The relationship between truth and human action is shakier than one might suppose. Our perception of reality lacks any necessary connection to what we might wish to do in that reality. If I’m standing in the middle of the street and see a truck bearing down on me, I’ll probably leap out of the way. But that leap is propelled by a host of assumptions: that I want to live rather than die, for example, or that I prefer my present existence to some transcendent afterlife.
Truth can only exist within a context: a frame of reference. And context, as author Steve Fuller has explained, determines the rules of the game. Every frame of reference empowers specific groups and disempowers the rest. The medieval frame of reference empowered popes and bishops. The industrial age empowered experts and scientists. As I have had occasion to observe before, the question “What is truth?” usually hinges on “Who decides?” There’s isn’t a hard categorical boundary between knowledge and power.
In settled times, the frame of reference is clearly understood, the arbiters are known and accepted, and disputes occur on the margins, as new information gets absorbed into the established context. Fuller calls such placid moments “conditions of truth.” The game is played within the rules, which, to the players, feel almost like natural laws. Personal freedom is constrained by our positions on the field of play and, even among the powerful, is reduced to gamesmanship. Risk is low, but so is agency.
I am, of course, describing the world of the last century, dominated as it was by hierarchical institutions that monopolized both power and truth. That world wasn’t really placid, but it was certain. It knew where it stood. Once a handful of heroic figures set the system in motion after World War II, the duty to preserve and protect it seemed a self-evident good. A priestly caste of assertive experts and elected insiders defined the orthodoxy. Political parties disagreed on technical points, never on fundamentals. Even the Cold War, a far chancier affair than it is remembered today, required an unyielding certainty about first principles to match the secular zeal of the Marxist faithful.
That world lies in ruins around us, wrecked by a storm of change. To evolve and endure, a frame of reference must enjoy an intimate relationship with the environment. If the environment is transformed and the frame of reference remains static, decadence—sociopolitical collapse—sets in. That is our moment in history.
The institutions that eradicated polio and built the national highway grid are now, to use Yuval Levin’s term, “performative” platforms, where callow elite players strut their stuff. As in professional wrestling, the game is rigged; outcomes are meaningless. As at the end of Rome, the emperor heaps titles of power on himself but can’t control the household staff. It’s not drama but a bedroom farce, full of plot twists driven by weakness and falsehood—and the performance takes place before the eyes of an appalled and angry public.
A radical uncertainty divides us from one another. Andrey Mir estimates that in the first 5,000 years of the written word, a total of 300 million authors reached out to an audience. Today, potentially at least, there are almost 5 billion authors on the Internet. Such an overdose of voices has sent a society governed on strict hierarchical principles into a state of toxic shock. We presently address one another as though in a fever delirium. We no longer know who we are, who we were, or what to do with our wealth, power, and technology. We are unsure whether to teach our kids math and science or train them to hate themselves. Truth has fractured, and the fissures run all the way down to our hearts.
This psychotic episode has nothing to do with “facts.” It’s the obliteration of a vast array of shared points of reference—a failure cascade in the structures of communication. In the era of Covid-19, anything can go viral. Anyone can spin a private frame of reference that will spread like a mutated variant across the information sphere. Fuller labels this situation “conditions of post-truth,” and he maintains, with some justice, that this brave new world is more competitive, democratic, and market-like than the previous status quo.
But a democratic competition between billions of frames of reference isn’t exactly a walk in the park—particularly if conducted, as it necessarily must be, in the absence of rules of the road. The contest is haphazard and destructive, at times resembling the sociological equivalent of a particle collider. In such an endless melee, hard and dangerous spirits will possess a natural advantage; for a perfect specimen of the type, look no further than that agent of ruin, Vladimir Putin.
Even under the most benign interpretation of post-truth, we may be looking at a Nietzschean future darkened by the long shadow of artist-tyrants, ecstatic prophets, and barbarian chiefs. It would be a moment of high agency and tremendous risk.
Descent into the apocalypse isn’t a question of time but of location. Michael Shellenberger’s brilliant and terrifying San Fransicko depicts a city conquered by the forces of destruction, whose intent appears to be to make obsolete that supreme urban product, civilization. Call it a barbarian invasion from above. In San Francisco, anyone who wishes to build apartments or open an ice cream parlor is treated like a public enemy. Those who wish to partake of harmful substances are given the money to buy them, the paraphernalia to use them, and a room to consummate the deed.
In 2021, the city had 252 deaths from Covid-19 yet imposed a kind of pandemic martial law, with the unvaccinated forbidden to enter most public places. That same year, 713 persons died from drug overdose, many of whom received from the city fathers the instruments of their self-destruction. Even to suggest addiction treatment to these suffering souls was considered a violation of “bodily sovereignty.”
The San Francisco School Board kept the schools closed for over a year while it obsessed over changing their names. The understaffed and demoralized police department was unable to cope with organized theft rings that ransacked high-end stores. Violent offenders rarely faced prosecution because the district attorney insisted that “Jails do nothing to treat the root causes of crime.” Thousands of addicted and mentally impaired people camped in public parks, collapsed on the sidewalks, assaulted passersby, and heeded the call of nature in the aisles of supermarkets. They desperately needed help, but the authorities wished to normalize their behavior or even to glorify it as a repudiation of capitalism.
A true barbarian is a nihilist who takes and breaks but never builds. The people who run San Francisco aim to shatter the bonds that hold cities together but aren’t interested in alternatives. Only under post-truth conditions could such agents of disorder have gained so much power over an affluent, highly educated electorate. Their claims that up is down, that assistance means repression, that the moral compass deserves to be smashed, are hard to refute inside the fog of radical uncertainty. Their kind, for this reason, is likely to multiply.
The consequences of their actions are clear, in any case. Shellenberger, who is evidence-driven and not prone to exaggeration, speaks bluntly of “the end of civilization.”
Whether post-truth must lead to post-civilization—or worse, anti-civilization—remains an open question. Given the institutional meltdown, nation-states may disaggregate into smaller units. City-states may have to choose between Singapore-like paternalism and San Francisco-like depravity. Towering personalities may impose a form of Caesarism, whether of the mob or of the elites. Another political mutant like Donald Trump may derail all expectations. In the current field of play, each of these scenarios is possible. None is necessary.
The abiding reality in this house of mirrors is struggle. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy are going to have to fight for it. Those of us who uphold a moral order will have to reinsert its terms into the conversation: into the echoing reaches of the web. In San Francisco, a rebellious public recalled three members of the school board. The inert district attorney faces a recall election in June; he seems likely to lose.
The game is breaking open again. The next frame of reference will be the competition of frames. Apocalypse means “revelation”—and the final truth to be revealed is that they who only stand and wait no longer serve and will vanish from the scene.