Aleksandr Dugin’s Critique of Liberalism
Aleksandr Dugin is a Russian philosopher who many observers think provides intellectual justification for Prime Minister Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. Dugin’s philosophy is based on a curious critique of liberalism or “modernity,” one that combines premodern traditionalism with postmodern pluralism.
A cynic might dismiss Dugin’s philosophy as a gaslighting ploy, as an attempt to hide the kleptocratic and totalitarian core of his ideas and of Putin’s agenda with a tu quoque fallacy in which he charges the West with hypocrisy.
Putin often resorts to this fallacy when he’s accused of committing an appalling crime, his response being that the US has done worse. Indeed, the upshot of Dugin’s critique is that, whereas liberalism is supposed to be opposed to coercion and to fascism, the assumption that liberalism should be universal ends up being totalitarian after all.
This whataboutery would be meant to establish something like what Adam Curtis treats as the hypernormality that reigned in soviet Russia. When Russians knew their system was corrupt and intellectually bankrupt, they had to pretend to accept the technocrats’ lies about how their economy wasn’t falling apart — because they found it impossible to imagine an alternative system for them.
The fraud that they recognized had nevertheless been normalized — rather like a failed marriage that persists because the couple lacks the wherewithal to end it.
So if Dugin and Putin can lead Russians to believe that liberalism is illegitimate, Russians will accept the worst that Putin has to offer, because they’ll assume they have no viable alternative.
But let’s give Dugin the benefit of the doubt and summarize his case against liberalism, to see what we can learn from it. Besides his book, The Fourth Political Theory, you might turn to his debate with Bernard-Henri Levy, and to his three-way debate with Francis Fukuyama and Ivan Krastev.
For further background, see the writings of Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmidt.
Dugin’s Case Against Liberalism
What Dugin is after is an alternative to what he calls the three major modern political theories, which are fascism, communism, and liberalism. Liberalism defeated the other two in WWII and the Cold War, but Dugin thinks liberalism has undermined itself in the postmodern period.
In short, liberals engage in a performative self-contradiction, because they mean to spread liberal values around the world via the neoliberal globalization of economies. Liberals can no longer turn without irony to Enlightenment justifications for thinking that those values are universal in amounting to “human rights.”
Modern European and American philosophy has passed into a decrepit stage of “postmodern” relativism, which obliges liberals to treat those so-called human rights as only locally and temporarily valid.
According to Dugin, liberalism is only a Western phenomenon, the ideological superstructure of Western civilization; thus this political philosophy stands opposed to foreign cultures and civilizations. This opposition emphatically includes Russian society in the broad sense in which Russia is an implicit “Eurasian” territory, one that would unite all Russian-speaking peoples as well as Catholic and Protestant Europe and perhaps neighboring illiberal, collectivist societies such as certain Islamic states.
Liberalism takes the locus of value to be the individual, whereas Russia, according to Dugin treats the collective as more important than any individual member. And whereas liberal culture is secular and effectively atheistic, Russia’s is traditional (patriarchal) and Christian.
But liberalism discredits its universal pretensions via its having degenerated into postmodern relativism. The global projection of liberalism, as though individualistic secularism were necessary and foundational to the human — not just to the Western — enterprise is illiberal in its imperialism; hence the need for a fourth political theory, says Dugin.
To that end, Dugin turns to Russia’s cultural roots, including East Orthodox Christianity, some occultist doctrines, and collectivist values. Dugin applies postmodernism not just in undermining liberalism, but in declaring that civilizations should be given the freedom to develop according to their internal logic or in so far as their inherent cycles would unfold. But Dugin combines that relativistic international stance with premodern traditionalism within Russian society.
Dugin’s liberal critics accuse him and Putin of being totalitarian in their handling of opposition to their policies within Russia; for example, Putin imprisons or poisons his political opponents and doesn’t permit a free press or fair elections. But Dugin’s response is that the value of liberty should be universal only between cultures, and since some of those cultures are illiberal, they should be allowed — as postmodern relativism would have it — to enforce their absolutist, collectivist, or otherwise illiberal traditions within their borders.
