Hanzi Freinacht releases the hitherto boldest and most comprehensive challenge to Jordan Peterson’s self-help psychology: a self-help for progressive and complex minds. Out Jan 1st 2023.
12 Commandments: For Extraordinary People to Master Ordinary Life
In this sincerely ironic challenge to psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, Hanzi Freinacht (a sociologist and philosopher) takes off fast in his trademarked irreverent and wild style of writing. His weapon of choice: laughter. His most potent tool: tears. His commitment marks every page: uniting intellect and emotion, ordinary life and playful struggle for a better world.
Hanzi guides the reader through an unforgettable journey of highs and lows, light and darkness, and all the way back to ordinary existence. Life, death, love, terror, rage, unhinged sexual desire, faith, spirituality, politics, God, family, and idealistic strivings to change an ailing world—all topics are woven together into one and the same philosophy of life, crystallized into 12 Commandments that you will want to obey as if your life depends on them.
This is no book for the ordinary person. No, the already-extraordinary, the misfit idealist, the maverick, these all find a structure to life and solace for their sorrows in these pages. Readers are guided back to ordinary existence, to where their different journeys began. This book is a secret bible for the transnational class of creatives and idealists that Hanzi is native to. It seeks to reestablish sanity and peace of mind to very people who can make a real difference in the world.
The 12 Commandments are:
1. Live in a mess, moderately 2. Fuck like a beast 3. Live sincerely, ironically 4. Turn workout into prayer 5. Quit 6. Do the walk of shame 7. Sacrifice immortality 8. Heal with justice 9. Burn your maps 10. Do what you hate 11. Kill your guru, find your others 12. Play for forgiveness
You must read each of these to understand the depth of their meaning. And you must obey them—if you are to master ordinary life and make it a homestead for your extraordinary adventures.
How the fractal nature of the integral four-quadrant model can help (dis)solve the paradoxes within ethics.
Many years ago, shortly after having discovered Ken Wilber’s very useful four-quadrant model, it occurred to me that, within ethics, there are basically four (not three, not five, but four) main branches or schools of thought if you don’t count amoral philosophies such as nihilism (but these cannot be used normatively, only in a larger “meta-ethical” context). Having noticed that oftentimes things come bundled in four, just to fit snuggly into the four quadrant model, of course made me wonder whether or not the four schools of ethics would somehow align with Wilber’s model.
Spoiler alert: I can already reveal that the answer to that question is that the four schools of ethics fit very well into the four quadrants!
The reason this is interesting is that the four-quadrant model is very good at guiding us towards resolving, or dissolving, apparent paradoxes. And in philosophy, the different schools of ethics have usually been at odds with each other with no resolution in sight. Hence, the four quadrant model might come in handy here.
The four schools of thought within ethics are: rule-based ethics, consequentialism (or utilitarianism), virtue ethics, and contractualism (or social contract theory). In the following, I will not only show how each of these corresponds to the logic of one of the four quadrants; I will also show how seeing this pattern can help answer many puzzling questions within ethics.
From there on, you can construct ethical solutions at a much more complex level and in a more coherent manner—i.e., you can become more ethical, do more “good”. That’s what this is about.
The Big Three and Wilber’s Four Quadrants
In his books, Wilber speaks of the so-called “Big Three”: Truth, Beauty, and (normative) Goodness. The idea about these three separate domains of inquiry has run through Western philosophy as a red thread since Plato introduced the triad 2500 years ago—until Wilber finally broke with the tradition and added a fourth. Kind of.
In Europe during the medieval period, scholastic thinkers provided a more systematic treatment of these three concepts and began referring to them as the “transcendentals” (i.e. properties of being). Ontologically speaking, the transcendentals are what is common to all beings, indeed to all being. Cognitively speaking, they are initial foundational concepts since they cannot be traced back to anything preceding them.
The three transcendentals have remained prominent within Christian theology, particularly in Catholic thought, yet these three distinct properties of being have in many ways also been a fundamental feature even within modern secular Western philosophy. If we take Immanuel Kant’s three critiques, for example, they can be seen as inquiries into each of the transcendentals:
Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781 (truth)
Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 (goodness)
Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790 (beauty)
Karl Popper is perhaps most famous for his philosophy on science, but he also contributed to metaphysics with his three worlds model. This is a way of looking at reality that involves three interacting worlds:
World 1:Objects. The realm of states and processes as typically studied by the natural sciences. These include the states and processes that we seek to explain by physics and by chemistry, and also those states and processes that subsequently emerge with life and which we seek to explain by biology. (Truth)
World 2:Subjects. The realm of mental states and processes. These include sensations and thoughts, and include both conscious and unconscious mental states and processes. World 2 includes all animal, as well as human, mental experience. Mental states and processes only emerged as a product (or by-product) of biological activity by living organisms, and so only emerged subsequently to the emergence of living organisms within World 1. Mental states and processes are the products of evolutionary developments in the World 1 of animal brains and nervous systems, but constitute a new realm of World 2 that co-evolved by its interaction with the World 1 of brains and nervous systems. (Beauty)
World 3:Intersubjectivity. The realm of the “products of thought” when considered as objects in their own right. These products emerge from human “World 2” activity, but when considered as World 3 objects in their own right they have rebound effects on human World 2 thought processes. Through these rebound effects, World 3 “objects” may—via World 2-motivated human action on World 1—have an indirect but powerful effect on World 1. In Popper’s view, World 3 “objects” encompass a very wide range of entities, from scientific theories to works of art, from laws to institutions. (Goodness)
As you can see above, each of these worlds correspond to one of the big threes introduced by Plato.
Jürgen Habermas, the perhaps greatest social theorist alive, similarly acknowledges the existence of these three separate worlds. He has written that:
“With any speech act, the speaker takes up a relation to something in the objective world [Truth, World 1], something in a common social world [Goodness, World 3] and something in his own subjective world [Beauty, World 2].”
—Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987).
He also argues that each of these worlds has its own “validity claim” which are:
Propositional truth(referring to an objective state of affairs, World 1)
Subjective truthfulness(or sincerity, World 2)
Normative rightness(cultural justness or appropriateness, World 3)
Given the distinct properties of each of these worlds’ validity claims, it also means that none of them can be reduced to the others. Each of these validity claims must be exposed to its own particular kind of evidence. In a way, this is what David Hume pointed out regarding the naturalistic fallacy, the philosophical notion that later would be named Hume’s Law where he argued that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” (i.e. getting truth mixed up with goodness).
Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, emphasized the differentiation between the big three in his definition of modern society. According to Weber, modernity’s primary ambition is to separate objective experiences, ethical evaluations, and personal preferences from each other—that is, the modern separation between science, politics, and religion.
The inability to separate the big three has been a source of philosophical quarrels and misunderstandings throughout Western thought for centuries. And whenever two opposing groups have emerged on one topic or the other, membership has usually relied on whether one favored either the interior (subjective, beauty, and goodness) or the exterior (objective, truth) dimensions of reality. Notable examples are the medieval debate of the problem of universals, or the later secular philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists. The latter was exactly what Kant tried to resolve with his three abovementioned critiques.
But despite the modern project’s quest to separate the three domains, and Hume’s assertion that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” more than 250 years ago, still to this day and age, people tend to mix up the different validity claims and emphasize one domain at the expense of another—with much confusion as a result. The century-old lack of understanding between the natural sciences and the humanities, for example, is mainly derived from the fact that the former works within the exterior, objective domains of Popper’s World 1, and the latter primarily within the interior, subjective and intersubjective domains of Popper’s Worlds 2 and 3.
This is where Wilber enters the picture.
Wilber’s Four Quadrants
Many of my dear readers are already familiar with Wilber’s four quadrants, so I’ll keep it brief. To those of you who still don’t get it after my presentation here, I’ll recommend you look up the four-quadrant model and Wilber’s integral philosophy elsewhere—or simply ask in the metamodern community online. Plenty of metamodernists come from the integral scene.
Now, if you look at the model below, you can see that Wilber has added a fourth dimension to the classic three-dimensional one. In a way, it’s kind of an open goal: If you have intersubjectivity (Popper’s World 3), you ought to have interobjectivity too. Makes sense right?
But apart from that, what exactly does the model describe, and what is it that makes it so elegant that it has all but literally amassed a cult-following?
Well, let me explain: If you look at the margins of the model above, you will notice four different categories: individual, collective, interior, and exterior. These are the four fundamental properties of reality, according to this model, which in four different combinations add up to four separate dimensions. They are as follows:
Interior / individual:The transcendental idea of “beauty”, which corresponds to Popper’s World 2 of subjective truthfulness, belongs to the upper left, subjective quadrant in the model above. That is because this is the dimension of the individual’sinner mental experiences, including aesthetic experiences (as the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Consequently, the upper left quadrant is about the states of affairs that can be stated in “I-language”: the realm of consciousness, phenomenology, psychology in many of its modes, and spirituality.
Interior / collective:The transcendental idea of “goodness”, World 3, belongs to the lower left, intersubjective quadrant. This is the dimension of normative rightness, of social constructed reality of symbols and discourses. These properties belong to the interior left half of the four-quadrant model, just like beauty, since they cannot be accounted for objectively. But since questions of ethics and symbolic meaning is not just about single individuals, but the relation between individuals, it belongs to the collective half of the model. The lower left is therefore concerning state of affairs that can be stated in “we-language”: the realm of culture, ethics, hermeneutics, and symbols.
So far, so good.
The transcendental idea of “truth”, World 1, has as mentioned been split into two separate dimensions in the four-quadrant model. That is because in this world of propositional truths, of objective state of affairs and physical objects and events, there is, like in the abovementioned interior dimensions, both an individual and collective dimension with two very different validity claims. The first one (exterior/individual, upper right)is that of classic empirical science, think Newtonian physics, scientific method, particle physics; the second (exterior/collective, lower right)is that of the systems sciences, think meteorology, ecology, evolution theory, chaos theory.
Exterior / individual: The upper rightquadrant is thus the dimension of objective matters that can be assessed individually: empirical facts that are true in-and-of-themselves; states of affairs that can be stated in “it-language”.
