The liberal order could fall apart just as suddenly as the USSR. If we want it to survive, we have to learn from what took place in Russia
Below the medieval citadel in Kazan, two vast frozen rivers turn the landscape white. On a Saturday afternoon there are a few hardy locals shuffling through the icy sludge to take selfies against the mosque, the Christmas suns and the Soviet-era statues.
Its 25 years since I was last in Russia, trying and failing to revive the left during the chaotic first days of Boris Yeltsins economic reforms. Half a lifetime afterward I am here to address a room full of people who want to talk about replacing capitalism with something better and suddenly we have something in common: now we both know what its like to see a system that once looked permanent collapsing.
Since Ive been here, almost everyone who has chosen to come and hear me is involved in either contemporary arts or philosophy. The journalists who want to interview me a public critic of Putins policy in Syria and Ukraine chiefly write for cultural magazines. These, if not exactly the new rocknroll, are the safest intellectual spaces in which critical think can take place.
Since Putin stole the 2011 election, and the subsequent protest movement was repressed, the young people who took part in it have retreated into an angry silence. Its not exactly a new situation for Russian intellectuals. Lenin was apprehended here in 1887 for leading a student protest and spend the majority of members of the next 30 years in exile or underground. Then the Bolsheviks repressed free speech and political opposition for another 70 years and Russias capitalist oligarchs are doing their best to suppress it now.
In the face of this, why do Russian artists, philosophers and journalists persist in their notion in change? In short, because they have assured the moral and physical breakdown of something that once seemed permanent: the Soviet Union.
Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, decribes the event in a volume whose title speak for itself: Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. Yurchak was fascinated by the fact that, while nobody predicted the fall, when it happened, many people realised that they had, in their hearts, expected it all along.
During the era of perestroika, under Gorbachev, many people experienced a sudden break in consciousness, as realisation dawned that the fall was imminent. But until then most people behaved, spoke and even thought as if the Soviet system was permanent. And despite their cynicism about its brutality, they went on processions, participated in sessions and performed the rituals demanded by the state.
Since Trumps victory in November 2016, it has become possible to believe a similar breakdown will happen in the west, to globalisation and liberal values.
The parallels are obvious. We too have lived for 30 years under an economic system that proclaimed its own permanence. Globalisation was an unstoppable natural process; free-market economics simply the natural state of things.
But when the country that designed globalisation, enforced it and benefited from it most referendums against it, you have to consider the possibility that it is going to end, and suddenly. If so, you also have to consider a possibility that if you are a liberal, humanist democrat may be even more shocking: that oligarchic nationalism is the default sort of failing economies.
When Yeltsin unleashed penury and breakdown in the early 90 s, I witnessed Russian society descend into chaos. We held our sessions in the abandoned facilities of Stalinist academia, amid discarded Soviet text books, busts of Lenin, minutes of central committees that no longer exists. There was violence on the streets and larceny in the boardrooms of Russias resource monopolies, where ownership fell to whichever kleptokrat could exert the most force.
Compared with the chaos of the 1990 s, Putinism has felt like a redemption. Putin has, at the cost of diplomatic isolation and the suppression of democratic rights, restored growth, order and national pride. Now all over the world there are mini-Putins: the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbn; the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan; the would-be French fascist chairwoman, Marine Le Pen. If as they desire the west descends into economic nationalism, everybody under the age of 50 will go through the same kind of ideological shock the Russians went through in the late 80 s.
In economics, political science and the study of international relations there has been, for about three decades, a general assumption that the current framework is permanent. Just as in Soviet academia, if globalisation turns out to have been simply a temporary and reversible thing, textbooks once revered will have to lie abandoned.
But theres one great difference. The protesters of the late Soviet era fought for democracy and human rights under the general concept of the west. For us, if xenophobic populism victory, there will be no west to aspire to: if liberal, democratic societies begin to go the way of Orbns Hungary, there will be no external power to help us.
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