Is “non-linear” control taking root in the United Kingdom?

By Alessandro Renzulli

Much has been made in recent years of the concept of “non-linear” warfare as an emerging form of control used by Russia’s authoritarian regime both at home and abroad. Some have also asked whether American politics have succumbed to this form of politics, drawing parallels between the perceived chaos of President Trump’s administration, and the divide and rule strategy that the Russian idea envisages. Given the contradiction and confusion which has intensified and spread throughout British society as a result of the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU), it vital that we understand and recognise what this concept looks like, in order to prevent its sinister effects on democracy from taking hold here.

“Non-linear” warfare is a concept attributed to Vladimir Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov, broadly referring to a world in which everything is destabilised. Perpetual mobilisation, contradictory flows of information, and disparate groups permanently competing over dissimilar objectives create a situation in which no one can ultimately be sure of what is real. Indeed, the very term “real” loses much of its meaning as reality depends upon eternal political conflict.

Mr. Surkov published a short story, Without Sky, which provides the best glimpse into this concept. In his formulation, the ongoing clash of all against all creates a continually shifting landscape, which is ripe for a strategy of “divide and rule”. No one power can ever be strong enough to control the unending conflict, so the optimal strategy is to sow confusion, which prevents any meaningful opposition from forming, because it cannot agree on the opponent, the goal, or even the basic facts. Onlookers are bewildered into compliance.

In the aftermath of 23rd June 2016, the UK has become increasingly vulnerable to such a strategy. Indeed, some onlookers, noticeably BBC film maker Adam Curtis, already see a form of “non-linear” control being deployed by the political elite. The hysteria and radicalisation which has gripped the country since the referendum two years ago has created a fertile environment for this kind of political manoeuvring.

In general, the fact that we are no closer to reaching consensus on what the decision to leave the EU means for the country, how it should be handled, or indeed what the fundamental facts are, leaves us in a very precarious position where no one is entirely sure of what the argument is even about. Even the competing sides can be difficult to identify: “Hard” versus “Soft”; those who agree we must leave the EU versus those who are committed to stay in; those arguing for a “People’s Vote” versus those not; and all compounded, of course, by traditional party politics – with further polarisation occurring due to the fact that no party won the last election outright.

Worse still, the major political parties are riddled with factionalism and internal divisions. While ostensibly all arguing in the same debate (Britain’s position after withdrawal) it is clear that some parliamentarians are fighting primarily for the future position of their party, or for narrower personal ambitions, or for their own fiefdoms.

Take the debate surrounding the so-called “Brexit dividend”. While the Prime Minister, Theresa May, insists it will partly fund her £20 billion increase in funding for the National Health Service, many others – including the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt – seem much more sceptical of whether it even exists. While Mr. Hunt argues tax hikes would make this budget feasible, this argument is taking place at the same time that Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is chastising Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence, for demanding more money for the country’s protection, claiming “tax and spend” is an unsustainable policy.

It would go too far to suggest that the government, or the political elite more broadly, are pursuing a concerted strategy of “non-linear” control. Yet such contradictions do make it difficult to engage politically with anything more compelling than a broad “we need change”. The confusion is more a result of a lack of leadership on key issues than deliberate misinformation. But the consequences for the democratic process are clear: when there is no agreement upon the basic facts and issues, there can be no meaningful debate. Democracy suffers, and its enemies exploit the confusion.

Alessandro Renzulli is a Research Assistant at the Henry Jackson Society. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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