Friday, January 20, 2017

Virtual Politics - Faking Democracy (book review)

Anyone who witnessed the 2016 election in the United States can be forgiven for asking, "what just happened?!" There is a consensus that what happened was surreal - the word became Merriam-Webster's word of the year. But more specifically, with the hyperbole, the bluster, grandstanding, reality TV and yellow press influence, internet fakery, leaks, relentless below-the-belt tactics and much, much more, virtual politics may be a better description. The real politics were/are going on elsewhere, one assumes.

Bloggers do well to check whether their topic du jour has already been covered. So it was with 'virtual politics' - and not only did I find that it has been covered, I found that it was studied extensively by Andrew Wilson in 2005. Mr. Wilson is Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His book is titled Virtual Politics, Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. So while America sleeps, Russia adapts KGB-style maneuvers to sustain artificially the central authoritarianism that was the real, militaristic foundation of Kremlin rule in the Soviet, Bolshevik and even Tsarist empires.

As Wilson puts it, "Welcome to a paradise for the most brazen liars, where the most staid and respectable political technology agency in Moscow calls itself Nikkolo-M after Machiavelli, and uses his face on its business cards...Virtual politics is the way that elites seek to manage, manipulate, and contain democracy." Political technology is what consultants like Nikkolo-M engage in, engineering political 'reality' contests in which no hold is barred, and no trick too dirty. Wilson goes to considerable detail regarding the players and their often brutal methods. Indeed the book is highly specific regarding state interference measures that are now familiar in the west.

A list of some chapters will give an idea:
  • 1. 'Active measures': a Russian Tradition
  • 2.  Politics as Virtuality in the Post-Soviet World
  • 3. The 'Political Technologist': Machiavelli as Corporate Adviser
  • 5. Politics as Theatre, Disguising the State Holding Company
  • 7. Dishing the Opposition
  • 8. Inventing the Opposition  etc.
Whether or not Russia directly influenced the 2016 American election as alleged, is not the point. What is new is that US politics reached a new low of surreal dirty stunts, possibly inspired by post-KGB methods. The parallels between Wilson's post-soviet 'paradise' and the  so-called populist 2016 campaign can not be ignored.

Some Americans are already wising up; Rubio's questioning of Tillerson mentioned 'active measures' without being too specific, but the reference could only have been to the Russian practice. The FBI investigation of Paul Manafort and his work for Viktor Yanukovych may be a healthy sign.1 Yanukovych features prominently in Wilson's book.

What does this have to do with progress, or progress traps? One of this project's critiques of progress is that societies can become overly technocratic, fall into a progress trap and undo progress. Clinton's campaign had a staff of no less than 60 mathematicians and statistical analysts. One can become blind to the obvious when immersed in too much analysis. As they say at the Pentagon, "analysis paralysis". Another progress trap critique is that mental paralysis can then be swamped by crude passion,2 the kind that includes racism, intolerance and bigotry. As the world knows, these vices often don't end until they have played themselves out.

For a sense of where the United States may be heading, Andrew Wilson's book, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World is recommended reading.

2. Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 2005 Bantam Books

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:59 AM

    There's definately a lot too learn about this issue. I
    really like all of the points you've made.