Some time ago I wrote my take on Peter Pomerantsev’s Atlantic article entitled “Russia and the Menace of Unreality.” I was pleased to see that Interpreter magazine has provided an even more in depth report on the same subject, compiled by Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss. The link to that 44-page PDF file is here. Having read the report and formulated my basic thoughts, I’m ready to put them forth in this article. For the sake of efficiency I’m going to neatly divide my commentary into the good and the bad.
One thing I really appreciate about this report is that it details the many connections between the Kremlin and rich businessmen, oligarchs, banks, offshore havens, and far right politicians. This is very important information for leftists who have been deluded into thinking they have a friend in Moscow in the form of RT and similar media. The truth is that in the 21st century, Russian oligarchs have been using their stolen wealth to court their class compatriots in the rest of the industrialized world. The neo-liberal capitalist world was happy to take their money and do business with them, but as Putin’s actions in 2011-2012 signaled Russia’s decline as a good investment and as his desperate attempts to salvage popularity and stability at home ran up against the desires of the European Union and NATO, a sort of embarrassing stalemate arose. This is precisely why the Western response to Putin has been so careful and measured. If he would only just behave, the pipelines of stolen wealth could again flow toward Europe and the US and they would go on turning a blind eye to conditions in Russia. That might seem like a bit of a tangent, but this report confirms how intimate Russia’s elite are with their counterparts in Europe, and even recently we see daily stories about businessmen in Germany and other European countries lobbying against sanctions. Capitalists putting profits above sacred human rights? What are the chances?!
I especially praise the authors’ documentation of the ties between the Kremlin and the far right in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the USA. One of the most bizarre and embarrassing things I have had the displeasure of witnessing this year, was a number of far-leftists, some of whom I once greatly respected, siding with a country whose government and ruling party has ties to political parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn. This is important for leftists to note because while the Kremlin media does make use of Soviet history and revolutionary symbols so as to woo far leftists from time to time, the true ideology of the Kremlin is far right, and it is capitalist through and through. You do not see the Kremlin funding or seriously courting working class movements in Europe. Instead, those movements which do exist naively give their loyalty to Russia in the name of “anti-imperialism” or “anti-hegemony” politics, while far-right wing groups and political parties enjoy true solidarity with Moscow.
Another point I found interesting was the article’s short history of Russia Today. Personally I can’t remember if I had encountered the network before I moved to Russia or after, and whatever the case, I never paid much attention to it. Apparently I wasn’t alone; the report points out that RT enjoyed very little popularity even after the war in Georgia in 2008. Lack of popularity was cited as one reason the channel changed its name from Russia Today to just RT, and why it doesn’t seem to show much material about Russia. People just didn’t care. I know that feeling.
I think right off the bat the big problem with this article is that it is rather think-tanky and it has an obvious slant that is more or less uncritical of Western “democracy” and its capitalist system. It complains about Russia taking advantage of that system without considering that this is an inherent flaw in system itself. I’ll get back to that point later.
One flaw I see is that the Kremlin is given too much credit. Their “information war” is presented as part of this ingenious military strategy and we’re led to believe that it’s quite effective. The successful annexation of the Crimea could be inferred as a result of this carefully orchestrated campaign. I’m afraid that these people can only conceive of a world where Russia is on one side and the West is on the other, and so everything must fit into one narrative instead of being a total clusterfuck. I’m offering a different perspective, which is that the West and Putin were more or less happy with each other when it was profitable to the former and stable for the latter. However, economic and social pressures led Putin to take increasingly dramatic measures that made him a liability to the West and also led to Maidan. Having kicked off a campaign to portray himself as the one who would restore Russia’s imperial greatness with measures such as the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union, how embarrassing it was to see Ukraine slipping out right from under his nose. Simply letting it go would kill Putin’s new fairy tale in its infancy, and thus he had to grab the Crimea and somehow ruin Ukraine at all costs. Yet this time, unlike all the previous frozen conflicts, it cost him, big. Moreover, the Crimea itself is going to cost Russia even more. As I’ve said dozens of times, it was a desperate move to make small gains at the expense of the long term.
