The Politics of Cynicism

Image.phpGreg Afinogenov in n+1:

It is a commonplace, at least in the West, that the current regime in Russia is authoritarian, if not totalitarian. A line can be drawn—with caveats about scale and severity—from Putin straight back to Stalin, while others can be drawn sideways from Putin to the dictators he has befriended and supported: Assad, Qaddafi, Chavez, and Saddam Hussein. (If nothing else, Putin seems to have an oddly consistent and unlucky way of choosing his friends.) The recent protests against him only confirm the neatness of this symmetry.

We think we know what authoritarianism is and why it survives, but our notions about it have not changed much since the 18th century, when Montesquieu contrasted the capricious rule of a despot, who holds power through fear, with the bounded governance of a monarch, held in check by law. In our political language, monarchy has evolved into democracy, but despotism remains despotism (or authoritarianism). In comparison to monarchies and democracies, each in their own time, despotism has always seemed archaic. The gleaming military uniforms, Tolkienesque titles, and Orientalized imperial paraphernalia of modern dictators like Idi Amin, Pinochet, and Qaddafi evoke the 19th century; leaders who are truly modern are supposed to wear self-effacing suits.

If authoritarianism is a relic of a pre-democratic age, Putinism, like the late regime of Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi, is not authoritarian. Regimes that see themselves as successors to democracy are not rare—fascists and communists were equally convinced that liberal democracy belonged in the dustbin of history. The difference is that Putinism is partly right in seeing itself as post-democratic, which is why the problems it poses are so vexing. It represents one answer to a set of contradictions that exist not just in Russian democracy but also in contemporary democracy in general.