Exterior / collective:And finally, in the lower right corner, this is where you find the inter-objective quadrant. This is the dimension of objective matters that can only be understood systemically (viz. the collective lower half of the model); state of affairs that can be stated in what might be termed an “its-language”: what are the systems that create the ebbs and flows of economies, weather, living organisms, ant colonies, and so forth. What makes an ant colony into just that? It’s not a matter of simply adding up the list of 30.000 ants. It has to do with how the relatively simple behaviors of each ant together create something that is not exactly “one thing”, but exists quit objectively nevertheless, as a set of relations: the colony. The system. The whole.
Let me elaborate on this distinction a bit. The upper right quadrant is about individual objects and events that can be observed and understood, for instance, through the scientific method of isolating phenomena and analyzing the results (both of which are about separating things into their smallest individual constituents in order to gain understanding). The lower right quadrant, on the other hand, is about the phenomena that emerge from the interaction between those individual objects and events; about the wholes rather than the parts. Remember hearing the saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”? This means that the whole, i.e. the phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of the individual objects in the upper right quadrant, cannot be derived from or reduced to the mere sum of its constituting parts. The holistic understanding required to perceive the interobjective phenomena of the lower right quadrant runs counter to the reductionism of the objective upper right and is exactly why we are dealing with two different dimensions with two different sets of validity claims.
The thing is that the two exterior dimensions have their own very different forms of validity claims, just like the two interior ones. Understanding how a single particle behaves is drastically different from how billions of particles behave in a complex phenomenon like a weather system (or just any statistical mechanics). The same applies to the difference between understanding a single human organism, and that of millions of humans interacting in a society—particle physics operates within another language than meteorology; biology within another than economics or sociology.
The systems sciences cover a broad array of theoretical fields such as chaos theory, complexity science, cybernetics, and so on. Compared to classical physics, which can trace its roots back to antiquity, systems science is relatively new. Charles Darwin, with his theory of evolution, can be said to be one of the first chaos theorists, but it was not until the 20th century that systems science emerged as a discipline of its own. It is therefore not strange that modern Western philosophy has not made the distinction between the two exterior dimensions before the second half of the 20th century.
(Wilber’s “Integral” is, in a way, the result of new age spirituality marrying systems science. Kind of. So it is not surprising that it is here we find the break with the tradition of the big three.)
If you are still struggling to wrap your head around the four-quadrant model, you can take a look at the illustration below where I have plotted a few examples of how different academic disciplines, methods, and thinkers can be positioned within the four quadrants:
And by “rationalism” here, I mean the philosophical tradition of emphasizing people’s own rational thinking in finding out what’s true. I.e., it emphasizes the truth of rational thinking, of our conscious processes, not of the facts in and of themselves.
What I want to emphasize above is the position of ethics in the lower left corner of the four quadrants. This shows, what Hume stated 250 years ago, namely that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”—or in Wilberian integral language: don’t derive a “we” from an “it(s)”.
Now, my intention here is not to teach integral theory, others have done a far better job elsewhere. All of this is only to prepare you for my inquiry into how the four quadrants’ puzzling fractal nature can help us in ethical matters.
Fractal nature? Yes, this is where the four quadrants start to get really interesting. You see, each of the four quadrants can be split into four additional quadrants. In fact, the four quadrants should not really be understood in absolutist terms, but rather in relative terms. That is, ethics remains an intersubjective field relative to physics or psychology, but within the domain of ethics itself it, in turn, contains elements that, relative to each other, are either subjective, intersubjective, objective, or interobjective. It’s like a fractal: each time you zoom in, the same pattern emerges over and over again—but with new information emerging at each level.
But before I move on to demonstrate how, let me first introduce you to the four schools of ethics.
The Four Schools of Ethics
It is commonly agreed upon that normative ethics can be divided into three major categories: Deontological Ethics, Teleological Ethics (or “consequentialism” which will be the term I use in the following) and Virtue Ethics. I would argue, however, that deontological ethics ought to be divided into two separate schools, namely: rule-based ethics and contractualism.
Before I explain why this is, let me first introduce the four schools of ethics. If you’re already familiar with these, just skip ahead. I’m not saying anything you can’t find in a school book. And obviously, all I’m offering here is pretty basic and only touches the surface. If you want a more in-depth understanding, look stuff up, study, and come back in two years a wiser and nerdier person.
Rule-based ethics is perhaps best explained by Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative signifies an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
And the second formulation goes like this:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
The second formulation is interesting because it takes human life as a value—an end in itself and not only a means—into account. This is, of course, the foundation of the idea of human rights.
The categorical imperative is quite similar to the so-called Golden Rule, historically found throughout most literate pre-modern cultures:
In its positive form stated as: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
In its negative form stated as: “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.”
According to Kant, it is not the consequences that determine whether an action is right or wrong, but the principles behind it. Stealing and lying are not wrong because such acts tend to hurt people, or that people generally do not like being stolen from and lied to, but because these acts violate certain logical (and tautological) principles. For example:
It is wrong to steal because the concept of “stealing” in itself implies that there exists such a thing as property rights—otherwise you wouldn’t stealbut merely take. This means that by declaring that you or anyone else stole something, you simultaneously imply that an ethical principle was broken, namely the right of property.
It is wrong to lie because the act of speaking in itself implies conveying what one believes to be true. If you do not tell the truth, you violate the implied premise that by speaking you are passing on correct information. Consequently, if lying became a universal law (categorical imperative), speech would be rendered meaningless—which I guess we can agree defeats the purpose of speaking.
According to Kant, these are contradictions in a conceptual sense, and thus philosophically erroneous because they undermine the very basis for their own existence.
These are examples of moral absolutism, i.e. the idea that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong regardless of the consequences, but also the intentions behind them. According to Kant however, no action can possibly be conceived as morally sound without “a good will”, and the consequences of an act cannot be used to judge whether it is based on such a good will since good consequences can arise by accident from an action motivated to cause harm and vice versa. A person thus has such a good will only when they act out of respect towards a moral law, and because they have an inclination of duty to do so. Therefore, the only thing that is truly good in itself is a good will. This also asks one of the greatest questions within rule-based ethics: Is it the intention, i.e. the will to do good, or the conduct according to morally good rules that matters the most?
The second formulation of the categorical imperative has the problem that it potentially collapses into an infinite amount of rules handling exceptions, i.e. “lying is always ok when…”. It does not advocate what exactlyany universal law should entail, only that one’s conduct should be in accordance with it in any similar situation, thus allowing the universal law to lie or steal in situations where one would like it to be a universal law. For example, who wouldn’t want it to be a universal law to always steal food and give it to the starving? This line of thought allows an endless regress without violating the good will or the maxim to have a certain conduct to be a universal law. Endless regress is however an unfavorable philosophical position since it puts us back to square one and leaves us just as ignorant as before about how to handle ethical dilemmas.
The greatest problem though is that the potential bad consequences of good principles are ignored and that any work around this problem tends to land in some kind of consequentialism—the opposite of rule-based ethics.
Kant’s categorical imperative is based on the concept of universalizability, which means that an action is morally sound if an action could become a rule which everyone would act upon in similar circumstances. But the problem remains that it does not say why anyone would want their actions to be universalized, or why anyone should bother acting morally, in the first place? This, however, is a job for the next branch of ethics to give an answer to. Let’s have a look at contractualism.
Contractualism, or social contract theory, revolves around the idea that the foundation of our governments and their legal frameworks, and the social rules we conform by, are derived from implicit social contracts or unspoken agreements that we have entered into with each other because we have a self-interest in everyone upholding them and because they serve the common good. This also means that the social contracts are negotiable, just like the authority of governments, and that the rules can change over time.
The most famous social contract theorist is perhaps Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote The Social Contractin 1762, from where the name of this school of thought is derived. Other famous classic social contract theorists are Thomas Hobbesand John Locke. The main questions addressed by these thinkers are the origins of society and the legitimacy of the state, and how people have voluntarily consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to yield some of their freedoms—and submitted to the authority of the state (or other larger social whole) in exchange for protection and privileges.
The point of departure for most social contract theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any political authority. According to Hobbes, the “state of nature” is a condition that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, due to a “war of all against all”, as the “natural condition” entails everyone having unlimited “natural freedoms”, a “right to all things” including the right to do with others as they wish. From this starting point, Hobbes wishes to demonstrate that rational individuals voluntarily would consent to give up their natural freedom to cause others harm (if others did the same) by forming a political authority in order to obtain the benefits of protection from civil strife.
This marked an important departure from medieval natural law theories that used to give precedence to obligations over rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights is an important aspect of social contract theory. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system, while natural rights are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable. Natural law theory challenged the divine right of kings and became an alternative justification for the establishment of a social contract, positive law, and government—and thus legal rights—in the form of classical republicanism. Hobbes, however, objected to the attempt to derive rights from natural law, arguing that law and rights, though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations while rights refer to the absence of obligations.
Retaining only the central notion from Hobbes that individuals in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state, Locke’s conception of the social contract is that individuals in a state of nature would be morally bound by “the law of nature” not to inflict each other harm. However, without any government to protect people against those seeking to injure or enslave them, they would agree to form a state that would act as a “neutral judge” to protect their “lives, liberty, and property”—the three natural rights according to Locke, contrary Hobbes’ notion of the single natural right to do as one wishes. Another major difference between Hobbes and Locke is that while Hobbes advocated near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law, with the legitimacy of the government derived from the citizens’ right to self-defense. Rather than a state of nature, in which each individual acts as judge, jury, and executioner, the right of self-defense is transferred to the state to act as an impartial, objective agent.
Rousseau claims that the existence of inalienable rights is unnecessary for the existence of a constitution or a set of laws and rights. His idea of a social contract is that rights and responsibilities are derived from a consensual contract between the government and the people. The aim of the social contract is to determine whether there can be a legitimate political authority since people’s interactions in a society seem to put them in a state far worse than that of a state of nature. Rousseau’s version of social contract theory is based on an unlimited, indivisible, and popular sovereignty as the foundation of political rights. Rousseau differs from Locke and Hobbes by arguing that a citizen cannot pursue their true interests egoistically, but needs to subordinate to the law created by the citizenry acting as a collective. Only with the existence of a direct rule by the people as a whole in lawmaking is liberty possible. But as people often do not know which conduct benefits the greater good, the role of the legislator is to advocate the values and customs promoting this—summed up by Rousseau in this paragraph:
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
Hence, enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction of individual liberty since the citizen explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in a state of nature into “civil society” according to Rousseau. (Note: “civil society” in this classical language of philosophers did not mean football clubs and local community gatherings, but more something like “a peaceful, functional, and civilized society”).
