Refuting the Everyman Mythology

Political theorist Viatcheslav Morozov discusses the triumph of conservatism and populist sentiments.

“Sleeping peasant” by Francesco Londonio (1776). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

Viatcheslav Morozov is a professor of EU-Russia studies at the Estonian University of Tartu. In conversation with historian Ilya Budraitskis, Morozov discusses successes of Russian propaganda and criticizes the “noble savage” mythology dominating contemporary conservative politics.

IB: Official Russian media met Donald Trump’s presidential victory with joy. His win has not only been presented as a win for the pro-Russian position but also as part of the so-called “people’s patriotic revolution,” a global turn in the direction of particularism and cultural identity which has been repeatedly declared by Vladimir Putin as an alternative to the worldwide liberal establishment. How much of this is cynical tactics and how much is a belief in the fact that Russia really is leading some kind of new global trend?

VM: Generally speaking, I prefer to take what’s said by Russian propaganda at face value. Despite distortions and exaggerations, as a rule, genuine convictions lie at the heart of propagandistic declarations. Yes, there’s a lot of cynicism there, but this is the cynicism of individual players who are opportunistic, pursuing a career and so on. But, overall, it seems that the official media discourse in Russia is based on a fairly large group of people’s confidence in the correctness of the selected route. Apart from that, of course, it’s a game with common sense and with the way in which the Russian public sees what goes on in the world, as well as Russia’s role in it.

I think that’s exactly why Russian propaganda is so successful within the country, and to a certain extent on the world stage too – because it addresses people, their views, and their worries. How they play on these worries is another question. Here you can begin to talk about more or less deliberate manipulation. But this manipulation is only possible within certain boundaries, and these boundaries are specified by the extent to which the ideology is alive and organic, how much it reflects the facts of life (while simultaneously shaping them).

As for Trump – yes, I think that both pro-Kremlin circles and the public consciousness consider his victory as proof that the United States and Europe are starting to recognize the necessity for change. Ultimately, this is exactly what’s been stated since 2012, when there was a turn in favor of conservatism both in Russia’s internal, and to some extent external, politics. It was said that Russia had managed to preserve authentic European Christian values, unlike the rotting West. Russia was a country which could show the whole world an alternative to Western hegemony and the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. And the majority of people genuinely believe in this. In other words, while manipulation is taking place on the sidelines, the core of this ideology is totally organic.

Salvation from moral decline, allegedly caused by capitalist society, is being sought in the native “everyman’s” way of life. 

IB: If we consider this ideology organic for the Russian ruling classes, it’s hard not to notice how it manifests itself far beyond the foreign policy. The United States or the European Union are considered not as opponents or partners, but as territories in a kind of global battlefield between false liberal values and the “everyman.” What is the mythology behind this “everyman” figure? To what extent does it reflect real social and political processes?

VM: That’s a complex question, and I’d split it into two parts. First of all, as I’ve already said, inequality and oppression exist. Though typical for any society, with the spread of global capitalism today, inequality and oppression have taken on global dimensions. This is exactly why the worries and feelings of injustice which Russian conservative discourse and Trump’s discourse appeal to, each in their own way, are not myths at all. It’s this real inequality which allows right-wing populists like Trump to win elections and shape the international order.

The second question relates to the mythological component of this conservative, right-wing populist project. Its core myth is the idea of a traditional, indigenous way of life. It’s taken for granted that there are authentic people who abide by simple and self-evident values: religious values, family values and so on. And these people live as if outside the contemporary world; it’s like they’re not troubled by issues of economic welfare, justice or social status, but only by values in the traditional sense of the word.

Again, I’m not claiming that traditional values have no role in the modern world. But the idea that, on the one hand there are the cosmopolitan elites, and on the other there are the masses, living in a premodern world, embracing, adhering to and defending traditional values – this is nothing more than a naïve, romantic illusion. Such a native is a myth, rooted in colonial consciousness in the form of the noble savage, who is the organic element of the Enlightenment project. This savage, even if he’s noble, still needs to be civilized, educated, taken care of and, when necessary, punished and so on – in other words, discipline and bio-political practices need to be imposed on him by modern governmental institutions.

