On Dsyfunctionality of the Global Elites

By Zygmunt Bauman

Sergei Magaril, teaching at the Moscow University of Humanities, published (in the 9th February issue of theNezavisimaya Gazeta) an article under the title “In Search of Social Quality”, which starts from a quotation from Ivan Pavlov, the first Russian Nobel laureate: “The fate of nations is determined by the minds of their intelligentsia”.

 In full agreement with that opinion, Magaril proceeds to charging Russian/Soviet/Russian intellectual elites with having caused, by design or by default, the catastrophes that led to the collapse of two successive Russian state regimes, and preparing now the collapse of the third.

Magaril found an early (jotted down in 1862) proclamation of “Young Russia”, the embryo of the violent dissidence bound to rise, spread and flourish through the following half of a century – spelling out, in a fit of prophetic illumination, the strikingly detailed scenario of events leading to the imminent collapse of the 300 years old Russian Empire. But, he says, that early warning that with a truly uncanny foresight signaled the fall of the Russian statehood came virtually unnoted, and at any rate ignored; hardly anyone among the Russian ruling elite took the trouble to ponder the message, let alone to do anything to prevent its words turning flesh.

The story, he adds, repeated itself in the case of the Soviet successor of the Tsarist empire; that successor, just like the regime that preceded its coming, was destined to implode rather than explode; both regimes committed the same mortal error when focusing on the outside threat while playing down the rising temperature of social conflicts inside and the menaces emanating from its own malfunctions and ineptitude. True, the tsarist Empire suffered reverses on the war front – yet it was ultimately the internal tensions and the resulting loss of authority and capacity to act, not the enemy on the other side of the border, that sealed the fate of both empires. According to Aleksey Arbatov, the head of the Centre for International Security at the Russian Academy of Science, at the moment of its collapse the Soviet Union had at its disposal an army of four million armed men, 30 odd thousands of nuclear rocket heads, 60 thousand tanks and almost 200 atomic submarines – and no significant, pugnacious enemy at the gates…

Magaril believes that dry-rot-style deterioration is the fate of Russian statehood, the current one being no exception. And as the grooves dig deeper and the trajectory gets smoother with each successive passage, repetitions of the doom scenario tend to take ever less time. The Tsarist Empire took 300 years to fall apart, for the Soviet Union 74 years was enough – while a mere 19 years, Magaril muses, have passed thus far since its implosion and replacement by the current formation, but one is already tempted to wonder whether another end is nigh…

Precedents differ from each other and from the current variety of the Russian regime in quite a few important aspects; and yet one feature, in Magaril’s opinion, repeats itself with a dull and deadly regularity: an impassable cleavage separating the worlds inhabited, respectively, by the elite and the masses. The Russian elite feels fully safeguarded wallowing as it is in the excess of material goods and provision – whereas the masses suffer from their perpetual insufficiency. Not just economic division results, but mental split and the nearly total break of communication. The two sides are less and less able to understand each other – which makes a social compact implausible and unfeasible. The sides drift in opposite directions, each incapable of, while uninterested in or un-hoping for, a meaningful coordination of their movements. According to a most recent polling, more than 90% of the Russian population refuses to believe in the possibility of influencing the state authorities’ actions, whereas more than 80% renounces all and any responsibility for the goings-on in the country. Little wonder, then, that when listing their parental duties only one per cent of respondents name the inculcation of democratic values whereas only 7 per cent name the implantation of the spirit of citizenship.

In his devastating vivisection of the post-communist Russian governance[i], Zhan Toshchenko accuses Russian ruling oligarchy of a “gigantic plunder of the nation/state assets”, resulting in just 22 oligarchs commanding 40 per cent of nation’s wealth (pp.62-3). “Official policy”, he writes, “and realities as well as the public opinion do not just contradict each other, but point in opposite directions” (p.43). No wonder again, that among the respondents of the country-wide opinion survey 40 per cent answered “big capital”, only 3 percent “The Duma (Parliament) of the country”, and a mere one per cent “people”, to the question “Who holds real power in Russia” (p.106). Both quoted authors would agree that the “people” in the post-communist Russia have been demoted to the rank of state-subjects more reminiscent of serfs than of citizens. As the serfs of bygone times, the nominal citizens of the 21st Century Russia are treated by the ruling elite as (in Magaril’s words) “impotent, stripped of rights, socially incompetent creatures”. The incumbents of the ministerial offices and the “people” look at each other (if they steep to looking, that is) as foreign nations.