Although the Sovereign’s edicts may be arbitrary and tyrannical, Hobbes saw absolute powers vested in government as the only alternative to the anarchy of a state of nature. Alternatively, Locke and Rousseau argued that we gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others; giving up some freedoms in return for others. The central premise of social contract theory is that law and political order are not natural but human creations. The social contract and the political order it creates are simply the means towards an end—the benefit of the individuals involved—and legitimate only to the extent the government fulfills its part of the agreement. According to Hobbes, citizens are not obligated to submit to the government when it is too weak to act effectively to suppress factionalism and civil unrest. Locke argues that citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey or change the leadership through elections or other means, including, when necessary, violence, when the government fails to secure their natural rights. Rousseau, on the other hand, was more concerned with forming new governments than with overthrowing old ones.
The concept of inalienable rights was criticized by Jeremy Bentham(the founder of modern utilitarianism) and Edmund Burke(the “father” of conservatism) as groundless, claiming that rights arise from the actions of government, or evolve from tradition, and neither can provide anything inalienable. Another criticism of natural rights theory is that one cannot draw norms from facts. As mentioned, this is the is-ought problem, or the naturalistic fallacy, also known as Hume’s law.
More recent contributors to social contract theory who deserve to be mentioned are John Rawls and Robert Nozick.
John Rawls’ contribution to contractualism is an approach whereby rational people in a hypothetical “original position”, setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a “veil of ignorance”, would agree to certain general principles of justice and legal organization. By asking the individual to propose which rules should govern society in a situation where no one knew where or in which social class to be born, Rawls believed we could come closer to an answer to what a just world should look like.
In opposition to Rawls, RobertNozick proposed the idea of a minimal state, “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on”, arguing that when a state takes on more responsibilities than these, rights will be violated. To support the idea of the minimal state, Nozick presents an argument that illustrates how the minimalist state arises naturally from anarchy and how any expansion of state power past this minimalist threshold is unjustified since it violates the Lockean rights of liberty and property and since any redistribution of wealth must be based on consent in order to be justified.
Where Rawls to some extent bases his theory of justice on Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative’s proposition that one should ask what one would want to become a universal law, Nozick’s entitlement theory, leans towards the second formulation which sees humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means to some other end—even the end of the common good.
To sum up, contractualism is about the implicit as well as explicit rules under which we collectively, more or less voluntarily, have agreed to submit in order to protect and promote our own and others’ interests, whatever these may be in a given society. The greatest ontological problem is the issue of natural versus legal rights. From where exactly are rights to be derived, and how are they justified? And what about the individuals who are not, or do not have the power (minorities, the unborn, animals), to negotiate the social contract?
Virtue-based ethics can be traced back to Greek antiquity and is one of the oldest moral philosophies. Virtue-based ethics is not concerned with labeling actions good or bad, but rather with determining the moral character of agents. For example, rather than asking whether lying is right or wrong, it is the concern of whether a person is honest or dishonest that is important here. A knife is neither good nor bad, but either sharp or dull. Similarly, a horse can be said to be strong or fast, simply calling it “good” would be meaningless to an advocate of virtue-based ethics.
The go-to name for virtue ethics these days has become Alasdair MacIntyre. Since the 1980s, he has been bridging his way back to Aristotle’s thinking, claiming that a relevant version of virtues can be reconstructed in our day and age by looking at what the rules of each craft, art, or game require of their respective participants for these to fulfill the purpose inherent to that game. This is, argues MacIntyre, more in line with the insights of 20th-century sociology, which emphasizes that people are always embedded in meaningful contexts. Take away that context, and you’ll have a hard time knowing what would be the “good” thing to do. Define the context (“we’re playing chess”) and at least you’ll be able to see what some of the relevant virtues are. In chess, for instance, honesty means not cheating or intentionally distracting your opponent, and so forth. If you win the world chess championship with the help of the edge your cleavage gives you, it’s not an expression of the game of chess in its ideal form. And so, virtues are learned together with real, human skills in real, living settings. (But, as you will see in the sections below, my own expositions emphasizes that the virtue must always be observed in the behavior of specific person, regardless of how it affects the game being played in this particular instance—don’t be fooled by surface appearances; on a deeper level my view aligns with MacIntyre’s, at least as far as I can see.)
Virtue ethics has been rather neglected since antiquity but has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback since the second half of the 20th century, especially among feminists. The ethics of care is a normative ethical theory developed by feminist scholars—notably Carol Gilligan, also a developmental psychologist with stage theories of personal development similar to my own. It holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. This school of thought emphasizes the dilemma that certain behaviors are regarded as virtuous regardless of whether it benefits the greater good, or obeys certain universal principles. For example, the virtue of parenthood is judged on the basis of how well one succeeds in caring for one’s children—not how well the overall consequences of one’s conduct serve the greater good of children in general, or if any action therein is in accordance with some universal principle. You may be an altruistic person if you seek to spend most of your time helping poor orphaned children, and you may be an honest person if you never lie or steal, but you are nevertheless a bad parent if you neglect your own children because you spend too much of your time helping out at the orphanage or let your own children starve because you do not wish to steal food for them. You may be altruistic and law-abiding, but you are not a virtuous parent. The same can be said about the virtue of being a loyal friend. The whole concept of friendship is about caring more for a specific person than for a stranger. If you show everyone else the same amount of care as your friends you might be considered altruistic, but you are not loyal.
Again, virtue ethics is not concerned about universal principles or overall consequences. The terms “good” or “bad” have by some virtue-based moral philosophers even been proposed to be abandoned altogether. Instead, the moral emphasis should be on which terms are used to describe the action itself, and thus the moral character of the agent conducting them in that setting.
Consequentialism is a class of ethics that includes a large number of sub-categories such as utilitarianism, rule consequentialism, state consequentialism, ethical egoism, ethical altruism, two-level consequentialism, and negative consequentialism, that all have in common that it is the consequences of an action or rule that are the ultimate basis for any normative judgment. Each of these mentioned forms of consequentialism emphasizes the individual versus the collective to varying degrees, and many of them combine elements from the other three main schools of ethics. In the last regard, utilitarianism is consequentialism in its purest form. This class of consequentialism can be summed up by the mantra “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The main idea here is that the proper course of action is the one maximizing overall happiness and reducing overall suffering.
But it should be mentioned that recent developments in consequentialist ethics have departed from this mantra and simply focus on reducing the suffering prevalent in the universe. Here, an underlying influence is Buddhist philosophy and spiritual insight. My own comrade, Magnus Vinding, counts among these thinkers. He in turn often refers to Brian Tomasik, a dude who really wants to reduce suffering in the universe, judging by his prolific and diligently made output about everything from the suffering of shrimps to the question of whether even atoms might suffer. He wants the whole hullabaloo to cease altogether.
But for simplicity’s sake, let’s stay with the most well-known and established forms of this ethics. Utilitarianism is often seen as related to hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that one should strive towards maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible for themselves and that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Utilitarianism does differ from this line of thought by adding the crucial aspect that what matters is aggregate happiness; the happiness of everyone and not just the happiness of any particular person. According to Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, the fundamental axiom is: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” He even introduced a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which became known as the hedonic calculus. John Stuart Mill, a student of Bentham’s, on the other hand, rejected this purely quantitative measurement of utility and argued that certain kinds of pleasures are more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures. According to Mill, the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically better than those of mere sensation.
Preference utilitarianism as advocated byJohn Harsanyi rejects hedonistic utilitarianism as it is far from obvious that everything we do is motivated by a desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. He also rejects Mill’s idea of ideal utilitarianism, since it is just as evident that the goal of “mental states of intrinsic worth” cannot be seen as a primary preference by most people. He says that “in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences.” So: help the greatest amount of beings get what they wish for as much as possible.
Rule utilitarianism is the attempt to bypass the common critique of utilitarianism: that what is good for a greater number can be bad for some individuals, and that the consequences of a certain action often cannot be predicted. As such, this sub-category of consequentialism emphasizes that we should act according to certain rules we know usually lead to the greatest good. Rule utilitarians argue that following rules that tend to lead to the greatest good will have better consequences overall than allowing exceptions to be made in individual instances, even if better consequences can be demonstrated in some instances. This does cause the problem, however, that it in practice becomes hard to differ from deontological (or rule-based) ethics and that it shares the same problem of endless regress as the categorical imperative: namely that collapse eventually occurs, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the rules will have as many sub-rules as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes one seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility. In the end, we are left with the same ethical dilemma that we started out with and rule utilitarianism does not provide any answers a basic utilitarian approach would not have given us after all.
So, we have four major schools of normative ethics: rule-based ethics, contractualism, virtue-based ethics, and consequentialism. Each, I would claim, come with its own validity claim:
The validity claim of rule-based ethicsis that an action has to be in accordance with universal principles that can be justified a priori and deduced from self-evident premises derived from the action itself in order to be considered ethically valid—ultimately regardless of context.
Contractualism’s validity claimis that the rules regulating our conduct have to be based on a priori principles that must be mutually agreed upon by reference to the relationship between actors in order to be considered ethically valid.
The validity claim of virtue-based ethicsis that an action cannot merely be judged as good or bad in itself, but what matters is the moral character of the agent which can only be judged a posteriori, and then only by reference to a description of the action or property itself viewed through the lens of its particular social context.
Consequentialism’s validity claimis that actions can only be considered ethically valid if the outcome of these a posteriori happen to have preferable consequences overall, and then only by reference to some collective end based on the relationship between all actors.
Identifying these four validity claims takes us to the next step in this inquiry, namely how to apply the integral model to these different perspectives on ethics.
How The Fours Schools of Ethics Fit into Wilber’s Four Quadrants
Now we have finally reached the exciting part where I get to demonstrate the fractal nature of the four quadrants. When we zoom in on the lower left quadrant (the dimension of intersubjectivity, of which the domain of ethics is part) we can divide the quadrant into four sub-quadrants—one for each of the four schools of ethics.
In the model below you can see where I have positioned each of the four; and in the following I will explain why.
As you can see in the model above, rule-based ethics has been placed in the upper left quadrant of the intersubjective ethics sub-quadrant. The upper left quadrant is the dimension of Popper’s subjective World 2, the domain of Wilber’s “I-language”. It is interior and individual—relatively speaking. That is, relative to the three other schools of ethics.
