My original plan today was to write some caveats about Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalisation theory — and I will certainly get around to those soon, because they are significant. But in preparing that story, I found a really interesting piece by a Russian subject of the documentary that piqued my interest, so I’m going to write about him today instead.
The movie ends with a dramatic picture of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the way he has turned the politics of the country into a three ring circus of staged events and purposeful confusion. Much of what Curtis says about Russia’s politics was influenced by an excellent book I read a couple years ago entitled “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” by Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian television producer.
Surkov was recently fired by Vladimir Putin from an ill-defined role that had something to do with subverting the political communications within Ukraine. On the way out, Surkov said that force is the only way Russia has been able to tame Ukraine in the past and it holds true today. So he basically declared his mission a failure.
Official titles have never meant much to Surkov and one must assume that he will continue to have a role manipulating the media environment within Russia. Pomerantsev described Surkov’s role and methods this way:
In the twenty-first century the techniques of the political technologists have become centralized and systematized, coordinated out of the office of the presidential administration, where Surkov would sit behind a desk on which were phones bearing the names of all the “independent” party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed in all black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.
This, of course, is pure authoritarianism, but a completely different sort than one deployed by Stalin or Mao. Dissent in this neo-authoritarianism is built into the system and then counterattacked by “the people.” In an opinion piece last year — where Surkov stunningly admits all of the authoritarian levers being used in the Putin regime — he lays out exactly how the system works:
In the new system, all institutions are subordinated to the main task – confidential communication and interaction of the supreme ruler with citizens. Various branches of government converge on the personality of the leader, being considered a value not in themselves, but only to the extent that they provide a connection with him. In addition to them, informal communication methods work bypassing formal structures and elite groups. And when stupidity, backwardness, or corruption interferes with lines of communication with people, vigorous measures are taken to restore audibility.
The absolute rule of Putin is the only aim of this system. And Surkov argues that this rule is legitimate and the ideal form of government because Putin is the expression of the will of the people:
The ability to hear and understand the people, to see them through and through, to the full depth and to act in accordance is the unique and main advantage of the Putin state. It is adequate to the people, along the way, which means that it is not subject to destructive overloads from the counter currents of history. Hence, it is efficient and durable.
Surkov also says that this strand of governance has value beyond the Russian borders and has already begun to take root in the United States:
Foreign politicians credit Russia with meddling in elections and referendums around the planet. In reality, the matter is even more serious – Russia interferes with their brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness. Ever since, after the failed 90s, our country abandoned ideological loans, began to produce meanings on its own and launched an information counteroffensive to the West, European and American experts began to make more and more mistakes in their forecasts. They are surprised and enraged by the paranormal preferences of the electorate. Confused, they announced the invasion of populism. You can say that if there are no words.
This sounds to me like “Hypernormalisation” being watched and fed back into the political system by a subject of the movie. We don’t really know how much of this is bluster from Surkov and how much of it is reality. That’s kind of the point. We’re never supposed to know what is real and what is manufactured. We’re supposed to second guess whether looting is caused by people genuinely outraged by police violence or by third party agitators, on the right or left. The more we are confused about what is really happening, the less we believe that the democratic system is capable of handling the forces that have been unleashed in the world. We desire a strong, steady hand.
I sense that, even in Russia, they understand that Donald Trump is a clown and incapable of effectively managing in any system. Putinism probably requires someone far more competent to take root in America. Having said that, there’s no doubt that Russia is enjoying the clown parade and would love to see it continue for another four years. I doubt that they will play a significant role in how this election turns out, but we are so quickly becoming familiar with their style of political theater that we no longer need that interference. We’re perfectly capable of subverting ourselves.