Othering the West
The roots of Putin's Westernphobia
Putin speaks at a pro-war rally in Moscow, last week. Forbes/AP.
The historian and Russia expert Stephen Kotkin was recently asked to explain the domestic popularity of Vladimir Putin’s regime, given that it enriches only Russia’s elites. This is what he said:
They have stories to tell. And, as you know, stories are always more powerful than secret police…Stories about Russian greatness, about the revival of Russian greatness, about enemies at home and enemies abroad who are trying to hold Russia down. And they might be Jews or George Soros or the I.M.F. and NATO. They might be all sorts of enemies that you just pull right off the shelf, like a book.
The “book” Kotkin refers to wasn’t written by Putin and his cronies, even if they have added their own embellishments to it. It’s much older than that, and while it has specifically Russian themes, it also draws on a trans-national corpus of stories that have gestated for hundreds of years: stories about the perfidy and cowardice of the West.
I’ve been reading a book about these stories. Occidentalism, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, came out in 2004. It’s pithy (149 pages - oh how I love short books!), erudite, and well written (if you were teaching a class on how to write lucidly and succinctly on scholarly matters, this would make a good case study). The subtitle is “A Short History of Anti-Westernism”. Written in the wake of 9/11, it’s about the hostile stereotypes of the Western world which informed Al Qaeda’s rise but which are by no means exclusive to Islamic militancy. The title is a play on Edward Said’s term for Western cultural stereotypes of the East, “Orientalism”.
The book isn’t a defence of the West. The authors take pains to recognise that non-Westerners have legitimate criticisms of Western colonialism and American foreign policy. What they’re interested in is how the West is caricatured, or, as we might say these days, “Othered” by its enemies, in order to justify hatred and violence. Orientalism constructs Easterners as childish, simple and primitive. In doing so it strips people of humanity, which can provide a pretext for exploitation and domination. Occidentalism also reduces its human targets to ciphers. It characterises Western civilisation as a mass of “soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, ruthless, faithless, unfeeling parasites” (if you want a summary of the Occidentalist caricature, it’s all there). Believe in it, and killing Western civilians may begin to feel like a moral imperative.
Occidentalism is an anatomy of anti-Western bigotry. The book opens in Kyoto, 1942, where Japanese scholars and literati gathered to discuss “how to overcome the modern”, seven months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Although hazily defined, “the modern” included science, and capitalism, and democracy - all of them, it was said, antithetical to traditional Japanese culture. That the project felt so urgent wasn’t just down to the war against America. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century Japan had embarked on a furious programme of Westernisation, adopting European dress codes, Prussian constitutional law, British naval strategies, and French architecture. Its intellectual classes had come to believe things had gone too damn far, and it was now time to turn the clock back to an idealised spiritual past. A theme of the book of is that Occidentalism arises within societies that are becoming more “Western” while struggling to maintain their own identity.
In the eyes of the Japanese scholars, Western society was atomised, mechanical and soulless, whereas Japanese society was communal, organic, and profound. A film critic at the conference excoriated trashy Hollywood movies, which promoted individualism. He compared them unfavourably to Leni Reifenstahl’s films of Nazi rallies, which forged national unity. A philosopher blamed the West’s moral sickness on the Reformation and subsequent separation of church and state. Politics and religion should, he believed, form part of a seamless whole. Japan was engaged in war against a “poisonous materialist civilisation” built on Jewish financial power (anti-Semitism is a consistent element of Occidentalism). This was a contest of ancient tradition versus scientific rationalism; Japanese blood versus Western intellect.
Buruma and Margalit highlight a couple of points about this conference. First, that while it took place in a particular country at a particular time, its portrayal of the West is trans-national and trans-historical. The same tropes were present in Hitler’s table talk in Germany, in Tehran in the 1970s, in Kabul and Karachi in 2001. Al-Qaeda wasn’t just striking back against American foreign policy; it was at war with a civilisation it saw as decadent, frivolous, racially impure and sexually licentious; a spiritual wasteland run by money-obsessed Jews.
Second, the authors note that the Kyoto intellectuals were well versed in, and inspired by, German Romanticism, Hegelian philosophy, and Marxist economics. A crucial argument of the book is that Occidentalism is itself one of the West’s global exports. It has its roots in Europe, which gave birth to Enlightenment ideas and to their antitheses, like distrust of rationalism and contempt for democracy. As the West became the West, it experienced its own identity crisis.
