Are We in Denial about Denial?

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
Across the political spectrum, people deny how bad the state of the world is. No wonder the far right’s lies have such purchase.

If you are reading this, this is probably your second once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and the memories of the first are still fresh. For me, the defining image of the 2008 financial meltdown was not panicking stock traders or the workers at bankrupt investment banks filing out of their offices with their personal belongings in boxes. It was Alan Greenspan, one of the chief architects of the deregulation that had made the subprime catastrophe possible, confessing to the United States Congress that he had been forced to revise one of his most fundamental assumptions: that the search for profit would never override the survival instincts of supposedly rational economic agents. Exposed in its very logic by market irrationality, stripped of its normative claims by the brazenly unmeritocratic denouement of the crisis, lacking a plausible new deal to offer to the vast majority of people—neoliberalism seemed to be hemorrhaging legitimacy from all sides. Like many around that time, I too found it hard to believe that it could survive the shock. And yet, a decade and several further shocks later, neoliberalism staggers on.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some were cautiously optimistic: surely the second major global crisis in just over a decade meant that real change might finally be in the cards. There were credible reasons for thinking this. The disease, this thinking went, would underline the risks of global capitalism’s long logistical chains, the importance of public services, and the many interdependencies among people and states, highlighting the value of cooperation. The virus was bringing the cold shock of the real back into a public debate increasingly contaminated by conspiracy theories and anti-scientific fantasies. Finally, the ensuing economic downturn would throw rising inequality and the unresolved issues left by the Great Recession into sharper relief, resulting in conditions akin to those that irrupted into the Arab Spring and the 15M and Occupy movements in 2011.

It is true that, in the first months of the pandemic, dogmas were temporarily jettisoned and governments adopted policies—fiscal expansion, investments in public health, temporary suspensions of rents and evictions, and measures to guarantee wages and jobs—that would have been anathema just a month before. Even Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on an economic program of extreme market libertarianism, was pressured into creating a short-term basic income for the most vulnerable. From the start, however, these measures have come wrapped in demands for more austerity once things return to normal. What is more, they have been vastly compensated at the other end by policy that follows the 2008 playbook in pursuing the well-being of big corporations and financial institutions above all. In general, governments continue to minimize the scale of what is happening and how long it could go on, so as to eschew a conversation about what would have to change were we to really protect people’s lives and livelihoods for the duration of a protracted crisis.

Of course, powerful movements may still rise to demand a different solution this time. But it should be noted that the expectation that the virus would act as a solvent against fake news has unfortunately proved unfounded. If anything, what many considered irrefutable evidence seems to have accentuated irrational beliefs at the far-right end of the political spectrum. The gap between the realities inhabited by different parts of the population in places like Brazil and the United States appears to be so large now that, although these two countries are among those that have fared the worst during the pandemic, the leaders who oversaw this fiasco have retained much of their popularity even as they mobilized their social base against protective measures, scientific institutions, and health workers. As a matter of fact, Bolsonaro has become more popular during the pandemic than he has ever been.

The painful reality is that the economic story that the far right tells effectively makes more sense to a lot of people than whatever the left is saying.

If there is one thing that the last decade ought to have taught us, it is that strong objective factors do not automatically translate into powerful movements, let alone into the spontaneous discovery of the “correct line” by the masses. This is usually the point at which the conversation might turn to fake news and propaganda, and it is undeniable that part of Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s surprising resilience stems from the fact that they possess a far more efficient informational infrastructure than the opposition to get their version of facts across. What I want to draw attention to here, however, is something else. To put it bluntly: if the far right has managed, through the use of disinformation or otherwise, to mobilize the anti-systemic feelings of people who feel they have been failed and left behind, it is because those sentiments exist. It is only because many people sense that there is something profoundly wrong about the existing economic and political system that the far right’s message can take hold. Combating this message, therefore, is not just a matter of fighting deception; it is ultimately about addressing the issues that are at the source of those feelings. This cannot happen, however, for as long as we are in denial about those issues.

Those who believed radical change was inevitable after 2008 underestimated two factors. First, we did not foresee the extent to which our political systems have become inured to running on low legitimacy. In the absence of any sustained challenge to their power, elites seem to trust their capacity to continually outmaneuver the majority of the population, regardless of whether or not they are trusted. Second, we failed to appreciate the sheer force of inertia produced by neoliberalism’s disciplinary mechanisms—none of which are more powerful than crisis itself.

