There’s a lot going on today. More than any one brain can process quite frankly. We are all going to be stunned with too much information flow and I don’t want to add to the noise.
But I think there are a few important points that need stressing to do with hybrid information war and who we can trust.
It’s become abundantly clear that Putin’s long-term strategy has been to confuse everyone, and use disinfo to turn major demographies into useful idiots doing his work.
As a Pole, one thing I have always been clear about is that you can’t and never should trust Putin. The reason I have always stressed this is because I’ve seen too many voices appear apologetic to his cause. This is especially true of the crypto and alternative/independent news space.
It’s a problem. And it comes about because of a needlessly binary attitude. The assumption is that if you are against a technocratic globalist state you only have Putin and RT to turn to to fight your corner, which is terribly naive. There is, of course, a middle ground where you can resist the bureaucratic technocratic system that is turning everything into a centralised surveillance capitalist state (on a globalised level) and still remain hugely suspicious of Putin, Russia and autocracy. There is a middle ground where you can defend the right to your own culture, sovereignty and identity but not default to thinking that the only alternative to globalism is a strong-man system. Poland is one country that has tried to achieve this middle ground, even as it has stood accused of a similar tendency itself (I think somewhat unfairly). There is no country in Europe that better understands the negatives of both fascistic and communist technocratic forces than Poland.
We still don’t know what Putin’s long-term objectives are. Some people say it’s about establishing Russia as a respected power on the international stage. Others say he never gave up on communism. Some others say he has become totally delusional and wants to burn the whole thing down. On the middle point, this clip of Condi Rice is worth a gander (h/t Pippa Malmgren).
Whatever the case, what Putin has done very effectively indeed is identify that it is the West’s libertarian backbone that represents a major trojan horse/zero-day exploit in the democratic system.
Why libertarianism may be the furin cleavage of the democratic system.
If you can convince libertarians to work against the West’s own interests, you have the ability to destroy the democratic system from inside. This, sadly, is the fundamental naivity of the libertarian mindset. While the mindset is a hugely important component of the Western way of life — and I have a lot of sympathy for many of its leanings — it fails to appreciate how exploitable it is to malevolent forces. They say your enemy’s enemy is your friend. But when your enemy by default is the state, you introduce the risk that a foreign enemy can use you for their own gain.
This exploitation I think is evident in the way in which Russian propaganda channels like RT (and independent conspiracy channels) have wooed the liberatarian mindset to convince them that their own Western elites are working against their interests.
The genius of the strategy is that to some degree the critique is not wrong. There was and remains a lot to critique. Democracies will always be disadvantaged when they go up against less liberal systems unless they are entitled to operate sneakily when necessary. And yes, when they do engage in sneakiness, they can’t help but appear hypocritical. This is because the sneakiness clashes with the very concept of government by the people, transparency and general democratic accountability. What’s more, it is also true that the allowance for occasional sneakiness in the name of national security can sometimes be badly abused and exploited. This is why it’s not irrational for people to be suspicious of the sneaky elements of the state.
In a functional democracy, there should definitely be checks and balances on how sneaky a system can get.
But the bigger question we need to ask ourselves at this juncture is whether in the long run any Western sneakiness is being conducted in the collective interest of defending our broader freedoms? Whether it is an act of benign paternalism rather than an act of despotic madness?
This, I think, is the question of our times.
I frankly cannot be sure of the answer. That’s not because I think Russia under Putin or China under Xi is more benign than the West. Definitely not. It’s because I think there is a genuine risk that all players have become corrupted at this point — that all of them have an interest in pulling us into a perpetual war situation and autocracy to stop the system from economically imploding. This nightmare scenario is one where everyone’s base freedoms are given up in favour of their own respective home-grown flavour of autocracy. This scenario is a real risk.
Nonetheless, it’s important to also give the West the benefit of the doubt. It’s important to consider that a lot of the inexplicably weird and hypocritical things that have been going on of late might be part of a wider sneaky Sun Tzu strategy being deployed for our own good. Sneakiness they can’t openly confess to at this point because to do so would present the West with a tactical disadvantage against a much bigger threat. Sneakiness that needs a temporary descent into a form of authoritarianism which seems inconsistent with our broader values and which makes authorities appear they’ve gone mad.
I know some voices will say “No Izzy, you’re wrong. There’s no justification for creating fake dossiers or playing Jedi mind-tricks with your own population. Not ever.” Perhaps that is true.
But I will offset that view with two personal anecdotes that I think offer a fair precedent for why sometimes it’s important to allow elites in a democratic system to act paternalistically.
