Masses duped by greenwash? Get real!
Eliane Glaser’s sceptical take on the world is frequently insightful. But it still takes too many fashionable ideas at face value.
Politicians marshalling an army of PR consultants to appear authentic. Multinational companies selling products with folksy, homespun brands. Public inquiries that have nothing to do with the public. The paradoxes proliferate in journalist and academic Eliane Glaser’s enjoyably hyperactive new book, Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions. Her ambition is overarching: she wants to show us the way to the truth of the matter. She wants to cut through the crap. She wants us to follow the royal road of social critique. In short, she wants us to see things for what they are. (A bit rubbish, as it turns out.)
‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ is the Gramscian mantra that ought to characterise Glaser’s position: ‘I believe that we can be optimistic about progress in the world, but for me that optimism lies in critique.’ And there is plenty of insightful critique in Get Real. In fact there are whole chapters of genuine, telling-it-like-it-is iconoclasm.
Glaser take on the ideas-lite, ideology-averse nature of contemporary Western politics is refreshing. She notes that since the 1990s, mainstream politicians’ tendency to treat political ideology as a thing of the disreputable past is writ large in the current use of ‘ideological’ as a pejorative. Instead, the ‘third way’ or, more recently, ‘oxymoronic cross-party combos’ like ‘Red Toryism’ or ‘Blue Labour’ are considered a more fruitful form of politics. Pragmatism and cooperation are in; ideology and ‘tribalism’ are out. Yet as she points out: ‘Since when is it a bad thing for politicians to have political principles that are different to those of other politicians?’
Indeed, the lack of political principles, the absence of divisive visions of how society ought to be, explains why so few people, especially among the young, have much interest in the goings-on at either Westminster or Capitol Hill. Glaser writes: ‘Now that there’s no difference between political parties, why on earth should they bother?’ Not that the ‘problem of engagement’ is presented as such. It is grasped, rather, as a product of politicians being ‘out of touch’, the solution to which is more public consultancy, more focus groups, more politicians who are just like us. Glaser is not having any of this, however: ‘What would be genuinely different [on the part of politicians] is taking the lead, taking a position, making difficult decisions, prioritising competing concerns. But oh no, that’s old “tribal” politics, and we don’t want to go back there.’
Glaser is even better when it comes to ‘scientism’. Awe-struck deference is everywhere, she argues, from Brian Cox’s television series Wonders of the Universe to the World of Wonders science museum in California. ‘Scientific wonder carries with it a sense of humility, which is ostensibly about meekness in the face of extraordinary facts’, she writes. ‘But it blurs into deference towards scientists, with their privileged access to those facts.’ Indeed, anything that Stephen Hawking says, be it about the existence of God or the plight of the planet, is treated as if it comes straight from the oracle’s mouth. ‘In modern culture, scientism is the new religion. God knows what happened to scepticism.’
This conflation of fact with value, this belief that science, having seemingly supplanted moral and political reasoning, can tell us what to do, is highly damaging, Glaser argues. Political decisions, necessitated by science, become a fait accompli. So when, in 2009, US President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research, he felt no need to make a moral, political case for the decision: ‘The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgement of science.’ This is not to say that stem-cell research is a bad thing; rather, it is to say that a politician needs to make the case for it being a good thing.
Yet while there is plenty of critique in Get Real, there is plenty that is unquestioned, too. So no sooner has Glaser put scientism on the rack than, a few pages on, she’s espousing its most prominent manifestation: environmentalism. The chapter even begins with some all-too-persuasive facts from the mouths of Those To Whom We Must Defer: ‘Climate scientists generally agree that the safe limit for the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). As I write this, we’re already at 390ppm.’ She soon proceeds to read off a number of Malthus-heavy assertions passed off as fact: ‘Global warming, population explosion, peak oil, biodiversity in freefall: Planet Earth is facing unprecedented and multiple crises. It is little wonder, therefore, that as the situation becomes more desperate, self-deception becomes more attractive. If the world is turning into a desert, it’s tempting to put your head in the sand.’
It’s a bizarre reversal. Having eviscerated the deference towards science in one section, in another she proceeds to lambast those who resist the science for their ‘denialism’. It does not seem to occur to Glaser that a principal reason for opposing the environmental orthodoxy is that it attempts to pass off a moral and political argument about how we should live our lives – low-consumption, little procreation and an acceptance of economic stagnation – as a scientific necessity. Could there be a more flagrant form of the scientism that Glaser so eloquently takes to task elsewhere?
And this is a problem, indeed, a great irony, in books that attempt, as Glaser does, to expose so-called false consciousness. That is, almost without fail, they exhibit a complete lack of any self-consciousness. So certain of their access to the truth of the world are such writers that they fail to subject their view of our real interests to any scrutiny.
This failure of critique is apparent, not least, in Glaser’s belief that it was Marx who developed the concept of false consciousness. Which is odd, because nowhere did he use that term. Yes, he writes about commodity fetishism; yes, he uses visual analogies, such as the one involving a ‘camera obscura’ that Glaser cites, to illustrate that essence and appearance are non-identical; and yes, he argues that under the rule of capital, social relations appear as a relation between things. But to argue, as Glaser suggests, that Marx thought that the working class had not staged a successful revolution because they had been duped, fooled and tricked into happy submissiveness is both theoretically and historically erroneous.
The particular problem with Glaser’s analysis, I would suggest, stems from the uncritical spirit with which she has embraced the real sources of the idea of false consciousness: ‘from Jacques Derrida to Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser to Theodor Adorno.’ Glaser glosses: ‘Don’t take the world at face value, they argued; it’s full of traps and tricks.’ Yet, if she had subjected the sources of her critique to, well, a bit of criticism, she would have noticed a certain irony. That is, in a book bemoaning the absence of political agency, she indulges several thinkers who, each in their own way, attempted to rationalise the defeat of historical subjectivity: Gramsci developed his notion of ‘hegemony’ in an Italian prison during the 1930s; Adorno repeatedly attacked the culture industry postwar, after, as he described the USSR, ‘the attempt to change the world miscarried’; and Althusser and Derrida wrestled with an absent revolutionary subject in a climate dominated by the thoroughly Stalinist French Communist Party in the 1960s. In short, each sought to explain the left’s failure on the ideological indoctrination, or ‘interpellation’ as Althusser had it, of the working class. And in doing so, profound political failure was excused.
So while Glaser is capable, at points, of stirring critique, a little bit of self-criticism wouldn’t have gone amiss. I applaud the optimism of her will, but the pessimism of her intellect is a little wanting.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.