The Barbarians Are Threatening Us!

11.10.2020
Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 2 – 9 October 2020

Now, as we enter the final month of the US election, the expected climax to long-buried animosities is at hand.  It is unlikely to be brief or decisive.  The internal convulsions of the US however, are one thing. But the implosion of social trust in the US is radiating out, and its effects are radiating out across the globe.  If the imprecarity of our times -- compounded by the virus -- is making us nervous and tense, it may be because we intuit that a way-of-life, a way-of-economics, too, is coming to its end.  

The fear of social upheaval sows distrust. It can produce the spiritual state that Emile Durkheim called anomie, a feeling of being disconnected from society; a conviction that the world around one is illegitimate and corrupt; that you are invisible -- a ‘number’; a helpless object of hostile repression, imposed by ‘the system’;  a feeling that nobody is to be trusted. 

Russian nineteenth century literature, including novels by Dostoevsky, chronicled how such feelings amongst the children of the Russian well-to-do could evolve into burning hatred. This hatred extended to nail-bombs hurled into smart cafés, in order “to see how the foul bourgeois will squirm in death agony”.

The West’s post-war era largely was defined by the ‘Woodstock’ generation: an era in which the rich (white) 20% of the globe lived in a consumer paradise of choice and over-consumption, whilst the 80% non-white, did not.  That generation lived at a period of relative cultural cohesion and social stability – and rarely was called upon to make sacrifice or to endure hardship. It was the era of one ‘easy-decision’ after the other, building up to an ethos that put personal liberty above every other value, including social obligation.

The emerging generations of today, David Brooks argues in The Atlantic, “enjoy none of that sense of security. They grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile.  Yet human beings need a basic sense of security in order to thrive, as the political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart puts it: their “values and behaviour are shaped by the degree to which survival is secure””.

“The values of the Millennial and Gen Z generations that will dominate in the years ahead are the opposite of Boomer values: not liberation, but security; not freedom, but equality; not individualism, but the safety of the collective; not sink-or-swim meritocracy, but promotion on the basis of social justice … Distrustful people try to make themselves invulnerable, armour themselves up in a sour attempt to feel safe … start to see threats that aren’t there.”  

Brooks does not fully elaborate, but he is hinting at a key generational schism that is little appreciated: Millennials and Gen Z still look to (a reformed) politics for solutions, but some in the successor generation, Gen X, simply want to burn-down the system wholly.

Here is the point:  For the rest of the world – that 80% (with few exceptions) – there never was a stable post WW2 era of effortless over-consumption or institutional stability (except for a tiny slice of co-opted élites). For many, it was an era racked by conflict, personal, financial insecurity, and violence. Is it any surprise then, that their national consciousness became transformed?  That new norms and beliefs, new values for what is admired and disdained arose? Power was renegotiated mostly amidst severe civil convulsion, not the calm of settled society.

Former Indian Ambassador, MK Bhadrakumar, writes:

“The disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991 was a geopolitical disaster for Russia. But the watershed event, paradoxically, prompted Moscow and Beijing, erstwhile adversaries, to draw closer together, as they watched with disbelief the United States’ triumphalist narrative of the end of the Cold War, overturning the order they both had regarded, despite all their mutual differences and disputes, as crucial for their national status and identities. 

“The Soviet collapse resulted in great uncertainty, ethnic strife, economic deprivation, poverty, and crime for many of the successor states, in particular for Russia. And Russia’s agony was closely observed from across the border, in China. The policymakers in Beijing studied the experience of Soviet reforms, in order to steer clear of the “tracks of an overturned cart.”

“[Soon after, Xi Jinping spoke about the former Soviet Union]: In December 2012, he spoke of “political corruption,” “thought heresy,” and “military insubordination” as reasons for the decline of the Soviet Communist Party: “One important reason was that ideals and beliefs were shaken.” In the end, Mikhail Gorbachev just uttered a word, declaring the Soviet Communist Party defunct, “and the great party was gone just like that. In the end, there was not a man brave enough to resist, no one came out to contest (this decision).”

“A few weeks later, Xi revisited the topic and reportedly said … there was a complete denial of Soviet history, denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, pursuit of historical Nihilism, confusion of thought; local party organisations were almost without a role. The military was not under the Party’s oversight. “In the end, the great Soviet Communist Party scattered like birds and beasts. The great Soviet socialist nation fell to pieces. This is the road of an overturned cart! …”

“In Xi’s words, “The Soviet Communist Party had 200 thousand members when it seized power; it had 2 million members when it defeated Hitler, and it had 20 million members when it relinquished power … For what reason? Because the ideals and beliefs were no longer there.” 

“But where Putin and Xi Jinping come together… is their shared appreciation of China’s astonishing sprint to the ranks of an economic superpower. In Putin’s words, China “managed in the best possible way, in my opinion, to use the levers of central administration (for) the development of a market economy … The Soviet Union did nothing like this, and the results of an ineffective economic policy impacted the political sphere.”

David Brooks’ Atlantic essay is centred on America’s current collapse of social trust -- trust, he says, is a measure of the moral quality of a society.  His is, he says, an account of how, over the past few decades, America became “a more untrustworthy society … Americans today experience more instability than at any period in recent memory—fewer children growing up in married two-parent households, more single-parent households, more depression, and higher suicide rates”. 