Think tank academics and journalists can’t conceive of this, because they refuse to look at the world in a dialectical manner. These contradictions cannot be tolerated; Russia is either pro-Western or anti-Western, and it’s clearly anti-Western. All the evidence of Russia interlacing itself in the West via ties to businessmen, banks, investments, and politicians can only be interpreted as some kind of malicious plot to destroy or weaken the West as opposed to capitalism functioning as capitalism. But is my interpretation truly so off the wall? Did not Mobutu Sese Seku remain in power over Zaire for decades, stealing the natural wealth of his country while continually playing the Americans, Belgians, and French? All three of those governments knew Mobutu was ripping them off and lying to them, but fear of Communist influence in the heart of Africa and the belief that anybody but Mobutu was unthinkable allowed him to become one of the world’s richest men, allegedly.
In dealing with the title of the report, that is to say the “menace” of “unreality,” it’s debatable as to how menacing this truly is. Mark Adomanis believes that Kremlin propaganda is ineffective and crude, and by implication not so menacing. I’m inclined to agree with that, but I think this misses the point. These days Russian propaganda isn’t always necessarily meant to convince anyone or create a coherent alternative viewpoint, to use RT’s term. It’s more about confusion, obfuscation, and promoting a post-modernist worldview where “nobody can really know what happened.” Whereas your average American conspiracy theorist is dead certain that 9/11 was an inside job, the average Russian subscriber isn’t married to the hypothesis. All that’s important is that we can’t really know, so we can’t really organize or do anything because we can’t trust anybody. This is how Russian propaganda works on its own soil.
If anyone should feel menaced by this unreality, it’s the radical left. Our movement has long been beset by thinly veiled right-wing populism, aided by the rise of social media and viral memes. Political illiteracy is still widespread, and leftist politics have long stagnated from having an alternate, worker-oriented philosophical approach to the world toward the vulgar, over-simplistic concept of “opposing” whatever is supposedly mainstream, identity politics, and “anti-hegemony” ideology. RT has found this weakness and it’s exploiting it to the fullest. Since Russia’s government isn’t even remotely left-wing or anti-capitalist, and since it has absolutely no concern as to whether its propaganda has any credibility or not, Russian-generated memes and claims are like poisoned fruit for leftists. The latter bite, and in so doing set themselves up to be discredited and mocked by the power structures to which they are supposedly opposed. Serious leftists must understand that Russia is not an alternative to the capitalist system, and that much of its struggle with the West at the moment is merely in favor of its own capitalist class, as well as an attempt to get back into their previous cozy relationship with Europe. This holds nothing positive for working people.
The biggest weakness of the report is on the topic of solutions to the problem of Russian “disinformation.” To be fair, the report does acknowledge that PR in news has been a problem for quite some time, but I think it could have been more thorough on that topic. I think they dance around that because once again, getting too deep would reveal that Russia is merely using money to get into the game that Western governments had already been playing for quite some time. The other issue is the positive view towards think tanks, implying that they can have a positive role in democracy. In reality, think tanks are the worst thing for democracy. The masses of people cannot easily create their own well-funded think tanks to influence politicians; these academic circle jerks are ever the hobby of rich individuals, corporations, or on occasion foreign governments. Think tanks serve as a strong argument against the standard liberal concept of the pluralistic state, i.e. the idea that the state is neutral and various interest groups are able to lobby it so as to curry favor. While everyone is equal on paper, the reality is that people with money to invest will always have an inordinate amount of power. The system is indeed rigged in their favor, and this is readily observed.