Before we go ahead, please note that what follows is extremely counterintuitive to almost all readers. Whereas several authors, including Wilber himself, have discussed the fractality of his model, none have taken the full consequences of it: each time you zoom within the model, the nature of the four quadrants change. Fractality is not sameness, but self-similarity. So, we are studying questions like: Given that philosophy is a unified field that can be approached from four quadrants, and given that ethics is the lower left quadrant of philosophy, what then is the upper right quadrant of the lower right quadrants of philosophy? What is the right that is within the left, and the up that is within the down? It’s a kind of sudoku, just with philosophical concepts.
Before you know it, some very strange, but ultimately highly logical patterns appear. It is very important to keep this in mind before you start thinking “bUt tHiS sChoOl of eThIcs iS …” Instead, you need to think “what is this school of ethics in relation to this other school.” Zooming is not straightforward: every time you zoom, the quadrants twist and turn—just like a fractal, if you zoom in on any part of it.
Okay, let’s go:
Why interior?Rule-based ethics belongs to the interior half of the four-quadrant model since it is concerned with ethical reasoning proceeding from theoretical deduction a priori, rather than observation or experience a posteriori. (A priori knowledge is knowledge that is acquired independently of any sensory experience, as opposed to a posteriori knowledge which is derived from experience.) The universally valid principles that rule-based ethics is looking for can thus only be found by gazing inwards and by determining through deductive logic what constitutes sound moral reasoning.
Why individual?Rule-based ethics belongs to the individual upper half since it focuses on the ethical validity of singular actions, categories of actions or properties in themselves. Unlike contractualism where it is the relationship between individuals that determines whether an action is ethically valid, rule-based ethics does not need to take the social context into consideration. It merely seeks to determine whether this or that action is ethically valid in itself. This is what gives rule-based ethics the “self-referential” tag.
Tags:“a priori” and “self-referential”.
Contractualism has been placed in the lower left quadrant; the dimension of Popper’s intersubjective World 3, or Wilber’s domain of “we-language”. Contractualism is thus interior and collective.
Why interior?Contractualism belongs to the interior left half since knowledge about the social contract, just like its deontological cousin rule-based ethics, can only be attained through deduction a priori. The social contract is not a piece of legislation, like a country’s constitution, that we can learn about through our experience of simply reading it. Only through heuristic thought experiments, like that of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, or by simply trying to unravel the social logics of a community by gazing inwards towards the hidden discourses and social imaginaries of a culture, can we deduce why we have the rules we have and whether they are sufficiently justified and upheld.
Why collective?The reason why contractualism belongs to the collective lower half is because of the inherent social aspect to this school of thought. This is where it differs from its deontological cousin, rule-based ethics, and the reason why I believe it is important to sharply distinguish between these two forms of deontological ethics. Contractualism is not really interested, unlike rule-based ethics, in finding out what is ethically valid in absolutist terms. It is the relation between individuals (or individuals and groups of individuals) that determine the ethical validity of actions, and furthermore the ethical validity of institutions (which per definition are relational or collective state of affairs). This is what gives contractualism the “relational” tag.
Tags:“a priori” and “relational”.
Virtue-based ethics has been placed in the upper right quadrant, Popper’s objective World 1, Wilber’s “it-language”. Virtue-based ethics is thus exterior and individual.
Why exterior?Virtue-based ethics belongs to the exterior half of the model because its ethical claims are derived from actions and properties in the objective world that we can only learn about a posteriori. Obviously, we can only assert that a knife is sharp or that a horse is fast after having observed, in the physical world, whether that is the case or not. The same applies to whether someone should be considered a good and caring parent: you have to glean the virtue (or lack of it) from their behavior. Whereas rule-based ethics is concerned with whether honesty is a virtue or not, which must be established a priori, virtue-based ethics is more concerned with whether a person is honest or not—which obviously, only can be established a posteriori.
Why individual?What virtue-based and rule-based ethics have in common, however, is that they are both concerned with singular actions, properties or categories. Reasoning within virtue-based ethics does not, much like rule-based ethics, need to take the social context in which an action takes place into consideration. Virtue-based ethics thus earns the “self-referential” tag because the ethical qualities of an action or property is simply derived from the action or property itself and not from its relation to any other entities. (Although MacIntyre’s form of virtue ethics derive virtues from social contexts to justify their existence, this is actually a way of using the relational logic of contractualism to create a more solid foundation for virtue-based ethics. More about this later.)
Tags:“a posteriori” and “self-referential”.
The last of the four major schools of ethics, consequentialism, has been placed in the lower right quadrant. Just like virtue-based ethics it also belongs to the objective dimension of Popper’s World 1, but in the four-quadrant model it belongs to the separate dimension of interobjectivity, Wilber’s domain of “its-language”—the dimension missed by the classic “big three” model.
Why exterior?Consequentialism belongs to the exterior right half of the model since it can only be determined whether an action is good or bad after having observed the consequences of that action. Thus, induction, rather than deduction, is the method employed by this school of thought. That means consequentialism, just like virtue ethics, gets the a posteriori
Why collective?:Consequentialism belongs to the collective lower half of the model because of its inherent relational and collective nature. Just like social contract ethics, the ethical validity of actions within consequentialism is determined That means that ethical reasoning is not derived from observing and evaluating the action itself, but from its interactions and interconnectedness with a greater whole. Few consequentialists would argue that it is just about maximizing the good consequences and minimizing the bad consequences for a single individual. Utilitarianism, for instance, is fundamentally about the greater good: the greatest good for the greatest number. Since such an outcome can only be determined by considering the relation between multiple actors, this school of thought earns the “relational” tag.
Tags:“a posteriori” and “relational”.
How the four schools of ethics complement and collapse into each other
It should be obvious by now that “taking sides” regarding which school of ethics to follow is a foolish endeavor. The same can be said of any impulse to entirely discard one or more of the schools. Obviously, all four schools have important perspectives to offer. But the question still remains how exactly to use them and how to manage and reconcile their differences. Just knowing about the four schools and how they fit into the fours quadrants does not in itself suffice to resolve ethical paradoxes.
In the following I will attempt to show not just how the four schools complement each other, but also how they depend on each other and ultimately collapse into each other.
Rule-based ethics and consequentialism can, in a way, be said to be the “two major” categories of normative ethics. Typically when we are having ethical disagreements or tricky ethical dilemmas, it is because one side subscribes to the Kantian branch of deontological ethics and the other to some version of pure utilitarianism. It is also the apparent incompatibility between the two in our contemporary thinking that is the reason we are still discussing silly hypothetical thought experiments like the trolley problem and so on.
If we look at the four tags we have identified using the four-quadrant model we can see why: rule-based ethics is a priori and self-referential, consequentialism is a posteriori and relational—the exact opposite. (Contractualism and virtue-based ethics are of course also direct opposites in this regard, but they are in way more back-up solutions to the “two majors”. More about this soon.)
In the following I will show how the “two major” schools, rule-based ethics and consequentialism, ultimately dissolve into each others logic, and I will show how the “two minor ones”, virtue-based ethics and contractualism, do not make sense without each of the two major ones.
A) Rule-based ethics is ultimately teleological
It is impossible to entirely divorce rule-based ethics from consequentialism. When you follow Kant’s advice and ask if you would want a certain type of action to become the basis for a universal law, the answer will ultimately rely on a posteriori conditions—and these stem from one’s experiences with the objective world.
Just think about. Lying is tautologically erroneous, yes, because it contradicts the very foundation the act itself rests upon, which would, if becoming a universal law, render speech meaningless. So far so good. But why would we want to avoid that? Who says making speech meaningless is bad in the first place? To fully answer that we would eventually have to resort to consequentialist argumentation and talk about all the bad things that would happen if speech ceased to be a reliable thing in our lives. (Oh, and by the way, isn’t “speech being rendered meaningless” also the description of a consequence, rather than any abstract principle, to begin with?) You get the picture: In order to formulate a pure principle or ideal, you must always depend on some implicit idea of the consequences of not following that principle.
The thing is, at the exact point where rule-based ethics reach philosophical bedrock (that is, the point where our perpetual questioning “why, why, why?” takes us no further), we land in the opposite camp, in the very place that on a surface level appears to contradict the way we have been reasoning up until then.
We may well ask rule-based ethics questions such as: Why ought universal laws to be considered a good thing? Why should actions not be carried out if they contradict themselves? Why should one treat other people the way oneself wants to be treated? When attempting to go beyond the philosophical bedrock, the answer is ultimately found in the consequences of such conduct and the need of sound principles to guide us in relation to that. And when asking what the point of a “good will” is truly about, the answer must ultimately be that it is to have good consequences for other people; otherwise, what would the intrinsic value of a so-called “good will” consist of? The “good will” must in the last instance be concerned with wanting to do good to others and wanting others to fair well. These are consequences. Arguing against that, without pulling god into the equation, renders the notion of a “good will” quite meaningless, or at least makes it appear rather empty. After all, what is the worth of some good will acting in accordance with some higher principles, if it is not in relation to something else in the objective world?
Here the critics of rule-based ethics have a point. To firmly ground rule-based ethics in the real world, it will need assistance from consequentialism with its a posteriori quality, pulling rule-based ethics out of its a priori void, and with its relational aspect, attaching these principles to a more solid social context.
Curiously, the same kind of philosophical structure appears when we attempt to push consequentialism beyond its philosophical bedrock. Let’s have a look at that.
B) Consequentialism is ultimately deontological
Consequentialism cannot be divorced from rule-based ethics either. In the end, consequentialism is ultimately based on deontological principles. In the case of utilitarianism, for instance: the principle of utility—which is to be deduced a priori, not induced a posteriori. Simply put: “So maximize happiness and minimize suffering for as many as possible. Sure. But making that argument is not in and of itself a maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering, is it? You just made it up, out of thin air.”
Once more, the same structure of thought appears from the dissolution of rule-based ethics, which after a series of “why, why, whys” takes us towards the utmost foundation of consequentialism. When asked why one would like utility to be the measurement of ethical conduct, for instance, you cannot use objective arguments; you cannot point at empirical results themselves and show how good all the consequences are. You need a principle that is subjectively valid in order to anchor these results in something meaningful; you need, to resort to deontological ethics in order to get the whole thing to make sense.
Why some consequences are to be considered good can only be answered in relation to certain principles defining what is good to begin with. Why should we act in accordance to maximum societal utility? Because of the principle of universalism, and the principle of treating others the way oneself wants to be treated. What is ultimately good is found within oneself, not out there among the objects of the world.
