This Is Not Propaganda: The fatal lack of unity (an afterword)
The main message to take out of Pomerantsev book is that we are facing a concerted, organised, well-funded highly technological onslaught. Its final outcome will be to enshrine power and money — and not facts, arguments or reason — as the main factor in winning elections. It aims for a triumph of ‘might’ over ‘right’. There is a clear need for unity in the face of it. Thus far, we are seeing the opposite: constant finger pointing and blaming of each other instead of understanding the evolving, increasingly high-tech threat using the new techniques of propaganda.
In the UK and the US, the inability of the left and the centre of politics to stop fighting greatly helps the Right to prosper. The ‘divide and conquer’, works perfectly as observed in the last UK General Election: parties opposing an immediate Brexit without a referendum got just over 50% of the vote but lost the election in terms of parliamentary seats by a long way. The centre then proceeded to blame the Left, angrily bristling at any suggestion that the Labour voters who went Tory did so because they were influenced by propaganda. They are still acting as if nothing Pomerantsev wrote about exists. Instead, all of the blame was put on the politicians who lost — precisely the narrative of ‘the people’ who ‘know what they voted for’ that the Right wants.
It is too tempting for either side to avoid using the slogans and attack narratives coming from the Right. The Left accuses the Centre of being ‘out-of-touch’ and ‘technocratic’ whilst in return there are accusations of ‘not listening to voters’ and ‘talking to yourselves’. Both sides accuse each other of ‘allowing Brexit to happen’, the Centrists additionally implore ‘to understand the concerns of the people voting Tory and UKIP’. (The fact those ‘concerns’ might be ‘too many immigrants’, a result of both mainstream and social media brainwashing, is conveniently not mentioned). One feels like wanting to shake them and point out the elephant in the room.
We need to remember the root causes of this situation (at least in the West): the disillusionment felt by so many people, the inequality, the uncertainty on one hand; the lack of regulation of the media, both mainstream and social on the other. We need to stop blaming each other when we lose — doing this makes as much sense as if British wartime leaders blamed each other for Dunkirk.
The centrists also strive for a ‘majority’ coalition — although theirs is rooted in a very real and tangible notions of ‘avoiding extremes’, ‘consensus’ and ‘good governance’ rather than in populist myths and fairy tales. They claim to not have a well-defined ideology, preferring to be moderates who ‘do what works’ and respond to challenges as they come up, technocrats whose main selling point is ‘good governance’. The Left are left alone in trying to voice an explicit ideological position, to rally their coalition round the flag of change and reform (even if they, as Pomerantsev observes, also indulge in ‘us vs them’ politics, juxtaposing ‘the people’ and ‘the rich elites’). As a result, the Left all too often finds itself ganged up on all too often by the centrist consensus and the ‘fairytale’ consensus who take turns echoing each other in attacking ‘the ideological socialists’, with the obligatory cliches about purges and Gulags.
Worse still, centrists identify the Left and the Right through the so-called ‘horseshoe theory’ — suggesting that ‘the two extremes of the political spectrum meet’. This is music to the ears of the right-wing propagandists who love nothing more than some finger-pointing. ‘Look, we are only as bad as the Left’ they insist, with Trump famously claiming, after Charlottesville that there were ‘some very fine people on both sides’. It becomes a handy tactic for the Right to minimise their own violence.
Another dangerous motif of the Right that the centre adopted wholesale is the ‘monopoly on caring’ attack. When Leftists point to social ills and criticise others for not doing enough about them, the response is that the Left are arrogant and ‘virtue signalling’. This was aptly illustrated during the Democratic primaries in which Bernie Sanders stood for universal healthcare and attacked Joe Biden’s tamer proposals. You would expect the response to talk up the merits of Biden’s proposal — instead it attacked Sanders supporters ‘for thinking they are the only ones that care’.
This myth goes hand in hand with that of the ‘aggressive, bullying leftie’ — brought out whenever a leftist shows any emotion, attacking any flourish of colourful rhetoric, attempting to restrict people to making bland, restrained statements at a time when the Right can be as emotive as it likes.
It is one of the greatest self-owns in politics, because the shapeshifting right-wing narrative cleverly lumps the centrists together with the Left into one single ‘enemy of the people’. So, by attacking the Left, centrists end up attacking themselves, spreading around talking points that are used to keep the wavering voters inside the great populist right ‘majority coalition’.
The Left is, of course, far from blameless in these disputes. Sections of it are infiltrated by Russia and openly defend dictators such as Bashar Al-Assad, a Putin ally. This ‘hard edge’, conspiratorial and anti-Western, can be easily found by looking for outspoken support for the unholy trinity of Syria, Venezuela and Iran in a way that blames everything on the West, accuses all internal opposition of being Western stooges and ignores the fact that a world order run by Moscow or Beijing would be far, far worse (we will probably find out about the latter soon enough). However, that element, whilst being outspoken and loud, is not numerous, despite what some Centrists would have us believe. It will oppose any anti-populist Right alliance, but is easy to ignore.
The centre needs to listen to the Left for two reasons. It crucially offers an alternative — a key ingredient, according to Srdja Popovic, of ensuring change. Secondly, and most importantly, this ideology — whether of the ‘softer’ or ‘harder’ Left kind — attempts to resolve the conditions that currently allow the populist Right to flourish: a barely regulated mainstream media, an unregulated social media and a population large parts of whom feel they have been ignored and left behind.