Social noble lies

In the Republic, Socrates introduced the “noble lie”: governmental officials may, on occasion, be justified in propagating lies to their constituents in order to advance a more just society. Dishonesty is one tool of the political class (or even pre-political — the planning class) to secure order. This maxim is at the center of the debate about transparency in government.

Then, in the 20th century, when academic Marxism was in its prime, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser became concerned with the issue of social reproduction. How does a society survive from one generation to the next, with most of its moors, morals and economic model still in place? This question was of particular interest to the Orthodox Marxists: their conflict theory of history doesn’t illuminate how a society is held together, since competing groups are always struggling for power. Althusser came up with “Ideological State Apparatuses”: institutions, coercive or purely ideological, that reinforce societal beliefs across generations. This necessarily includes all the intelligence agencies, like the CIA and FBI, and state thugs, like the Gestapo and NKVD, but it also includes the family unit (authorized by a marriage contract), public education and the political party system. “ISAs” also include traditions in the private sector, since for Althusser, the state exists primarily to protect these interests.

It’s rarely easy enough to point to a country and say, “This is the dominant ideology.” However, and here the Marxists are right, it can be useful to observe the material trends of citizens, and what sorts of interests people (of any class) save up money for, teach their children to admire, etc. In the United States, there is a conditional diversity of philosophies: many different strains abound, but most within the small notecard of acceptable opinion. Someone like Althusser might say there is a single philosophy in effect — liberal capitalism — getting reproduced across apparatuses; a political careerist might recognize antagonists across the board vying for their own particular interests. In any case, the theory of ISAs is one answer to conflict theory’s deficiencies.

There is no reason, at any time, to think that most of the ideas spreading through a given society are true. Plenty of people could point to a lesson taught in a fifth grade classroom and find something they disagree with, and not just because the lessons in elementary school are simplified often to distortion. Although ideas often spread naturally, they can also be thrusted upon a people, like agitprop or Uncle Sam, and their influence is either more or less deleterious.

Those outlooks thrust upon a people might take the form of a noble lie. I can give qualified support for noble lies, but not for the government. (The idea that noble lies are a right of government implies some sort of unique power for government actors.) There are currently two social lies which carry a lot of weight in the States. The first one comes from the political right, and it says: anyone can work their way to financial security. Anyone can come from the bottom and make a name for themselves. Sentiment like this is typically derided as pulling oneself up from the bootstraps, and in the 21st century we find this narrative is losing force.

The second lie comes from the left, and it says: the system is rigged for xyz privileged classes, and it’s necessarily easier for members of these groups to succeed than it is for non-members. White people, specifically white men, all possess better opportunities in society than others. This theory, on the other hand, is increasingly popular, and continues to spawn vicious spinoffs.

Of the two, neither is true. That said, it’s clear which is the more “socially useful” lie. A lie which encourages more personal responsibility is clearly healthier than one which blames one’s ills all on society and others. If you tell someone long enough that their position is out of their hands because the game is rigged, they will grow frustrated and hateful, and lose touch with their own creative power, opting to seek rent instead. Therefore one lie promotes individualism, the other tribalism.

Althusser wrote before the good old fashioned class struggle of Marxism died out, before the postmodernists splintered the left into undialectical identity politics. God knows what he would think of intersectionality, the ninth circle in the Dante’s Inferno of progressivism. These ideas are being spread regardless of what anyone does, are incorporated into “apparatuses” of some sort, and are both false. If we had to choose one lie to tell, though, it’s obvious to me the preferable one: the one which doesn’t imply collectivism in politics and tribalism in culture.


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