There’s a great moment in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum when the protagonist’s girlfriend, following on chapters and chapters of the novel’s men getting themselves into conniptions about a particular document and its relevance as a link between the Templars, Mary Magdalene, Alesteir Crowley, world governments and whoever else, looks at the bit of parchment with its cryptic references to roses and cloth and what-have-you and says flatly, “It’s a laundry list.” Her ensuing explanation of the mundanities is a triumph for feminism but above all for William Ockham.
(Not that Eco was anything so small as a common-or-garden “well, actually” skeptic, mind you, his grasp of the nature of truth was way more subtle. In fact it’s quite difficult, as a medievalist, not to realise at some point that magic, considered as a range of methods of manipulation of matter and perceptions, is actually real.)
With all that in mind, I can suggest how this might go. Carole Cadwalladr has written a piece drawing out links between Trump, Assange, Farage, Banks and by implication Putin. She describes it as “one long headspin” (we’ll come back to that). She doesn’t pretend to have a full picture – she’s just suggesting questions should be asked. This is a fantastic conversation opener.
However, the first questions people seem inclined to ask (with her steer) are about money, and this is where this excellent strike for reality might get bogged down. It’s easy to mutter things like “Follow the money!” and “It’s all about Swiss banks accounts!” (the equivalent of early modern “Papist plots”) and feel like one’s in All The President’s Men without actually interrogating oneself as to what those allusions mean. The mechanisms remain opaque. Merely invoking these things implies a pursuit of generally corrupt, evil, anti-democratic goals by means one need not specify.
But at brass tacks level – do we think money influences elections? Ok, probably yes at the margins, and small margins is what the EU referendum and the US election were won on. But if that was the sole intention here, and all these people really are devilishly clever and working together to some precise world order scheme, why would they parade their links with one another for all the world to see? The whole point of shady financial dealings and state coups is that they’re supposed to be shady. It shouldn’t be possible to read about them in the Guardian, that is a fail as far as shadiness goes. And why on earth should Putin be (ultimately) promoting fascism anyway? That strikes me as quite a dangerous monster for a nation state to create in, amongst others, the only power capable of defeating it militarily.
Therefore there is a risk that a well put together critical attack on Cadwalladr’s edifice might destroy it utterly because in places it has some of the wrong emphases.
However, in my opinion, this does not matter, because while her suggestions of mechanisms, tactics and details might be edging in the wrong direction her grasp of the big picture is basically right, save one final veil of illusion which must be stripped away.
Let’s come at it from the other side, and instead try and figure out whether there is any motivation to create such a conspiracy and what aims it might have. I’ve always thought the “follow the money” idea was intellectually bankrupt anyway, it implies a dogged, empirical, laundry list approach to investigation which is in fact never true. We’re all framing the “facts” we uncover constantly, investigative journalists, historians and scientists alike, and the sensible ones know this and try to gen up on theory so that they at least understand the forest they’re in.
I don’t know much about Russia, but I gather Putin’s underlying aim is to corrode western culture by unsettling its fundamental values, much as the West did to Russia while he was a KGB agent. He saw the cultural war first hand and vowed to return it tenfold – fake news and misdirection instead of jeans and Coca Cola. Democracies are built (they like to think) on reason and verifiable truth, attack those and you attack democracy. I’m getting all this from a historian of Russia who spoke to me about it (but was slightly hesitant about writing about it in case this had any impact on Visas for research purposes), and, ok, also from Adam Curtis. This doesn’t seem extravagantly complicated or mysterious. It makes total sense. Ok, so that’s what’s happening.
The next level up, it seems to me, is to make people in the West believe that their institutions are crumbling, and make the links to what you’re doing very, very visible, because that will ultimately come to the same thing. It’s the equivalent of Isis beheading videos. So you might well have these very public easily-led clowns with motivations of their own dotted about the world, precisely because they’re going to spray breadcrumbs everywhere which will lead back to you. And incidentally you probably are influencing elections with misdirected funds, but that’s kind of a bonus, not the thing itself, and it’s not like we don’t have mechanisms and laws to deal with that stuff. It’s the idea that you might be able to routinely influence elections which is the actual act of psychological warfare. By the way Facebook, knowingly or not, are aiding and abetting this impression with their “working to ensure the integrity of the German elections” schtick. I’m actually pretty sure it’s unknowingly. It all points toward this dark omnipotent enemy (again, papist plots!), and while there are elements of truth in this, I don’t remember us all completely losing our shit when Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in broad daylight in the tearoom of a London hotel, even though that was far more obvious a demonstration of the reach of power. Those were different times, our sense of reality and stability of structures had not been tampered with, hence we reacted to that (probably correctly) as aberration not rule.
Basically this is old fashioned gas-lighting, from Russia, on the west. The Cold War continued by other means. The headspin is part of the point.
I would guess more-or-less everyone below the level of the tyrant-with-a-grudge is in this because they think they can get something out of it. Farage et al are presumably just fascists who either don’t understand the agenda they’re being co-opted into or reckon they can piggyback on it, Trump is just the most useful narcissistic idiot ever who, as is well-established, has bone deep nastiness but no real goals, Assange, I dunno he probably just wants a volcano lair or something? Right wing sympathisers in Britain and elsewhere who appear to defend some or all of these people are just the usual collection of trouble-making nasties we’ve always known. At these levels, I do apply Ockham’s razor. They clearly all just want what they pretty obviously want.
Thus, the secret is that there is no secret. Except the big one about Putin, which isn’t really a secret either.
So with regard to Cadwalladr’s piece, we should of course expect some self-appointed “voice of reason” takedowns, a disproportionate number of which will be by men. Some of their points will be correct. But this does not matter, because they will be failing to grasp the bigger picture. Let’s the rest of us try not to get stuck in the muddy back-and-forth. Basically if enough people at Westminster can keep their heads, not start making enormous complicated pinboards (though someone should, probably the police), and follow due process, democracy in Britain will not fail. I’m still more worried about the visible Nazis that appear to be a by-product of this whole project than I am about the nature of truth or the resilience of our institutions.