Vladislav Surkov: Without Sky

This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.

And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state – took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.

.. The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.

.. Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory.

.. Hundreds of thousands of airplanes, helicopters, and rockets destroyed each other throughout a day in the silence of the tomb. Even falling, they were silent. Sometimes dying pilots screamed out, but rarely, because almost all of the machines were pilotless.

.. At that time, automatic machinery was being hurriedly brought into general use, and not only in the field of transportation. They introduced hotels without staff, stores without sales people, homes without masters, financial and industrial firms without directors. Even a couple of “pilotless” governments were organized as a result of democratic revolutions, so airplanes were nothing to speak of.

.. The fighter aircraft of the Northern Coalition were super-light, made of almost weightless materials. Even if an entire one of these fighters fell on us, the whole airplane, it would not have caused us serious harm. And Papa had dug us in pretty deep.

.. If it was only that we didn’t see the sky above our village, that would be nothing, but our very thoughts lost the concept of height. We became two-dimensional. We understood only “yes” and “no,” only “black” and “white.” There was no ambiguity, no half-tones, no saving graces. We did not know how to lie.

We understood everything literally, and that meant we were absolutely unsuited for life, helpless. We required constant care, but they abandoned us. They wouldn’t let us work. They wouldn’t pay us a disability pension. Many of us deteriorated, fell and perished. The rest of us organized ourselves to stay afloat, to save ourselves together or perish together.

.. We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no,” who do not say “white” or “black,” who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”

We will come tomorrow. We will conquer or perish. There is no third way.

Trump’s Method, Our Madness

have experienced a form of disorientation and anxiety that bears a striking resemblance to the clinical situation I have described. And recent events indicate that this feeling is not going to abate any time soon.

.. Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so too our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours.

.. it entails a systematic — and it seems likely intentional — attack on our relation to reality.

.. anti-fact campaigns, such as the effort led by archconservatives like the Koch brothers to discredit scientific research on climate change, remained within the register of truth.

.. To assert that there are “alternative facts,” as his adviser Kellyanne Conway did, is to assert that there is an alternative, delusional, reality in which those “facts” and opinions most convenient in supporting Trump’s policies and worldview hold sway.

.. Surkov has a background in avant-garde theater and is a devotee of postmodern culture, and has adopted theatrical and artistic techniques of “subversion” to unleash a full frontal attack on Russian society’s sense of reality.

.. his “fusion of despotism and postmodernism” comprises “a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused,” creating “a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” To keep his opponents off-balanced and powerless, he might, for example, sponsor “nationalist skinheads one moment” and “human rights groups the next.”

In a similar vein, Surkov could have provided the seating arrangements for the N.S.C., where Bannon, a right-wing white nationalist who has provided a platform for anti-Semites, sits on one side of Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew, sits on the other.

.. By continually contradicting himself and not seeming to care, Trump generates confusion in the members of the media and political opposition that has often rendered them ineffectual, especially in speaking to those outside the liberal base. They were slow to realize that he was playing by a different set of rules.

.. He has proved adept at deflecting well-intentioned fact-checking, regardless of how often it has caught him in a contradiction, and rational counterarguments, which can bounce off him like rubber.

.. there has recently been a robust and energetic attempt .. to call out and counter Trumpism’s attack on reality.

.. work with more disturbed patients can be time-consuming, exhausting and has been known to lead to burnout. The fear here is that if the 45th president can maintain this manic pace, he may wear down the resistance and Trump-exhaustion will set in, causing the disoriented experience of reality he has created to grow ever stronger and more insidious.

Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin

He is also an intriguing personality, having apparently published a novel under one pseudonym, and then reviewed it (not entirely favourably) under another ..

.. Surkov’s philosophy from the first was that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free whereas in fact they are managed. The only freedom in his view is “artistic freedom”.

..the most eloquent defenders of Putin’s consolidation of the state and the leading advocate of the notion of ‘sovereign democracy”. Surkov can be defined as a “democratic statist”, and is thus not part of the ‘siloviki” faction, those associated with the security forces who advocate some sort of “iron hand”.

.. The theme of this speech reiterates his message of his years in the Presidential Administration: that there is no universal democracy, but only specific forms that reflect a country’s traditions, political culture and psychology. He supported the centralisation of power during Putin’s presidency, and thus his arguments contributed to the erosion of political pluralism and diversity. His views no doubt are contradictory, espousing the role of centralised leadership while at the same time extolling Russia’s tradition of local government (notably the zemstvosestablished by Alexander II) and insisting the “wholeness” is compatible with the competitiveness that is the hallmark of any democracy. His work is also concerned about developing a dynamic model of modernisation for Russia, but the rather heavy-handed model of political management that he practices runs counter to this ambition.

