The reactionary Internet predates ‘t other un

Here’s a post, first of a three-part series, from The Monkey Cage about inequality and power. The point Martin Gilens makes is that where a policy has broadly similar support across US income groups, its chance of being put into effect follows a well-behaved response curve with its approval rating. But a policy on which the classes take sides faces very different chances. Policies supported by the rich are dramatically more likely to be implemented. In fact, there is no correlation between popularity and implementation for policies supported by (eh) the 99%!

Or as Gilens puts it:

These findings suggest that political representation functions reasonably well for the affluent. But the middle-class and the poor are essentially unrepresented (unless they happen to share the preferences of the well-off)

Now, yer man goes off to disaggregate causes and discuss mechanisms. I will hop straight to a conclusion. What this demonstrates is that agenda setting beats decision making power.

Here’s an example of how. With Pussy Riot, iPhones, that Harvard guy who got his Night Flight pickup girlfriend the first mutual fund licence in Russia, etc. The Stiftung:

In truth, Surkov is gone because he couldn’t foresee the rise of the networked nation and social media. Surkov relied on TV to sell a facade of Putin because TV gives narrative control. Comparatively, Putin allowed print media much greater latitude and even quasi-independence. Surkov and rest simply don’t know how to make Putinism work in a peer to peer world.

The post is better than the quote might suggest. But I’d take issue with the idea that the managers of Russian politics are unfamiliar with the Internet. Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics is an indispensable book here. In many ways, Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky (who’s also out on his ear these days) were far ahead of anyone else.

This history is unpalatable, and not just because it’s less rah-rah facebook; it’s also unpalatable because it speaks to the depressing realities of post-Soviet Russia, of how the aspirations for democracy ended up with Putinism, how the Harvard and Thatcher Foundation economists’ ideas were disastrous, and especially, how they still happened even though nobody would vote for them in a fit. If you screw your eyes up right, Russia was a preview of the future.

The key method Pavlovsky’s Fund for Effective Policy introduced was the temnik, basically an interlocking network of e-mail lists which were used to distribute unofficial briefings, kompromat (i.e. smear-material), and selections from the output of helpful bloggers to the editors of mass-market media outlets. Compliance was of course voluntary, but the nature of the beast is that if one TV station has a story, others must respond. Also, there were other means of pressure available.

The Presidential Administration, Surkov’s fief, based in the former Central Committee Secretariat HQ and with much of its staff, could always find ways of making life difficult through the use of administrative resources, and most of all, by arranging advantageous mergers and influencing personnel politics. It was also possible, of course, to encourage supportive trolls to fill up the temnik with abuse and threats.

The key organising form Pavlovsky introduced can, I hope, be guessed from the title of his organisation. It is, of course, the wanktank or fake thinktank. This model was, according to Wilson, expanded to include the creation of whole fake political parties. This served to split the vote, to confuse the issue, to introduce apparently independent policies, and to create the illusion of either debate or consensus, as desired.

The total effect was, in Pavlovsky’s words just before the Ukrainian revolution of 2004, “a communication system that can be switched from peace to war mode at any time”.

To recap: we have 1) unattributable briefing, through an Internet channel which is 2) semi-permeable to public mobilisation, driven by 3) wumaodang activity, and reinforced by 4) social ostracism and economic pressure on the managers of mass media.

However, I do think the Stiftung has a point. The Pavlovsky/Surkov version of the reactionary Internet works on the principle that the medium is an elite medium rather than a mass one, and that therefore access to it is relatively limited. Opposition that does use it is necessarily a restricted intellectual circle, like so many in Russian history, and may be co-opted into supporting the system (like so often in Russian history) or eliminated when this becomes necessary. As a result, it is useful as a lever to shift the TV stations (CBS during the 2004 elections being a western case study), which move the mass.

Much broader access changes this. Importantly, a major source of broader access was the growth of mobile Internet service. That went together with the proliferation of mobile devices with cameras. Which went together with the user-generated video websites. If you agree with the Stiftung that there was a qualitative political distinction between the newspapers (and the blogs) on one hand, permitted more editorial independence in exchange for a restricted audience, and TV on the other, this ought to be interesting.

Now, the obvious response to this is that arseholes have iPhones too. Virality cuts both ways.

But then, Russia is running a couple of years ahead on this. They’ve already had several run-outs trying to create a reactionary counter-movement. Several brands have been used, burned, and replaced. Many observers noticed that the pro-Putin demonstrators during the protests earlier this year seemed thin on the ground, lacking in enthusiasm, and obviously inauthentic. It was also necessary to use the administrative resources to get them to turn out in the first place – hauling students in to see “youth officials” who looked very much like chekists.

Although they could stage as many pseudo-events as they wanted, they couldn’t guarantee that the political public would see them first through the sympathetic lens of TV rather than through mocking unofficial videos. Another problem is that the fake political parties have a way of taking on a disturbingly real presence, and a fake activist movement is only going to be more like that.

So, where are we going with this? Well, back to the Monkey Cage post. The extreme, caricature example of the power of agenda-setting is that being able to choose in a election between the power candidate, a Communist candidate who doesn’t actually want to win, and a Pavlovsky wanktank is not much of a choice. Choice and decision are context-dependent.

And that said, one strategy from our point of view scrabbling about on the floor is to adjust your preferences and your identity to match those of the people whose interests are served. If enough of you do that, they might even start calling you a lobby or a movement or a Tea Party. On the other hand, they might call you a cargo cult. You can’t usefully pretend to be rich. But in any political system, once you aggregate a substantial number of people whose interests are aligned, you can at least hope for some clientele fan-service.

The Surkov/Pavlovsky package may be breaking down in Russia, but if it is, it may well be because this process of identification ain’t happening. In the West, it worked better. But there’s a flip side to this; the identity itself must change to accomodate the identification. The process cannot be easily controlled. And this may lose as many people as it gains. If the whole thing is a joke and everyone’s just pretending to be special libertarian snowflakes or contented Brezhnevite consumers, why not treat it as such?

1 Comment on "The reactionary Internet predates ‘t other un"

  1. Nicely put. We agree on much.

    As for comparative politics and analogies, would look forward to more on the analogy of Putin and ‘Sovereign Democracy’ for the West/U.S. It’s an interesting hypothesis.

    We’d all probably agree that mass participatory democracies have been susceptible to elite distraction and identity-shifting. Certainly, in the case of the UK, pre-1945 Royal Navy, Empire and Royal Family prime examples. Many examples for the U.S., too.

    As you note well, identities then converged. In Russia, Putin enjoyed genuine popular support/identification for restoring a strong State. For all the manipulation, it probably wasn’t really necessary in the end. Putin’s major challenge is now the he’s crafted stability, what exactly is Putinism?

    His political trajectory since has been one way – gradual loss of identification. Even post Pussy Riot, among his traditional rural, non-urban elite base, people tire of corruption and governmental incompetence. His moves to make sure trains run on time smart. But he lacks a compelling narrative.

    Your observation that a golem unexpectedly can become real, Pinocchio a boy, a political front something authentic timely. Many interesting ideas in this piece.


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