For this month's political book club selection, we picked (at Andrea's suggestion -- thanks, Andrea!) Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev is a documentary filmmaker who worked in Russia for ten years in the aughts, where he worked for Russian TV outlets bringing the "reality TV" concept to Russia.
While Pomerantsev's writing style can be a bit pat and the printing of the book I had was somewhat poorly proofread, this was made up for, for me, by the fact that the subject matter is absolute catnip to me. Media studies, and especially media studies in broad political contexts, is very much my bag, baby, and Pomerantsev's book is basically an extended exploration of how the Russian government uses propaganda -- both on TV and outside of it, but mostly on TV -- to consolidate and maintain control over the populace, carefully managing what sort of dissent is allowed and how much, flooding people with ever-shifting narratives of total nonsense that sedate or disorient the populace.
This particular case study in propaganda includes many of my favorite reading topics: The economic fuckeries of high finance capitalism, mafias, goofy mafia movies, murder mysteries, heartwarming tales of social activism, architectural hymns to great world capital cities. All it needs is a couple of poker games and it'd be a book version of that bit in The BFG where he makes personalized dreams for people by throwing a bunch of 'em in a jar and shaking it around. And this is all even written before the Russians got into screwing around with other people's elections!
The most disturbing aspect of this book is how much all the surreal reality-manipulating stuff Pomerantsev talks about really doesn't feel all that foreign or unfamiliar -- a lot of it's the same old hypercapitalist, sensationalist, reality-TV fuckery we've got going on in the U.S., just turned up to 11. It's even worse if you're relatively well versed in the hypocrisies and not-so-much-hidden-as-ignored brutalities within the U.S., like that we send people to jails for stupid shit, too, and in many of them, the conditions are unconscionable and people die mysteriously. The richest and most prestigious Russians, the oligarchs and models, jet around the world to London and New York and Switzerland, where the wealthy are above the law and the models are exploited terribly, because that's how it works throughout the whole developed world.
The book is structured episodically, roughly giving project-by-project accounts of the lives of Pomerantsev's documentary subjects, but also discussing what had to get cut from the "documentaries" and why. One section covers a mafioso who has since become a filmmaker and writer, making films about his own life as a mafioso in a remote town in Siberia that mostly exists to import cars from Japan. Another deeply creepy section investigates the suicide of model Ruslana Korshunova and her involvement in a creepy corporate training/life coaching organization called Rose of the World which is apparently a cult. It reads like something a disaffected corporate underling like myself would write as a satire of the absurdities of the self-care/self-empowerment trend (deconstructed wonderfully by Laurie Penny at The Baffler), except apparently it's real and it's driven multiple people to suicide. It's also, unsurprisingly, based on a U.S. self-improvement module that's also had its share of lawsuits alleging that it's a cult, including wrongful death suits. A slightly less depressing section of Nothing Is True follows the story of a businesswoman whose entirely legal and fully permitted business selling some industrial chemical becomes illegal overnight, which she learns about when she is unceremoniously arrested. She is able to win her case and set up a nonprofit helping other wrongfully arrested upstanding citizens, but there is reason to suspect that she's largely being allowed to do this -- and to have a carefully framed film made of her experience -- mostly to give people a feel-good and laughably false story that corruption in Russia is mostly low-level petty stuff that's being successfully rooted out.
The overall result of all of this is mind-bending, which I think is the point, and is of course a feeling that Americans have become increasingly familiar with since... um... frankly, it's been a boiling frog situation since at least the Bush/Gore election, as far as I'm concerned, but it's definitely gotten worse in the past year. Everything's just a chaotic funhouse mirror of total nonsense run by dumb schmucks who nevertheless can mess with you because they have enough money to buy whatever reality they want for you, in addition to for themselves.
I think we're going to have a lot to talk about at book club, especially since so many of the people in the book club are writers who I don't think are likely to have the same general doubts about the power of propaganda that a lot of folks seem to have (it's disheartening how many Americans seem to think that we're accusing Putin of having diabolical brilliance and superpowers when people report that disinformation "hacked" the election. I think just there's a fundamental reluctance to admit that you don't actually need superpowers to brainwash millions of people, just a lot of resources -- namely, enough to hire people who have studied comm and PR -- and some basic competence at opportunism, unencumbered by scruple). We already did a book about how fucked our voting system is, so I don't think we're blinded by any false faith in the strength of American institutions as a group. Therefore... I think it'll be fun. I'll try to come up with some really good questions.