The reason that we are still wrestling with the same ethical dilemmas century after century is that we have been accustomed to assuming that the world of ethics is flat; that a linear logic permeates the world of normative ethics, so when you reach the end of a world corner (the place where you hit philosophical bedrock), you simply fall of the edge. But the world of ethics is not flat. It is round, spherical. Or, rather, toroidal (donut-ical). The moment you hit the edge of one world corner, you end up at the beginning of another. We all need to stop being ethical flatearthers. We must all become ethical donuts.
C) Virtue-based ethics and contractualism also depend on each other
Remember that virtue-based ethics received the self-referential tag? (The reason why it was positioned in the upper individual half of the four-quadrant model) That is because this school of thought is focused on determining the ethical value of actions in themselves. But whether a type of action should be seen as a virtue or a vice more often than not depends on the social context.
If we take a Viking society, for example, loyalty to one’s own tribe and raising one’s children to become fierce warriors would be considered virtues in those days; in a modern humanistic, democratic society, on the other hand, such an upbringing would be considered child molestation and racist—both vices, if you’re unsure. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for a lot of people to consider tax a form of theft; in Sweden, on the other hand, people often say that they are happy to pay their taxes. And in some Middle Eastern countries, most people think the greatest vice is to insult and criticize the one and only true religion, whereas in other more secular countries, being critical of religious dogma and other authorities is considered one of the greatest virtues.
Any social contract needs to take into account what people consider virtues. If the majority of the population consider taxes theft, well then there’s certainly very little basis for the creation of a welfare state. And if most people are religious fundamentalists, creating a secular free-speech society is very unlikely to work.
So, on one hand the social contract depends on what people actually consider virtues and vices to begin with, and on the other hand, the virtues themselves depend on whatever social contract is in place. The two are intimately connected and cannot really be conceptually separated.
But why would I call virtues and contracts the “minor schools of ethics”, you may ask?
Well, it is difficult to determine whether something is a virtue or a vice without at least considering some aspects of rule-based ethics and consequentialism. Is sharpness a virtue when it comes to knives? According to which principles? Or what observations? You get it. Without rule-based ethics and consequentialism, virtue-based ethics would simply appear rather empty.
The same can be said about contractualism. This school of thought can answer why one is to act morally in the first place, and which obligations are reasonable to expect from others. But released from any aspects of consequentialism or rule-based ethics, this line of thought would, just like virtue-based ethics, appear rather empty and ultimately quite meaningless. It is, after all, concerned with justifying both the rules and potentially good or bad consequences of our actions.
As with virtue-based ethics, contractualism needs both principles and consequences to make sense. A social contract needs to be based on principles in order to function, and if the purpose of a social contract was not to provide good consequences to its subjects, what would be the point?
What’s it all good for?
So, what are we going to do with these insights? Well, I believe that beyond the benefit of better seeing how the different theories on normative ethics complement each other and fit within an integral framework, this model can also be used as a practical guide when making ethical decisions.
For example, the upper individual schools of ethics in the four-quadrant model, rule- and virtue-based ethics, are suitable for, yes, individual decision making, whereas the lower collective two, contractualism and consequentialism are suitable for, surprise, surprise, collective, that is, political decision making. Let me give you a few examples.
On an individual level it is often very difficult to know the full consequences of one action or the other when you are prompted to make an ethical choice. It can therefore be preferable to simply base your actions on sound principles you already know are ethically valid. We may be in a situation where we are tempted to tell a benevolent lie, a lie intended to benefit the person deceived and other people included. We cannot be sure, however, that our intentions will have the desired consequences. After all, the truth has a tendency to come back and “bite you in the ass”, as the saying goes. As such, as an individual you might better just follow the well-proven principle of telling the truth—in the long run, it will most likely pay off for everyone included. Besides, calculating the consequences for all beings in all times of each of our actions is… a costly and time consuming endeavor. We’re better off with rules of thumb, with virtues: “I am the kind of person that…” (such identity statements have, by the way, also been shown to have the highest effect on actual behaviors—calculations next to nil).
Things are a bit different on the collective level however. (And no, this is not where I am going to defend the common practice of lying among politicians, although it sometimes can make sense from a utilitarian calculus.) On a societal level, a more utilitarian approach to decision-making is often more productive since we have more statistical and scientific knowledge at our disposal. If you look at the actual results in politics, you will notice that the utilitarians are more likely to have their way—even despite losing debates to those who base their argumentation on rule-based ethics. For example, it is easy to win the moral high ground by arguing that it is principally wrong to tax people (the Right), or that it is principally wrong to close the borders for people in need (the Left), but in the end, the solutions that materialize in the real world are more often than not based on utilitarian considerations simply because they tend to be more practical—that is, have the best overall consequences.
So where do the two “minors” fit into this? Well, virtue-based ethics and contractualism can in a way be used as “back-up” doctrines when you need to double check if what you are doing is sound and reasonable.
You may have felt a slight resistance when I said that utilitarian solutions with the best overall consequences tend to prevail in politics. Obviously, we could make decisions about redistributing the wealth of rich countries to poor countries and thus have even better overall consequences. But this is where we need to consider the social contract.
When making political decisions it is very important to ensure that, whatever you are doing, it is in accordance with the social contracts in place. If your decisions are guided by some narrow-minded form of utilitarianism that people find appalling, it can easily backfire. You may come up with this brilliant utilitarian calculus of redistributing most of your citizens’ wealth to good causes, but if that goes against the majority’s sense of justice they are very unlikely to play along—and the well-intended consequences will never materialize anyway.
Similarly on an individual level: Figuring out whether your actions should be considered virtues or vices, or both, is a good way to ensure that you are not guided by a too rigid form of Kantianism. You may choose to follow the divine principle of truthfulness and thereby feel that the only right thing to do is to reveal the location of the Jews when the Nazis come knocking on your door. You might be honest, yes, but you are also a snitch.
When it comes to combining consequentialism and virtue-ethics, this is where things get interesting for political metamodernism. Skilled politicians and statesmen have all tended to pay attention to both utilitarianism and social contract theory. Virtue-ethics, on the other hand, is a school of thought that has been more or less hibernating since antiquity and only quite recently has become relevant again. As such, we have been less trained in using this kind of thought productively. But it is not a coincidence that virtue ethics is back. The kind of consequentialism metamodern politicians and activists ought to pursue should not only make sure their utilitarian calculus do not violate the limits of the social contract. Metamodernists should expand upon these narrow notions of statecraft and develop the idea of how we create the best possible conditions for virtues to emerge. Just think about. How could we create a society where virtues such as truthfulness, generosity and kindness would spontaneously emerge in abundance? Such consequences go beyond the simple utilitarian calculus regarding how many resources we could possible redistribute to where it is needed the most without people protesting too much. The combination of consequentialism and virtue-based ethics would take us from a society where people accept their submission in return for mutual interest, to a society where our inner spontaneous inclination for altruism is maximized and unleashed.
Here is an overview of how to combining the various schools of ethics:
Rule-based ethics + virtue-based ethics:Good for personal decision-making.
Consequentialism + contractualism:Good for political decision-making.
Adding one of the minors can help us avoid the most notable shortcomings of a too rigid application of Kantianism and a too instrumental application of utilitarianism. And in the case of consequentialism and virtue-based ethics, we get an additional ethical doctrine within politics—one I think is crucial for the creation of a listening society. More about this in my upcoming book.
Even More Fractal Ethics…
I bet some readers are still thinking about the fractal nature of the four-quadrant model that I showed you before and may be asking, what happens if we zoom in one additional level? Congratulations, you’re a true nerd and may save the world one day.
Could I help myself trying to gaze into the fractal? Of course I couldn’t. Am I going to write another 10.000 words about it in this article to make sense of what I saw. No I’m not. That will be the topic of a future book on metamodern ethics that I will write one day, hopefully before I die.
If you are familiar with some of the key concepts from each of the four schools of ethics, however, I can briefly show all strivers for ethical mastery out there what I found and how it fits into the four quadrant model:
(And yes, this is also deeply counterintuitive, but there are arguments to back these suggestions up, just not ones we’ll get into today.)
As I said, this is going to be the basis of a future book of mine. But, since we cannot know if I am going to drop dead before that, I just wanted to throw the main ideas out there—maybe some of you will beat me to it and put together an even better metamodern four-quadrant understanding of ethics before I ever finish my book. And we may all be better off for it.
Thank you for tuning in. May you all bestow goodness upon the world and each other, in all four quadrants.
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.
It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s how the economy makes us feel: it’s about time, attention, and human drives.
[Note: This text is originally in Swedish. It has been AI translated and checked for errors. Traces of the translation may remain.]
Happiness is quite difficult to grasp and is therefore difficult to make the goal and meaning of politics. It is much easier to relate, for example, to the hard currency in which we measure our material resources. There is no one who can point to happiness and say exactly what it is. Yet our need to understand and politically relate precisely to happiness and suffering is increasing.
The next level of economics is therefore about transforming the human drives that govern our actions, our economic production, our consumption, and our entire working lives. This is what we call the economics of happiness: managing the entire stream of human actions in a sustainable way that promotes the greatest possible well-being for all. The simplest way to understand this is to ask: what levels of happiness and suffering do we create through the use of our time and resources, and how sustainable are these levels?
When we ask these questions and make policy out of them, we will have begun developing an economy of happiness. The economy of happiness means that we use society’s resources in a comprehensive and conscious way to reduce suffering and improve quality of life. Just take a minute to think of how many resources we have: so many talented and inventive people with so much money and materials at their disposal. Are these resources currently being used in the best possible way to create happiness and meaning? Are we really creating safety and freedom in the best possible way? It is a reasonable assumption that we can make much better use of our resources. Surely it would be strange to assume that society could not be improved, truly improved in depth.
It is not just a question of managing material resources, but of managing all of life. It is about how we spend our collective time and attention—and what results this produces. Above all, it’s about reallocating our time and attention so that we achieve greater happiness in a more sustainable way. It is by transforming the human drives of our economic systems that we can make the economics of happiness more effective. The means to this end is so-called “economic co-development”.
1. Happiness Economics for Sustainable Development
It is important to distinguish between some currently common perspectives on how the economics of happiness relates to sustainability. Four options are presented below. The fourth option represents the metamodern stance.
