09.09.2019 | Maria Stepanova
Has the intellectual class failed to offer an alternative in the resentment-driven state?
One of the most important books in 20th-century Russia was a conversation, in the form of written correspondence, between the poet and playwright Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov and literary critic and essayist Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon, published in 1921 under the title Correspondence Across a Room. In our case the conversation actually takes place across the world map which makes it all the more exciting. What is perhaps most interesting about this conversation is, despite all the differences between the interlocutors, a shared underlying mood of hopelessness, an omnipresent sense that the old processes don’t function anymore: predictions are not borne out, remedies do not work. This conversation takes place against the backdrop of a profound cultural shift that changed the very contours of the present – and, inevitably, our language as well.
In her brilliant essay In many ways they are new players, but are they populists? Ágnes Heller challenges the point of departure for our conversation: the term “populism”. She suggests working with the term "ethnonationalism" instead, which goes straight to the core of Viktor Orbán's regime, but only partly covers what is going on in Trump's United States and Putin's Russia. But is there any universal term that could be applied to all the countries infected with the rightist virus?
It might be worthwhile to take a closer look at one of their distinctive features, which is described by Youssef Rakha (and which has preoccupied me ever since the rhetoric of the late Putin period started becoming more and more conspicuously based on Soviet models). What I mean is a certain passéism, an oblivious immersion in the past, which these regimes draw on for their ideas and modi operandi, their aesthetic orientation and slogans. A past that is always ahistorical – a fantasy that carelessly shrugs off facts in order to safeguard a myth. It is imaginary past that creates community for the backward-looking regime: this is where consent is manufactured. When Putin talks about the grandeur of the Soviet Union and the happy lives of Soviet citizens, he is ignoring all the calamities of Soviet history – which his listeners are all too inclined to forget too. When Trump conjures up America's lost greatness, he doesn't say which specific period in history he’s promising to take his voters back to: it's up to them to paint a bright picture to their taste. Something strange is going on before our very eyes: we are increasingly faced with politics not in the form of a political programme, but in the form of a particular style. A future modelled on an imaginary past doesn’t have to worry about facts, about economic or historical reality. And judging by the massive success of right-wing regimes, this doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
There is a certain passéism, an oblivious immersion in the past, which populist regimes draw on for their ideas and modi operandi, their aesthetic orientation and slogans - a fantasy that carelessly shrugs off facts in order to safeguard a myth.
We’re seeing all this in economically stable countries as well as in those hit by economic crisis (or, as in Russia, where the economy seems relatively stable but only a tiny group within the orbit of the ruling regime actually benefit from this stability). According to the classic schema described by Ágnes Heller, the promises of populist politicians have a concrete economic dimension, and a regime’s popularity depends on the extent to which it fulfils its promises. In the real world today, however, such promises often remain mere lip service – and yet that has no influence on the popularity of right-wing regimes. So one can’t helping feeling that something else is going on between the populists and their electorate, something that may take, at best, an outwardly democratic form. It increasingly seems to me as though an ancient ritual were being performed here, a kind of pact between feudal lord and vassal. The people symbolically swear allegiance and, in return, receive an equally immaterial promise of security, stability and protection against change. Their fear of the new, the unknown, is stronger than their discontent with the status quo. No matter what the previous order looked like, it remains preferable to the present if only because people know and understand it. So it’s no coincidence that right-wing regimes find the bulk of their support among those who are having a harder time coping with the complexities of the present day and age: those whose jobs are at risk, who find it difficult to keep up with the new moral imperatives, who feel superfluous and no longer respected by those around them. They long for the past.
The key to understanding the various regimes riding the rightward drift may well be resentment: their base is made up of people who feel they are victims of the shifts and changes of the past twenty or thirty years and who are intent on drawing attention, at all costs, to themselves and their rights. The emphasis is increasingly on symbols: Putin and Erdoğan’s base make it clear that they’re prepared to make real sacrifices for immaterial gains. When the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s supporters said some things are more important than money: "We'll just tighten our belts." The resentment-driven state bolsters its citizens’ sense of their own importance, for which they’re willing to make sacrifices. All of which goes to show, I fear, that the intellectual class to which we, the participants in this conversation, belong has failed to offer them an alternative in good time.
Trump's 2016 election victory was viewed as an extreme case of a protest vote, the result of discontent with the ruling elites that had gone unnoticed for too long. This protest was (and probably still is, in the run-up to the next US elections) directed not only at the political elite. Intellectuals have lost a great deal of their sway as well, and we’ve yet to see how far this development will go. Not for nothing is so much of Trump's daily invective levelled at the serious media and at cult figures revered by the American public. He knows full well that his demonstrative contempt for the prevailing discourse will win him new followers. Unlike past totalitarian regimes, a state built on resentment has no interest at all in winning over intellectuals – and not just because it doesn’t need them: the most powerful weapon of resentment is discrediting the established value system, and first and foremost certain symbolic values.
Ágnes Heller writes:
There is no democracy without a cultural elite, which is essentially different from the political or the business elite. By this I mean people who are respected and emulated for both their intellectual accomplishments and their sense of social responsibility. A society in which the wealthy and successful are the most highly respected, be they politicians, businessmen or movie stars, will degenerate into a mass society with no substance.
