What Is Putin's Worldview?
Capitalism, Empire, Power
As the Ukraine crisis seems to deteriorate by the hour, a remarkable piece from the New Left Review is making the rounds online. First published in 2014, it’s an interview by Tom Parfitt with Gleb Pavlovksy, a former advisor and confidant of Vladimir Putin. It provides some rare insight into Putin’s ideology, if it can really be called that. In some ways it is the orthodox Marxism-Leninism Putin must have learned in school, but turned on its head: — capitalism and imperialism, instead of being the enemies, are the models to be emulated:
Putin is a Soviet person who did not draw lessons from the collapse of Russia. That is to say, he did learn lessons, but very pragmatic ones. He understood the coming of capitalism in a Soviet way. We were all taught that capitalism is a kingdom of demagogues, behind whom stands big money, and behind that, a military machine which aspires to control the whole world. It’s a very clear, simple picture which I think Putin had in his head—not as an official ideology, but as a form of common sense. His thinking was that in the Soviet Union, we were idiots; we had tried to build a fair society when we should have been making money. If we had made more money than the western capitalists, we could have just bought them up, or we could have created a weapon which they didn’t have. That’s all there is to it. It was a game and we lost, because we didn’t do several simple things: we didn’t create our own class of capitalists, we didn’t give the capitalist predators on our side a chance to develop and devour the capitalist predators on theirs.
Putin views the state and capital as one organic, mutually-reinforcing complex:
Putin’s idea is that we should be bigger and better capitalists than the capitalists, and be more consolidated as a state: there should be maximum oneness of state and business… He thinks: look at those people in the West, here’s what they say, and here’s what they do in reality. There is a wonderful system with two parties, one passes power to the other, and behind them stands one and the same thing: capital. Now it’s one fraction of capital, now another. And with this money they’ve bought up all the intelligentsia and they organize whatever politics they need. Let’s do the same! Putin is a Soviet person who set himself the task of revanche, not in a stupid, military sense, but in a historical sense.
Reading these passages on the intertwining of capital and power I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of imperialism as the primary political consequence of the coming of bourgeois dominance in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The bourgeois class, having made its way through social pressure and, frequently, through an economic blackmail of political institutions, always believed that the public and visible organs of power were directed by their own secret, nonpublic interests and influence. In this sense, the bourgeoisie’s political philosophy was always “totalitarian”; it always assumed an identity of politics, economics and society, in which political institutions served only as the façade for private interests.
It seems fitting that an appetite for imperialism would follow from the oligarchic chaos of Russia in the 1990s, a period of unbridled competition and sacrifice of public interest to private greed:
Imperialism must be considered the first stage in political rule of the bourgeoisie rather than the last stage of capitalism. It is well known how little the owning classes had aspired to government, how well contented they had been with every type of state that could be trusted with protection of property rights. For them, indeed, the state had always been only a well-organized police force. This false modesty, however, had the curious consequence of keeping the whole bourgeois class out of the body politic; before they were subjects in a monarchy or citizens in a republic, they were essentially private persons. This privateness and primary concern with money-making had developed a set of behavior patterns which are expressed in all those proverbs—“nothing succeeds like success,” “might is right,” “right is expediency,” etc.—that necessarily spring from the experience of a society of competitors.”
When, in the era of imperialism, businessmen became politicians and were acclaimed as statesmen, while statesmen were taken seriously only if they talked the language of successful businessmen and “thought in continents,” these private practices and devices were gradually transformed into rules and principles for the. conduct of public affairs. The significant fact about this process of revaluation, which began at the end of the last century and is still in effect, is that it began with the application of bourgeois convictions to foreign affairs and only slowly was extended to domestic politics. Therefore, the nations concerned were hardly aware that the recklessness that had prevailed in private life, and against which the public body always had to defend itself and its individual citizens, was about to be elevated to the one publicly honored political principle.
Taken from the economic into the political sphere, the bourgeois ethic of limitless money-making is transformed into the principle of limitless expansion acquisition of power and expansion. For Arendt, the prophet of this ideal, this “realism” which was actually was a supreme delusion of grandeur, the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes:
Hobbes was the true, though never fully recognized, philosopher of the bourgeoisie because he realized that acquisition of wealth conceived as a never-ending process can be guaranteed only by the seizure of political power, for the accumulating process must sooner or later force open all existing territorial limits. He foresaw that a society which had entered the path of never-ending acquisition had to engineer a dynamic political organization capable of a corresponding never-ending process of power generation.
The “wolves,” the human predators of this new society turn out, in fact, to be weak and wretched creatures, neither rulers nor citizens:
He foresaw the necessary idolatry of power itself by this new human type, that he would be flattered at being called a power-thirsty animal, although actually society would force him to surrender all his natural forces, his virtues and his vices, and would make him the poor meek little fellow who has not even the right to rise against tyranny, and who, far from striving for power, submits to any existing government and does not stir even when his best friend falls an innocent victim to an incomprehensible raison d’état.
Putin’s Russia is capitalist society without even the restraining hypocrisies of liberalism, which Arendt called a compromise between the bourgeoisie’s ethic of the never-ending expansion of power and wealth with the “old standards of Western culture.” Just as Lenin skipped the intermediate stage bourgeois democracy in favor of a direct attempt at the communist future, Putin’s Russia seems to have skipped bourgeois democracy and goes directly to the imperialist stage of capitalism. It is situated in both the past and, one fears, the future.