12 August 2014

Statism and American (or Russian) exceptionalism

Last week's New Yorker piece on Russia by David Remnick, an old Russia hand before he took over the magazine, drove home a real cultural difference between Russians and Americans.  For supporters of Vladimir Putin, the state is a focus of national pride in a way it most certainly isn't for many Americans. A repentant liberal tells Remnick: "Back then [as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991] we believed we could build a democracy without a state....But society began to change, and I am a reflection of that change." A Russian right-winger, hence a strong Putin supporter, tells how he hated Boris Yeltsin, the successor to the USSR, for "hollowing out the state." The same man assumes that the West has always sought "the destruction of the [Russian] state." He sees Putin's Russia as the country's "fifth empire" and the latest resurgence of a state ordained by "some sort of mysterious forces."

While in the U.S. anti-statists identify statism with liberalism, Russian statists see the state as the antithesis of liberalism, or a bulwark against it -- liberalism here being understood as western decadence and immorality. This is something bigger than Putin or "Putinism," as Julia Ioffe notes when writing in The New Republic that wishing Putin away would only result in someone similar, if not worse from a western or liberal standpoint, taking over. To Ioffe, Putin "is giving Russia something that is quintessentially Russian:" reverence for a powerful state based on the feeling that "there's not much separating you, or anyone, from the void." She traces Russian statism to a perpetual "fear of the future" due to a perpetually dysfunctional economy. Each "empire," she suggests, fell due to bankruptcy; Putin's may go the same way, but we still shouldn't expect a liberal dawn in Russia if that happens, if by liberalism we mean liberation from a craving for, if not a dependence upon, a powerful, always potentially oppressive state.

Americans no doubt will be tempted to find a character flaw in Russian culture to account for all this, as if Russians deviate from an American norm in their attitude toward the state. It's probably more true that Russians and Americans occupy opposite extremes in their attitudes. Americans seem to see statism as a negative measure of self-reliance or "personal responsibility;" if you want a powerful state, it's because you're weak or afraid or simply lazy. It's said that the American Founders regarded the state as a necessary evil; it's probably safe to say Russians don't think that way. It's more likely that, despite several generations of allegedly atheistic Communism, Russians retain a traditional belief in the state as part of a hierarchy of life or a great chain of being -- a natural if not sacred phenomenon. At this point of comparison the U.S. does appear exceptional in its founding by colonies of settlers cutting ties from the previous source of authority, disregarding any indigenous sources, and making up rules to minimize any state's impact on free men's commerce. The American presumption seems to be that we are not inherently subject to some power on earth, while some such subordination seems implicit in the sort of conservative statism, dedicated to preserving and advancing a traditional culture, seen in Russia and other places. The state is the vessel or vehicle of culture; to belong to the culture, it may be thought, is to belong to the state.

Whatever that culture is, it's not the same as the "civil society" liberals idealize -- it's not so voluntary and obviously not as scrupulously separate from the state. Liberals presume that this degree of statism, compounded by traditionalism, handicaps cultures, keeping them intellectually and economically backward, even though the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow. Putin himself thinks differently. Remnick quotes him: "[T]he point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness." In practice, however, conservatism too often confuses forward and upward movement with downward or backward movement, since it presumes that progress depends upon and serves tradition. American conservatism seems more straightforward these days: it opposes any movement that may discomfit vested interests, and its whole design of government is to protect vested (or founding) interests from interference or subordination. From a perspective favoring the welfare of humanity as a whole, there may be little to choose from between statist and anti-statist conservatism, except that the former, by retaining a right to command (which the latter abhors) may be better suited for collective survival in extreme circumstances. I'd rather take my chances with a self-styled American progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, who credited Abraham Lincoln with the idea that "a strong people might have a strong government and yet remain the freest on the earth." Both American conservatives, who favor a weak state, and Russians, who allegedly favor a weak people, are missing key pieces of the equation. They shouldn't be that hard to find and put together.

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