For example, feminism, gay rights, and the freedom of thought (including the right to reject all religions) aren’t universal or human rights, according to Dugin, since they presuppose Western individualism. A society should be free to be sexist and to oppress its wayward minorities if that’s what its culture dictates.
The Modern Basis of Hyperskepticism
Dugin’s case becomes more dubious if we delve further into the meaning of “postmodernity.” This phase of “modernity,” that is, of the European revolutions that led from feudal to industrial capitalism, is better thought of as hyper-modern.
Philosophers discovered they could become scientific if they merely doubted Church dogmas and checked the facts themselves. What they found is that their religious traditions were (1) false and (2) cynically and politically motivated; that is, Christianity (and by extension Islam) were effectively theocratic.
The Age of Reason was a matter of applying reason to doubt whatever can be doubted, to discover the objective, empirical, and thus universal truth. Mathematics and scientific methods are transcultural in that respect — however, postmodernists may declare obscurely and pretentiously that scientific theories, too, are mere works of rhetoric. Even if science is reduced to a pragmatic business of model-making with technological applications, that business either works or it doesn’t and that utility is objective.
Still, modern skepticism arguably became self-destructive and “postmodern” when skeptics and rationalists realized they could doubt not just archaic stories about the nature of reality, but stories about how we ought to live. Morality, democratic norms, and the rule of law became just more dubious, sinister myths along with the notion that kings are granted their power by the universe’s all-knowing creator.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, human reason “killed” God, which in turn killed our faith in ourselves. As the French philosopher Lyotard defined it, postmodernism is the “incredulity towards all metanarratives.” The postmodernist can’t take comfort in any myth or other foundational justification, because she has to view that foundation ironically as a mere product of human imagination and of political or other ulterior motives.
Here, then, Dugin’s synthesis of traditionalism and postmodernism does start to look cynical. If you accept not just the output of postmodern philosophy but the intellectual basis for that thought, you have to wonder how Dugin can blithely confine hypermodern skepticism to the international arena — as though the values of the intra-civilizational culture were immune to doubt.
On the contrary, once you understand that morality, theology, and all ideologies are subject to rational doubt, you should be hard-pressed to confidently assert that cultural logic is entitled to evolve, regardless of how anachronistic and wildly irrational the culture’s “traditions” may be.
Sure, liberal values are Western in their origin, and it would be hypocritical to force other cultures to accept them. At least some of globalization is voluntary, though, as other societies are jealous of the freedom and wealth that Europeans and North Americans take for granted, and want to participate in the “modern” way of life to extricate them from corrupt theocratic regimes and from outdated mindsets and preoccupations.
Postmodernity and Cynical Elitism
In any case, if you claim to reject liberalism because you think we occupy a postmodern limbo in which anything goes, you have no basis for trusting in the foundations of any culture, including Russia’s. You can take a leap of faith in some worldview or tradition, but in so far as that faith is postmodern it must be ironical and coupled with doubt and anxiety.
As Kierkegaard said (based on Philippians 2:12), faith that’s held to be only subjectively true must be practiced with “fear and trembling.”
The notion that a postmodern traditionalist could be zealous and arrogant enough, say, to cut off the hands of thieves or to toss homosexuals off of rooftops, out of adherence to Islamic traditions is ludicrous. On the contrary, the postmodernist becomes an outsider and a cynical observer, like Nietzsche the “perspectivist,” as he called himself: Nietzsche wrote aphoristically because he couldn’t commit to any system of thought, preferring to look at problems from different perspectives, once he realized they were all subject to doubt.
As Shadia Drury interprets Leo Strauss in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, the true postmodernist becomes an unlikely, cynical elitist. According to her, Strauss likewise believed that liberal modernity is a sickness compared to ancient Greek wisdom, but he accepted that, like postmodern hyper-skepticism, the ancient philosophical wisdom is subversive.
Thus, the truth has to be hidden from the masses, disguised with exoteric platitudes that comfort the unphilosophical herd, to preserve social cohesion.
Again, Dugin’s philosophy might be elitist in that respect: Dugin might be a true postmodernist who realizes that all traditions are technically preposterous, but he has to proclaim the greatness of Russian civilization to appease Putin and the Russian people.
