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The Leviathan and the Gutter: interviews NYU's Mikhail Iampolski (Part I)

There’s no law, Putin is absolutely impotent, he can’t do anything. That’s it. All that’s left is to sit there, like a medieval serf, and hope to God that you...

The following interview with Mikhail Iampolski, Professor in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU, is reposted from Gefter.ruwhere it appeared on 2 October under the title "The Leviathan and the Gutter. Might without right: a new crossroads in Russian history?"

 [Note: This is Part I of a two-part post. Part II will appear next Tuesday.] is kicking off the new political season with a series of political dialogues. We open this season, which overlaps with an election year in Russia and a year of heated political debate in the United States, with a conversation on fundamental political concepts, the kind that truly drive events — not only in Russia, Europe, or the United States, but all over the globe. Our first topic, which we've already begun to discuss, is the Kremlin’s “renovation” of the so-called “vast majority.” The majority is transforming from a political factor or function into a new historical subject, like the proletariat in classical Marxism or economic actors in classical capitalism. Today’s majority, we’re led to believe, is the group propelling political, social, and economic decision-making.

Which brings us to our first question to you, Mikhail. What, exactly, is this concept of the majority? How is it being used at the level of mass consciousness?

I actually think that the majority doesn’t decide on much of anything. We’ve gotten used to thinking that it has opinions or faculties of judgment, some kind of ideology or political orientation, and that this orientation somehow determines what happens in society. But today’s majority doesn’t do any of this: really, it’s a majority with no rational basis. I actually think that the majority isn’t a political category anymore, but instead a sort of audience. They used to say that this or that had the support of 40% or 50% of people, meaning that people would choose something deliberately, would see in this or that party or policy some rational element that made sense to them. That type of majority is gone. What we have instead is majority by [approval] rating. When we hear that Putin has an 86% approval rating, whereas Trump’s is 35%, it’s the same kind of rating as in the case of, say, [television personality Andrey] Malakhov. Malakhov gets great ratings. And so does Putin. What’s interesting is that the majority doesn’t, in fact, at all support either United Russia or Putin’s policies, because life keeps getting harder, and that’s something everyone talks about. It’s the rating of a TV star, and I think that both Trump and Putin understand that very well. Because Putin shows off his bare torso, swims with the fishes for hours on end like some character from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, flies with the cranes and so on. And all of that has literally nothing to do with any kind of politics, but it does have to do with TV ratings. He’s showing everyone he’s macho, that he’s the exemplar of masculinity, power, resolve and so on. Trump has his own special quirks that help maintain audience interest. The fact that he said that he could kill someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t affect his ratings shows that what we’re dealing with here is a show — in every respect. Which is why it’s impossible to say that these people, [the majority,] decide this or that: they don’t decide anything. They vote exactly like a TV audience does. All they do is legitimate the government, which is the one making all the decisions. This mute, pretty much mindless majority wouldn’t be able even to articulate anything coherent except maybe that they like the TV star. And that reflects the other side of the political situation today, which is increasingly sliding into the realm of affect and away from any kind of positive program, or thought, or rationality. Putin can’t offer any kind of positive program at all, but this has no bearing on his rating or level of popular support. But I mean, support of what? Where is he trying to lead people? What is he promising? He has nothing to offer. Like, first he hangs out with some children, then he chats up some old ladies, then he gets filmed with tanks or something in the background, and so on. So that’s the notion of political majority that, it seems to me, is becoming increasingly important today.

So here’s a follow-up question. How is the type of majority you’re describing different from, say, the hegemony of the proletariat? It’s not like the proletariat decided anything or was called to somehow determine the course of history. It was, in and of itself, the dominant concept, within which priorities were set in any number of ways. That’s kind of what I think Sasha was asking — about trying to understand the majority but failing to see its true form.

