Book Club – ‘This Is Not Propaganda’

It’s been a while since the first entry into the inertia book club, but we are back with a cracker that looks at modern use of propaganda and disinformation. We’d highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in politics or Russia, as it is a large focus throughout. The full title of the book is This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, which is what initially drew me in to selecting it for reading, as well as the good potential of a discussion into its themes on this site. Overall there is amazing insight here into the background and current practice of some very shady characters in the political world, so buckle in and let’s get into it.

Peter Pomerantsev is a Soviet-born British journalist who has grown to become an authority in the analysis of the modern-day Russian state. He has investigated the inner mechanisms of Russia and looked at some cases of deception, disinformation and cover-up. All of this is centred around the dark and shadowy figure of Vladimir Putin, who I have been fascinated with for years. The hypermacho and comically egotistic Russian leader is one of the main figures in what Pomerantsev describes as ‘post-modern politics’.

The main tenet of this new system follows in what many theorists would call the postmodern culture that we now live in, where meaning is often replaced by simulation and past styles are recycled in place of new developments. The way in which Pomerantsev applies this broad term to politics looks at how contemporary leaders such as Trump and Putin have a complete disregard for facts, to the point that they almost detest any semblance of truth. In a system that was perhaps once ruled by facts and figures, politics can now be characterised by blatant lies. The lies that are now told are regularly proven to be factually incorrect, but this no longer matters. In the age of information abundance and fact checking or correction comes too late, as the lie has already manifested itself in the discussion. This provided politicians with a dangerous tool as they can create whatever narrative they please and can position themselves as the hero that is liberating their people, rather than maniacal tyrants that seek only power.

The author gives the book a very personal feel by positioning much of the origins of Russian rule around his turbulent childhood. Pomerantsev, a now successful journalist, was born in Soviet ruled Ukraine and was immediately forced to flee due to his father’s alleged distribution of anti-Soviet literature which resulted in prosecution from the KGB. Aged only one Pomerantsev found himself in a foreign land as his parents fled first to West Germany and then eventually, they winded up in London, where his father worked for the BBC World Service. It is fair to say that this unique upbringing has fostered a unique perspective in the author’s work. Born into a world of Soviet dissidence there has always been a critical lens being held up to the ruling class. In this sense Pomerantsev continues on from the work of his father in his latest book; This Is Not Propoganda.

The book tells winding tales interwoven with memoirs of democratic struggles in Serbia, China, the Philippines, Estonia and (of course) Russia. A stark realisation comes from reading these adventures into truth and propaganda, that there are strong systems at play with the sole focus of tricking you. Once we may have been safe from overseas state propaganda, but the internet allows a convenient shortcut for agenda-setting groups to get in your head and infect you with bitter lies. Whilst Pomerantsev often takes a light-hearted tone there is no doubt when it comes to the severity of our situation. Easy going liberalism may have acted as a breeding ground for such deceptive systems, which now use Facebook and other social media sites to empower their own autocracies. When it comes to going into depth in how these lies are spread and how they control minds across the globe, I highly suggest reading the words of Pomerantsev himself, as I am afraid that I will not do them justice.

The real appeal for this book to me is shining a light on the figures that often loom in the dark, a prime example being Vladislav Surkov. Surkov has held several powerful roles in the Russian government, most recently taking the job of Personal Adviser to Valdimir Putin. The shadowy persona that has often been cited as a key man in Putin’s power structs has fascinated me ever since his brief mention in Hypernormalisation. In Adam Curtis’ 2017 BBC documentary Surkov is painted as a Russian evil genius who blends his knowledge of theatre with politics. This fits neatly into Pomerantsev’s depiction of a post-modern political world where, in a way, everything is a sort of theatre.

I would say that if you are intrigued at how Trump got elected, or how Russia operates, or even how you may be targeted by a foreign government for your data, then you should read this book. If you have read this book and want to have a chat, as I know I did upon finishing it, then please get in contact. The main takeaway that I got from this book is to always be critical of power as the foreign autocrats and dictators may be closer than you think.

Words by Ewan Blacklaw

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