Some fifteen years ago, in the good old days when most Western intellectuals still believed that the age of totalitarianism was behind us, and that it was the West that had won the Cold War, Umberto Eco published a remarkably caustic essay entitled “From Play to Carnival” 1. His argument was that, as a species, we had lost the original sense of balance between play and labor, and had, step by step, turned the carnival – once but a brief refreshing interlude from labor – into a permanent characteristic of our everyday life. As a result, the working class, as opposed to Karl Marx’s expectations, now no longer has anything to lose but its chains: if some momentous social turmoil caused a blackout, “it would lose an episode of its favorite reality show, therefore it votes for people who provide the show, and it keeps working to offer surplus value to those who serve up amusement”. Eco was predicting the forthcoming, in a not-too-distant future, “joyful Apocalypse” for our civilization – unless, he warned, “History will see to things – say, by a nice world war (…) – and the Carnival will be over”.
Nowadays, it looks like the times that Eco foresaw have come – the new world war, which has so far been conducted as a chain of seemingly unconnected “local conflicts”, is finally shaping in front of our eyes as an entity developing along some premeditated scenarios2, – yet, disturbingly enough, the Carnival is not over. Instead, what we are witnessing can be best described as the carnivalized war spreading all over the globe.
Let me illustrate this with one recent example from my personal news ticker. A couple of days ago, I received from my Polish friends an Appeal from Werchrata, one of the places in Poland where the act of graveyard vandalism took place (past-century Ukrainian headstones were toppled and broken by a far-right organization sympathizing with Moscow to the extent that some of its members now fight against Ukraine in Eastern Donbas in the ranks of the pro-Russian terrorist troops3). The Appeal is a strongly moving document calling for reason in all strata and milieus of Polish society, and its deeply emotional message forced me to do some research on the web, and to spend some time on what I would have otherwise rather skipped from my schedule: watching a series of videos of pure, unmarred hatred aimed at Ukrainians as an imagined enemy.
After three years of Russian aggression – a useful experience when it comes to qualifying war propaganda, – I could not but spot a striking similarity between the language of, on the one hand, Polish rap groups like Basti or Stopa,– and, on the other hand, that of the innumerous pages in Russian social media on which thousands of youths from the Russian countryside post their selfies with Kalashnikovs in their hands, proudly advertising their “going to Novorossia on safari in pursuit of khokhols [a derogatory term for Ukrainians]”, on “khokhol-hunting” etc. (many of these accounts close with posts of the owner’s friends or relatives lamenting his death in the Donbas). What I found most remarkable, though, is, that, as compared to the current Russian culture of hatred, its young Polish counterpart is powered with a discernible freshness and vigor that the Russian war propaganda aimed at dehumanizing Ukrainians pathetically lacks.
Not that I am trying to say by this that Polish neo-nazis are more creative than the Russian ones. But they are definitely more honest in communicating the feeling which, apparently, drives them: a kind of a juvenile delinquency euphoria, the joy of a teenager who suddenly feels free to satisfy his desire to curse in public. This is nothing else but the same Carnival about which Eco was warning Europe at the dawn of the century – with the industry of non-ending entertainment now serving to model in the minds of the entertainment-oriented (emotionally juvenile) audience the war (and the real blood spilled in it!) on a computer game or a TV show.
The young Russian provincials conscripted “to hunt khokhols” in Donbas take it as a Hollywood-like adventure, as an exciting chance to change their lives, to leap up the social ladder from the ranks of worthless scum to those of winners, like in the Russian versions of “Jeopardy!” or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”. The young Polish rappers pouring on Ukrainians their hymns of hatred as on “damned blood”4 have discovered in the horrors of WWII an outlet for their bent-up aggression, and go about wallowing in it with the same contagious energy the ultras do in street clashes – playing with the potentially destructive emotional resource, yet staying within the frames of the show, not crossing the border separating it from reality. (Not yet?) In both cases, though, it is the carnival that dictates to the actors its rules.
Putin’s Russia is the first country that has deliberately made the carnival a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policies – in fact, of its entire post-Soviet political architecture. The first country to have established, one decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a full-fledged TV-run postmodern dictatorship – a so-called “managed democracy”, a mixture of Lubyanka and Hollywood, or – speaking in more literary terms – of Huxleyan and Orwellian versions of totalitarianism. In such a system the whole of public life, in war or peace, gets turned into a staged reality show which, being imposed, via media, upon the mass audience, leaves it with no room for reflection on what is true, and what is false – the very terms are becoming irrelevant, as it is not the true/false dichotomy that matters, but whether the event in question is engaging or unengaging. Since this type of dictatorship is yet to be properly classified and named by social science, I would allow myself, in the meantime, calling it a mediacracy.