Although the way these mechanisms work in an age of austerity and uberization may have become starker, neoliberalism has contained a retributive aspect from the very start. Each new crisis it creates not only increases the economic coercion to which individuals are subjected; it also reactivates neoliberalism’s founding myth of being the rational, technocratic cure for the excesses of a previous period. If it seems that we are living in a new, punitive stage of neoliberalism, it is because calls to tighten our belts now come with only the faintest prospect of their ever being loosened again: whereas sacrifice was once presented as a means to a better life, it increasingly appears to be an end in itself—the naked imperative to adapt to diminishing expectations. This aspect reached a culmination with the pandemic, when official discourse in places like Brazil and the United States began to literally say that people had to choose between the economy and their lives.

One of the reasons why Bolsonaro’s overall ratings have gone up 10 percent during the pandemic—despite him losing a sizable chunk of his upper-class support—may of course be the very basic-income program that he initially opposed. Another reason, however, is that, for the poor voters who have come to approve of his government, framing the issue as a choice between life and the economy is objectively true. Since inequality makes quarantining an unattainable luxury for them, posing the situation as a choice between potentially dying from COVID and potentially starving to death showed that Bolsonaro understood their reality more profoundly than did the hypocrites telling them to stay at home when they had no option but to go to work.


The Big Picture: Misinformation Society

By Victor Pickard

The painful reality is that, in cases such as this, the story that the far right tells effectively makes more sense to a lot of people than whatever the left is saying. This is because the far right’s story corresponds more clearly to the world as most people encounter it on a daily basis; it resonates with lived experience. For a lot of people, being told that life is a series of dark trade-offs in a deadly struggle over finite resources does not sound far-fetched at all. What is more, it resonates with the disciplining effect that these experiences actually have: the deeply entrenched feeling that this is all that is possible, that the fundamental facts of how we live could not change.

For this is the great irony and paradox of far-right politics: what it proposes is a very conformist kind of revolt. Even as it purports to be an attack on elites—understood not in economic but in cultural and political terms, which explains how a billionaire could campaign as a champion of the common man in the United States—the future that the far right projects is very much like the present. As far as social structure is concerned, their vision is quite resigned to the status quo. What the far right promises is, in short, an anti-systemic politics for people who do not really believe the system could change in any major way: everything stays essentially the same, but yields better results for those who feel left out now.

I believe this reveals a dimension of our present condition that is yet to be fully appreciated. I propose we call it “denialism,” but what I mean by that is a broader phenomenon than what people usually intend by that name. Of course, Holocaust denialism remains rife among the resurgent far right, as does climate denialism, whose methods have informed the right’s disinformation techniques; long-term scholars of denialism like Déborah Danowski have worked on these connections for some time.1 But what I have in mind here is not just the lies and stories spun by those we describe as “denialists,” but rather how that deception relates to its public: the demand that it supplies.

To be sure, the sheer volume of misinformation available today is a factor. Entire ecosystems of mutually reinforcing sources exist in order to interfere with individuals’ capacity to form sound beliefs, and the algorithms of our most popular online platforms constantly pull us toward those parallel worlds. (Something we failed to consider earlier on about the internet is that belief is statistical in nature: once the amount of available misinformation crosses a certain numerical threshold, it is hard for an entire social system of beliefs to bounce back.) But the processing of information is itself constrained by a number of cognitive biases that respond, in turn, to unconscious needs. The question we should ask ourselves, therefore, is: What needs do the far right’s narratives meet?

During the COVID crisis, what many considered irrefutable evidence seems to have accentuated irrational beliefs at the far-right end of the political spectrum.

We can start by noting that “denial” actually refers to two different things. When we call a member of the oil or tobacco lobby a “denialist,” we usually mean that they know that what they deny is real; in other words, that they are consciously lying. When we describe someone as being “in denial,” on the other hand, what we imply is that they are unconsciously protecting themselves from a traumatic experience or thought—what Freud called disavowal. This distinction immediately implies a potential relation between the two types of denial: one in which unconscious denial creates the demand that the “merchants of doubt” who trade in conscious denial come to fulfill. Should we not wonder, then, whether disavowal regarding the state of the world is a major component of the mood of our times, which the lies of the far right are highly effective at placating?

