Pirate Wires | 8 Mar 2020
pravda, the collapse of truth in a world without trust, and dawn of the reality entrepreneur
I’ve been interested in the bizarre, almost clownish effect of trust erosion on our culture for many years now, and trying to imagine the shape of our information ecosystem — and world — to come. But a couple months back, a friend reminded me we’ve already been here. Or, at least those once behind the Iron Curtain have.
Anton grew up in what was once the Soviet Union, just after a small introduction of freedom blew the autocratic system to pieces. With a free press, every government lie for seventy years flooded the papers, but, paradoxically, what followed was not a world in which the people believed nothing. For a brief moment, the people believed everything. In this week’s feature, Anton tells the story.
I am here from the past but also your future to warn you about what happens when, to quote Mike, “the fusion of a country’s media [and] government, …, all adherent to a single politics and governed by a social monoculture” falls apart. I am the product of that natural experiment.
But first, the facts.
In 1991, on Soviet national television, it was explained in precise detail that Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich to his friends), leader of the Bolshevik revolution, was in fact a mushroom. Well, not just a mushroom, but also a radio wave (all mushrooms, it was explained, are also radio waves of possibly alien origin, according to MIT scientists). He had not always been a mushroom, but rather, had become one through the constant consumption of heroic quantities of hallucinogenic fungi, which incidentally had given him the grandiose visions necessary to believe one capable of leading a workers and peasants revolution in Russia in the first place.1
The documentary evidence was everywhere in plain sight – historians had simply overlooked it.
The broadcast, intended to be a humorous hoax in case that needs to be spelled out, left viewers “perplexed, shaken, and uncertain about what to make of it”. In other words, it held enough truth that they were forced to decide whether to believe it or not.
How did it come to pass that, for millions of the typically pragmatic, sober-minded, materialist Soviet people, it became even possible to believe that Lenin himself could have been an alien fungal being? How is it that Lenin, who laid (and continues to lay) in a glass casket in his mausoleum right on Red Square, whose historicity as a person and leader was in no doubt, whose personage was in many ways the underpinning of Soviet life, had come to be doubted in this absurd way – not by fringe cranks, but by millions of ordinary people?
To understand this, one must understand what was happening to the Soviet people in 1991.
State control of the media was not incidental to Soviet power, it was essential both ideologically and pragmatically. Effective, sophisticated use of the media was fundamental to Bolshevik success during the revolution and civil war. Soviet mass literacy programs for the peasantry were developed, in significant part, to make them more susceptible to propaganda in print.
Pravda (translated: Truth), the official newspaper of the pre and post-revolutionary communist party,2 was the center of the Soviet state media. It was up to Pravda to spin the material circumstances of the Soviet people to fit the state’s ideology and agenda. It was in Pravda that the basis and outcome of Stalin’s show trials were explained.3 In Pravda the coming and going of Soviet leaders was made to appear orderly, normal. Pravda emphasized or downplayed whatever the state needed emphasized or downplayed. Pravda announced the U.S. moon landing on the front page, albeit second after an article on collectivism.
Pravda was the Paper of Record for the Soviet state and its people. It was beyond prestigious, it was fundamental. There are still places and things named for it in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. If not the actual truth, Pravda was the authoritative source of consensus reality for Soviet society. It was a central component of the state-media-socio-cultural apparatus of the Soviet state.
However, perhaps contrary to what some in the west believe, the average Soviet citizen was not an idiot. He understood that not everything that he was being told was the truth, and that things which were true were being censored. He knew that the state wanted him to believe certain things. Open skepticism was of course extremely personally and professionally dangerous, but throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, behind closed doors, people had always questioned what they were being told,4 and very few accepted it blindly. There were always things one could see with one’s own eyes which did not match the official narrative.
This tension between the public and private information spheres held for decades. While things were good for most people, the existence of this tension was known, accepted, and not to be discussed. We knew they were lying, and they knew we knew. But as the background economic and material conditions of the Soviet people stagnated, then began to deteriorate, the tension grew. By 1985 the legitimacy of the all-powerful Soviet state was in serious jeopardy.
