The Russian original was written for and published by Snob on March 4, 2015.
The group of people that has been ruling Russia for 15 years is fond of talking about “legitimacy”. So why don’t we follow suit and talk about that, too.
The search for legitimate foundations of power is the business of political philosophy. This search began the day when someone ancient threw a long look at the chief of the tribe and posed one of the most revolutionary questions in the history of humanity: “How come he’s bossing us around?”
Mind you, I’m not just talking about outwitting, deposing and killing the chief and then bossing people around in his stead. No, I’m talking about genuine curiosity: what gives the chief the right to be chief?
In a traditional society, where there’s no difference between natural law and social convention, the problem of legitimacy doesn’t exist. Power is “invisible”. The ruler’s authority is no different from Earth’s gravity. To analyse the chief’s right to issue commands would be like questioning an apple’s right to fall from the tree. It just wouldn’t occur to you.
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, labelled such invisible rules doxa. It’s a funny Greek term, but the idea is actually quite simple. Any society, Bourdieu pointed out, has its orthodoxy, defended by the conservative establishment. It also has its heterodoxy, promoted by the liberally minded. But on top of those two it has doxa, which is neither advocated, nor condemned by anyone. It isn’t mentioned at all. It’s invisible. It’s the “natural order of things” beyond any discussion.
As an illustration, recall the second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Here, the liberalism is in the belief that all men are equal. The orthodoxy is the belief that some men, say the king of England, are more equal than others. And the unseen doxa is the fact that it’s 1776, and nobody thinks that the women in American homes or the black slaves in American fields are in any way part of the equation.
That said, we should approach historical documents with the yardstick of their time. It has to be said for the Founding Fathers of the US that, having overdosed on Locke and the French Enlightenment, they were into the question of legitimacy in a really big way.
Even their Declaration of Independence is basically an excuse note addressed to “mankind”: don’t think that we’re seceding from the king on a whim. The wicked tyrant has violated our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. And isn’t it “to secure these rights” that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”?
Note how banal all this erstwhile crackpot liberalism sounds today. “To secure these rights”, “instituted among Men”, “powers from the consent of the governed” – it’s all common sense and a platitude, right? Everyone – from Navalny to Kadyrov, from [opposition journalist] Sobchak to [pro-Kremlin tabloid columnist] Skoybeda – will happily sign on. It’s hard to shake the feeling that to defend social contract theory in 2015 – even in its modern, Rawlsian or Habermasian incarnation – is like agitating for the heliocentric system or for the germ theory of disease. Feels kind of embarrassing, preaching to this particular 300-year-old choir.
In other words, I really wouldn’t be writing this. But I have a painful suspicion that a significant chunk of the Russian population doesn’t believe in “securing rights” or “the consent of the governed” even in theory. It seems to me that our political doxa is the same as it was in the good old days before philosophy. It still says that power is like weather, gravity or the cold virus. No legitimacy needed.
Bourdieu believed that doxa was eventually dragged from the shadows into the light by social crises and culture contact. Once out in the open, the naked doxa becomes vulnerable and starts withering. But some people, it seems, have hit upon a foolproof method of protecting their collective unconscious from crises and contacts. I don’t know what French sociology would call this method. I shall call it “tribal post-modernism”.
The intelligent Kremlin supporter knows full well that none of the classical legitimation strategies will fly when it comes to our dear leaders. The divine right of kings is a non-starter, no matter how much you film Putin against the backdrop of golden onion domes and citizen Gundyayev [Patriarch Kirill]. Any trace of a messianic ideology in the grand style of Marxism-Leninism is gone. The elections are thoroughly rigged. Public opinion is brewed from multichannel television lies. As for competent, relatively honest dictators like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, only an internet troll can discern those in the Kremlin thieves. They aren’t even good imperialists. What self-respecting empire would keep disowning its own solders [fighting and dying in Ukraine] for months on end or promise controlling stakes in new oil and gas fields to China?
