I came across historian Timothy Snyder after seeing his video on the European Union. Simply presented, without great hyperbole, his other videos on Russia and the US election and were compelling explanations of what’s been going on.
His 2018 book, “The Road to Unfreedom” provides an authoritative background to some of the deeper issues that I believe underlie Brexit – namely a misundertanding of how citizens connect to the democracy they live in, and how individual nations of the EU connected with the democratic union they are members of.
His overarching claim is that Russia’s emergence from Communism post-1989 was quickly hijacked by oligarchs and kleptocrats and the politicians they supported. Putin and his team regularly quote fascist philosophers from the 20th century, and many events over the the last few decades, in the US, UK and Europe, can be analysed in that context. Those who remember the depressing “Non-linear warfare” segment from Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe 2014 will recognise many of the names and ideas here. “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
First Principles – History misread
He starts with the idea that our understanding of “nation” is flawed and, this had consequences for the post-1945 period as well as post-1989. The actions taken by Britain and other countries allowed these myths to persist, at the same time as undermining institutions which set out to repair the damage caused by the 20th Century wars. A lack of shared history about what happened in Europe during and after WW2 is a major contributing factor, and he makes the excellent suggestion to have Tony Judt’s “Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945” taught through a common curriculum. I’ve since started that book, and am instantly struck by the completely different experience of British citizens and institutions, compared to those on the continent, and especially Eastern Europe. Britain’s rejection of the American and German request to take the lead in the European Project seems to have been made on domestic political grounds (Labour’s Herbert Morrison) and that’s clearly had consequences for how the UK and France behaved in relation to Europe ever since, as well as our national identities.
So let’s start with the idea of Britain as a sovereign nation, of which it is claimed we will “take back control”.
“In history there was no era of the nation-state: generally (with exceptions such as Finland), empire ended while integration began. with no interval in between. In the indispensible cases of Germany France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal there was no moment between empire and integration when the nation was sovereign and the state flourished in isolation. It is true that citizens of these countries unreflectively believe that their country has a history as a nation-state: generally, after a moment of reflection, they realize that this is not the case. Such reflection does not usually take place, because history education throughout Europe is national. Lacking serious education in their own imperial pasts, and lacking the comparative knowledge that would allow them to see patterns, Europeans settled for a falsehood.
The fable of the wise nation, learned in childhood, comforted adults by allowing them to forget the true difficulties of history. By reciting the fable of the wise nation, leaders and societies could praise themselves for choosing Europe, when in fact Europe was an existential need after empire.”
If our understanding of the concept of a “nation state” is flawed, then it follows that the democracy which operates within it is also flawed, as we’re expecting it to support a mythical “Britain” which doesn’t really exist. As citizens, we need to engage with the institutions of our democracy, including local councils, Parliament and European Parliament, else they can easily be manipulated or abused by inevitability and eternity politicians.
Our idea of “Leadership” is also flawed generally – we are encouraged to think of Leaders as people who make decisions on their own knowledge and belief, and we should trust them to get the job done. In reality, good leaders have a vision, can explain that, and get the right people to make it happen. Worse still, we back people to be leaders because they’re “a bit of fun” and tell us something we want to hear.
“A state does not endure because a leader mystifies a generation. The problem of political endurance cannot be solved by people who think only of the present. Leaders must think beyond themselves and their clans, to imagine how other people might succeed them in the future. Functional states produce a sense of continuity for their citizens. If states sustain themselves, citizens can imagine change without fearing catastrophe. The mechanism that ensures that a state outlasts a leader is called the principle of succession. A common one is democracy. The meaning of each election is the promise of the next one. Since each citizen is fallible, democracy transforms cumulative mistakes into a collective belief in the future. History goes on.”
Key concepts: Inevitability & Eternity
Snyder refers to a kind of politics espoused by many European politicians as “Politics of Inevitability” – that things are great and will inevitably continue to improve, so no need to worry. Or indeed the opposite, that things are terrible and nothing can be done. In either case there is little need or point to citizens engaging in democratic processes.
Both aspects of inevitability politics can be used by Eternity politicians, who maintain power by constantly looping back to a mythical time in history when everything was “better”. “Make [country] Great Again” – by identifying an external enemy who is causing the discomfort now, whether it be real or imagined.
“In the 2010s, nationalists and fascists who opposed the EU promised Europeans a return to an imaginary national history, and their opponents rarely saw the real problem. Because everyone accepted the fable of the wise nation, the EU was defined by both its supporters and opponents as a national choice rather than as a national necessity.”
Meanwhile, in Russia, democratic reforms were quickly derailed by political opportunists who became rich from the early economic successes, and wanted to ensure that this situation was maintained. The fledgling democratic processes that might challenge them were easy to corrupt with money, helpfully laundered through Europe and the US via banking and property markets. Surprisingly, the lot of ordinary Russians didn’t improve much. But how to keep power and avoid a popular uprising?
