A Theory of the Bannon White House

One of Vladimir Putin’s closest personal advisers is a guy named Vladislav Surkov. That’s him up there, looking not at all sinister. Surkov started out studying theatre at the Moscow Institute of Culture. Later he switched to studying economics and became a successful businessman and PR consultant in post-Soviet Russia. After spending some time working in television, Surkov became the Kremlin’s PR chief, where he was responsible for devising and selling the idea of “managed democracy,” which he called “sovereign democracy” (emphasis on the “sovereign,” not so much on the “democracy”). As Putin’s top aide, Surkov is one of the most influential ideologues in the world.

He is also a writer. Under the pseudonym Nathan Dubovitsky, Surkov has published novels and short stories in the right-wing Russian newspaper Russian Pioneer. In March 2014 Surkov published a short story called “Without the Sky,” which is about “the Fifth World War.” This story, which is narrated by a civilian victim of global hostilities, discusses an idea called “nonlinear war.” Here is an excerpt, poorly translated by Google and slightly clarified by (non-Russian-speaking) me:

It was the first non-linear war. In primitive wars of the nineteenth & twentieth centuries, and others of the Middle Ages, two sides usually fought. Two nations or two temporary unions. Now, four coalitions faced each other. And it was not two against two. Or three against one. No. All against all.

The phrase “all against all” might remind us of Thomas Hobbes. But Hobbes used this phrase to characterise a pre-civil “state of nature.” Hobbes believed that only a strong state – he called it Leviathan – could exert sufficient control to prevent a war of all against all. In Surkov’s vision, states themselves are embroiled in a war of all against all – along with non-state actors, terrorist groups, cells, factions, miscellaneous insurgents:

And what were the coalitions? Not like before. It was rare for states to be included in their entirety. Sometimes, several provinces were on one side, some on the other, and any city or generation, or gender, or professional community of the same State.

In a “non-linear war,” everyone keeps changing sides. The goal is not victory but the “process” of war itself. This process is “Empty, false. Confusing [the] way, obscuring the truth.” It seems clear that “non-linear war” – beneath the rather hackneyed SF displacements that animate Surkov’s story – represents a vision of contemporary global politics. Surkov’s vision is not dissimilar to the analysis put forward in Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger. In this book, Mishra argues that we are in the midst of “a global civil war” fought by terrorists, militias, insurgents, cyberwarriors, mafias, as well as old-fashioned nation states. Our historical moment, Mishra says, is defined by “the sentiment, generated by the news media and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time.” This sounds very much like the frightening unpredictability and obscured truth of the war Surkov describes in “Without the Sky.”

In his brilliant documentary, HyperNormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis discusses Surkov (whom he calls “a hero of our time”) and his idea of non-linear war. Curtis points out that Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine and Syria might be construed as making use of the tactics of non-linear war – “Confusing [the] way, obscuring the truth.” On May 5th, 2016, Russia held a classical music concert, given by the Marinsky Theatre orchestra, in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra, Syria. The orchestra played Bach and Prokofiev. The concert was designed to mark Russia’s exit from the Syrian conflict. But of course Russia did not withdraw its forces from Syria. The concert, says Curtis, was a distraction – designed to confuse the way and obscure the truth. And, as Curtis points out, we do not really know what Russia is doing in Syria – aside from conducting a non-linear war.

What does this have to do with the man who runs Donald Trump’s White House – Steve Bannon?

We now know that Trump’s administration has been in contact with Russian intelligence services since before the election of 2016. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest that Surkov’s idea of “non-linear war” – which is, after all, a powerful and convincing vision of the contemporary world – has had its influence on how the Trump White House conducts its affairs. The ideological architect of Trump’s administration is, of course, Steve Bannon. Bannon’s own ideology derives from something called “Neoreaction,” which is a combination of authoritarianism, white supremacy, and hatred of democracy. Neoreaction has attracted useful idiots like Peter Thiel, who said, in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” According to Neoreaction’s website, “Modern history is an epic tale of social decay under chronically bad government, masked by increasing technological wealth.” The remedy for this social decay is simple: “The core of our solution is to find a man, and put him in charge, with a real chain of command, and a clear ownership structure.” That this is a recipe for authoritarianism is not in doubt – nor should we be slow to understand “social decay” as a codeword for the growing profile and power of minorities in the West.

Steve Bannon has described himself as a “Leninist.”  This should, I think, be taken literally. Bannon sees himself as a revolutionary tasked with remaking the social order of the Western world. Bannon’s job, according to the principles of Neoreaction, was to “find a man, and put him in charge.”

Enter Donald Trump, a vulgar narcissist and bully who always fancied the notion of being President of the United States. The question of Trump’s own relationship to the principles of Neoreaction isn’t really relevant, I think. It was scarcely necessary, from Steve Bannon’s point of view, for Trump to be a camp follower of Neoreaction. All Bannon needed was a leader with authoritarian tendencies who would happily staff his White House with Neoreactionary ideologues. Trump’s chief goal, as President, seems to be to enrich himself and his family, and to enjoy thinking of himself as the most powerful man in the world. Bannon’s goal, on the other hand, is to dismantle a liberal-progressive social order that he loathes. That these goals are happily compatible is the source of much of our present woe.

Trump’s first month on the job has been chaotic. Some commentators have optimistically interpreted this as a sign that the Trump administration is doomed to eventual collapse. But what if we looked at this “chaos” from another perspective? What if we looked at it as a kind of deliberately choreographed “non-linear war”?  Trump’s Muslim travel ban was quickly struck down in federal court. But it had its effect: it created confusion, outrage, division. Similarly, Trump’s habitual lying, bullying, incompetence, and stupidity (“Empty, false”) all have the effect of sowing confusion and dismay. Much of what the Trump administration is up to feels very much as if it is intended to “Confuse [the] way, obscure the truth.”

What if the Neoreactionary ideologue Steve Bannon is using Vladislav Surkov’s ideas about “non-linear war” to create a public smokescreen of confusion and discord, while, behind the scenes, he attempts to dismantle the American Republic in the name of his toxic ideology?

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