Conservative discourse is simply reversing the situation: salvation from moral decline, allegedly caused by capitalist society, is being sought in the native “everyman’s” way of life. Consequently, the savage, native, peasant with his traditional values is becoming the symbol around which this whole discourse is built. The cosmopolitan elites, in their turn, become the enemy. The specifics of the accusations are different in each case, but the essence of the arguments are the same in the United States, Europe and Russia. The elites – both political and intellectual – are accused of betraying national values, which leads to the dominance of global capitalism, the destruction of traditional social principles and so on. The myths and stereotypes of U.S. neoconservatives are very similar to those used by Russian conservatism.

Why do I consider the native figure a myth? Because, as far as I know, empirical studies have shown that there’s a deep affinity of views, identity and historical memory between the masses and the elites in Russia, for example, with the exception of a small group of the liberal intelligentsia, and even that isn’t an exception in the full sense of the word. 

Such uniformity is unsurprising, since the Soviet modernization project destroyed traditional communities. It’s possible that enclaves of traditional culture have been preserved in the Caucasus or other regions which have their own cultural and ethnic characteristics, but the Russian-speaking body as a whole has been modernized. People have a modern lifestyle, and traditional values have a certain role in their lives – for some people it’s a bigger role, for others it’s a smaller one – but the environment in which they function is a modern one, it’s global capitalism in its local form. It can work differently in Moscow, in Norilsk, or in the depths of the Siberian taiga. Nonetheless, we all now live in a worldwide capitalist culture.

In this sense, contemporary Russian society is relatively homogenous. What’s more, it only has one language in which to discuss the modern world and its place in that world. This is the language of the European Enlightenment, learned by us in Soviet and post-Soviet schools. This is exactly why Russian society, like other successors of the Enlightenment, is searching within itself for that same “noble savage,” that carrier of traditional values, to save us from moral decline. And, just like other nations, Russians increasingly believe that they have found him and that a return to traditional values is possible. Most people are happy about this, while the liberal intelligentsia minority are afraid. But in actual fact, the “noble savage,” as a sociological category, does not exist. There’s just a discursive construct, an empty space, around which Russian politics circles.

Having become focused on a specific narrow area of human rights, the Russian reformers overlooked the instances of inequality and injustice which the vast majority of people were encountering.

IB: Immanuel Wallerstein wrote about an “anti-universalist universalism,” meaning that universal values can only be established when they are not imposed from outside. Can values such as gender equality and minority rights, which are today considered imposed and without a national foundation, become natural for Russia? How can such universal values not contradict but be in accord with resisting the peripheral, subordinate position which Russia holds in the world system?

VM: I think they can. But it’s necessary to again add the caveat that, in the end, a national framework is too narrow for any political project because politics are, by definition, an attempt to realize universal values in practice, in the everyday collective life. It’s necessary to bear in mind the global horizon, but national factors should not be left out. 

This is the main mistake of Russian liberals – a mistake which became most apparent when the liberal intelligentsia took their position of hegemony in society. I am speaking of the perestroika discourse, which was completely oriented toward the West, taking it as an absolute role model. The national element totally disappeared from this discourse, at least in its practical political aspect. It was declared that the Soviet Union or Russia simply needed to fit into the world order and then everything would sort itself out and be wonderful. We’re still paying for this grave error. This is why it’s important that political slogans be oriented toward specific population, toward people’s perceptions of their life and of how the world should be structured.