To be sure, the far right does not paint a rosy picture of the present. On the contrary, theirs is a narrative of civilizational conflict, in which a fantasized spirit of the Crusades is retooled to fight such enemies as migrants, independent women, and Black people. What is remarkable about this narrative, however, is how it displaces the real threats looming on the horizon into distorted, fun-house-mirror versions of themselves. Thus, the problem with democracy is not political elites everywhere who are beholden to the interests of corporations and financial markets, but a secret cabal of pedophiles planning to institute a world government. The problem with the economy is not that capital accumulation has become so autonomous from production as to make the very rich relatively indifferent to the vicissitudes of the real economy, but that migrants and minorities are being given undue privileges. Finally, the problem with the environment is not climate change, but the weaponization of science by a political agenda bent on changing our lifestyles and preventing growth.

Louis Althusser famously defined ideology as representing “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” If the reality of one’s conditions of existence becomes increasingly traumatic, should a flight further out into the imaginary not be expected? The truth behind the violent picture that the far right paints is that we are living in an age of diminishing horizons, in which everyday experience is increasingly colored by the diffuse sensation that, all things remaining equal, what the future holds is ever-worse conditions of reproduction for ever-more people. Climate change, a stagnating economy, growing precarization, the lack of democratic oversight, global pandemics—those are the things humming in the background or moving at the edges of our fields of vision. The far right addresses this atmospheric dread by at once recognizing that yes, we are facing an abyss, and fabulating an abyss that is less traumatic than the one we actually face, as its causes and fixes, though painful, are comparatively simple.

To the extent that they speak to this pervasive anxiety, the far right’s lies sound more truthful to many than any arguments claiming that things are generally getting better and this is only a bad patch that we will soon pull through. But they also do more. By locating the source of the problem in the misappropriation of resources by various others (countries, ethnicities, religions, cultures), and the solution in a fight to exclude those others from access to resources, the far right tells a story that is well adapted to a world in which inequality grows, resources decline, and those at the bottom have to compete for increasingly meager scraps. For people who already feel that they live on the edge of the state of nature, talk of civil war, however delirious it might actually be, could make perfect sense: it not only describes the world as they perceive it, but offers them a certain competitive advantage by legitimizing moving first against the “enemy”—usually a direct competitor in the struggle for survival. As Theodor Adorno observed, it ultimately does not matter if one really believes that the other is the devil as long as one enacts the belief that the other must be defeated at all costs.


Trump’s “Radio Machete”

By Meredith Shepard

This is how the far right’s fantasies can be said to offer, in their own twisted way, a reasonable response to the insanity we are currently building. They lay out a “politics of antagonistic reproduction,” as Alberto Toscano summarized it, in a world in which social reproduction tends to become ever more antagonistic. Trying to reduce the interpellatory power of these fantasies to a mere effect of fake news is an attempt to disavow this basic fact. And because the attempt to evade the truth of our present predicament is a decisive affective dimension of our times, it should be no surprise that those who wish to resist mounting insanity and a politics that seeks to accelerate it would be entangled in disavowals of our own. We too are denialists; what else might we be in denial about?

At the start, I alluded to the fact that the myth of spontaneity is a mirage that still leads many radicals astray. Obviously, no one denies that objective conditions have an effect on what people do and think, or that sharp, sudden changes can transform the very limits of what is thinkable and doable at a given time. The problem is when people believe that, out of the various ways in which such transformations can go, they will inevitably go our way. By convincing us that a certain outcome can come to pass regardless of our efforts or capacity to produce it, this idea fulfills the obvious compensatory function of rationalizing away our organizational weaknesses and fear of becoming organized. But if banking on that outcome a decade ago was a mistake, it is even more so now, in an environment in which the far right is a real, active force. Only the capacity to make oneself present in people’s lives regularly and dependably can break through the informational redundancy that the right is able to produce by surrounding individuals with the same messages at church, on the radio, online, in their social lives, and so on. That demands organization.

Liberals, on the other hand, often appear to be suffering from another illusion. It consists in drawing false symmetries between political extremes and idealizing the centrist consensus that prevailed until 2008. Ultimately, this attitude boils down to supposing that people have taken temporary leave of their senses, but everything can carry on as before as soon as the sensible guys are in charge again. That mindset ignores that wealth distribution and political representation have become so lopsided as to demand an overhaul that cannot but seem radical compared to what we have now; and that, on an issue like the environment, the time for gradualism is long gone: winning slow is as good as losing. To the extent that it continues to ignore the magnitude of the tasks that lie before us, and thus contributes to the conditions on which the far right thrives, this may well be the most dangerous form of disavowal around today. icon

  1. See, e.g., Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Rodrigo Guimaraes Nunes (Polity, 2016).
Featured image: Jair Bolsonaro (2014). Photograph by Gabriela Korossy / Câmara dos Deputados