In contemporary Russia, unlike the old USSR or present-day North Korea, the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It's a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it's indefinable.— Peter Pomerantsev, in "Putin's Rasputin", London Review of Books, October 2011
But none of the liberals could possibly imagine that Donald Trump could ever win the nomination. But underneath the liberal disdain, both Donald Trump in America, and Vladislav Surkov in Russia had realised the same thing--that the version of reality that politics presented was no longer believable, that the stories politicians told their people about the world had stopped making sense. And in the face of that, you could play with reality, constantly shifting and changing, and in the process, further undermine and weaken the old forms of power. --Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation
If you haven't seen Adam Curtis's most recent documentary, HyperNormalisation, it's available on YouTube here. It's a must if you want to understand the big picture about what's happening to us. It came out in October 2016 perfectly timed to an event that its underlying argument predicts. Take notes as you watch it because there's a lot there, and his argument can get lost in all the details. It's long (2.5 hours) and complex, but it's very well put together.
Curtis is arguing that since the 1970s developments in both the West and the Middle East have crossed a line so that things are no longer manageable by politics, if by politics we mean governments enacting policies that are in any real way responsive to and accountable to the people they govern. Instead we have is politicians who essentially know that they can only implement the policies that favor the interests of a power elite who operate mostly offstage. Politicians find that they are limited to preserving some level of stability by using various methods of "perception management". Politicians enact various political dramas that keep the media and the rest of us distracted, and the power elite do what they want out of sight.
And stability correlates with the so-called Washington Consensus, which is by and large shaped by the financial sector and its Neoliberal ideology. Neoliberal theory supports this diminution of politics by essentially telling us that there is no longer any such thing as a 'citizen'; there is only the consumer. The citizen has no agency; the consumer can at least vote with his pocketbook. Freedom equal the freedom to buy a Ford or a Toyota, to get health insurance or not, and any idea of freedom as the capacity for citizens to shape a better, more equitable society through the political process is dismissed as incoherent, left-wing nonsense. Don't worry about what's going on in Iraq, folks--just go shopping. This leaves the field open to the power elites to do as they please out of sight and unaccountable.
This has been going on for years now, but it seems to be moving to a whole other level with the ascension of Trump and Bannon. It' s not clear to me yet whether they are complicit with the power elite, or whether they are being played by the power elite. For in the short run it looks like the power elite is just fine with what Trump is doing because all the chaos that he's creating just gives them a smokescreen behind which they can maneuver without anyone noticing.
Before Trump's election the attempts some "citizens" made to reassert some control through politics have failed, the most famous being the Arab Spring in the Middle East and Occupy Wall Street here in the U.S. Both failed because they were about "process" and not about actually imagining a positive future society and developing a concrete plan to realize it. Naive thinking in both camps assumed that if the process is virtuous, a virtuous society will arise spontaneously from it.
But the chaos that such "process" revolutions produce creates power vacuums that allow groups to move in who are clear about what they want. The military is stronger in Egypt than it was before the goings on in Tahrir Square, and does anyone think that Wall Street is less powerful after OWS? More powerful is more like it. Saying No to the bad guy isn't enough unless you have a Good guy who is ready to move in and consolidate power for the benefit of the broader common good. As long as there is no unifying consensus about what that broader common good is, the bad guys win by default.
Curtis argues that chaos and confusion are tools that work in entrenched power's favor. Who is benefitting from Trump's election most now? The economically stressed heartlanders who elected him? Of course not. Look at the billionaires and Wall Street types he's put in his cabinet. Where are the interests of heartland Americans represented in those appointments? The GOP establishment might have preferred someone who was less of a loose cannon, but they are nevertheless in a better position to take advantage of the disruptions that Trump/Bannon will create.
The model here is one already developed in Putin's Russia. From the Script of HyperNormalisation around the 2 hour, 17 minute mark:
But in Russia, there was a group of men who had seen how this very lack of belief in politics, and dark uncertainty about the future could work to their advantage. What they had done was turn politics into a strange theatre where nobody knew what was true or what was fake any longer. They were called political technologists and they were the key figures behind President Putin. They had kept him in power, unchallenged, for 15 years. Some of them had been dissidents back in the 1970s and had been powerfully influenced by the science fiction writings of the Strugatsky brothers. Twenty years later, when Russia fell apart after the end of communism, they rose up and took control of the media. And they used it to manipulate the electorate on a vast scale. For them, reality was just something that could be manipulated and shaped into anything you wanted it to be.
But then a technologist emerged who went much further. And his ideas would become central to Putin's grip on power. He was called Vladislav Surkov. Surkov came originally from the theatre world and those who have studied his career say that what he did was take avant-garde ideas from the theatre and bring them into the heart of politics. Surkov's aim was not just to manipulate people but to go deeper and play with, and undermine their very perception of the world so they are never sure what is really happening. Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He used Kremlin money to sponsor all kinds of groups--from mass anti-fascist youth organisations, to the very opposite--neo-Nazi skinheads. And liberal human rights groups who then attacked the government. Surkov even backed whole political parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing. Which meant that no-one was sure what was real or what was fake in modern Russia. As one journalist put it, "It's a strategy of power that keeps any opposition "constantly confused"--a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable "because it is indefinable."
Meanwhile, real power was elsewhere--hidden away behind the stage, exercised without anyone seeing it. And then the same thing seemed to start happening in the West. By now it was becoming ever more clear that the system had deep flaws. Every month there were new revelations, of most of the banks' involvement in global corruption, of massive tax avoidance by all the major corporations, of the secret surveillance of everyone's e-mails by the National Security Agency. Yet no-one was prosecuted, except for a few people at the lowest levels. And behind it all, the massive inequality kept on growing. Yet the structure of power remained the same. Nothing ever changed, because nothing could be allowed to destabilise the system. But then the shape-shifting began.
The shape shifting is a theatrical illusion. The underlying stability of the backstage Neoliberal power structure remains constant. That is, as I understand it, Curtis's argument. Whether there is a direct parallel between what's happening in Russia and what's happening in the U.S. right now, I don't know. Nobody does because confusion is the basic program. But Bannon quite possibly is playing for Trump the role that Surkov is playing for Putin.
It's something to pay attention to as we go forward. But here's the larger point. If there is no organized, motivated, clear-sighted opposition with a clear vision of a humane, realizable political future, the bad guys win. The OWS and Arab Spring models don't work; they play into the chaos narrative that benefits entrenched power.
It's too early to tell whether the kind of opposition that has arisen in response to Trump's executive orders in the last two weeks can be sustained and disciplined. I don't know what's going to happen. But my guess is that it's motivated mostly by saying No, and that motivation diminishes as soon as there's a win. But then something new will emerge to which the opposition must say No, and then something else, and on and on until the opposition becomes exhausted playing this kind of wack-a-mole. This is a losing game unless some positive alternative can be presented and around which a plurality of Americans can unite. Until it does Trump's undermining of the old politics of accountability becomes the new hyper normal.