In 1985 Gorbachev (Mikhail Sergeyevich to his friends)5 became leader of the Soviet state, after a succession of geriatrics assumed the mantle and then promptly died.6 Gorbachev intended to be a reformer, and had reorganized the communist party apparatus, even amending the constitution of the Soviet Union itself, to consolidate the necessary power to do so.
His reforms came in three named flavors; Perestroika (restructuring), Uskoreniye (acceleration), and Glasnost (openness). These reforms were intended to preserve the state’s legitimacy while improving the people’s material conditions, a hail mary to preserve Soviet power. What Glasnost meant in practice was a freer press; the authorization of mass publications which were independent of state control, the relaxation of censorship in the existing state media, and an end to suppression of foreign media. By being open, finally, the state hoped to regain legitimacy and the trust of its people.
Instead it unleashed bedlam.
Revelations about the excesses of the Soviet state, the ways it had distorted or outright hidden its history, and the real conditions in the country as a whole came thick and fast. The narratives the state had long clung to came unraveled.
To the soviet people, this was epistemically apocalyptic. People had always been skeptical, had grown increasingly mistrustful as reality increasingly diverged from what they were being told, but ultimately there were still things which people believed were fundamentally true. The people thought; yes the state had made mistakes, had had excesses, many of which they’d covered up, but after all the foundation must be solid. There was still a common set of facts, a people’s memory forming a consensus reality which was holding the culture together. And though they were aware of some of the great crimes the Soviet state had committed, many people at least believed in the fundamental principles of its claimed ideology.
But the revelations, sensational and overwhelming, came almost daily in an endless flood. Here were Stalin’s mass graves. There was the Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact. And outside, the bread lines; not just here but everywhere. Revelations came from every corner; on the radio and on television, in the newly independent press, and in Pravda itself. Things the state had said were lies planted by enemies, or had omitted entirely, were now being aired as the truth. Even foundational ideological illusions were thoroughly shattered.
There was nothing safe left, nothing that had ever been said had the air of truth anymore. Worse, nothing that was said could ever be true again.
How do you recognize the truth when all you’ve ever been told are lies? Can you?
By 1991 the epistemic collapse was complete. In the absence of any trusted, or even authoritative source of common reality, reality entrepreneurs both foreign and domestic plied their trade. Religious cults, fringe political movements, and many others, often with an apocalyptic, millenarian edge, competed with sensational news stories – both true and completely invented – for the belief of the Soviet people, often successfully.
In effect by the time it was discovered that Lenin was a mushroom, the Soviet people were deep into a new-age speedrun, as if the entire content of every woo movement of the 60’s and 70’s Age of Aquarius in the United States had been distilled and plugged directly into the Soviet people’s collective brainstem.
It was possible to believe anything – everything. Why not believe Lenin was a mushroom? Who is to say it isn’t true? At least the explanation is presented with a straight face and with a wave in the direction of documentary historical evidence. Much that was in the Soviet noosphere at the time did not even have that much.
Of course the Soviet Age of Aquarius did not last, because it could not. There is, ultimately, one final arbiter of truth – cold material reality. The material reality of the Soviet people was not so good.
Pictured: Soviet material circumstances. Source: The Lancet
The economic and political forces which maintained Soviet life continued to fall apart at an accelerating rate, until everything that was forever was no more. The soviet people woke up one day to find the old order gone, and little of value to replace it. The search for truth, succeeded by the belief in any possibility at all, fell to an abiding cultural cynicism. After believing in something, then believing in anything, and finally having it all ripped away, all that was left was to believe in nothing.
Lenin is now not even a mushroom.
I don’t write here in order to eulogize the Soviet Union, and certainly not to excuse the crimes of its government. I write to warn you.
The United States in particular, and the west more broadly, today is in a crisis. It is primarily a crisis of epistemology, and has many dimensions which parallel those which faced the Soviet people. It is not quite the same; material conditions in the U.S have not deteriorated to bread lines just yet, and the possibility is still remote (though no longer impossible). But reality is increasingly, acceleratedly, diverging from the official narrative as delivered through official media organs.
