Ideas that add up #147

At the heart of this kaleidoscopic work stands Vladislav Surkov, the then Kremlin official hailed as one of the ideologues of “managed democracy”, who directs Russian society as if it were one giant reality show. The mercurial Surkov has helped create a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.”

The brilliance of this new system, Pomerantsev argues, is that it climbs inside all ideologies and movements and renders them absurd, making it impossible to know what to believe. “The Kremlin has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great 140m-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares that if repeated enough times can become infectious”.

John Thornhill review of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, FT Weekend, Feb 7 2015

There does appear to be a shocking suspension of critical faculties among the Russian public at the moment, neatly programmed as they are to accept their government’s official line on Ukraine. Namely, that Ukraine’s attempt to align politically and economically with Western Europe is the product of an “armed Fascist coup”, carried out with the aim of victimizing that country’s ethnic Russians, and must therefore be beaten down. Pomerantsev, himself a TV producer, speculates that Soviet-era mass manipulation combined with the cynical, spellbinding power of E!-Age mass entertainment is “turning Russia into a country of canned laughter”. 

Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s American nephew and the founder of the “public relations” industry, applied insights into crowd psychology for the twin purpose of controlling democracy and stimulating consumer desires. His first big triumph, in the 1920s, was helping the tobacco companies smash the taboo against women’s cigarette smoking with his “Torches of Freedom” campaign.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…

The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life. As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

Edward Bernays in Propaganda, 1928

Bernays affected a pragmatic stance. Since “the masses” are going to be manipulated in any case, it might as well be in a cause of our wealthy clients’ choosing, be that securing political legitimacy for the corporatocracy, or toying with human desires to keep the consumer treadmills turning.

His dismal insights were keenly applied by the Bolsheviks, Nazis, CCP and their Orwellian heirs, who managed to construct programmes for social control around a spirit of malevolence. But the same insights have also reaped dividends for the governing class in the rich, benign-looking West, for whom we (willingly!) tranquillize ourselves with reality-show Kardashians, iPhone apps, Xboxes and all.

Surkov and his ilk are exploiting that marriage of political malleability and the ceaseless urge to shop — with celebrity entertainment as its payoff — so as to help Putin sleepwalk Russia back towards an earlier, authoritarian, assertively imperialist incarnation. 

And we may ask ourselves: how far removed from that perfect zombie state — schlepping semi-stunned around the mall while some “invisible government” of corporate-salaried PR freaks directs us who-knows-where — are the rest of us?

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