The first way to create more sustainable development with greater well-being is called “absolute decoupling”. This seeks to decouple economic growth from its environmental impact. This may involve emphasizing the consumption of culture and services rather than goods, and focusing on a shift to green technologies.
The second approach is to question economic growth with the aim of eventually shrinking the economy and its ecological footprint. Instead, it emphasizes alternatives to economic growth and ways to reduce the overall volume of economic activity. This approach is often referred to as “degrowth”.
The third approach, “inner development”, is about emphasizing the measurability of happiness and making it a more important part of our policy-making. Renowned economists have highlighted this perspective, for example in the World Happiness Report 2012, which was also the basis for the UN conference on the same topic.
The fourth option is “economic co-development”. Here, inner development is used not only to reduce consumption, but to create the conditions for a transformation of the entire culture and economic systems. In other words, it is about using insights from all three of the first perspectives to manage the economy of happiness in a socially and ecologically sustainable way. It is this perspective that is explored in the following. The common thread in economic co-development is the emphasis on a balance between “inner” and “outer” development. Economic co-development constitutes the “growth” of the economy of happiness.
So-called “inner development” is thus needed to make a sustainable society possible, because inner development leads to fundamental change in society itself. Inner development is our most important tool for a rich and sustainable economy of happiness.
2. What Is Inner Development?
Inner development is about how we experience reality—about our emotions and drives, our fears, our relationships, our desires, our self-images, our trust in each other, our states of mind, our ability to see beauty in the world and in existence, our self-knowledge and our fundamental relationship to life and death, happiness and suffering. Inner development is not free. It does not come without great effort, strong priorities of both human and material resources.
What can inner development look like in practice? How do we develop our needs, our personalities and the everyday contexts in which we live, consume and work? There are, of course, many different ways of answering these questions. But there is also a very simple answer: inner development is turning our attention inwards. It is about putting time and effort into the painstaking work of examining ourselves, releasing the tension in our shoulders, in our backs, noticing the knots in our stomachs, noticing how our thoughts fly and go in all directions. We can do this in two ways.
Self-observation: One way is to be guided in how to notice our own attention and then to practice individually observing our thoughts, feelings and impulses through, for example, body exercises, meditation, relaxation and mindful presence. In this way we master our own emotions and reactions. Our relationship to life’s big questions develops and changes. Our freedom and independence increase. It is well known and scientifically proven that the personality and personal development of managers are crucial for the functioning and development of companies. This is known as leadership development. The same applies, of course, to all employees in a workplace. After all, we are all, in a sense, our own bosses.
Exploratory conversations: The second way is to engage in some kind of conversation where we get to know ourselves and our unconscious motives and behaviors. There is, of course, the therapeutic conversation with trained psychologists or other counsellors, but also group conversations. Companies and organizations can consciously and actively involve people in an ongoing conversation about the basic aims and objectives of the workplace, about what kind of development they want to see. In many workplaces today, it would be perceived as embarrassing if someone asked too deep questions. This is where cultural development is possible. Understanding our own and each other’s motives, desires and motivations is crucial to the economics of happiness.
3. Balancing Internal and External Development in our Economic Systems
Outer development is about things we can see and touch. It is about developing new products and services, new public services, new urban environments, better transportation, infrastructure, healthcare, energy supplies and so on. When economic systems develop, it is also outer development.
Since happiness and suffering can be explained both by the outer reality around us and by how we ourselves experience that reality, we need an economic system that supports both outer and inner development. Today’s economic life—in which we work and produce, in which we consume, in which we allocate our attention and time—overwhelmingly emphasizes outer development. The challenge will therefore be to balance outer development with inner development. We need to start seriously prioritizing inner development throughout economic life as well. This should be done in ways that are scientifically and experientially sound—ways that we find promote long-term well-being and alleviate the many small and large sufferings we experience.
So we can become better at prioritizing how we use the stream of attention and action through which we create our outer and inner reality. It would therefore be valuable to have a well-functioning democratic conversation about how we can develop our inner dimensions.
It is becoming increasingly clear that our current economic systems are failing to enhance well-being in a way that leads to sustainable development.
Developing the internal dimensions is crucial if we are to bring about far-reaching changes to economic systems in an ecologically and socially sustainable direction. Inner development is the most direct way to change the human drives at work in economic systems. It is high time that inner development started to be used more actively and consciously.
4. How Do we Change the Driving Forces of the Economy?
What exactly is the economy? The economy is not some impersonal machine far away from us. We create it anew every day by striving, wishing and demanding. The economy is created by our desires, by what we want and achieve in life—and how we and our earth can satisfy those needs.
We all have motives and drives that guide our actions and influence where we direct our attention in life. We often try to achieve what we feel we lack—it may be pleasure, security, community or recognition. In other words, the driving force in economic life is nothing more than the sum of our desires and dreams. It can sometimes be difficult for us to know exactly what these are. Sometimes it is only in retrospect, when we look back on our lives, that we understand what drove us to prioritize this or that, what drove us to act, why we made the choices we did.
If we are poor, we are driven to work for our survival, to put food on the table and a roof over our head. Then it is the fear of not surviving that drives our choices and priorities. If we are at risk of exclusion and loneliness, then we are driven by a desire to ensure that we are allowed to participate in society so that we can make friends, find a partner, and have a daily life in the context of other people. If we have doubts about our own worth and abilities, then we are driven by a desire to perform, to achieve results that win the recognition of others. In this way, our perceived needs set limits on what we can allow ourselves to do, say and think.
But there are also actions that cannot be directly attributed to something we lack, actions that seem to stem from an abundance, from spontaneous joy in life. Some of the things we do, say and think are expressions of a sincere desire to pass something on, to make something happen, to follow our conscience and our values. Other things we do merely to adapt to the hard facts of life, because we feel we have to since the price would be too high if we did not. We can therefore—somewhat simplistically—talk about two types of drivers in economic life: scarcity-driven action and abundance-driven action.
Scarcity-driven action is when we do something because we have to, when we cannot afford to feel what we really want. It is when we work because we fear losing our job, or when we consume because we feel we have to fix something with ourselves (appearance, style, lifestyle, status, to appease anxieties), when we fail to react to injustice because we feel the price would be too high (for example, we take part in the enforcement of decisions we do not consider ethically correct because we do not want to lose the esteem of our colleagues). Other examples are when we stress and sacrifice our well-being to meet the expectations of others, or when we suppress emotions to fit in. Then it is obvious that we are driven by perceived shortcomings, by our unmet needs. The same principle applies in our private lives: when we continue to be in relationships that harm us or do not serve us, when we choose not to live our dreams to avoid feelings of shame—then we are acting in a way that is driven by scarcity.
Abundance-driven action is when we use our spontaneous creative faculties. We make an effort because we have a positive desire or longing to create something or share something with others. It’s when we feel genuinely inspired, when we believe in what we are doing, when we think our work is so important that we would even pay someone else to do it if we had the chance. It is when we act from our heart and do our work out of love rather than fear of loss or failure. It is when we act from a place of abundance and pass this lust for life on to others.
Admittedly, there is no escaping the fact that scarcity-driven actions will remain present in most people’s lives. After all, not everything can be fun and inspiring. But is scarcity-driven actions really something we want for ourselves and each other? Is it ecologically and socially sustainable to build our economic systems on people’s fears and perceived shortcomings? The only answer is that we have the most to gain by expanding abundance-driven action and ridding ourselves of as much scarcity-driven action as possible.
5. What Is Economic Co-development?
In the economics of happiness, economic co-development is the equivalent of “growth” in the material economy. Economic co-development is about making society richer in terms of happiness and joy of life, making the economy of happiness more efficient in a sustainable way. Abundance-driven action is, in a happiness-economic sense, far more efficient than scarcity-driven action. Abundance-driven action creates much more freedom in our everyday choices. Scarcity-driven action arises precisely when we feel we have no real choice. Abundance-driven action causes less suffering during the effort itself—since it is a labor of love—and it creates services and products of a higher quality because we really care about the outcome of our work. This kind of work makes us feel that our time is valuable, that we are allowed to engage. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to follow our conscience, to not feel that we have to sell out our values or sense of right and wrong—that we have a choice.
To increase the proportion of abundance-driven and reduce the proportion of scarcity-driven action, we need to create the conditions for us to feel that our needs are secure: provision, community, recognition and so on. Increasing the proportion of joy-driven action is therefore deeply linked to building the next level of welfare—the listening society, discussed in my previous post. Only when we feel truly safe and have good self-esteem can we be expected to act on the basis of inner freedom.
At the same time, more companies, workplaces and other contexts need to be created that actively and consciously support us in our abundance-driven actions.
Developing the economics of happiness requires extensive inner development—development that makes us feel more alive, that makes us experience reality in a more loving and playful way. As our perceived needs change, so do the drivers of the economy. We demand different goods and services, we make different demands on our employers, we start and run businesses with both mind and heart.
The conscious and active development of our inner world creates demand for new services and products. To meet this demand, new economic systems are needed, based more on joyful work and cooperation. These new systems contribute to the creation of a changed economic culture, in which our expectations and demands on ourselves and each other are transformed. This changing culture leads us to perceive reality differently and therefore to reassess our priorities in life. This in turn leads to a change in our needs—and so on. Desires/needs, behaviors, systems, and culture must develop hand in hand. The new needs (inner development) need to be supported by corresponding changes in the other three fields, and development takes place in small steps. No one can change economic systems overnight.
As shown in this figure, economic co-development is when inner and outer development dynamically reinforce each other towards greater well-being and sustainability.
It is by prioritizing more of our time and attention towards inner development that we can expand abundance-driven action.
6. How Do we Create a Truly Free Economy?
What is economic freedom? Many times when people talk about a “free economy” they mean a market with as little government intervention and regulation as possible. Instead, according to the ideas presented above, a “free economy” is defined as an economy with as little scarcity-driven action as possible. The above reasoning has shown that a large part of our economic system cannot in a deeper sense be said to be characterized by “free exchange” and “free choice”. Are we really free when we are driven to work, perform and consume by fears and perceived deficiencies? How free are we when we feel we need to act against our conscience or work for something we don’t feel a sincere commitment to? And are we really free if we are unconsciously influenced to consume through advertising, for example?
In a way, of course, we are always free because we are the ones who make the choices and priorities. But there are different degrees of freedom. The fact that freedom can be deepened thus applies both in democracy and in economic life. So if we consider ourselves free today, we can be even freer in the future—free in a deeper sense.
