“A Muscovite goes to buy sausages from the butcher, waits in line in vain, and in despair curses the Marxist-Leninist system. A policeman hears his oath and cautions him ‘Comrade, a few years ago you would have been shot for saying that.’ Back at home the man confides to his wife that he now knows the depth of the economic crisis. ‘No sausages in the shops?’ She asks. ‘Worse than that,’ he replies, ‘no bullets for the police.’”
In the Cold War jokes were taken seriously. In 1982, U.S. Information Agency officers based at posts in the Communist bloc systematically collected local political jokes and forwarded them to Washington, where the Agency created a grand anthology, which they distributed around the world as evidence both of popular opposition to Communist rule and of the widespread skepticism about Communism’s claims to be economically effective. This sort of satirical humor worked against the Soviet regime because there was a gap between the Kremlin’s pretentious rhetoric about creating Communist Utopia and the stark lived reality.
Fast forward to our times, and the Kremlin is far less vulnerable to satire. Instead of claiming to be a paragon of virtue, it focuses on showing how others are just as corrupt and un-virtuous as itself. The Kremlin is itself now the satirist, prodding what’s left of the West and its many hypocrisies. The tone is set from the top; Putin’s trademark, trickster smirk hangs above every taunting parody of high-minded Western rhetoric. Recall Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times all the way back from 2013—published on September 11, no less—where the Russian President taunted Obama for his failure in Syria, and mocked U.S. exceptionalism more generally. It finished with a rhetorical flourish echoing the Declaration of Independence: “There are big countries and small countries….Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Further down the pecking order sits the infamously troll-y Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the UK. Responding to Western accusations of Russian interference in elections, the embassy tweeted the cover of Hilary Clinton’s memoir:
MFA: want to learn more about foreign interference? Buy "Hard choices" by @HillaryClinton and read about USA shameless meddling in other countries' affairs on every single page. pic.twitter.com/yVBnGyB6H7
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) March 3, 2018
Since the poisoning of a Russian-turned-English spy in Salisbury last week, it has heckled the UK government’s accusations, scoffing at how Downing Street blames everything from bad weather to bad traffic on the Kremlin.
The situation with satire is part of a larger crumbling of the techniques used to counter Soviet narratives, propaganda and disinformation; the whole grand “Western” narrative from the Cold War is coming unglued. In a new study for the LSE Arena program, I and my co-authors listed the tactics and contrasted the changes. The Cold War “narrative” managed to project a positive image of the West, bolted together around the idea of “freedom”.
You can see the first shades of this approach in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, which called for freedom of speech and religion and freedom from fear and want as the basis for a democratic and peaceful world. With the onset of the Cold War, subsequent administrations quietly dropped the idea of “freedom from want” as a right: it was difficult to uphold while denouncing Soviet provision of social housing. Instead the U.S. emphasised freedom of speech, expression, and political choice. American prosperity was the direct result of a superior economic model, linked to “free” markets. This “freedom” was in turn rhetorically associated with the aesthetic freedom of modern art and jazz, which were supported by Government agencies overtly and covertly.
This interweaving of the freedom to vote and saxophone solos, capital markets and abstract expressionism, has now utterly fallen apart. Countries like China and Russia have shown you can have all the trappings of “free” culture and markets—modern art, reality shows and playing on the stock market—and few political freedoms. Meanwhile countries like the UK and U.S. voluntarily decoupled political freedoms from economic freedom, happy not only to do “free market” business deals with regimes who trample human rights, but also to launder the money of these same ‘investors’ in New York and London. Even the very word “freedom” has lost its luster. It started with the Iraq war’s Operation Enduring Freedom and its attendant “freedom fries”. Today it is the freehold of a rising far-Right, which uses it as a rallying call for the validation of racism and hate: freedom of speech reduced to the freedom to troll and bully. A sad journey for such a grand word.
In the Cold War, even small techniques worked because they were part of something much larger. In the early 1980s, the U.S. set up an “Active Measures Working Group” to tackle Soviet era “fake news”: disinformation campaigns which used hoaxes and conspiracy theories to undermine trust in Western alliances. The Active Measures Working Group published regular reports which forensically exposed and debunked Soviet efforts, and Soviet leaders howled in embarrassment when caught. But such debunking was only relevant as long as the Kremlin was concerned with making itself look as if it cared about facts. The Cold War was a competition between two (at least nominally) “rational” ideologies, both with their roots in Enlightenment philosophy. Both felt bound by the need to present evidence that their system was working as they worked towards a more successful future. Seeming factual mattered, even when it was all a façade.
Today, as the Kremlin isn’t trying to prove anything rational—it is beholden to no progressive philosophy and espouses no hopeful idea of the future—so it doesn’t care about being caught lying. And in the U.S., too, enough of the population has lost any stake in a rational future to embrace a leadership which revels in rejecting any sort of evidence-based discourse. Perhaps these “post-truth” developments in Russia and the U.S. are related: once competition between rational political philosophies ended and there was no more need to evidentially prove you were achieving a better future, so did the need for a fact-based discourse in either country.
But there is no going back. Grand narratives belonged to an age of monolithic media, where they could be formulated and, sometimes brutally, sometimes more gently, imposed. Networked social media is more fragmentary, defying big, single stories or a shared reality. The best one can perhaps hope for are little connections, nodes, surprising alignments which rekindle the active meaning of words such as “rights,” “dignity,” and “justice”—terms that have otherwise become so deflated, like soccer balls with the air sucked out.
Sometimes I find myself at odd little meetings that bring together Cold Warriors who think of Edward Snowden as a traitor and young digital rights activists who see Snowden as a hero. But both groups are equally appalled by computational propaganda and digital disinformation, exploited by everyone from the Kremlin to the far-Right and ISIS. They are brought together around a drive for better digital rights which empower people to have more control over their own data, whether with regard to being hacked or surveilled by governments or targeted by political campaigns. Digital rights may potentially have a similar impact on the course of history as human rights did in the Cold War.
For that to have any resonance we would need to be able to show digital rights are respected more in countries such as the U.S. or the UK than in places like Russia or China. The current scandal around how the political campaigning firm Cambridge Analytica misused personal Facebook data to (allegedly) help swing the U.S. election to Donald Trump could be an inflection point. It’s striking how technology companies have used the remnants of the old Cold War narrative in their self-promotion, with claims to set information free and empower the individual. Can they make their actions match their stated ideals?
The Magnitsky Act, which bans human rights abusers from investing in the United States, is notable for how it re-ties political and economic rights. One concern that unites dissidents in today’s Russia with campaigners for transparency and justice in the West is corruption and money laundering. Instead of relying on a simplistic “Russia” versus the “West” geographic framing, it shows how intertwined everything is, a system of off-shores and tax avoidance schemes which simultaneously props up authoritarian kleptocracies further afield while also helping super-rich plutocrats in Europe and America game the system and subvert the sense of a shared democracy at home.
We still tend to frame things in terms of “foreign” and “domestic”, “them” and “us”, as if we still live in a Cold War world of walls and hard borders. Yet when you look at the more relevant maps of digital disinformation and corruption networks, you see the inadequacy of the frame. And it becomes clear that there already is a fierce competition on for different versions of the future. We’re just failing to see it because we are looking at things with an old map, trying to tell an old joke.