Now when I criticize think tanks and academics, some might be inclined to ask, “But who are you?” Indeed, I am no academic. In my defense, however, I would like to point out that that the situation of Russia and the West is, even by my more academically credentialed would-be critics’ own admission, quite bad. Some might call it disastrous. And as this situation developed, and as it unfolds before us now, who was on duty? Who was in the public eye? Who advised presidents and other politicians? Who’s been talking to the media and setting the narrative about Russia? Oh…Right…That wasn’t me. Looks like all this went to shit on your watch. Just getting that out of the way ahead of time.
Moving on, I’m afraid at this point we must get to the most egregious part of the report. To lay the foundation, I should point out that several times in the report, the authors make reference to Russian propaganda’s influence on the left. It is candid in talking about how such propaganda takes advantages of the weaknesses in liberal democracies, which is to say that these societies do in fact have weaknesses. Sadly the author’s don’t seem to be too concerned as to why people on left are so dissatisfied. At one point it suggests that they suspect the game is “rigged,” but of course that can’t be the case! This, however, is not where the report jumps the shark. The problem is in the suggested solutions.
If the authors were concerned about people on the left being targets of Russian propaganda, here are some obvious solutions Western governments could enact so as to deprive the Kremlin of that audience.
-Address social issues such as discrimination, scapegoating, etc. unlike the Russian government
-Do something to raise living standards for working people. Address issues like living wages, benefits, and low income housing, unlike the Russian government.
-Cut military spending and put money into education and social programs, unlike Russia.
I’m purposely not delving into details here; this is what would be off the top of my head. Still, the reader should see a pattern. Russia cuts pensions, education, and healthcare while increasing spending on the military and its propaganda organs. If Western governments addressed the needs of working people better, RT’s message would fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the authors don’t seem to see it that way. That’s not to say they don’t think Western governments should pay more attention to the desires of some of their own people. Quite the opposite. It’s just which people that concerns me, and that’s the worst thing about this report. Consider the following excerpt:
Address Fears Around the Erosion of Tradition,
Religion and National Sovereignty
There is more genuine, grassroots religious conservatism
(and religious modernism) in Poland, the US
and Western Ukraine than in Russia—yet Russia has
somehow managed to advertise itself as the harbinger
of religious thinking. The “Valdai Alternative” would
strengthen the connection between religious thinkers
in the US and in the countries in Russia’s near abroad,
and help show that democracy can be a thriving
environment for religion.
Yes, concern yourselves with the far right and their paranoid fantasies, so that they’ll support the West and not Russia. Look, I see nothing wrong with pointing out the ridiculous lie that Russia is a bastion of “traditional values” or religious faith. I do have a serious problem with the fact that the authors never address any concerns of the left but on the other hand they are apparently very concerned with the feelings of right wingers. Indeed, “democracy” can be a thriving environment for religion. We know this because women have more access to birth control and abortion in “traditional” Russia than in countries like the United States and Poland. This is not a positive thing. The problem is that those who approve of such restrictions and the interference of religion in the state have no use for democracy, save for if it suits them. Such people aren’t concerned about anyone legislating against their bodies, for they are the majority. True democracy starts by guaranteeing certain inalienable rights to all citizens, rights which should not be subject to democratic majority rule.
The problem with this approach is that it will fail. Right wingers are always convinced that society is going to hell in handbasket. Short of actually legislating religion and enforcing the kinds of behavior right-wingers want to see, they will always look at the personal freedom of others around them and lament the “degeneracy” of their own society. These people don’t appreciate any sort of democracy because they have contempt for most of their compatriots. Since most of these people will never set foot in Russia and thus come face to face with the reality of Russian society, the propaganda from RT and its affiliates will always find purchase among them. They admire a government that openly speaks about protecting traditional values, and few among them will ever have reason to question that claim. Obviously followers of some right-wing ideologies may jump on the anti-Russian bandwagon, but most will prefer to hold onto the belief that Russia is the champion of Christian values in opposition to their own, degenerate, morally corrupt governments. Note, for example, that Russia has beaten the Ukrainian Svoboda party in courting right-wing European parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece. This is significant because unlike Svoboda, Russia still glorifies the USSR and even Stalin, two things which are anathema to most far-right parties in Europe. These right wing and in some cases openly fascist parties seem perfectly happy to support Russia on the matter of Ukraine, even as Russia characterizes the struggle as a fight against “fascism.” Perhaps many of these right-wingers would prefer the across-the-boards anti-Communist ideology of groups like Praviy Sektor or the Svoboda party, but most likely they figure Russia is a safer bet. They believe she could some how aid them in their struggle against their liberal democratic governments, no doubt.
