I read two related things today; via In Bona Fide a long article by a BBC blogger about cultural dissent in late communist Russia. The pivotal figure in this story, Eduard Limonov, spent sometime in New York but ultimately came to see the American system as much like the Soviet system. Another figure of this milieu, Vladislav Surkov, decided if someone was going to be manipulating the masses for money and power it may as well be him, and became a publicist and Putin operative.
Aleksandr Solzenitsyn is another Russian emigre who was disenchanted with the US. In the end Western social democracy- it’s not “capitalism”, although it has capitalist elements- has much in common with Soviet communism. Both systems offer a certain level of comfort to the masses, provided they are willing to put their trust in technocrats who will manage society and the economy. Soviet communism was certainly totalitarian, and controlled its subjects with force, but to think of it as primarily compulsive it to misunderstand the nature of socialism. The idea that people have rights, of any kind, and those rights must be respected is quite recent. Older forms of social organization saw most people as having duties, not rights. No one was really free; a person higher on the food chain just had different duties. Communism and social democracy both posit that the individual at the bottom has rights, not the least of which is an actual right to have certain basic needs met.
Limonov’s current rage at the Putin oligarchy seems a little off-base. Surkov’s position- that in a mass-oriented society, somebody is always going to be manipulating the masses, they are not going to be thinking critically for themselves- may be cynical, but it is hard to question. The barely-concealed phony parties and the physical intimidation and murder of political opponents are harsh, but only just stronger versions of how things work here. Getting targeted by “Jon” “Stewart” is not like getting stomped by skinheads or shot or poisoned by the new KGB, but you’ll be just as effectively put out of commission.
The powerful and connected pick over the corpse of the Soviet Union, and rape Mother Russia. The common man gets by as best he can. Meanwhile, the US and Western Europe- so proudly triumphant just 15 years ago, face crises of their own. We are assured, repeatedly, that everything will be back to normal any month now, but they have been saying that for a lot of months. Walter Russell Meads begins a series on the replacement of the “blue” social model. Mead is unique among people who belong in polite company in that he recognizes the current crisis is no mere hiccup or setback but the end of an era, demanding serious and permanent change to accommodate new realities.
The Chinese have a concept, “The Mandate of Heaven”, which while sounding exotic as Chinese things often do, is quite pragmatic and practical. If the ruler is competent, he has the Mandate of Heaven; if he is too screwed up he loses it and is deposed. This is just recognition of the basic reality that leaders rule by no more complicated principle than delivering results, even totalitarian rulers. People will put up with a lot if they have food and shelter, and order is maintained. Should these conditions not be met, or if he looks vulnerable, he is toast. The Assad regime in Syria was as firmly entrenched as could be, and kept people in line with the most iron of fists. But even that doesn’t last forever.
(Speaking of Chinese practicality, eating cats seems gross, but is quite practical. They make lousy pets, but have plenty of protein. Into the pot they go!)
The recent history of Russia is not comforting to those contemplating the near future of the West. The people in power don’t care about the mass of the population. They will do what they need to hang on, now largely by importing more malleable immigrants, legal and illegal. They will extract what wealth they can. And as in Russia the common man will get by the best he can. A few will like Eduard Liminov rail against the system, but it will be as futile here as it is there.