In the early nineteenth century, France occupied a position within Europe not dissimilar to the one America did globally in the next century: a military behemoth which aspired to offer a universal model of civilisation. France’s laws, philosophy, literature, and its language, were exported to elites across Europe and beyond. German thinkers and poets rebelled against this putative hegemony by celebrating organic culture, felt experience, rootedness, and the glory of ancient heroes.
In the late nineteenth century German idealism merged with Prussian militarism, and the country began its long march towards mass destruction. German intellectuals conceived of WW1 as a battle between worldviews. England and France represented “West European civilisation”, which meant both market-driven capitalism and democracy, since the latter was a cover for the former; Westerners dressed up selfishness as political freedom. As one German thinker put it, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, are true merchant ideals, which have no other aim but to give particular advantages to individuals.’”
A belief took hold: that, anaesthetised by material comforts and lacking in moral fibre, Western societies feared death above all, which made them reluctant to risk combat. This was their weakness. The German author Ernst Jünger, who fought in WW1, wrote: “All pleasure lives through the mind, and every adventure through the closeness of death that hovers around it.” During the twentieth century the idea spread beyond Europe. In the mid-1960s, a prominent Iranian intellectual Al-e Ahmed coined the term “Westoxification” for the pernicious influence of American culture; Ahmed was a great admirer of Jünger. In 2001, a Taliban fighter, interviewed shortly after the Allied invasion of Afghanistan, told the reporter that the Americans would never win, because “they love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.”
Market-based capitalism and democracy suit each other: both put an emphasis on individual choice, on competition, on negotiation and compromise, on the collective intelligence that arises from different choices. To their advocates, this confluence is a strength; to the Occidentalists, it is a fatal flaw. It creates societies that are purposeless, fragmented, and anaemic. Liberal societies, said the German nationalist Arthur van den Bruck, “give everyone the freedom to be a mediocre man.” Importance is given to “everyday life rather than to exceptional life”. Liberal democracy, on the Occidentalist view, lacks grandeur and glory. It has no heroes. Yes, it celebrates individuals, but not those who put themselves in the service of their country. Its economic system produces inequality and sows division. As a result, Western societies are brittle, prone to collapse. In 2000, a Hezbollah leader described Israel as “weaker than a spiderweb” for all its military superiority. In a recent al-Qaeda video, America is described as “an inflated balloon ready to implode”.
Of course, like most successful ideologies, there are grains of truth in Occidentalism. Free markets do corrode traditions and dissolve communal relationships; Western societies can feel alienating and atomised; the West’s claims to represent freedom and progress can cover for hypocrisy and exploitation. Liberalism is not a heroic creed, and it can feel petty and small-minded even to those who believe in it. That explains why many of its intellectuals promulgate anti-Western politics and pretend that even relatively small injustices constitute grand historical conflicts.
But so far, Western democracies have not collapsed. They have proved to be more ductile than brittle. While it’s true that most of their inhabitants lead unexceptional lives, Westerners have learned to find magic in the mundane. Some of the greatest works of Western culture, from Rembrandt to Dickens to Bergman, discover the numinous in the everyday. But anyway, this isn’t really an argument about different kinds of society so much as a contest of stories. The point about Occidentalism is that it takes its half-truths and turns them into dehumanising prejudices, which under certain conditions can lead to the destruction of human beings en masse.
Perhaps this begins to explain why Russia feels able to rain down destruction on huddled civilians. Russia’s rulers regard Ukraine as dangerously infected by the Western disease. Russia has its own history of Occidentalism. In the nineteenth century, a series of its thinkers (Slavophiles) constructed the idea of the Russian soul: an organic, indestructible essence, deliberately opposed to the mechanical materialism of the West. A strain of anti-rationalism, influenced by German thought, pervaded its philosophy and literature. The Russian orthodox church had no time for the petty theological disputes of Western Catholicism, emphasising faith and practice over scholastic debate. Tolstoy honoured peasants over intellectuals. The philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky blamed Aristotle for the West’s reliance on “reason”, which he regarded as an excuse for cowardly mediocrity.
The Cold War was but one episode in this long contest between worldviews. In the West’s view, the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union was largely peaceable was cause for universal celebration. In Putin’s view, and in the view of many Russians, it was humiliating - and not because the empire collapsed, but because it did so without a fight. Nobody died heroically; there was no glory in defeat. Its leaders allowed the great Russian superpower to be tipped over on to its back by the perfidious West, while making barely a squeak.