In short, the authors ignore a key demographic in favor of appealing to people who are more likely to side with Russia anyway. Then again, recommending that Western politicians and journalists address the needs of left-wing workers isn’t likely to secure a lot of funding for your think tanks.
So what can be said for Russia’s propaganda machine? Pomerantsev and Weiss see it as a highly effective disinformation campaign, reminiscent of the Cold War. By contrast, Mark Adomanis finds it crude and ineffective. I’m concerned because it poisons the left and breeds confusion. That being said, I think that authors like Pomerantsev give the Russian media way too much credit.
Imagine, if you will, a political candidate who tells each audience exactly what they want to hear. He tells gun owners that he wants to repeal all gun control legislation. He tells gun control groups that he wants a total ban on firearms. He tells religious conservative organizations that he wants to ban abortion while he tells women’s rights groups that he supports abortion on demand. Obviously with such a ridiculously populist strategy, he would garner some massive support in polls, if only for a while. Eventually, and in this case I mean real soon, the chickens come home to roost. The mutually exclusive campaign promises mount and the different audiences find out about each other. Forgive the analogy within an analogy, but it would then be as if a man’s multiple girlfriends suddenly met each other. That man would earn all their hatred and never be trusted again. Russia’s propaganda might seem effective now, but one day Russia’s girlfriends will start talking. Already some leftists have no doubt started to notice the curious presence of right-wing extremists and fascists who support Russia and her project in Eastern Ukraine. Even right-wingers themselves can become so infatuated with Russia that they actually visit the country, and are then shocked to find that morality wise, Russia is far worse than their own “degenerate” society. Long story short- the lies will eventually unravel.
At the moment, I feel the worst effect of the Kremlin’s information war is the bizarre comedy that has recently started playing out in the field of Russia journalism. The Russian media has managed to sow such distrust that accusations of being a Kremlin stooge are starting to fly all over the place. Indeed, when I think about this blog thus far, I often think to myself, “If someone reads this post, I’ll be accused of being a subversive ‘liberal.’ If another person reads this other post, I’ll be called a Kremlin stooge.” I look back on many past posts, dreading the possibility that someone might link to it so as to back up pro-Kremlin or pro-Maidan claims as if I’m on either of their sides. I fear the posts I made over a year ago giving the benefit of the doubt to Putin or RT on certain points might be used to tar me as a Kremlin stooge. I used to believe pointing out Russia can’t be a threat because of its weakness would serve as proof that I’m not working for Kremlin-owned media, but now I’m not so sure. Someone like Ed Lucas could say, “That’s what they want you to think!” To be honest, the worst thing is being simultaneously accused of working for the Kremlin and the State Department while not receiving any compensation from either.
All in all, I think this report was extremely informative, in spite of its findings. I also want the reader to note that in pointing out those failings, I deliberately came out of my political shell a bit. If my politics are radically different from your own, some of my criticisms could be rendered moot and thus this report is even more deserving of your time. In general, I think Pomerantsev’s characterization of Russian propaganda as “unreality” is useful, because that’s precisely what it is. RT doesn’t provide an alternative, it provides a myriad of alternatives and whether you pick one, several, or refuse to believe anything or anyone is just fine with them. Thus far, this technique has proved somewhat effective. In the long run, however, all of this is going to come back on Russia hard.