When do you read something over again? There are crime novels to which I frequently return (those of Josephine Tey and Marjorie Allingham are particular favourites) and, when I’m ill or low, I often pick up books enjoyed in childhood (Paul Gallico, Giovanni Guareschi). My main reading for pleasure now tends to be non-fiction, and though I often mark up passages or pages, in case I later want to follow a train of thought, I can’t think of an instance as an adult in which I’ve finished a book that I’ve enjoyed and then felt compelled to sit down and read it all over again. That’s until a couple of weeks ago, when I read, and then subsequently re-read, Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda. Completing this book, I was left with a vaguely aghast feeling, similar to the one I experienced in October 2016 after watching Hypernormalisation. But I also felt that Pomerantsev was someone whose joined-up thinking had so much more humanity and insight in it than that of Adam Curtis (who has always seemed to me to revel in his own apocalyptic jouissance just a little bit too much). Gripped by Pomerantsev’s combination of global sweep and personal detail, his deft and careful handling of some really complicated issues, and his distinctive tone – a sort of urgent melancholia – I sat down and read his book again.
Over the past four years, I, like many people, have read a whole lot of books whose subject might be broadly categorised as Where Are We Now and Where Might We be Going Next? I’ve read books by philosophers and economists. Books about representation and its lack, about the state of public discourse, about privacy and data. I’ve read books about our collective psychology and the possible futures of political theory and praxis. I’ve read more books, from more genres, and much more hungrily, than I’ve ever done before, and one reason for this is that reading has become my way of interrogating and addressing my own personal sense of disillusion – from the way that English debates about Brexit – especially those concerning immigration, race and difference – have articulated my separation from the working-class communities I grew up among; to my rising unease at the online world’s transition from a knowledge / sharing economy to an attention economy; to my horror at the real-world impacts of the debasement of political discourse to the lowest common denominator. After my first reading of Pomerantsev’s book, I felt I’d been far too bound up in the bubble of my own disenchantment, and that there were many other places I should have been looking for answers to my questions. One of those places is certainly Russia, somewhere about which I know very little, and which is the place Pomerantsev had left under his own cloud of disillusion in 2010, having experienced “a world where spectacle had pushed out sense, which left gut feeling as the only means of finding one’s way through the fog of disinformation.”
But Russia simply followed Pomerantsev back to the place to which his own parents had escaped the Soviet regime a generation earlier – England. By 2016, he writes: “the Russia I had known seemed to be all around me: a radical relativism which implies truth is unknowable, the future dissolving into nasty nostalgias, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equating to fibs, conversation collapsing into mutual accusations that every argument is information warfare . . . and just this sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid.”
With nowhere to hide, Pomerantsev’s response is to look right at the spectacle rather than to run away. And his gaze in this book is as unflinching as it is curious. We meet the brave Fillipina journalists who pay for questioning Duterte with their own reputations and the Mexican nurse who is brutally executed for her creation of an online persona fearlessly attacking her city’s narco gangs. We hear about the persuasive falsehoods that drove ISIS recruitment in South Yorkshire, alongside determined attempts to convey the truth of the siege of Aleppo, and the world’s indifference to that truth. Following trails of sock puppets, pop-up populists, and power, we travel from Belgrade to Kiev, from Tallinn to Chernivtsi, to Florida, where the bots of St Petersburg motivate Trump’s base to acts of parodic street theatre and to China, where the idea of 2049 is cast as a sort of millenarian ending to disinformation’s final spectacle. And finally, we return to Brexit Britain where “the best-selling newspaper accuses independent judges of being Enemies of the People, calls for the crushing of saboteurs who oppose the government, in language popularised in the Soviet Union to validate mass murder, and whose use today only serves to debase the memory of those misdeeds.”
Alongside his investigation of our flattened-out, futureless present, Pomerantsev also tells the story of his own past, from his parents’ determinedly creative dissidence to his own utopian sense of the potential of being European as the ability to “move between different [identities] and wear them lightly” during his education at a multi-lingual, multi-cultural school in Munich. On this journey, Pomerantsev encounters the sharp edges of his own personal disenchantment many times, and I often came up against mine too, particularly in the book’s conversation with Chantal Mouffe – an activist writer I once very much admired during my lefty student days, and whose current advocacy for a form of populism which merely echoes the worst discursive excesses of the right I find deeply disturbing and disappointing.
It might sound weird to say that I found a book about a futureless present comforting, but for me that was the case. And perhaps it was this cold comfort that I wanted to retain as I sat right down to read the book again. All I can say is that disenchantment is not the same as hopelessness and that, like Pomerantsev, I’d rather look straight at a problem than avoid it. This is a book that made me see things differently, and which also startled me with its humanity, alongside the clarity of its vision. Perhaps when the fog of disillusion next descends, as it is sure to, I’ll feel the need to pick it up again.
Peter Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Faber & Faber, 2019) ISBN: 9780571338634. Seek it out from your local independent bookseller!