“If leaders were unable to reform Russia, reform had to seem impossible. If Russians believed that all leaders and all media lied, then they would learn to dismiss Western models for themselves. If the citizens of Europe and the United States joined in the general distrust of one another and their institutions, then Europe and America could be expected to disintegrate.”
Journalism, as a key institution within a democratic society, is targeted:
“Journalists cannot function amidst total skepticism; civil societies wane when citizens cannot count on one another; the rule of law depends upon the beliefs that people will follow law without its being enforced and that enforcement when it comes will be impartial.
The very idea of impartiality assumes that there are truths that can be understood regardless of perspective. Russian propaganda was transmitted by protégés on the European far Right who shared Russia’s interest in the demolition of European institutions.”
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” – George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”
The lack of introspection and understanding of “Europe” (see above) was weak point:
“Because the EU is a consensual organization, it was vulnerable to campaigns that raised emotions. Because it was composed of democractic states it could be weakened by political parties that advocated leaving the EU. Because the EU had never been meaningfully opposed, it never occurred to Europeans to ask whether debates on the internet were manipulated from outside with hostile intent.
The Russian policy to destroy the EU took several corresponding forms: the recruitment of European leaders and parties to represent the Russian interest in European disintegration; the digital and televisual penetration of public discourse to sow distrust of the EC; the recruitment of extreme nationalists and fascists for public promotion of Eurasia; and the endorsement of separatism of all kinds.”
The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend
To this end, Putin befriended and supported European politicians who were willing to defend Russian interests, including Schroder in Germany, Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK. Social media and TV were a particularly effective attack angle not previously available:
“In the post-communist east European member States of the European Union, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. and Poland, Russia financed and organized internet discussion outlets to cast doubt on the value of EU membership. These sites purported to provide news on various themes but in every case suggested that the EU was decadent or unsafe.
In the larger west European media markets. the international English-. Spanish-. German-. and French- language television network RT was more important. RT became the media home Of European politicians who opposed the EU, such as Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Marine Le pen Of the Front National in France.”
Example: Crimea 2014
Synder goes into detail about how the non-linear strategy was used most effectively during the invasion of Crimea, with the division in the EU, and the outright denial of factuality through social media and TV channels, and cyberwarfare conducted in concert with the physical invasion of troops on the ground. This section at times reads almost like Game of Thrones, in that there’s such depth to the strategic thinking behind it, and a tragic playing out of events for individuals. I frequently found myself deeply moved by this section.
The book concludes with the next logical move in Putin’s global game of chess – the campaign to install Donald Trump as the President of the USA. The events in that section may be more familiar to us, but the threads that link back to Putin are clearer. At times, throughout the book, it reads almost like fiction, or a conspiracy novel, and yet every single point is deeply referenced with an extensive index and notes on the context.
Overall, the book is quite dispiriting, especially the deep mythology of “Eurasianism” that drives Putin’s vision for a united Eurasia from Atlantic to Pacific. It does help to make sense of the use of religious imagery and homophobic language, and seemingly unrelated events such as the recent split in the Orthodox Church.
With Snyder’s concept of “sadopopulism” – that people will always endure government-enforced hardship if they believe someone external is responsible – you can’t help but be reminded of Orwell’s line from “1984”: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Also easy to connect the concept ideas of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia being at permanent war in one form or another. Remember, too, Britain’s role as “Airstrip One”.
It’s a shame that Snyder has not been able to go into more detail on the Brexit campaign, though as I said at the start, he covered this in his last video, so there’s a chance there will be a more focused book at a later point. We can certainly draw parallels between the tactics employed in Russia, the Ukraine and the US and what’s happened in Britain over the last few years. The attacks on democracy and its institutions, for example: complaints about BBC bias from both sides, effectiveness of Government and Opposition in Parliament, attacks on the Judiciary and that vile quote from someone with ambitions to be Prime Minister: “This country has had enough of experts.”
“The Road to Unfreedom” doesn’t give much hope for how to identify and challenge the politics of inevitability and eternity, but his pamphlet “On Tyranny” does this to an extent. This outlines 20 lessons from the 20th Century and how we can use them in everday life. This includes engaging with democratic processes, defending institutions, especially proper journalism on a local and national level. And above all, keeping things real – talking with people rather than spreading memes, reading articles and books rather than just regurgitating soundbites, assembling to protest rather than clicking on the angry emote. “The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote,” he argues. “Our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”
An excellent read which makes sense of recent geopolitical events and connects them to local ones. It has implications for our individual choices and our responsibilities within a democracy.