This is the fourth in a series of translations of the articles in BASTA!, a special Russian-only issue of Chto Delat that addresses such pressing issues as the fight against racism and facism, the new Russian labor movement, the resistance to runaway “development” in Petersburg, the prospects for student self-governance and revolt, the potential for critical practice amongst sociologists and contemporary artists, the attack on The European University in St. Petersburg, and Alain Badiou’s aborted visit to Moscow.
1. The regime has launched an aggressive attack on the educated, politically conscious part of the population. For the first time in the history of Russia and the USSR, the authorities feel that they could make do without an intelligentsia, using only political spin-doctors and popular humorists to keep their hold over people’s minds. In this sense, the country’s Americanization coincides with its Brezhnevization, that is, more and more arbitrary behavior by a corrupted bureaucracy.
3. Growing nationalism and partial isolationism do not just appear at the elite’s random whim. They are inert, uncreative answers to an objective situation. Large countries of the semi-periphery have little chance of pushing forward development and retaining their current way of life in situations so open to global markets and the influence of international structures of power. One should admit that in the 1990s, the West could not and did not want to integrate Russia as a strong and independent member of the international community. Russia, in turn, could not embark upon a Westernization of the country under the conditions of so-called “Western-style democracy.” The current authoritarian regime (which initially assumed power with the goal of pushing forward the Westernization of the economy) has encountered more and more sources of conflict with the West, deeming it necessary to organize a massive propaganda campaign in favor of nationalism, one that has led straight to the current isolationist wave. Liberal reforms of economic and social institutions have gone hand in hand with the conservation of corrupt late Soviet structures in the bureaucracy, the army, and the educational system.
4. Today, on the one hand, it seems that the Russian liberals were right. And really, our main enemy today is not global capital, but the good old authoritarian state. Moreover, liberals with libertarian attitudes, always ready to criticize any form of government, will tell you that in Russia, the state is always evil and that the happiest time was in the 1990s, when the state had been weakened considerably. One could agree with this point of view at least insofar as it expresses protest in refusal of oppression. But at the same time, one should be clear on the irresponsibility of this position, which lamely waits for the state to make its move, only to then criticize it after the fact. A liberal position of this kind actually presupposes an authoritarian government, and depends on it entirely.
5. This is why it would be more precise to say, on the other hand, that in fact, the left has been right all along. What have we (i.e. the workgroup Chto Delat) been saying for the last five years? That capitalism contains oppression at its core, and that simple “modernization” and “Westernization” of the economy would never lead to Russia’s democratization and enlightenment, but would rather have the opposite effect. And really, the main dream of the Nineties liberals, namely a profitable budget and Western investments, has come true. But it has come true in a way that makes them (i.e. the liberals) call out in horror, though there is no one left to listen to their exclamations. What is this all about? Capitalism has (once again) shown its ferocious grin on the border between its core and the periphery, that is, in the borderlands of the semi-periphery. The more or less dignified, “socially cushioned” bourgeois capitalism in the developed countries of the West maintains itself by bombing and impoverishing the countries on the periphery, and by maintaining authoritarian nationalism and strengthening bureaucratic states on the semi-periphery. The egotism of the corporations is equated to the egotism of entire nations. In the absence of any clearly structured civil society, the moderate reaction of the Western right becomes real rightwing sentiment, in the best traditions of that particular movement (nationalism, patriarchy, authoritarian cults). The semi-periphery reveals capitalism’s subconscious, the imaginary (fascism, the police state etc.) that the liberals of the West both invoke and keep at bay.
6. In sum, contemporary Russia faces us with a simultaneity of repressive effects produced by technocratic capitalism and bureaucratic authoritarianism “traditional” to Russia (but not only Russia, one might add). In Marxist terms, this is called “overdetermination.” Such situations, however, are the most interesting of all. Under such condition, a real struggle against capitalism is possible, since the repressive apparatus does not hide or dissolve but appears as it is, in its naked stupidity and cynicism.