.. Surkov’s published works reveal engagement with these issues, accompanied by a playful self-awareness in which one senses that he is not taking all of this quite seriously. This is a dangerous combination. One can fear rulers when they believe in themselves, but when the authorities begin to treat power as a joking matter the mask slips and legitimacy wanes.

Trump’s lies have a purpose. They are an assault on democracy.

Donald Trump is winning the war on reality. Welcome to the age of nightmares.

.. Some political lies are more ambitious than that. Sometimes the goal isn’t to embroider reality as it currently exists, but to construct a new reality out of whole cloth.

That’s what the second Bush administration tried to do. President George W. Bush and his advisers — most notably deputy chief of staff Karl Rove —wove a parallel universe in which Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaeda was in cahoots with virtually all of America’s enemies, and the United States was a messianic crusader that would eventually spread capitalist liberal democracy to every corner of the world.

.. Creating an alternate political universe requires discipline. It requires the willingness to tell many little lies that add up to one big lie. All these lies need to be internally consistent, mutually reinforcing, and at least superficially plausible.

.. For members of the Bush administration, even their power to mold reality had a place in the universe they created. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” an anonymous Bush official, widely believed to be Rove, told the New York Times’ Ron Suskind in 2004. “And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

.. President-elect Donald Trump does not create new realities. He tells lies that are seemingly random, frequently inconsistent, and often plainly ridiculous.

He says or tweets things on the record and then denies having ever said them. He contradicts documented fact and then disregards anyone who points out the inaccuracies. He even lies when he has no discernible reason to do so — and then turns around and tells another lie that flies in the face of the previous one.

.. If he does not fully understand what he is doing, his advisers certainly do.

.. “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” he said.“It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

.. Bannon is a skilled practitioner of the “darkness” strategy, but he is not its inventor. The real Master of the Dark Arts is another Karl Rove equivalent: Vladislav Surkov, a top adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

.. His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.

Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.

.. no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”

.. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.

.. Many of the stories promulgated by Trump, Bannon, and their allies — such as Trump’s claim that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination — were obviously false and easily debunked. But the sheer volume of these stories had their intended effect. When fake news becomes omnipresent, all news becomes suspect. Everything starts to look like a lie.

.. In March, Terris reported that he had seen Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, physically attack journalist Michelle Fields. The campaign lied about the incident and said nothing had happened. After days of being told his report had been wrong, Terris began to doubt what he had seen. Even when video was uncovered corroborating Terris’ report, the Trump campaign evaded the issue.

“Trump gaslighted me,” Fields later told Terris for an article about the incident. “I worry now that he’s gaslighting the country.”

.. If everything is a lie, then the man who makes his lies obvious is practicing a peculiar form of honesty.

.. It makes sense that the man who would pioneer this style of rhetoric in an American context is someone who used to host a reality television show and appear in pro wrestling events. Both The Apprentice and the World Wrestling Federation are staged; they’re contests that are meant to look superficially real, even though everyone knows that the outcomes are rigged and the “heroes” and “villains” are reading canned lines.

.. Non-linear warfare is intrinsically authoritarian. The president-elect is speaking the language of dictators.

.. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts

.. By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible.

.. To men like Surkov, that is exactly as it should be. Government policy should not be set through democratic oversight; instead, the government should “manage” democracy, ensuring that people can express themselves without having any influence over the machinations of the state.

.. Surkov is “considered the main architect of what is colloquially known as ‘managed democracy,’ the administrative management of party and electoral politics.”

.. “Surkov’s philosophy is that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free, whereas in fact they are managed,” writes Sakwa. “In his view, the only freedom is ‘artistic freedom.’”

.. When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong.

.. This “artistic expression” can be nominally political, insofar as it takes on the guise of political rhetoric. But it is also fundamentally anti-political, both because its primary aim is self-expression, and because it has little effect on political power itself. It is essentially a form of narcissism. And it is harmless to authoritarian despots.

But there are at least a couple of steps that anti-authoritarians can make right away to ensure that the Surkov style of rhetoric does not go unchallenged.

First, social media companies need to be held accountable for facilitating the spread of misinformation.

..Second, journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration. They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy. That is the choice every news outlet faces for the next four years: Subservience and complicity, or open hostility. There is no middle ground.

.. For the next four years, Donald Trump will seek to shred any institution that threatens his ability to unilaterally determine what is real. That will likely include the courts, universities, unions, and even executive branch agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics.