Strongmen Destroyed, Part 3: The Politik Revolution

Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.

He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.

1. BLATAR AND SILOVIK EDUCATION

In 1935, after Fr. Sergii Bulgakov published his book Lamb of God, the Russian Orthodox Church split into opposing factions. Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow, head of the church effectively under Stalin’s control, accused Bulgakov of heresy. A committee in Paris investigated the treatise and issued a preliminary verdict freed Bulgakov from charges of heresy. However, a final conclusion was never reached. Many of the thinkers who joined the condemnation, including its key figure Fr. George Florovsky, were rooted in the movement of so-called Eurasians—reactionary anti-Westerners who dreamt of a conservative landmass empire under the rule of Moscow. On the receiving end of condemnation, Fr. Sergii Bulgakov belonged to the tradition of Russian democratic socialism and, at one point, was an elected deputy in the party presided over by V. D. Nabokov[1]. The crux of the controversy is this. In line with the Orthodox doctrine, Bulgakov elaborated on the idea that evil is lacking in substance, is a mere privation of the good (Latin privatio boni). However, having examined this dogma at length, Bulgakov inferred that, when it comes to humans, evil is the breakdown of democratic representation, the refusal to participate in politics because of the illusion that “I am self-sufficient”, that “my own power will suffice”, and a corresponding (in Bulgakov’s view) artificial hardening of the border between “my identity” and the other. When this breakdown occurs, people are divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the saved and the damned, and, before we know it, fascist politics ensues.

Bulgakov envisioned the doctrine of universal salvation (Greek apokatastasis) as the antidote to fascism because it declared that all humans are substantially good, but what happens if they’re severed from political representation, if they’re constrained within purely private life, is their privation, which in turn is the privation of good, and which in turn is the definition of evil. Evil is the severance of representation, erosion of the responsibility of the citizens for the policies that are undertaken in their name—and it is this feedback between the privatisation of citizenship and imperialisation of policy that constitutes the ‘pattern of escalation’, the degradation of society into the society of war.

In this article, I use Bulgakov’s logic to answer three questions.

  1. First, “Are Russians responsible for the war waged in their names?”
  2. Second, “What kinds of education escalated Russia’s demise into something approximating slavery?”
  3. Third, “What kind of education can prevent us from following the same route?”

1) The People

“Are Russians responsible for the war waged in their names?” We could talk of responsibility if Russians had any genuine influence on the decisions that their government makes in their names. The whole of this essay has been an attempt at showing the gradual diminishment of the context in which Russians could have been made responsible for the acts of their government. Under Putin, Russians were gradually stripped of their status as citizens—of their say in common affairs. It meant that Russians were less and less represented by their authorities—the bonds of political representation were broken—and the elites whose task it is to create new social worlds were creating worlds without the habit of asking Russians what world they would prefer to inhabit. And since they had less and less of a say in the decisions that affected their lives, since their lives were more and more governed by a power they couldn’t influence, a power that was more and more arbitrary, politics increasingly began to resemble fate: distant, abstract, immutable.

Since the arbitrariness of the authorities had made policy-making immune the public criticism, people were left with no leverage to change the course of political action. And when people have forgotten that an alternative regime of life and statecraft is possible, they cannot help but think that conformist participation in the ‘party line’, in the top-down command, is the only way to slip out of the pervasive sense of powerlessness, the sense of being subject to the thunderbolts of fate.

Not being free to express their will through politics, to rationally influence their fate, they were left to participate in her arbitrary dispensation—that is, to partake in forms of coercion mandated by the state, to impose the will of the authorities on the weak. Every level of society was subordinated to the will of the boss—people were allowed to act at will with their subordinates as long as they uncritically executed decisions of their superiors, their nachalstvo. Within this vertical of power, people’s communicative power was reduced to only two legitimate forms: flattery towards the authorities and denunciatory complaints (Rus. donos) against all the others.

Russians felt that the whole system was based on unjust dominance. But they were bought—they sold their political freedom, their ‘soul’, for the price of freedom to choose among consumer goods that were becoming increasingly affordable thanks to the rising gas prices during the early cadences of Putin’s reign. This bargain that made Putin’s tyranny possible was comprised of the countless compromises with evil. But Putin bought impoverished Russians just like he bought rich Western elites. The latter’s compromise with evil is, I would argue, harder to digest.

Although the system was based on pure dominance, it operated under the hypocritical veneer of democracy, under the pretence of much more sound moral principles. Russians sensed that they were destroying the fabric of society through their participation in the vertical of coercion, but at the same time they sensed that they live in the state that seemed to be based on the standards by which their lifestyle would have been judged evil. As a result, Putin’s system was shot through with deep cynicism.

This is why, when Putin declared the ‘special military operation’, a totally arbitrary act of unprovoked violence, many people felt at last fully free. Violence cleansed people from the need to pretend, “from that illusion of moral sterility and hypocrisy that held us tight in its clammy embrace for so long.”[2] At last, dominance was revealed as the sole principle of the regime. The violence, the setting aflame of countless Ukrainian cities, shattered the pretence that life is anything other than a contest for power. People were happy to see their assertion of dominance from which they derived all their status mirrored in Russia’s power over Ukraine. Not being able to articulate and verbalise their will, having their will reduced to the conduit of top-down domination, many Russians saw arbitrary violence of the state as the cosmic endorsement of their way of life.

Blatar freedom of will is essentially the freedom of law-breaking, the revolt against all kinds of law—laws of nature and laws of state. In the state based on arbitrary domination, people’s caving into the blatar dream of freedom from law (as discussed in the first part of this article series) became a matter of doing justice to this harsh reality. If it’s not pretty, at least it’s true, and thereby a relief. The attack on Ukraine, a blatant violation of all international laws, was the reflection of people’s private lawbreaking on a planetary scale—they felt like their lawlessness was finally attuned to the lawlessness of the universal order.

Hence the political freedom they were denied, the sense of participation in communal self-legislation, the joy of being in touch with reality, came back in a paradoxical, inverted way. To see the common affairs—i.e. Russian politics—conducted  completely arbitrarily, entirely possessed by violent domination, is to see that the world and the struggles of life are, truly, devoid of meaning or moral direction.

‘Masters’ and ‘slaves’, nachalstvo and the narod (Rus. ‘people’), were at last coming back together in the sameness of their freedom—the general population with their will reduced to reactive assertion of dominance and the reactive dominance of the government against a neighbouring country—at last, they were one, and the thing that united them was the joy of being free to act with impunity. Make no mistake, once it is fully unconstrained by any political responsibility, freedom of will always reveals itself for what it truly is—the freedom to do evil.

In this regard, I think Vlad Vexler had nailed the meaning of the main symbol of Russian aggression when he said that “Z stands for ecstasy about being evil”, “the freedom, the liberation, the joy of doing bad things”[3]. It stands for that ‘death camp morality’ of the blatar we’ve discussed earlier. It is as if they’re cynically saying, “deep down, it all comes to dominance… So, being so strong and victorious, why aren’t we allowed to act with impunity?” This is why they paint Zs on walls and doors—they want this regime to penetrate everywhere—so that it is not them who are evil, but life itself. Appropriately, Russian for evil is Zlo.

2) The Authorities

But what about the authorities? The irony is that the closer one was to the upper echelons of the Kremlin, the less free one was. One’s life was in the shackles of regulations, agreements, obligations and expectations, and the conversation that could renegotiate these arrangements was becoming less and less feasible. The highest authority, Putin, was singularly unable to have such a conversation. What negotiation of relationships could there be if his presidential office was absolutely non-negotiable? At the zenith of power, there was either his will or the will of his enemies. The arbitrary sovereign is the least free because he is possessed by the will-to-power—his decision-making is constrained by the necessity to create artificial escalation so as to sustain demand for his strong leadership.

Therefore his choices were becoming increasingly reactive and reactionary attempts to prove his sovereignty by the war against moral laws, international laws, and even the laws of nature. For example, against time—for how can one explain these pervasive attempts to freeze time, to resurrect old imperial unity, to hold on to ‘traditional’ values?[4] Sovereign’s freedom of choice becomes limited to only one choice: “To rebel against life itself”—because it is ‘her’, the new generations, who tell him to step down.

This takes us to where we began this series of articles—to the relation between private and political freedom. In the absence of politics, in the absence of a chance to express your will politely, all there’s left is violence.

It is as if you’re left to scream “Look, I actually have a will!” But how can you prove that you have the will at all? You can prove it by making decisions that no one would have guessed before-hand because it gives you a chance to say “If there is nothing on which you can put your finger and say ‘This determined your decision!’, ‘This caused your choice!’, does it not prove that my will is free?” In short, if you want to prove that you have the freedom of will, you have to act “at will”—seemingly arbitrarily. Freedom of will does not have a positive substance, no creativity, but is merely reactive—it does not seek to upgrade its context, it revolts against its context. And therefore it is not free in any deeper philosophical sense—it does not transcend present reality, it merely reacts to it. (This is why—paradoxically—we can overcome the evil produced by the freedom of will only by giving people even more freedom of will—so that they won’t have to prove that they actually have it).

Think of all the endless attempts to read Putin’s mind. His intentions, his calculations, his emotions, his spirituality, you name it. He feeds on our attempts to ‘understand’ him because our inability to do so only proves his sovereignty. For him, to be unpredictable is the point, the end in itself. And if we actually ‘understand’ Putin, it means that we have settled into the same imperialist worldview where people can claim security guarantees on the merit of military musculature. This is why, in ethical terms, a big portion of infamy must go to the so-called Putinverstehers (German portmanteau for ‘Putin-understander’), Westerners who’ve ‘surrendered’ to the logic of geopolitics.

Natural politics is almost the opposite of geopolitics. It stands or falls on the condition of responsible democratic representation—which in turn stands or falls on the condition of social trust, on our expectation that others are imbued with dignity and empathy. First, representation requires trust that other people have dignity—that they can be self-legislators who stay true to their word, to their contracts, to their long-term relations—which implies that they can be left free to think together and decide by which laws they should live. Second, representation requires trust that other people can act based upon empathy for one another, that people can take perspective of the other and act in the name of that perspective. At its core, representation requires ‘good faith’ in our ability to share fairly in the excess that will be produced by our cooperation—it must be directed toward some future and yet unknown surplus.

In contrast to this, Putin focused people’s attention on the past, on the eye-catching geopolitics struggle for the land, territory, one resource that has a visceral zero-sum dynamic because it is already there to be seen. Because of this, the Russian regime became characterised by the pervasive doubt with regard to both dignity and empathy. Instead of thinking and loving, the trustful openness to the strange and the unknown, Russians began to believe in the supremacy of the will and participation in the imposition of will, participation in the vertical of power. As a result, every domain of life was stifled by a miasma of servility, cowardice, conceit, and utter mediocrity.

Russia failed to be a representative democracy because its government was infiltrated by the ethos of secret service, by the people who are by definition never fully present to others. His whole life Putin shied away from truthful converse. Many a time, he had said “I’m not a politician”. Putin is fundamentally apolitical because he cannot be anyone’s representative, he’s not present to anyone and no one is present to him. One of the funny features of Putin is that he often forgets or outright refuses to call people by their names. For example, he never says “Alexei Navalny”, he refuses to recognise perspectives different to his as real, as belonging to a subject of politics.
Putin doesn’t recognise the dignity of others, the fact that all people can be subjects of politics who act in the interest of the abstract common good regardless of immediate harm or benefit. Not being able to recognise dignity of people, their ability to honour their contractual relations, he’s not able to trust anyone, he’s always afraid of the private agenda that lurks behind hypocritical pretence of moral high ground.

As I’ve mentioned before, the person in the classical sense is the opposite of a secret agent—empathy makes her present to others and dignity makes others present to her. To ask myself “How do I become a person?” is to ask myself “How do I become subject to my own self-legislation?” “How can I honour the contractual relationships I consented to?” “How can I be true to the promised word?” The answer is this: “If I know that you made the same promise and that you care about how not keeping it will affect me”. And where does such care appear? In relationships of trust—relationships where partners are willing to persistently take each other’s perspectives, continuously “walk in each other’s shoes”, increasingly abstract relationships between lovers, relatives, friends, citizens and their representatives, relationships where the will is disciplined to let go of its scheming and settle into roles it’s assigned within various relationships: a friend, a son, a father, a teacher, a student, a voter, an elected representative. This is where we become present to each other and present at all. To be free is to inhabit this actual, concrete interaction without ulterior motives. To throw off reserve and ‘gift’ yourself to the particular relationships you’re in, to be ‘wounded’ by the pattern of something higher than you. But how can the secret agent do this, if, like a Bronze Age hero, he is taught to think that trust and empathy make one vulnerable to betrayal and ridicule?

“That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept”[5]

But we have to see that the secret agent is a peculiarly postmodern version of a Bronze Age hero. This is where we approach the heart of Putin’s regime. After World War II there was a widespread sense that we have to become cynical to avoid sincere engagement in grand ideologies. It seems that the post-war postmodern societies were ‘vaccinated’ against the possession by modern ideologies and straightforwardly heroic leadership. Unfortunately, cynicism produced its own kind of developmental salto-mortale: Putin was able to climb the ladder of government not thanks to his resolve and courage but thanks to their exact opposite. In contrast to the heroic resoluteness of a Bronze Age hero, the secret agent is characterised by extreme irresoluteness. Putin’s secret service training equipped him with the pathological unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s choices, to be answerable to the continuous conversation within the relationship in which this choice took place. In my judgement, the unwillingness to be contractually obligated, to honour the laws which you yourself legislated—marks the essence of Putin’s regime. To conclude I want to sum up the way in which irresoluteness leads to the same arbitrariness as the unchecked freedom of choice.

And this allows me to ask the most provocative question so far: “How can the pathologically irresolute man be responsible for the war he had waged?” Putin is simultaneously a very strange and a very quintessential tyrant. He is very weak and irresolute: “he can’t even rebuke his own bodyguards”.[6] On the surface, his reign does not look like a triumphant journey of sovereign will. But it makes perfect sense if we realise that it stems from a fundamental refusal to take responsibility. To take responsibility is to stake your identity on this particular choice within this particular history of relationship. This is precisely what Putin can’t do because he does not know what real freedom is—because he fears trapdoors and he leaves backdoors open so as to escape any relationship at will—so as to break contracts. Putin knows not the safety found in relations of sustained trust: he never throws off reserve, he wears many personas and alters them at will—that is, when they no longer serve his purposes, when it’s time to halt this relationship and rely on another one. The life of a secret agent is the ultimate triumph of will-hood over person-hood. Putin avoids being answerable to lasting relationships, he stays ‘free’ from relationships so as to always secure the possibility of arbitrary choice that betrays them.

Thereby we can understand why Putin’s irresoluteness caused his arbitrary rule. It’s not even that Putin is an arbiter who adjudicates between various warring factions, the ‘towers of Kremlin’. If I’m irresolute, the palette of my choices stays wide open. It’s just that the secret service training adds a peculiar spin to this age-old ‘freedom of will’ dynamic: the spin of secrecy, of refusal to invest your identity into concrete relationships and therefore letting others make choices so as to later take—not responsibility—but only credit for those choices that played out well. I stay ‘free’ to entertain any choice—it’s just that these choices are brought upon a platter by my aides.

Therefore the main question is this: “Who tend to be my aides?”. And the answer is this: “Those who please me most, who say what I most want to hear, who say what I already believe”. Putin became surrounded by people who indulged his sense of safety, who made him feel secure. This is how Putin lets the logic of arbitrariness unfold at length: around him the loyal and sycophantic careerists grow like wildflowers. Putin’s decisions are not his own, they are made by the people who are the least dangerous, independent and critical of him. These are the apolitical people distinguished by the will-to-power, those who are willing to say and do whatever it takes to climb the ladder of dominance. These people will naturally tend to make choices informed by reactionary and geopolitical considerations—they’re afraid of changes in the status quo and of losing their possessions to a perceived ‘other’.

At the end of the day, the people who decided how the country is run were the siloviki for whom it is only natural to worship power. Gradually, thanks to the character of his coterie, Putin became enmeshed within reactionary politics and imperial geopolitics: people who are bureaucratic careerists tend to be obsessed with preserving the status quo domestically and ‘winning’ the zero-sum competition abroad: ‘in Putin’s Russia, neo-colonial posturing is the surest display of loyalty to the president’.[7] Thus the professional irresoluteness of the secret agent, a man without faces, becomes hostage and a useful front for the bullies.

At the end of the day, Putin was constrained to a set of choices that were detrimental not only to Russia, but even to himself. This is why arbitrariness is worse than randomness. Arbitrariness narrows attention to short-term and short-sighted interests at the expense of true and natural interests. This is how arbitrariness sets itself at odds with the long-term interests of those possessed by it. Someone who acts at will also betrays his future self. If Russia is a body politic, it was left without eyes and thrown itself into the abyss.

‘Neither fear nor courage saves us’[8]. Both extreme irresoluteness and extreme resolve lead to the same curse of arbitrariness. Our resolve, our will, our choice, is not the end in itself, but it also must never be abdicated. We can’t return to our primordial innocence, any notion of such innocence will be an artificial and frankly delusional construct. Rather, our choice must be disciplined by being answerable to the scrutiny of relationships in which it takes place.

We must have the resolve to make the choices which we’ll be willing to answer and argue for, choices we’ll be able to explain to those affected by them. In other words, our choices must withstand the trial by politics. If there’s no such trial, choices fall into arbitrariness—no matter how virtuous individual choice-makers may be, sooner or later the anti-social actors will elbow out the pro-social ones and even the pro-social ones will say to themselves “If we don’t do it, someone else surely will”.

“Neither choose for the sake of choosing nor withhold choice for the sake of fantasised innocence, rather, embrace responsibility, have the resolve to make choices that will withstand the scrutiny of reason and love”. Thinking and loving are the prerequisites of dignity and empathy. Only thinking and love (both of them together) can teach respect for the choice of another person. Apart from each other they cannot do it, because loving alone runs the danger of not letting the other make risky choices and learn on his own mistakes and thinking alone runs the danger of using the knowledge about the other as an asset to manipulate his choice to my advantage. It is this union of thinking and loving that lets the other be other; it is this political freedom that frees the will of the other. Freedom of will cannot be conquered, it can only be received as new social context, as gift of politics.

3) Blatar and Sivolik Educations

By creating the only anti-war films that actually worked for the intended purpose of revealing the sheer ugliness and atrocity of the war, Soviet filmmakers managed to break the curse of the cinematic medium. They managed to do this because they did not need to adapt to the demands of the market where only spellbinding blockbusters that show war as an attractive spectacle could make it at the box office—the films they produced were ordered by a socialist state that aspired to educate its citizens. How could Russian society turn into a society of war?

We must shift focus from individual heroism or villainy to the community within which the choice between the two takes place. We humans are political animals and there is only so much we can ‘betray’ our nature by making choices closer to wordless war than peaceful exchange of words. The important question is this: “How do our choices get narrowed down to war?” “How do we end up in a society where we can’t help but to betray our nature?”

In contrast to individuals, society can become completely unnatural: by nature any society is the communication that creates persons—that is, politically free self-legislators, humans in their natural glory. The unnatural society is the one where decisions that affect everybody are made not by political communication but by arbitrary authority—of commanders over executors, of master over slaves. In a fully natural society evil is impossible—for if everyone is in communication with everyone else, the evildoer won’t be able to make an argument that justifies his actions to his victims, won’t be able to pass the trial by politics. We are free as far as we are allowed to grow into increasingly complex responsibilities within increasingly complex communities—relationships governed by conversations.

But if communication no longer connects people, if people don’t represent each other, the bonds of responsibility become broken. A society in which no one is responsible for anything is one where decision-making becomes arbitrary—that is, divorced from anyone’s interest, even the sovereign’s. The blind logic of war for scarce resources becomes the only real actor by whom everyone becomes to various degrees possessed. And if you’re possessed, you’re by definition not free.

In the absence of democracy, both the ruler and the ruled, both Putin and Russians, could not grow. And since they could not grow into responsibility, they were less and less responsible for the choices that were made in their name. All responsibility was abdicated—no one had to respond to the critique of anyone—peace depended on the individual virtue—and it is precisely what peace must never depend on.

We can’t be responsible for what the government does in our name if the government does not represent us, does not respond to how we articulate our desires. However, we are responsible for letting them not represent us. To the extent that we had political freedom and made decisions against democracy, we are guilty as charged. In my mind, if we stand accused of anything, it is this: of losing our hope in politics, in democracy, in critical exchange, in open debate, in the word, and choosing to worship the will. But this guilt is constituted of endless choices that everyone makes every day, the routine weakness, cowardice, connivance, and nescience of finite beings. No one rationally chooses to be not represented, to be detached from politics, detached from rational exercise of power. By nature we are not evil, but we can compromise with evil. These compromises amalgamate into an unnatural political system, a regime based on coercion. Humans cannot be irredeemably bad, but political regimes often are; masters and slaves are not evil, but slavery always is. The bonds of political representation were broken—and our task is to see what processes are responsible for it.

There are different ‘shades of guilt’. The citizens are responsible for their private decisions. The elites make decisions in the name of all citizens.

The task of the elite is to not choose for the other.

The task of the citizens is to not let the elite make choices for them.

The task of the elite is to not legislate arbitrary decisions.

The task of citizens is to not execute arbitrary decisions.
But if the citizens only receive arbitrary commands, they’re left with no choice.

I don’t think that the Russians persistently legislated and executed irresponsible decisions, I don’t think that Russians persistently made up for the authorities that did not recognise the dignity of the other to make her own choice and for the citizens who allowed the authorities to steal their right to choose.

The cause of the enslavement has to do with the character for which the elites were selected. Putin’s elite was consistently selected from the fundamentally irresponsible people, from the people who did not question authorities and did not respond to the questions of their constituencies.

I argue that this unnatural selection of an essentially anti-political elite was ‘washed ashore’ by the successive waves of explicit and implicit political repressions. Seeing the suffering that political activism entails, Russians en masse abdicated their responsibility to be citizens. After the elite was formed, it was no longer important whether you’re a good person who exercises virtue—sooner or later the palette of your choices will narrow and you won’t be able to help but to exercise vice. When you escape politics, politics returns to you as coercion.

Russian identity became suspect after it went through a trauma of guilt and victimhood, political repressions and resistance to fascism. Putting the problem into words brings its own kind of change, it puts trauma on the path toward healing. However, the Russian 20th century never went through the therapy of politics, never came under trial of public debate. As a consequence, unable to cope with its trauma, Russia couldn’t come to terms with its crime—with the fundamental perversion of morality brought upon it by the waves of political repressions—with the inversion of freedoms, putting arbitrary freedom of will above political freedom, putting law-enforcement at the service of law-breaking rather than law-making.

There is an uncanny feedback between politics and education, between form of governance and form of life.

I blame two kinds of education that formed Russian society after the Second World War—silovik ‘secret service education’ and blatar ‘crime syndicate education’; two role models of the majority of late Soviet children, a spy and a thief. Soviet boys were romantically infatuated with the two role models: a thief-in-law and a secret agent. When these forms of life came to power, and in turn began to recruit the elite from apolitical loyalists, corrupt thieves and patriotic imperialists—people very easy to control, people who don’t have taste for political freedom, who don’t critique tyrannical policy as long as it does not go against their private interests.

At the end of the day, these educational role models come down to their relation to the law. In today’s Russia, the population educated in the lawlessness of blatar free will became attuned to the lawlessness of the state.

But the secret service education has a different relation to law. It teaches honouring contractual relations only so as to break them when the right time comes—only insofar as they are expedient to oneself. The expectation of dignity is used arbitrarily to promote loyalties ulterior to the present contract.

It teaches perspective taking, but only so as to use people’s weakness against them. Perspective taking that is totally devoid of empathy. Siloviki’s ethical fusion with the blatari taught them to use the law for the sake of private and, later. It resulted in a silovik elite that was able to use the law for essentially blatar purposes.

Under Putin, there was raised a generation of essentially apolitical politicians, officials for whom the most fundamental distinction is not between virtue and vice, but between strength and weakness. Ramzan Kadyrov, its most picturesque specimen, once produced one of my favourite sentences: “I am strong, I am never weak!” He is today’s head of Chechnya Republic. His rise is a collateral damage of the war on the wings of which Putin cast his performance of strong leadership in 2000. Remember the geopolitical spectacle in Chechnya which Putin used as means of ensuring populist support? Kadyrov’s father became head of Chechnya in the wake of the war as a head of the Chechen military group that agreed to collaborate with Moscow. Kadyrov the son inherited the ‘throne’ in the wake of his father’s death in 2004. Now his fighters, “kadyrovtsy”, make up a salient part of the Russian troops in Ukraine—although they’ve earned the reputation of ‘attention whores’ thanks to all those hilarious videos of staged ‘combat’ they’ve uploaded on TikTok. People like Kadyrov see the talk of abstract virtues—freedom and justice, dignity and empathy—as suspect, as but the attempt to weaken their hold on power, to constrain their sovereignty. Their rule is the product of codependency between inarticulate passions of the population and arbitrary rule of the populists.

Populists are popular precisely because their denigration of abstract virtues feels relatable to the people who see abstract considerations as farfetched and hypocritical, divorced from the lot of toiling folk. The populist appeals to the people who were depoliticised because they were reduced to struggle for subsistence. One of the most revealing moments in the documentary on the communication between Russian war-supporters, people who blindly root for their identity, and war-opponents, people who are led by abstract virtues, is when a mother accuses her daughter of having an ‘exacerbated sense of justice’. By mocking the hypocrisy and double standards of the politicians and intellectuals, ‘deep state’ and ‘high academy’, populists like Putin, Kadyrov, and Trump give voters an indulgence against the moral standards of a complex society, freedom from need to conform to the increasingly intricate and intimate legislative prescriptions, law’s subtle penetration into the private life that was earlier under the sovereign control of the dominant will, usually the patriarch.

It is as if the public says—“Do whatever you want in our name as long as you leave our private lives alone”. They sell their political freedom for the sake of not having to discipline their will. Authoritarians then take their ‘popular will’, ‘the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion’ as if it were a raw resource, amorphous clay, interpret it arbitrarily and mould it into policy that represents nothing of what the general public actually had in mind. And since the policy of populists is not disciplined by critical feedback, not co-authored, their rule becomes authoritarian. And, although it sounds creative, authoritarian policy is always the same: populists mobilise the most visceral identity of their constituency against that towards which passions are most easily mobilised: the ‘other’, the stranger who is glaringly non-identical to us (black skin colour, LGBTQ+ aesthetics, etc.) and who therefore can most easily be marketed as an enemy.

The platform capitalism only exacerbated the rise of populists. In the digital age, the sheer pace of communication is the primary cause of populist mobilisation—reduction of people to their passionate and possessive faculties.

The pace of digital communication leaves no room for the political and polite articulation of will, for the negotiation and education of desire, rather, it is the spectacle of identities, polarised silos that addict attention to the most outrageous provocations because social media feeds on our attention and our attention is vulnerable to the thrilling spectacle—false information spreads many times faster than factual one.[9] The Internet became a kind of ‘zoo’ where human self-expression is monetised by a few social networks. It’s as if society itself—varieties of human interaction—became the means of production, a resource that is extracted and profited off by the capitalists.

Instead of producing persons with names who can be subjects of politics, social media produces nameless patches of sensational material. On social media, people stay essentially anonymous, they’re not named as particular persons, they’re rather choosers of this or that identity. They’re not yet animated as persons who are responsible for long-term relationships, they’re akin to secret agents opting in and out of various uncommitted connections, digital ‘casualties’. Alas, as it stands now, social media tampers with representation. If the people is not properly named as such, their representatives cannot act in their name; they simply have no real representatives, people to whom they are fully present and who are fully present to them. Social media feeds on promiscuous interaction and does not provide a ceremonial space-time for graceful self-articulation. If culture is the distance and silence in which mature communication and self-expression can occur, then today’s internet is the corruptor of culture.

Kadyrov is the first Instagram tyrant, but unfortunately not the last one. Russia, a society that proved most vulnerable to becoming a kind of political ‘zoo’ where there is always soundproof glass between electors and the elected, rulers and the ruled, is the first Instagram tyranny, but unfortunately not the last one. People’s passions are manipulated by the dictate of the ruler but this manipulation then plays against the ruler because he becomes imprisoned by the support of people who have lost touch with reality because they have got lost in their own passions—and the more irrational these passions get, the more irrational the ruler’s policy get. All this led to an apolitical autocrat, an apolitical elite, an apolitical citizenry, all obsessed with raising the status of their national identity—Russia’s imperial struggle for scarce land[10] against other powers—mainly that of the West.

Today’s pace of communication fuels policy based on primitive anti-Western sentiment. The Russian elites who stole so much from their people that they had to justify it by the foreign threat had found an ally in the pervasive anti-Western sentiment across the world. Why is this sentiment primitive and malign? It is crucial to see that anti-Westerners take issue with the West not because it is too free, but because, for their perverse taste, it is not nearly free enough—Westerners are not free to bully, steal, beat, rape and kill. Anti-Western sentiment comes from people who don’t have a taste for personal freedom, but only care for the freedom of will—the freedom to dominate. It takes time to develop the taste for personal freedom because its exercise requires the ability to choose wisely—to choose in tune with the law and the spirit of the law, that is to think and love, it requires to be responsible for one’s choice, to explain it to all who are affected by it.

The West had disciplined the freedom of will to dominate and developed the freedom of a person to think and love, engage in argument, cooperation, and diverse kinds of love.

To become truly free, the will has to be disciplined by culture and nature, by the metaphysical realm of ideas and laws and by the physical realm of feelings and desires. Thinkers of the Orthodox tradition identify natural functioning of the will with the functioning of the heart, the centre of the human body—they argue that the will has to be a mediator between the intellect and the body. Thus, in the natural state, “The height of my spirituality reaches the depths of my sexuality”.[11] But if we think that will becomes free only if it has an unconstrained freedom of choice, the will will rise against both physics and metaphysics—it will desire not just to eat and think of not how to produce food better—but how to secure as property such a large amount of food so as to never ever be hungry again, so as to become virtually invulnerable. The natural desire to eat turns into the passion of gluttony, appetite becomes insatiable. The natural desire to exercise power turns into the lust for domination, wielding of power for its own sake. As soon as I privatise some good—be it food or power—as my property, as soon as privation of the good happens, the good becomes scarce and all the others become excluded from having a say in how to use it. And since no one wants to be left without goods, everyone begins to exercise will in order to take goods from rivals.

Point being, unchecked passions lead to war. When subservient to the intellectual statecraft of politiki, both blatar’ gratification of desire and silovik’ will to power are fine and natural, but when the hierarchy of developmental stages is inverted, nothing is fine and natural anymore.

Negotiation could have easily reconciled any impediments to neighbourly coexistence between Russians and Ukrainians, but the policy of the authorities was more and more determined by the pattern of artificial escalation, leading all the way to war, which, once in motion, unfolded the spiral of excessive vengeance—atrocities drive grievances, grievances drive animosities, animosities drive new atrocities—and as the escalation unfolds, lasting peace between Russians and Ukrainians drifts farther and farther out of reach.

The irrational nature of the conversations Putin was having with his tiny coterie made him fall victim to an equally irrational faith in his power and the power of his identity—Russia. We are now imprisoned within a ‘reality gap’ with the size of the Russian elite’s pagan faith in their own military might and a corresponding disbelief in the willingness of their enemies to sacrifice themselves for the sake of political freedom.

Both Ukrainian and Russian governments opt for gambles, The governments can’t help but to take these risks because the popular will demands them to do so—people have faith in their armed respective forces. People’s passionate faith in the power of their identity is what escalation feeds on. And the larger this gap, this delta, the larger the space for escalation.

We may think that, because Putin acts in disregard to his and Russia’s interests, he is mad. But we must not think so. There’s a reason why he limits escalation to Ukraine—terrain where no nuclear states run the danger of mutually assured destruction (abbreviated as MAD), and the reason is that Putin is not totally irrational, he prefers life to death. Ukrainians, overwhelmingly, are willing to risk death for the sake of anticolonialism, but it is a risk for which not only soldiers, but also civilians pay with their lives. Yet even if Ukraine prevails, we should not think that this is how autocracy ends once and for all. We have to defeat autocracy within every heart—defeat the choice of voluntarist action instead of communicative action, choice of faith in my own power instead of faith in the power of the word. We have to avoid making the Russian mistake of turning anti-fascism into fascism proper. If we believe that ‘might makes right’ we only help the might. We only encourage the powerful everywhere in the world, including the West, to think that their power is the pivotal agency that will always have the last word in shaping the world.

War in essence is the contest between wills. Which is why as soon as we are in war, we fall victim to the illusion that our salvation depends on our own will and power. Today the wills are puffed up by nuclear technology that can destroy the world a few times over. Therefore, the more we have faith in power, the closer we are to mutually assured destruction. In the world of nuclear weapons, we either kill this ‘escalation imperative’ or kill ourselves.

2. THE REALPOLITIK EDUCATION

The Insecurity of Fascism

 The ‘age of strongmen’ begins in Russia, then it is replicated round the globe by Putin’s doppelgangers, ‘strong leaders’ like Trump and Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan, Xi and Modi. Of course, the insemination of ‘strongmen statecraft’ is nothing new. Like the upsurge of totalitarianisms in the 1930s, it is just another reincarnation of the Bronze Age ethos, of the language the usage of which culminates in the codependent phenomena like tyrants and their palaces, emperor-gods and their cults, warriors and their conquests, masters and their slaves, heroes and their myths. Fascism shies away from open and factual conversation and finds refuge in secrets and fakes, mysteries and mythologies. ‘Fascism is not a debating position, but a cult of will that emanates from fiction. It is about the mystique of a man who heals the world with violence… It can be undone only by demonstrations of the leader’s weakness. The fascist leader has to be defeated… Only then do the myths come crashing down”[12]. ‘You can’t win over the fascists by telling them they’re evil—’, says Hanzi Freinacht, ‘they’ll be flattered and take it as a badge of their edginess and toughness! Why do you think they got those bad tattoos in the first place?’[13] Many thinkers have pointed out the sad secret of fascism—its obsession with power comes from a trauma of powerlessness, the intense experience of insecurity. Once they acquire power, they confuse it with total security, even omnipotence. This is why they get into insane wars. Once this happens, we can defeat fascists only by revealing their weakness.

The age of strongmen begins in Russia, but it may end in Russia as well. It began with war and may end with war as well. But for this to happen, after Russia’s defeat, we’ll have to connect the dots. We’ll have to exorcise our own spectres of Putinism. Guilt by association must discredit those in the West who admired and emulated Putin’s character. There can be no ‘strongmen leaders’, no siloviki who, if given time to bring their governance to its logical extent, would not wage wars.

What should be the response to a regime based on escalation? I think we have to think in two regimes at once. First, in the regime fascists understand, and second, in the regime fascists understand not.

Yes, in the short run, we have to break the hold of the mystique of power. But we also have to break its hold on us. We can break it only if we retain our ‘good faith’ in the possibility of judgement by other means than violence or profit incentives. In the long run, societies built on cooperation prevail over societies built on coercion simply because the former tap into fountainheads of creativity and inventiveness that are unavailable to the autocratic regimes of life and governance. As soon as you believe that your own might might suffice you become weak because you lose touch with the creativity that defines human civilisation.

These two regimes are insufficient apart from each other. The first alone divorces us from our creative potential, the second alone divorces us from the reality of evil. But together they constitute the ‘informed naiveté’ that shapes the metamodern character. All that falls short of sustaining this creative contradiction also falls short of the task to confront and counter the threat of rising autocracy.

Fascism as an Inevitable Reaction Against Neoliberalism

We must confess it: Putin’s fascism would have never emerged if not for the fertile ground of Western politics. Without answering the question of why the neoliberal order[14] is providing such a suitable climate for the emergence of autocracies we won’t be able to understand how to defeat them. ‘World leaders have hypocritically talked for years about a “pragmatic approach” and the benefits of international trade. In so doing, they enabled themselves to benefit from Russian oil and gas while Putin’s grip on power grew stronger. Considering sanctions, military and economic aid, this war will cost hundreds of times more than those lucrative oil and gas contracts, the signing of which used to be celebrated with champagne’.[15] The fact that Western policymakers were so vulnerable to the imperative of money meant that the Russian regime could buy political influence in the West that was unheard of by the local citizens.

The autocracies will learn their place only if ‘Putin’s long-standing cynical view that everyone in the West could be bought, and that commercial imperatives would always outweigh any moral or other concerns’[16] is frustrated. Russia and its fascist replicas will come crashing down only if the West forsakes its lucrative ways. Think about it, if the market logic was allowed to govern to its extreme, if we had nothing but profit considerations, the EU would have imposed sanctions on Ukraine and provided aid to Russia.

For too long society had been fractured by the strict Modern separation of private and public spheres—religion was cornered into a private sphere and the public square was being gradually subordinated to the ‘secular’ concerns like power and wealth. We had abstracted violence to the level of nation state, but when capitalist companies went global, they began to exercise an undue power on the state.
In brief, I see the the story in this terms: In the Modern Age, the nation state monopolised power, secured all the sovereignty from the feudal lords. This sovereignty then guised itself in king’s sacred right, in religious systems, in ideologies—in different kinds of political power.

However, this sovereignty of politics was gradually truncated. After the religious wars brought upon by the protestant reformation Westerners were so afraid that peaceful dialogue between warring worldviews is impossible, that we were only too ready to give up on dialogue altogether, surrender decision-making to the imperative of profit and surrendering sovereignty to the Leviathan of the nation-state. This was a way to peacefully arbitrate between seemingly incompatible interest groups while ensuring the prosperity of the commonwealth and thus benefiting them all.

However, a new problem appeared—after the Westerners secluded religion from politics, secular politics became possessed by various ideologies that mobilised popular support against the present order and created dictatorships, be it of the white race or of the proletariat, of ‘masters’ or of the ‘slaves’. After the war between ideologies culminated in the atrocity of the Second World War and postmodern thinkers decided to seclude ideology from politics—the public square became virtually free from any beliefs and ideas, from any moral judgements—the ‘end of history’ was the triumph of economy over politics. We have outsourced the painful arbitration of moral judgement to the market in hope that it will save us from outsourcing it to outright war.

Now, when politics was emancipated from ideas, from language, from the dictate of the best argument, all the sovereignty was usurped by the capital and rentiers by whom it lives. Now when politics becomes subservient to the conglomerates, an overlapping system of sovereignties has reinstated itself and we’ve came back to where we started—to feudalism, albeit to the one where the sovereigns are not the mightiest lords, but the richest capitalists. Whereas in the Pagan Age, politics no longer connected private will to the expansionist empire, in the Secular Age, politics no longer connects personal self-enrichment to the expanding capitalist conglomerates. We no longer have robust politics where moral judgements outweigh calculation of profit.

Today we see that if there is no place in politics for the articulation of people’s deepest desires into ideas, if the religion does not lend weight to moral judgements in the public square, does not reveal certain arguments as participating in the timeless truth, love, and beauty, then there is no way for the different ideas to meet in ‘good faith’. As a result, the reactionary inarticulate ideas win by default—primitive retranslation of passions is the surest way to mobilise attention and popular support. If religions and ideologies are not there all sovereignty ends up oscillating between capitalist conglomerates and nation states—two actors that are particularly inept at taking on the challenges of our trying times. And—like in Russia’s case—if the wrong people come to power, they will reduce politics to geopolitics and take on imperialist conquest.

Which also means that the West must come to terms with what its ‘political realism’ brought about. Fascists use the assumption that, at the end of the day, it is only power that shapes relations, and so they increase their power at the expense of human rights as ask for more and more concessions, more and more appeasements—all because we believe that these tyrants can define the security interests of their nations at will. To teach autocrats a lesson, we must escape our realist pessimism that relationships can only be defined by brute power or power mediated through money, through the market. The free world has to base its politics on moral judgement. And it seems that the only way to take down profit considerations from the pedestal of policymaking, to make sure that the moral judgements deliberated in the public square have the last word in determining domestic and foreign policy, to empower politics over against economics, to instil political language with religious authority, is to retrieve our faith in the authority of language.

If politics is practised naturally, if the language is not used for our expedient goals, i.e. if we neither lie nor manipulate, then language holds the potential to educate and guide society. This happens if for us the representation of the other is the end in itself, which also means that communication is the end in itself. After all, the speech as such is representation, an attempt to present what is there by other means—by new symbols.

3. THE POLITIK EDUCATION

Aid Ukraine. Yes. But it is a ‘yes-and’—we have to constrain escalation. As Thomas Merton wonderfully wrote, ‘If you face an enemy with the conviction that he understands nothing but force, you will yourself necessarily behave as if you understood nothing but force. And in fact it is highly probable that if you say he understands nothing but force, it is because you yourself are already in the same plight’.[17] It is true that we can defeat existing fascists only by revealing their weakness but what is more important is to make sure that fascists don’t emerge in the first place.

Our most effective weapon against tyranny is to create a world where there is no demand for it, to create a ‘listening society’ where people are given space and time to verbalise their feelings and desires into rational judgements, where they can express their will non-violently and non-tyrannically—politically and politely—so as to fulfil their duty of citizens by gifting their unique perspectives to the statecraft, equipping body politic with more ‘eyes’ to see reality. The body politic has a ‘head’ insofar as its citizens participate in representation—make themselves present to each other, calling each other by name and keeping each other in mind—thus empowering the authorities to act in their names.

Throughout this series of articles, I’ve been alluding to the difference between geopolitics and politics, between ‘reactionary’ and ‘renegotiatory’ governance, between siloviki and politiki. The difference comes down to an age-old question of whether the world is created through the ‘struggle’ or through the ‘word’. It is true that power relations are basic to any society, but it doesn’t mean that human response is essentially limited to counter-violence, to reaction. Conversation, expressing ourselves through words, allows us to renegotiate relations so as to make them more graceful, more subtle, less violent. This is why I would argue that the human world is created through the word—it allows us to legislate new contexts for our lives, new societies. The only alternative is the imprisonment within the struggle for Lebensraum. Aleksandr Dugin, a reactionary apologist of Russian imperial aggression, claims intellectual inheritance of the Eurasians who, decades prior to siloviki accomplishing it in practice, advocated for a theory of shedding the shell of communist ideology and fashioning Russia under the auspices of purely identitarian imperialism. Dugin once proposed to assess the success of statesmen by taking the modulo of land acquisition. This allowed him to come to a conclusion that Stalin’s reign was a success. But of course every part of Stalin’s territorial gain is some another nation’s loss[18] and a new casus belli. Dugin’s modulo curses us to sing along to the echoes of violence.

Hebrew scripture also presents an example of territorial acquisition, but of a totally different kind. The Jews were granted promised land only if they kept their promise of social justice, acted upon the laws that urged care for the poor, the weak, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The Jews saw their history as an escape from slavery through the process of self-legislation. Accordingly, Jews never boasted of their military might, saw their victories not as merited by their own power, but as totally undeserved gifts from God. Gifts received because they were lucky that their relationships were shaped by the laws that graced them with imagination, ingenuity, cooperativeness, reciprocity and mutual aid.

Law is the ground of peaceful coexistence, the result of people agreeing on the fairer rules of the game. For both ancient Jews and classical Greek philosophers laws were the steps on the ladder of spiritual development, the milestones of growth into humaneness. Having forsaken the classical faith in excess through infinite growth into increasingly lawful communities, into collectively and individually desired forms of life, the secular West has offered the vision of infinite economic growth as the excess at the basis of peaceful and lawful cooperation between nations. Now this dream has shown itself to be unsustainable. First, ours is a planet of finite resources. Second, the lawless nations, those who like to make the point that resources are scarce, will bully the lawful ones and cause the tragedy of the commons on the planetary scale. Third, since this economic vision is divorced from the concrete image of life which humans aspire to conduct, it is blind to the moral arguments which should constitute the core of healthy political discourse.
Hanzi Freinacht reimagines the vision of excess by offering an image of ‘democratisation politics’, of infinite growth into the ‘listening societies’[19] whose citizens are taught to articulate their will politically—to become participants of multi-layered self-legislation. I want to be clear here. By educating ourselves to be participants of political communication, of conversation where consensual and consequential choices with regard to how we should live are made, we teach ourselves to share in what is truly infinite—in language that, as we know at least from Chomsky, can go on forever and therefore can be shared by all.[20] The Jews had knew it all along, from their perspective, language is a non-zero-sum game that creates everything out of nothing (ex nihilo).[21] I think that this is the only excess on which the future international peace can be modelled. The context of our life, the planet, is finite, but we can tap into symbolic excess of the material world by talking of and with it: “giving nature a seat at the table”[22], inviting parts of the world into rational conversation and unlocking their inner logic, logoï (Greek for ‘words’). Humans can become interdependent parts of ecology only if they return to the language-game where they animate nature by giving it names and reanimate themselves by escaping the instrumental attitude that asks “What do I stand to gain from this or that part of nature?”

World understood as communication is a body of representations. Humanity within this world is a body of political representations, body politic. This is why, in Bulgakov’s view, for humans to settle into our natural niche is to engage in politics. That said, human representation can go wrong, can turn into conceit, can become arbitrary—doing less than justice to what it represents. For example, practices like science and contemplation do allow us to tap into this ‘talkativeness’ of nature, although science can too easily ‘colonise’ the material world in service of lucrative strategies—let nature ‘speak’ only so as to sell the power of its ‘speech’ for its market price (let alone all the animals tortured for the sake of empiricism); and contemplation can too easily become a strategy of individual spiritual progress juxtaposed against ‘lower-stage’ and ‘spiritually underdeveloped’ retards, yet another strategy of avoiding exchange of perspectives, mind-changing and heart-breaking encounter with the stranger.

Evil is the refusal to participate in representation, refusal to see my reflection in the other and the other’s reflection in me. It is the refusal to be a politician, to acknowledge that what I ultimately lack can never be conquered, but can only be graciously gifted by the other—that what I lack is cooperation and that to achieve it we need to negotiate, politely articulate what we want from each other. This refusal to negotiate comes from the illusion of self-sufficiency, our faith that our power will suffice.

If the world is communication, the person is the centre of the world, the intersection where all conversations intensify to the degree of becoming self-conscious, crystallising into identities—from most concrete to most abstract. This is why personal choice is reflected on all levels in a fractal fashion. Large social structures can be ‘more powerful’ than individual persons, but all their power rests on the fact that certain powers act upon what is expected of them within the conversations that constitute this identities—and there is always a chance, a possibility of a tempting choice, which every person must feel, to let the large structures eat shit (that is, be judged by the abstract principles that are even larger than them).

But of course there is also the possibility of the person’s mediocre choice of putting faith in the power of his or her own identity instead of putting faith in the interdependent network of representations. It is this choice that spirals evil into reality by artificially tearing the representational network into pieces, creating unnatural frontlines between nameless identities. Whereas political representation presupposes people acting in the name of one another, war is the opposite of politics because it is the contest of wills that dehumanises humans by reducing them to their wills—it ‘steals’ their names without which they can’t be recognized as particular persons in whose name their representatives can act. In the booklet on the honour of a Russian officer, one of the dictums reads: “I agree to live and die without a name”.[23] What it means is that their authorities can dispense with them in any way they see fit. This is why war is a rebellion against the law of the people and law of nature, law of life.

 Growth into increasingly intense communication, increasingly intricate and intimate conversations, allows people to articulate themselves to the extent of having their desires so well taken care of within the body politic that they can safely lend their names to it—let their representatives act in their name. This is what politics is. And this is why personal growth is inseparable from politics.

The late Soviet thinkers knew this and began to create the society based on the child-like pursuit of infinite transformation. Alas, their project was destroyed and surpassed by the regressive project of the KGB men. (The USSR was not a univocal thing, its history consisted of starkly different ideological projects). The Soviet educators argued that the education of complex communities requires coordination of paideia, classical education of citizens, interdependent participants of self-legislative communities, and Bildung, i.e. Romantic education of unique persons whose strangeness and idiosyncrasies are irreducible to their roles in the communities. This is a matter not of the exercise of will, but of being lured into traditions of shared speech, personal relationships that let our wills be disciplined by our highest desires.

The person who to his own later regret brought Putin to power in 1999 through a series of spin campaigns and electoral schemes, Sergei Pugachev, warned us that we should never interfere with God’s work through the institutes of democratic empowerment, however flawed they may be. There is hardly any system that demands more faith in humanity than democracy. But, as he says, regardless of our realist doubt with regard to people’s ability to choose, we must have this faith. We should not manipulate the processes of democratic empowerment. But what if we can make it more immune to manipulation? What if we can put the government at the service of educating communities of self-legislators?

Doing justice to the interaction of abstract systems takes abstract thinking and that takes time. It necessitates a kind of education that will allow people to partake in self-legislation of the increasingly abstract orders: family, company, city, nation, planet. Such education teaches us to attend to what is truly relevant, to see events as they stand in relation to the history of universal escape from slavery, the history of Exodus. The history of learning to make peace with the fact that what we lack can only be provided by the other—the history of outgrowing zero-sum gaming. This is the education of political freedom—freedom as “the process by which you develop the habit of being inaccessible to slavery”.[24] All of this is a painstaking curriculum, but we don’t invest in it at our peril. Law, not power, is what we must educate ourselves in.

Investment into the education of interdependent self-legislators is our only alternative to autocracy. Trump infamously said “I Love the Poorly Educated”[25]. The autocrats despise humanist education, because it helps people see through the spectacle of populism and geopolitics—to see through the people who say that “We have to gnaw out the piece of something we lack before rivals take it first—and we have to act now, time is ticking away, it’s simple, don’t think, do it now!” Thinking that was not allowed to take time is the thinking that falls victim to the manipulation by the powerful—they offer a few choices and scream “This one is the best choice and the other choice is awful—choose quickly!”.

It seems that at least one of the tasks of metamodern education would be to reconnect people to the terrains of ceremonial stillness in which they can be disciplined by the patterns of time, space, and quiet to outgrow their urge to have, compulsion to produce and consume, and be transfigured by the inexhaustible meaningfulness of their environment, that is, transfigured by grace. The strongmen dislike people who dare to think for themselves because it’s hard to turn them into inarticulate and unquestioning executives of vertical coercion. Their imagination won’t let them believe that social relations are limited to zero-sum struggle for lands and resources. Education helps see excess where the uneducated only see scarcity.

Conclusion

For Jürgen Habermas, the intellectual ‘godfather’ of the EU, representative democracy rests on faith in the ‘ideal speech situation’ in which speakers are able to represent each other truthfully. “Does it ever really happen?” This question is off the mark. The truth is that language itself operates like this—if I want to have a good conversation, if I want to be understood, I have to take your perspective, which means that if the conversation unfolds naturally, we inevitably go through sustained perspective taking and consequent reciprocal transformation. “Does it mean that we ever really exchange our names?” No, and why would we want to do that? This is not the education of the secret agents who pretend and steal different identities. We aim to be politicians who represent. Representation is a ‘dance’ between the extremes of saying “Oh you’re so different that I can’t possibly know what you want!” and stealing your name while saying “I know what you want better than you do!” It is the keeping of distance, neither staying so far away that you lose touch nor closing up upon the other so as to collapse into (totalitarian) identity—it is both the remembrance of boundaries and the conscious embrace of the transiency: I become present to you and open myself to your presence. We stay ourselves, but we learn from each other: I become a bit of a stranger to myself, and you become a little less of a stranger to me. At the end of the day, politics is a process of learning.

Today neoliberalism stifles representation because only the rich can buy the lobbyists and this reflects in the radicalisation of what is left of politics: people feel that their citizen efficacy had declined, that they’re not heard, and they begin to ‘scream’—they feel that it is only by arguing for outrageous policy that they can provoke society to listen to them. Look across the world and you’ll see how many people even today look up to Putin because he questions neoliberal order in the starkest manner. People are either radicalised and begin to ‘scream’ even louder, no longer listening to the others, or, if they’re decent people, they leave politics because they see it as something that corrupts their soul. Politics becomes impossible because representation becomes impossible and representation becomes impossible because conversation becomes impossible: money ‘speaks’ louder than words and popular will turns into unintelligible screaming. The principle of ‘might makes right’ has returned, albeit the might is now mediated through the market.

In Russia this dynamic between neoliberalism and a people shackled by ressentiment about voicelessness and infringed greatness was intensified by the advance of plebiscitary democracy—in which people’s democratic participation is limited to voting. This is the contrast towards which I’ve been building in this article: the contrast between representative democracy and plebiscitary democracy, between articulation and acclamation. If politics is reduced to voting, to plebiscite, to mere freedom of choice between options, then the quality of public debate which depends on articulation of observations and desires into facts and moral judgements, on the interplay of science and religion, is sabotaged. Acclamation (from Latin ‘to scream’) deafens argument, shared exploration of reality and its wealth of potentials—it only intensifies whatever people already believe in, makes popular opinion louder and more radical.

Since both the market mechanism and the popular will are inarticulate, they are possessed by passion, be it greed or envy—their task is the mobilisation that runs contrary to the interests (and prospects) of humane life. For both of these forces, the concrete vision of a form of life is not something that guides them—therefore they bring about the destruction of the context of human life—ecocide, genocide, culture-cide. Apart from the face-to-face converse where we call each other by the names, there can be no personal responsibility, no ‘lending’ of names to the representatives to act in our names.

Both arbitrary power and lobbying dissolve responsibility in various forms of contests, be it war or economic competition. We have to measure our policies by the form of life we dream to live—we have to ensure that representatives and the represented are conjoined by communication—so that the desires are given time, silence, and imaginative space to be dreamed of, articulated, and put at the centre of politics.

We’ll know that we have restored natural politics when we’ll see both money and the popular opinion ‘silenced’ by the practice of argument. This will be the politik revolution—our only chance to halt the rise of the ‘strongmen statecraft’ that nowadays fills the vacuum between lucrative neoliberalism and its resentful reflection: a fascist identitarianism that reacts against the individualism of neoliberal order. Ukraine—fixated and asphyxiated in the midair between Western neoliberalism and Russian fascism—is a symbolic image of this chasm. To aid Ukraine and to aid democracy at large, we need to think in two regimes at once, we have to addresses both the dictate of money and the dictate of might.

 

 

NOTES

 

[1] Father of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was one of the leaders of Constitutional-Democratic Party or, in the vernacular, “cadets” (Rus. kadety).

[2] Shura Burtin. (2022). Feeling around for something human. Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Meduza. Link: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/03/feeling-around-for-something-human .

[3] Vlad Vexler. Putin’s Fascist Revolution from Above. March 22, 2022. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGcTgnM8Fas.

[4] In reality, tradition depends on democracy because it is the democracy that enables graceful succession of power and continuity of generations, a lineage of shared decision-making of which the Russian government, so fond of stressing their conservatism, is completely deprived of. Their worship of power makes peaceful transfer of power, peaceful succession, impossible — for how can they give up something that has supreme preciousness? After a certain point they made certain decisions that are so arbitrary that they would not be able to explain them in the courtroom, would not be able to withstand the trial by politics. When a private person strives to preserve power by all means necessary, the fabric of time becomes fractured and the next generation will have to develop the tradition of statecraft from the clean slate.

[5] W. H. Auden. (1952). The Shield of Achilles.

[6] Sergei Pugachev in the interview with Dmitry Gordon. Link: https://youtu.be/-KEctm1H49I

[7] Nathan Hodge. (2022). Restoration of the empire is the endgame for Russia’s Vladimir Putin. CNN. Link: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/10/europe/russia-putin-empire-restoration-endgame-intl-cmd/index.html

[8] T. S. Eliot. Gerontion.

[9] “False news travels 6 times faster on Twitter than truthful news”. Link: https://www.pbs.org › newshour › science › false-news-…

[10] Even though Russia is the biggest country in the world by a long shot.

[11] John Vervaeke paraphrasing Nietzsche.

[12] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion

[13] Hanzi Freinacht. (2019). Nordic Ideology. Metamodern Guide to Politics Part 2. Metamoderna Press. Wroclaw.

[14] A ‘feudal capitalism’ in which the rich secure a monopoly on political power — thus stifling the innovation by which the original capitalism was able to contribute to the common good.

[15] Alexei Navalny. (2022). Vladimir Putin in ‘100 most influential people in 2022’. Link: https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2022/6177689/vladimir-putin-leaders/?fbclid=IwAR2WAJvnFq0O_jw2cRwP00gHFdUINrzzpqp2vwOIlUNKB6j5ThvPSOBkPdg

[16] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 285.

[17] Thomas Merton. (1968). War And The Crisis Of Language. The draft of this article was written by Merton in 1968. It was not published till after his death: in 1969 as an essay in The Critique of War: Contemporary Philosophical Explorations, edited by Robert Ginsberg (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company).

[18] Let alone the extent of internal colonisation during Stalin’s reign.

[19]Hanzi Freinacht. 2016. The Listening Society. Link: https://www.amazon.com/Listening-Society-Metamodern-Politics-Guides/dp/8799973901/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1P50I4O836454&keywords=Listening+Society&qid=1652979533&sprefix=listening+society%2Caps%2C166&sr=8-1

[20] Chomsky often referred to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s phrase that language is ‘the infinite use of finite means’. Irvine’s (2016) definition of the discrete infinity of language has to do with the unlimited productivity, ability to produce a potentially infinite number of correct sentences from the finite means.

[21] See Genesis 1 and John 1.

[22] John Vervaeke’s phrase.

[23] Link: https://twitter.com/christogrozev/status/1500728148996018176

[24]Alla Gutnikova. (2022). Speech in the Court. Link: https://www.thevoiceofrussia.org/ru/alla-gutnikovas-court-speech-ru/

[25] Donald Trump. 24 February 2016. Speech in Nevada. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpdt7omPoa0

Strongmen Destroyed, part 2: The Names of Evil

Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.

He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.

1. THE FASCISM OF GEOPOLITICS

The Fascism of Realism: Abstraction of Violence

Vladimir Nabokov spent the 1930s in Germany. His 1936 story Tyrants Destroyed distils the essence of the Nazi regime by revealing the link between obsession with willpower and obsession with land. He describes the fictional ruler who gnaws his way into power thanks to ‘that deaf, focused, gloomy, and deeply self-conscious will, which in the end moulds a triumphant monster out of a mediocre man’[1]. The ruler has a myopic belief that willpower alone is enough to break and refashion the fabric of social and material reality as one sees fit, at one point he suffers from toothache and he promises to ‘overcome his teeth’ by sheer exercise of will. But what’s interesting is this: this ruler is obsessed with farming. At one point he awards an old lady with the highest state honour for victory in the contest of growing the largest pumpkin. He even introduces an ‘agricultural hymn’ as the national anthem. Why does Nabokov connect worship of willpower with—of all things—farming? The reason is simple. There is a tight correlation between agricultural success and hardwork that goes into the cultivation of land which indulges our illusion that “we reap what we sow”, that teaches us to think that our success is of our own making, that we are self-made and self-sufficient, while teaching us to forget the ecology of loves, cultures, and material environments, that precedes and creates us. Before farming emerged, hunter-gatherers humbly relied on the gifts from wild nature. Farming taught us to see nature as a passive instrument of our will. Farming taught us to think that possession of land is merited by all the hardwork they’ve put into it. We turned wilderness into pasture or arable land and wild animals into livestock or workers to graze or plough the land. We colonised patches of wild nature—wild plants and wild animals—were enslaved as property of the humans. Once our environment was privatised by various individuals, everyone became afraid that he’ll be left without resources that began to seem very scarce, and started trying to secure some of the resources for himself. People began to protect their property from rival claimants by any means necessary. The war for scarce resources, geopolitical struggle for Lebensraum (Ger. ‘Living space’), began to escalate out of anyone’s control—to the extent of people beginning to enslave other people and create unnatural societies based on slavery as model of relationships. These unnatural societies are the product of the feedback between the tyrant and the popular will. Because, in absence of politics, popular will cannot be articulated past ‘the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion’, natural desires and appetites mutate into passions, and since the passions arise from competition, the ruler has no choice but to appease them by imprisoning himself within the geopolitical logic of a zero-sum-struggle for scarce land against threatening foreign rivals. This is why Nabokov’s fictional ruler uses a fortified prison as his palace—‘this tyrant calls himself a prisoner of people’s will’.[2] Why does geopolitics resemble a prison?

In his 1937 novel Gift, Nabokov describes geopolitical thinking as a ‘clichéd’ and ‘trivial’[3]: ‘the world Shchyogolev created came out as some kind of collection of limited, humorless, faceless and abstract bullies, and the more brains, cunning and circumspection he found in their mutual activities the more stupid, vulgar and simple his world became’… ‘France was afraid of something or other and therefore would never allow it. England was aiming at something…’[4]. Nabokov was able to see how the geopolitical presumption of a zero-sum struggle for scarce Lebensraum as the ultimate context of all human affairs turns us into ‘bullies’ by locking our imagination into a scarcity mindset, a mindset that provides us with a seemingly ‘realist’ excuse for violence against all sorts of threatening others: ‘There is no avoiding war: it can only be postponed to the advantage of others’.[5]

But what if there is a way to avoid war? In his memoir Speak, Memory!, Nabokov discards the idea that the world is a creation of the struggle for scarce resources because it teaches humans to live an inhumane form of life: ‘Struggle for life” indeed! The curse of battle and toil leads man back to the boar, to the grunting beast’s crazy obsession with the search for food’.[6] Nabokov countered it with a different outlook, the ‘excess mindset’, that restores the primordial understanding that life ultimately is an undeserved gift by insisting that we are spoken into existence. It is the inability to see life as the gift of language is what makes the geopolitical lens vulgar and clichéd, makes it astoundingly unimaginative and uncreative. Geopolitics narrows our attention on securing our domination, our free will to do what we choose with the passive stuff like land before our rivals take it from us, but distracts our attention from our freedom to create laws under which we can intensify our cooperative responsiveness to the gifts that land has to offer. The geopolitical outlook is uncreative because it locks people out of legislative conversations in which new social worlds are created—it distracts our attention from imagining new vistas of creativity that tap into new vistas of excess. And since we can avoid war only if we have faith in the excess in which we all can partake, the geopolitical lens gives us a hard time imagining a possibility of lasting peace. It leads to a life where people fight for their share in what is already there, to a life that is essentially just a living out of a cliché, life that partakes in only one kind of excess—the spiral of violent revenge.

“Tolstoy said that patriotism is the last refuge of villains. Today, in my view, we should replace ‘patriotism’ with ‘geopolitics’”[7]. So says Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who sold his medal for $104 million (true story) and donated the money to the Ukrainian children refugees. Geopolitics is the only meta-narrative that tyrants allow to propagate because it diverts national attention from domestic problems to foreign affairs. Leaders adjust propaganda’s lenses to geopolitics when there is no democratic support for what they’re doing. I want to be precise in what I mean when I say ‘no democratic support’. It is not the approval ratings or plebiscitary acclamation. During his whole reign Putin relied on genuine popular support, of which the polls and election results are proof, but never allowed people to develop their opinions. People could check boxes on multiple choice questionnaires, but with such an inarticulate expression of will, passions remain easily manipulated with the propaganda toolkit. This I believe is the warning of where not to tread that recent Russian history ought to teach us: Democracy is more than listening to the people’s opinion, it depends on educating people into those whom Shalamov described as politiki, into citizens who can verbalise their will to the extent of genuinely shaping decisions that legislate the context of their lives, articulating themselves to the degree where policy undertaken in their names genuinely reflects their will—not just choosing between options, but shaping which options are available. Democracy, in essence, is communal self-examination—thinking in public, persistently asking “What do we truly want?”, “Is this how we would really love to live?’ and persistently making authorities answer to it. Statecraft is to be examined and judged in light of the forms of life that are desired by the people. The unexamined society is not worth living in because the absence of communal self-examination leads to dictatorship.

Geopolitics is precisely what allows communities to avoid self-examination. Geopolitics permits us to not pay attention to the actual forms of life. It allows people to stay within the ‘echo chamber’ of certainty and never be disarmed by confrontations with the apparent facts on the surface of the world. Notice how today’s Russian official war apologists distract people’s attention from both the ‘facts on the ground’ and ‘gut feelings’ by using a geopolitical lens that narrows attention to issues of territory, one resource of zero-sum nature: ‘Russia’s main interest in this war is neither cities nor people, but the land’, pushing Russian borders farther from Moscow, so as to secure total invulnerability of Putin’s regime. Putin does not want Kharkiv, my home city, but he repeatedly stressed that he would not tolerate the risk of having foreign nuclear warheads within a 7 minute reach of Moscow. ‘Russia doesn’t need Mariupol. Russia needs another supply corridor to Crimea. Russia doesn’t need Odessa. Russia needs another sea outlet’[8]. War apologists implore us to “take the geopolitical situation into account and see that Russia was left with no choice but to react to the encroachment of foreign powers on its sacrosanct sphere of influence!”. By making it seem that Russia was totally bereft of all negotiatory faculties, totally reactive, talk of geopolitical necessity permits decision-makers to shed all responsibility.

In this regard, John Mearsheimer and other acolytes of the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy are in fact idealists. It is just that their ideal is grim: humanity stuck at the impasse of imperial power struggle. They think that the emphasis on the self-legislative rights of all nations is just moral posturing, a distant echo of what the ideal world should be. But one may just as well argue that it is the ‘realists’ who are out of touch with the reality of progress towards international relations that are less defined by power struggle and more by creative cooperation. For example, they are out of touch with the anti-colonial resolve of Ukrainians, with the fact that people who defend their freedom will always shatter the neat predictions of military analysts upon which the ‘maps’ of the balance between great powers are drawn. And since “when we make peace with the idea that ‘might makes right’ we only help the mighty”[9], the ‘realists’ only help imperialists like Putin. From their perspective, it doesn’t matter what Ukrainians self-legislate. The floor has to be given to the interests of great powers. It does not bother them that these security interests are often dictated by dictators. In one of his prison letters, Navalny says that, in the long run, any nation’s security interest, including Russia’s, is to be a democracy. For a very simple reason—democracies actually don’t go to war with each other, democracies don’t pose a threat to each other’s security because it is in no people’s natural desire to go to war. Sadly, from the ‘realist’ perspective, Navalny’s voice does not count because he is just a political prisoner—he’s not in power.

We shouldn’t let Putin define Russia’s security interests because the only interest of his regime is to stop democracy. “What threatened Putin was not NATO expansion, but the democracy expansion”[10]. We have to understand that long before the talk of ‘national interests’ and ‘spheres of influence’ we’ve already walked the walk of appeasing the people who can’t let go of their power and use the talk of ‘national interest’ as a guarantee of their personal security—which for them means forever staying in power. Putinverstehers perpetuate the idea of Russian innocence because it was left without a choice—but to accept this is to let every tyrant justify violence with the mythology of national interest: ‘the Russian foreign ministry claiming Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory steps” if Finland joins NATO’. No, it will not be “forced”, in the same way that Russia was not “forced” to attack Ukraine. This decision appears “forced” only if one accepts the whole set of ideological and geopolitical assumptions that sustain Russian politics’[11].

But for the ‘realist’ there is no difference between democracy and autocracy. The ‘realist’ equivocates all ‘great powers’ and then asks us to listen to every last one of them. At the end of the day, it is a recipe for the appeasement and subservience to the bullies, for an international order based on balance of power between the strongest empires. Putin wants to build an international order like this—where strong states do things at will but disguise it by the sacred ‘security interests’ which they define according to their caprice. He had established the new axis of autocracy[12] that includes India’s Modi, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, China’s Xi, and infiltrates even well into NATO and Turkey. This is why ‘realism’ plays into the hands of imperial ambitions. Putin points to the double standards of Western policy when it falls short of its espoused ideals, but Putin wants an order where there will be no ideals to fall short of, a world without hypocrisy. Yet today we must learn to think of hypocrisy as a good thing because the world where hypocrisy is impossible is a very dark place. “Yes, the liberal west is hypocritical, applying its high standards very selectively. But hypocrisy means you violate the standards you proclaim, and in this way you open yourself up to inherent criticism – when we criticise the liberal west, we use its own standards. What Russia is offering is a world without hypocrisy – because it is without global ethical standards, practising just pragmatic “respect” for differences. We have seen clearly what this means when, after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, they instantly made a deal with China. China accepts the new Afghanistan while the Taliban will ignore what China is doing to Uyghurs – this is, in nuce, the new globalisation advocated by Russia. And the only way to defend what is worth saving in our liberal tradition is to ruthlessly insist on its universality”.[13]

The problem is not power itself, but its arbitrary exercise. The West’s ‘sphere of influence’ is postcolonial (rather than simply ‘colonial’) because it is not imposed at will—in contrast to the fundamental disregard to human rights and life by the autocratic regimes, the West presents a form of life that people aspire to emulate, providing the individual with a space, time and silence for growth: be it Swedish spacious public spaces, German observance of recreation on Sunday, or Swiss laws of silence, be it the flamboyance of ‘American dream’ or the normcore of ‘Nordic minimalism’. This is why many nations voluntarily choose to be integrated into the West. This self-determination principle, inscribed into international law, is what is being threatened by Russia’s recent transgressions. If the international law does not function properly, empires (nations that have problem with recognising their borders) will simply impose their will on the weaker nations because empires don’t recognise them as subjects of politics. But if all nations are given voice, there is a chance of creating legislative communication on the planetary level and then abstracting violence to that level.

Can we break the sovereignty of strong states just like in the past we broke the sovereignty of strong individuals? In the past, we managed to abstract violence to the level of the state—to the legislative communication between citizens—and from that level to enforce it onto the lawbreakers. We abstracted violence to polity, allowed the police to apportion violence onto the brutes, bandits and bullies—and called it justice. We said to them—“You cannot act with impunity, you have to attune your conduct to the laws that are conducive to the common good”. And now wherever, say, domestic abuse takes place, police can intervene and punish the abuser. The household is not a sovereign order unto itself with the man as a sole dictator of moral judgements, the local arbiter of good and evil. The human rights legislation does not recognise the right of the strong to impede on the liberty of the weak.

However, having abstracted sovereignty to the level of the state, we must not stop there. Today, when bandits and bullies come to power in the state, they use the image of foreign threat to usurp power forever—to take on the colonial expansion and incite the police against their political enemies whom they target as foreign agents—and to market all of this as defence of sovereignty. Today we are gradually degrading into the state of international relations where the sovereignty of stronger states allows them to impede on the freedom of weaker ones and justify it by the talk of ‘national interests’. If powerful enough, nation states are allowed to act arbitrarily. We have confined thieves and thugs to the prisons, but fail to deal with the thieves and thugs who come to power and weaponise the state to bully and steal.

Today, to abstract sovereignty above the level of nation states, we have to stand up for the sovereignty of all countries, their right to self-legislate. First, consider Ukraine—the only nation that agreed to give up the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear warheads and that, because of it, is now painfully aware of its reliance on the family of interdependent nations. Second, consider Russia—the nation whose unrivalled nuclear capacities allow it to be the vanguard of contemporary neo-colonialism.

Putin sees dominance as the only legitimate model of personal and international relations: “In order to claim some kind of leadership—I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any area—any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure their sovereignty… There is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called”.[14] In Putin’s view, there are two categories of state: The sovereign and the conquered, and Ukraine should fall into the latter category. ‘Russia’s strategic plan is to profit from global warming: control the world’s main transport route, plus develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream’.[15]

The reason Putin’s imperial ambition ‘should be unconditionally rejected is that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes, we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation’[16]. Putin’s neo-colonial obsession with strength and weakness is out of place in the twenty-first century where the strong and the weak are equally interdependent in the face of global challenges.

Perhaps there was a way to prevent Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine—a bilateral ‘divide-and-rule’ meeting between the US and Russia. This is what Putin wanted all along since he took office in 2000. It would have saved Ukraine from the insufferable toll of pain and death, but it would have reshaped international architecture in a manner that would have made planetary cooperation all but impossible. As things stand now, the resolve of the Ukrainians to self-sacrifice for the sake of anticolonialism—the right of a nation to self-legislate—has reanimated the ideal of the international community in which every country is endowed with the dignity of an inter-independent (independent and interdependent) self-legislator.

Today, the true Russian patriots must support Ukraine because Ukraine is the key to saving Russia from suicidal imperialism. Zbigniew Brzezinski repeatedly claimed that Russia could only part ways with its imperial habits if it were willing to surrender its claims to Ukraine: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire”[17]. By limiting our attention to the struggle for imperial ‘spheres of influence’, geopolitics distracts us from the history of outgrowing zero-sum relationships. Geopolitics is a reductive perspective that does little justice to the long history of breaking zero-sum dilemmas. Democratic politics frees us from this zero-sum optic and allows us to renegotiate our relations with our rivals so as to become collaborators who find ways in which our environment is actually not so passive and who can hence share in the excess it has to offer more intensely.

To not see the difference between democracy and autocracy is fail to see social development over the axis of time. This is why ‘realism’ is a clichéd worldview—it attends only to the present status quo; it is interested in making great powers avoid war, but does not attend to the growth into such international relations in which every nation can pursue the policy under conditions of freedom and sovereignty. ‘Realist’ concern for preserving status quo so as to avoid escalation by not provoking the unnecessary violent reaction from the powerful is important, but it has to be incorporated within the wider history of growth into relations where brute force does not have the last word. Since democracy presumes the exchange of critical perspectives, the painful process of acknowledging errors, it poses a unique threat to the dictators—people whose authority is based on the myth that they don’t make mistakes. The acknowledgement of errors is exactly what the tyrants cannot stomach because to do so is to show weakness, and, in the strongman’s ‘system of coordinates’, weakness is precisely what shouldn’t be shown. “The weak”, as Putin is keen on reminding us, “are beaten”.

The Fascism of Putinism: The Failure of Definition

The insistence on the primacy of division into the strong and the weak, masters and slaves, is the essence of fascism. Russian officials often point fingers at Ukrainian neo-pagan neo-Nazis, but what makes you a Nazi is not the surface insignia, but the worship of will (at the expense of morality and truth, as discussed in the first essay).

Granted, Putin’s Russia does not have an explicit theory of the supremacy of the white or Russian race, but its exceptionalism is based on an arguably even more dangerous premise—the memory of shared suffering. Not of the kind that says “Never again!”, but of the kind that seeks vengeance and says “We can repeat it!”. Russians simultaneously believe in their absolute innocence because they have been victimised and in their absolute power because they have been victorious. This blend of innocence and omnipotence makes for a very poisonous compound—it has led Russians to cling to their identity in a very uncritical way, to a fundamentally fascist stance of ‘us-theming’ and ‘othering’ all that is strange—no matter if it is a swastika or a rainbow flag. “This kind of reception of the cross [of victimhood and victoriousness] becomes little more than a somewhat magnifying mirror of my condition—and a mirror also for my self-approval, my defining of a secure and righteous position over against the other. Self-pity, leafing into the pleasure of knowing the impregnable moral armour of innocence: this is indeed how the cross can be made the ego’s servant”[18].

If society is a political conversation, then the political purges of the 1930s broke Russian society. And when there appeared a chance to go through a therapy through the means of a renewed political conversation, the above-mentioned fusion of fantasies about innocence and omnipotence expiated Russia from the necessity of coming to terms with the traumas of its past, from the necessity to take responsibility for the errors of the political lineage in the wake of which Russians received their newfound freedom. Inability to name the evil that was visited upon them in the 20th century led to inability to notice the same evil perpetrated in their name, to take responsibility for the Great Terror, which in its own turn led Russians to repeat it anew.[19] Russians turned their past into a weapon because they were not able to (literally) come to terms with it—to define it correctly.

Plato strongly emphasised the importance of the search for correct definitions. He believed that the practice of definition keeps statecraft in touch with reality. Correct definitions allow people to let language govern their lives, that is, to create laws that are conducive to the common good because they are written from the perspective of society as a whole (remember that Aristotle called society koinonia, which simply means communication). In contrast to this, when people use definitions that are expedient to them, language becomes the instrument of private will, one more tool of coercion. In the Soviet Union, the right to define was in the hands of the authorities, who reduced the definition of fascism to the primitive geopolitical practice of ‘us-them-ing’. Not able to define the fascism they faced in the 20th century, Russians were left without a working definition of what brought them so much suffering, of the evil they saw with their own eyes. And it meant that the authorities had an extremely powerful and cynical tool for psychological coercion—they could mobilise the populace by exploiting the shared trauma of wartime terror.

‘Soviet anti-fascism… was a politics of us and them. That is no way to define fascism. After all, fascist politics began, as the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt said, from the definition of an enemy. Because Soviet anti-fascism just meant defining an enemy, it offered fascism a backdoor through which to return to Russia. In the Russia of the 21st century, “anti-fascism” simply became the right of a Russian leader to define national enemies’[20].

The failure to define fascism made Russians miss the warning of Matthew 5:39, ‘resist not evil’: having defined themselves in primitive opposition to fascism, Russians did not grow beyond the essence of fascist zero-summism. This is how evil perpetuates itself: you “look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye”[21] and then you base your identity on being its adversary, you invert the flavour, but preserve the substance. Russians talked at length about fighting fascism only to themselves become fascists. This is not rare. Today, Republicans justify gun ownership by saying that they are afraid of tyranny, while it is their party that holds conventions in the viciously illiberal Hungary of Victor Orban. By focusing on (perhaps real) problems in our opponents, we become mere reactionary copies of what we were supposed to fight against, we turn ourselves into what frightens us in our enemy. The optics of ‘us-them-ing’ is what makes fascism evil. It is not just that this optics is evil; the evil is this optics. Evil is the vision that sees evil everywhere.

Russians en masse never reckoned with similarities between German Nazism and their own Bolshevik crimes—if there was such reckoning, they would have recognised themselves reflected in fascism as if it was a mirror. But reflecting and thinking are incommensurate with the fascist exaltation of willing.

Real thinking is nothing less than love because it requires letting the other be other, letting the other evolve in accord with her very own nature. It is the search for the correct definitions through the critical exchange of perspectives, letting the other define and name herself instead of imposing my definitions on her. It presupposes the mind-bending and heart-breaking process of coming to terms with the strangeness of reality, its otherness in relation to my beliefs and hopes, acknowledgement of errors and persistent work of repentance. Willing, on the other hand, is all about having enough power to impose my arbitrary choices on the other. ‘Fascists calling other people “fascists” is fascism taken to its logical extreme as a cult of unreason. It is a final point where hate speech inverts reality and propaganda is just pure insistence. It is the apogee of will over thought. Calling others fascists is the essential Putinist practice’[22].

Russia began to espouse the primacy of the will on the international scale. The only ‘others’ which Russia condescends to speak with are the powerful actors on the world stage: US and China, Germany and India, those on whom it is not so easy to impose will. Russians wanted these powers to divide the world into their respective ‘spheres of influence’ so as to secure one piece of the ‘pie’ for Russia according to her merit as a military and monetary force. Because it presupposes that the countries that constitute this partitioned ‘pie’, ‘those on whom the will is imposed’, are devoid of wills of their own, geopolitics does not leave any room for democracy. To promote this geopolitical logic Russia was inseminating populist sentiments all around the globe—so that the ‘master’ nations could not help but to carve the world map into imperial ‘spheres of influence’ over the ‘slave’ nations, over the passive land and people who are unlucky enough to dwell there. It was an offer to re-colonise the world.

And this is where the fluid definition of fascism came in handy—the fascists were able to distract everyone from their fascism by pretending to be profoundly anti-fascist. And whom did they label as fascist? Behold a comical acrobatic stunt: the fascists were now those smaller nations that refused to bow down to the ‘strong’. The Russian definition of fascism itself became fascist. That is, arbitrary in the sense that those who decide, the arbiters, are the powerful. The powerful states simply designate their enemies as fascist. And the worst fascists are the weak states that dare to pursue independent policies, to self-legislate, to profess democracy. The Kremlin hated countries like Ukraine the most because their freedom puts the order based on violence in question, because their democracy renders violence obsolete and meaningless. And there you have it: “Ukrainian fascists!”

The Fascism of Paganism

The book that had a formative impact on the key ideologue of Putin’s war on Ukraine was the 1928 Pagan Imperialism by Julius Evola[23]. I am of the strong opinion that not enough is made of the deep link between fascism and paganism. Why do the fascists have this pervasive adoration of heathen symbolism, of polytheist power-gods? Because paganism was the first worldview that presented power as the highest ideal. Heathens, be it Greeks, Nordics, or Slavs, had many gods who all somehow personified various crafts and skills which empower people to impose their will—but at the top of the hierarchy of gods, which is the same thing as the hierarchy of values, was always the god of war, wrath, and will, god who personified sheer dominance by throwing arbitrary thunderbolts—be it Zeus, Wotan, or Perun.

Earlier in this essay I described the silovik ethos by using the chronological sequence of ‘hiding’, ‘lying’ and ‘killing’ that led people to fall into paganism. If we’ll see that ‘hiding’, ‘lying’ and ‘killing’ have indeed become the core of Russian policy, one may in a sense argue that Russia has become paganised.

Siloviki turned hiding into secrecy. You will recall that the thing Putin and his siloviki detest most is the democratic idea of personal agency, the idea that ‘ordinary’ citizens can be subjects of politics, of the process where people can face each other and renegotiate the laws by which they live. The siloviki realised that they had to distract social attention from genuine politics because genuine politics would have instantly turned the country against their thiefdom. The way to do this was to divert all attention from the political discourse on the desired forms of life to the geopolitical drama of imperial struggle. Geopolitical mythology proved to be very useful because it provided siloviki with a rationale to declare discussion of discrepancies between desired and actual forms of life in Russia a treasonous activity of foreign agents who have to be silenced.

To be contrasted by the form of life people dream of living is the tyrant’s worst nightmare. This is why Navalny was poisoned, imprisoned, and silenced (Navalny jokes that authorities had put him into an aquarium so as to muffle his voice). At the same time, Russians, entranced by the mythos of geopolitics, began to see the world as the place of secrets and conspiracies, the place where political debate means and leads to nothing, but only prevents ‘us’ from ‘winning’, where debate only destabilises the state machinery behind which all must rally.

In this political reality, the Russian people is a formless mass, passive but impassioned on demand, “alternating between passion and passivity”[24], locked into a gridlock of consumerism: passionate regarding their private choices between options predetermined by the government, but too passive to articulate a sustained any critique of governance.

In Putin’s Russia policymaking is concealed from the people. Decisions are made in secret and then presented for the plebiscitary acclamation. “Time and again Putin has publicly demonstrated that he in principle does not understand what a discussion is. Especially a political discussion—there should be no discussion between the lower rank and the upper echelon. And if the subordinate dares to question things, then he is an enemy”[25]. Gryzlov, Putin’s first parliament speaker infamously said in 2003 that “parliament is not the place for discussions”. “Independent information, available online from a dwindling number of sources, is impossible to find without an unaffordable outlay of time, energy and know-how”[26]. The only information ‘within walking distance’ is ushered by the TV propagandists whose very tone and manner of speech indicate disregard for the natural exchange of questions and replies. Their certainty comes from their belief there is no truth except that which is expedient to the powerful. And this leads to lying.

Siloviki turned lying into a kind of rape of language. It is not that Russian propaganda presents an alternative picture of reality, the peculiarly incoherent worldview it offers is but a by-product of its much more sinister main task—to deny that there can be any coherent picture of reality at all. Gideon Rachman describes how, upon visiting Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov in 2008, he noticed on Peskov’s screen the mantra from Orwell’s 1984: “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”. Rachman assumes that Peskov was poking fun at him and other journalists, but I suggest that Peskov was also educating himself on the postmodern regime of post-truth, one which the Russian regime would prove itself most adept at navigating in the years to come.

Postmodern sleights of hand allows Putin’s regime to slip out of democratic control. When logical consistency of language is no longer an aspiration, when it becomes a mere tool which the powerful be stupid not to use to his benefit, when language itself is made impotent and reduced to an instrument of power, everyone loses power except those who are already in power. Because of the ennui from politics, many Russians gladly accepted a truncated zone of private responsibility, say, in matters of financial success. Their citizen efficacy dwindled because they couldn’t see connection between personal experience and governance—propaganda instilled them with the sense that in the world run by secret conspiracies there is no truth available for inspection by the citizens. The authorities no longer have to yield to what is correct and factual, they don’t even have to try to pay respect to the coherence of their lies. They just have to fill the public discourse with noise to the effect of making people believe that “All is not so straightforward!” “We’ll never know the whole truth!” “If the President made this decision, there must have been a reason for it!” “The owls are not what they seem!”

Russia also uses this postmodern cynicism to justify its imperial aspirations. If there is nothing except attempts at power grab and any rhetoric is a veneer for that, it is appropriate for Russia to react against the encroachment on its fictional ‘sphere of influence’—she’s left no other choice. If all perspectives are just someone’s power grab, then other perspectives don’t have transcendent supremacy over ours. There is no way to adjudicate different perspectives. Which is why there is no purpose in arguing, dialogue, even politics as such. Whereas the ‘politics of correct definition’ unleashed the true meaning of words to govern the polity, freed the power of language to shape decision-making, today’s Russian propaganda insists that there be no correct correspondence to reality at all, that language is inherently impotent to do justice to reality. [27] Which means that if we have a controversy with regard to our perspectives, it is of no import how sound our arguments are, all that matters is whether we walk the walk of backing our talk with the one argument ‘to rule them all’—the argument of brute force.

Since authorities no longer yielded to what is true, no longer cared of whether what they say resembles reality, they were able to argue anything they wanted with the help of circular reasoning: “We’ve begun the war so that war doesn’t begin!” “We attacked you so that you don’t attack us!” Circular definition that comes to the opposite of the natural meaning of the word is what I call the ‘rape of language’, it is the anti-definition. In today’s Russia, words are not what they mean. War is not war. You go to jail for seven years if you think otherwise [Link: https://theins.ru/en/news/252983].

In this way any action could be defended by a simple paranoiac explanation that “if we didn’t do it, it would have been done to us”.

It was a country-wide inception of the Machiavellian principle which Putin describes as his main takeaway from childhood on the streets of Leningrad: “If it looks like the fight is coming, make sure to strike first!” And this leads to killing.

Siloviki turned killing into a cult of death. When Putin became president, Pugachev, the choreographer of his enthronement, told him to choose the place for his burial—so that Putin will know that his mortal fate is connected to the fate of the land and Pugachev will know that this land to be in the right hands. But Putin was afraid to think of death. For him, he said, “life has just begun”. One may suspect that this refusal to come to terms with one’s vulnerability, to remember death as the guarantee that one’s identity is not everlasting, returns as an obsession with the idea of inflicting death on others, with the power to kill.

Long before the invasion, Putin had centred Russian ideology around the cult of war. He has turned previously solemn remembrance of the price paid for victory over fascism on May 9th into a celebration of military might, the spectacular display of Russians as quintessentially heroic—long suffering but victorious. Special because of their unsurpassed ability to kill.

I challenge you to watch some of the parades Putin had put together in celebration of the Victory Day—these are the clearest contemporary examples of the worship of your own might which prophet Habakkuk identified with pagans, “guilty people, whose own strength is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11). By offering war as a glue for national identity and territorial conquest as a model of growth, Putin effectively forced Russia to linger in its cultural growth, to be stuck at a lower stage of development. Think of why we can easily imagine a very popular or academically successful highschooler becoming a very unsuccessful adult. Whereas the ‘losers’ among highschoolers will gladly learn to play by the different rules and will become successful in a new kind of game, why would the ‘winners’ give up on a game in which they were so successful? Why would a popular teenager give up on bullying, telling greasy jokes, and acting upon notions of shame, honour, strength, and instead focus on becoming a responsible participant in the boring routine of adult relationships? Why would a diligent pupil leave the comfort zone of cramming and instead engage in more creative and subversive ways of getting things done? In a way not so dissimilar to these examples, spectacular victory in the Second World War and a miserable defeat in economic competition in the time of peace, has led Russians to ask themselves a question: “If we were so good in the game of war—why should we quit playing it?”

Russia has a cult of the dead. In recent years, the parades were complimented by the marches of the so-called ‘immortal regiment’ whose participants carry pictures of relatives or friends who fought during the Second World War with the aim of venerating and ‘immortalising’ the memory of the veterans. It is as if Russia is a Valhalla that hosts the souls of brave soldiers. In recent years, the state TV has been filled with seemingly joyous talk of the final annihilation, reduction of the world to ashes. This is the Pagan idea of Ragnarök, the final battle and the triumph of death. One of its most colourful displays are Russian Orthodox priests blessing a nuclear missile called ‘Satan’ (a symbolism that has precedent, of course, in North Korea). Satanism, in this sense, is not some group of human rights and social justice activists playing with the imagery of the devil (I’m thinking of the Satanic Temple) or the groups of hermetic youths playing with the imagery of paganism (though both are symbolically inadequate and ridiculous if you ask me), rather, satanism is this—idolatrous adoration of your own weaponry. Since Russians began to believe in their own power, the army, it gave them the illusion that Russia has the right to become the arbiter above moral principles of international law. If there is a threat of real neo-Pagan neo-Nazism in the 21st century, it stems from the Silovik Revolution, not from Azov soldiers with the kolovrat[28] tattoos. In its arbitrary treatment of the law, of the individual, and of political debate, the language in general, the essence of Putin’s regime is the triumph of the will over the word.

2. THE MARKET CAN’T SAVE US

The Fascism of Neoliberalism. The Danger of Outsourcing Moral Judgement to the Market

If the essence of the Russian regime is the triumph of will over the word, it was able to take on the West because there a different sort of triumph happened—of wealth over the word, of capital over politics. The outsourcing of moral judgement to the market made the West vulnerable to the corrupting influence of Russian money.

Earlier I argued that Russian liberals erred in their expectation that capitalism will save Russia from tyranny because the siloviki used the very mechanisms of capitalism to subvert democracy and install tyranny. In this chapter I’ll argue that the same mistake was committed by the liberal West. The liberal strategy of integrating Russia into the global economy had backfired because the insatiable appetites of the Russian elite had made it impossible for them to operate under the same transparent laws as everyone else.

The Western world order is premised on the liberal idea of infinite economic growth. The idea that all economic actors who play by the rules of a free market economy can be shareholders of the ever-growing profits from global trade. It was the image of excess that promised the possibility of prolonged planetary peace: Pax Americana. It had many flaws that were visible even before the Russian invasion—the fact that mutual enrichment has been skewed to serve the interests of the ‘first world’ countries, the fact that infinite economic growth is impossible on the planet with finite resources and the fact that this system can always be violated by the actors who don’t abide by the rules. Ironically, these problems are connected—the actors who take most comfort in the fact that the resources are scarce are the same actors who use it as an excuse for the destruction of domestic democracy and assault on the foreign foes. It is Russia that puts the nail to the coffin of neoliberal order.

Unable to integrate his kleptocratic regime within the (comparatively) fair rules of Western order, Putin decided to subvert it from within. The money and power stolen from the colonised Russians were to be weaponised against the West. And since the West had put economics over politics and had outsourced its moral judgement to the market, it proved to be very vulnerable to the corrupting effect of Russian cash streams—frankly, there wasn’t much of what money couldn’t buy. ‘The weakness of Western capitalist system, in which money ultimately outweighed all other considerations, left it wide open for the Kremlin to manipulate’[29]. In effect, Putin made the West sign a Faustian contract: selling democracy, the soul of society, for the power that came with Russian cash. Seeing through the hypocrisy of Western elites, he became extremely cynical: “Putin laughs when he’s told of [western] values…”, says Dmitry Muratov, “because he had bought sixteen of first-tier Western politicians—a couple of chancellors, a few prime-ministers, a few presidents—to chair the boards of his state companies, putting them on millions-of-dollars annual payrolls… Putin doesn’t believe in their values because he sure knows their value”[30].
Not many people heeded Andrei Illarionov’s warning that “Western companies are actually building long-term relations with those forces in Russia that are destroying the very pillars of modern society: a market economy, respect for private property, democracy’’[31]. Not many people heeded Robert Amsterdam’s advice that “Western leaders must take a realistic and long-term view of the implications of appeasing the Russians on such issues of fundamental human rights and the rule of law… If not, those presently in power in Russia will take Western double-standards as a licence for impunity. To deny, dismiss or discount the gravity of the consequences is to turn a blind eye to the lessons of history”[32].

And then it was too late. ‘Instead of Russia being changed through its integration into Western markets, it was Russia that was changing the West… Instead of bringing Russia into line with its rules-based system, slowly the West was being corrupted. It is as if a virus was being injected into it’[33]. Putin used Western economics to corrupt Western politics. And Western politics has lent itself to corruption—there were no mechanisms whereby the moral judgements could have been put in the way of Russian cash streams. Money simply ‘spoke louder’ than words. To undermine Western democracies, Russians decided to inflate the legitimate concerns of many Westerners that neoliberal economics enriched international conglomerates at the expense of the local working classes whose living standards were corroded by the flows of immigrants and use of the labour overseas. Soon, all across the EU, through official channels like Gazprom and through the black cash slush funds, the old networks of KGB clientele were being reloaded so as to influence local policy.

The idea was to fracture the West from within by funnelling money to its populist movements. Russians were funding the populists on both right and left ends of the spectrum with the eye to narrow national attention on their private or national interests as if they necessarily were in an irreconcilable zero-sum struggle against the interests of their fellow countrymen or foreign countries. The US against NATO, the UK against the EU, the EU nation against another EU nation, the poor against migrants. Trump, Brexit, Orban, Le Pen.

Putin’s Geopolitical Turn

Catherine Belton argues that Putin’s geopolitical turn happened in 2004. It was the year of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.[34] It became a useful scarecrow to mobilise Russians against what was presented as West’s imperial power-grab cynically disguised as a pro-democracy protest.

You can hear the vocabulary of geopolitical zero-summism creeping into Putin’s speech: “Russia has been unable to fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world [read: Russians are ignorant of the secret struggle of mythical geopolitical forces]… We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten [ultimately, it is about the strong and the weak] … We must create a much more effective security system [we have to attain invulnerability] … Most important is to mobilise the entire nation in the face of the common danger [Us-Them-ing]… There are certain people who want us to be focused on our internal problems [since we’re besieged by the external threat, internal critique is nothing less than treason], and they pull the strings here so we don’t raise our heads internationally [so we don’t bully other countries]”[35].

Putin began to turn Russia into a ‘Shchyogolev country’ [Nabokov’s sad dictatorial character, as discussed earlier in this article] of his fantasies, a country cursed to be a bully surrounded by bullies, albeit with the difference that, in contrast to the geopolitical musings of an emasculated white émigré, Putin’s fantasies were reinforced by his sycophantic retinue and propaganda.

Because the security services, afraid of sounding critical, have stopped reporting news that did not fit into their president’s worldview, Putin has gradually been settling into the world of such bully-countries where Russia has to assert its rightful dominant position. “Cut all the ‘democracy’ bullshit”, I imagine Putin saying, “there can be no motives other than to bully, to assert dominance. Only the weak don’t do it. And Russia will never be weak again”.

In Ukraine, that Russia’s imperial ambitions were threatened. Security men’s power was based on falsification and fabrication of the political landscape at home and colonial expansion abroad. Thus the revolution that was Ukraine’s response to the falsification of the elections threatened them in both respects at once—they feared that Ukraine would slip out of their ‘influence sphere’ and that a similar popular uprising would topple their power in Russia.

The Kremlin had put money into propaganda that presented all revolutionary movements as proxies of foreign foes, as their imperial power-grabs. They considered the idea that social arrangements can be rearranged through instruments of civil society or social resitance blasphemous. Order can only be imposed from above, via the sacrosanct vertical of power.

In response, Putin decided to use Russian gas as a lever for coercing Ukrainians. The gas scandal of 2005-2006 gave him the opportunity to use the extreme amounts stashed in the trade structures like Rosukrenergo and local structures of organised crime to corrupt, control and coerce Ukrainian politicians. “Ukraine was the training ground for Russia’s undermining of the EU”.[36]
In 2007 Putin openly voiced his discontent with the West’s refusal to guarantee Russia an exclusive mandate to lord over a ‘sphere of influence’ that would include all the border states and more. It was a regular practice in the 1990s for the organised crime groups to make deals the police with regard to taking control over certain patches of territory where all businesses would have to pay them tribute (say, the bandits of Solntsevskaya syndicate were handed over the whole areas of Moscow like Solntsevo).

Racketeers were famous to justify their racket by the need to protect the entrepreneurs from certain dangerous competitors. The same is true of the organised criminal group which takes control over the whole country and its inhabitants under the pretext of protection against certain foreign enemies: it declares itself a defender of national interests.[37]

Isn’t it the case that today’s autocrats act in the same manner as the racketeers of the 90s? They enslave local people under the pretext of providing protection against the more dangerous racketeers from the foreign countries. Their power is based on the myth that there can be no other means of adjudicating contradiction except war, the myth that language is impotent, the myth that your enemy understands no argument but force. As in the timely play Drakon by E. Schwarz, the people who suffer under the yoke of the power-hungry dragon because they cannot be persuaded out of their delusion that they need their dragon to protect them from certain foreign ‘dragons’.

Putin wanted to make the same deal with the ‘world policeman’, the US, so as to delineate Eurasia as his ‘sphere of influence’, his fiefdom. In this regard, ‘realist’ school of international relations only plays in the hands of such ‘dragons’ that justify their tyranny as defence of mythical ‘national interests’ against the infringements of the ‘dragons’ overseas. This belief in the inevitability of dragons, belief that they’re somehow inscribed into the fabric of reality, is the myth that feeds all autocratic regimes. ‘Realist’ school presumes that dragons in power are a natural state of affairs, whereas in fact it is an unnatural and unfortunate deviation from humane politics.

However, the White House was more willing to listen to the self-legislative voice of the locals, the vox populi expressed in revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and various Arab nations. It is sometimes speculated that the events of the Arab Spring angered Putin. President Dmitry Medvedev supported the UN resolution that allowed NATO to topple Kaddafi’s regime in Libya —which may have led to Putin’s subsequent decision to suspend Medvedev and become a President again in 2012.

In 2014, another revolution occurred—the Revolution of Dignity. At its core, it was Ukraine’s response to the violent beating of protesting students. Again, two pillars of the Russian regime were threatened at once. First, the secrecy of decision-making because Ukrainians were willing to die for their dignity: the right of every human to be a self-legislating subject of democratic politics. Second, the closedness of the public square for the voicing of discontent and violence as a means to deal with discontent. One after another, the pillars of Putin’s regime were crumbling down in Ukraine—and the Kremlin feared that the Russians might take notice that an alternative to their form of life is possible. “Any western move by Ukraine, especially so soon after the political backlash that greeted Putin’s return, posed a serious threat to Putin’s KGB men” (Page 384). This time, Putin decided to act—to annex Crimea. After it happened, Putin’s plebiscitary approval surged to more than 80%. Geopolitics became the favourite word of the Russian elite because it justified and strengthened their hold on power.

3. GROWTH & CONQUEST

At Rest Only In War

Once Putin realised that his Russia cannot and ought not to be integrated into the Western world order, he decided to destroy this order from within. His strategy of corrupting West’s politics through economic means led to, among many other things, the election of Donald Trump, an old client of KGB patronage. But Putin also needed to provide a ‘positive programme’ upon which to build a new kind of world order. It was to be the order based on coercion and conquest, violent imposition of will, because Putin realised that the only contest in which Russia has the upper hand is that of war, the only game which a nuclear state without a competitive economy stands a chance to win. It was to be the order where ‘master’ nations bully ‘slave’ nations that are unlucky to find themselves within the imperial ‘spheres of influence’.

In October 2022 Putin will celebrate his 70th anniversary. As someone obsessed with legacy, he must revel in the fact that by the twenty second year of his reign he has achieved almost all of his wicked aims: the levers of democratic efficacy are destroyed: independent media silenced, elections rigged, judges corrupted, civil society annihilated, opposition discredited, public square closed, debate abolished. EU, UK and US politics are polarised and penetrated by populists, NATO is almost dysfunctional, ‘brain dead’ as says Macron. Across the globe, copypaste ‘strongmen’ leaders look up to him as to their role model. Geopolitical order is being questioned. China is an ally. Russian economy, although controlled by Putin’s incompetent friends, is doing fine because extraction of raw materials does not require a visionary skillset. A genuinely powerful army is built. Imperial control over Belarus and Kazakhstan is strengthened. The only fiasco of his legacy is Ukraine—a glaring example of a different, democratic lifestyle and governance right at the Russian border, inhabited, as he sees it, by a bit strange but essentially fraternal ‘Little Russians’. A country whose 2004 and 2014 revolutions have uttered a resolute “No!” to the style and essence of the Russian regime: to manipulations and falsifications in 2004, to violence and corruption in 2014.

During the pandemic Putin became even more paranoid, making himself all but totally isolated from the outer world, including from the advisers and aides who should have briefed him on the current state of affairs. Instead, it is speculated that he maintained close contact only with a handful of most loyal men, his friends from the KGB cohort—who also happen to be old guard of Cold War zero-summism. Putin was excommunicated, excluded from the free and truthful exchange of perspectives that would have grounded him in reality and became hostage to his narrow perspective, reinforced in the echo-chamber of his sycophantic coterie that couldn’t provide him with the critical feedback that is necessity for the sanity of a finite mind. During his first term in power, Putin balanced between the Yeltsin era liberals (Pugachev, Chubais, Kasianov) and the siloviki (Patrushev, Ivanov, Bortnikov). Gradually he began to rely on siloviki more and more simply because they were telling him what he wanted to hear. Siloviki were the masters of flattery and adulation because for them the truthful exchange of information was never as important as serving their own lust for power. And since ‘when language decays, possible views of the world disappear’,[38] Putin became a prisoner of a very limited view of reality. He, to put it mildly, wasn’t allowed to ‘see the whole picture’. At the end of the day, Putin’s decisions were no longer grounded in reality—they were grounded on the palaver of courtly clowns—“Yes sir, Ukrainians long to be liberated by you”, “Yes sir, Russian army is incredibly well-prepared”, “Yes sir, it will take up to four days to conquer the whole of Ukraine”. The decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was made by the man who was least informed and competent to make it.

The Bronze Age is not yet over. It is the playing out of God’s playful curse that humans “will become like gods”. Finite humans revolted against their finitude, their circumstances and environment, the nature within and nature without, in hope of subjugating it and attaining godlike invulnerability and immortality. But the only thing they attained was slavery, subjugation of fellow humans. The price which rulers paid for attaining arbitrary power over slaves was the deterioration of the quality of their communication. Since the rulers are not gods but mortals and since to stay in touch with reality mortals need sincere critical feedback from one another of which the only instrument is politics, the exchange of contradictory opinions with regard to the decisions that shape communal life, because of all this, rulers who exert arbitrary power, who are feared to be critiqued, fall out of touch with reality.

Yet there is one thing they understand perfectly well—their authority rests on war. If there is neither war nor threat of one, there is no need for them. War fosters dictatorship because its time-constrained context justifies concentration of decision-making in the hands of a dictator whom no one dares to contradict. The time for contradiction is simply not there. War calls for simple, essentially heroic traits: resolve, courage, valour, risk-taking, will, power, and the will to power.

The people who are distinguished solely by their strength will artificially put the world in such conditions where strength is the only argument, conditions in which they stand to gain the authority—they will start wars. In the normal democratic conditions, such people are kept in their place—in service of intellectual deliberation. But in Russia, the healthy hierarchy of law-making and law-enforcement was turned upside down. Without the necessary check of democratic politics, siloviki were able to degrade society to the relationships of pure dominance, the state of war—because only in the state of war the dominating faculty of humans, the freedom to own, becomes totally free. In the slang of the Russian army, soldiers are called ‘property’. They are stripped of personhood, they can’t participate in the questioning of whether the commands by which they live are correct or not.

The silovik revolution led to war because only in war power based on the logic of war is redeemed. Only war can justify the enslavement of the domestic populace. Once siloviki had clung to power, Russia was stuck in the spiral of enslavement and war—within the ontology, call it Thrasymachian or Nietzschean, where the freedom of will is exciting and the freedom of legislation boring, where peace is slavery and war is freedom. But Homeric epic myths and subversively cynical philosophies only take us so far. They excite as long as they remain on paper. Once they break out into the real world of real politics, all hell breaks loose.

Privation & Empire

The distinction between two kinds of freedom—political freedom and freedom of will—has been a leitmotif of this study. Another way to think of it is to think about the difference between growth and conquest. To be free means to grow in accordance with one’s nature. Animals are always free—they grow into their natural niches, instinctively adapting to the changes in their habitat. They’re not clinging to their established identities—whenever it happens, whenever a literal or figurative ‘cell’ refuses to die, it becomes cancerous and brings death to the whole organism. In the case of self-aware animals like us, natural growth requires acceptance of the transiency of identities, acceptance of the need to change: “We are in time, and thus what we are we must grow into”. Human growth requires making peace with the inevitability of lack, with the fact that what we lack can only be provided by the other, and with the fact that to get what we lack from one another we must negotiate—we must help each other discover and develop our unique gifts which we have in excess and exchange these gifts with each other. And since we can find out what our respective gifts are only by talking to each other, by reasoning together, in this sense, thinking and loving are one—they are the constituent instruments of humane growth, of change through exchange of perspectives, becoming other to yourself by letting others be other to the extent of changing your mind and breaking your heart. For the humane growth to happen, meeting what is strange and other has to be the occasion for learning. This learning is what I mean by politics, the process of reciprocal self-emptying, our only chance to “have life, and have it abundantly”[39]. Our natural niche is the evolving self-legislating community, creation of new social worlds based on increasingly intense participation in the abundant agency of the environment.[40] For humans to grow naturally is to grow into increasingly political life.
Alas, where there is the awareness of transiency, there is also the awareness of death. To accept the need to change is also to accept the inevitability of death. And this is what makes us different from the rest of nature—“for us there is always the possibility of failing to grow as we should”[41]. Human sin, human fall from nature, is the choice to refuse to grow because growth reeks of decay and death. Self-conscious beings run the danger of refusing to think of their destiny in terms of growth because they are painfully aware of the causal link between growth and decay, ageing and death. Thereby we opt out for the illusion of self-sufficiency, defence of what we already are and conquest of what we need to feel secure. We choose to halt growth in time and instead opt for spatial expansion. Human sin is this confusion of growth with conquest, colonising patches of our environment for the purpose of turning them into the ‘guarantees of security’, tokens of invulnerability and immortality. Thus, when we focus on securing the already known resources, instead of being an occasion for learning,  any meeting with the other becomes a meeting with a potential rival and an occasion for war. In which case politics degrades into the practice of identifying your enemy—that is, becomes fascist.

With regard to nation at large, it halts growth if its ruler refuses to let go of his ‘throne’, refuses to remember that he is transient, not indispensable—if the continuity of succession is broken and the nation clings to the one identity, to the one self that refuses to transfer power and die. From that point on, for a nation to grow would mean throwing off his yoke through a revolution, a ‘change of mind’ on a national scale. Hegel once identified thinking with revolution: just as thinking casts away erroneous ideas so does the guillotiné cut off the heads of those stuck in power. And if the nation is not allowed to grow as it ought to, that is if the idolised idiots are not questioned and tamed in the public square (Think of how Boris Johnson was ousted by the public uproar, how he was fined by the police for violating the quarantine rules. This is utterly unimaginable in today’s Russia, although it could have been imagined in 1990s, when Yeltsin was under fire from media, criminal investigation by the chief prosecutor, and general discontent of the people.), a nation becomes an empire and displaces accumulated hatred overseas—instead addressing it to the usurpers, people start to address the cry “Off with their heads!” to the foreigners. Wherein the contest of internal politics gets asphyxiated, therein it overflows overseas as the geopolitical conquest.

The ruler who wants to stay in power forever can’t tolerate the notion that there can be any politics—any opposition with an alternative vision of how the country should be governed. The ruler has to ensure that there is no room for the public articulation of the form of life by whose standard his governance can be judged, that there is no politics. But since he still has to ensure some support in order for the system to operate smoothly, he has no choice but to somehow rely on the people who never get a chance to articulate their will into a ‘name’ which they can lend to their representatives as a right to act in their names. In short, the emperor has to rely on people’s feelings and desires that, in absence of the space for political articulation, become insatiable, irrational and self-destructive passions. And since people are most impassioned by struggle and war, to mobilise popular support, the ruler has to indulge people by entering into a feedback with the worst passion—the appetite for imperial conquest. Politics would have kept their concrete personalities, their names, in touch with policies undertaken in their names, but the unnatural passionate feedback spirals out of anyone’s conscious control and imprisons both the citizens and the ruler on the path toward the waging of war, the choice that this particular Ira or Igor or Inna or Ivan would never had consciously chosen, but who were given neither time nor silence to think and speak, to make their distinct opinions heard—because the politics was reduced to plebiscitary acclamation—all that is heard within is unintelligible screaming—after all, acclamation comes from Latin “to scream loudly”. People became possessed by the suicidal pattern of escalation. In the documentary by Andrei Loshak you can hear people’s voices crack and change when they start to reproduce inhumane talking points that justify imperial aggression.[42]

Today’s Russia is the most advanced plebiscitary democracy—the system in which the will of the people is connected with decision-making not by communication, but through plebiscitary acclamation. It is the opposite of representative democracy—of the system where the ladder of representation is held together by communication. Hence all the levels of representation are shattered—discarded as ‘elitist’.

And since there is no transcendent standard of rationality (since language is not god) which can judge the popular will, it becomes a god unto itself, a sovereign. But sovereignty still has to be exercised somehow. Since different perspectives, wills, cannot be judged by the standard of rationality, all that is left is the argument of force. Thus sovereignty gradually concentrates in the hands of the most powerful. Thus only one link of representation remains—without any intermediate levels of representation—the direct link between the ruler and the popular will. But since they exist on utterly different planes of reality, because of their radical discontinuity, opposite sides of power-relation between which there can be no communication, they’re linked only by wordless feedback of passions. Therefore, the ruler has no choice but to appease the worst passions, passions that demand blood—or else people will choose an even more populist ruler.

The regime based on plebiscitary acclamation is the product of the lack of faith in language’s ability to represent reality, in the ability of political representatives to act in the names of those whom they represent. From this perspective, representation only fabricates popular will which has to stay pure. Will can be expressed (Russian for ‘voting’, vole-izyavlenie, means exactly this, the expression of will), but not disciplined, not educated into an intelligible image (Russian for ‘education’, obrazovanie, means shaping into an ‘image’, obraz). If there is no language to ensure the continuity of representation, responsibility disappears—no one has to make their decisions intelligible to others.

Plebiscitary acclamation links privation with empire. If citizens constrain themselves to the private domain and only engage in voting they forsake their political responsibility to elaborate on their unique viewpoint so that they can truly lend their names to the policies that are undertaken in their names, if there is a chasm between citizens and decision-making, politics degrades into unintelligible feedback between inarticulate popular will and imperial conquests. Across the world we see politics degrade into populism. To end this degradation, we have to stop thinking that the popular will is sovereign. It has to be subordinated to language—to the abstract conversations that do justice to the intricacy of modern society. If this happens, it would mean that we’ve gone through the politik revolution.

CONCLUSION

In this chapter I tried to name the pivotal kinds of unnatural governance, of regimes based upon coercion. Imposition of will takes different forms—if strong individual uses brute force to compel others to recognise him as divine, it is paganism; if powerful nation uses its technologically advanced army to compel weaker nations to give up self-legislation and recognise her as sovereign, it is imperialism; if the Fuhrer uses geopolitical propaganda to impassion the popular will to consume the other, it is fascism; if the capitalist conglomerate uses market incentives to subjugate public square to the imperative of profit, it is neoliberalism, if the siloviki put pagan faith in power, imperial expansionism, fascist “us-them-ing” in service of their lucrative state-capitalism in which they secured all the entreprises through political coercion, then use neoliberalism to buy influence in the West and go on imperial conquest of the neighbouring country, all the while being justified by Western ‘realists’, it is Putinism.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

[1] Vladimir Nabokov. (1936). Tyrants Destroyed. [Rus. Istreblenie tiranov]. Chapter V.

[2]  Vladimir Nabokov. (1936). Tyrants Destroyed. [Rus. Istreblenie tiranov]. Chapter IX.

[3] Russian word poshlost stands for a mix of English ‘platidious’, vulgar’ and ‘clichéd’. Nabokov translated it as ‘artistic triviality, banality, lack of spirituality and sexual indecency’.

[4] Nabokov, Vladimir. (1963). The Gift. [Written in Russian as Dar during 1935-1937] G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Pages 171-172.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli. (1513). The Prince. Chapter III.

[6] Vladimir Nabokov. (1964). Speak, Memory! Page 617.

[7] Dmitry Muratov is an editor of Novaya Gazeta, a zine specialising in the defence of human rights. Interview with Dmitry Muratov. Link: https://youtu.be/VK_aPMxG3h           0.

[8] Anatoli Ulyanov. (2022). Why do Russian occupiers wipe cities off the face of the earth and arrange ‘Buchas’? Link: https://www.facebook.com/100000275173858/posts/5536815189670932/?d=n

[9] Timothy Snyder in the interview with Sean Illing on Vox Conversations. Episode: The fight for Ukraine –– and democracy. Link: https://www.vox.com/vox-conversations-podcast

[10] Michael McFaul. Closing Statement in the Munk Debate on Ukraine.
Link: Munk Debate on Ukraine – Michael McFaul Closing Statement

[11] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/23/we-must-stop-letting-russia-define-the-terms-of-the-ukraine-crisis .

[12]William A. Galston. (2022). The New Axis of Autocracy. Germany and France are weak links as the West faces an alliance of China and Russia. February 6, 2022. Wall Street Journal. Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/axis-autocracy-russia-putin-ukraine-china-france-germany-commit-defense-invasion-scholz-biden-macron-11644336548
Caroline Mimbs Nyce. (2021). The New Axis of Autocracy. November 16, 2021. The Atlantic Daily Newsletter. Link: https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2021/11/modern-autocrats/620719/

[13] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/23/we-must-stop-letting-russia-define-the-terms-of-the-ukraine-crisis .

[14] Vladimir Putin. (2022). Meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists. On 9th of June, 2022. Link: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/68606

[15] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/21/pacificsm-is-the-wrong-response-to-the-war-in-ukraine?fbclid=IwAR0O-bKj48dzU_I6LiRVLAzVlgC4JO7baa8puYhvG-SYRCWP1-vffE3TytA

[16] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). Pacifism is the wrong answer to the war in Ukraine. Guardian. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/21/pacificsm-is-the-wrong-response-to-the-war-in-ukraine?fbclid=IwAR0O-bKj48dzU_I6LiRVLAzVlgC4JO7baa8puYhvG-SYRCWP1-vffE3TytA

[17]  Jonathan Masters. (2022). Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia. Link: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-crossroads-europe-and-russia

[18] Rowan Williams. Resurrection. Page 71.

[19] Memorial organisation worked at providing legal assessment of the crimes of the Soviet regime but was liquidated in December 2021.

[20] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion

[21] Matthew 7:3

[22] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.

[23] Also translated as Heathen Imperialism. It was the first book which Dugin had translated to Russian, as Yazychesky imperialism in the 1990s.

[24] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russia like an asylum. The New York Times International Edition. Wednesday, May 25, 2022

[25] Anna Politkovskaya. (2004). Putin’s Russia.

[26] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russia like an asylum. The New York Times International Edition. Wednesday, May 25, 2022

[27] Alexandr Dugin explains this view to a British journalist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGunRKWtWBs

[28] Slavic swastika.

[29] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 497.

[30] Dmitry Muratov. Link: https://youtu.be/VK_aPMxG3h0.

[31] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 359.

[32] Robert Amsterdam. (2006). ‘Rosneft IPO Represents Nothing But the Syndication of the GULAG’. Financial Times.

[33] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 352.

[34] Actually by three. There was also an immensely important arrest and trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A lot can be said about it, but the limits of this essay simply cannot allow me to start on this one. So we will pretend that nothing happened.

[35] Vladimir Putin. (2004). Address delivered in the aftermath of the Beslan attack. September 4, 2004.

[36] Belton, Catherine. 2020. Putin’s People. Page 343.

[37] Yaroslav Shimov. (2022). Don’t Think of Putinism as of Political Regime. It is Banditism With Ideas. Meduza. Link: https://meduza.io/feature/2022/06/15/k-putinizmu-ne-nuzhno-otnositsya-kak-k-politicheskomu-rezhimu-eto-banditizm-s-ideyami?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=main&fbclid=IwAR0pyINjCmN9JW0s-eHdy6AIDo0p3MkV4KJVED4o5Qgm7uDP7E0V0gHaeew

[38] Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God. Page 56.

[39] John 10:10

[40] Nabokov saw this interdependence as the ground of real freedom and personhood: “Now I saw them… in a natural harmonious relationship with their native environment. It seems to me that this acute and somewhat pleasantly exciting feeling of ecological unity, so well known to modern naturalists… that only here, along this line, paradoxically there is a possibility to synthesise of the idea of personality and the idea of community”

[41] Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God, page 41

[42] Andrei Loshak. (2022). Disconnection. (A documentary).Link: https://youtu.be/5qmQs2LbnaE

Strongmen Destroyed, Part 1: The Silovik Revolution

 

Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.

He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.

1. DEATH CAMP REALISM

Blatari & Politiki

Ever since ‘the rocket’s red glare’ and ‘bombs bursting in air’ defined February 24th as the turning point in world history, I’ve been trying to understand what made Russia’s attack possible. I now offer the first fruit of this search, a story of how the friendship between secret police and organised crime forged in Stalin’s GULAG laid the foundation for the imperialism of Putin’s regime.

In 1937 Varlam Shalamov was sent to the coldest place on Earth and the grimmest part of GULAG—Kolyma. It was the year of unprecedented political purges, the year when Stalin sent countless members of the educated civil society, or simply intelligentsia, to the labour camps where they were to be terrorised by thugs of the criminal world.

Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories and Chronicles of Criminal World offer (for my money) the starkest witness to the forms of life that embody the difference between two distinct forms of freedom: the freedom of choice and the freedom of legislation. He refers to these as pertaining to two types of people found in Soviet Russia: the blatari and the politiki.[1]

Blatari were thieves with a vulgarly Nietzschean code of conduct[2] that legitimised their crimes on the grounds that it was a matter of justice for the strong to impose their will upon the weak. In contrast to this, politiki, the victims of political purges, refused to impose their will or the will of the authorities on their fellow inmates because they knew that by participating in coercion they would betray their human essence, their nature as political animals.

The politiki, as Shalamov insisted time and again, were the only people who ‘stayed human’ in GULAG. It was their memory that a different life is possible, a memory which, in the darkest hours, was preserved only by recitation of poems remembered by heart, that allowed politiki to be a part of a conversation, a language-game, that freed their imagination from a zero-sum-game of the ‘death camp realism’.

It is crucial to see that both ‘politicians’ and ‘thieves’ are defined by their freedom in relation to the law, but in ways that are the exact opposites.

Lawmaking & Lawbreaking / Blatari and Siloviki

Let us consider two kinds of freedom.

First, the freedom to choose among a given set of choices. Say, to choose among the products on a supermarket shelf. Second, the freedom to legislate a different set of choices. Say, to reason together about the laws that should regulate the market so as to nudge our behaviour closer to what we agree on as a life worth living. The freedom of choice is a basic but private kind of freedom because although it secures the sovereignty of the customer’s choice against material constraints and moral concerns, the range and arrangement of available products remains outside her control and is always already manipulated so as to maximise the profit of the seller, not the consumer’s wellbeing.

The freedom of self-legislation is of higher order because it allows me to examine the form of life into which our choices coalesce and then to politically renegotiate our relationships so as to make the desired form of life possible, so as to maximise our wellbeing. Thus, political freedom legislates the context in which our freedom of choice takes place. Just like thinking legislates the context of willing by allowing me to say ‘these are not my only choices!’, so does politics legislate the context of private lives, allowing us to say ‘this is not the only form of life we can have!’ From the Jewish perspective, to collectively imagine a form of life that differs from the one we conduct now and to renegotiate our relationships so as to bring it closer, is the highest form of freedom. This is the freedom of political debate to which humans are called by Yahweh: ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord’ (in Isaiah 1:18).

But what happens if this hierarchy of freedoms is inverted?

If I only have the freedom of choice I lose creativity: I am cursed to choose between many clichés. I don’t care if all my options are flawed and trivial, all I care is the power to decide for myself, to choose what I will. And if I want to secure the sovereignty of my will, if I want to ensure that my choice stems from my own volition and stays unconditioned by things outside my control, then I want to widen my choice to the extent of pure arbitrariness—so that people can’t wrap their heads around why I did what I did, can’t put a finger on anything that determined my course of action—except my will.

Although it may appear as though freedom of will makes me creative, it does not. I don’t invent unexpected solutions to the problems we’re faced with, I just make defective choices that break the necessary level of trust and reciprocity on which the problem-solving could have been accomplished. Instead of devising a way for the team to win the game, I cheat at the expense of teammates. I don’t create anything new, I break the laws of cooperation and tear social fabric apart.

The point of acting arbitrarily is not to experiment with mutations that grow out of random acts—acting at will is not the same as acting at random. The point of acting arbitrarily is to prove that I am the arbiter, I am the one who decides—not any other principle or agent. Thus the more my choice is in revolt against the context that might have determined it, that is in revolt against reality itself, against laws of nature and laws of the state, the more I prove the freedom of my will.

In contrast to this, thinking means letting the will be disciplined by reality (including the reality of my natural desires) until I no longer have to choose and my will becomes at one with the truth—“Until with thee I will one will”[3]. Whereas the will’s claim to freedom lies in having as many choices as possible, thinking in essence means narrowing on just one choice—the truth. Reason’s claim to freedom lies in its attunement to reality—“you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). This is why, after a certain point, the emphasis on the will’s freedom to choose at the expense of political freedom becomes the emphasis on freedom not to think and, ironically, on freedom not to be free.

In this essay I argue that there is perhaps no greater threat to a society than the subordination of political freedom of self-legislation to private freedom of choice because, once it happens, thinking becomes subordinated to willing. Although it may sound inconsequential, it is the essence of fascism, which, ‘in all its varieties, was a triumph of will over reason’[4], the national decision “by doing ill to prove that we possess free will”.[5]

Enforcement of Lawlessness

Politiki go ‘beyond the law’, they upgrade the current legislation so as to make it fairer, whereas the blatari ‘go against’ and ‘break’ the law because they think it is too fair—that it prevents them from doing whatever they want with the weak. Politiki used peaceful civil disobedience, activism, for the sake of changing the status quo. Blatari used violent disobedience, criminal offences, to advance within the current status quo. In the scarcity of Soviet death camps, where the impossibility of communal self-legislation led human relations to be shaped by brute force, intellectual and communicative faculties that constitute political freedom became useless and powerless—politiki and their higher education were turned into objects of simultaneous envy and ridicule. At the same time, the blatari, the thieves of the underworld, saw their dream come true—once the constraints of the law were lifted they were finally freed to have their way with yesterday’s judges and prosecutors, professors and politicians, lords and landlords. The world has turned upside down.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to consider a form of life that has neither freedom nor trouble with regards to the law—the so-called siloviki, ‘strongmen’. Their task is to enforce the current law, regardless of how corrupt it is. Siloviki have no quarrels with the present order as long as they stay in the position of dominance. They were, to use Cornel West’s indispensable adage, ‘well adjusted to injustice’—and any threat to the regime is a threat to their privilege. I hypothesise that in the state built upon pure dominance, in the state whose ruler himself was a convict, the authorities had realised that the blatari pose less threat to their regime than politiki precisely because politiki’s critique of unjust dominance undermined the pillars of the order based on unjust dominance in ways that blatari never could. The targets of blatari were the weak. The targets of politiki were the authorities. Blatari, although they were breaking the laws, were doing it for their private sake and had neither complaints nor grudges against the authorities. Since they understood only sheer dominance, criminal syndicates were perfect partners for cooperation with the corrupt state—easily bribed, they could be used as deniable assets to do the dirtiest job. Politiki, on the other hand, strived to hold authorities answerable to the form of life people dreamed of, a natural humane life endowed with abstract ideals like freedom, decency, dignity, distance and privacy that make room for graceful relationships, relationships whose participants have a say in current affairsall the things which a dictatorship can’t provide.

It’s as if the security servicemen, the people who were called to enforce the laws devised by the political conversation between the citizens and to protect these citizens from the zero-sum impingements which would have made them susceptible to putting their private will above the common good, betrayed their calling and forged alliance with the thieves whose parasitic crimes constituted the greatest threat to the integrity of that conversation. Thus, at the time when politiki targeted as ‘the enemies of the people’ were tortured and slaughtered, the blatari who tortured and slaughtered them were dubbed ‘the friends of the people’[6] and gradually ‘befriended’ by the law-enforcement. The first fruits of this friendship were the piled up corpses of destroyed intelligentsia. It was the textbook example of the descent into tyranny from Plato 101: the will (thymos) becomes allied with the appetite (eros) against reason (logos). If the politiki were essentially cerebral, were governed by the intellect, and siloviki were personifying heroic traits like courage and loyalty, were guided by the will, pursuit of honour, blatari were neither people of language nor people of honour. They were the people of the body—blatari ‘dance’ through their life path, they are guided by their carnal appetites. One of the funniest of Shalamov’s descriptions of a typical blatar is that he could ‘dance’ a newspaper article. The intellect, the will, and the appetite are all ‘good’ if their hierarchy retains this natural order, but when the appetite and the will subjugate intellect, the desires, instead of being rationally articulated, become insatiable and degrade into passions.

Once the room for self-legislation is reduced to the closed cabinet of the autocrat, our reason becomes reduced to our will, our faculty of renegotiating the laws of contest so as to make competition more graceful and mutually beneficial becomes reduced to our faculty of winning the contest by beating the hell out of our current competitors. On the individual level, it corrupts our capacity to critique the current order and addicts our attention to securing our dominant position within it—no matter how unfair, irrational or even dysfunctional the status-quo is. The limit case of this zero-sum ethos is the ‘death camp realism’ expressed in the blatar saying “You die today, but I tomorrow”. In absence of the instruments to imagine and legislate a different context for our lives, we cave in to the idea that “this is how the real world is”—we must either play by its rules or die.

With regard to the society writ large, when it loses the ability to self-legislate, relationships within it come to be defined by the powerful—by those who can impose their will through the exercise of force. They come in two species, siloviki who have power to enforce the law and the blatari who have power to break it. But, once they merge, lawlessness and law-enforcement mutate into ‘enforcement of lawlessness’ (Rus. proizvol, arbitrariness). Once people entrusted to serve the law had put the law at their service, the state fell into the hands of ‘thieves-in-law’. The cooperation between blatari and siloviki led to the state where the law was identified with the interests of the powerful and, at the end of the day, with the interests of the powers that be. The arbitrary will of the sovereign became the law-of-the-land—no matter how far it was divorced from reality and morality, no matter how harmful to the common good.

2. THE SILOVIK REVOLUTION: How Three Despairs Aligned to Cause the Unlikely Rise of Putin

Patriotism & Greed

After a merger with the criminal underworld, siloviki faced two problems. The old problem was that their Communist Empire couldn’t match the power of the capitalist NATO. The new problem was that they couldn’t own property. But now they saw a way to kill two birds with one stone. The solution was to conduct such a transition of the USSR to market capitalism in which the KGB men would simultaneously preserve power to take on the West and make lots of money for themselves. “Unlike the Communists, the new generation of siloviki… declared themselves in favour of the market. But they aimed to use and distort the market as a weapon. They wanted to establish a form of quasi-state capitalism that would further their own—and as they saw it, Russia’s—power”.[7]

Already before the collapse, secret servicemen had established themselves as the exclusive economic mediators between the West and Russia because, before in the Soviet times any joint venture in the foreign country could be established only with the KGB approval. Also before the collapse there was a big wave of immigration which was fully under their control. The secret policemen were steeped in using diaspora for their own confluence of lucrative and imperial purposes. But the KGB “also needed more subtle ways to launder cash through business, not directly through US banks”. And with the help of the joint ventures and curated immigrants, they were able to make connections with the local Western businessmen. “There was”, for example, “Trump and his financial problems – it was a solution that was very much on time”.[8]

When the USSR started to collapse, the siloviki were able to quickly syphon Russia’s wealth to their secret offshores. The international spy network of the KGB succeeded in functioning as the key conduit of the ‘party wealth’ to the slush funds in the West. This solved both of the siloviki’s problems: they secured the ‘gold of the communist party’ for themselves and infiltrated the West with a system of black cash laundromats.

Thus at the early dawn of Russian capitalism, KGB were already many steps ahead with their off-shores, slush funds, laundromats, friendships and resident agents. When the privatisations began in the 1990s, the secret police with its access to mountains of ‘hard currency’ had a head-start. It was in fact the KGB people who selected and fostered a first generation of the richest Russian entrepreneurs among the young apparatchiks of the Communist Party. For example, they funded the early privatisations by the muscovite Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leader of the local Komsomol chapter, who would become the richest man of Russia’s early 2000s.

Yet soon the KGB faced a serious problem. Under the advent of capitalism, siloviki were gradually losing control over Russia to the nouveau-riche capitalists whose iconoclasm and inventiveness were better adapted to the wilderness of the nascent free market. Siloviki understood that they can stay in power and subsume these pesky billionaires only if they take Russian business in the pincers of the power structures of the fatherland (and, one may argue, the criminal structures of gangland). They could outcompete the oligarchs only if they’d built a regime based on the kleptocratic interdependence of corruption and coercion, kleptes and kratos. Thus, even though Russian liberalism was just being born, the coalition of law-enforcement and organised crime had laid the foundation for a different kind of order, the regime of ‘crime-enforcement’. All of this made the FSB (the freshly renamed domestic branch of the KGB) desperate and ready to go to great lengths to ensure the election of one of their colleagues as the president of Russia.

After the fall of the USSR the liaison between the siloviki and blatari was most pronounced in the newly renamed St. Petersburg. The alliance was overviewed by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer posted in East Germany and by then an aide to the local mayor. He was among those younger siloviki who realised early on that Russia can overpower the West only if it adopts market capitalism. He was able to infiltrate the ascendant liberal circles and win the trust of the members of Yeltsin’s family whose corruption made them desperate to seek reliable protection from the secret services. This despair of the liberals together with the despair of the FSB found resonance in the plights of the majority of Russians. Like stars, three despairs of siloviki, liberaly and rossiyane[9] aligned to cause the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin.

Secrets & Conspiracies: Back by Popular Demand

Once the public square ceases to be a place where consequential decisions are made it becomes a dumping ground of lies and manipulations. In the society where communal self-legislation is thrown out the window, language itself becomes inflated to the extent of rendering all political conversation naïve ‘idle talk’. Hence to tap into the lost sense of agency, people are left to believe in secret conspiracies—plots that lurk behind the surface of public rhetoric. They step on the gnostic path of initiation into orders of secret knowledge and participation in the struggle of invisible forces. To feel empowered, people imagine themselves as in the know of a certain cosmic battle and identify themselves with the winning side. In the modern age, these cosmic struggles are often substituted by the imperial struggles. To feel empowered people will often identify themselves with the fate of their country on the geopolitical arena—that mythological battleground between Us and Them. The conspiracy theorists think along these lines: “Real knowledge is kept secret”, “What is truly relevant is hidden from clear sight”, “Unseen powers manipulate reality”, “We have to go beyond appearances to unveil encrypted truths”. This in turn further strengthens the belief that nothing relevant is ever decided in the open public square. It is the secret conspirators, people with access to the power and information of the ‘deep state’ and ‘big corporations’ who really run the world, and it is only them who count. In this sense, movements represented by the letters Z and Q are different sides of the same coin—of the gnostic / pagan conspiratorial mindset obsessed with secrets and strength, worship of ‘power gods,’ and expectations of ‘coming storms’. In any case, neither conspiracy nor geopolitics pose a serious threat to the authorities because both are cynical about speaking truth to power in the public square.

After the collapse of their socialist experiment, Russians ended up as arguably the most cynical people on earth. In the period when the postmodern intellectuals aimed to discredit and deconstruct the notion of ideologies, Russians were firmly ‘vaccinated’ against any hope of boosting progress artificially. It is as if Russians went ‘beyond’ modernity but took the ‘wrong turn’. They, especially the elites, just opted for ‘making money’ which led to the lucrative privatisation and political turmoil of the liberal 1990s. This time, after what they (correctly) saw as the looting of their collective wealth by a handful of greedy oligarchs, Russians became even more cynical. After the idealistic belief in the importance of glasnost (political transparency) they began to abhor debate in the public square. They were taught to scoff at political conversation as an idle and even pernicious activity. As far as they were concerned, nothing good could ever come from democratic politics—only chaos. They were taught to believe that, in the world of populist promises and verbose manipulations of spin doctors, the real agency can come only from terse but wilful and effective ‘strongmen’. They were taught to believe that in a world full of secrets and conspiracies, only the secret police can make a real difference, only the agents skilled in extorting testimony through torture can command the wealth of occult, truly relevant, information. This wealth of information is called podnogotnaya, which literally means ‘under the nails’ after one torture technique of inserting a needle under the nails. In short, Russians were taught to think that the ‘power vertical’ is an indispensable tool of governance and that violence is equally indispensable for justice and truth-seeking. And, in contrast to the eloquent and emasculated politicians of the 1990s, it was the silovik who was identified with absolute secrecy and absolute power.

To make a long story short, the succession of disillusionments was paving the way for Russians to accept the idea that a silovik would make a good ruler. And when Pugachev, one of those desperate to ‘anoint’ a puppet silovik to cover up the shady shenanigans of the liberal government, began preparing Putin for presidency, ‘The plan was to cast him in the image of the most popular fictional TV hero from Soviet times. He was to be a modern-day Max Otto von Stierlitz, an undercover spy…’[10]. But the disillusionments were not enough. There was a need to create an even more suitable context for the election of a strongman.

Part of it was already in the air. The insufferable conditions of Soviet death camps and, frankly, of Soviet life writ large, caused many people to cave in to the ‘realist’ worldview of the thieves which, although totally sinister, at least rang true and sincere, free from naive idealism and unsullied by hypocrisy. They sometimes called it lagernaya pravda, the ‘camp truth’. Its essence is simple: ‘Sauve qui peut’—‘Save himself who can’. Or: ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’[11]. Or more elaborate: ‘I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine’[12]. And whatever Russians saw in their society only seemed to confirm this cynical stance. The less the law stemmed from people’s self-legislation and the more it was just whatever the powerful wished, the more the popular demand for arbitrary power grew. I like to call this pervasive pattern the ‘spiral of realism’[13]. Every step closer to a zero-sum relations, every step closer to war, creates a popular demand for a tough leader because it leads people to feel that, since in the Real World™ ‘matters are settled with gas and bomb’[14], anything less than straightforwardly strong statesmanship misses the mark of times.

To instill such a feeling in people was the task of the FSB. They couldn’t take risks and decided to undertake drastic measures. To secure the electoral victory of a strongman, the clear fascist boundaries between Us and Them had to be drawn. First, Russia had to face and become afraid of the obscure but powerful terrorist threat. Second, to address this fear, Russia had to be put in a state of war. It is now becoming clear that FSB arranged the explosions to hit four apartment buildings in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in September 1999, killing more than 300, injuring more than 1,000, thereby spreading a fear of pervasive terrorist threat across the country and thereby justifying waging war against Chechnya. The longing for strong leadership was successfully manufactured. An official whom almost no one knew, by all accounts a nondescript ghost of a man, was suddenly all over the prime time screen-space, swearing that he would punish the hated Chechens. It is not that Putin was transformed into the right guy for the job, rather, the job was transformed into the right one for Putin. In 2000, tyranny was back by popular demand. It was a sinister omen of the times to come. As we’ll see time and again, the people who are the greatest in the game of war will put the state in the state of war so as to make themselves great again—to become indispensable. For the siloviki, escalation is not a means for some (national) end, it is the end in itself. They don’t escalate with some desired future in mind, they cling to power and depend on escalation as an excuse and pretext for their rule.

Kleptocracy: Corruption & Coercion.

This friendship between thieves and spies laid the foundation of Putin’s regime. Even in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the KGB and Gestapo were the people in service of the ideological agenda of the ruling class. Now, in synergy with the structures of organised crime, security servicemen have weaponised the state in service of their own kleptocratic agenda.

It is important to see that, for a dictatorship, corruption is not a problem, but a solution—it is the glue that keeps the system going. Corruption is advantageous for the dictators because it allows them to exercise subtle but absolute control over the country’s officials—it gives them a lever to sack anyone down in the command chain. The secret policemen have understood early on that they can use corruption as a means of coercion: “D’you remember how you’ve got what you have, thief? Now do as we say. Or else!” At the end of the day, since corruption makes all state officials vulnerable to the arbitrary top-down command, a system based on corruption makes independent opinion and public critique all but unimaginable.

By the time of the 2000s, the criminal world and world of secret services were all but the same. It can only get so bad when the country is ridden by criminal gangs, but it is an absolute horror show if the criminal gangs themselves become the police. The contrast between the two most popular Russian movies of the time, Brat (1996) and Bumer (2003), depicts Russia’s transition from the ‘gangster paradise’ of the free-for-all 90-s to the police state of the 00-s. Balabanov’s Gruz 200 provides an insight into an even more sinister pattern: an impotent policeman kidnaps a girl who personifies Russia and lets a convicted blatar rape her. When Putin became president, the whole of Russia fell victim to the cooperation between the secret police and organised crime.

Older generations of the criminals loved to make the point that dirtying hands by collaboration with the state is the worst form of humiliation for a thief. They even fought wars against the so called suki, those of the thieves who cooperated with the state when it promised them amnesty in return for joining Red Army’s fight against the Nazi invaders. In the old days, thieves equally hated the politiki who designed the laws and the siloviki who enforced these laws on them. But now they saw that their code of conduct has become the new law-of-the-land. This meant that they could at last fully redeem one of their monikers, at last turn into the literal ‘thieves-in-law’, holders of the arbitrary power above any law, reason, or justice. They saw that they could become a natural part of the state that was founded on coercion of passive people and extraction of raw resources—a state that had no need for artists or intellectuals, but cherished heroic warriors and industrial executors. They felt at home in “a feudal system in which Putin’s role as the ultimate arbiter between rivals fighting for business was the source of his power”[15], in Putin’s Neo-Bronze Age empire.

In moral terms, a strange marriage had occurred—between the silovik’s genuine concern for the grandeur and security of the empire and the self-seeking greed of the blatar. As a result, the looted Russian wealth ended up firmly in the hands of a small circle of Putin’s friends who justified it by thinking that ‘at least it is now secure in the hands of true patriots’. The coalescence of imperial and private agenda in the minds of strongmen resulted in the distinctly Putinist morality that combines extreme extents of corruption with patriotic rhetoric. For instance, take the confiscation of the riches of the oligarchs. Siloviki were simultaneously trying to secure national riches from the Western control and enrich themselves in the process. A win-win. It was the “takeover of economic, judicial, legislative, and political systems” by Putin’s FSB that soon would accumulate enough wealth and power to turn against the West and, at the same time, to build themselves a dozen palaces.

It may seem that, considering their corruption, siloviki’s patriotism is ludicrously hypocritical, even farcical. But there is no contradiction. Internal and external colonisations go hand-in-hand because there is an inevitable a feedback loop between private greed with imperial ambition: people who are afraid of sharing their disproportionate share of wealth and power with their community through the instruments of communal self-legislation will inevitably use imperial expansion as an pretext for stifling communal self-legislation and as the only means for buying off private citizens by allowing them to share in consumption of the looted booty. A country that can’t renegotiate laws and its social relationships because the authorities fear losing their dominant position is a country whose people can’t cooperate to tap into vistas of creativity. And for a country that creates nothing but only extracts resources from the earth, its citizens, and neighbouring countries, mobilizing for ever new international drama is the only means of growth. Imperialism just extends the logic of private greed to the national scale.

Make no mistake, Russia was colonised by the KGB. By the time of the second half of Putin’s rule, “$800 billion had been stashed offshore since the Soviet collapse, more than the wealth held by the entire Russian population in the country itself… the flood of money leaving the country multiplied many times over the rates seen in the Yeltsin years” [Page 400]. Raw materials were extracted and indigenous people denied any status as political subjects—while the mistresses and offspring of the elite were being integrated into the Western metropolises through investment in real estate and private education. But while the wealth was siphoned from Russia, it was funnelled to the West only so as to create secret networks by means of which to infiltrate, influence and subvert the West. Using Plato’s terms, empire is a product of a ‘monstrous will’, of a link between monstrous appetites of the insatiable criminals and spirited patriotism of secret police, a synergy of internal and external colonisation.

3. THE CULPRITS OF COLONISATION

The Dark Side of Statecraft or What Is the Secret Security Service?

It is often said condescendingly that, after all, we all know that Putin was a KGB agent and that it explains so much. But I think it’s worthwhile to examine what exactly does it explain. What does the secret service represent? Graeber & Wengrow argue that the secret service is essentially a weaponisation of previously unimaginable[16] potency of the modern state. It’s as if the secret service is the dystopian ‘dark side of statecraft’ to which the nation has outsourced its coercive faculty. “Secret agent has become the mythic symbol of the modern state… James Bond, with his licence to kill, combines charisma, secrecy and the power to use unaccountable violence, underpinned by a great bureaucratic machine”[17]. In a certain sense, we can think of the secret police as the ego of the state: just like my ego is a schemer obsessed with my status in the dominance hierarchy, the secret police is obsessed with the state’s status in the geopolitical realm. Secret service is like a paranoid conspiracist who doesn’t believe in anything except the argument of violence.

To put it even more provocatively, the secret agent is the opposite to the version of personhood upon which the West is predicated, the inverse of everything a Christian should be, a sort of antichrist. You can think about antichristian ethos by considering the chronological enactment of vices that comprised the biblical account of human Fall into the Bronze Age slavery: ‘hiding’, ‘lying’, ‘killing’. Is the secret agent a ‘hider’, a ‘liar’, and a ‘killer’? First, the secret agent is of course a hider, he is secretive. If, in Christian terms, the person’s identity comes from actual participation in conversations and relationships, the identity of the secret agent is nothing but a mask behind which other interests and relations lurk. In this sense, secret servicemen embody Faustian modernity—they sell their soul, the faculty of participation in relationships, for the sake of acquiring power, knowledge, and (in siloviki’s case) wealth, provided by the modern nation state. It is the modern re-enactment of pagan pre-eminence of ‘having mode’ over ‘being mode’, the will over personhood, as if personhood is nothing but a property of the will, as if the personality was indeed a mere persona, a mask. Masha Gessen insightfully referred to Putin as a ‘man without face’[18]. The secret agent is a killer, an unlikely fusion of refined mendacity and savage cruelty, a cagey beast[19]—the inverse of the non-violent ‘cheek-turning’ of Jesus. The secret agent is a liar—the inverse of a sin-confessing parishioner. Moreover, he mistrusts everyone and everything, he is a paranoid conspiracist—the inverse of the believer who ‘always trusts’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). And since the secret police approaches everything as if there is a secret plot hidden behind it, a cabal plotting to subvert and steal the power of the state, they run the danger of getting lost in the debris of their own conspiracy theories. Their bad faith makes them particularly susceptible to wilful blindness.

And this is the irony of the secret service—the people who are entrusted to collect intelligence often become the ones most detached from it. The enthronement of the secret agent brings this detachment to comical proportions. Recall that the siloviki don’t have any issues with the government as long as they stay in the privileged position. It means that the ruler who relies on siloviki is bound to become blinded by their sycophancy: they will filter out everything that might sound as critique. As the Russian saying goes, “To be promoted, you need to report only what the boss wants to hear”. The ruler gets out of touch with reality because his courtiers are possessed by their will-to-power. ‘For most of history, this was the dynamic of sovereignty. Rulers would try to establish the arbitrary nature of their power; their subjects… would try to surround the godlike personages of those rulers with an endless maze of ritual restrictions, so elaborate that the rulers ended up, effectively, imprisoned in their palaces…’ (The Dawn of Everything, Page 396). In Tyrants Destroyed, Nabokov brilliantly articulates this dynamic by describing how a ‘tyrant calls himself a “prisoner of people’s will”’[20]. Th tyrant’s palace becomes an echo chamber and an echo chamber becomes a prison—a dim place where the spark of truth rarely flickers. This reciprocal enslavement is key to this essay: as your choices get more arbitrary, that is more free from morality and reality, your repertoire of choices narrows. The information, the intelligence you get deteriorates because your relationship with other people deteriorates. And for limited mortals like us, whose sanity depends on exchange of perspectives with each other and whose freedom depends on renegotiation of our relationships with each other, this spells disaster. The more ‘freedom of will’ you have, the less free you become.

Dictatorship & Contradiction

I like to think that proper statecraft is a rational ‘contradiction’ between science and desires—a creative converse on a healthy ratio between the forms of life we want to conduct and the forms of life we know as realistically possible. Statecraft turns into dictatorship when it stops being a place for such contradiction, a place for dialogue, and turns into a monologue of those who happen to be in power. Because dictatorship is the state where statesmen dictate but can’t be contradicted, can’t listen, dictators lose their critical feedback with reality—get out of sync with facts and values. When this happens, governance succumbs to the will-to-power of the authorities whose arbitrary decisions cease having any relation to the common good.

The styles of central governance are promiscuous: they tend to be replicated on all levels of society. Across Russia, administrators ‘build imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime—in local government, the charity sector, even volunteer associations—just to prevent anyone from starting something not subservient to the state’[21]. Once people lost their agency of self-governance to the vertical diktat of the sovereign, they found themselves at odds with their own nature as political animals. Once people stopped being citizens who have a say in common affairs they felt as if their lives were handed over to fate. The only way to regain the sense of control was to embrace the arbitrariness of life and displace their agency on those down in the ‘food chain’ in the form of violence. Hence the vertical of arbitrary power had penetrated all levels of society. The so-called dedovshchina (Rus. for violent ‘hazing’ or ‘bullying’) creeped into every level of relationships: in households husbands coerced wives and children, in companies managers coerced staff, in the public realm siloviki coerced activists, and soon on the international scene big countries would coerce the small ones.

Without the chance to verbalise their desires within the processes of communal self-legislation, without the chance to articulate their will non-violently, that is politically, people were left to attune their will to the wills of those who could articulate it—that is, they were left to participate in the imposition of the will of the authorities on the subordinates, of masters on slaves. Those unable to articulate their passions and resentments politically were used as fuel for the vertical of coercion. A state where there are no conversations in which people deliberate on sensible and desirable decisions is a state where, behind closed doors of cabinets, ‘little putins’ make decisions that are arbitrary—that is, neither desirable nor sensible, but calculated to make those who make them stay in power. It is a society where ‘might makes right’ in every dimension of life, where the anti-law, call it Thrasymachian, Machiavellian, or Nietzschean, has at last triumphed.

Law proper is designed to promote cooperation or at least make the current style of competition less self-destructive for the competitors. In contrast to this, the thieves’ law (Rus. blatnoi zakon) is the anti-law—a legalisation and legitimation of antisocial behaviour, of the right of the strong to act with impunity. In short, blatnoi zakon centres around the principle of non-cooperation. And, in a state where human freedom was fettered by asphyxiating artificial limits with the drab monotony of Soviet life, the life of a thief seemed to epitomise freedom. Against this background occurred a romanticization of thievery. Across the country, when asked who they want to be when they grow up, the boys answered—“We want to become thieves!”

But this was only the underworld of society. It is only once this ‘underworld’ came to concord with the ‘dark side of statecraft’, the siloviki, that the whole society started to be corrupted by the evil of kriminalitet. The silovik ‘starter pack’ of ‘hiding—lying—killing’ was supplemented with the blatar practice of ‘stealing’. Admittedly, secret police and crime syndicates exist in every country. Yet in Russia they became allies and filed a joint bid for power. It happened because, in contrast to post WW2 Germany, in Russia, dictatorship was never condemned. Russians en masse never came to terms with the Stalinist perversion of morality through inversion of freedoms.

It is arguably a necessary evil, perhaps a ‘dark side’ of statecraft, when secret servicemen exercise hiding, lying, and killing for the sake of national security, but it is something else entirely when they exercise it for the sake of stealing—their own kleptomania. Before their confluence with the thieves, the secret servicemen might have been used in service of the democratic politics. After the merge, they were in service of one thing—greed. Once it happens, slowly but surely, governance becomes undermined by violent zero-summism. And because the critique of democratic politics poses the biggest threat to the kleptocrats, they narrow the public square to just one kind of politics, the geopolitics, the rooting for a state’s zero-sum fight for the ‘spheres of influence’ against other states. It’s as if the ‘dark side’ of statecraft devours the whole of the state, even in its international relations.

Capitalism & Self-legislation

Contrary to widespread predictions, instalment of free market capitalism did not prevent the enthronement of the siloviki. Liberal reformers of the 1990s themselves openly referred to their policy of rapid transition of Russia to a free market economy as ‘shock therapy’. Instead of Sakharov’s ideal of convergence between capitalism and socialism into a more complex equilibrium, Russians were left without a state altogether because it was flooded with the triumphant neoliberals who seduced it with the idea that free market economy marks the end of history, the final destination of civilisation.

The laissez-faire approach (light-touch regulation of the market) does not take into account that the free market functions properly only if its players stay lawful and rational. The FSB men were neither: they leveraged the state’s power to manipulate the law in favour of their short-sighted interests. “Instead of seeking to strengthen institutions in order to erase the abuses of the past, Putin’s allies simply took them over, giving themselves the monopoly of abusing power” (Page 280). ‘Those who believed they were working to introduce a free market had underestimated the enduring power of the security men. “This is the tragedy of twentieth-century Russia”, said Pugachev. “The revolution was never complete”. From the beginning, the security men had been laying down roots for revanche’ (Page 500).

When the liberals manipulated the elections in 1996 and 2000 to prevent the people from electing the communists (decisions that led to the election of Putin), they erred in equivocating freedom and the free market. They thought that it was the communist preoccupation with equality that made freedom impossible—as if equality and freedom were fundamentally irreconcilable. In reality, freedom depends on the ability to participate in public self-legislation.

And once it was undermined by the liberal anti-communists, the people—including Putin—became cynical. The 1996 election of half-alive Yeltsin was the point when Russian demos were denied a right to choose for itself, to be its own policymaker. Pugachev, who stood behind manipulations that propelled Putin into presidency, says that the error he regrets the most was to undermine the process of democratic empowerment: “I’ve learned an important lesson… Power is sacred. When you believe people are stupid, and that if you don’t act they will vote in the Communists, that was a big mistake. We all thought people were not ready, and we would install Putin. But power comes from God. And if power comes from God, then there is no need to interfere…” (Page 499). The Western and Russian liberals thought that the market would save Russia from tyranny, that it would automatically transform it into a free and lawful nation. But it was a Cold War error to think that the divide that separates freedom from unfreedom and law from lawlessness is the divide between free market and command economy. In fact, capitalist Russia would threaten and undermine the West in ways which communist Russia never could. People thought they had defeated communism and become free, but their problem was not communism, it was imperialism—the fundamental disregard towards all levels of local self-legislation. And the Russian imperialists did not care about protecting communism at all, they gladly accepted capitalism as a powerful weapon to pursue their private and imperial ambitions in a new mode.

The neoliberal West erred in inverting the logic of capitalism. The fair market becomes possible within the context of a certain form of life. Contractual relationships that engender consistent collaboration were based on a trust that every individual can be a self-legislating agent who keeps his promises, that he will not spend all the money on lavish displays of excess but will reinvest over and over again so as to make sure that the enterprise will keep bringing dividends in the long run. Although capitalism does incentivise human vices for the sake of mutual enrichment (mediated through growth of the economy at large) it ultimately depends on virtues that put the market within the wider context of mutual aid—“integrity, decency, honesty and generosity”[22]. The market is the consequence of these civic and civil virtues, but it does not have a civilising effect vice versa—it does not turn thieves and bullies into vessels of Protestant work ethic. The framework of human rights stems from the realisation of the dignity of every human person. The cultures that didn’t come to terms with the form of life which made the market possible, cynically confused the vices it incentivised with the traits of the ultimate standard of a life worth living. So what we get is a billionaire Jack Ma espousing a mythological American Dream of selfish enrichment. No, economic prosperity does not magically usher democracy. It is the economically stagnant Ukraine that demonstrated a rather unprecedented enthusiasm for democracy: revolution against electoral machinations and kleptocracy in 2004, revolution of dignity in defence of human rights in 2014, war against the autocracy in 2022. What other people had repeatedly made so many sacrifices for the sake of political freedom?

In striking contrast, the countries that were getting prosperous after the abandonment of communism—China, Russia,—were becoming autocracies marked by gradual erasure of human rights. Why? Because the crucial divide is not capitalism vs. communism; but imperialism vs. self-legislation. Installation of the free market does not bring democracy; the cultural education of citizens to be articulate participants of communal self-legislation does. But the West chose to appease the new Russian regime in hope that as Russians were getting richer, they would soon become interested in tasting democracy. Instead, they were bought by the regime. And after a certain point, the option of democracy was simply no longer on the table. Self-legislation was something that the new Russian leadership couldn’t allow.

“As the four years of his first term passed, he understood things had happened that would never allow him to step down”.[23] Putin understood that the extent of wealth and power his people secured after the collapse of the USSR was unsustainable under democracy. Their corrupt way of doing business did not lend itself to the transparent marketplace of Western capitalism. “Putin had gotten to the point where he had built this kleptocracy that was the source of his power in Russia. Controlling the money, finding sources of money, was absolutely essential to maintaining his hold on power, continuing to buy off elites. And an integrated Russia that had to play by the rules, that had to be transparent, that had to be open, was totally antithetical to sustaining that kleptocracy. The two things couldn’t go together. At a certain point it became against Putin’s personal interest to pursue Russian integration [into the Western system] because he couldn’t accept the rules, the transparency, the norms that come with that. That would undermine the kleptocracy that he was building… By that time we really were in the zero-sum world where, from Moscow’s perspective, Russia’s strength was our [the United States’] weakness, and our gain was their loss”.[24]

The transparency for which the liberals fought in the 1980s was simply not compatible with the kleptocracy Putin had built. Like the siloviki of the Stalin era who perceived that the greatest threat comes not from the criminals but from the civil society, Putin’s siloviki were coming to the conclusion that the West’s aspiration to promote democracy posed the greatest threat to them. Friendship—if we may so call it—between secret police and crime forged in GULAG had brought the ideology of the death camp, lagernaya pravda, to the level of national governance. And before the world knew it, this absolute zero-summism became the essence of Russia’s foreign policy.

CONCLUSION: The Character of the Elite

I think that to ask “Who is responsible for the death of democracy?” is to pose a sloppy question. Autocracy is the end game of the erosion of responsibility itself. If there is an exchange of perspectives at the heart of decision-making, then we can talk about responsibility, if there is none, then there is no responsibility at all—the ruler stops being responsible to the critique of other people and thus becomes detached from reality. In absence of critical feedback, the ruler will only ‘respond’ to the imperative of staying in power, thus becoming possessed by the logic of escalation that justifies concentration of decision-making in the hands of arbitrary authority. In other words, the emperor will inevitably confuse himself with a god and take on the conquest of the world. The critical feedback ends when people who ‘say truth to power’ are eliminated from decision-making (and eventually from media as well) so that the ruler no longer talks with people who pose unpleasant questions. Which means that the key question is this: “What is the selection process of the people who have a say in common affairs?” or “How is the elite constituted?”

We often forget that to talk of any political regime is to talk of a regime of human life, to talk of a certain character for which the people who take part in decision-making are selected. Putin’s regime is downstream of political repressions in Soviet Russia which, perhaps for the first time in human history, blew up the process of ‘unnatural selection’ in the realm of social processes to industrial proportions. This involved “philosophical steamships”[25] and “political cleansings” of all who were devoted to abstract principles from the heights of which the power could be critiqued. People were taught to believe power cannot be critiqued—that “those on the top see better”.[26] Putin’s regime’s preference for the law-breakers and law-enforcers over law-makers led to an unnatural style of governance that didn’t take any human interest into account—except the insatiable greed that necessitated an escalation of self-destructive imperialism.

The siloviki laid the foundation for their ascent even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but by 2004, thanks to the first cadence of their fellow secret serviceman in the presidential office, they’ve occupied all the titbits of bureaucratic hierarchy, gained control over the entire country, colonising it to serve two interdependent aims: private enrichment and imperial expansion, internal and external colonisation.

First, the people: Russians hated the didactic idealism of Soviet culture. With each song, movie, painting, book, and theatre play, Soviet authors taught people how to live, how to become conscientious citizens. In reaction to this, people wanted to throw politics out of their lives and breathe the air of private freedom, freedom of will. The liberal turmoil of the 1990s, when politics was seemingly everywhere, also did not seem to do Russians any good. By the 2000s, Russians essentially abandoned their civic duty of holding the authorities responsible by giving them carte blanche as long as they did not impinge on people’s private lives. There was this ‘Faustian’ contract by which people sold their political freedom for the freedom of private enrichment. This helped to recruit the elite among thieves who were only interested in private profit and ‘patriots’ who were only interested in the geopolitical supremacy of their fatherland—both had nothing against arbitrary rule. Nor were they committed to political freedom and social justice.

Second, the ruler: Putin’s secret service education taught him radical distrust. Instead of being an integrated person, he sports many personas at will so as to infiltrate and gain trust within various communities. Since he fears double loyalty behind everyone he meets, it is easier for him to deal with ‘his people’ stained by the blood they shed during their secret in the secret police, and with the thieves, whose corruption gave Putin absolute control over them. Since he fears ulterior motives behind everyone he meets, it is easier for him to deal with the siloviki who are just as obsessed with imperial pride and the blatari whose greed demonstrated a lack of ulterior loyalty—for them, enrichment was visibly an end in itself. Putin selected the elite on the basis of such loyalty.

In short, as a result of Putin’s secret serviceman’s habit of paranoid mistrust and the political apathy of the people, it were the thieves-in-law and secret police who became the prime recruits for the elite. Yet, with the passage of time, these people less and less resembled an elite. By the point of the February 2022 Security Council meeting, Putin was able to laden all the upper echelon officials with shared responsibility by forcing them to dip their hands in blood, to voice support for the launch of a ‘special military operation’, because they visibly feared saying anything that wouldn’t please him. The elite that couldn’t contradict the dictator couldn’t prevent the development of a regime based on the intelligence detached from reality, law reduced to ‘might makes right’, and narrative reduced to the mythology of geopolitical struggle between empires. At the same time, history as the process of civilising, outgrowing zero-sum-gaming, the very historiography that was the backbone of the Soviet regime, was deemed naïve and replaced by the history of zero-sum fluctuations in the carve-up of ‘influence spheres’.

In the next chapter I’ll narrate the story of how the zero-sum ‘deathcamp realism’ of the Russian elites entered into a chemical reaction with zero-summism on the international scale, the so-called geopolitical ‘realism’, which taught them to see territorial conquest as the answer to all problems.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

[1] I have to confess that I use the word politiki in an idiosyncratic fashion. Politiki is a derogatory term for the victims of political repressions used by the blatari. (The other term for the members of intelligentsia is Ivan Ivanovich). Not all politiki in this sense – by all means – refused to bow down to the authorities and other pressures of the camp. Quite the opposite – many of them were the first to cave in to what I call the ‘death camp realism’. I will later in this text consider the idea of humans as political animals at length and argue that this is where human nature passes its test for ‘authenticity’: those are the true political animals, true politiki, the ones who refused to participate in the imposition of will. And the thing that distinguishes politiki, I guess, is not the great willpower that allows them to stand their ground in GULAG but their prosocial and cooperative attitude, their faith in the possibility of non-zero-sum relationships.

[2] The so-called ‘Thieves’ Law’, Rus. Vorovskoy zakon.

[3] Edwin Hatch. (1878). Breathe on Me, Breath of God.

[4] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.

[5] W. H. Auden. (1940). The New Year Letter. In Collected Poems, Vintage International. 1991. New York. Page 209.

[6] These terms, vragi naroda and druzia naroda, are historical facts.

[7] Catherine Belton, (2020). Putin’s People.

[8] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 459.

[9] Russian for ‘Russians’.

[10] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 147.

[11] First usage is in Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragic/comic play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding.

[12] Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged.

[13] It can also be called the ‘forgetfulness of being’, English for Heideggerian-German Seinsvergessenheit.

[14] W. H. Auden. Danse Macabre (French ‘The Dance of Death’).

[15] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 484.

[16] “Ancient kings were rarely able to enforce their power systematically (often, as we’ve seen, their supposedly absolute power really just meant they were the only people who could mete out arbitrary violence within about 100 yards of where they were standing…) In modern states, the same kind of power is multiplied a thousand times because it is combined with the second principle: bureaucracy… Administrative organisations are always based not just on control of information, but also on ‘official secrets’ of one sort or another. (Graeber & Wengrow. (2020). The Dawn of Everything. Page 366).

[17] Graeber & Weingrow. (2020). The Dawn of Everything. Page 366.

[18] Masha Gessen. (2012). The Man Without A Face. The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books. Penguin Random House.

[19] I couldn’t help myself.

[20] Nabokov, Vladimir. Tyrants Destroyed. (Rus. Набоков описывает тирана “… сидящего за множеством чугунных и дубовых дверей в неизвестной камере главной столичной тюрьмы, превращенной для него в замок (ибо этот тиран называет себя «пленником воли народа, избравшего его»)… Набоков, Владимир. Истребление тиранов. Страница 393.)

[21] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russian like an asylum. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/23/opinion/russia-putin-war.html

[22] A recurring line in the speeches of Cornel West.

[23] Putin’s People, Page 11. Taped speech by Sergei Pugachev

[24]Antony Blinken. The Putin Files: Antony Blinken

[25] In 1922, the Soviet regime forcibly expelled from Russia three “philosophical steamships” with many talented people. The fate of many passengers was happier than those who sent them.“The gatherings took place in deliberately humiliating conditions. The deportees were allowed to take with them only a minimum stock of clothes, wedding rings and no more than 50 roubles in gold. Everything else, including notebooks and body crosses, was required to be left at home.”

[26]In Soviet times it was possible because the party was thought to be able to fully represent the interests of workers’ as a class, and since they were the only class, one party was enough. Thus people were taught to believe that there is someone who makes decisions instead of them, someone who understands their interests as a class better than them because they’re not initiated into Marxian theory of class warfare. Today’s it is substituted by the theory of geopolitical warfare.

References

  1. Catherine Belton (2020). Putin’s People.
  2. David Graeber & David Weingrow (2020). The Dawn of Everything.
  3. Gideon Rachman (2022). The Age of Strongmen.
  4. Michael Sandel. (2012). What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. SBN 9780374203030.
  5. Masha Gessen. (2012). The Man Without A Face. The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books. Penguin Random House.
  6. Hanzi Freinacht. (2016). The Listening Society. The Metamodern Guide to Politics. Part One. Metamoderna Press.
  7. Hanzi Freinacht. (2019). Nordic Ideology. The Metamodern Guide to Politics. Part Two. Metamoderna Press.
  8. Vladimir Nabokov. (1937). The Gift.
  9. Vladimir Nabokov. Conclusive Evidence.
  10. Vladimir Nabokov. Tyrants Destroyed.
  11. Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Stories.
  12. Varlam Shalamov. Chronicles of the Criminal World.
  13. Thomas Merton. (1968). War And The Crisis Of Language. The draft of this article was written by Merton in 1968. It was not published till after his death: in 1969 as an essay in The Critique of War: Contemporary Philosophical Explorations, edited by Robert Ginsberg (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company).
  14. Anna Politkovskaya. (2004). Putin’s Russia.
  15. Rowan Williams. Resurrection.
  16. Rowan Williams. The Truce of God. Peacemaking in Troubled Times.
  17. Robert Amsterdam. (2006). ‘Rosneft IPO Represents Nothing But the Syndication of the GULAG’. Financial Times.
  18. Wystan Hugh Auden. (1952). The Shield of Achilles.
  19. Vladimir Putin. (2004). Address delivered in the aftermath of the Beslan attack. September 4, 2004.
  20. Anatoli Ulyanov. (2022). Why do Russian occupiers wipe cities off the face of the earth and arrange ‘Buchas’? Link: https://www.facebook.com/100000275173858/posts/5536815189670932/?d=n
  21. Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.
  22. Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russia like an asylum. The New York Times International Edition. Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/23/opinion/russia-putin-war.html
  23. Alexei Navalny. (2022). Vladimir Putin in ‘100 most influential people in 2022’. Link: https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2022/6177689/vladimir-putin-leaders/?fbclid=IwAR2WAJvnFq0O_jw2cRwP00gHFdUINrzzpqp2vwOIlUNKB6j5ThvPSOBkPdg
  24. Joe Biden. (2022). What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine. June 1, 2022. New York Times Opinion. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/31/opinion/biden-ukraine-strategy.html.
  25. Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/23/we-must-stop-letting-russia-define-the-terms-of-the-ukraine-crisis ]
  26. Pavlov, Ivan P. (1960). Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. New York: Dover.

10 Ways to Thoroughly “Solarpunk” Society

In my previous article, I tried to lay out the argument for solarpunk as a deeply liberal, participatory movement for ecological sustainability / resilience / regenerativity. With its aesthetics, its design patterns, its budding architectural visions, its spirit of reconciliation between nature and tech, the solarpunk movement bears massive transformative potential. If we want societies that go beyond what we have known as modern, capitalist, liberal democracies (without sacrificing the freedoms and standard of living of these), visions of solarpunk societies may in fact be our best bet.

This is why I have called solarpunk a “gateway drug” into metamodernism, i.e., into the kinds of society that go beyond modern life as we know it.

Solarpunk can do what merely intellectual arguments of better governance, of democracy, even of ecological collapse and the natural sciences, cannot: entice the average person, in particular, the established and new middle classes from across the world. If this potential is not tapped into in liberal and democratic societies, wide swathes of global populations will likely begin to look towards the paternalist and authoritarian powers that are already beginning to cast themselves as furnishers of solarpunk spaces and lifestyles (see previous article).

As authoritarianism will seem more appealing, democracy will continue to recede across the world and islands of “gated community” solarpunk-ish cities like Singapore and Dubai will win the hearts and minds of the world’s population.

But, if solarpunk is employed in tandem with processes of deepening democracy, more in line with its original ethos, it can scaffold and guide the steps of transformations that are not just aesthetically superficial, but ones that will reshape the social structure, human relations, and even our minds and emotions.

When solarpunk entices us within a democratic setting, it also draws us into a certain social logic that flows from attempts to manifest its visions: If we are to recreate public spaces through the participatory design of the many, we are compelled to find answers to how this is to be done, and issues that have hitherto appeared cumbersome and irrelevant can begin to engage citizens and lead to a development of governance that I have called democratization politics. And if we build more decentralized power grids, these become increasingly rooted in local communities, which highlights issues of what I have called Gemeinschaft politics. When people begin to reimagine their urban environments, this leads not only to Protopian ideas of what can be improved or be made more sustainable, but just as importantly to an ongoing renegotiations of social relations in society.

As I argued in the last article, there is a “good slippery slope” inherent in solarpunk that leads from more superficial concerns and aesthetic lure towards issues of civic engagement and social innovation—which aligns with what I call Protopian or metamodern design patterns of society. My hypothesis is that solarpunk is a gateway drug or trojan horse for metamodernism to take hold in mainstream society. And I don’t seem to be alone with this instinct. My friends, Dr Jason Fox and Joe Lightfoot have crafted a Metamodernist Solarpunk Manifesto that outlines an ethos for communities to gather around and start from.

Let us then trace some crucial aspects of how free and democratic societies can be “solarpunked”. (Yes, I’m doing the “it’s a verb” cliché. Sue me.)

Solarpunk cities—a space for reimagining that leads towards deeper questions that concern the social fabric of society, its economy, and governance.

The Four Levels of Solarpunk Co-Development

Let’s first get a sense of where solarpunk design can be located. Is it grassroots, city-level, or even a national project and beyond? I believe that there is a true both-and way to answer this question, and that all answers that focus on one level to the detriment of others are likely to either fail or backfire.

1. Transcendent design

In this first category, we have such solarpunk projects that almost certainly require national investments (large infrastructure projects, the founding or new cities and networks of eco-villages, stimulus packages, the creation of university level educations) and even transnational or supranational commitments (Green New Deal, European New Bauhaus). Without state level actors, flagships of solarpunk design that set the tone for the rest of society are hardly possibly, nor are major infrastructure investments in railways, hyperloops, secure power grids, and the like.

It is important not to fall too much in love with the “small is beautiful” ethos— a few very large projects corresponding to medieval cathedrals are also required for solarpunk to truly shine through to people’s hopes, aspirations, and sense of purpose. As such, at least some symbolic or transcendent “cathedrals” can capture the world’s public imagination, much like Singapore and Saudi Arabia’s The Line have been doing thus far. Democratic societies must link this transcendence to their values of freedom and inclusion.

2. Grand design

Likewise, city-level agents may need to muster resources at a municipal level and link them to specifically solarpunk design and urban ecology projects. This is also “solarpunk from above”, and while it cannot include such projects as key national airports, railways between cities, etc., it may include such things as:

  • Art and event-filled parks
  • Green roofs, collective planning for use of spaces for energy and other social, economic, or eco-services
  • Solar and wind power grid-friendly planning and infrastructure
  • Design guidelines for differently themed areas (night districts are more likely to follow the (bio-)luminescent lunarpunkthemes appropriate for after-dark activities, etc.)
  • Stimulation of the establishment of post-automobile, post-carbon, and sharing economy frameworks and innovation hubs
  • Use of feedback by mobiles etc. for quick reparations and adaptations of spaces and services

3. Inclusive design (also: design justice)

But beyond and below the municipal administration of urban planning there is always-already a living mycelium of communities, of real people with real roots and relationships. Without activating and establishing solarpunk movements and transitions to sustainability in these basic communities, and simultaneously stimulating these for greater social coherence and mutual trust, solarpunk cannot truly function. It loses its soul (again, think Singapore, the typical paternalist let’s-mind-our-own-business-leave-each-other-alone society).

This form of cultural “rooting” includes differentiating solarpunk into different civilizational and aesthetic forms as appropriate—it is unlikely that a future “China town” solarpunk project would have the exact same flavor as an Afrofuturist or Islamic one or as the downtown of Boston or reinventions of its New England suburbia. Such connections to ethnic and cultural communities needs to be cautiously balanced against the cosmopolitan and universalist strivings of an inclusive solarpunk design: on the one hand avoiding the dominance of slick, middleclass, dreamy—and “white”—solarpunk, on the other hand reducing (the unavoidable but undesirable) tendency of solarpunk design to activate ethnic tensions and become an arena for culture wars.

The involvement of communities must itself strive towards social justice (as such, reversing the trend towards privatized and commercialized public spaces, the cultural exclusion of minorities, and of deliberately designing spaces so as to be uninviting for loiterers, the moneyless, the homeless, etc.). This involves, of course, following principles such as those of design justice so that community-led design process itself is as fair and unbiased as possible.

4. Commoning design

There is, of course, a natural alignment between solarpunk urban design and the commons (collective goods and services) and thus the practice of commoning (i.e. reorganizing economies as commons). Solarpunk tries to remedy ecological issues which are always commons of some kind: air, water, power grids, forests, ecosystem services, climate self-regulation, and so on. It also concerns issues that are “commons” of a more abstract or cultural kind: mutual trust in society, the general mood of society, beauty of public spaces, security, the propensity to share, sense of autonomy, connection to nature, mental health, physical health, inventiveness in the face of problems, etc.

The fourth level of solarpunk co-development, even more refined and grassroots-based than the communities themselves, is thus a network of commons and “commoners” that spread solarpunk practices across contexts and help adapt them from city to city. Solarpunks need to be commoners, sharing in open source knowledge, direct action for reclaiming and redesigning spaces, while engaging not only middleclass citizens, but also a wide variety of movements—what Hardt and Negri have called “assemblage” of a “multitude”.

At the basis, solarpunk must empower people to solve their own problems and be genuinely incentivized to share in successes of such self-sovereignty with one another. This requires a strategic—I would say metamodernist—grassroots movement of solarpunks.

Solarpunk a la Metamodernism

Alright, keeping in mind that solarpunk cannot reside on one of these four levels alone if it is to fulfil its promise of a beautiful, ecologically viable, and socially just world, what traits should it have?

Let’s try to sketch it out. A solarpunk that could truly challenge the authoritarian bids to it of today is one that…

  1. Builds around the decentralization of the power grid. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Its about solar power, after all, and that invites a decentralization of power production and thereby of power and resources across society (including a renewed self-reliancethat would make Emerson proud).
  2. Explores decentralization of other systems, like waste, water, and of course, food production. Yes, there it is, the “good slippery slope” of solarpunk. If one thing is decentralized, why not more things? While we all like cheap food, we also like the idea that people close to us that we trust can produce it if need be. This ultimately spreads power in society, as reliance on a few powerful others creates unhealthy power relations. It also means that people can work in these services if they don’t have conventional (modern) jobs.
  3. Uses metamodern aesthetics: implicated authenticity and craftsmanship, but avoids New Age hysteria and direct Fantasy elements.This one could merit its own article, but the idea is that metamodern solarpunk needs to be more implicated, subtle, and sophisticated in its design. It can’t be too “in your face” because it then too easily becomes phony and used to trick people. It needs to master the art of subtly inviting the trained observer, not trying to impress, or even press its own values and aesthetics upon everyone.
  4. Coordinates with the sharing economy. Obviously, solarpunk societies can hardly co-exist with excessive commercialism/consumerism and private ownership. The existing numbers of cars and lawnmowers are wildly exaggerated as compared to the actual need in society—only the lacking logistics (and culture) of sharing hinder a drastic reduction, thereby putting consumption within ecologically reasonable bounds while maintaining a high standard of living. To create genuinely green public spaces, we must share more so that we can burden the space with fewer cars, fewer garages for lawnmowers and cars, and so on.
  5. Builds around material-flow sovereignty. You and your community have very little say and control over how your materials flow around you (from production, to transportation, to waste management) and while we must all work to reduce wasteful and unsustainable flows of material, many different solutions to these issues are possible depending on the contexts of our living conditions. Hence, local community control over material flows coupled with commitments to achieve ecological goals would make sense.
  6. Rewards positive externalities (and reduced/replaced negative ones). A favorite of my commoner friend, Michel Bauwens: today people only get paid for what other people can directly buy, not for e.g. reducing a negative externality of farming, etc. A solarpunk society would give vouchers to reward any innovation or initiative that reaches common goals, even if there is no “product” being sold. So people would be able to make a living by contributing to, for instance, cleaner water, reducing carbon footprints, and so on. This would incentivize innovation in these fields.
  1. Requires a very strong civil sphere (high trust). As discussed above, solarpunk is fundamentally about civil society—even if it must be reflected at all of the four levels discussed above. As a first step to “solarpunking” society you must thereby always build a strong civil society (clubs, associations, communities, congregations, and so on) from which solarpunking can start. The Transition Townsmovement is a lot about gardening, when push comes to shove, but it offers a good civil society backbone for solarpunk.
  2. Requires high average value meme. Controversial as this is (and discussed at length in my books), people must feel, think according to, and embody fairly “progressive” values for solarpunk movements to truly make sense. While there is certainly a role for, say, Christian solarpunk communities, it makes little sense to build a solarpunk movement on the basis of traditionalist fundamentalist evangelists who are against not only any notion of climate change, but even of Darwinian evolution and mainstream science. Nor can the average Wall Street banker be expected to embody values of punk, subtle aesthetics, reconnection to nature, and DIY innovation of postcapitalist solutions.
  3. Connects to redefined metrics of growth/success (and post-growth economics). Solarpunk must be based on other measures than GDP and create a theory-and-practice feedback cycle with heterodox economics that emphasize the reduction of suffering and ecological values.
  4. Connects to reconciliation ecologyand interspecies democracyBasically, solarpunk societies should be cleverly thought-out to sustainably host non-human creatures—like forests, which don’t get invaded by a million rats, but there is still a rich and diverse ecology.
  5. Connects to new municipalismand (digitally enhanced) local council democracy.Basically, solarpunk needs to be punk—building on citizens reclaiming control over their local economies and participating actively in decisions and planning. It’s hard to imagine a truly solarpunked city without a strong element of such renewed municipal autonomy. Solarpunk in a city like Berlin could for instance be introduced through a large fund that will invest in solarpunk projects, but only if the spending of solarpunk transition investments are subject to deep-democratic decision processes of the citizens involved.
  6. Actively nudges towards higher subjective states. However we may view the paternalism of nudging, it cannot be denied that some environments and cues are more likely to make people feel safe, relaxed, and kind rather than aggressive. Whatever design features may nudge in such directions should be included—if, of course, it is an active choice of democratically empowered citizens.
  7. Builds on oscillation between futurism and nature mysticism. Pretty interesting religious currents are likely to emerge in our time, not all of which may have much to do with solarpunk. But solarpunk spirituality would neither align with slick, metallic sci-fi, nor with pulsating, green, fantasy and a longing for the indigenous and animistic; it would try to stretch across this divide, marrying an intimate love of nature to the awe of tech and science.
  8. Connects to digital and cosmolocal economies.The digital realm provides an important space for shared innovations and open source best practices. As such, it invites cosmolocalism: share much of the intellectual goods globally online (and sell some of them) and produce a greater proportion locally. This not only helps optimize for ecological footprints (what to produce where, at what scale, versus the costs of transportation… locally produced is not always better for the environment but it’s a case-to-case calculation), but equally builds resilience into the global system (otherwise, a few bottlenecks in the world’s transport system can paralyze the entire world, cause starvation, fuel poverty, etc.).
  9. Is coordinated with urban crime prevention. Of course, issues of crime, gang violence, ethnic tensions, and so on, don’t magically go away because you “solarpunk” a city. But rather than viewing progressive and idealistic solarpunk visions as antithetical to crime prevention, it can be used for such purposes: dramatically upgrading shanty towns and ghettos, lighting up public spaces, creating greater self-reliance so that fewer people need to resort to criminality, defocusing on material prestige goods which drive inequalities and criminal behaviors, etc.
  10. Builds on critical urban studies. An obvious point, perhaps, but real-world deep-democratic solarpunk should be less based on sci-fi writers and painters and more on urban sociology and urban ecology, understanding such issues as “who the living space is really for” and “how its spaces are used in unexpected ways by whom” and “who gets included/excluded from spaces, on what grounds”, etc.
  11. Has eco-villages as its base (cottagepunk). Last but not least, solarpunk is not just about metropolises envisioned in green: it’s just as relevant in suburbia, in small town life, in villages, on the country side, even in wildlife restoration. A key element of solarpunk are eco-villages based around local communities where people can access things like a plot of own land, own electricity, and control over a local water supply—many such villages would be able to build up a new kind of economy where people can make decisions together, have at least some limited backup self-reliance if the economy goes badly, and have alternative identities and roles than just their jobs. Jobs would in turn often be digital distance jobs. This can allow for sustainable, attractive, close-to-nature living combined with participation in a global economy. This may include living concepts such as the ReGen villages. Thus far it hasn’t been successful, but imagine what such projects could do with the proper backing of state actors.

And that, my dear planners, leaders, philanthropists, investors, designers, innovators, activists, and fellow citizens, is how we should thoroughly solarpunk society. And turn a city like Berlin into a solarpunk Mecca.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

 

We Must Reclaim Solarpunk from Authoritarian Regimes

Without an aesthetic program, it is impossible to truly recreate today’s society in desired directions. We need more than just ideas of the things we wish to avoid (ecological disaster, pandemics, famine, wars, existential risks from technology…). We need more than a moral mission (e.g. “remedy suffering” or “save the animals” as discussed in one of my previous articles) or even the search for truth (“the mysteries of the universe, as revealed by science, in humanity’s greatest quest…”).

We also need an aesthetic longing that calls us: a sense of beauty, of good taste, of inspiration, of creativity.

The Nazis understood this very well. And so do the authoritarian regimes of today. Democratic nice guys, on the other hand, seem to struggle grasping this. As such, only authoritarian regimes have successfully managed to apply the aesthetics that speaks to the longings of 21st century humans: solarpunk.

I believe that the solarpunk movement and its aesthetics offer some of the most viable pathways for such an impulse—one that is capable of carrying forward transition (to sustainability) and transformation (of social reality). Solarpunk can be a vehicle of metamodernist visions, not as a set of abstract ideas and ideals, but as something that is viscerally experienced through the senses and thus easy to communicate and build momentum and movement around. Solarpunks (i.e. people committed to this design sensibility) can be purveyors of metamodern culture and thus ultimately of Protopian society, strengthening these attractor points.

So this is relevant stuff—let’s take a closer look at what may be at stake.

A Trojan Horse for Metamodernism

There is a certain logic behind solarpunk as a fulcrum for metamodernist cultural change. Metamodernism—the practice of taking modernity and its progress as an object to be related to and redirected—thrives at the crossroads of fact and fiction, with informed naivety, pragmatic romanticism, and so forth. The same can be said of solarpunk—it is science fiction about near futures where humanity lives closer to the environment but still with the perks of advanced technology, in closer connection to life and to one another. As solarpunk visions are fictional but strive to become increasingly tangible and to offer real solutions, they naturally strengthen the tendencies of pragmatic romanticism in culture. But there’s more to it than that: solarpunk projects bring with them a certain dynamic which subtly directs people towards metamodernist sensibilities:

  • Let’s say you build a solarpunk movement around 12 visions: (cleanest streets, greenest streets, local expression, e-democracy and participation, responsive transculturalism, colorful and artsy streets, beautiful and living buildings, healthy environments, best choice architectureNew Municipalism, AI and IoT feedback for public goods, and of course sustainable energy).
  • This means you’ll need to start investing much time, effort, money, materials, and energy into certain projects to improve buildings, streets, electric grids, transport, etc.
  • This means that people will need to suggest such projects and gain traction for them by their peers.
  • This will drive forward digital democratic frameworks and tools for presenting the ideas and deciding upon them.
  • This will invest people—with real stakes—in deeper democratic participation.
  • This will make people concerned with processes of democratization and thereby with the other processes that naturally follow from that starting point (the six new forms of politics that I discuss in my book Nordic Ideology). Otherwise, these issues simply don’t crop up as priorities in people’s lives.
  • And that will get people into a space of superposition between the real here-and-now and the yet-to-be-even-imagined possible: the “new possible” as some people have termed it.
  • And that’s basically the shift from modern to metamodern or Protopian culture.

Solarpunk can thus be a trojan horse for metamodernism. The expected, or desired, end result is not actually a shiny, green, techy, clean, happy, beautiful city. A metamodern society is, with its richer culture, superior governance, and “listening society” welfare is—i.e. a society profoundly happier and kinder than our current one. The solarpunk stuff is just the gateway drug to get people interested in things that sound too abstract.

Little wonder that metamodernism and solarpunk have already begun to overlap. My Aussie friends, Joe Lightfoot and Jason Fox, have already cobbled together a Metamodern Solarpunk Manifesto—which also incorporates neo-tribal elements, a theme earlier discussed in this article series.

The Grim Reality: Authoritarian Solarpunk

So, to strengthen the attractor points of metamodern society, we basically need to stimulate solarpunk movements, municipalities, urban planners, artists, writers, companies, and ecovillages, right?

Not so fast. The only solarpunk projects thus far—in terms of awe-inspiring aesthetics—have been led by agents decidedly un-metamodern: by authoritarian and paternalistic regimes. Singapore is, of course, the clearest example. But Chinese and Vietnamese projects are joining the fray. Saudi Arabia is designing a whole city, The Line, entirely based around a post-car world. These projects may look like solarpunk, the green and clean future cities we long for, but they are anything but alive and organic in the sense that they build on grassroots, on commons, and so on.

Solar-punks are idealistic libertarians, mainly within the West (sometimes elsewhere), often connected to some version of “nerd” counterculture (visionary/utopian sci-fi, regenerative gardening, tech, nature mysticism, paganism, hackathons, digital arts, role playing, and so on)—represented to a lesser extent also in developing countries. It builds on cyberpunk, on punk simply, on DIY, on energy sovereignty, on a romantic calling back to earth, soil, and nature. It’s about the love of freedom, the feeling that each of us can build small but beautiful lives, but still make a difference that makes a difference. It builds on a sense of the organic, the spontaneous, that streak of a fiercely independent “chaotic good” in each of us, to speak in roleplaying terms. Its intellectual icons are people like sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, the inventor Buckminister Fuller, and the architect-theorist Christopher Alexander.

But, ironically enough, the solarpunk aesthetics—the bank of imagery that comes up if you image-Google the term—seems to come in two distinctly different shades.

  • The painted and animated images take the direction of the somewhat-too-fanciful-to-be-taken-seriously fantasy genre, sometimes overlapping with New Age-like themes.
  • The other side, the photorealistic and architectural side, puts on display examples primarily from Singapore, but with some other examples from undeniably beautiful but dictatorial prestige projects, often catering to a rich, transnational class of professionals who are expected to come as tourists or residents but have no stake or say in a solarpunk reality themselves. Poor people, of course, would be locked out—or brought in only as migrant workers with little to no labor and civic rights. It’s a shiny, green, new version of the Dubai model, a city-state level version of the gated community.

Of the two, it is clear that the photorealistic solarpunk of Singapore is the one that captures the world’s imagination: it brings a taste of the future that feel concrete and credible. The more far-out images of fantasy-like solarpunk are just too childish and imagined to be taken seriously by the bulk of people (fantasy and sci-fi art, in turn, mimic the techniques of Romanticism period painting, i.e. heightening color, contrast, detail, perfection, on otherwise nearly realistic paintings, so as to give them that magical glow). Take a look at a few examples of two strands of solarpunk art/design below:

Solarpuink art: “fantasy/sci-fi” style:

Fantasy-style solarpunk—skies are always blue in these images.

Fantasy solarpunk—clearly a dream-world far removed from any urban planning.

Solarpunk “Singapore” style:

Singapore style solarpunk—notice how it works even on a cloudy day.

Arial view of Singapore’s famous “Garden by the Bay”.

Singapore-style solarpunk—notice how it works even with cars in sight.

To this second category you may also add the airport photo at the beginning of this article.

I spoke to a US citizen on a train about a year ago—he compared his native San Francisco to Singapore in which he was currently based. While he admitted that the latter was authoritarian, there was no doubt as to which one he preferred: his descriptions of the urban decay of San Francisco and his appreciation for the neat and the orderly spoke for themselves. Similar stories begin to crop up across the West: An old uncle of mine, a retired mailman from a liberal European country, awe-struck with Singapore’s order and beauty, called it “an ideal society” after a brief visit to his son who studied there. Hearing my old uncle’s tales of Singapore is, I imagine, the equivalent of what it must have been like to hear the visitors of early 20th century skyscraper America.

Meanwhile, liberal hubs like Berlin and San Francisco are not being properly solarpunked. Both cities have solarpunk communities and a few spots with solarpunk vibes going for them (like Salesforce Park in SF), but they’re just not leading stars like Singapore is.

Need I point out the risk we are running here? Solarpunk aesthetics are incredibly powerful, but they remain in the hands of those city planners that have enough centralized political power to make these visions come true. Such powers include: long-term capacity for large scale top-down planning, finances for no-expenses-saved projects, and of course border controls to attract only wealthy citizens while denying the unhealthy access or at least citizenship. Ideal society—ahem.

As fascist and neo-traditionalist theorists have long argued, it is often authority, inequality, and top-down power that concerns itself with the spiritual goals of embellishment (made possible, then, by the power differential itself, if you will by the surplus gained from exploitation itself): the super-rich create mansions and keep art galleries alive, the Catholic church raised cathedrals, and so forth, while communist or social democrat apartment blocks are generally functional and uninspiring—hence, the Louvre is not filled with 20th century stuff, but with stuff from more unequal and authoritarian days.

If the beauties and allure that capture the global public imagination and aesthetically define “the good life” are solarpunk-based, and if solarpunk is increasingly in the hands of authoritarian powers—what do you think will happen? There are already other attractor points that suggest we could end up in a period of global balkanization combined with some kind of eco-fascism or at the very least an extensive and deliberately exclusive eco-paternalism. If the citizens of the free world do not soon begin to offer viable alternatives to authoritarian solarpunk, the battle for human dreams and desires will very likely be won by authoritarian powers. People will gladly sell out their freedom and democracy for a chance to live in what looks like an ideal society. The lure of aesthetically superior expression and smoothly running social order will snuff out first the spirit of liberty and then of equality.

The Cold War against communist authoritarianism was not won by moral arguments. It was won, primarily, by consumer goods, by lifestyles that elicited genuine, visceral desires: As an example, it can be mentioned that leftwing Western students who visited communist East Germany were shocked to find that the citizens there were obsessed with empty cereal boxes from the West and would use them as decorations in their kitchens. And in 1959, in what was later named the Kitchen Debate, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Here he was shown a replica of an American household with all the newest home appliances and was shocked to see the level of affluence enjoyed by ordinary middleclass Americans.

The world’s imagination was captured by the lifestyle of the “1st world”. It is a daunting thought that washing machines, color TVs and middle class suburbias won the battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism under a thin guise of socialism. Today, however, authoritarianism is winning the hearts of the global middle class through its capacity to guarantee order—and to solarpunk society “from above”.

You Could Show It to a Six-Year-Old—And, Crucially, to the Middle Class

If you are a metamodern activist or scholar and you want to reach others with your intentions and visions, you can tell a highly educated and philosophically gifted person: “We want to strengthen the metamodern tendencies in society so as to transcend the problems and tragedies of modernity…” And with much effort, and long discussions, you may have a fellow traveler on the paths to go beyond modern life.

But that only really works if your listener is a particularly abstract thinker, and it does take great effort. It’s a lot like taking a time machine to England 1224 AD and try to explain a few peasants, even intelligent ones, why they should strive towards “liberal democracy” Sure, some would be intrigued, but you would mostly be wasting your time. And theirs.

Yes, a metamodern or Protopian society is what really matters. But most people won’t give a damn (frankly my dear) about lofty ideals and visions.

Now, instead, imagine showing our medieval friends a video of a new home with running water and all the food available at the grocery store, and their interest might be peaked. Okay, that got me interested. How do we get there?

Correspondingly, if you show this following image of a reimagined, “solarpunked” Berlin, even to a six-year-old, there’s good reason to think they’ll intuitively understand what is to be achieved:

A “Solarpunk Berlin” by Alex Rommel

If you know Berlin, you here see it reimagined—with enough familiar buildings to recognize what it is, but also so much redefinition of it that its entirety feels more alive and inviting. (Blue skies, of course, in Berlin, but never mind).

Here, we are approaching a “show it don’t tell it” by means of beauty. Not rational argument, not moral awakening—just a sense of “ahhh, that’s nice, I’d like that.”

And here’s what’s crucial: You know who would like that? Not a few psychedelic artists and burners and punks and anarchists and deep ecologist. Middle class people would like it too. Even the underclass may prefer solarpunk’s more inviting landscape over cold, hard, concrete and garbage-filled alleys or trailer parks.

In short—this is an argument I have been implying from the beginning of the article, but which I feel must be made absolutely clear—solarpunk aesthetics is currently the world’s best ticket to getting normal people to change the world, thereby saving human civilization.

Solarpunk is, to speak the language of that great social reformist of fin-de-siècle London, Mary Poppins, the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Again: I am not saying that the sugar is more wonderful than the medicine. All I am saying is Mary Poppins.

Solarpunk is an aesthetic that works, it’s a gateway drug to metamodernism and Protopia. If you want to be cynical about it, you could say that one can use it to fool people to want sensible things like the transition to an ecological, equitable, and effectively governed society. A Trojan horse, as discussed above.

Beauty in the Service of Truth

I don’t have many good things to say about the work and ideas of the New Age economist Charles Eisenstein, but I believe it is no coincidence that his dictum—and book title—The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible has stricken such a deep chord in so many readers. Dreams are not made of truth, nor of moral dignity, but of beauty, of aesthetic qualities. Eisenstein did not call us to a more rational world, nor to a morally dignified one: but specifically to a beautiful one. That’s the only calling we can, in all honesty, hear. That’s the ugly truth about truth, morality, and beauty.

To be clear, I certainly don’t believe that beauty, seen as a value, can ever be allowed to trump justice and truth—in fact, I have long argued that the essence of fascism and its brand of totalitarianism consists of that very misprioritization (“everything should look like THIS, and not otherwise, the truth and morality of the matter be damned!” …and from there on, a mad ride to copy the exact same pattern across the world ensues: same swastikas, same ideas, same people, same race, same clothes, same housing…). Truth and morality indeed must ultimately trump aesthetic qualities: There’s no sense to “this is a beautiful torture session”, or “what an aesthetically pleasing genocide”. But I am claiming that there is a “truth about the truth”, and a “truth about morality”—and it’s that humans are incapable on fully acting upon what’s true and what’s just unless these qualities are aesthetically mediated: the elegance of science, poetic justice, and so forth. We are not machines: if our world dries out, so do our spirits, and thus our motivation.

And if we stop to examine this point just a little further, I believe that a profound existential insight reveals itself:

  • The evil of the world is recognizable particularly by its propensity to put beauty before morality and truth—to let subjective taste colonize the latter two. In Joseph Goebbels’ (who later became propaganda minister of Nazi Germany) novel Michael, “the people” is the marble in the hands of a sculptor, an artist. Society itself is not alive and sentience does not inherently merit ethical consideration—no, it’s just stuff you can reshape according to what looks nice. Again, this is exactly what the Nazis did: They manically pressed what the world should look like according to them onto everything, the truth be damned. A huge copy-paste regime plastered the Swastika on everything that moves and then some. Humans themselves were to look a certain way. Even their military tactics were aesthetically defined, refusing to rationally assess priorities (Let’s all get the coolest uniforms and most advanced equipment and the biggest cannon history has ever seen and never retreat on any fronts!).
  • Conversely,if one follows what is both truthful and morally sound, there is always a beauty revealed at the end of the road. If you stand up for what’s good, there is beauty in that struggle and that in itself sparks the creative imagination. Follow where the search for truth takes you, with no regard for what your “taste” says, and the beauty that awaits is even greater than the one you left behind.

Compare these two images.

Nazi SS rally, Nuremberg 1936. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images.

The neutrino detector Super-Kamiokande. Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo

There is a certain similarity between the two, a beauty that both images seem to converge on—let us admit as much. The difference between them is that one was created for the sake of beauty alone, and from human flesh, on a might-makes-right basis, and with no honest appraisal of the truth claims of why all those men are standing there together in the first place. All those men are seduced (and in part coerced) into being part of one whole, but with no true guiding principle—only pretending to have one.

The science facility of second image was created for the sake of truth, emanating from physics itself. The beauty that we can see reflected in the Japanese neutrino detector chamber is more sublime, more lasting, more universal—because it follows from tracing the steps of deeper and deeper truths and mysteries of the universe.

There is no doubt in my mind that the awe felt by the SS soldiers is greater than the Japanese scientists who are just doing their jobs. But the awe felt doesn’t actually lead anywhere—just down a cliff and into immanent self-destruction. The awe of Nazism is real on an emotional level, but it is not real in the sense that the underlying assumptions it all builds on are entirely ludicrous (we’re a master race destined to conquer the world and our leader knows what he’s doing, guided by fate!). The fairly mundane task of maintenance work on the neutrino chamber is less awe-inspiring, but it points towards truths so mind-boggling it cannot but elude us and draw us into the beyond: the nature of matter, energy, and space—quantum realities, and so on.

Truth in the Service of Beauty

So similar things emerge from so diametrically opposed processes. And yet, the similarity is a superficial one, a false one. Even though the Nazi image is made of living men, by living men, its beauty is dead. While the neutrino chamber is made of inanimate glass and gold, its beauty is alive. Only one of the two is a sublime work of art, because it doesn’t force itself upon the world—it traces the very structure of reality and reveals itself as a surprise: beauty emanating from truth. The opposite of inauthenticity, of posturing, of hysterically impressing what we wish to be true upon reality.

Excuse this long detour. What I mean to say is this: The authoritarian solarpunk-from-above movement may look fancy. It may be as seductive and feel as alive as a Nuremburg rally. But it is a forced beauty, a Disney-land aesthetics. It does not follow function, nor morality, nor the truth of the people who live there, nor of the planet and its other creatures.

Emancipatory solarpunk—true solarpunk—must instead spring from an aesthetic that flows from real solutions to real problems, from real human concerns and relationships. It cannot be “designed” just for show, for the prestige and allure of a certain political-economic center of power.

True beauty brings freedom because it, well, follows where truth takes it. And so, interestingly, there is a truth about the truth: that truth needs beauty to prevail— while there is also a truth about beauty: beauty is a false promise if it does not emanate from truthfulness, including truthfully seeking to address moral concerns.

As such, we have a Ouroboros-like relationship between truth, aesthetics, and ethics. Truth needs beauty to be made manifest, it cannot live alone. Beauty needs to serve the truth in order not to be evil—and what is evil always turns ugly in the end. There are no pretty genocides, nor glorious ones.

Authoritarian solarpunk, solarpunk aesthetics used to seduce middle classes and to exclude people and to excuse the curtailing of freedom will also be ugly in the end.

A solarpunk that resolves real problems for and by real humans through truthful communication will result in the freedom and sustainability that solarpunk promises. This is a playful design-battle not only for justice, but for the future of the human soul.

We must thus save solarpunk by reclaiming its beauty for deep-democratic purposes: going beyond the limits of mainstream liberal and capitalist democracies, not undermining them and reverting to authoritarianism.

Doing so does not only save democracy on a planetary level; it also builds the environmental movement that Greta Thunberg has been calling for. But Greta’s call is a moral one. This will be an aesthetic one, one you literally cannot resist—designed, in turn, by tracing the real and practical solutions to problems of sustainability, inclusion, and justice.

More details on metamodern solarpunk in my next article.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

 

Why The Alternative in Denmark Failed

In my book The Listening Society, I mention the Danish political party The Alternative (in Danish, “Alternativet”). Although the party never was thoroughly metamodern, it did contain many metamodern elements and showed some very promising signs of becoming a new kind of party. Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well.

The Alternative was founded in 2013 by former Danish minister of culture Uffe Elbæk and entered parliament with almost 5% of the votes in 2015. Since then, however, things have only gone downhill: In 2019 The Alternative only got 3% of the votes, and in 2020 the party’s members elected a new leader, Josephine Fock—a controversial choice resulting in four out of their five members of parliament, Uffe Elbæk included, leaving the party. Today, The Alternative hovers around 1% in the polls, not enough to pass the 2% electoral threshold, while the break-out party Independent Greens (in Danish, Frie Grønne), founded by Uffe Elbæk and two other former MPs from The Alternative, barely registers in the polls.

What The Alternative Got Right

Let’s begin with what I initially found so promising about The Alternative, and what made it metamodern. In The Listening Society I wrote the following presentation of the party:

“Instead of being based on a readymade political program, the party was formed around a set of principles and values for how to conduct good politi­cal discourse and dialogue. The party also has political content, of course, a program with things they want to change, but this was subsequ­ently crowd sourced by its members after the party got founded. Most central to the party’s founding and organi­zation is still the how, rather than the what.

Starting with the what, the party has three main issues in focus.

  • Transition to a sustainable society (drawing partly on the Transition Town movement, originally from the UK);
  • supporting entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship; and
  • changing the culture of political dialogue (as well as supporting art and culture in general).”

[TLS pp. 109–110.]

Here are the things they got right:

  • Process-oriented politics:First of all, The Alternative had a process-oriented way of conducting politics. The party was founded before it had a political program, for example, and instead of presenting a fixed program, the public was invited to participate in the drafting of the new party’s political agenda. This was done through a series of participatory workshops, or “political laboratories” as they were called. These events were facilitated by skilled people with years of experience in group processes. Many of these were educated at the renowned Kaospilot school in Århus (“chaos pilot” education), Denmark. High-tech stuff indeed. And a very metamodern approach to politics overall. The slogan of the political laboratories was “flere ved mere”, which directly translates into “more [people] know more”—indicating an awareness of, and a willingness to utilize, collective intelligence.
  • Green social-liberal ideology:In The Listening Society I talk about the meta-ideology that conquered Scandinavian politics: Green social-liberalism. This is the idea that the good society is one that has a well-developed welfare system, an efficient market economy, and that the whole shebang is ecologically sustainable. This is the overarching societal ideology all liberal democracies are headed towards, given enough stability and development. And because Scandinavia has been particularly blessed with social stability and economic development, more or less all parties in the Nordic countries, left and right, are converging towards this meta-ideology, disregarding whether they nominally define themselves as socialists, conservatives, or libertarians. What makes The Alternative metamodern in this regard, is the fact that they more or less explicitly subscribed to this ideology: being green, social, and liberal, all at once, and, very importantly, in equal measures.
  • Beyond left and right: Related to the above bullet point, The Alternative also sought to transcend the conventional left-right division and declared to be part of neither block, at least on paper. I write “on paper” since the vast majority of its members were and remain fairly left-leaning, and because, given the party’s progressive agenda, the only viable political allies were to be found in the social-democratic-lead block on the left. Still, of all the progressive parties, the Alternative had the best balance between government and market in my opinion—attempting to go beyond the classic political division, but without being a bland centrist compromise. Instead, The Alternative managed to be a radical and progressive alternative in regards to both market and state related issues.
  • Trans­partisanism: Apart from declaring itself ideologically to go beyond the traditional left-right divide, the party also sought to collaborate beyond the actual party political divides in parliament. This was done most exemplarily by the opening speech following the 2015 election where Rasmus Norquistgave a speech about all the things he liked and admired about the other parties. Norquist’s speech was obviously an invitation to engage in a friendlier and more productive conversation across political divides. The Alternative had a culture of talking positive about others and were not shy about mentioning the things they had been inspired by from other political parties. This non-belligerent approach to working with your political opponents is a very productive way to change the political culture towards becoming more deliberative and intelligent. It’s also another example of process-oriented politics; not focusing on changing particular laws, but on changing the way we do politics.
  • Catering to artists and the creative class:Initially, the Alternative reached out to artists and the creative class for support and vowed to prioritize culture and art. This explains a large part of the initial success. First of all, it’s a great advantage to have a lot of cultural capital on your side. Secondly, the creative class, along with all those broke artists belonging more to the new underclass of the precariat, represents two groups with progressive and post-materialist values who are not adequately represented in today’s politics. And, it is also here you find a great many metamodernists.
  • Transnational: Finally, the Alternative also operated in a transnational manner, attempting to move beyond the traditional confines of national politics by connecting with ideological allies in other countries and by supporting new “Alternatives” and sister organizations.

Now, that The Alternative contained all these metamodern elements doesn’t mean that it should be labeled as a metamodern party as such. Most of its members were solidly gravitating toward the postmodern value meme, and even among its leadership, people tended to express postmodern values. What wasn’t postmodern, however, were many of their methods.

At the time, I actually saw it as an advantage that The Alternative was only kind of metamodern “light”, given that there still aren’t enough metamodern voters out there. To begin with, I thought, the pomos shouldn’t be turned off by too much metamodern content and with time the party could gradually become more and more metamodern. This was, however, very naive of me to consider.

