While the west turns more nationalist, Right-wing and nativist, Putin is viewing a better seat at the table. After 20 years in the shadows, Russia once again takes center-stage, fanning the flames of a new global ideology.
In a recent article, I discussed the polarisation of domestic politics into Progressive and Traditional camps. Contemporary debates over immigration, education, religion and free speech draw almost exclusively from either of these two wells (to the extent that these conversations actually take place)*. Crucially however, the bifurcation of public discourse extends well beyond the domestic, into the global sphere.
Michel Foucault argued that discourses have a disciplining power – that is to say that the ideas produced and maintained by institutions (governments, universities, courts etc,) control and shape our actions and ideas, and those in power deliberately create the institutions and structures that impose and inject these discourses into our lived experience. Simply put, our current institutions have a tendency to discipline us towards being happy capitalist workers and well-behaved, borrowing consumers. The TV constantly blares economic information at you: GDP is such-and-such, All Ordinaries hit new highs, China slow-down etc. Today our choices of university degrees are guided less by intellectual curiosity and more by the desire to secure a profitable vocation – the job most likely to get you a house, car, boat, the right kind of partner. The loudspeaker on public transport reminds you you’re a “client” of the network. Marketing, advertising, celebrity endorsements…on and on, and on…the structures of society tend to discipline you towards hard work, borrowing and spending beyond your means.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, this US-centric, capitalist discourse reigned supreme absent a challenger. But no longer; there’s a new kid on the block. Russia has rebranded and is back to her old tricks. Putin has been carefully crafting a Slavic counter-narrative to this US discourse and you can see him weaponising this new paradigm: projecting Russian influence around the globe. Cold War-style ideological combat is back in vogue. This time it’s slick, avant-garde, technologically driven, and it’s taking the zeitgeist by storm. Putin is making traditional, western-Christian nationalism sexy again, finding allies across the West, and using new-media platforms to drive his fifth column deep inside our public sphere – well beyond the reach of Russian hard-power.
Get a taste of Putin’s sales pitch:
For the past 15 years the capitalist, international agenda has gone unchallenged. Hans Morgenthau would call this form of US soft power “cultural imperialism”. Americans have spread their ideology far and wide, softening us up for multinational corporations, transnational capital flows, and the strategic placement of military assets to shore up these investments. Today, the Russians are trying to do something similar. But rather than cheaply made homogenous consumer products, the Muscovites are selling something far more valuable: dignity.
Dignity trading in the form of sovereignty: defence of national territory and historic borders. Dignity in the species of cultural integrity: preservation of traditional values, morality, customs and mores. Dignity commoditised as religious sanctity: the maintenance of holidays, prayers, rites and communalism.
Putin’s new paradigm is the suggestion that all these dimensions of western dignity are under assault. The novo-Russian ideology offers nothing less than a defence of civilisation.
The genius of Putin’s scheme is that its opposite (the US internationalist discourse) has been framed as the very thing jeopardising the dignity he promises. Sovereignty is under attack from globalisation. Culture is laid waste by liberal immigration policies and multicultural pluralism. Religion is under siege from a secular, progressive atheism that abandons its own heritage while treating foreign theists like protected species. The Kremlin can hardly keep up with demand – there are so many eager buyers. Disenfranchised working-class and conservative-minded men and women (granted the market has an overt testosterone bias) see a war on Christmas; censorship by “Islamophobia”; the usurpation of domestic legislation; the increased incidence of crime, violence and terrorism; the steady erosion of social trust and solidarity… The old (internationalist) discourse has brought nothing but misery, degradation, and shame.
The suggestion is not that Right-wing populist nationalism is manufactured in some Kremlin laboratory. The feelings are real… Putin has merely seen the paradigm shift, and inserted himself into the cracks.
To this end, Moscow partners with countless nationalist, Right-wing populist movements, and Putin extends an olive branch to Donald Trump, a model for Nigel Farage, helpful advice to Marie Le Pen, a “kiss” to Geert Wilders. Russian STEM experts allegedly hack American networks and leak embarrassing information (this is the claim – evidence is outstanding at this time), state-run media factories pump out sensational rhetorical-fuel for the ideology’s new-technology mindscape…fake news, WikiLeaks, Twitter trolls, RT, Sputnik News, memes and YouTube videos combine to give wieldable substance to Putin’s new paradigm in our 21st century network society.
The United States is the unquestioned leader and architect of the internationalist capitalist system. America steers the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the majority of global news media and entertainment corporations, provides the world’s reserve currency, and ensures neutrality and access to trade routes and sea-lanes. Russia will never have a proper seat at this “round” table. If however, Russia can cultivate a renewed sense of nationalism, authoritarianism, ethnic nativism and religious association, Putin can reset the banquet hall, place himself at one end surrounded by a coterie of like-minded strongmen, and rearrange the seating such that the less you adopt his new paradigm the further down the hall you sit – far away from all the nice cuts of meat.
The foreseeable future will be framed by a rivalry between two discourses: Nationalism and Internationalism. The latter has long been the Trojan Horse for US global influence and corporate profiteering; the former promises to be a fig leaf covering a geopolitical network of alliances that serve Putin’s vision for Russia’s rightful place in the world. None of this is to suggest that the emotions, passions, beliefs, and aspirations that catalysed and propelled Donald Trump into the White House (and severed Britain from the European Union) are not sincerely held. The suggestion is not that Right-wing populist nationalism is manufactured in some Kremlin laboratory. The feelings are real; the circumstances (both social and economic) are real, and the convictions deeply felt. Putin has merely seen the paradigm shift, and inserted himself into the cracks. The economic conditions post-GFC and social conditions following the European migrant crisis offer Russia a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push against the door of great power politics that sits slightly ajar. Putin, ever the geopolitical opportunist and offensive realist, is simply fanning the flames, uniting the tribes, and flogging this new paradigm discourse for all its worth.
*I was asked recently, “what’s so good about Twitter?” Twitter is where the raw material of public discourse is being fleshed out, kicked up and tossed about. It’s the ideal training ground for future IRL discussions. You encounter the rough edges of an issue and get exposed to the debate dimensions necessary to equip yourself with assertion, riposte and retort.