Numerous Russian authors (notably Vladislav Inozemtsev in his numerous publications) expose the ever more intimate interpenetration and intertwining of oligarchic business interests with the thoroughly corrupted, self-centred, rapacious and bribes-greedy state bureaucracy (whose avarice costs the country about $240 billion annually, by conservative estimate). This, one can argue, is Russian specifity. Russian capitalism gestating under the tsarist rule was from the beginning deficient and remained crippled, passing over to the Soviet polity a misshapen heritage. Fernand Braudel is remembered to convincingly demonstrate that before the ubiquitous and eternal human appetite for lucre oriented towards instant and on-the-spot gain, while oblivious to its long-term consequences, could be transmogrified and re-shaped (as described by Max Weber) into the modern, rational, institutionalized and systemic capitalism – certain social types needed to be shaped-up and established: among others, an incorruptible judge, honest trader, disinterested public activist, craftsman imbued with the workmanship instict. If not preceded by them, inheriting them and taking them over from the pre-capitalist conditions it is bent on eradicating, capitalism is neither able to create them and entrench on its own, nor to compensate for their absence; the case of Russia is a foremost evidence corroborating Braudel’s rule.

In this undoutedly important respect, Russia is a case of its own; facile extrapolation from its predicament to a general, all-planetary rule is for that reason ill-advised. And yet there is a common feature between the agonies gone through by the present-day Russia and the troubles confronted by quite a few other contemporary polities, including the more historically fortunate – such as followed the routes recognized by Braudel as “normal”, as much as right and proper. Today’s Russia is far from being alone in experiencing the widening gap between preoccupations of the governments of the country and the worries and daily survival or “stay-on-surface” struggles that occupy the minds, pain the hearts, and exhaust the energy while sapping the stamina of a majority of their subjects. Not in Russia alone the trust of the population in their governments being able, willing and intending to protect them, is reaching these days its historical lows.

The crisis of political institutions inherited from territory/nation/state trinity of the “solid-modern” era has structural foundation: those institutions, local as they are bound to be by the verdict of history, are singularly ineffective in coping with the challenges and menaces of the era of divorce betweeen power (ability to do things) and politics (ability to decide in doing which things power ought to be deployed), and of negative globalization unconstrained/uncomplemented by its “positive” counterpart. Materially and spiritually “global” elites, liberated from the confinements of places and free to move to greener grasses, have no good reasons to care about the future of the materially and spiritually “local” populations of the places from which they happen to suck their powers at the moment, and even less reason to consider investing in that future to be their prime task and prime interest.

In a recent NYT, David Brooks reports the mood of the large majority of Americans – majority as large as the majority of Russians sharing that mood. He does it under a saying-it-all title: “The Big Disconnect”:

The current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting.

This cracking and rotting is originally caused by a series of structural problems that transcend any economic cycle: There are structural problems in the economy as growth slows and middle-class incomes stagnate. There are structural problems in the welfare state as baby boomers spend lavishly on themselves and impose horrendous costs on future generations. There are structural problems in energy markets as the rise of China and chronic instability in the Middle East leads to volatile gas prices. There are structural problems with immigration policy and tax policy and on and on.

“As these problems have gone un-addressed”, Brooks point out, “Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system”. That faith being the prime resource upon which the whole regime rests and on which it relies for its survival, “this loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless and defensive.”

The amount of Americans believing that “the government is doing the right things” has fallen already to its historical low and nothing augurs that it may stop falling yet further in foreseeable future – as boisterous announcements of the end of crisis and impending recovery, coming from the corridors of power, have ceased to exert visible effect on the nation’s mood – simply for being un-trusted as well as sounding as if coming from alien, exotic and fanciful lands. “Seventy percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, according to The New York Times/CBS News poll. Nearly two-thirds believe the nation is in decline, according to a variety of surveys”.

It is debatable and bound to remain so, whether lessons of history may offer recipes how to proceed in the times of crises. But it is hardly questionable that those lessons may, and should, be scrutinized attentively, if the repetition of crises is to be avoided. Blindness does not exonerate the sin of oblivion.

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