The truth is not enough

The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it, by Dan Hind (Verso 2007)

In a nutshell, Dan Hind’s argument is that there is a threat to reason and the radical legacy of the Enlightenment, but it is not the one we are used to hearing about. Hind thinks we should calm down about religious fundamentalism, New Age mysticism and postmodern relativism, and worry instead about the malfeasances of the state and corporations, who too often get away with presenting themselves as champions of Enlightenment.

The book is a valuable contribution to the debate about reason and unreason in contemporary culture, and certainly a welcome corrective to some of the fevered jeremiads against religion that have emerged in the past couple of years. Typically these champion a one-dimensional version of Enlightenment values in counterposition to crude caricatures of religion. Hind describes this unsophisticated counterposition of the rational to the irrational as ‘Folk Enlightenment’, noting that, ‘Enlightenment is normally invoked in the context of a conflict with its external enemies: reason is threatened by faith, science is threatened by superstition, and so on.’ (p24) Crucially, this casts Enlightenment as a kind of heritage to be defended against external threats rather than something to be developed in opposition to the conventional wisdom and established orthodoxies of our own time.

Hind makes the point that historical Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were more concerned with challenging the tyranny of religious authority than ridiculing religious belief as such. Following Kant, Hind argues that Enlightenment is primarily about individual autonomy and intellectual adulthood. This means seeing things as they are, and not clinging to comfortable illusions. In particular, Hind shows that although modern science is one of the great legacies of the Enlightenment, it is a mistake to reduce the Enlightenment to science. This is especially true at a time when science itself is often invoked as a source of authority that is beyond question, rather than an open-ended endeavour based on radical scepticism. ‘Science, not theology, has become the arena in which we must fight for the victory of Enlightenment, since it is through their claims to rationality and scientific understanding that our guardians bind us in obedience to the established order.’ ( p49) This is a brilliant insight, but sadly it is not followed through as fully as it might have been, as I’ll argue below.

The reason for this, I suspect, is that while Hind dismisses the simplistic counterposition of reason and its irrational enemies, he is wedded to an equally Manichean worldview of his own. Hind sees ruthless capitalist corporations and their political servants – ‘our guardians’ – as the real threat to reason, and too uncritically credits those who oppose them with being on the side of the angels.

Hind does have a point. The Western political establishment claims the mantle of Enlightenment while doing some very unenlightened things. It is especially galling when apologists argue that the irrational and destructive ‘War on Terror’ is about defending Enlightenment values against ‘Islamofascism’. The execution of the war is certainly high-tech and makes use of scientific ingenuity, but it is far from enlightened. The same is true of many other aspects of contemporary capitalism. Hind suggests that the ‘military-industrial Enlightenment, the occult Enlightenment, is certainly the world’s governing contradiction in terms.’ (p104) He usefully counterposes this paradoxical ‘occult Enlightenment’, which is characterised by secrecy and authoritarianism, to what he calls ‘open Enlightenment’, a public and democratic ideal (p44).

For me, Hind’s mistake is assuming that occult Enlightenment is necessarily driven by greed, and correspondingly that open Enlightenment is necessarily disinterested. This means that what could be a valuable political critique of contemporary society is reduced to moralising. Hind’s focus on greed and wickedness means he underestimates the importance of ideas as a social force. In this, he follows Joel Bakan, who wrote the book and film The Corporation, and whose endorsement appears on the cover of The Threat to Reason. The argument is that since corporations are legally compelled to put shareholder value before other considerations, they become almost a demonic force beyond human control. This is true up to a point, but Bakan and Hind both underestimate the extent to which corporations are embedded in wider social and cultural as well as legal norms, not to mention the countervailing influence of other social forces – not least, self-interested workers. The interplay of conflicting interests, motives and priorities is the stuff of politics, and competing ideas are the currency of politics. Rather than ideological struggle, however, Hind sees only the enlightened and the duped.

To be fair, this is the temper of the times, a consequence of the collapse of the great ideologies of left and right. But sincerely held ideas do still matter. Like many others, Hind argues that the war on terror is fuelled by pernicious lies and distortions, and laments in particular that the rhetoric of Enlightenment ‘helped reconcile allegedly responsible and serious liberal and left-wing intellectuals to the need to invade Iraq.’ (p21) Hind forgets that most of those intellectuals had long since been reconciled to Western militarism in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. It wasn’t George W Bush who invented the idea of enlightened interventionism; if anything, this was a product of the political disorientation of the left following the historic defeat of anti-imperialism. Lacking credible overseas liberation movements to pin their hopes on, many leftists came to see Western military power as a necessary evil, to be supported wherever ‘something had to be done’. They may have been wrong, but not simply in the sense of being duped or mistaken.

The invasion of Iraq has in fact been the least successful intervention since the end of the Cold War in terms of cohering the support of liberals or anyone else. How many people who don’t write newspaper columns actually buy the idea that the war in Iraq is Enlightenment in action? The overwhelming popular feeling about the war is one of cynicism and defeatism. This is nothing to celebrate, of course. The fact that widespread opposition to the war never translated into a coherent critique, let alone a credible movement, is testament to the poverty of contemporary politics on all sides. Hind is good at describing the weakness of the Western political elite’s claim to the legacy of the Enlightenment, but is far too generous to the so-called ‘global justice movement’. This includes not only those who demonstrated against the war, but at various points in the book, environmental activists, the free software movement, and even the McSweeney’s publishing operation.

