One of the most striking developments in Russian society has been the explosive growth of aggression simultaneously with a refusal to accept reality, burying it under ideological fictions. This phenomenon cannot be easily explained. It is often chalked up to the unprecedented amounts of television propaganda. While official propaganda explains a lot, it does not explain everything. Not every society can be reprogrammed in such a short period of time, and to such extremes. To be effective, propaganda must reflect some subconscious attitudes of the population.
To analyze this transformation of mass consciousness, I think it would be useful to recall Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about resentment. Nietzsche considered resentment to be a feature of slave morality, since the very nature of the slave’s predicament means he cannot change anything in the world. Here the rebellion of imagination against reality is not without a certain creative spirit:
“The slave revolt in morality begins when resentment becomes a creative force and generates values: resentment from those who are prevented from a genuinely active reaction and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance. While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant self-affirmation, slave morality from the start says ‘No’ to what is ‘outside,’ ‘other,’ ‘a non-self.’ And this ‘No’ is its creative act. This transformation of the glance which confers value—this necessary projection towards what is outer instead of back onto itself—that is inherent in resentment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Physiologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all. Its action is basically reaction.” (Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morals, translation by Ian Johnston)
When reality cannot be changed, slaves destroy it in their imagination, radically denying its existence. Nietzsche pointed out a connection between resentment and the religion of slaves – Christianity, unlike paganism, thinks in terms of the ‘other world,’ apocalyptic transfiguration, heavenly utopia, etc. Communist utopia fully fits this reality-denying strategy of resentment.
It seems to me that the rejection of reality in Russia today is directly related to a sense of helplessness in people who are unable to effect even a meager change in the life of their country or even their own family. Media ‘content’ adds fuel to the fire of slave-based negativity, which helps to cope with the feelings of alienation and humiliation. What’s unique about the Russian situation, however, is that all of society – from Putin all the way down to the last railroad switchman – harbors the same resentment in equal measure. For Putin the source of the resentment is that neither he nor Russia is acknowledged as respected and equal players on the world stage. The source of the railroad switchman’s resentment is helplessness before police, racketeers, corrupt officials, and judges. I believe that at some point the resentment fantasies of the ruling elite reached a strange resonance with the resentment fantasies of common folks. And the world was transformed. Adventure in Ukraine became a noble war against imaginary fascists. Russia’s isolation was transformed into an acknowledgment of Russia as a great power. Economic decline and falling incomes transformed into growing prosperity and happiness. Even people who would normally steer clear of resentment are so spooked by the whirlwind of recent events, which they are powerless to influence, systematically attempt to deny the reality of what is happening, or at least try to ignore it all.
Loss of reality and crisis of institutions
The strangeness of the current state of affairs lies in the fact that the Russian government, personified by Putin, having effectively alienated and prevented ordinary citizens from having any say or influence in events and decisions, turns out to be not a victim of this alienation, but the beneficiary. Alienation from reality in Russia is unfolding on two levels, both connected with the deep crisis of institutions. For the average person, the crisis of institutions is manifested in the total perversion of the functions of law enforcement agencies and authorities, the deterioration of health care and education. But the crisis of institutions is also evident on a different level, in the deterioration and senselessness of national sovereignty. This is a crisis not only for Russia, but for the entire world, because of economic globalization. British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman likes to talk about the ‘planetary dimensions of business, finance, trade, and information flow’ (Z. Bauman. Globalization: The Human Consequences, Columbia University Press. 1998). This flow transcends national territories and sovereignties. Capital, goods, ideas, and services circulate within that global space. A significant part of the new Russian prosperity is a product of participating in global flows. This global space, however, not only brings wealth, but also creates a host of problems: environmental, financial, immigration, etc. At the same time, Bauman notes that solving those global problems falls on the shoulders of politicians whose power doesn’t extend beyond their national borders and populations. Hence we have a systemic crisis of institutions linked to national sovereignties. Local institutions in all countries demonstrate their profound helplessness.
Russian authorities, with their exaggerated cult of sovereignty, so obsolete today, on the one hand, want to receive the benefits from the global “space of flows,” while on the other, are still trying to solve global problems by using local institutions. This is especially evident in naive attempts to counter recent economic sanctions with ineffective countermeasures based on self-isolation.
Disillusionment in institutions, the profound sense of their irrelevance for both the ordinary citizen and for the president, leads to the refusal to follow institutional norms and procedures on all levels. As a result, resentment becomes, in the words of French political philosopher Étienne Balibar “anti-political.”