People today live in what the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called Liquid Modernity -- all the traits that were once assigned to you by your community, you must now determine on your own: your identity, your morality, your gender, your vocation, your purpose, and the place of your belonging.

What Brooks does not address however, is how Americans’ distrust of each other, and for anyone other than themselves, being an empire, has impacted, more widely, on the geo-political order, and on perceptions of the proper management of economies -- which in the case of Russia and China, are drawn from the experience of earlier convulsions of their own.

Distrust is spreading today faster than the Coronavirus.

Russia is de-coupling from Europe, because it no longer trusts Europe. A huge shift. Seventy-five years after the end of WW2, German militarism and nationalism is stirring — and its élites are once again targeting Russia: “Berlin is ending the era launched by Gorbachev of a trusting and friendly relationship with Moscow. Russia, for its part, no longer expects anything from Germany, and therefore does not feel obliged to take into account its opinion or interests”, says the respected Moscow-based Carnegie bureau chief, Dmitri Trenin

Russia is observing that Europe is in the process of constructing a western anti-Russian platform.  The era that begun in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to be expiring.  Yet, is this shift not a reflection of Europe’s own insecurities and social distrust, more than of some ‘threat’ that is emanating from Russia? 

It is Germany – and Europe - that is going through metamorphose:  The EU is experiencing its own deficit of trust.  Populist and skeptic parties are on the rise. Contempt for insiders and for the Brussels élites is spiraling, as is suspicion toward anybody who holds authority.  And as Brooks points out, nervous leaderships are prone “to see threats that aren’t there”.

The EU is deeply engaged in the attempt to reinvent itself as the torch-bearer of liberal and liberal-market values (absent the US).  The EU “wants to be stronger, more autonomous, and firmer”.  And President Macron tells Europeans “they must root their belonging” in such values.  He is attempting to rally Europe against the coming ‘age of empires’, thereby postulating that Europe should become a sort of ‘empire’ too, to compete and survive in the coming clash of the economic and tech giants.

The problem for Russia is two-fold: 

It was Samuel Huntington, who writing in his Clash of Civilizations asserted that “the concept of a universal civilization helps justify Western cultural dominance of other societies and the need for those societies to ape Western practices and institutions.”  Well, firstly, Russia has for three centuries precisely refused the attempts to force her to ape western practices and institutions.

And the second is, does Europe exist now as a coherent, bounded entity?  Clearly not. And that means that Germany paying more heed to the complaints and prejudices of states such as Poland.  Europe must build cohesion, if it is to imagine itself as the up and coming ‘middle empire’.  Hence Belarus.

Again, in a another sign of distrust ‘virus’ rippling its infection through the geopolitical space, this month, the Atlantic Council has highlighted how the ‘information space’ is allowing China to project the “China Story”— “i.e. to project [itself as] a positive image through storytelling in the media landscape, both domestic and abroad”.  This is denounced as a cultural threat to the US -- the ‘threat’ of Chinese Discourse Power

As US convulsions and Covid combined tear down the credibility of the ‘old free market economics’ of Adam Smith and the Chicago School, is it any surprise that China’s and Russia’s own experience of economic and political turmoil has drawn them to the use of their central administration, rather than just markets, for the development of their economic enterprise ecosystem.  Or, that they are messaging this approach to others. 

Paradoxically the self-circulating, closed, national economy was, in any case, a western notion in the first place (should the Atlantic Council have not noticed).

In 1800, Johann Fichte published The Closed Commercial State.  In 1827, Friedrich List published his theories of national economics which took issue with the ‘cosmopolitan economics’ of Adam Smith and JB Say.  In 1889, Count Sergius Witte, an influential politician and Prime Minister in Imperial Russia, published a paper titled National Savings and Friedrich List, which cited the economic theories of Friedrich List and justified the need for a strong domestic industry, protected from foreign competition by customs barriers.

It is effectively the flip-side to the coin of Adam Smith.  Russians, such as Sergei Glazyev, have been thinking about such things for years – and especially, since Russia was expelled from the G8.

Finally, the salient question is: Are all this scattershot of expressions of distrust now reciprocated on all sides, something ephemeral? Are they simply a reflection of uncertain and disquieting times?  Or, are we witnessing the build-up of explosive distrust?  Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust, or a sense of detached alienation -- it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy.

Recall the experience of explosive distrust building in pre-revolutionary Russia: “Anyone wearing a uniform was a candidate for a bullet to the head or sulfuric acid to the face. Country estates were burnt down (‘rural illuminations’) and businesses were extorted or blown up.  Bombs were tossed at random into railroad carriages, restaurants, and theaters … Yet, instead of the pendulum’s swinging back, the killing grew and grew, both in numbers and in cruelty. Sadism replaced simple killing”.

“And how did educated, liberal society respond to such terrorism? What was the position of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party and its deputies in the Duma (the parliament set up in 1905)? The party leader, Paul Milyukov, declared that “all means are now legitimate … and all means should be tried”. When asked to condemn terrorism, another liberal leader then in the Duma, Ivan Petrunkevich, famously replied: ‘Condemn terror? That would be the moral death of the party!’.

Well, explosive geo-political distrust is the belief that those states who disagree with you are not just wrong, but illegitimate and always threatening.  They are the barbarians beyond the city walls.

Conflicts Forum