Rectifying this betrayal is what drives Putin. He isn’t interested in returning Russia to some medieval peasant idyll but he shares the Slavophiliacs’ contempt for the West, and he fears that Western cultural norms (including the elevated status of women and homosexuals) will undermine true Russian civilisation. In the first phase of his regime he simulated Western democracy while remaining, in reality, deeply hostile to it. According to Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in The Light That Failed, he has in recent years adopted a more aggressive strategy aimed at exposing the West’s hollow pretensions to morality and its weakness in the face of aggression. The strategy includes an element of parody, or “ironic imitation”. When Putin annexed Crimea, he mimicked the language in Kosovo’s declaration of independence, supported by the West.
Putin sees himself as a glorious hero who will restore Russia’s greatness by leading a trans-national, multi-ethnic Eurasian empire in opposition to an over-mighty America and its European wingmen. The Ukrainian invasion was intended as a decisive move in this new Great Game. We have a tendency to assume Putin sees the world as we do - that he is bothered by the high numbers of casualties suffered by the Russian army, for example. It is more likely he thinks of the West’s aversion to combat deaths as a vulnerability to exploit. The sanctions hurt but he will be confident that his country’s ability to soak up pain is much greater than that of his enemies.
Putin’s Occidentalism may lead him astray, however - indeed it already has. He assumed that what he regards as Ukraine’s Westernised elites would quail and flee at the first sound of gunfire. Instead, the Ukrainian people stuck together and stood firm in support of a leader who has been transformed into an authentic hero. Meanwhile, Russia’s heroes are stuck in the mud.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, we shouldn’t underestimate Putin’s emotional investment in his grand narrative. To explain his regime’s perspective on the world, Krastev and Holmes describe a 2007 Russian remake of Twelve Angry Men. In Sidney Lumet’s classic movie, an eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican faces the death penalty for stabbing his father to death. Eleven of the jurors quickly agree that the boy is guilty. But the twelfth juror, played by Henry Fonda, stands up and declares his doubts. Over the course of the film, he picks apart the prosecution case. After much argument between the jurors, the boy is acquitted. Twelve Angry Men is, among other things, a paean to democracy. It celebrates the ability of individuals to think for themselves; the benefits of rational debate and deliberation; the fight against racial prejudice, and a society’s commitment to the rule of law.
The Russian version, 12, is a pointed and mirthless parody of Lumet’s original. It was made by a close ally of Putin’s, the director Nikita Mikhalkov. In his story, the youth is a Chechen accused of killing his adoptive father, a Special Forces officer who took the boy back to Moscow after his parents were killed in the Chechen wars. As in Lumet’s film, eleven jurors agree on the young man’s guilt and one man, our hero, holds out. The group gradually makes its way towards a not-guilty verdict, in this case more through a sense of shared experience and compassion than through argument.
The denouement of 12 is very different to Twelve Angry Men and it has little to do with legal justice. It becomes clear that if the boy is freed from prison, the real murderers will find him and kill him. The choice before the jury is framed as one between keeping an innocent boy in prison to save his life, or, should they choose to release him, committing to protect him from his enemies. It turns out that the only juror willing to make that commitment is the hero of the story, who happens to be an ex-KGB officer, like Putin. According to Krastev and Holmes, the message of the story is that unless Russia, led by Putin, puts an end to the threat of Western domination, then the West will end Russia.
12 proved popular among Russian viewers, including its most important one. When the film was screened at the president’s residence, Putin is said to have confessed that it “brought a tear to the eye”.
Thanks for reading this piece, which is free to read, so do go ahead and share. Please also check out CONFLICTED, my book on productive argument.
If you’d like read more from The Ruffian, sign up to the list and please consider a paid subscription. Full-fat Ruffians get more of the contents of my unashamedly mediocre mind and can participate in the comments.
Behind the paywall this week:
Why Schwarzenegger’s message to the Russians works so well.
The sad end of my favourite ever ad campaign, and a new brand campaign that some might classify as ‘woke-washing’ but is actually brilliant.
An unexpected upside of Covid-19
Notes on Ukraine: what I’ve found interesting or significant this week.
Any Other Business: a fruit bowl of juicy links.
Possibly the most astonishing display of violin virtuosity I’ve ever seen/heard.
Fact of the week, Quote of the week
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Ruffian to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.