We must not underestimate the power of popular music and culture. It is becoming a force vastly superior to geopolitics and military prowess, because unlike machine guns, it works 24/7 and targets our relations, thoughts and the central agents of our social networks. It works through TV, through Facebook, through consumption, status, taste and what Pierre Bourdieu famously called distinction. Russia may have won Crimea and the separatists may be gaining control over parts of Ukraine. But the war was over before it began. It was won by pop, clothes, style, sensitivity, yoga, food – and rock and roll. No half-naked cowboy president can compete with the lean muscles of an American movie star like Brad Pitt, no steely gaze can seduce better than the brilliant smile of George Clooney.
“Internet trolls. Meaning people who show up in comments and social media and write provocative or dissident views. Hired by the Russian government. Working in a building, four full floors, in St Petersburg.”
250 fake bloggers in St Petersburg
Internet trolls. Meaning people who show up in comments and social media and write provocative or dissident views. Hired by the Russian government. Working in a building, four full floors, in St Petersburg. This is a reality in today’s absurd world. This is one out of many examples of a 19th century national geopolitics paradigm taking on an increasingly global, transnational polity based increasingly on shared cosmopolitan values and trade.
Of course these 250 trolls, with salaries and all, are a small, small drop in the ocean we call the Internet and the Western media. In these, Putin’s Russia is of course being scrutinized and to a certain extent ridiculed. And these forces are working for free, leaving Russia’s opponents free to hire 250 people to do something else.
Another suspicious thing to be noticed is that, for an online pirate, you always seem to be getting the best downloads and rips from Russia, always neatly packaged and with careful instructions in correct English. Might we suspect that there is also a supported Russian pirate group somewhere, with the mission to undermine profit from Silicon Valley etc? I wouldn’t be so surprised.
But all this really doesn’t work. All the mechanisms are playing against the Russian bid for power in these days. There will be no Euroasian Union (notice its flag). Let’s take a closer look. But first, look at this Russian boy band. They’re kind of cute – but not very awe inspiring for young men and women:
Where are people moving?
Of course, the cultural sector to a large extent follows the economic development. Where there is large and diverse economic development, you tend to have a richer surplus of artistry.
Both these developments (cultural and economic) work in tandem with migration. People move towards the centers of the economic and cultural world system. What should be emphasized, however, is that the mass distribution of cultural influence through media and information technology makes this part of the equation increasingly powerful. And while Russia and the Soviet Union for a while competed in this arena – just consider the intellects of Lenin and Trotsky, versed in Russian and French literature and German philosophy – today’s Russia really does not stand a chance. Read this Wikipedia article on Russian music. While Russia of course still sports impressive skill and craftsmanship in classical music, its pop scene is a desolate zone by global standards.
If you look at the pattern of where people are moving, the whole issue becomes clear: More people moved to Ukraine from Russia than vice versa. And Ukraine has a dwindling population, because people are moving westwards (and there is low child birth and poorer health development).
And if you compare the migration from and to the US, Russians are migrating to the US and not the other way around. The people who are moving are less likely to be the poorest and least educated, and more likely to be the richer and more educated. The people who support Putin are likely to be poorer and less educated.
The Mechanisms at Play
I suggest that pop culture simply makes the Western lifestyle more appealing. But not to everyone. It becomes most appealing to the people who already amass a certain amount of economic, social and cultural capital.
This means that there is a veritable vortex at the very economic, social and cultural core of Russian society. What happens then is that central power of Russia allies itself with the peripheries of its own society. But unlike when the Roman liberals allied themselves with the plebs and threatened the aristocracy and its republic, we see a non-liberal development that is not based on deepening enfranchisement of the citizens.
This does just not compute. You can’t build a new geopolitical center while the hopes and dreams of the young generation are elsewhere, inspired by Western art increasingly accessible through the Internet. The higher status, competence and connectivity of a person in Russia, the greater the probability that they just moved to the US.
The project of building a cultural narrative around a “strong Russia” simply cannot compete with the more refined pop culture of Western countries, with more diverse and well-funded research grants, with the opportunities of IT-industries. The symbolic economy is already outpacing the industrial one in terms of growth and profit. The battle cannot be won.
A Sober Assessment
The total population and economic output of the NATO and associated countries are vastly larger than those of Russia. A military confrontation would also lead to defeat, even if such a confrontation might offer a powerful narrative for the Russian government and parts of its population. Such a narrative is only exciting for a while, however. It gets old and tiresome after a while.
But pop culture continues to renew itself and grant social status to the individuals who learn to appreciate it. In this brave new world, soft power is the hardest power. It is bringing a powerful army to its knees.
Let us hope for a peaceful end to this Russian bid for power. Let us hope that Russia can be brought into a global project within the next few decades. It would have to be a project that grants a positive and admirable position to the Russian population.
With the current trends this seems unlikely, tragically enough. We are likely to see a Russian government acting from the old paradigms of power politics, with increasingly counterproductive results. In desperation, it might turn violent and chauvinist, but it cannot win the war.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.