This cynicism is implicit in Spengler’s naturalistic comparison of the stages of civilization to the changing seasons or to stages of a plant’s growth. If indeed cultures have their ideological (as opposed to genetic) programming, as a matter of empirical fact, the organic development of that program hardly entails that the culture is noble or worthy. The talk of a culture’s form and of its inherent stages, from its birth to its inevitable decline, is meant to be scientific and objective.
Saying, then, that Russia has a culture which should be allowed to flourish until its natural end, doesn’t entail that this culture is even respectable, let alone glorious. A biologist could just as easily say that a weed or a virus should be given the freedom to fulfill its genetic program.
Such expression of potential may be what nature “intends,” but nature is mindless so those evolutions and complexifications are just as creepily amoral from the postmodernist’s objective view from nowhere.
Whether Russia has any such coherent or unified culture is doubtful, in any case. Certainly, Russians have religious and collectivist traditions, based on their shared history and social experience. But the idea that Russia is currently illiberal in upholding collectivism against individualism is belied by the stark fact — as Fukuyama and Krastev point out to Dugin — that Russia now depends entirely on one man, namely Vladimir Putin, since Putin has declined to create an institutional system in Russia to carry on his legacy after he’s gone.
In a true collectivist society, the leaders should be servants of the people for society’s greater good. But in spite of the vaunted Christian traditions of Russian culture, Putin’s Russia is a mere kleptocracy.
Putin made a bargain with the Russian oligarchs that may have made Putin the world’s richest man. Therefore, judging from the political opposition, many Russians prefer for their country to be modernized, just as many in the Islamic world do, to escape the corruption of their dictators, but their efforts are thwarted by the tactics of the oppressive regimes.
Existentialism and the Recovery of Human Rights
Must we, though, adopt the relativistic attitude towards cultures? Must we refrain from judging foreigners, on the assumption that there are no universal human values? If we do so from the liberal’s vantage point, according to which alternative ways of life should all be tolerated as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s equal freedom to express themselves, we’d be beholden only to Western culture after all, as Dugin says.
But this is irrelevant because there’s some obvious commonality across all societies and time periods in history. We can call that commonality the existential situation of our species. All cultures and societies are so many responses to our universal, mammalian, and social plight.
We’re all born as helpless infants who can excel only if we’re raised by loving, patient guardians. We form families and at least since roughly the invention of agriculture and large-scale, sedentary societies, we live more or less under scarcity conditions: societies and social classes compete for limited resources, and our populations expand to maintain our institutions and to avoid being conquered by rivals. The civilizational imperative of economic growth requires an ideological justification of the toil needed to sustain the expansion, as well as a social concentration of power for the sake of managing the societal behemoth. Those facts entail an unequal distribution of wealth.
To that extent, human groups differ from those of social animal species mainly in the fact that we tell elaborate stories to rationalize our dominance hierarchies. However, we also all face the knowledge of our inevitable death, as well as the threat posed by our overactive cerebral cortex as it’s liable to cast doubt on our cherished stories, about our specialness as persons created by a wise god, and about our spiritual immortality, the glory of our nation’s progress, and the worthwhile meaning of our life.
Contrary to Dugin’s flailing in his debate with Fukuyama and Krastev (at around the thirty-five-minute mark), regarding what he calls the multiplicity of anthropologies that depend on the civilization which upholds them, there are indeed universal features of human life, based on biology which is transcultural. The facts that all humans are born as infants and know they’ll die are not just subjectively or culturally true; these objective facts are existential, which is to say they’re objectively foundational.
The question, then, is whether some cultures or civilizations deal with them better than others. Possibly, Dugin is right for reasons that might be amplified by Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus, and liberalism is indeed incoherent and otherwise flawed. Trump’s “presidency” is itself ominous and a reason to look for a fourth political theory. Maybe some collectivist model is superior to the liberal’s individualism; maybe we need to see ourselves as a human collective to end the ecological damage we’re doing to the planet as rabid, narrow-minded consumers.
Yet however more enlightened and philosophical East Orthodox Christianity maybe than the Western churches, I’d keep looking for a worthier source of inspiration to cope with the harsh universal facts. We could do worse than to start with existential philosophy itself — as even Dugin does when he incorporates Heidegger into his worldview, but calls him postmodern rather than existential.