The Specters of Munich: Closing Ranks against Revolutions

Ilya Budraitskis’s essay is the first in a series entitled Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms: Writing on and from Post-Soviet Territories, curated by Nikolay Oleynikov for ArtsEverywhere. It is accompanied by Vladan Jeremić’s artwork in the different graphic series (2015-2017)

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At the last Munich Security Conference[1], one of the most important forums for the European political elite, a document was presented with the eloquent title of “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”.  It sounds a note of high drama from its very first lines: “The world is facing an illiberal moment. Across the West and beyond, illiberal forces are gaining ground.” Unambiguously alluding to the image of The Communist Manifesto, the authors of the Munich Report describe the dual trajectory of this “spectre of illiberalism”: “From within, Western societies are troubled by the emergence of populist movements that oppose critical elements of the liberal-democratic status quo. From outside, Western societies are challenged by illiberal regimes trying to cast doubt on liberal democracy and weaken the international order.”[2]

In contrast to the Marxian spectre – a working class grounded in real, material conditions striving to attain its ideal – the spectre of illiberalism has a purely imaginary character. The triumphal march of this spectre is the outcome of growing fear and ignorance, and an uncertainty in its own strengths. It is a flight from freedom in all its manifold forms – a conscious political choice away from the movement of labour, goods, and finance toward an orientation to cultural particularism and closed-mindedness. The difference between right and left populisms is erased in the expressions of these affects and they achieve unity in their rejection of a liberal consensus based on reason and balance.

Following the logic of this approach, Russia emerges as the leading foreign ally of domestic illiberal forces. Subverting the natural liberal foundations of the West, it affirms its own nature – the authoritarian identification of one-person leadership and a submissive population. Alongside its satellites in thePopulist International, the Kremlin undermines western civilization and world order. A new condition of turbulence and chaos replaces this order, which had guaranteed a stable and flourishing world – a condition in which all previous ideas lose their sense and connectivity. Truth becomes Post-Truth, and the West, Post-West.

In this schema of things Putin appears as a permanent revolutionary[3] in the most primitive understanding of this term: he represents a purely destructive force, without offering anything in return. One could say that this image of Putin as revolutionary has become commonplace in western media. A recent issue of the New Yorker exclaimed that it is Putin himself who is behind the Trump “revolution” in the United States.[4]

Putin strikes a blow against democracy: he devalues its foundations (liberal values) by using its formal contradictions against it. The very idea of democracy is being eroded to a mere mechanism to express the will of the masses, deprived of responsibility and common sense. The revolt against the elites led by Russia bears a primarily cultural and moral character, nihilistically rejecting everything that is essentially western: the common European home, multiculturalism, and free trade. The unity of European order is lost while democracy turns to its dark side: ochlocracy, or arbitrary mob rule.

It was emblematic that Russia itself was absent from the Munich Report in the list of those countries risking political turbulence; indeed, on the contrary, predictability rules there. In contrast to the West, Russian authoritarian power is seen as fully corresponding to national identity, commanding widespread support from below. Putin’s Russia appears not so much as non-West, but rather as the anti-West, the embodiment of this rejection of the liberal and humanist tradition. In this guise Russia loses its national borders and turns into a global partisan (in the spirit of Carl Schmitt), shaking the foundations of world order in the destructive spirit of the times. It is difficult not to observe how this Manichaean picture of a confrontation between these two principles finds its mirror-like reflection in the legitimisation of the world mission of Putin’s Russia.

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