It was precisely in this kind of situation that Marx himself was able to develop the theory of proletarian revolution. In 19th century Germany, the actual proletariat was very small, but there were indeed many relics of feudalism and absolutism, which the pro-French liberals attacked energetically. Marx, however, felt that the specificity of regimes like the Prussian monarchy lay in the fact that it would be useless to criticize them seriously. What was the point in proving that feudalism and clericalism had outlived themselves? Who didn’t understand this? Yet the regime did not disappear just because of this realization.
“[The] struggle against the limited content of the German status quo cannot be without interest even for the modern nations, for the German status quo is the open completion of the ancien régime and the ancien régime is the concealed deficiency of the modern state. The struggle against the German political present is the struggle against the past of the modern nations, and they are still burdened with reminders of that past. It is instructive for them to see the ancien régime, which has been through its tragedy with them, playing its comedy as a German revenant. [...] As long as the ancien régime, as an existing world order, struggled against a world that was only coming into being, there was on its side a historical error, not a personal one. That is why its downfall was tragic.
On the other hand, the present German regime, an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of generally recognized axioms, the nothingness of the ancien régime exhibited to the world, only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing. If it believed in its own essence, would it try to hide that essence under the semblance of an alien essence and seek refuge in hypocrisy and sophism? The modern ancien régime is rather only the comedian of a world order whose true heroes are dead.” (Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844)
“War on the German state of affairs! By all means! They are below the level of history, they are beneath any criticism, but they are still an object of criticism like the criminal who is below the level of humanity but still an object for the executioner.” (ibid)
This is how things are in Russia today. What is the point of civil rights activists reminding the state yet again of democratic values and the necessity to provide for elementary human rights!? Putin’s ideologues have nothing that they could oppose to such values, which are obvious though clearly not enough. This is why they yawn and mumble something about the “sovereignty” of democracy and about the rights of Russians abroad, and plan yet another “raid.” According to Marx, war with the German regime was only possible as a total emancipatory revolution, precisely because there was no bourgeois class ready to claim power. This revolution would not only sweep aside authoritarian power, but the more subtle, supposedly contractual power of the capitalist over the worker. It was in Germany, with its political-economic backwardness, but its advanced intelligentsia and its fully developed philosophy, that Marx was able to see the beginnings of the anti-capitalist revolution, in which the proletariat, armed with a total view of reality by their philosophers, would rise up and build an order of real freedom.
Capitalism does not rid society of pre-capitalist traces entirely, but lives on them like a parasite, putting them to work on its treadmill. Capitalism feeds on carrion flesh, subordinating living labor in service of the dead. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, capitalism is only capable of sucking all surplus values from pre-capitalist relations of production. When the last vestiges of authoritarianism and bureaucracy die off, capitalism will not be able to survive.
Sadly, the realm of human oppression and necessity is far more simple, crazy, and inert than the realm of freedom. This is why 150 years after Marx, and a century after Lenin and Luxemburg, we once again find ourselves in one of the epicenters of oppression, which stands in visible contradiction to economic developments that it is bound to, and this oppression is growing.
7. So what is to be done?
For starters, we should avoid falling into the polarizing traps that the regime is trying to sell us: we cannot fight for “the West” against “backward Russia,” and we cannot struggle for the intelligentsia against the “obedient majority.” Instead, all good-willed people must join forces against the alliance of technocracy, exploitation and chauvinism. As in Marx’s time, the best weapon in this struggle will be the exposure and ridicule of the “comedians of the old order” (parodies of the late Soviet regime) currently in power, but also a serious, more “tragic” analysis of the system of world capitalism as such. Since television has branded the population at large with thoughtless polarization and desperate collective egotism, we will have to calmly “peel away” its effects, without rushing about hysterically. Here and now is the time and place when people feel the rage, disdain, and pain of the contradiction between the country’s development and its fatal regression on their own skins. This is precisely why we – Marxists, anarchists, political liberals, and union activists – need to unite and to develop a common platform that may indeed require mutual compromises. We need to develop alternative forms of social being, for Russia and for the rest of the world.