It’s a telling sign that the Independent Greens, the party Uffe Elbæk founded after his departure from The Alternative, simply brands itself as “Denmark’s new Leftwing party” with their main program being about anti-racism and protection of the environment. As commendable as these causes are, it doesn’t get more postmodern than this and it seems that they have given up on the difficult idea of creating a new kind of party. Having been there myself, however, (trying to create a new kind of party) I can hardly blame them.

What Went Wrong?

On a superficial level, the main reason for the decline of The Alternative owes to one person in particular, namely Josephine Fock, one of the three initial leaders of the party alongside Uffe Elbæk. Apparently, Mrs. Fock had quite a temper and became infamous within the party for transgressive behavior, yelling at people and threatening them. As a result, many people with executive functions left the party. She was also accused of backstabbing her political peers within the party and using dirty tricks to get more power. So when she finally outmaneuvered Uffe Elbæk’s faction and managed to be elected chairman of The Alternative, Uffe Elbæk and three other MPs left the party, declaring that they simply couldn’t accept working under Fock’s leadership. I don’t want to dwell more on the details here. It’s a very sad story, and if you care, you can always google what happened.

In any case, despite all the things Josephine Fock has been accused of, it seems to have worked—for a while. She got elected leader of the party in 2020, but only remained in charge for a little less than a year until the whole thing came crashing down and she had to step down. It’s self-evident that internal chaos like this is very harmful to a newly established party. And as of today, the Alternative has never recovered.

Yet, if we were only to blame a single “bad” person for everything that happened and simply conclude that we should avoid such persons in the future, we wouldn’t have learned much. Instead, we should look at the structures, or lack of same, which gave rise to such a bad fit. From where I stand, the whole thing seems to have suffered from a pretty bad case of inclusion without proper integration. Let me explain:

Fock came from the worker’s movement and had been working for labor unions for most of her adult life. I take it that Uffe & Co. wanted to balance out their entourage of fluffy too-cool-for-school kaospilots with someone more grounded in down-to-earth mainstream politics. On paper, it seemed like a sound plan. On paper.

The Alternative came into this world as a revolt against the crude and antagonistic nature of modern politics and thus attracted a lot of idealistic hipsters and hippies with little to no political experience. Naivety, idealism, and a rejection of political power games were ingrained into the party’s DNA from the beginning.

That all sounds good, right? Everyone playing nice and refusing to turn politics into a brutal and cynical bloodsport. Well, without proper measures to counter that one person who doesn’t intend on renouncing the use of dirty tricks, the field becomes wide open for that very person to play everyone out of the game until he or she has reached their goals. And this is exactly what happened when Uffe Elbæk invited an experienced, largely modernist, power player from the worker’s union into a political setting consisting mostly of tender and idealistic postmodern hipsters and hippies. It really was like letting a fox into a henhouse.

Yet, from a traditional political perspective, I can’t blame Josephine Fock. Politics is about power, and if you can win without breaking the law, then you haven’t really done anything wrong. It’s not Josephine’s fault that everyone around her was so miserable at playing the game. All she did was play the game she had learned from her long career in the worker’s movement. And then she won.

She only made one grave mistake, and that was to expect that the kind of game accepted in mainstream society would be tolerated within a party like The Alternative.

Diversity is sometimes good, sometimes bad. And when it’s good, it’s because we have managed to successfully integrate different kinds of people into a greater whole.

Integration is essentially about setting boundaries—and in the case of Josephine Fock in The Alternative, there were no efficient countermeasures in place to put checks and balances on her and thus facilitate the proper integration of a staunch political bulldog into a whole consisting of well-mannered poodles. In short, inclusion without integration.

However, apart from this sad case of all-too-human political bickering, I believe there were three structural reasons for the decline of The Alternative:

1) Becoming just another Green Party:

I remember back in the early days that I was invited to a meeting with The Alternative in the Danish parliament. One of the things I wanted to discuss was the danger of the party becoming “just another green party”. I praised the methods they were using, but also had to raise my concern about the party becoming a conventional green party. At the time, there was no green party in the Danish parliament, which meant that any party choosing green as their party color and emphasizing environmental issues would be seen as the green option that was missing. Thus its voters would expect it to become just that.

To my relief, this was already something the leadership within The Alternative was very much aware of and wanted to avoid. At least that’s what I was being told. But if we look at what happened, The Alternative became more and more akin to a traditional green party. As time passed by, you would hear more and more about climate change and ecology and less and less about fourth sector enterprises, social entrepreneurship, process-oriented politics, and so on.

Today, The Alternative is known as Denmark’s green party, similar to that of Die Grüne in Germany and Miljöpartiet in Sweden. This wouldn’t have been a problem in itself if it weren’t for the fact that there was a reason why Denmark didn’t have a green party proper before The Alternative: The issue had been thoroughly absorbed by the other left-leaning parties, all competing about being the greenest of them all. As such, there wasn’t really any raison d’être for a young green party with a dysfunctional past.

2) Pomo-diluting:

One of the primary dangers of creating a metamodern party, and a reason why I believe it’s too early to do so, is the issue of postmodernly inclined people joining and out-numbering the metamodernists.

Since the ethics of metamodernism isn’t that different from postmodernism, pomos have a hard time telling postmodernism and metamodernism apart. What differs between the two are mainly the methods. Pomos will thus join metamodern projects, since they agree with their overall goals—but they will dismiss the methods and ways of reaching those goals, often succumbing to game denial, and thereby effectively blocking any real change from happening. Since the pomos outnumber metamodernist by a factor of at least 10 to 1, the metamodernists are doomed to be outnumbered if they don’t put mechanisms in place to counter this development.

Another problem is that people on the lower levels of complexity also outnumber people on higher levels of complexity (see my article about Michael Common’s Model of Hierarchical Complexity here). As such, in a structure that prides itself on being non-hierarchical, welcoming to everyone, and open to change, there is a risk of things getting “dumbed down” over time. Just as there is collective intelligence, there is also a thing we could call “collective stupidity”. This happens when the methods to utilize the collective intelligence fail and instead a race toward the lowest denominator takes over. In this case, the highest unifying principle had to do with shifting the nature of political communication across the board, thereby contributing to increased self-organizing capacities of society—while the lowest common denominators spells biodynamically grown carrots.

Obviously, I don’t have any scientific data to prove it, but my own strong impression is that over the years, many of the really smart and metamodern people left The Alternative, while the not-so-smart and not-so-metamodern became more numerous. As a result, The Alternative began to lack much of the political talent that is necessary to succeed.

3) Cultural Capital Leaving:

Back in 2015, I wrote an article in which I ascribed the success of The Alternative to the party’s access to high cultural capital. This was evident in the 2015 election campaign where The Alternative had by far the best videos, posters, and events going on despite having a vastly smaller budget than the big established parties. This was possible because The Alternative deliberately catered to artists and the creative class, and thus had access to highly motivated volunteers from the cultural sector and the advertising industry.

I deliberately wrote that piece to make the good folks at The Alternative aware of their good fortune, but also to warn them that they shouldn’t take their access to the finest and best from the cultural sector for granted. On multiple occasions, I voiced my concern that the cultural capital would leave if nothing was done to make it stay. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

With time, and as the internal struggles within the party dragged on, The Alternative seems to have lost its cultural capital as the creatives left a party that became more and more of a traditional, “boring”, green party. On one side we had the faction that wanted to make the party more “respectable”, more “normal”, represented by Josephine Fock, and on the other the many people who just wanted the party to be about environmental issues and not all that artsy fartsy stuff.

I noticed how The Alternative’s website became more and more mainstream over the years. It started out as this avantgarde neon green (which became the party color) art project thing and ended up looking like just about any other dullsville party out there (with very little neon green). In their second election campaign in 2019 it was also clear that much of the edge the party had had in the previous election had been lost, and much of the campaign material was just old stuff from the last election. People were also asked to be less freaky, more respectable—which is a very efficient way of getting rid of creative people.

However, with this push to make the Alternative “normal”, the party lost the very thing that made it special and which offered a particular segment of the population something they couldn’t find anywhere else. This is what I wrote in The Listening Society:

“The old Left intellectuals of Denmark tend to stay with the socialist mov­e­­ments, whereas The Alternative steals away the triple-H and yoga bourgeoisie people, creating a platform for their interests and expressions. The party re­presents a merger of the artistic, digital and sustainability-concer­ned elem­ents of society. It is, in a way, the party of artists and their often eccentric, play­ful, post-materialist lifestyles.” [TLS p. 110.]

These are the people they lost. Some might have stuck around if it weren’t for the internal chaos later on, but the decline of The Alternative was already a fact prior to that. In the end, the triple-H (hackers, hipsters & hippies) and yoga bourgeoisie people went back to the traditional left-leaning and center-left parties they came from—at least those of them who didn’t give up the habit of voting which is sadly widespread among especially the triple-H folks.

In my upcoming book The 6 Hidden Patterns of History I make a great deal out of explaining that art is always first. With that I mean that the first elements of a new emerging metameme (societal stage of development) are always to be found within the arts. As such, since we live in a society that is just in the middle of becoming postmodern metamodernism barely exists—and where it exists, and where it can exist, is mainly within the realms of artistic and philosophical expression. If we are thus to create a metamodern party today, we will need to start with first things first, which are: art and culture.

The Alternative seemed to intuitively have sensed that aesthetic expression of the future was necessary in order to create a new kind of party, a political party beyond the postmodern, but that wisdom seems to have been lost along the way of the party’s short and turbulent existence.

So basically, if you want to quote me, what went wrong was that The Alternative sought to conduct politics in a kinder way, attracting people wanting to play nice, but without any mechanisms to fend off power players playing dirty and hard. And then it attracted a lot of pomos thinking that this is just another green party. And then it became just another green party. And as the party became dominated by a former union boss with anger issues and your typical manic-organic crowd dismissing all that artsy fartsy elitist stuff, the cultural capital left—and with that, one of the most important recourses for succeeding as a new kind of party.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Political Polarization Is Good?!

If you’re a visionary political thinker and agent, your eye may have been caught by one of the following theorists/activists of the future of democracy over the last decade or so:

One way or another, these suggest “Protopian” forms of governance, where it is assumed that there is some kind of development from monarchy etc. → liberal democracy etc. → deeper and more holistic forms of governance. Democracy isn’t a done deal. It’s not an either-or. It can evolve, and it will, given enough time and the right conditions.

I agree. There is a future of democracy, of governance, of the state and beyond. And it is some kind of more integrated form that transcends party politics and brings together diverse perspectives.

And, yes, democracy builds upon peaceful and respectful human relationships throughout society. If conflict rises above a certain level, the higher democratic ideals very quickly become difficult if not impossible to uphold. A simple example: A core democratic principle is the freedom to assemble and demonstrate, as well as counter-demonstrate. Let’s say—as happened in Sweden a couple of months ago—one (Danish) far-right activist asks to hold Koran burning demonstrations in cities across the country. Young Muslim men gathered and rioted nationwide, directly attacking and attempting to kill police officers with stones, burning busses (with people in them, but no one was harmed) and schools, and so on. To stoke these fires was, of course, was the whole point of the visiting Dane, who didn’t even need to show up in half the cities. He then went on to ask permission for further demonstrations (which were granted). But with costs in millions of dollars and severe dangers to the public, guess if the right to demonstrate with provocative messages will be maintained or curtailed in the long run? How many lifetimes of human work in expenses are the Swedes prepared to pay for one guy’s rights to burn Korans? How much human harm?

As I have argued in my book Nordic Ideology, the three qualities of freedom, equality, and order co-arise; they co-evolve. They depend upon one another. Democratic freedoms and political equality require a certain level of order, from which new struggles for freedom can begin to stoke new fires—albeit less directly violent ones—until a yet higher, more complex and sensitive, form of political order is established as a response to those very fires. Francesco Alberoni called this dynamic the oscillation between “movement” and “institution”. Moments where freedom and equality converge into a loving, ecstatic embrace of new values on new tablets are “movement”—but eventually they can and must stabilize into “institution”.

To be clear: The argument I wish to make in the following is not that civil wars and violent crime lead to higher political order. But, if violence in society is successfully contained, its energies channeled into discourse, it is the very differences of people’s interests, ideologies, and perspectives that push new forms of political reality into being.

So, what we have increasingly come to discuss as the “polarization” of society and its political landscape is not only a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing when a zombie hoard of Proud Boys bloodthirstily shuffle through The Capitol bellowing Nancy Pelosi’s name.

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that public opinion splinters into opposing camps.

Why am I saying this? Well, look at the other extreme: What if everyone had just about the exact same ideas about things? Do you imagine that society would evolve, adapt to new realities? The point of democracy is not that the majority is right and therefore decides—it’s that there is freedom of speech so that new minorities can rise to convince the rest of us that we were wrong, again and again. This is certainly what happened with climate change, feminism, and gay rights. These profound shifts of public consciousness and political reality have been products of rich and diverse ecosystems of opposing views.

Here’s the principle I would suggest:

  • The farther away different positions are from one another, the higher and more complex truths can be triangulated from their dialectical interactions. Note that this has nothing to do with compromise and golden means! There was no compromise between fascism and democracy, but the defeat of fascism heralded the global victory of cosmopolitan humanitarian values and human rights.
  • But the farther away from one another the different positions of political interest/reality come, the greater the risk of the discourse degrading along the axis of: co-development → deliberation → dialogue → debate → control over communication forums → insults and wit → sheer violence.
  • The quality and resilience of democratic institutions determine how well these contain wider gaps between partisan perspectives. The different perspectives can slide so far apart that they snap the democratic institutions. The more resilient and flexible these institutions are, the more different perspectives they can contain, and thus the greater collective intelligence they can harness.

Basically, dictatorships are dictatorships because the institutions in place are frail. If someone as much as breathes a differing opinion, the whole thing will snap. Liberal democracies are just that because their institutions are resilient, so they can even “afford” to have dorks publicly burning the holy scriptures of other members of society without the whole falling apart.

It’s not polarization that is bad. It’s “more polarization than our institutions can handle” that is bad.

Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe, drinking what I have good reasons to believe to be coffee. Source.

I’m not a huge fan of Chantal Mouffe—the Belgian left radical political philosopher. I view her as stuck in a dated paradigm, still “postmodern” in my sense of the term, and married to unhelpful concepts like “neoliberalism”.

But at the same time, I cannot help but like and respect her work: a far-left thinker bravely drawing on the only genius political philosopher that 20th century fascism ever produced: Carl Schmitt. It takes guts and a rare open-mindedness to learn from your political nemesis. Let me lift one aspect I particularly agree with.

One of the arguments that Mouffe is most famous for is the insistence that conflict is inherent to “the political” and thereby to liberal democracy (and then she herself learns from close dialogue with her political opposite, see what she did there?). The liberal element of democracy gains its energy and vitality precisely from the tendency of people to challenge the status quo, and that’s why the liberal element is so important: freedom of expression, assembly, and so forth. I have made a similar argument in The Listening Society, even if it is one that I today partly regret:

The divisions, not the unity, that made possible the party system we know as “liberal democracy”, are breaking down. So when democracy begins to fulfill its promise of a people ruling itself through deliberation—it ironically wrecks the whole game that we know as party politics, around which our democratic system is built, because the necessary party division interests break down. By its dialectic development, by the logic of its own productive contradictions, liberal democracy cancels itself.

In this strange new state of affairs we have every reason to engage in an open-ended, democratic dialogue and deliberation with one another—to do “real” democracy, more according to the classical and Habermasian ideals. But the system of governance is still running on the engine of a modern, industrial society. This is where the frustrations and disappointments with the ongoing political debate are coming from: People are recognizing that the boxing matches between Left and Right are increasingly devoid of substance. We begin to long for a real, honest talk about society and the future. But we find ourselves incapable of speaking and listening, these being a much more difficult tasks than we imagined.’ [Bold in original.]

There is much to commend my late-2015 observation of (mainly European) politics, if I may say so myself—but undeniably I underestimated how harshly the trend would turn towards a renewed polarization. In 2015, you had some corners taken by the far right but, by and large, a wide social-liberal consensus had been established across the continent. That has now crumbled and politics has become a lot more interesting again.

But even if I was wrong, I may have been correct at a deeper and more essential level of analysis: While it is true that the modern economic class divisions that I refer to in the above quote have indeed broken down, the cultural divisions that have surfaced instead have become so strong that they can now in themselves splinter the political realm into multiple antagonistic shards. In other words, my main point about divisions as the driving force of liberal democracy still seems to hold with today’s retrospection.

And it is this that Mouffe meant by Agonistic Democracy—that the politics we know as liberal democracy does indeed feed upon division, not unity. Her model of democracy is one that actively embraces the conflictual nature of politics and takes it into account when designing institutions.

In line with Mouffe, I believe that the mistake of pretty much all of the idealistic and holistic forms of democracy and governance suggested in the beginning of this article is that they tend to seek to transcend conflict, rather than to scaffold it, admit it, contain it, clarify it, and even to some extent even to stoke it and harness it. They all have lingering remnants of what I call “game denial”, denying that life is always also a game, even if it’s a transformable one. Among the visionaries of future democracy there is a lot of talk of “sitting with the difficulties” and so on, but there is an assumption that a higher synthesis will always be within reach.

I believe this to be true on a theoretical level: given that people can always learn to put their ideas and interests in perspective, there is bound to be some higher perspective within which the conflict would be resolved or simply rendered irrelevant. The potential is always there. But the field of potentiality is not the field of actuality—and in actual reality, the higher synthesis is more often out of reach than not. Instead, when you reach for consensus while it is not within genuine reach, what you get is some version of covert or implied power struggle—even if under the guise of cute understanding— where one side wins and another gives in.

The reason that progressive politics (of direct, participatory, or deliberative forms) so often becomes toxic is precisely that it tries to transcend conflicts prematurely. Because the conflict is still there de facto, but is not admitted to openly, you get manipulative power games coming in some very cute dresses.

Now, I think that the bridge between liberal democracy and these higher and visionary forms of governance goes directly through Agonistic Democracy. We need more conflict, not less, to transform democracy into its higher forms—not, as radicals and extremist true believers hold, because “we need to be ruthless to the other side if we are to win, and the stakes are so high!”, but precisely because we are all so limited in our perspectives that the only thing that can set us straight is a proper adversary that we meet in a fair fight. Our adversaries are, as wisdom teachers have been reminding us the last few millennia, our teachers.

So the idea is not to optimize for your side winning and crushing all ideological opponents. The only thing that happens then is that the divisions break down and you “win” by getting to force your truth down everyone’s throat—which is not only an intellectually boring prospect, but one that is bound to lead to totalitarianism which always sucks for everyone involved. Interestingly, all ideologies lead there—you can’t just pick the one you imagine to be “the most opposite of totalitarianism” (anarchism, liberalism, green decentralization, underdog nationalism against the globalist elites, etc.). Nor can you be “without an ideology”. They’re like accents—everyone’s got one but yourself. You can talk all day about how you are beyond -isms but that’s just your ism talking.

The idea is to optimize for you getting the best opponents possible. Not opponents with knuckle-irons. But ones armed to their teeth with facts, truths, wits, humor, perspective-taking, empathy, energy, enthusiasm.

We just need refined games of politics—ones that can contain the sheer power inherent in today’s polarization. It’s either that, or watching our world snap in slow motion and slide towards planetary decay.

The Production of Opinions

There’s another way of saying roughly the same thing as above:

  • Technological development leads to fewer and fewer of us need to work producing stuff or moving physical things around.
  • At the same time, our command of greater resources means that the actual effects of the actions of each one of us increase. We may not feel more powerful, but it is a fact that not only do we all have greater ecological footprints than any people ever before, each of us also affect more other people through chains of actions than we can imagine.
  • As such, what opinions, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and sentiments we hold becomes increasingly consequential.
  • Hence, changing people’s ideas about the world becomes an increasingly high-stakes game.
  • Hence, more and more of us spend more and more time trying to affect other people (as well as absorbing more ideas and working to get the best opinions ourselves).
  • Hence, a massive global arms-race of different ideologies and worldviews blooms, primarily in the digital sphere.

As things stand, this arms-race is tearing the world apart. Proud Boys are coming for Nancy Pelosi in The Capitol. Flat Earthers and allying with David Icke to fight NASA and the lizardmen that control the world. Far lefties hold their intra-group inquisitions of one-word-wrong Leftbook groups in an eternal anti-Darwinian race to the bottom of all relevance to anyone at all.

But at the same time, literally thousands of intellectually and socially interesting ideas are flowering across the Internet: Enactvism, Complexity, Ontological Design, Justice Design, Metamodernism, Inner Development Goal, Postgrowth Economies, The Commons and Commoning—the list is endless.

Somewhere among those thousand plateaus there is a place to land, to climb to, to rest, to call home. Now, however each of us individually invests oneself in one of those paths or projects, we will never be quite right. The best that we can hope for is that right syntheses will be achieved by the epistemic qualities of our societies: that our institutions embrace conflict well enough to empower a multiplicity of voices, to fight it out under the best possible circumstances.

In other words, we return here to the idea of Agonistic Democracy as the portal to higher and more integrated forms of governance: We must understand that violence is the resort of the epistemically powerless, not the powerful. Empower all parties with education, strategy, and channels of communication, and the ones who have the highest syntheses will win.

Or rather, all of us will feel like we lose more, but together, we will have won higher truths. There will be more “conflict”, yes, but ultimately less violence. Gandhi had a similar idea: The crime of killing someone is that you kill their side of the truth, and thereby you get a poorer picture of the whole. Their part of the story is a part of the story, however contradictory to yours it may be.

Fusion Power Politics

Simply put: The next step of liberal democracy is to deliberately create arenas that empower people to argue their case, to specify what they want and what they believe that their interests are, and what they’re mad at, and who they’re mad at, and who they perceive as their opponents. There are conflicts in society, so let us set up the common goal of clarifying them, articulating them, admitting them, understanding them, accepting them. This will not eliminate conflict, not at all. But it will guide conflicts away from violence and towards gentler forms.

The future forms of integrated democracy—and indeed, the opinion-making economy as a whole—are the ones that can first differentiate the different shards of conflicting groups and interests, create a free and fair fight between these, and then channel the profound transformations inherent in these dialectical forces.

The cuter forms of future democracy are, unsurprisingly, also connected to a more dramatic and tremendous sense of political action and engagement. This greatness reveals itself, however, through our failures, as we face the opponents we truly deserve.

Integrated democracy—protopian governance—engenders multiple powerful political actors. Like a fusion reactor, it contains the struggles of titans, harnessing deeper secrets of the universe than what can be fathomed by any singular mind or perspective.

But without political polarization, there’s no fusion power. You’ll get a political coal plant at best. So, yes, political polarization is good.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

3 BS Traps when Working with Hipsters, Hippies and Hackers

It’s been a while since I started out in the “saving the world business” and began hanging out with all those pesky hipsters, hippies and hackers—and in doing so, became one of their own. Along the way I’ve made my fair share of experiences, and of course, mistakes, and I’ve wasted a whole lot of time—oceans of wasted time that could have been spent more productively doing something else.

Nowadays I’m in such a privileged position that a lot of young people, just starting out on journeys of their own, are coming to me for advice. I see that many are making the exact same mistakes I did back in the days. As such, in order not to keep repeating myself, I’d like to present the three greatest, but also most common, pitfalls of the trade.

So without further ado, let’s begin with numero uno:

1. The BS Trap of Empty Networking:

When you’re just starting out, one of the most important things is to expand your network and getting to know the right people. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea is, how well executed your product is, or how productive and smart you are—if no one knows who you are. As such, there are good reasons to spend a lot of time getting to know new people. And for many of us, this can be quite enjoyable.

But sometimes it can get a little bit too enjoyable, especially to those of us who’re extroverts. It can feel very meaningful and exciting to meet all these new people, but if it’s not leading to any concrete results, you just end up wasting your time chatting away in cafés and on endless zoom calls.

So, you need to ask yourself: am I meeting new people because it benefits my work, or am I mainly doing it because it just feels good? You need to bust your own bullshit. You need to face that little demon inside of you who’d rather drink a latte with an exciting stranger than sit at home toiling in front of the computer (or whichever inanimate object happens to be your primary work tool).

Now, I’m not saying you should tell Obama or Elon to take a hike if they wanted to hang out some day. It can, after all, be very wise to drop everything if the right person all of a sudden pops up in your life. But most of the time, in most people’s lives, the next potential coffee date is not an Obama, or an Elon, and does not turn out to be a pivotal moment for that important project of yours—which you presumably, unless you’re super human, are chronically behind schedule with anyway.

I know it can be flattering when people take an interest in your work and want to meet you, especially when you’re just starting out, but make a sober estimation of what the potential value of meeting this particular person could be. Don’t accept just any invitation for a meeting. After all, most out-of-the-blue-networking-dates-with-no-particular-agenda-apart-from-getting-to-know-each-other lead to: absolutely nothing.

Now, this is not to say that you should entirely dismiss the potential value of a new acquaintance. Some of the most valuable twists and turns of my own career have been the result of such random out-of-the-blue meetings. All I’m saying is that it’s wise to be aware about the trap of spending so much time on empty networking that you end up sacrificing crucial work time.

So, just to be clear: When I’m talking about “empty networking”, I’m not referring to meetings with someone who’s expressed an interest in maybe becoming a new client, partner, patron and so on, or that person who could create your new website, or become your new assistant etc. Empty networking refers to all those “getting-to-know-each-other” meetings that many of us inevitably end up spending time on when we’re working on abstract and experimental projects.

Initially, you’re just happy that anyone wants to meet with you, and I agree, if you have no network, just seeing what would happen can be a good strategy. But as times go by, and more people know about you and your work, it is advisable to get more picky and prioritize your actual work time wisely.

2. The BS Trap of Mutual Recruitment:

When people are networking, they’re often on the lookout for people to collaborate with—or, more specifically, they’re looking for people to recruit for this brilliant once-in-a-century project of theirs. The only problem: so is everyone else.

As a newcomer, you’ll quickly discover that everyone has a project—a project they for mysterious reasons think to be just as much the center of the universe as your own. As such, when people are networking, the polite thing is, of course, to hear the other person out and learn about their project and do a lot of nodding. Oftentimes though, the problem is that both parties are secretly trying to recruit the other for their own project. It’s kind of playing rock paper scissors, but without the paper and scissors.

Most people don’t have a lot of money and contacts when they’re just starting out. Initially, all you have is this amazing idea and a determination to convince others that your project is so exceptional and such a good opportunity for them that they should come work with you. For free. And that they should do most of the boring work, since you came up with the idea and thus are too special to do all the mundane things that are necessary to get the project off the ground. After all, you are more of a thinker and a strategist. Others would be more suitable for all the practical errands. In fact, it would be quite a waste of your unique talent if you were to spend your valuable time on such matters…

However, so is everyone else also thinking. And nothing ever gets done. Apart from words, all the best words, and lots of coffee dates and zoom meetings.

The thing is, many, if not most, end up in this gridlock situation because they expect people to follow, but without giving people any reason to do so. We delude ourselves into believing that we’re so special, and that our project is so brilliant, that others should just count themselves lucky that they get to work with us on this. But there’s nothing special about coming up with a good idea. What’s special is the ability to execute. Every successful entrepreneur knows this.

If you want people to join you, don’t be afraid of hard and dirty work. And certainly don’t fool yourself into believing you’re above doing humdrum tasks. In the real world, those who’ve become kings and queens are the ones who did a lot hard and boring work to begin with.

Boring work equals getting things started equals power equals money. And then you don’t have to beg people to join you, you can just pay them.

The way to avoid the Mutual Recruitment trap is to have already performed much of the work necessary for your idea to become a successfully executed project. When you’ve done that, when people can see your idea has materialized, they become much more inclined to join—not least if they don’t have to work for free or if revenue is just around the corner.

By the way, here’s a colorful example of true leadership, of how you get people to follow and create a movement. (Pssst, the secret point here is that maybe, just maybe, you should lead by following someone else, and through that create the change that matters.)

3. The BS Trap of “Out-platforming” each other:

Ever since the rise of Amazon, Facebook and all the other internet giants, it has become clear that if you control the platform everyone is using you’ll become extremely successful. This doesn’t only apply to the evil enterprise of selling stuff online and making people addicted to cute cat videos, but also to the business of saving the world: If you come up with the next big open source decentralized autonomous block chain web3 thing—that everyone is going to use to tear down capitalism, the patriarchy and racism, and in extension saving the whales and the rainforest—a great share of the fame and glory goes to you. The same is the case if you become the founder of the forum, community or umbrella organization everyone wants to be part of. (Just to be clear, before we move on, that when I talk about platforms I don’t refer to online applications only.)

The beauty of creating a successful platform is that the labor you put into building it will be amplified manifold by the people who’re using it. As such, if you’re the kind of person who wants to make as big an impact in the world as possible, it’s natural to be attracted to working on such projects. (Platform ideas are also particularly common among metamodernists since they tend to be highly complex thinkers, always thinking in terms of meta this and meta that. Hence, the world of metamodern hipsters, hippies and hackers is littered with people having brilliant ideas for new platforms.)

The only problem about this is that everyone else in these circles is also having an idea for a new platform. And those who don’t, often don’t understand what you’re talking about.

Often, the only people who understand your platform idea, are the people with a platform idea themselves. The mutual recruitment meetings thus gets spiked with a further gridlock dynamic of people trying to “out-platform” each other: “that’s a great idea, how about you make that part of my platform—that’s a great thanks, but how about your platform becomes part of my platform…”

I reckon I don’t need to explain why this leads to a lot of wasted time and energy.

One of the main problems with people’s platform ideas is that they want to create an “empty” platform. An empty platform is one devoid of already existing contents. It’s just the tool itself— with the addition of an idea about who’s going to use it and for what. (One of the problems about that is that it’s very hard to plan who’s going to use it and how they’re going to use. Remember, YouTube was initially a dating app until its userbase started using it for other things entirely.)

A particularly tempting part of platforming everyone else is how humble you can be about it. Or rather, how humble you can tell yourself that you are and try to convince others that you are: The good thing about me is that I don’t get off on power; I don’t even really have my own vision or project; I just hold space for everyone else and empower them; so I should get all the power because I’m by far the most deserving. Really, I don’t want to decide anything at all, so I have next to no vision or ideas or contents, and I’ll be sure to tell everyone with a vision that’s the case, so that they join my platform, given my thing is the bigger vehicle their thing fits within.

… And then there’s this annoying thing that other rude people try to out-humble you and getting you to be part of THEIR platforms. How dare they! Best make yours even more devoid of all meaning.

A typical empty platform idea is when you come up with the thought that it would be amazing if all these wonderful contents producers you know about, and who are somewhat related, came together into a greater weave where cross pollination and deeper collaboration could occur. You see this wonderful forum where all those busy people whose work you admire get connected in productive ways leading to change that otherwise wouldn’t be possible—all while you, the platform creator, sits on top pulling the strings and enjoy the powerful output of your creation. *Muhahaha (in a benign way)*

There are a few problems with this:

  1. People are very well capable of connecting with others without a specific platform. You just need to google people, drop them a message and make a zoom appointment.
  2. People end up wasting a lot of time; not only on fiddling around with just another platform, but also on being connected with people they might have things in common with, but do not have much use of just because of that. (It’s a common mistake to believe that just because people have things in common they’d automatically get a lot out of meeting each other).
  3. People don’t like wasting time. So they don’t use your platform.
  4. Your platform has no contents. So people don’t use your platform.

“Empty” platforms tend to fail. The platforms that succeed often have some contents, some idea beyond “wouldn’t it be great if all these people came together”. And many successful platforms do not even start out as platforms from the get go.

From my own network I can mention two platforms that have turned out to become fairly successful: Psychedelic Society and Rebel Wisdom. Psychedelic Society is a particular good example of a platform that didn’t even start out with the intention of being a platform. Or at least not the kind of platform it has become. Initially, Psychedelic Society was intended as an association to help decriminalizing psychedelics and to inform the public about responsible and therapeutic use thereof. Today, as you can see on their website, its mission extends far beyond that and the events hosted by the organization contains topics that are only vaguely related to Psychedelics. My friend and colleague Emil Ejner Friis from Metamoderna, for instance, has done courses about metamodernism on their online event platform — a platform that has become the go-to place for progressives interested in personal development and societal transformation.

The trick is to find that niche which isn’t already covered. Psychedelic Society did that with Psychedelics, Rebel Wisdom with men’s circles and Jordan Peterson stuff. Only from there did they became platforms for more broader issues. It’s also worth to mention that both of these platforms sprung out of already existing networks (meaning that they started out with contents).

Finding that niche, and succeeding, is difficult. Without it, it’s close to impossible.

Hence, if you want to create a platform, don’t. But if you still want to do it, it’s important you have something to offer people from the beginning. The wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-all-these-people-came-together idea—which I see people coming up with again and again—is for the most part doomed to failure.

Often, people fall into all three BS traps simultaneously: endless hours spent on empty networking, unsuccessfully trying to recruit others for this platform idea of theirs, which they expect others to build for them (now that they were so kind to come up with the idea)—all while the people they are meeting with are trying to do exactly the same. All the best intentions remain just that: intentions.

Well, and let’s be realistic: Even with good intentions, we can sometimes lie to ourselves. Maybe we’re not actually saving the world, but seducing ourselves into thinking that we are while in reality just talking to other people about talking to other people about talking to other people.

My advise is:

  1. Try to be more selective and strategic when it comes to networking, especially when you’ve established yourself more firmly.
  2. And if you’re an extrovert, meaning you’re a person who gets emotional energy from meeting new people, try to develop a higher self-awareness about whether you’re misleading yourself into believing that amazing things are happening from meeting all these people—but in reality, it just feels good to socialize and getting recognition.
  3. Don’t delude yourself into believing you’re too special to do hard boring work. Just get to work and don’t waste time trying to make others work for you for free.
  4. Pay people to do hard boring work. And show the respect for their efforts.
  5. Don’t make an empty platform.
  6. And if you do, don’t try to out-platform all your friends.