Existing economic systems can be developed to create deeper freedom. An unfree economy—characterized by fears, shortcomings and manipulations—can explain why economic life today often benefits neither ourselves, our fellow human beings nor the biosphere. We are simply not free enough to make choices from our hearts. Creating real economic freedom is therefore about economic co-development, finding balanced ways to develop the functioning of the market through our collective intelligence. Such freedom will allow, among other things, much more creative and diverse entrepreneurship.
7. How Can we Make Society More Equal and Fair?
Class divisions—what can we do to bridge them? There have been discussions on how to develop the economy of happiness, but not yet on how to make the distribution of happiness and suffering more equitable. Almost everyone experiences some happiness in life—and we all have to go through suffering. But often we see that some of us seem to suffer far more than others, that some of us are knocked out in the games of everyday life, that the weakest and most disadvantaged suffer the most. Does it have to be this way?
It seems that life must always contain a certain amount of competition between us humans: we can’t all live in the same place, have the same life partner, have the same job, be the best employee of the month, be a rock star. We have different circumstances and different kinds of talents. Sometimes we are winners, sometimes we are losers. We all want to play good and admirable roles in life and we sometimes have to take risks to win each other’s recognition, to be seen as successful, intelligent, courageous, loving and so on. We have to play the game of everyday life—a game that can sometimes be too hard for us.
There are three basic ways to relate to this “great game of life”. The first way is to deny the game. We try as far as possible to ignore the fact that there is competition between human beings. We then try to create justice by ignoring the advantages of some and the disadvantages of others, by finding ways to smooth over the differences between us. We deny the game because we simply cannot accept the great injustices. Unfortunately, this means that many of us never learn the rules of the game and therefore never have the opportunity to take control of our lives.
The other way is to embrace the game instead. Then we believe that some people “deserve” to be better off than others because they have demonstrated “good” human qualities. Those who are struggling can learn from those who are better off, so that they too can succeed in life. Then we adapt to the fact that life is sometimes hard and that everyone is ultimately responsible for themselves. The danger of embracing the game is that we start to defend the injustice. Not everyone can always be a winner in the game of life, so even if everyone learns the rules of the game, some people will be knocked out.
The third approach is to want to change the game. Then we don’t deny that people have to compete with each other, but we also don’t accept that life is unfair and that some people have to suffer so that others can have a good time. It is, of course, the third approach that is in line with the economics of happiness.
8. How Can the Games of Everyday Life Be Changed?—From a Society of Tolerance to a Society of Acceptance
We can redistribute happiness and suffering in society by making the everyday game as open, transparent and fair as possible. It is by changing the rules of the game itself that we can make life gentler, more forgiving, less driven by fear. We need to give people more chances, less reason to feel like failures, less reason to lose hope. Our inner development is crucial here.
In the light of the economics of happiness, a fairer, gentler game in all aspects of life—in friendships, in love, in the labor market—will lead to an increase in abundance-driven action and a decrease in scarcity-driven action. But again, how can the game be changed?
There needs to be a transition from a “society of tolerance” to a “society of acceptance”. A society of acceptance is one where we not only tolerate each other’s differences, but actually manage to accept and appreciate each other the way we are. After all, it is not so flattering to be tolerated by others: “I don’t like you, but I’ll let you be”. We all want to feel accepted for whom we are. The amount of acceptance (and of course tolerance) depends a lot on the everyday games we create together. Acceptance can develop and grow as the contexts in which we live become more accepting, more loving if you like.
The society of acceptance is slowly cultivated through changes in culture. Our culture can evolve: how we view success and failure, how we judge ourselves and each other. Our inner perceptions of reality can evolve through the cultivation of our social and emotional intelligences. Economic systems can be redesigned to support new forms of consumption, livelihoods and work. In this way, the social game itself can be changed, how we behave and interact in everyday life. In other words, through economic co-development that creates inner security and deeper community, the suffering caused by the games of everyday life is reduced. We get more chances, we judge ourselves and each other less harshly, we can afford to be ourselves to a greater extent.
In other words, through economic co-development creating inner security and deeper community, the suffering caused by everyday games is reduced. We get more chances, we judge ourselves and each other less harshly, we can be ourselves to a greater extent—and we allow ourselves to ask deeper questions about the purpose behind our actions. The economy of happiness becomes richer and we can “afford” greater acceptance.
An important consequence of the evolution of the games of everyday life is that it becomes less important that people have a certain position in society—for example, employed or unemployed. Hierarchies become less pronounced and it becomes less crucial to “have a good job” in order to feel like a valuable person. Class divisions are narrowing. The symbolic value of money decreases. We become more equal.
9. How Does the Economy of Happiness Relate to Ecological and Social Sustainability?
The economy of happiness does not, of course, replace the material economy—it merely complements it. We still need to create and allocate material resources and this has ecological footprints and undesirable social consequences in different parts of the world.
What economic co-development can do is help us become less and less trapped in our own economic systems. Economic systems can be designed more consciously to meet internal needs. This facilitates a fair distribution of resources, facilitates difficult transitions to green and ecologically sustainable systems and leads to more ethically conscious production and consumption. It is also reasonable to assume that such an economy would be much more stable than today’s, for example in times of crisis—simply because it rests on a stronger psychological and social foundation.
So it is not so simple that happier people necessarily have fewer material needs. But freer people can more easily make the right decisions and the necessary adjustments. Well-being and sustainability go hand in hand.
10. The Need for an Economy of Happiness
Our current economic thinking is not enough. We need to think differently. We need to act differently. And we must behave in new ways. Clearly, we can do better. In terms of happiness, our current economic system is just too inefficient. We need to be better stewards of our own actions, of our collective creation. We must learn to manage our attention better, to focus it collectively on what can fundamentally change society for the better.
It is not enough to have societal development that gives us “more of the same” that we already have: more jobs, more welfare, more day-care places, higher wages. We must create something new, develop what we already have, take it to a new level. What we need to change to develop our economy is how we interact, how we talk and relate to each other—both personally and politically.
We need to develop a language, a way of thinking and doing politics that allows us to talk together about the really difficult and deep issues of social life. We need to develop a new political culture. The democratic culture we have today deserves our respect and is admittedly good at solving many problems. But there are also sufferings that our current political culture simply cannot cope with. That is why a new political thinking is needed.
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.
How an expansion of the depth and reach of our welfare services can save the welfare state
[Note: This text is originally in Swedish. It has been AI translated and checked for errors. Traces of the translation may remain.]
What does the next level of welfare look like?
Such a question can of course only be answered through the participation and involvement of many people.
What we can do here and now is to begin drawing the outlines of a welfare society that touches upon all aspects of life, and that supports us in both our own personal development and in our relationships with one another.
If you have read my books, you’d know that I call the welfare society of the future the listening society. This is also the title of my first book in the series on metamodern politics. The listening society is simply the welfare society we would wish for—whatever those wishes turn out to be once we have tried them out and developed them through good, open conversations. Like the term metamodernism, “the listening society” is a concept that needs to be filled with many meanings, large and small, that together form a greater whole.
The listening society is a higher level of welfare than that which exists today. In contemporary welfare societies, like the Scandinavian ones, most of us are guaranteed basic material security and safety. We rarely have to worry about whether we will have food on the table, and we can feel confident that we and our loved ones will receive medical care when needed. At the same time, there are higher rungs on the pyramid of human needs that our society is unable to guarantee: to feel a deep and meaningful sense of community, to receive recognition, to experience good self-esteem—and, to feel that you are living out your dreams. The listening society is a welfare society where everyone is guaranteed not only survival and security, but also to experience a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development.
Conventional Welfare vs. The Listening Society
What are the contours of our existing welfare society? What does welfare mean today? And what might the word “welfare” mean in the future?
The welfare we know today is a fruit of the modern industrial society. When, for the first time in history, we were able to produce an abundance of life’s necessities—that is, food, clothing, warm and safe housing, and medical care—the question arose as to how this abundance should be distributed so that no one would have to go without these basic necessities. All across the industrial world we tried to find answers to this question: through government, through civil society or through the market. All modern democracies chose a middle ground of some kind between the state, civil society and the market, albeit with different emphases. For certain historical reasons, the Scandinavian countries chose, as is well known, to give the public sector, the state, a decisive role in the distribution of wealth and the guarantee of security. This model has proved successful in many ways.
Over the last thirty years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the common security and personal freedom that we have tried to create are under threat. We now live in a world which—due to a long series of changes in the global economy and in different parts of the world’s political landscape—has become so complex and opaque that industrial society’s answer to the question of welfare has become obsolete. We seem to need new answers to the question, a new level of welfare. Welfare can be reinvented and broadened—and above all, it can be deepened to meet the demands of the new era. Let’s take a closer look at the traditional welfare of the industrial society and how it can be developed to become more efficient and comprehensive.
You may recognize the figure above as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What the figure conveys is that our traditional welfare society seeks to guarantee only the most basic human needs of food, survival and security. In contrast, there is no explicit purpose to guarantee us a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development throughout life’s long journey.
The listening society, then, is the endeavor to include higher human needs in the guarantee that we give ourselves and each other. This is, of course, no easy task and must be seen as a long-term goal comparable to the building of the traditional welfare society—a process that went on for over a century. It is not self-evident how we should go about ensuring that the higher needs are met. What is needed here is a joint, long-term effort to find solutions in the various areas of social life: in public health and healthcare, in schools, in work-life, in social services, in every area we can think of.
Can the Listening Society Save the Welfare State?
But does it really make sense to try to broaden and deepen our welfare state at a time when the existing welfare is already under threat? There is, after all, an increasingly fierce international competition for jobs and investment. Would it not be more realistic to just focus on saving what can be saved of the existing welfare?
An answer to this is to be found in the link between our more basic material needs and our higher emotional needs. If we humans fail to form a good community with each other—how can we expect to guarantee each other’s security and survival in a dignified way? If self-esteem and recognition are too unequally distributed among us—how would we want to enter into communities with one another? And if we lack opportunities for meaningful and creative lives—how can we have enough abundance of will to compassionately engage in democracy and the common good? The listening society thus cultivates our collective intelligence. That collective intelligence is in turn the strongest guarantor of both strong, deep welfare state and a healthy, competitive market economy. The listening society is thus both an end and a means.