We have seen the media fail to tell the truth, disguise opinion as fact, censor, and outright lie. It has done so about themes as diverse as covid and covid policy, about popular demonstrations, about technology and technology companies. The New York Times and other large ‘legacy’ media entities are not exactly Pravda, but they’re as close as one gets to a single source of consensus cultural reality in the west. They and their foundational educational and political institutions, in red and blue flavors, are culturally dominant.
As the narrative continues to diverge, trust in any official consensus will continue to erode. Even if the official sources backtrack in the future and commit to the truth, trust will have already been lost. People, after being lied to, will look elsewhere, and they’re liable to look everywhere and anywhere.
We are presently at the beginning stages of an epistemological splintering in the west. We are seeing the rise of ever more reality entrepreneurs alongside critical searching for the real truth. The people of the U.S, having gone through their own woo explosions in the past, are perhaps more immune, but this changes only the duration, not the outcome. Reality entrepreneurs, like all entrepreneurs, will listen for what the market wants and eagerly supply it. In the U.S, it will be less new-age and more QAnon. Less UFO cult and more racial essentialism.
Unlike the Soviet Union’s limited cultural reach, the U.S is the cultural hegemon in the west and beyond. What happens to the culture here will happen to the culture everywhere. The splintering that begins with the U.S will spread, as reality entrepreneurs enter foreign markets with their own unique local conditions. This is already happening in Australia, in the U.K, and in Europe. People worldwide, repulsed by reality from the official narrative, are primed to believe anything and anyone. The nation-state adversaries of the U.S are working overtime to disconnect their local cultural environment (alongside their financial and trade infrastructure) from U.S hegemony.
No amount of “independent fact checking”, of “balanced reporting”, or “non-partisanship” will arrest this slide. From where will the fact checkers derive their legitimacy? Do you believe them after you’ve been lied to? After it’s been proven you can be lied to? Do you believe anything can be balanced? Balanced for whom? Even if we could reach consensus on basic facts (and we, increasingly, cannot do even that), we will be increasingly unable to reach consensus on their interpretation; all interpretations of reality will hold equal value.
Unless prevented, this process will continue to accelerate to the inevitable conclusion: cultural collapse, social collapse, economic collapse, and reality reasserting itself in the coldest, most bitter possible way. I don’t know if you can picture what a five year drop in life expectancy in five years really looks like – maybe if you live in opioid overrun states you can – but it’s not pretty. Except to our enemies, of course.
The only chance is to create new institutions, especially new media institutions, which the ordinary person can and will trust. To win against the reality entrepreneurs out for their own gain. To address ordinary people and give them a window into a reality they can agree on. It is necessary to create institutions which thoroughly dominate the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
We cannot afford to only attack the failing institutions which for so long have acted as the sources of consensus reality. We need to build strong new ones which can support a new, grounded, popular consensus reality which does not diverge from material reality. This is a considerably harder, but increasingly urgently necessary task. We cannot afford to further drive people into ideological corners, of which there are fractally many and whose number is growing. Time is short. The window for success is shrinking, the chances are slimming.
Remember, I’ve seen this play out before. In 1991, it’s rumored, party members, bewildered by the airing of “Lenin was a Mushroom“, asked their regional committee of the communist party of the Soviet Union to fact check the assertion. The apparatchiks replied, in typical fact-checker tone, that it was false, since “a mammal cannot be a plant”. The collapse was not averted.
Don’t let it happen here.
Importantly, communist revolution in Russia was seen as impossible by no less than Marx himself – Lenin was a real innovator. 2
In yet another bizarre turn of events, Pravda is still around but now exists as two separate entities – there is a website, pravda.ru which appears to be a domestic Russian propaganda outlet, and a newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is a tabloid on the order of News of the World but is still owned by the communist party. I won’t link them here. 3
Pravda’s editor was enough of a threat to Stalin that he was caught in the purges, too. 4
Mikhail Sergeyevich has considerably more friends in the west than he does in the former USSR. 6
For a concise overview of Soviet leaders I recommend this excellent and highly accurate video.