Quintessential manifestations of ‘anti-politics’ are war (even though Clausewitz once called it a “continuation of policy by other means”) and disgust towards all forms of civic engagement and aversion to laws. In Russia all those symptoms are equally striking in both the ruling elite and the masses. Balibar believed that ‘anti-politics’ leads to nationalism and populism, which in turn easily degenerate into dictatorship and the cult of the charismatic leader, whose charisma in essence is fed precisely by the breaking of the law, Constitution, and international conventions. A paradoxical illusion emerges: that nationalism can solve supra-national problems, that a charismatic leader can solve the problems that bogged down inefficient national bureaucracies. Italian cultural sociologist Carlo Bordoni rightfully noted that nationalism and populism today have taken on a ‘variety show’ character (like Russian Cossacks), and provide no effective solutions. This is the same form of reality denial that results from resentment. Still most dangerous, according to Bordoni, is the form of ‘anti-politics’ that is ‘statehood without a state.’ This occurs when decaying Byzantine bureaucracy rules, but the state as an institution is almost non-existent.
I share Balibar’s views, but I think ‘anti-politics’ is not just the result of a crisis of the nation-state. I believe it is also a product of Nietzschean resentment, rooted in the absence of the ability to meaningfully engage in positive action. According to Nietzsche, in response to the resistance to the outside world, we have only pure negativity. The recent rise of Putin as the moral authority within Russia is a clear result of anti-politics. “Morality,” as is often the case, turns out to be a strange product of anti-institutionality. The leader’s decisions in this context flow not from laws and regulations, but from his personal “moral compass,” demonstrating his absolute sovereignty. He makes decisions not on the basis of international agreements signed by Russia (on the inviolability of the borders of Ukraine, for example), but on an inner sense of justice, such as saving imaginary Russians from Ukrainian persecution, rectifying injustices committed by Khrushchev in 1954 etc. “Moral” policy in this context ignores all institutional norms.
The Principle of Lies
The rejection of the “reality principle” (to use the Freudian term), leads to the establishment of the lie as the main policy-making principle. When state policy is based on complete lies or the denial of obvious facts, then we are faced with a very special type of policy, one that was successfully practiced by Hitler and Stalin. In a 1975 roundtable discussion in Germany on the theme of “Legitimacy of Lies in Politics,” Hannah Arendt noted that the lie was not classified as one of the deadly sins. It only began to occupy a special place in the European mind-set in the 16th-17th centuries, which corresponds to the emergence of modern science, with its claim to objective truth. Politics, though, in the general view of the roundtable participants, never existed without the “occasional” lie.
However, the situation dramatically changes with the invention of advertising, all-out propaganda, and modern mass media. Now it became possible to construct the world in accordance with the imagination of politicians. The distinction between reality and lie is now completely blurred. It is precisely this lack of distinction so evident today in Russian society that Arendt considered the most dangerous. A strange shift occurs in mass consciousness, creating what Arendt calls “defactualization.” The facts themselves lose their absolute reality. Even death starts to seem illusory. Maybe they existed, maybe not. Perhaps they died, or just vanished without a trace into thin. Everything begins to appear as only a version of reality, a fiction. Such a metamorphosis of consciousness always leads to a decrease in civil activity, and to an increase in apathy and indifference.
Not long before that roundtable discussion Arendt published another essay: “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers.” This essay contains her most complete statement of her views on lies in politics. It deals with the 1971 publication of classified military documents about the Vietnam War. These papers demonstrated that America had no tangible interests during the Vietnam War: no new territories, no economic advantages – absolutely nothing. Moreover, this war partly undermined the influence and the power of the United States. According to Arendt, the war was conducted exclusively for the sake of appearances, to buttress the image of the “most powerful nation on Earth,” the indomitable defender of freedom and democracy. The disconnect between this war and reality resulted, as we all know, in the defeat of a superpower at the hands of a backward agrarian country. At the same time, notes Arendt, this need to boast the ‘false-image’ was not even prompted by the need to achieve some special international status through bluffing. Unlike contemporary Russia, who would benefit from such bluff, America’s status as the superpower was never contested. There was simply no real national interest behind the Vietnam bluff.
This total lie resulted in believing its own fictions. The resulting generalized illusion makes bureaucracy, having already lost touch with reality, even less capable of solving real problems. Ukraine’s story and the Vietnam War, with all their differences, have many similarities. Bureaucracy systematically undermines the economic and political well-being of the country in order to create a kind of bluff. “Defactualization” in Russia has reached the stage of self-destruction of the state and society. And all those sacrifices are made only to ‘save face’ and create an image of the ‘indestructible might.’
This paranoid desire to demonstrate power by any means necessary is the best evidence that Russian politics or ‘anti-politics’ are rooted in resentment, weakness, and powerlessness. The incredible fear which current authorities display at the specter of honest and open elections or any other political or civic activity in the country reveals the depth of Russia’s impotence and insecurity. Resentment, an affect of the frightened, the helpless, and the powerless, always manifests itself in the daydreaming of power and invincibility (we don’t care about the sanctions and the rest of the world), and sycophantic media do everything in their power to hypnotize with these delusions those who crave and produce them.