Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.
He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.
1. BLATAR AND SILOVIK EDUCATION
In 1935, after Fr. Sergii Bulgakov published his book Lamb of God, the Russian Orthodox Church split into opposing factions. Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow, head of the church effectively under Stalin’s control, accused Bulgakov of heresy. A committee in Paris investigated the treatise and issued a preliminary verdict freed Bulgakov from charges of heresy. However, a final conclusion was never reached. Many of the thinkers who joined the condemnation, including its key figure Fr. George Florovsky, were rooted in the movement of so-called Eurasians—reactionary anti-Westerners who dreamt of a conservative landmass empire under the rule of Moscow. On the receiving end of condemnation, Fr. Sergii Bulgakov belonged to the tradition of Russian democratic socialism and, at one point, was an elected deputy in the party presided over by V. D. Nabokov. 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,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept”
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).
 Shura Burtin. (2022). Feeling around for something human. Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Meduza. Link: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/03/feeling-around-for-something-human .
 Vlad Vexler. Putin’s Fascist Revolution from Above. March 22, 2022. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGcTgnM8Fas.
 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.
 W. H. Auden. (1952). The Shield of Achilles.
 Sergei Pugachev in the interview with Dmitry Gordon. Link: https://youtu.be/-KEctm1H49I
 Nathan Hodge. (2022). Restoration of the empire is the endgame for Russia’s Vladimir Putin. CNN. Link: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/10/europe/russia-putin-empire-restoration-endgame-intl-cmd/index.html
 T. S. Eliot. Gerontion.
 “False news travels 6 times faster on Twitter than truthful news”. Link: https://www.pbs.org › newshour › science › false-news-…
 Even though Russia is the biggest country in the world by a long shot.
 John Vervaeke paraphrasing Nietzsche.
 Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion
 Hanzi Freinacht. (2019). Nordic Ideology. Metamodern Guide to Politics Part 2. Metamoderna Press. Wroclaw.
 A ‘feudal capitalism’ in which the rich secure a monopoly on political power — thus stifling the innovation by which the original capitalism was able to contribute to the common good.
 Alexei Navalny. (2022). Vladimir Putin in ‘100 most influential people in 2022’. Link: https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2022/6177689/vladimir-putin-leaders/?fbclid=IwAR2WAJvnFq0O_jw2cRwP00gHFdUINrzzpqp2vwOIlUNKB6j5ThvPSOBkPdg
 Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 285.
 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.
 See Genesis 1 and John 1.
 John Vervaeke’s phrase.
 Link: https://twitter.com/christogrozev/status/1500728148996018176
Alla Gutnikova. (2022). Speech in the Court. Link: https://www.thevoiceofrussia.org/ru/alla-gutnikovas-court-speech-ru/
 Donald Trump. 24 February 2016. Speech in Nevada. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpdt7omPoa0