With these final words I wish you Godspeed on your journey. Deep down you know you’re a very special person with a great gift to the world.

Just don’t create another platform for empty networking. Please, don’t do it.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

The Four Pillars of Metamodern Animal Rights aka. How to Prevent 133 Holocausts

Whenever everyday people start asking themselves the question…

  • Wait a minute, if people of yesteryear did all sorts of things we find barbaric, from keeping slaves to public flogging, what might future civilizations be equally appalled by in our age?

… they almost inevitably come up with some version of: “Well, it’s probably something about how we treat non-human animals”.

It probably is. Consider the following.

133 Holocausts per Year

We all know that tormenting a cat or a dog is a pretty bad thing. Indeed, we regard it as criminal, highly immoral, and certainly as picking on someone weaker than ourselves. There’s little doubt for anybody who’s known an animals that they have real sensations, real discomfort, and—in a meaningful sense—feelings. Darwin studied this in considerable detail already in the 1860–70s.

Now, still, maybe it’s even worse to torment a little kid or an old lady than being cruel to a cat? Who knows at the end of the day? Let’s say then, to remain on the safe side of the argument (so we don’t make ourselves any kinder than we really have to!) that tormenting two little dogs and killing them is about as bad as whacking an old lady.

Nah, still don’t feel quite safe. Maybe we’re still giving the dogs too much slack. Make it three dogs.

Hmm. No. The suffering of one HUMAN BEING must surely be worth more than three pesky mongrels, no? Make it five.

Ten. Let’s say I torment and kill ten dogs, slowly, one by one. Is that about as bad as whacking that old lady?

Still doesn’t feel right. How about a hundred dogs? And a few cats crushed under car wheels for good measure.

No, no—let’s be serious about this. Let’s take one thousand dogs, each of which has a family of people and others who care about them, lock ’em up, starve them, make them work hard, humiliate them, and then gas them to death. Let’s make that count as the life of ONE human person.

Admittedly, this is a pretty speciesist and supremacist position. We cannot exactly account for why one of us humans should be worth literally a thousand dogs. But let’s just go with it, as we all have a strong feeling that a human life is something so much more than the life of a non-human animal. Maybe even a thousand ones. Most of all—let’s just remain really on the safe side that we shouldn’t be any kinder to animals than we absolutely have to by a bare minimum of decency and ethics. A bare minimum. We don’t want to overburden ourselves, do we? We need to be kind to ourselves, not too harsh, when it comes to how kind we should be to others, right?

So, a thousand it is. I, Hanzi Freinacht, hereby proclaim that I am literally worth one thousand (1,000) of those dirty mongrels. I am human. Let my supremacy be known.

Now, this leaves us with a multiplier of 1000 when it comes to comparing crimes against humanity to crimes against “non-humanity” of animals roughly comparable to dogs (we don’t know how sentient different animals are, but we can gauge their intelligence to be above that of human babies or toddlers).

Let us then consider how many land animals the global market “produces” per year—i.e., basically keeps in death camps—to the scale of the worst crime against humanity that we can think of: the Holocaust.

[Note before we go on: Far-right apologists and Nazis have long used the trick of comparing human suffering to animal suffering while granting greater rights to the latter as a way of relativizing the plights of targeted ethnicities, who in turn are then compared to animals. The gap is thereby narrowed from both sides and atrocities become less unthinkable. I will have no such accusations cast against me for the comparison below: I am doing the exact opposite, namely using the profound seriousness of human suffering as a starting point for expanding our circle of care to other beings. The crooks are whoever become the apologists for crimes, not the ones who seek to prevent crimes from being committed.]

Over the course of this event, the Nazis imprisoned, tormented, and killed about 6 million people over a period of five years (1941–45), so about 1.2 million per year on average (6/5 is 1.2). Or that is the relevant figure for what is usually referred to as Holocaust—the number of people killed under similar murder campaigns in Nazi Germany is around 12 million. But for the word “Holocaust” itself, 1.2 million per year is roughly correct.

Our global non-human animal industry subjects about 60 billion land animals to a comparable fate per year. Now, let us remember that these are “just animals” right? So let’s apply the 1000 multiplier. They’re just worth a thousandth of one of us!

That lands us, with this conservative estimate of the worth of non-human animal life, at 60 million. Per year. Not over five years.

Divide 60m by 1.2m to see how this compares to the Holocaust’s yearly effects— and you get a rather grim number: 50.

Our current global consumption of land animals causes: Fifty (50) ongoing Holocausts per year.

The animal industry is not, of course, 50 times worse than the Holocaust. That would be a great under-estimation of the severity of our crimes against non-humanity.

We must not forget that the Holocaust lasted only 5 years, whereas our animal megacide goes on year after year, decade after decade, and does not exhaust its killing fields.

Oh, and that’s just the land animals. Aquatic animals account for an estimated over 1 trillion kills yearly (many of which are cruel and slow deaths). Yes, that involves a lot of fish, so let’s give ourselves a yet higher ethical premium: 10,000 non-human aquatic animals for just me!

So, if you divide one trillion by 10,000 (including a few seal cubs and dolphins for good measure, death to them!) you get… 100 million.

100 million plus 60 million, divided by 1.2… produces…

133 Holocausts per year. Every year. And still growing.

This is if, and only if, I am worth one thousand dogs or cats or chickens or cows or pigs—or ten thousand sea and water animals of various sorts.

Phew, okay. Why am I saying this? It’s not really news to anyone, is it? It’s just to set the premise for what follows: This issue matters a lot. It’s well known that we all become less empathic, not more, when faced with large numbers. But as you may have noticed, I am not speaking to your feelings so much right now, but just to common sense, just to plain reason. It’s just weird to deny that this is a thing.

Even if you don’t care about animals and only have a shrugging “well, we shouldn’t be unnecessarily cruel…” then you can hardly write the issue off as insignificant. It still matters.

It’s not about your damned personal choice to eat what you feel like. It’s not about puritanism or scoring cheap moral shots. It’s not about crazy people on YouTube feeding their babies grass smoothies and sporting toothless smiles. It’s not about shame or guilt. It’s not about feeling hopeless or depressed.

It’s about, with a very conservative estimate, 133 Holocausts per year. Every year. Decades on end. And growing. So don’t make it about yourself.

133 Holocausts per year—and that’s when I also used excessively conservative estimates of the number of animals killed. On what planet, in what barbaric dark age, is this considered to be okay and entirely normal?

Answer: On planet Earth, right about this minute.

Breathe it in. The numbers don’t land in our minds, they cannot. But we can all understand the concept of a staggering moral mountain to climb: a heroic struggle against what is just not right.

And that’s just factory farming plus industrialized fishing. Neither are all of the other animal-oppressive things I didn’t bring up morally okay: lab torture, exploitative pet industries, entertainment slavery, destroyed habitats, noise and chemical pollution, plastics in bellies, pouring boiling water in the sewers to mass-murder squirrels (no, rats actually, but they’re quite alike)…

So we have to stop doing it. Because it is something we are actively doing. Thus we, ultimately, have the power to change it. It’s not easy, and not without its dilemmas, but no, all of that suffering is not necessary and justifiable. Maybe some of it is necessary for human dignity and survival—by all means, let’s go through things ethically one by one and let the apologists of murder make their cases. Maybe some torments and murders of animals are justifiable? No doubt. But all of it? At this scale? It seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

Given the above, it is no exaggeration to claim that ending this quiet massacre of creatures weaker than ourselves is a matter of a fundamental and civilizational quality—on par with such issues as preventing world wars, nuclear annihilation, and global ecological disaster.

The reasons that it has so little salience and support are manifold, but a large part of it spells speciesism: the unwarranted and unjustified belief in human moral supremacy. We’re worth more. Why, we’re not sure, exactly—but it has something to do with having individuality, personality, writing symphonies, and going to the moon. Somehow, our cute personality quirks and symphonies written by someone else 300 years ago and moon landings justify massacre after massacre of the helpless.

Any Utopia or Protopia or future worth striving for must be one that reverses this trend and begins to dramatically decrease the number of “Holocausts per year”. Perhaps it cannot become zero, but every damned Holocaust counts, and if we can prevent just one Holocaust per year, we will—in terms of heroic feats and ethical impact—have stopped Hitler. Reduce a few more and we will have prevented the equivalent of the Second World War. Or, if you actually consider other animals somewhat more equal to ourselves in terms of worth and suffering (and consider the fact that this is not just five years), you will have stopped hundreds of Hitlers “only” by reducing the number of Holocausts per year from 133 to 132.

[Note: Not calling non-vegans Hitler by the way; just saying that stopping Hitler equals stopping the Holocaust, so if we stop many Holocausts we will, in terms of ethical significance, have stopped many Hitlers.]

How about we just get our shit together and do that? I’m not asking much: not to save all animals for all eternity from all suffering, but just stop a few hundred Hitlers? Seems worthwhile, doesn’t it?

Or if this is not worthwhile—what have I missed? How is stopping a crime magnitudes greater than the Holocaust not relevant?

We all wish to save our civilization from ecological disasters and existential risks. But we also owe it to ourselves to make our global civilization into something we can be genuinely proud of, something that doesn’t have a dark underbelly we’re hiding from ourselves. Our civilization could be much more worth saving if it treated its weakest members better—for, yes, non-human animals are inescapably also parts of human societies.

Sometimes people say that concern for animals is underscored by a morbid fascination with the downfall of civilization and a hatred for humanity itself. I guess it can be. However, there is no necessity in it. To love something is also to wish it to be its best version; to respect it means to not look the other way when faced with its vices and mistakes. We should love our kids enough not to let them commit criminal or cruel acts. We should love ourselves and our planetary community of societies enough to not let them partake in new Holocausts.

Or to put it in pithier terms: Not all animals resemble children, but they share in that they are all in inferior positions of power and in that none of them wish to suffer. When the newly adopted homeless cat looks back at me with a gaze strikingly similar to that of my baby daughter, both pairs of eyes asking a being infinitely more powerful than themselves: Will you be kind to me? …there is only one answer that the heart can give: “To the best of my limited ability, yes, I will be kind.” If I looked at a being infinitely more powerful than myself to ask the same question, I know that’s the answer I’d be hoping for. How about you?

Okay, so with that intention set, what is an effective metamodernist version of Animal Rights or anti-speciesist thinking and strategy?

What to Bring from Postmodern Animal Rights

The Animal Rights movement will never achieve its goals unless it becomes metamodern—as long as it is stuck in postmodern moralizing, it cannot be truly effective. Like the environmentalist movement, the Animal Rights movement has largely been a failure, despite all the ethical and most of the practical argument going for it.

That being said, most of the Animal Rights insights and ethics are perfectly available to the postmodern mind, so let us first take stock of what to bring with us—and then turn to how we may restructure an update of this to a metamodernist version of Animal Rights advocacy and activism.

I say “Animal Rights” and not Animal Welfare because only one of the two is actually an emancipatory movement. The former seeks to end animal slavery and confer appropriate and sensible rights upon non-human animals, the latter seeks to lessen the harms and suffering of owned and bred-to-be-killed animals. It stands to reason that as long as people own non-human animals as slaves and kill them for profit, Animal Welfare reforms will always be countered by pressures for increased economic efficiency. We currently have more Animal Welfare laws than ever before, and these neatly co-exist with greater animal suffering, exploitation, and extinction than anything the world has ever seen. Capitalism is a bitch, at least if it includes slavery and killing for profit. You can’t change that by smoothening its edges: it’s still a hard rock to chew. Today, we remember the abolitionists of slavery, the people who said slavery isn’t okay, period. We don’t celebrate the slavery apologists who said that it’s okay to own people of certain races (or of little means), if you only whip them a little less—for the sake of their “welfare”. Not heroic, sorry.

Animal welfare is, then, largely a distraction—and possibly a harmful one. It provides all of the euphemisms and excuses for mass murder. The pigs LIKE being gassed to death. Or at least they really don’t mind. They had rich lives in their concrete prisons, and then one day they just quietly went to heaven—not entirely unlike the Nacht und Nebel policy, where creatures simply disappear very conveniently.

Animal Rights is the striving to confer reasonable and justifiable rights upon non-human animals. It says plainly what is obviously true: Owning and killing a fellow sentient being for profit is bad, so don’t do it.

That’s the main distinction that we bring from the postmodern Animal Rights movements: a wholesale rejection of Animal Welfare and an uncompromising embrace of Animal Rights—or anti-speciesism.

Other than that, we may bring the following along on our journey:

  • The Abolitionist positionchampioned by philosopher Gary Francione which simply holds that animal slavery must, can, and shall be abolished without compromise. This position equally rejects “piecemeal protests” (being against certain furs, but having no problems with milk slavery, etc.). It also rejects the majority of mainstream animal advocacy organizations (like PETA), as these rely upon donations from the public, and most donors themselves benefit from animal slavery (not being vegan, etc.), and thus these organizations are always short of breath when it’s their turn to speak truth to power.
  • The view of anti-speciesismas a vector of struggles for structural justice: anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, and so forth. Feminist scholar Corey Lee Wrenn speaks to this, also emphasizing the overlap between capitalist economies (not that state communism proved better!) and the growth of animal slavery. These categories interact, of course, so you’ll find that people with lower status are implicitly (or not) thought to be closer to animals, while animals suffer from our ideas about gender and race (cows versus bulls, white dogs versus black dogs, and so on, there’s a lot of research on this). In the social sciences, critical animal studies has recently ballooned.
  • The view that majority society isenthralled by the ideology of the dominant group, humans over animals, called speciesism or carnism, and that this distorts views of the oppression of animals—for instance, people have a hard time criticizing slaughterhouses while they’re still invested in feelings about wanting to eat animal products. Psychologist Melanie Joy has described this and shown it in studies.
  • Friendly and pragmatic veganism—leading by example and opening pathways for living with less animal suffering, not being aggressive or an asshole, not being woo-woo, staying healthy, enjoying food and life generally. In cases when you fail to make the transition for various reasons (health, etc.), don’t try to pretend that veganism would not be better ethically speaking—hence still showing solidarity with people of a vegan lifestyle. Spreading information about such ways of life and addressing health concerns could unlock great potential when it comes to making people more open to supporting the end of animal slavery.
  • Citizen journalism and research on animal mistreatment. Guess what? People will hide and lie about how animals in factory farms fare. Continuous documentation is important.
  • Knowledge work on anthropocentrism—research on animal behaviors, intelligence, relations, sentience, and how people’s reasoning is convoluted around animal ethics topics. Even research on animals and their behavior is again and again shown to be steered by the assumptions of “man as the measure” and of human interests and supremacy. Eva Meijer’s overviews are great here. In popularizing such sentiments and common sense, documentaries about the lives and intelligent and emotionally complex behaviors of animals may arguably play a role.
  • Differentiate Animal Rights from ecologism—being “green” does not in and of itself by any measure make you kinder to animals. By far the most ecologists hold as violent and oppressive views towards animals as mainstream society, if not more so, as it is romanticized as “part of the circle of life” and so on. Hence, support Animal Rights causes and work against all movements that would have us torment and exploit animals under more romantic and purportedly sustainable ways.
  • Support peaceful and reasoned protests only. To protect life, one may put oneself above the law and enact civil disobedience, but this must be done in manners that do not cause violence or direct harm or danger to anyone. Otherwise, others will not be able to know if you are driven by compassion or by excuses for the pleasures of aggression. Letting out animals who then die in the near woods or as roadkill or become invasive species is not optimal.

The moral awakening to Animal Rights is perhaps the most powerful gateway into a truly postmodern consciousness. This is because it highlights the key postmodern insights in such salient relief: how power shapes knowledge and values, how norms shape personal morality, how utterly limited we all are in our perspectives, how extremely socially dependent we are to think even the slightest unique thoughts, how our minds are always fooling us with self-soothing and self-embellishing propaganda, how whole worlds can be built on top of the suffering of the voiceless and the invisible, how violence is structural and not personal, how a good person can be a part of an evil whole, how the world is always beyond good and evil in its sheer absurdity… and so on. People “woke” to postmodern consciousness will know what I mean when I trace these contours.

But again, my claim is that Animal Rights simply cannot succeed while emanating from this mode of consciousness. For victory over the institution of animal slavery, for ceasing the multiple Holocausts, a metamodern update on Animal Rights is necessary.

Meet The Metamodern Animals Rights Advocate

Now, with these insights, let us turn to the marriage of Animal Rights and the metamodernist mindset.

Unfortunately, very few metamodernists are Animal Rights defenders and very few Animal Rights defenders are metamodernists. The reason for this is fairly simple: metamodernism really doesn’t add or detract much to the morality of postmodern consciousness. Postmodernists emerge as a subsection of modern society, and metamodernists in turn emerge as a subsection of postmodern communities—metamodernists roughly have the same ethics as pomos; they just have different practices.

If we refresh our memories of the stages of cultural development (in my own version of them here and here), they follow a pattern where every other stage is more of a moral awakening, a critique of the former, and the rest are practical advances. Modernity was itself such a practical advance. As is metamodernism. Here’s the whole sequence:

  • Animism (the role of which in contemporary society is discussed in an earlier post)
  • Faustianism (involves a revolution of economic capacity, agricultural civilization, not morality)
  • Postfaustianism (a moral revolution against Faustianism’s “might makes right” ethos, including the Perennial Age religions)
  • Modernism (follows through on the promises made by Postfaustian critique—such as equality—but adds little moral content)
  • Postmodernism (critiques all the dead-ends and inherent self-contradictions of Modernity)
  • Metamodernism (delivers on the ethical awareness of Postmodernity, but adds little moral content).

Metamodern consciousness is not in and of itself that much of a moral awakening vis-à-vis postmodernism, but rather a practically oriented operationalization of the ethics of postmodernity. It emphasizes not new ends but new means: inner growth rather than economic growth, perspective-taking rather than moralism, reconstruction rather than deconstruction, and so on—but it does so as for the sake of achieving roughly the same ends as postmodernism: a more humane society, a more empathic civilization, the end of racism, greater equality, ecological resilience and a reconciliation with nature, cured alienation and improved mental health, less materialism and consumerism, greater gender freedom and equality… And, of course, the end of animal slavery.

As such, you might say that metamodernists are somewhat more cold-hearted and practically applied versions of postmodernists—just as the democratic reformers of modernity were more practical versions of Christian beliefs in the equality of all souls and the conviction that violence is wrong. Metamodernists emerge from internet society and thus see new pathways for action that were not open to the postmodern consciousness which largely came online with the counter culture movements of the 20th century. As such, metamodernists can often be somewhat less morally concerned than the postmodernists. Hence, ironically, they are less often truly faithful climate activists or vegans—just like mainstream modernists are less likely than religious postfaustians to give money to the poor or refuse military service.

Nevertheless, I hold, it is precisely the metamodernists who have the most potential to end animal slavery.

If you look at the psychologies and values of people, these will also tend to align according to one of the abovementioned six cultural stages. But on this personal or individual level, we call them “effective value memes” (as discussed in my book, The Listening Society). Even while living in societies that are “modern” like those of today, people can express and live by values that correspond to any of the six stages, although “modernists” will be the most common ones.

In terms of the effective value memes of vegans (not, then, Animal Rights advocates in the strict sense, just anyone who wishes to not harm animals and identifies with a vegan lifestyle), you will find that, although vegans exist across the board, they are overrepresented in two of the value memes: Animist and Postmodern. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I think a brief observation of vegan communities around the world will corroborate my claim:

  • Animists: Vegans somewhat over-represented: “Animals are our friends, we can learn from them, etc.” Disney-ish and anthropomorphic reasons for animal care (i.e., seeing animals more as people, spirits, etc.). Keep in mind that I am here referring to non-indigenous animists (i.e. people living in modern societies who gravitate towards the animist value meme nonetheless), not indigenous populations who often need to sustain themselves from hunting and fishing.
  • Faustianists: Almost no vegans (but a few Nazis may be vegans, see Wandervogel, etc.).
  • Postfaustianism: Almost only Buddhist and Jain vegans, otherwise not really.
  • Modernists (mainstream people in liberal democracies): Very few vegans, but still some extreme libertarians or posh lifestyle ones.
  • Postmodernists: Lots of vegans, but of two distinct types: 1) “light” pomos are more likely to be of the new agey and puritan kind, sometimes collapsing back to Animist values, and 2) “dark” pomos, i.e. intellectual types who see structures, capitalism, power relations, language structures, etc. of animal oppression.
  • Metamodernists: More vegans than among modernists, but somewhat fewer than among pomos (note, though, that metamodernists are by themselves rare, and thus there are very few metamodernist vegans).

Now, the first thing to note is that a “vegan” is not one thing. Critically minded dark pomo intellectual vegans have very little to do with the grass smoothie YouTuber cults who link veganism to magical powers and spiritual attainment while their health is deteriorating (but, of course, the defenders of animal slavery of mainstream society do love these own-goal videos!).

The metamodernist Animal Rights advocate is most often (but not always) a vegan, albeit of a non-judgmental kind—a kind of synthesis between the light pomos and the dark ones: aware of the importance of rationality and critical awareness and learning about animal suffering, factory farming, and so on, yes, while still seeing how inner transformations, the arduous practice of compassion, and meditating on the suffering of others can also fuel and guide animal advocacy.

And, as importantly, the metamodernist animal advocate sees that all of the above (vegans of all value memes) may be aligned for similar causes, but that they are indeed very different, and that different social logics pertain to each of them. It thus encourages veganism across the board (moderns for status, health, and lifestyle reasons, etc.) and defends veganism both against hostile attacks from the defenders of animal slavery and from the excesses and stupidities of magical thinking and puritanism. The metamodern mind weaves all of the former value memes together into one multi-dimensional vegan movement and steers it towards its goal: the shortest possible route to the abolition of animal slavery.

Metamodern animal advocacy cares somewhat less if John or Jane specifically becomes vegan, because the metamodern mind perceives a richer field of potentials: Yes, every consequential vegan matters (much more so than two or even ten 50%-less-often carnivores, as the vegan reshapes norms, discourses, expectations, consumer market demand, family networks, and so on to a much greater extent). But it is also the case that you can always contribute to the abolition of animal slavery across at least four different dimensions which I’m going to present in the following.

The Four Pillars of Metamodern Animal Rights

Okay, so I’ll simply use an old go-to for holistic thinking: the four quadrants of Ken Wilber’s integral theory—I just did something similar for environmentalism.

The “four quadrants” are: 1. inner experience, 2. concrete behavior, 3. culture, and 4. systems change.

The point here is that Animals Rights advocacy, with a metamodernist perspective, at a minimum should live up to this holistic view: working across and coordinating between all of the four quadrants. To date, no Animal Rights movement that I’m aware of fully lives up to this standard.

Pillar 1: Transform inner experience

This pillar involves the recognition that society will never end animal slavery unless more people develop—by themselves, spontaneously and from their own free will—postmodern and metamodern sensibilities and values. You can push for norms (so that exploiting animals would be shameful, illegal, etc.) but people will always become reactionaries against those norms unless their inner moral compasses align with them. Try to “force” political correctness on a population and a Donald Trump will explode in your face. Same here with Animal Rights.

Fundamentally, most of us really, genuinely just don’t feel it. Most animal advocates even don’t feel it deeply and in manners that are sanguinely compassionate rather than full of draining guilt and pity.

So, inner transformation entails:

  • Compassion meditation (and the spread of it throughout society).
  • The resolution of inner traumas and issues, so that we become less defensive and more open to challenging our own moral precepts.
  • Perspective-taking in connecting to members of other species (and, to some degree, to nature), i.e. seeing the “faces” of animals, not just their anonymous snouts. Cultivate interspecies relationships and communication. Open up to new ways of seeing and understanding the world from the eyes of a seemingly foreign being: other colors, other lived and felt environments.
  • Perspective-taking in terms of people of different backgrounds and effective value memes: maybe there’s a good reason your 98 years old granny doesn’t see the point with animal right? Or that indigenous pastoral cultures can’t see the vegan light? Or just that mainstream modern people “don’t quite feel it”?
  • Training in self-forgiveness and acceptance, so that we have the fortitude to accept the moral responsibility of our civilization.
  • The general enrichment of human life in manners that support inner growth into higher value memes.
  • The dealing with feelings of hunger, fear of never being satiated, of feelings of imagined dissatisfaction or “thinness” associated with not consuming animal products.
  • The improvement of cognitive processes, so that one can more easily make a decision (be vegan, or similar) and stick to it: busting our tendencies to fool ourselves (“I’ll just make a little exception, then it becomes much easier”—but of course being vegan is super easy to consequential vegans only, who just never have to make a decision about it, any more than deciding to sleep every night, brushing teeth, etc.).

As you can see, none of these points involve brainwashing anyone to becoming vegan or supporting the abolishment of animal slavery. It is just the case that moral growth comes from good conditions, and it begins from the inner depths of each of us.

In other words, gearing society for inner transformation, and working on our own inner qualities leads to a much more fertile soil for Animal Rights.

Pillar 2: Concrete behaviors

This one is fairly obvious: Some behaviors lead to little kittens being tormented and seals clubbed, others don’t.

  • Vegan lifestyle (not just what you eat, also what you wear, such as leather, entertainment, such as circus animals, etc.)
  • Take good care of yourself and stay on the side of reason and health, so you’re leading by example.
  • Raise vegan families. 🙂
  • Create vegan collectives, businesses, and restaurants.
  • Work to create options at schools, restaurants, etc. and generally work for expanding societal acceptance and support.
  • Invest in Animal Rights friendly companies and technologies.
  • Give to Animal Rights causes.
  • Learn manners to reply in social games when people question or mock the suffering of animals (“It’s a free choice.”—“Not of the pig, it isn’t.” etc.)
  • Join and create Animal Rights advocacy movements and organizations.
  • Help animal shelters.
  • Guide intellectual and creative parts of your life towards integrating an Animal Rights perspective.
  • Read the best theorists (Gary Francione, Melanie Joy, Corey Lee Wrenn, etc.)
  • Announce your values when not inappropriate and in all other regards act normal and be a citizen and contributor that people have reasons to respect and like.
  • Avoid all judgment and snobbishness: Just stand up for yourself as a person who will not stand for animal slavery.

Pillar 3: Cultural shifts

And then, of course, there can be no end to slavery unless cultures around the world change. Let’s take a look at what enacting such change can entail:

  • The imaginative re-appropriation of food and consumption traditions linked to animal exploitation: Maybe the same essence or mood or quality can be achieved without animals being used? Christmas without meat? The Poles were already doing it: Their Catholic Christmas is almost vegetarian by tradition (not vegan!). My own Christmas is vegan, and it’s the season to be jolly.
  • The linking of anti-speciesism to a wider network of social justice and intersectionality: to show and insist that even anti-racism and anti-sexism and postcolonialism are simply incomplete without anti-speciesism. In the same family of issues: to link the abolition of slavery as the natural heir to the abolition of human slavery in the 19th century.
  • To challenge anthropocentrism in research, education, and media narratives—from research questions, to faults in thinking that arise from anthropocentric biases, to research methods and cruel experiments, to how animal suffering is spoken of and euphemized or routinely discarded, to creating philosophies that simply do not have anthropocentrism as a starting point (but rather center on things like the cosmos itself, existence, sentience, emergence, or interaction).
  • Challenge infantilizing conceptions of animals. Non-human animals don’t have the exact same skills as humans, and they are in a less powerful position than humans in today’s world, but they are nonetheless competent and intelligent in ways that we are not: chimps have better working memory, hummingbirds can navigate the jungle better, and so on.
  • To raise the sense of relevance, status, and “coolness” of going beyond anthropocentric worldviews and biases by creating or curating art with post-anthropocentric themes, or otherwise to develop vegan or Animal Rights conducive aesthetics that impress and shape public imagination in a manner that links Animal Rights to desirable and tasteful expressions of fashion, style, music, film, sports, and so on.
  • To honor role models and public figures who stand up for Animal Rights.
  • Work in all ways to normalize veganism and Animal Rights and facilitate the symbolic victories of their proponents whenever they are challenged, so that the norm systems sway in favor of veganism. Push the Overton window towards the normalcy and frequency of conversations about Animal Rights.
  • Work to make visible and clear the ideology of carnism, how consuming animals is linked to conceptions of masculinity, and offer other role models for masculine identity formation.
  • Challenge habitual derogative comments about “fanatic” and “extreme” Animal Rights activists and insist that animal advocacy is normal, reasonable, and respectable, so that it becomes more difficult for people to maintain a strawman version of what Animal Rights entails, hence making it easier for animal advocates everywhere to speak their minds.
  • Make friends with other Animal Rights advocates and remain friends with others: be a good example to the latter.
  • While “single issue” protests may not be beneficial, it is much easier to garner public support for the closing of slaughterhouses than for the banning of products of animals slavery—both things are similar, but one implicates more people (the consumers) and the other does not. The support for closing slaughterhouses is generally very widespread. So work on such gateway issues but balance them against getting stuck in the swamp of single issues (“don’t club seal cubs, but go ahead and choke piglets!”).
  • Spread a rich vegan cuisine everywhere you go. Shoot at taste buds and invite changing habits.
  • Cultivate positive identities for farmers and producers who make the transition from animal slavery (not blaming them!).
  • Challenge and expose so-called meat nationalism: “Oh sure, those pesky French treat animals with no respect, but we Swedes… In fact, the more Swedish meat I buy, the better for the animals. The more I pay people to kill Swedish pigs and cows, the better a friend I am to animals…” The truth is, of course, that all industrial farming is an ethical abomination.
  • Link animal liberation to the responsibilities of industrial civilization, not to the practices of tribal communities, fishers, and pastoral nomads—and do not let the existence of such communities be an excuse for the crimes of industrial civilization.

Basically, today’s culture is against human slavery but not against animal slavery. Tomorrow’s culture could, God willingly, be against the latter as well.

Pillar 4: Change the system

The last pillar has to do with changing the systems we live by—and these systems will have their own logics and incentives which shape our behaviors, values, and cultures. Today, factory farming and other expressions of animal slavery are part and parcel of our global economic systems. If one person goes vegan and thereby reduces demand for meat and dairy somewhat, the prices simply fall slightly and new consumer groups make up for the decrease. Even if consciousness of animal suffering increases, the system will still find ways to torment our fellow creatures for as long as it’s profitable.

But despite their tendency for inertia, systems do change from time to time. Human slavery was also ingrained into the global system and key to the economy (slaves from Africa, cotton from Dixieland, fabric from Manchester, and so the wheels of the world turned) but eventually the system shifted.

What systemic shifts are we talking of in this case?

  • The abolition of subsidies for animal slavery (the US spends about $52bn on farm subsidies, where livestock and feed accounts for over 50% and fruit and vegetables only for 3%; the EU spends around €30bn on livestock farming—20% of its entire budget).
  • Subsidize plant-based alternatives instead, making these available to all.
  • Work to make visible and counter the systemic influence of animal slavery lobbyists.
  • Create animal-friendly investment funds and grow startup hubs (alternatives to lab animals, lab-grown meat, vegan meat, veg tech, etc.)
  • Shifting both the supply and demand-side: more numerous and attractive alternatives to the products of animal slavery and less demand for the latter.
  • Providing health information and education from official and credible sources.
  • Creating pathways for transitions to plant based models.
  • Push for plant-based consumption in public institutions (schools, hospitals, and so forth).
  • Link veganism to systemic issues of ecology, climate, health, food security, risks of pandemics (as viruses come from our animal industries, as do antibiotic resistant bacteria).
  • Support effective altruist projects (which target helping as many sentient beings as possible).
  • Push for progressive legislation of animal rights—notanimal welfare. Close down industries based on slavery, one by one.
  • Create official certifications of different competencies (animal behavior and suffering and the ethics of these, wildlife suffering reduction, vegan nutrition, sociology of animal-human relations).
  • Invest in research on bioethics, animal consciousness, and Animal Rights.
  • Create official science-based standards of the life worlds of different species and their ethical concerns.
  • Organize cross-party Animal Rights groups that can counter the interest group propaganda/lobbying of animal slavery industries.
  • Envision and model “endgame equilibrium” scenarios—i.e., what would a realistic and humane process towards the end of animal slavery look like, and what would happen with animal slave populations?

The system of animal slavery has deep roots. It’s not “evil” in the sense it’s upheld by malicious intent, but a lot of self-interest does stand between us and animal liberation. Hence, you need to work this system on all the above fronts, transnationally. In the end, the arguments are on the side of Animal Rights.

Conclusion: Joke with the Hydra

Reason and common sense can and will prevail—but only if civilization is not under extreme pressure, possibly regressing to some kind of Mad Max society, under which circumstances we will likely see a drop in the prevailing “effective value memes” of populations and thereby no deepening moral enlightenment.

Metamodern Animal Rights advocates thus do not wish to see the collapse of our civilization. Instead they wish for society to grow peacefully and healthily into a higher awareness of the consequences of human action, and from there on, for animal slavery to be abolished once and for all.

But metamodernists would do well to take up some more of this care for the animals. Yes, the moral significance is unfathomable. But a great challenge, a mountain to surpass, a hydra with a 133 heads like Hitler, can also inspire us. It doesn’t have to leave us hopeless. When we look at this mountain of injustice, we also turn our eyes skyward—aspiring towards our highest potential.

And—as metamodernists are spiritually somewhat different from the righteous rebels of postmodernism—they can also adopt a sincerely ironic stance towards the sheer absurdity of it all. Okay, hydra with 133 heads like Hitler, show me what you’ve got. And like Churchill, we can call out:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our fellow animals, we shall fight in fucking Florida if we have to, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Maybe this is a world too dark to comprehend. And yet, here we are, somehow fairly happy much of the time, and somehow aware of the ethical direction we must take, and the route to get there. Somehow, that light at the end of the tunnel lights up the whole path towards a human civilization worth its name.

That moral journey is arguably a powerful fuel for metamodernists around the world—a playful struggle worthy of our blink of a lifetime. The hydra cannot be beaten with grit alone; it must also be met with grace, wit, imagination, and kindness.

Or, as they say, human civilization is a great idea. We should try it.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.