If you have not yet read the article on Vladimir Putin in the latest issue of The Economist, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping and chilling read.
Not surprisingly the article tilts strongly toward western Europe, the United States, and NATO. But what I found most interesting are President Putin’s reasons for challenging “the West”:
The EU and NATO are Mr Putin’s ultimate targets. To him, Western institutions and values are more threatening than armies. He wants to halt their spread, corrode them from within and, at least on the West’s fragile periphery, supplant them with his own model of governance. In that model, nation-states trump alliances, states are dominated by elites, and those elites can be bought. Here, too, he has enjoyed some success. From France to Greece to Hungary he is cultivating parties on Europe’s far right and left: anyone who might lobby for Russian interests in the EU, or even help to prise the union apart (see article). The biggest target is NATO’s commitment to mutual self-defence. Discredit that—by, for example, staging a pro-Russian uprising in Estonia or Latvia, which other NATO members decline to help quell—and the alliance crumbles.
“We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are in effect turning away from their roots, including their Christian values,” said Mr Putin in 2013. Russia, by contrast, “has always been a state civilisation held together by the Russian people, the Russian language, Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox church” (Article).
Far-right groups are seduced by the idea of Moscow as a counterweight to the EU, and by its law-and-order policies. Its stance on homosexuality and promotion of “traditional” moral values appeal to religious conservatives. The far left likes the talk of fighting American hegemony.
We may be inclined to embrace half of Mr Putin’s rationale, that part that faults western and US hegemony, but to reject that half that promotes Russian nationalism and hegemony. What is good for the goose is good for the gander; and NATO, the West, and the US are encroaching upon Eastern Europe and threatening Russia’s sphere of influence.
These distinctions seem to make good sense, but they assume that NATO, the West, or the US have a deliberate, premeditated, strategy to spread western culture and values throughout the world when, in fact, their principle interest is in global markets. To these global interests, Mr Putin opposes the particularities of Slavic and Russian culture, values, and religion.
That is to say, where NATO, the West, and the US set their interests and concerns on what they take to be global markets — which favor no particular culture, values, or religion — Mr Putin and his nationalist supporters set their interests and concerns on the nationalist particularities of pan-Slavism and Russian Orthodoxy.
From this vantage-point, the conflict would appear to be between the global “universal” and the particularities of Slavic culture and history.
Know your audience. The strength of Mr Putin’s argument — the strength of nationalist rhetoric wherever it is found — is that it makes common cause with the members of his audience who are suffering and traces the cause for this suffering to the existential hatred outsiders bear towards his audience. The “West” hates and wishes to destroy that which is most particular and individual about Slavic culture, religion, values and history.
This rhetoric will be most familiar to US readers as the rhetoric of the mainstream (no longer the fringe) Republican Party in the US. Through it Republican candidates divert the attention of their audience away from the ways Republican backed policies have directly caused untold hardship and suffering for members of their political base, and redirect their attention towards the existential threat posed by homosexuals, undocumented immigrants, advocates of women’s choice, and defenders of social welfare. Whether in Russia or in the US, it is the same rhetoric. And Mr Putin is its master.
But let us suppose Mr Putin is at least partially correct. Let us suppose that the global system, without intending to, would sweep pan-Slavic culture, values, and religion from the face of history and replace it with the same bland, homogeneous, universal culture, values, laws, and institutions that have swept the individualities of most peoples around the globe into the dustbin of history. Let us suppose that a full and transparent openness to global markets would put an end to Mother Russia. But let us also suppose therefore that the agent or mechanism behind this existential threat is less sinister but more ominous than Mr Putin would have us believe.
Defenders of the global system from A Smith to R Lucas Jr are in full agreement that the global system works only to the extent that its laws, regulations, and institutions become universal. And they agree that in order to become universal it must destroy the particularities that stand in its way.
And yet particularities survive. One way to slow or reverse the spread of this universal is to rope off safe havens that will not be subject to market forces. These can be common, universal institutions such as health, education, and welfare, which, at least since the 5th century BCE have been universally identified as values shared by everyone; or they might be particular “national” treasures: literature, music, the arts, monuments, natural resources, religious practices, or language groups. The inefficiencies that such exceptions introduce into the market are paid for by efficiencies earned elsewhere. So long as minority rights are preserved, there is no harm.
So, for example, the Russian Parliament could identify those “national” treasures that it will protect from global market forces; as in fact it already does by offering state subsidies to its national ballet and symphony.
The existential threat in Russia comes not from the global system itself, but from the national oligarchy and political class that feeds off that global system. Here the parallels to the US case are remarkable. Just as in Russia, the US oligarchy feeds directly off the efficiencies it has stolen from the lives and work of its own political base, feeding them in return platitudes about how they are existentially threatened by minorities, women, undocumented immigrants, and the “homosexual lifestyle.” (With good reason does the Republican base in this country find Mr Putin attractive, see Sarah Palin.)
But this also highlights a line of analysis to which defenders of the global system are seemingly oblivious. In this analysis, depriving social actors the substantive means of self-government, independence, and pride creates the very conditions to which nationalism is a natural response. The neoliberal policies promoted by agents of the global system in the 1980s and 90s are returning to haunt its defenders. And if emerging conflicts on the fringes of this system are any indication, we are just at the beginning of our troubles.
It may already be too late; too late to cultivate the political will to shift the efficiencies hoarded by the top centile of the income hierarchy back down to where these efficiencies were created so that they might nurture citizens who are well-educated, well-fed, well-housed, and well-prepared to make responsible public decisions.
Privatization and deregulation left Eastern Europe and Russia a shambles. They created Mr Putin’s base not only in Russia, but throughout Eastern Europe, and increasingly in the EU as well. But (and Mr Putin surely knows this) the enemy is not anything so specific as “the West,” or “American values.” The enemy is a global system that is now truly universal and so transcends and defies the restraints that any single international agent or actor might wish to place on it. As a consequence, the inequalities and, hence, the nationalism expand.
The existential threat is real. The reputed agent of that threat — the West — is not.