Ahead of Trump's Inauguration tomorrow, Hot Press reflects on global politics and what the next four years could hold.
Where to start? I know I’ve said it before, but Captain Boyle’s assertion in Juno and the Paycock that “Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis” sounds just about right for the beginning of 2017. It’s not just the bleeding obvious like the launch of the Trump era in the US, and the mayhem of Syria. It’s everywhere and has the potential to drag everything and everyone down.
In the space of two years we have passed from faint but real hopes for a better future to downright dystopia. All the good things that were foreseen for the interconnected world have been trumped by fears of exploitation by the major tech companies – and of hacking and cyberattacks by Governments and criminals alike.
Democracy is under consistent attack from a range of forces, including various States as well as non-governmental forces. Neo-nazism and white supremacism, both rebranded as ‘alt-right’, are on the rise as is their corollary, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
Incredible as it seems, anti-Semites and holocaust deniers are among the incoming US President’s cabinet. So also are climate change deniers. Yeah, there are those who jeer that the house of cards is falling around us – but that’s to miss the point. Bad as things are and have been, a reversion to oligarchy, authoritarianism and a world dominated by three mega-powers (the USA, Russia and China) will prove infinitely worse, especially if, as would be likely, that new dispensation were to be underpinned by a handful of superpower corporations.
It could all have been very different.
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Readers who have not already done so should seek out Hypernormalisation, a BBC documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. The film was released on the BBC iPlayer. While you’re at it, you can also find Jarvis Cocker’s BBC Radio Six interview with Curtis.
It’s a brilliant, sprawling epic, best likened to a river study, tracking its various springs, streams and tributaries and the landscapes and interferences it encounters en route to the sea. Curtis posits that technocrats, complacent radicals and internet entrepreneurs have created an unreal world, where familiar and often comforting details blind us to its total inauthenticity. And he argues that the official history of the twentieth century is the work of “managers of perception”.
Writing in the New Yorker, Brandon Harris calls Hypernormalisation “a postmodern counterhistory”. Everything isn’t great. Rather, the internet has realised the dystopian vision of “cyberspace” from William Gibson novels: a handful of players use the networks to spy on everyone, as well as controlling popular discourse by selling ourselves back to us. They reinforce users’ own pre-existing ideas by making sure that they gain enough reinforcement from social media and e-commerce that little or nothing can challenge what Harris terms the “algorithmically curated world view”.
You may not agree with all of it and it’s a long watch too, but Curtis gets to the heart of the matter on many issues. Watch his exposition of how Muammar Gaddafi was repeatedly exploited by the US as the scapegoat for its problems with the Middle East, because the Americans felt more comfortable dealing with a relatively harmless cartoon villain than they did with their real enemy: the regime in Syria.
Elsewhere he introduces Vladimir Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov. This guy has a background in theatre and the arts and Curtis argues that he has brought a different understanding to political intrigue. He has funded hard right and hard left groups and created a sense that nobody knows who is in or out nor, critically, who or what can be trusted. The idea of a central agreed narrative is broken.
One Guardian reader commented that Hypernormalisation left her “mesmerised, horrified, intrigued.” Above all, she said, she was now determined that:
“No matter what I read or watch, I need to apply critical analysis: Who is telling me this? Why are they telling me this and not something else? What do they gain (or what does someone else lose) by telling me this? What is their publishing/broadcasting history? What do others think about what they have written/broadcast in the past?”
One thing is for sure: we are in a new era where all of those questions become far more urgent. It seems virtually certain that Russian intelligence played a very significant role in Trump’s election victory, as they have in the Brexit debate and in elections and referenda across the EU. They are lining up the coming elections in Germany and France next. They are behind much of the neo-fascist growth of recent times.
What’s afoot? Well, Russia is the largest state in the world and very rich too. They are deeply resentful at the loss of empire and status that followed the collapse of the USSR. Indeed, they were routinely humiliated by American advisers sent in by the World Bank and other organisations, who turned out to be idiot ideologues.
Since then, Russia has restructured and recovered – aided, of course, by western dependence on oil and gas. It is confident and assertive and Putin, being an old KGB hand himself, has invested in intelligence. They seem to realise better than the west that cyberspace is a critical battleground and have applied their military tactic of asymmetrical warfare in this new theatre.
Their aim? To be accepted as one of the three superpowers and to have hegemony over northern Asia and eastern Europe. The EU is perceived to be a huge obstacle to this and is therefore under constant attack and subversion.
Which is not to say that they don’t also practice the old dark arts. It appears that they may well have sufficient inside information on Trump himself to keep a rein on him.
And before you think it let’s say it: the US has done, and continues to do, similar things in dozens of countries. Likewise the UK. Of course they have. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
The rest of us have to deal with the consequences. A narcissistic bully, a groper, a carnival huckster, is taking the baton from Barack Obama, a man of great inherent decency and composure, who – despite the many mistakes perpetrated under his watch – made the US truly cool again.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride. But already the fightback has begun. His inauguration will be followed by a huge protest march by women. It won’t be the last. As Joe Hill said “arise, arise and organise!” And so they will. The old Chinese proverb applies: we live in interesting times. Let’s hope that the tide really can be turned.
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