In my view, today’s majority is fundamentally different from the post-revolutionary proletariat. We had some dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries in my own family, on my father’s side — they were fanatics, they read Marx, believed in the radiant socialist future, fought against class enemies, and so on. All that indoctrination, they took at face value and believed in it. It was true ideological fanaticism. And they knew exactly what they were fighting for, what they were sacrificing their lives for. All those privations made sense to them, as the price of admission to a utopia they were sure would eventually come about. Today, that’s all gone. No one is moving in any direction. There’s no program. People don’t know what they want. In principle, they’re ready to feel solidarity with stars, they like stars, they like Malakhov and Putin — neither of whom, by the way, have any ideology, there’s no ideology to speak of there. All that exists is a zone of pure affect, which links up to a set of symbols and slogans: Krymnash [Ed note: meaning “Crimea is Ours,” a meme and hashtag that arose after 2014], ribbons of St. George, the Victory [in the Great Patriotic War] — you know, all of these are just empty media objects, which are a priori without content, they’re purely affective. So people want the Swallow’s Nest castle, or Simeiz [Observatory] to be Russian again. But the “why” of it all — what the associated social program is, where this is taking the government, what kinds of unimaginable obstacles this creates to future development, the optics of it all in the context of contemporary economics and politics — no one stops to think about any of that in this so-called “majority,” they just like that “Crimea is Ours,” they like to watch the footage of victorious airplanes and ships or whatever. It’s pure Hollywood.

But what do you make of this as a general trend that isn’t just specific to Russia? If we’re talking about populism on a global scale, it’s worth remembering that the whole concept of Brexit rested on the notion that there’s a traditional constitutional imagination of England as an exemplar of parliamentarism, and then there’s the populist idea of an England within which society or the nation votes for… something, and it’s not clear what that might be. Perhaps it’s some kind of heretofore unknown “alternative” version of Britain — a different country without Polish plumbers, Syrian refugees, Muslims, and so on. It’s interesting, in this connection, that the AfD (Alternative for Germany) is also proposing this nostalgic vision of Germany: it’s not quite the future, but it’s not the past anymore, either — it’s something amorphous, but at the same time commonly understood. I feel like what you’re talking about with respect to Russia is, in this sense, not so different from what we’re confronting in the Netherlands, say, or in Germany, or the UK. The concept of “future” is itself falling apart, and then that same majority that has no influence on anything turns into a kind of political megaphone for “choiceless choices”: Britain for the British, Germany for the Germans, and so on.

Yes, that’s right. All around the world, we’re seeing the rise of a very dangerous populism. European populism has historically been associated with xenophobia. Which is a purely affective reaction to the Other. That’s why people react to Muslims in a way that they don’t to, say, the Eastern Europeans or Lithuanians or Russians who used to immigrate  to Germany or Ireland. There was a mass migration of Poles to those countries, for instance. But it never created this level of reaction, the question of assimilation didn’t seem so dramatic. But when someone shows up in a burqa, or a fez, this arouses fear, it’s a purely affective reaction, and that’s when these types of things become bugaboos, weaponized symbols for politicians to manipulate. To my mind, populist movements come from dissatisfaction with institutions. What was Brexit? Brexit drew on a deep dissatisfaction with European bureaucracy. Like, “we didn’t elect them, they’re off somewhere in Brussels, I don’t even know who they are.” You can see it all over the world, this overt, incredibly negative reaction to institutions. It’s a very dangerous trend, because institutions are the foundation of all of modern society, the institution is what enables society to function. Why do institutions produce such a severe reaction? What are institutions, anyway? An institution is some structure that functions on the basis of rules and protocols, at the heart of which we will always find bureaucrats. But what are bureaucrats? As we know from Weber, bureaucrats are the exponents of what he called “instrumental rationality.” They don’t ask “why,” but only “how.” They get instructions from on high, and they act according to these instructions. We’ve seen an incredible bureaucratization of life in Europe, which is intimately related to the domination of social democracy and social-democratic utopias — the distribution of social and economic goods, the creation of welfare states, and so on — and all of it has been outsourced to bureaucrats or entered the purview of various institutions: social, cultural, economic, and so on. But institutions turn out to be quite vulnerable, because they are incredibly alienated from individual human beings. People feel themselves being acted upon in this soulless way, by the mute, blunt, faceless force of all those bureaucrats. Structurally speaking, Europe is built on the alienation of sovereignty, of government, from the people, and partly also on its reduction and outsourcing to the bureaucrats in Brussels of Strasbourg. And that creates enormous animosity. In general, this bureaucratization of the world is a very serious problem.