The symbolic international debut of mediacracy (at the time passed unnoticed), as I see it, came on the night in September, 2000 when Larry King was hosting Vladimir Putin on his CNN show – shortly after the horrible catastrophe of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk that had shocked the world (the Russian government proved then either reluctant, or just inept in handling the rescue operation, and all the survivors of the wreckage died on the vessel, with all the major world media following suit and reporting the story in the news: an opening of the century in which a crowd, when seeing an accident, before running to help starts taking pictures). In Larry King’s later words, that was “a great television moment”: when asked by the host, “What happened with the submarine?”, the Russian president replied, with the characteristically all-knowing KGB wry smile, “It sunk” – thus having triumphantly introduced into international politics the stand-up comedy (“troll’s”) style since then practiced by only too many – from Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine to Donald Trump in the US.
Later, in 2011 Larry King assured Russia Today that he had liked Vladimir Putin right away (and so did, notably, George W. Bush) – admiring his answer, for it was “engaging” (sic!)5. Apart from the taste for showbiz techniques, though, there was something else in that historical episode that struck me as a characteristic likening the former colonel of the Soviet secret police and of the TV host of one of the world’s leading media–holdings – namely, a total lack of empathy, and a blatant disrespect (if not an overt contempt) for the victims. None of the two showed in the “great television moment” any shame, nor urge to at least fake the decency to pretend that he cares, and is somehow moved by the tragic deaths of the young men who could have been saved. And that is precisely this shamelessness, the unbridled clownish arrogance showcased as a virtue that introduces a new quality into the carnival of contemporary history.
Unlike the ruling elites of former times, totalitarian regimes included, present-day organizers of the carnival do not have to fake any dignity – to win elections in the carnivalized world it is not important to be earnest any more. The one and only requirement they have to obey to enjoy the support of the juvenilized, fun-hungry audience, no matter what they do, is to remain “engaging”.
This, I believe, explains the success of Donald Trump, which did not take me aback half as much as it did my American friends. What hard core Trump supporters admire in him, no matter how many more violations of decency – apart from avoiding paying his taxes and grabbing women by their pussies – he may reveal, is precisely the very fact of such violations – a candidate’s intentionally demonstrated carnivalesque freedom “to shit in public”, so to speak. (“Look, – the giggling viewers elbow each other in disbelief, – what a bastard!” – and go to the polls to vote for the bastard, using a ballot as a substitute for their applause for the good show.)
In Ukraine, we have been in the same trap with Yulia Tymoshenko, who became an ideal model for a populistic dictator – blatantly playing a “sexy bitch” designed to be admired by masses, like a porn star, for her shamelessness. When Victor Yanukovych – who had defeated her in the elections – had in the fall of 2013 chosen the same clownish posture, playing a fool, pretending that he didn’t understand the demands of the Euromaidan, and that they were not worth serious consideration, Ukrainian civil society reacted with the Revolution of Dignity (sic!) – letting know its political class that certain things should, after all, be taken dead seriously, and even might be, when tested, worth dying for. In a sense, therefore, the Maidan presented an distinctly anti-populist mass protest – in which masses refused to play the easy game plotted for them by Kremlin scriptwriters (the so-called “political technologists”, as has been the official Russian moniker of the profession since the 1990s): they refused to be emotionally manipulated, and liberated themselves from the power of the Carnival.
Whether this lesson will be learned by our civilization in the nearest future, is yet to be seen. But it better be. For what is, basically, at stake in this whole “carnivalized war” is, first and foremost, the question of whether it is possible, in the age of globalized information technologies, to get, by inducing via media a psychologically engaging fictional reality, which the audience can neither check nor escape, a fully manipulable society – the unfulfilled dream of all previous dictatorships in history. The question is whether the power of the Carnival – now that it has proven to have a dark and malicious side – is really irresistible, and cannot be curbed otherwise than at the cost of mass human sufferings and sacrifices.
It is a big challenge for humanity on the whole, and for every nation in its own way. For every nation has its “weak spots”, which can be “technologically” used to wake up dormant aggression on a mass scale, to nourish it to the boiling point, and to channel it into the needed direction, against an appointed enemy. No one is immune. Or, rather, immunization has not yet become the subject of our public awareness.
Maybe it is high time to think about it.
1 Eco, Umberto (2008) Turning Back the Clock: Hot wars and Media Populism, transl. from the Italian by A. McEwen, Vintage Books, London, pp.71-76.
2 As Thomas L. Friedman has recently observed in New York Times, Russia’s politics in Syria “keep pushing more refugees into the European Union. This is fostering an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe that is spawning right-wing nationalist parties and fracturing the E.U.” (“Let’s Get Putin’s Attention”, NYT, October 5 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/opinion/lets-get-putins-attention.html?_r=0
3 For more details of the Russian connections see the research by Marcin Rey: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=447971412039730&id=218251225011751