Based on a positive review a friend shared on social media I decided to pick up Peter Pomerantsev's newest book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. I was not disappointed. His book is a look at media manipulation undertaken by authoritarian regimes in the world today. It moves from the Philippines to Russia to China, all the while showing a world where reality itself is a matter of dispute. The book's great strength is that Pomerantsev is able to weave together on the ground reporting, political analysis, and his Soviet exile family's experience together.
The salient and depressing insight of his book is that the movements that brought democracy to Eastern Europe were unable to sustain themselves. Authoritarians took note of their methods, and now use them to gather popular support for their regimes instead. The mass movements for democracy learned to mobilize people by appealing to the most basic grievances that could unite people across boundaries. The authoritarian nationalists do this today by targeting marginalized groups with a galvanizing hatred. Just witness Putin's homophobia, and how LGBT people are made to be the scapegoats for so-called Western infiltration.
This is so hard to combat because the media is oriented towards this kind of politics. I spend too much time on Twitter and Facebook, and my time there usually leaves me agitated. They are place intended to generate outrage to keep you coming back. Facebook is effectively a news source for millions, a scary prospect when its leaders brand Breitbart a "trusted news source." We also know that Facebook has been used to aid and abet massacres in places like Myanmar.
As Pomerantsev so accurately shows, reality itself is under question. For example, we live in an age where anti-vaccination nuts have brought the comeback of measles. He is also bracingly honest about how we got here. In one section he discusses how in the Cold War both superpowers were enamored of facts, each claiming to upload the one true ideology and being able to prove it. America's supposed superiority was disproven by the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the collapse of the global economy in 2008 (and the austerity measures that followed) exposed the inadequacies of global capitalism.
There was no political ideal out there to exploit those failures. Instead we have seen the fracturing of the world and the rise of nationalist authoritarians who are actively hostile to facts. Pomerantsev writes:
"With that the last of the old, Cold War-framed notions of a universal future fell away for many. Elsewhere, from Mexico City to Manila, it had already been dissolving gradually, like an old bar of soap coming apart in mushy flakes. And if there is no future that your facts are there to prove you are achieving, then what is the appeal of facts? Why would you want facts if they tell you that your children would be poorer than you? That all versions of the future were unpromising? And why should you trust the purveyors of facts, the media and academics, think tanks, statesmen? So, the politician who makes a big show of rejecting facts, who validates the pleasure of spouting nonsense, who indulges in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence, from glum reality, becomes attractive...All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it's okay."
None of these authoritarians even bother to promise a new future. They instead engage in the reactionary nostalgia of "make America great again." This is something Pomerantsev and Masha Gessen have both diagnosed in this version of politics: the lack of a future. The only way forward is a politics that is future-oriented. You have to give people hope and something to believe in. You have to think big to provide more, be it free college, universal health care, subsidized child care, or affordable cities to live in. My fear is that this vision, as attractive as it is, will not able to overcome the powerful nexus of resentment and media manipulation it is up against.