Paternalism done right
The first relates to the smoking ban. When the smoking ban was first floated as a thing, I was dead against it. As a social smoker I felt aggrieved that the government should impose itself on me in this way. It felt too much of an imposition on my freedom to choose.
So many years later I no longer smoke. Nor do I miss smoking inside public areas at all. I appreciate not smelling like an ashtray when I get home. On a health level, I’ve probably helped to extend my life. In hindsight I can say the government was right. I was wrong. What’s more, I needed that strong hand to guide me. I would probably still be smoking if not for this move.
The second anecdote relates to parenthood. For years I was convinced I didn’t want kids. That kids were just a massive inconvenience that would get in the way of my ability to do what I want in life. When those who had kids told me you will feel differently when it’s your own and you will miss not having kids when you’re older, I never believed them. Today, however, I know, they were giving me good advice. That advice was based on experience and wisdom. It came in good faith and it was I who was operating with a blind spot.
There’s nothing like being a parent to change your mind about paternalistic systems. As a parent I now know how often I have to act strictly and with great authority to ensure the broader survival and good of my child. Doing so is an act of love not hatred or oppression. Obviously there are tragic cases where parents abuse that paternalistic trust. But that doesn’t undermine the broader norm that paternalism is a vital survival mechanism in the natural state.
We must not rush to conclusions therefore that when Western states act strictly that their motives are bad.
A thought experiment
I was incredibly cynical and critical of lockdowns, vaccine mandates and more. They felt like an abandonment of core democratic principles and the right to personal autonomy.
But in the context of a potential global war, I think it’s important to remember that perhaps there was more to those things than we appreciated. That sometimes authorities had to act preemptively and in ways that didn’t make sense in a democracy to protect their populations. This is particularly the case in the face of a new global war with new types of weapons, some of which could be biological, psychological or worse.
Say it turned out that the vaccines could protect us from more than just Covid. Say they could defend us from a tactical weapon that would hurt only those who had not had specific vaccines. If one side had pre-inoculated its own population against such a weaponised strain, and the other side didn’t — who would lose out in that game? And how could you restore that balance as a democracy? How could you go about ensuring as broad a segment of society had taken up the shot?
Would you tell them that the shot was needed not just for today’s threat but also potentially tomorrow’s WW3 biological confrontation too? How would that work in a democracy?
I have no insight into this whatsoever I should stress. It’s merely a thought experiment. But if it were true, it’s one that would definitely change my mind about recent measures and restrictions.
For paternalism to work, the parents need to be competent, informed and well motivated. (As you suggest, it must be “done right”).
MPs though (as human beings) are motivated primarily by their own self interest. Unlike parents, the well being of their “offspring” is not a central motivation. What’s more, the last 2 years have also shown that they are not the kind of parents you would want – poorly informed, and not inclined to seek out the truth. If we expect them to act paternalistically for the benefit of the wider population, we’ll be disappointed.
Eventually, the consensus will come to recognise that, on balance, “lockdowns” and the rushed “vaccine” rollout were damaging policies overall. The “sneakiness” deployed on the population was not benign – it was cynically applied by those wanting to achieve their goals.
Outstanding food for thought
Good time to have put this out I think Izzy. Extrapolating wildly in a nerdy way, and stretching your analogy of a kind of societo-cultural zero day vulnerability, perhaps we are at a moment analogous to the early days of the internet before everyone really grasped just how crappy and vulnerable most software was because it had been been written for a non-networked pre-internet age and the internet protocols themselves had been designed with only a closed and benign military/academic network in mind rather than a wide-open wild-west network bristling with potentially malign actors. So today – by analogy – the comparatively rapid (in less than a generation) and massive proliferation of ‘broadcast’ (few-to-many) channels of personal and societal and cultural information transfer (the various flavours of social media being I suppose the most obvious but not the only examples) have created a totally new landscape in which our existing institutions and systems of education and government (and news/journalism also, which I guess is your vantage point in all of this) are now the dangerously out dated ‘cultural’ software running our societies – and maybe the realisation that societo-cultural zero days are being rather shockingly and in retrospect rather obviously exploited with the result now of real-blood real-guts and real-impact-on-wallets-at-home consequences (rather than just twitter storms) may be an opportunity to get us thinking about how to raise our game (without throwing the baby out with the bathwater – somehow).
The benefit of the doubt has to be earned, Western governments from my African perspective have not earned this right. The frequent criticism of any acknowledgement of Western behaviour in a similar mode to the current crisis is immediately shot down as “whataboutism”. The question I ask myself is why is the outrage only limited when certain countries behave in a similar manner? In the end its very difficult to not see each of the hegemons as bad as each other with several citeable examples on both sides.
We shall see how this eventually shakes out.
I do agree with you about whataboutism.