Russia and the Information Purification Directives

What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.

This has been long in coming as the Kremlin and its allies have steadily co-opted the press, attacked independent journalists, consolidated control of the Internetunified all organized “political” parties, brought petty prosecution against non-governmental organizations, harassed independent political actors, and persecuted those few remaining who dare raise their voice against the now-raging retrograde, unilithic nationalism sweeping over the country.

Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.

Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:

“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.

While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.

Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.

I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.



What If Propaganda Were Cool?

A recent article in The New Republic about the motivational art by Hugh Macleod commissioned for tech start-ups demonstrates an almost-antidote to its more buttoned-down corporate counterparts that are so often and easily parodied. Macleod’s back-of-the-business-card doodles can be a bracing anti-boardroom aesthetic, like this one done for Microsoft.

But it’s hard not to look at Macleod’s drawings and sloganeering and wonder whether, the bold snark aside, his work is much different in outcome from the bland aphoristics he so effortlessly departs from. Indeed, there’s a kind of bullying to some of these, a hipper-than-thou aspect to the work ethic that makes the demand on workers in a startup environment all the more invidious.

I bring this up because of my familiarity with propaganda, particularly when it comes to motivating the labor force. In the absence of rational market motivators (that is, salaries and other negotiable, fungible or tangible aspects, especially in Communist states), the employer must rely on other factors.   

In North Korea, for example, citizens work five days a week and “volunteer” most of the other two days. Officially closed to the outside, the country is awash in motivational slogans common to autarkic economies, where the only means to drive the labor force are mass organization, the threat of punishment, and hortatory sloganeering (“Carrying on despite the hardships!”).Here is an example of a North Korean propaganda display as recreated by the French-Canadian artist Guy Delisle, who worked in the country during the mid part of the last decade. You can find it in his book Pyongyang.  It reads “Forging Ahead into the 21st Century!”:

To demonstrate my concern about Macleod’s illustrations, I’ve taken one of his drawings and slogans commissioned for the Texas-based cloud computing firm Rackspace and repurposed it. Originally this simply reads “Fanatical Support!” in English (probably for Rackspace’s tech support unit, an otherwise laudable trait to encourage, I admit). I ran the words through Google Translator into Korean and placed them in the same place next to the original drawing (my apologies to Korean readers for any inelegancies in the translation or layout). I think this demonstrates the peculiarity of the doodle:

Seen through this prism, Macleod’s drawings and slogans begin to take on a more sinister light.

Here again I have taken only minor liberties with another one of Macleod’s commissioned posters. Originally done for HP’s cybersecurity division, I cut away the reference to HP and repurposed it for a fictional Thought Police division in a modern Oceania from George Orwell’s 1984, complete with universal resource locator (don’t try to click on it, it won’t work). The drawing and the rest of the text are original:

I’ll link here some additional Macleod posters that follow in this disturbing vein. But now, all images and text are original, no changes have been made. Imagine this one with a Thought Police shield emblazoned on it:

Or this one from the Ministry of Plenty:

I found this last poster particularly disturbing. I could only recall the slogan greeting inmates at the Vorkuta labor camp in Siberia, which reads, “Labor in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, pride and heroism.” Nothing about a salary or a decent standard of living. (Of course, it was the gulag.) Macleod is trying to suggest that the reader is working towards some higher purpose, which is often the case in a start-up culture. But so was the entire socialist experiment. Nonetheless, Macleod’s line could easily have been put in the mouth of some bluntly honest zek 70 years ago. So could this, maybe:

What makes motivation posters in the standard vein so annoying is their unironic tone. For a lot of people, work is a chore, and only the paycheck makes up for it. That is, when you think about it, the genius of the market system. When you think about that a little deeper, asking anything more from people less than freely given is exploitative. The Soviets finally understood this when, after about a generation of exploiting their workers for the greater glory of Socialism, the workers realized a better life was not waiting for them and the entire economy more or less came to a halt. (“They pretend to pay us,” a common joke went at the time, “and we pretend to work.”)

In the end there really isn’t much difference between the various forms of motivational art, whether they’re for blunt propaganda purposes or the hipper profit motive. Unless, of course, they’re tied to something real, tangible, and achievable. (Lexus’ internal motto was “Beat Benz,” and they very nearly did.) Since that real thing is in the future, it’s not always clear whether you’re being hoodwinked or properly led.  It’s up to your judgment to determine whether forgoing something real in the here and now – like a paycheck – is worth the effort for a something greater at a later time – like fantastically lucrative stock options. At some basic level, that’s the nature of risk. But it’s an unnerving prospect nonetheless. Not all start-ups become Facebook. Many become

But my larger point here is about the uneasy relationship between politics and art. Motivation art, like propaganda, demands something from its viewers. It’s easy to forget that for a few decades, at least, socialism and its associated arts were considered the vanguard – purposefully forging new men and new societies – by both those in the Communist bloc and left-leaning intellectuals in the West.  Today we can smirk at the crude propaganda of North KoreaCuba or Iran. But what if they weren’t so crude? What if their propaganda were as winky and fun as a Super Bowl advertisement? Would we be able to tell the difference?