Uncomfortable as I am about the term "elite" – and all other polarizing expressions, for that matter – these are wonderful lines. I’m just afraid there is no such elite anymore in the present situation: universally respected public figures who represent the whole cultural sphere are growing increasingly scarce. And even if we assume that the community of intellectuals, those respected not only for their professional abilities, but also for their civic virtues, still count for something, the society of resentment will do everything in its power to contest their right to speak out. The cultural sphere, with its tendency towards radicalism, is the ideal target for those who feel overlooked, disregarded, unjustly marginalized. And yet for everyone else, it has long since lost its familiar contours.
Last year, Colta.ru, an independent online portal I’ve been directing for over ten years now, conducted a wide-scale opinion poll. This has become a tradition of ours: ever since we got started, we’ve been ranking public intellectuals in Russia in terms of importance to our readers and updating the list from time to time. Given the current social situation in which moral issues are of such crucial importance, we thought it would be interesting to change the rules of the survey a little: this time around we asked our readers which figure in public life they consider a moral authority, someone who is "respected and serves as a role model, both for their intellectual achievements and their sense of social responsibility". We wanted to find out whether any such figures still exist in present-day Russia and, if so, who might fit this description. After several weeks of lively discussion, we finally summed up the results of the poll, in which over eighty-four thousand people took part. The top six "moral authorities" were two video bloggers who are popular with the nation’s youth, an IT entrepreneur, opposition politician Alexei Navalny, TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov and… Vladimir Putin.
A joke, one might think, were it not the reflection of a new underlying reality: in the society we live in, there’s no fundamental difference between politicians and journalists anymore, bloggers outrank Putin, and "moral authority" means something quite different from what it meant only twenty years ago. In this world, readers' attention is not structured by stable hierarchies, it offers space for everything and everyone – but this space needs to be continually reconquered. It is hard to say whether the cultural scene, whether in Russia or worldwide, is prepared for it, but I think it would be an interesting task to learn to live and work in this new reality.
Had I written this article just a few weeks ago, it would probably have been a lot gloomier. Russia experienced a short-lived spell of high hopes back in 2012: many (including myself) believed the country itself had come to realize that it had reached a dead end and the way out would be quite simple: if it only articulated its expectations and demands vociferously enough, that would do the trick. Russia, with its soft form of dictatorship, seemed mired in stagnation, and my generation couldn’t wait to get back into history. This wish subsequently came true – but in the worst conceivable way. We can debate at length whether to call the upshot of all this an authoritarian, populist or resentment-driven state, but there’s no denying that our soft dictatorship has become a harsh one. With the consequences we know all too well: annexation of Crimea, war in Ukraine, political trials, attacks on the independent media, laws targeting the LGBT community, information wars.
And there’s another consequence: an acute apathy that has engulfed all those who, until recently, dreamed of resuscitating political life in Russia. Over the past seven years, scarcely more than five or six thousand people turned out for each protest demonstration in Moscow, a mega-city of over thirteen million inhabitants. And the protestors knew one another by sight, if not by name. So the authorities didn’t even bother to ban the demonstrations – after all, they served to show that there is no alternative to the ruling regime.
However, according to even the most conservative estimates, around sixty thousand women showed up for the demonstration in Moscow this past 10 August – at the height of summer and the holiday season. What triggered the demo was a trifling matter by local standards: irregularities in the registration of candidates for the election to the Moscow City Duma. No one in present-day Russia is fazed anymore about such blatant, shameful but foreseeable rigging of elections. So there must be another reason why so many took to the streets, though it’s hard to say what that might be. Just a few months ago, the opposition called on the people of Moscow to protest against a legislative package that would de facto put an end to the free Internet in Russia – an issue that affects everyone. But fewer than five thousand people demonstrated. So what has changed since then? I don't have an answer yet.
But I think I know how these recent protests differ from those of 2012: they’re no fun. The cheerful gatherings with politically like-minded familiars, the jocular slogans, witty posters and atmosphere of collective celebration, have given way to something completely different. Those taking to the streets today are far from cheerful, and they don't know one another even from sight. This protest movement has neither prominent leaders (all those who could have served that role were arrested before the demonstration started) nor a sense of community. The only thing that unites these protestors is a kind of grim determination. Seven years ago, the protests could still be portrayed as a conflict between a cultural elite that embraced Western values and the populace, who have an intuitive understanding of Russia's historical sonderweg ("separate path") and therefore back the current political leadership. The protestors who took to the streets of Moscow on 3 August could hardly be subsumed under the label "intelligentsia". It was a mixed crowd in which it was hard to spot a familiar face – not least because the protestors were a lot younger this time. Indeed, all observers agree that what was most striking about the demonstration was the large number of young protestors: university and high school students, some younger teenagers, too. And yet the security forces cracked down on them with unprecedented severity. Over a thousand people were arrested that day, peaceful demonstrators were bludgeoned, random passers-by ended up behind bars. In 2012, the wave of protest was ground to a halt by a very similar approach; now, in 2019, Muscovites are ready to pay that price. This isn’t sufficient grounds for even the most cautious optimism. But it does hold out hope that the country wants to live in the present, not in an imaginary past. I hope we’ll have something to say to this present day and age when it dawns.