You mentioned minority rights, but there are different kinds of minority. The federal structure of Russia, inherited from the USSR, as well as the ideological legacy of Soviet internationalism, effectively guarantee that the rights of ethnic minorities in Russia are admitted as a legitimate basis for discussion. Even if these rights are almost always violated, there’s a discursive framework in which these violations can be discussed without the risk of being accused of national betrayal. At the same time, both in Russia and other countries, conservatives gain political capital by rejecting rights for contraception, victims of domestic abuse, discrimination against people with non-traditional sexual preferences and others. It’s extremely difficult to argue with them because there is no ideological platform shared by the majority of Russians.

It seems to me that in the 1990s, in the period of liberal hegemony, no one discussed the necessity of defending human rights as such, and we overlooked the need for preparing exactly that kind of ideological platform and establishing it in the public consciousness. Having become focused on a specific narrow area of human rights, the Russian reformers overlooked the instances of inequality and injustice which the vast majority of people were encountering. 

The main acknowledged problem for most people in the 1990s was the glaring social inequality, and it hadn’t gone anywhere even in the 2000s, it’s just that the general standard of living increased slightly thanks to financial returns. Gender discrimination was also widespread and affected most people (especially given that, after all, men can be subject to discrimination too). However, it was only acknowledged through great effort, because gender stereotyping was the norm, rather than an exception. Abortion rights and contraception were pretty much taken as a given, but they weren’t in keeping with the general subject of human rights. Transgressions on the part of law enforcement institutions were also widespread but were considered a necessary evil. But the subject of sexual minorities, for example, was something exotic for most people.

In a situation like that, it was necessary to start any discussion about human rights with social rights and to work hard at tying together different aspects of human rights issues while taking into account their specifics. For example, to show that racist, homophobic or sexist statements and actions ultimately reproduce and consolidate an overall system of inequality from which the majority of racists, homophobes and sexist also suffer. 

Instead, a ready template was taken predominantly from the Western European human rights movement, and everyone found a niche in it for themselves. As a result, the fight for universal rights turned into identity politics; everyone defended the interests of their group without a care for the interests of others. The voiceless majority, in no way integrated into international networks and undergoing only an insignificant amount of the liberal media’s “civilizing” influence, was completely forgotten. It’s not surprising that it ended with a disastrous estrangement between the pro-European liberal minority and the bulk of the population.

We need to learn to tie social rights together with human rights in general and minority rights in particular, both in theoretical and, what’s more of a challenge, practical ways.

IB: It could be argued that in Russia today an opposition between social rights and human rights has been established, which has resulted in a rejection of both. In other words, this conscious discrediting of the very subject of human rights by those at the top not only doesn’t lead to socially-minded politics, but lays the foundation for a harsher, neo-liberal infringement on social rights.

VM: Yes, the state has been crucial from the very start. In the 1990s, it was actively involved in the formation of liberal establishments, both in the economy and in public life: Russia joined the Council of Europe and imposed a moratorium on the death penalty. But social rights were leased out to the opposition, mainly to the Communist Party and other populist forces, who linked social problems to traditional values. In fact, the rebirth of the Communist Party into a right-wing force took place in the early 1990s. This wasn’t accidental. Because the liberal hegemony promoted a cosmopolitan worldview, it’s unsurprising that the opposition armed itself with religious, traditionalist slogans. In the end, it was more convenient for the government to appeal to traditional values than to social rights.

And you’re right, in propagating traditional values, the government is trying to move away from the discussion of social problems, because it wouldn’t benefit from such a discussion. As recent Russian history (from 2005) has shown, there is potential for mobilization in the social sphere. If the government moves the discussion away from social problems by disseminating traditional values, then the opposition should propose alternative options for uniting around common interests, based on the ideas of universal emancipation. In other words, we need to learn to tie social rights together with human rights in general and minority rights in particular, both in theoretical and, what’s more of a challenge, practical ways.

This matter is pressing not only for Russia, but also for the United States, the EU, and the countries of South America. All these regions are seeing an advance of right-wing populism, which is pushing the problems of the “little person” into the limelight, but not any person – a person with a specific identity. It’s exactly this narrowness of the right-wing populist stance that needs to be disputed.