Streetwise Professor

August 23, 2008

More on Russophobia

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:17 am

Commentor DR writes:

I believe conventional Russophobia is just another variant of Orientalism (as defined by Said) relying on one-dimensional caricatures of Russian cultural reality as one of millenial despotism, contempt for the individual, etc. This ignores the many instances of democratic/liberal tendencies organically appearing in Russian history, from the Veche of medieval Novgorod to Putin’s consolidation of liberal democracy in the last 8 years (I view Yeltsin’s period as closer in spirit to the Time of Troubles). I also question your thesis of a “civilizational chasm” between Russia and the West. It ignores the fact that there have been numerous despotisms throughout Western history and some general trends, e.g. the high status of the state in economic planning that one sees throughout French history from Colbert to Mitterand. Finally, I find talk of chasms and divides that cannot be bridged both pessimistic and in a way self-fulfilling. I have long observed the sheer disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as presented in Western texts. This has led me to conclude that either Western observers really are all incompetent / myopic (i.e. slaves of their own misrepresentations, accumulated over centuries) or actively malevolent / eager to fight an info-war. I wrote my views on the Ossetian conflict here. I concluded, “Control is all about imposing your view of reality on the minds of others. Since overt political persecution is no longer widely accepted, the elites have resorted to fighting wars over hearts and minds. Western media manipulation is not readily noticeable, since if that were the case the simulation’s plausibility would fall apart immediately (as was the case in the Soviet Union)…This makes them far more insidious and dangerous to freedom than any repressive dictatorship; for in the latter one knows one is a slave, while too many Westerners continue to be believe they are free, whereas in fact they are also slaves, like the rest of us.” And that’s really the difference between Russophobes and Russophiles. Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own reflection.

I genuinely appreciate the comment, to which I reply as follows:

1. Edward Said? Puh-lease. Tiresome pomo-ism that elevates banalities about the difficulty of understanding a different culture and the inescapability of subjectivity into 400+ pages of whiney defensiveness with more than a tinge–dare I say it–of stereotypical Middle Eastern conspiracy theorizing.

2. Any broad and deep culture is bound to exhibit a variety of tendencies and behaviors. There is variability in the cross section and over time in a particular state or nation or culture. Nonetheless, there are also clear central tendencies, and clear cross sectional variation across nations/cultures/states. The key thing is the ability to see the forest for the trees. Identifying salient characteristics, trends, and tendencies of course involves some inevitable distortion of a complex reality, but even purely scientific inquiries face this trade off. Mental models and the use of central tendencies to help better understand the whole are both essential engines of inquiry to advance understanding, even though they will not accurately capture every detail.

3. There are clear historical differences between Russia and non-Russian nations and states. This is not just the view of the “Other.” Indeed, a major theme in much Russian political thought and literature is the profound, indeed civilizational, difference between Russia and the West. If there is a “disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as represented in Western texts,” there must be a similar disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as represented in Russian literature, philosophy, and political writing.

4. Even within Russian discourse it is widely recognized that the state is far more powerful vis a vis the individual in Russia than in the West. A major divide among Russian thinkers is between those relative few that perceive it as a bug (e.g., Chaadaev), and the more numerous who consider it a feature. (The Slavophiles are an interesting case. Although Russian chauvinists, they were deeply critical of Petrine autocracy and centralization. At the same time, they were deeply hostile to “Western” individualism and idealized and romanticized a Russian collectivist (or communitarian, if you like) worldview defined by opposition to the West. And Peter is also often difficult to categorize. He was a Westernizer when it came to technology and the military, but a devoted centralizer hostile to institutional constraints on the Tsar.)

5. With respect to the West, no classical liberal like Friedman–or me–would argue for a minute that this philosophy is, or ever has been, the predominant strain in Western thought, or an accurate description of actual political and economic systems in the West. Indeed, liberalism developed primarily as a reaction to nearly ubiquitous statist and mercantilist systems of economy and governance, and made only limited headway against these systems in only a few nations (notably Great Britain and the US). Moreover, the classical liberal critique of the trajectory of Western economic and political development since the turn of the 19th century emphasizes the expansion of government power at the expense of individual liberty. If I criticize Russia, know that I also criticize the metastasization of the state in the United States and Europe.

6. Perhaps the different evolutions of the West and Russia were contingent events. The balance of power between citizen and state in each was not the result of a theoretical discourse or a conscious choice. They were instead the results of struggles for power between armed elites. The English barony that forced my ancestor King John to sign the Magna Carta did so out of self-interest and because they possessed the power to advance that interest. Throughout Europe, struggles between different elites affected the balance of political power, and the balance of power affected the negotiations over rights and duties. Liberties were not granted out of benevolence, or in pursuit of a political theory. They were wrested from sovereigns who would have been Peters or Ivans if they could have prevailed. The outcomes were not homogeneous even within Europe, with very different developments in England, France, Prussia, Holland, Sweden, Spain, and Poland. The simple historical fact is that, for a variety of imperfectly understood reasons, no credible rival sources of power to the Tsar were able to secure enduring liberties as occurred (with varying degrees of success) in the West. Events in Russia today represent another example of this historical tendency.

7. Exceptions prove rules. Novgorod was certainly exceptional by Russian historical standards, and its fate reveals that Russia’s evolution was in fact very different from what occurred throughout the West. Ivan III sure took care of the Veche, no? (One Russian commentor from a couple of years back was quite adamant that Ivan did the right thing in extirpating Novgorod.)

8. And, dear DR, your second example is? (I will charitably interpret your statement about Putin’s “consolidation of liberal democracy” as an attempt at irony. If you are in fact serious, the statement is risible, nay, Orwellian.) I am highly confident that any further examples that you could present would just be additional exceptions proving the general rule.

9. “The Matrix”? (Eyes rolling.) That makes Edward Said look coherent by comparison. A tired trope that we only imagine that we are free even though we are in fact manipulated by some faceless, unnamed “media.” In other words–another conspiracy theory. To practical, empirically minded people (like me), all I can say is that there is no doubt that as an American I am at much less risk of coercion at the hands of the state, and that I have far more rights protecting me against its predations, than any Russian counterpart (though I am still subject to far more coercion than I would like.) And what’s more, although Putin has arguably reduced the vulnerability of Russians to the predations of private violence specialists, his concentration of power in the state (the “power vertical”) and his encouragement of “legal nihilism” (not my term, but Medvedev’s) has in fact inflicted grievous injuries on Russian liberties, and has set back the cause of liberty in Russia for decades, if not more. Put differently, given the choice between living in the US and living in Russia–even holding my material standard of living constant–I would choose the US every day without a second thought. Which raises an interesting issue, DR. I see from your blog that you live in California. That’s what’s called voting with your feet. Or as economists phrase it, revealed preference. It speaks volumes.

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