Hind says that this movement ‘argues that its opponents have betrayed the principles of the Enlightenment for the sake of corporate and state power’ (p25). Does it? Who exactly argues this? Where? This is Hind’s argument, and it’s made with admirable clarity, but I’m not sure how many of the ‘clowns and anarchists’ he invokes see themselves as champions of Enlightenment. Hind claims this clash between two ideas of Enlightenment, rather than the phoney war between faith and reason, is the ‘great divide’ in contemporary politics (p26), but he makes rash assumptions about the people he thinks are on his side, who include many avowed antagonists of Enlightenment. In that respect, he is not that different from the radical socialists who go along to demos and hand out placards to environmentalists, Islamists and sundry small-c conservative malcontents, and then half-shut their eyes so they can pretend it’s the revolution.

At the same time, Hind writes as if critiques of corporations etc never make it into the mainstream, which is obviously not the case. The book’s title is meant to be subversive, picking up a trope and turning it against itself, ie ‘all this scaremongering about the threat to reason is actually complicit with the real threat to reason’. But the closest title currently on the market is Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, which uses the same ‘double meaning’ singularly and without irony: Gore is turning the occult Enlightenment against the very people Hind sees as its puppetmasters, as well as anyone else who questions the politics of climate change, and in the process he is claiming the authority of science for his own political agenda.

It is hard to believe that Hind is not talking about climate change orthodoxy when he says: ‘Scientific research can give a spurious kind of cover to repressive policies. Powerful institutions exert considerable overt and covert influence over the objectives of research. The prestige of science can be used to suppress dissent.’ (p110) The environmentalist agenda currently being advanced in the name of science is certainly repressive, with demands for austerity on the part of individuals as well as corporations, and not least, underdeveloped nations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a powerful political body that shapes the research agenda. Critics of this agenda, whether they suggest alternative scientific theories or simply object to environmentalist policies, are dismissed as irrational ‘deniers’. But Hind’s brief references to climate change suggest that he believes sinister corporations are the only parties capable of distorting science in this field: in his worldview, this is the only kind of politicking that computes. His radical scepticism deserts him when money is not the issue.

The same prejudice weakens Hind’s treatment of religion. This is a pity, because much of his argument is thoughtful and convincing, especially in showing the futility of dismissing US right-wing Christianity as an irrational throwback rather than seeking to understand it as ‘a human phenomenon with identifiable strategies, strengths and weaknesses’ (p75). Hind goes on to argue that secular intellectuals ought to take the psychology of religious experience more seriously. He is surely right, but his own analysis of religion as a human phenomenon never gets past ‘follow the money’. He highlights the corruption and cynicism of the American religious right, at one point characterising it as a ‘protection racket’ (p73). Perhaps there is something in this, but it is a bit patronising to see working class Christians as mere dupes. In fact, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, religious conservatism is almost the only available expression of popular antagonism to the ‘liberal elite’ – that’s Kansan for Hind’s occult Enlightenment.

In a review of Al Gore’s book, Frank Furedi makes a similar point about how any self-styled voice of reason provokes hostility when he denies the public a speaking part. In a sense, he is echoing Hind’s critique of expert-worship, but extending it to Gore’s ‘scientific’ crusade against climate change. In The Threat to Reason, Furedi is identified with the ‘Folk Enlightenment’. As a collaborator of Furedi’s, it won’t be surprising that I think this is unfair, but there is a substantial disagreement behind it. Hind disputes Furedi’s argument that popular distrust of science and credulity towards ‘alternative’ forms of authority are a bigger problem than the malfeasance of big pharmaceutical companies. For Hind, it is axiomatic that corporations use public relations in a way that ‘undermines the public capacity for reasoned judgement’, and thus have the debates stitched up (p125) – he even invokes fast food advertising as an example of this, as if Jamie Oliver had never happened. Furedi wants to argue with the public; Hind wants to enlighten it.

This is an eerie echo of the Folk Enlightenment mentality Hind attacks, especially because it means not so much engaging in a battle of ideas, as exposing the ‘esoteric’ politics of the state and corporations that comprise the occult Enlightenment. Hind is peculiarly defensive about this, suggesting that ‘an accurate description of the state’s real character will be associated with a large and noisy lunatic fringe; it will be consigned to the peripheries of debate, alongside those who believe that aliens or witches rule the world.’ (p116) It is almost as if he believes being dismissed in this way will be a kind of vindication. They would say that, wouldn’t they? And the result is close to being hostility to debate itself. When Hind quotes a 1960s CIA document about using propaganda to refute critics of the government – “Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose” (p122) – it is hard not to take it personally.

Hind goes so far as to defend postmodernist doubt about the possibility of objective truth as ‘an attempt to put knowledge beyond the use of state power, rather than as some kind of assault on reason’ (p109). But if knowledge is beyond the use of state power, is it not also beyond the use of the state’s opponents? Hind is equally dismissive of revolutionary communism and presumably any other political ideology that claims to explain the world.

For him, the pursuit of knowledge, or even ‘knowledge’ must be insulated from politics. In the book’s final chapter, he argues that we must engage in a new Enlightenment ‘not as self-interested partisans but as disinterested researchers’ (p136). This is an understandable response to the often unhelpful politicisation of knowledge and reason, and in many ways it is admirable. But there is a difference between self-serving lies or spurious ‘advocacy research’, and honest argument or even propaganda – the attempt to win others to a political cause with reference to moral imperatives and indeed interests as well as dry facts. The latter is essential if we are to change the world as well as trying to interpret it. What is really pernicious and indeed authoritarian is the claim to have access to knowledge that is above the debate and beyond question.

I disagree with much of what Hind writes, but The Threat to Reason is certainly worth reading and engaging with, as it suggests numerous paths for further enquiry and argument that are not considered in the book itself. Perhaps best of all, Hind suggests that we should, like Francis Bacon: ‘reject established authority and our own inclinations, and be willing to pursue lines of enquiry associated with disreputable schools of thought’ (p45). Amen to that.

First published on Culture Wars.