But why not, in this case, use the tool of party resistance? If it’s really true that bureaucrats have gone too far, that they’re failing so badly to meet our expectations, why not use party structures as a machine to fight them? But that’s not at all what we see happening.

The issue is that, all across the world, political parties have absolutely discredited themselves. They’ve become a bureaucratic system in their own right. Parliaments have been rendered meaningless. It used to be that these were places where people would speak in order to persuade others. But now you can talk as much as you want and you won’t persuade anyone, because they’re all going to vote the way the party leadership tells them to. Every caucus votes how the party bosses want it to. Legislators depend on this leadership, and they vote the way they’re told. That’s why all those talkfests in parliaments all over the world have become so empty and of no interest to anyone. And that, in turn, leads to the situation where parties don’t represent anyone or anything at all anymore. When elections roll around, you’re forced to choose between this party or that one, but people aren’t really satisfied with any of them. There’s this feeling that parties today don’t represent anyone at all except their own leadership. We saw this play out in the most recent U.S. election, because everyone disliked both Hillary and Trump, but they had to vote, and so they voted for Trump because he’s more unusual, more anti-institutional. But every recent election, at its core, has been a moment of terrible disillusionment. Navalny is right not to associate himself with any party. Because opposition parties in Russia almost immediately become these empty, sclerotic shells. Yabloko, PARNAS, they don’t stand for anything, you get someone like [Mikhail] Kasyanov making speeches, as if by inertia, but none of it has even the slightest meaning. The overwhelming impression from all of these parties is one of total deadness — even the opposition parties, the whole point of which was to arouse some minimal sympathy in people with oppositional leanings.

But Russia didn’t have any of what you’re talking about in the 1990s. We had to discover all of it for the first time — a multi-party system, supporting or not supporting a given party, the marketplace of ideas — weren’t all those things clear expressions of the people’s will, at least for a while?

The main thing — and this is the difference between Russia and the West — is that, even as there’s an ongoing institutional crisis in the West, the institutions themselves still exist. One place where that’s especially visible is in the United States, where institutions are the ones resisting Trump’s incoherence and authoritarianism. They discipline him, in a way: the judicial system, Congress, and so on. Whereas Russia is characterized by the total collapse and disintegration of institutions. Russia is a place where there are no more institutions. Because institutions, as I’ve been saying, are structures that fulfill their functions in accordance with certain laws, customs, or protocols. But look at what’s happening in Russia: we have, on the part of every institution, a total refusal to function. For instance, the market can’t function if there aren’t institutional rules, if there are no laws, protection of property rights and so on. Russia’s markets make a mockery of the concept, they’re no longer an institution. Or law enforcement structures, which do basically whatever they want, they can arrest absolutely anyone, be arbitrarily violent. In this way, a country that once tried to introduce institutional order is now permeated with diffuse violence — where each person does what they want, whenever they want — or diffuse arbitrariness. There are no more rules. We can describe this situation as a total collapse of the state. Russia has no state as such anymore, but only a set of competing structures that affirm or legitimate themselves not by means of their functioning, but through the sheer exercise of power. The FSB arrests [theater director Kirill] Serebrennikov not because he did anything wrong, but just to demonstrate its power. It’s a society of diffuse violence. I don’t know how anyone can live in a society where everyone is under permanent threat of violence, from the driver who’s constantly being targeted by traffic cops and squad cars with flashing lights, all the way to the citizen who’s subject to the whims of the mayor’s office, which can decide to demolish any store or kiosk or even people’s private residences, at the drop of a hat. There are no more laws, there aren’t even rules. And the fact that it’s permissible to annex Crimea, to invade the Donbass, demonstrates that even the idea of institutionality has collapsed. People just don’t believe that rules and laws have any meaning beyond the principle of force. Which is a mafia principle, it’s the prerogative of a structure that is anti-institutional by definition, where the important thing is that the godfather is more powerful than anyone else, and it’s only force that allows him to maintain discipline. But that’s the thing: in a state, in society, you can’t maintain discipline through force alone — you need institutional structures.