Let’s take a closer look at the questions we need to ask ourselves to secure each of the higher needs:
Far from everyone feels part of a meaningful community. Many children never experience good and reliable friendships growing up—we all know the stories: the adolescence boy who gets stuck at home in front of the computer, does not develop important social skills, cannot get a girlfriend, and then has difficulty adjusting to adult life. When we send our children to school, there is no guarantee that they will have friends and be allowed to form the social bonds they need for their development. But the same applies not only to children, but also to adults. Many adult men, in particular, lack deep friendships and go on long lonely paths through life, never talking about feelings or deeper issues with anyone, even though they may have a job and a family. Many adult women feel different and alienated, suffer from loneliness—especially in later life. Both women and men go through long, difficult years of being involuntarily without a life partner or other positive sexual relationships. Even within marriage, our relationships often do not exhibit genuine closeness. A similar situation exists in the world of work. Many people’s professional lives are devoid of truly rewarding cooperation with other people. Others struggle to even enter the labor market, to participate in social life: the unemployed youth, the tuckered out old man, the socially awkward and deviant. The lack of community is a companion of so many people. And the fear of exclusion is a driving force in so many people’s lives. Many of us die alone.
How do we ensure that no one goes through life involuntarily without good friendships? That as many as possible have a life partner, if they want one? How do we keep families together? How do we ensure that people feel part of society and have a sense of community at work or in their neighborhood? That no one has to grow old and die alone? A wide range of actions are needed, from pre-school age, through the school years, in adult relationships, in the workplace, and in health and social care for all ages. So many concrete situations need to be changed to better promote the formation of positive bonds between people. Emotional and social intelligence need to be developed at all levels.
Even more of us will never experience a lasting good sense of self. The “good girl”, on the outside well-functioning and charming, may suffer from severe doubts in the face of all the high standards of achievement and beauty ideals. Her doubts may turn into self-hatred and lead to destructive or self-harming behavior. Many of us struggle through a long work life without gaining real recognition and strong inner self-esteem. People need recognition, we need some kind of affirmation that we are good people and that we are valuable to others, both personally and professionally. A lack of self-esteem is often seen as an inherent weakness of the individual rather than a social and political problem. But lack of self-esteem is also a social problem of major proportions. It is common that socially excluded people struggle with their self-esteem, but it also affects many “successful people”. It is often this deep psychological need to get others recognition that drives them to push themselves to achieve what they perceive to be valued by others. This, however, often creates suffering and arouses feelings of deep resentment. Lack of affirmation and self-esteem can also affect our close relationships and, more importantly, simply make us afraid to follow our dreams.
What do we need to do so that no one has to feel like a bad, failed or unwanted person? How can we ensure that we are not just tolerated, but actually loved, recognized and accepted? Here too, efforts are needed throughout society: to actively and consciously build each person’s self-esteem from the earliest childhood.
Even fewer people have the opportunity to live truly exciting and fulfilling lives. How many people do you know who really follow their dreams in everyday life, who go their own way without having to ask for permission? More and more of us have creative and exciting careers, but for most of us everyday life never becomes the beautiful adventure we know it can be. Many of us carry a deep longing to use our lives to do something truly meaningful, something where we give a unique and beautiful gift to our fellow human beings and to the world. Too many of us feel that life is just passing us by, that what we deep down wanted to create or contribute to is getting further and further away. This can be heard in many people’s statements that “life isn’t that great after all”.
What needs to change for everyone to find good, meaningful work in life? How can we ensure that no one’s life needs to become a colorless hamster wheel? Or even worse, that people never get the chance to use their deepest drives and talents? We need a flexible working life that does not leave us out of the loop or lock us into particular roles. Furthermore, people need support for their personal development throughout life, not least in relation to life’s most difficult and profound crises.
When all these needs are met, all that remains is to deepen oneself, to find meaning and to try to do good for others and for the world. Finding deep meaning in life is therefore the top black triangle at the top of the pyramid in the figure above. But how do we get there?
Can these needs be met for more people than in today’s society? What would a welfare society look like that could guarantee something more than just security? Can our children be guaranteed psychological well-being and good social relations? Can we guarantee that everyone grows up with a good self-esteem that follows us through life? Can more of us use our everyday lives to create something that really matters to us? How can we create such a new level of well-being?
One way is to create a vision of the welfare society of the future that sets us in motion. Visions of the future can certainly blind us and make us careless. But at this point we can allow ourselves to think about what a society would look like where all people—as far as is practically possible—were guaranteed both a warm community, a good sense of self, and meaningful personal development. What would such a society look like? How would exclusion, ill health and crime be affected? How would mental health be affected? In what ways would everyday life be affected? Would even the first two steps (safety and physical needs) on the ladder of needs be better safeguarded? In other words: What would life be like if we succeed in making the listening society a reality?
It is only by finding many small and large solutions, by trying things out together, that we can find the answers to these questions. To create the listening society, we must cultivate, develop and make good use of our collective intelligence. By developing the capacity to listen to all citizens, we can use the collective knowledge and insights of many more people to improve society. So we need to use collective intelligence to create a listening society. A good start is to gather around new ways of talking about politics, to experiment with different forms of political encounters to create the good conversation.
The vision of the listening society also offers clues to what the next level of economy might look like: the economy of happiness. When the economy, consumption and working life are no longer driven by people’s desire to secure belonging and recognition, when people rest in themselves regarding these needs, it becomes easier for us to make truly free and informed choices. Today, much of the economy is driven by our insecurities: young people are afraid of having the wrong clothes, mobile phones or bodies, adults of having the wrong car or furniture. Many of us work at things that we know do no good to ourselves or others, but choose to adapt so as not to lose our position in society. Many of us learn early in our careers the importance of lying and deceiving to succeed—especially higher up in business and government. But we can find ways to describe, talk about, and measure progress in what matters most to people: that we live happy lives. This is a key to achieving socially and ecologically sustainable growth, growth in people’s well-being and self-fulfillment.
Here we are moving away from the “society of tolerance” and into the society of acceptance. Modern democracy is based on the idea of tolerance, that we must tolerate each other even if we disagree or have conflicting interests or values. By opening up to acceptance, we can begin building a society based on sincere feelings of community, respect and compassion. In a listening society, everyone would feel included, seen and heard. Everyone would feel deeply accepted for whom they are. Building the listening society is about making life richer for us as human beings, transforming our inner experiences. Here we are approaching a new form of economic thinking, where happiness and suffering are at the center rather than the growth and distribution of material resources.
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.
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.
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. 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.
First, “Are Russians responsible for the war waged in their names?”
Second, “What kinds of education escalated Russia’s demise into something approximating slavery?”
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.” 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”. 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? 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,
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”. 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’. 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’. 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. 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 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”. 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”. ‘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?’ 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 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’. 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’ 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’. 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 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’ 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. 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). 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”, 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”. 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”. 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”. 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.
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.
 Father of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was one of the leaders of Constitutional-Democratic Party or, in the vernacular, “cadets” (Rus. kadety).
 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.
 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).
 Let alone the extent of internal colonisation during Stalin’s reign.
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
 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.
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.
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’. 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’. Why does geopolitics resemble a prison?
In his 1937 novel Gift, Nabokov describes geopolitical thinking as a ‘clichéd’ and ‘trivial’: ‘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…’. 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’.
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’. 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’”. 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’. 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”, 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”. 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’.
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 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”.
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”. 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’.
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’. 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”. 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”.
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. 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’.
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” 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’.
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. 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”, 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”. 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”. 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. 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 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’. 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”.
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’’. 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”.
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’. 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. 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]”.
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”.
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.
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’, 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”. 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. 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”. 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.
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.
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.
 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 .
 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
 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.
 Vladimir Putin. (2004). Address delivered in the aftermath of the Beslan attack. September 4, 2004.
 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
 Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God. Page 56.
 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”
 Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God, page 41
 Andrei Loshak. (2022). Disconnection. (A documentary).Link: https://youtu.be/5qmQs2LbnaE
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.
Blatari were thieves with a vulgarly Nietzschean code of conduct 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”. 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’, the national decision “by doing ill to prove that we possess free will”.
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 affairs—all 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’ 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”.
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”.
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 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…’. 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’. 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’. 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’. 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’, 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”, 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 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”. 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’. The secret agent is a killer, an unlikely fusion of refined mendacity and savage cruelty, a cagey beast—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”’. 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’. 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”. 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”. 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”.
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” 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”. 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.
 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.
 The so-called ‘Thieves’ Law’, Rus. Vorovskoy zakon.
 Edwin Hatch. (1878). Breathe on Me, Breath of God.
 Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.
 W. H. Auden. (1940). The New Year Letter. In Collected Poems, Vintage International. 1991. New York. Page 209.
 These terms, vragi naroda and druzia naroda, are historical facts.
 “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).
 Graeber & Weingrow. (2020). The Dawn of Everything. Page 366.
 Masha Gessen. (2012). The Man Without A Face. The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books. Penguin Random House.
 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.)
 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.”
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.
Catherine Belton (2020). Putin’s People.
David Graeber & David Weingrow (2020). The Dawn of Everything.
Gideon Rachman (2022). The Age of Strongmen.
Michael Sandel. (2012). What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. SBN 9780374203030.
Masha Gessen. (2012). The Man Without A Face. The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books. Penguin Random House.
Hanzi Freinacht. (2016). The Listening Society. The Metamodern Guide to Politics. Part One. Metamoderna Press.
Hanzi Freinacht. (2019). Nordic Ideology. The Metamodern Guide to Politics. Part Two. Metamoderna Press.
Vladimir Nabokov. (1937). The Gift.
Vladimir Nabokov. Conclusive Evidence.
Vladimir Nabokov. Tyrants Destroyed.
Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Stories.
Varlam Shalamov. Chronicles of the Criminal World.
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).
Anna Politkovskaya. (2004). Putin’s Russia.
Rowan Williams. Resurrection.
Rowan Williams. The Truce of God. Peacemaking in Troubled Times.
Robert Amsterdam. (2006). ‘Rosneft IPO Represents Nothing But the Syndication of the GULAG’. Financial Times.
Wystan Hugh Auden. (1952). The Shield of Achilles.
Vladimir Putin. (2004). Address delivered in the aftermath of the Beslan attack. September 4, 2004.
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
Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.
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…
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Connects to reconciliation ecologyand interspecies democracy. Basically, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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 architecture, New 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 inventorBuckminister 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.