That’s why legitimation is off. Let us do post-modernism instead. In the true spirit of sloppily abridged Lyotard or Žižek for primary schools, the thoughtful Kremlin loyalist will quickly disembowel for you any discourse involving “democracy”, “rights” or “civil society”. All that, he or she will tell you, is a smoke screen, cute fluff masking the real mechanisms of power. The greedy hidden oligarchy that rules over the totalitarian kingdom of consumption feeds all this pretty talk to the ochlos to keep it buying clothes, watching 50 Shades of Grey, gobbling hamburgers and getting high on its delusion of freedom and importance.
And that, the enlightened “patriot” will have you know, is the only way it can be. All those election-shmelections and parliament-shmarliaments serve the same purpose as the bowtie: none whatsoever. You put it on and let it chafe your neck because you’re supposed to. Therefore, you might as well prefer the chief of your tribe to all others. The current chief, I mean. As the saying goes, he is our son of a bitch and he has already stolen and embezzled his fill.
That’s it. The defence is complete. All that’s left to do is spell out the tacit motto that underlies this kind of thinking. Here it comes: the only source of legitimate power is power itself.
Conclusions that follow from this gold nugget of a premise do a very good job of explaining the zeitgeist in the Russian Federation. For one thing, the fewer limits there are on someone’s power, the more legitimate it is. Absolute power — think Stalin — is absolutely legitimate. A relatively liberal leader — think Yeltsin — has a serious legitimacy problem.
Secondly, opposition to existing power is a contradiction in terms. A citizen that demands a power change is like a patient trying to diagnose their doctor: ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. Those in power are free to do whatever they want with such idiots. In fact, they must do whatever they want all the time. The more limits power sets itself, the faster it loses legitimacy – see above.
On a good day, when I am full of hope and optimism, this take on power shining through the arguments of my countrymen reminds me of Hobbes. Yes, the Hobbes that wrote Leviathan – not the script for Zvyagintsev, but the political treatise from 1651.
Thomas Hobbes was writing at the end of a protracted civil war and took a correspondingly dim view of human nature. Without a state to keep them in check, Hobbes argued, people would always promptly backslide into the “state of nature” and the famous “war of every man against every man”. This is why everyone should delegate their right to self-defence (the only human right, according to Hobbes) to an absolute sovereign who would protect everyone at once. State power is legitimate because its only alternative is bloody chaos. The sovereign has the right to do anything to keep the peace. He is not just the only source of political decision-making; he is the only source of political opinion, too.
Reading Hobbes gives a modern liberal the creeps. But hold on; here again we need our historical yardstick. To be sure, Hobbes both underestimated and overestimated homo sapiens. A “war of every man against every man” is quite rare even among non-human primates, not to mention stone age humans. As it turned out in the 20th century, total war actually requires states and sovereigns – and the more totalitarian the sovereign, the more total the slaughter. Contrary to Hobbes’s happy visions, reasoned, competent tyranny is an awfully rare commodity on this planet.
And yet Hobbes’s theory is definitely an early version of the social contract. The sovereign has a duty to the people: to keep the peace. If he can’t do that, what the hell is he good for? On a good day, when there’s hope and cheerful doubt, when I think that deep down inside the average Russian is a Hobbes fan, I believe that a government that kills its soldiers in an undeclared war and breeds political terrorism will sooner or later forfeit its legitimacy.
That said, this hope doesn’t extend to the pillars of tribal postmodernism. Not to the Olshanskys, not to the Sokolovs, not to the Leontyevs. Their political philosophy wasn’t described by Hobbes. It was described by [Georgian philosopher] Merab Mamardashvili in 1988:
“Nihilism begins as a demand for something ‘high-minded’. The next step is the realisation that nothing completely high-minded has ever existed: can you show me a completely honest person? If you look hard enough, everyone has some shortcoming, some selfishness in them. The third step is the claim that everything high-minded is nothing but pretence, hypocrisy, a lofty cover for some very lowly things…»
“If we are determined to become democrats only if someone shows us a pure paragon of democracy…, we are simply nihilists.”