, technocracy etc. but the common theme is that the state is simply a caretaker, using its unique capacities, benignly, to maximise the utility of society. Their legitimacy has stemmed from a higher knowledge, by interpreting reality-as-it-is.
At first glance this seems like a sensible and fair way in which to govern society; those with the greatest knowledge and ability take on a caretaker role for the benefit of all, premised on their actions being reasonable.
In the thirty years on from 1979, most of these assertions seemed to hold — government was seen to be less ideological, living standards seemed to rise gradually, ‘The Great Moderation’ appeared to smooth off the rough edges of financial crises and recessions and sensible, well-meaning people were making good decisions on behalf of their electorate. This conception of government and society was shattered by the various dislocations felt in the aftermath of the 2007/08 financial crisis and subsequent recession and sovereign debt crises. These events changed how government and the established order operated, and it challenged its fundamental legitimacy. If they were acting in all of our best interests, then how did this happen? If they had access to higher knowledge, how did they not see it coming?
These questions could not be adequately answered by the existing creation myths constructed by the established liberal order. A contradiction emerged between their continued rule, based on the ideals of a knowing, detached rationality, and their obvious, material failure to run society along these lines. For this state of affairs to be sustained there needs to be a high degree of false consciousness and outright denial, buttressed by a public discourse which is constructed in the interests of the status quo. In this way the elite’s self-image could be protected against the material reality in which they existed, and the moral underpinning of their rule maintained.
Two events have seemingly shattered this rigorously maintained self-image: the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. They both ruptured the idea of meritocratic power formation, and the conception of liberal democratic government as robust, and immune to the harmful sides of democracy — sensible people should, and would, interpret the will of the people and act accordingly. As much as they have tried to salvage the moral universe in which they resided, the previously established liberal elite have been forced to confront the contradictions within their conceptual edifice — historically, and in the present. The façade of civility and fairness which they erected around the coercive institutions of the state, and the power dynamics of society, has been compromised. They have so far been unable to reconstruct it, as they have so far failed to understand why it stood in the first place, and to who’s benefit. Their own power blinded them from the foundations on which it was based.
This misunderstanding can be best observed in the behaviour of the commentariat in the wake of these twin ruptures. In particular, their focus on ‘post truth’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ or whichever term they have decided is de jour for the conjuncture that the believe they find themselves. Essentially their theories posit that Trump, Brexit and whichever illiberal turn they can think of is the result of a move away from established truths, rationality, science, evidence based policy and a breakdown of trust in public institutions and governments. They all have one main thread running through them; an unprecedented paradigm shift has occurred within Western liberal democracies. Power has shifted from the benign Third Way overlords, furrowing a boring but noble path towards prosperity, to the malign forces of ignorance and stupidity which has unleashed the worst, most irrational facets of human nature. Through this critique they implicitly place themselves on the side of “truth” and “reality”, and locate the source of their power within rationality. They are a cadre of rational, logical knights, unjustly deposed from their role as ordained leaders — like King Arthur they remain in slumber until they are required to salvage Albion from oblivion.
How they have gone about trying to regain their previous position reveals why they thought they were there in the first place. Taking Brexit as an example we can see that their main line of attack has been to focus on the lies and, most importantly the irrationality of the Brexiters; this was evident during the referendum and has become even more prominent since. They believe they can puncture the Brexit edifice through weight of evidence; studies, fact checking, forecasting and identifying the internal contradictions within their arguments. This seems a very sensible approach, apart from the fact it isn’t working, and was never going to work. The case for Brexit, at least on the terms that the referendum was fought on, is almost non-existent when viewed through the lens of the previously hegemonic Western liberal democracies. However, it seems that no matter how many holes they poke, assertions or falsify, or how many facts they check, they don’t seem to be able to make any progress on turning the tide in the direction that they want.
They see Brexit as an aberration; a temporary blip in the forward march of human progress — and one that can be defeated by the power of rationality and truth. After all, weren’t these the traits that established and maintained the ascendency of Western liberal democracy from the Enlightenment onwards? They locate their own power within truth, and believe that other power is also, or at least has been, based on this. Therefore it creates a rupture within their world view when another power (in a Western liberal democracy) does not seem to be based on ‘truth’ or the correct presentation of ‘reality’, or at least their idea of these concepts.
This is a critical misunderstanding within the ranks of the custodians of our public discourse, which leads them to confuse the direction of Francis Bacon’s famous dictum — ,”Knowledge is power”, when in fact; Power is knowledge. The knowledge that they claim as an antecedent to their power, and the basis on which it rests, is really a post hoc construction — it is rationalization rather than rationality. Power constructs rationality and rationality constructs reality.
They possessed the knowledge because they are the ones that formed the epistemological universe in which it sat. The policies that they enacted did not happen because they were the logical, most rational, and brought the most prosperity to the most people. They happened because they were the policies which were the most beneficial to the powerful — in the case of Western liberal democracy, the holders of capital. Power does not need adhere to the ideal of rationality, because its interests will be carried out regardless and putative justification, or rationalization, can be sought later.
This can be seen in many of the policies enacted under the New Labour government, or the coalition government. Many of them were presented as being the ‘best’ option in the circumstances — when in fact they were actually policies designed for, or shaped by, one or other interest group with the most influence on government policy. They were often presented without alternative, with the backing of research, consultative processes and experts; when in fact this is merely done after the political decision has already been made so as to give the appearance of rationality — while behind the façade; it was in fact, rationalization.
In reality there has not been a paradigm shift in Western liberal democracy; the current governments of the UK and the US, despite appearances, still govern in the interest of capital and the holders of capital — there has just been a rapid turnover of personnel; they became trapped in the constructed rationality of a different, past iteration of the same power.
Rationality is context dependent, and that context is defined by power. It has been a mistake of some outside of the ecology of power to believe that the purveyors of discourse were merely interpreting reality-as-it-was, when they were actually defining reality on their own terms because “defining reality by defining rationality is a principal means by which power exerts itself” (Flyvbjerg, 1999). Once they are stripped of their power they no longer define what rationality is, and therefore cannot define what reality is.
It is within this limbo that the “rational” elite find themselves; shorn of the formal power which allowed them to force their self-justifying rationality onto society, but without the rational or critical powers to define or understand their own current situation, or that of those now in formal power. The power that they once held blinded them to any knowledge of the conjuncture in which they existed, and all they really understood was power, and how to wield it.
The Power of Rationality — Flyvberg, 1999