You see it everywhere. In education, where a university can just be closed, or a university president fired. In culture, where you can shut down anything at all, imprison anyone you want, where the Ministry of Culture doesn’t see its primary function in supporting museums or libraries, but instead spends all its time demonstrating its power, its capacity for violence. Violence has become the organizing principle of government, of society at large, and it’s happening precisely because institutions have collapsed. In this sense, I think that Russia is an example of populism in action, of a situation where there are no more institutions, just these inexhaustible sources of violence. It all looks like a return to feudalism. You know, the rise of European absolutism occurred precisely through the destruction of the old, feudal sources of violence and the monopolization of violence in the hands of the sovereign, the king. It’s common knowledge that absolute monarchies were forced to create institutions because they could not survive without them. They had to establish laws, to appoint judges who represented power, rather than simply handing power over to any feudal lord to do with as he wished. Every large empire owes its existence to the rise of institutions. It’s totally impossible to imagine the empire of Bismarck without Prussian bureaucracy, or, say, Austria-Hungary, which rested entirely on bureaucratic institutional structures. The Russian Empire alone proved incapable of creating functioning institutions. And they don’t exist today, either. Which is why Chechnya does whatever it wants, and really, so does everyone else. And then they eventually go to prison.

This destruction of the principles of statehood is extremely dangerous, above all for those in power, for Putin. Look at what’s happening with Serebrennikov — it’s an interesting case in this respect. Remember [the actor Evgeny] Mironov handing Putin the letter [written in support of Serebrennikov by prominent cultural figures]? Everyone is writing these petitions [chelobitnye] now, it’s Russia’s main genre — you have to crawl on your knees, like you’re groveling in front of Ivan the Terrible, and hand him your letter of supplication [chelobitnaia].

That’s a very interesting idea, Mikhail. Because the whole thing with submitting a chelobitnaia is that the subject is asking for those in power to protect him or her from violence — in a sense, asking for mercy from the very person committing atrocities.

I mean, look at everything that’s happening. Yesterday someone tried to burn down [Matilda director Aleksei Uchitel’s] office. People have been sprayed in the face with [the caustic disinfectant] zelyonka. People have been stabbed. Something totally incomprehensible is going on, it’s this violent, lawless free-for-all, like some kind of Zaporozhian Sich where the government should be. No one’s really in control. And here comes Mironov with his letter, which he hands to Putin and says, “Why’d they need to [raid Serebrennikov’s home and office]? What’s it all for?” To which Putin says, “Eh, they’re idiots” (referring to law enforcement). And everyone calms down when he says that, but then, a short time later, Serebrennikov is arrested. Which means that Putin’s words have absolutely no meaning. And it’s the same thing with the European University at St. Petersburg. Putin has said that it should be supported, but now it’s being liquidated. And Putin doesn’t interfere, because, I think, he’s instinctively afraid to meddle in that diffuse violence, because he knows he’s in no position to control it, and he’s afraid of being discredited by the fact that he keeps on making all these decrees that get ignored. With all its decrees and money, the government hasn’t managed to build a stadium for the [2018 FIFA World Cup]. They can’t accomplish anything at all. Nothing! They give orders, they shout, they fire people — but there’s nothing they can do. It’s the same phenomenon, the collapse of institutions, which creates a situation where the country can’t get anything done. And Putin just sits back and watches it happen, all these ministries cannibalizing one another, all these FSB generals sending prosecutors or Investigative Committee generals to prison. And he just stands there and watches them destroy each other, and doesn’t interfere. Because then, on the one hand, he gets to maintain his position above the fray and watch all these ministries mutually weaken each other and become incapable of monopolizing power (which he’s afraid of). But on the other hand, he’s afraid even to give an order, because he senses that his orders have no weight anymore, that he can’t do anything. It’s a hideous situation, and as a result everyone turns into these trembling slaves who have no idea what will befall them, because there’s no one to appeal to, there’s no ordering principle to appeal to anymore. There’s no law, Putin is absolutely impotent, he can’t do anything. That’s it. All that’s left is to sit there, like a medieval serf, and hope to God that you don’t attract the attention of some lord who happens to be in a bad mood.

And that’s also the final outcome of unbridled populism. First they destroy institutions to maximize their personal power, and then, when the institutions are gone, they lose control, and at that point it all goes off the deep end. I have the feeling that we’re observing a vast institutional catastrophe, the catastrophe of Russian statehood.

Interview by Irina Chechel and Alexander Markov. Translated by Maya Vinokour.

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