First communism, then by the mid 1990s democratic capitalism. Old identities folded too, more dramatically than elsewhere:
“We were an absolutely blank canvas. The Soviet concepts of ‘workers,’ ‘collective farmers,’ ‘intelligentsia’ had nothing at all to do with politics,” remembers Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the 1990s spin doctors, who started to work out a new approach to politics where 20th century identities and ideologies were gone. The idea of “Russia” needed to be created. With no parties that made sense, elections became the practice of collecting different sub-groups and resentments, uniting them not through an ideology but an emotion—a fear anyone could project themselves into. In 1996 this was the fear of civil war and chaos, uniting everyone from the secret services to democrats to oligarchs behind Boris Yeltsin. This fell apart after a few months; such liquid movements always do. Over the next three years there was obsessive polling, almost as an ersatz for having any stable reality to refer to. It told them that the most poplar heroes in the country were spies, Russian James Bonds.
In 1999, the Putin majority was created:
“We knew there would be a majority of those who had lost out. It included the army, which was wildly dissatisfied, poor, corrupt. It included the secret services. And on the other hand it included the scientists, academia, doctors, teachers. We had to build a majority from these left behind—they had to know that this was their last chance to win… I think that Russia was the first to go this way, and the West is now catching up. The West can be considered to follow a proto-Putinism of sorts…”
In the West, the default ideology—a democratic capitalism posing as inevitability—ran on for longer, still powered by the energy of victory in the Cold War, a cartoon character running over the edge of a cliff until, after Iraq and the financial crash, it looked down and saw there was nothing underneath and plummeted.
The dissipation of old identities happened more gradually but undeniably. Pollsters used to predict elections based on ideas of economic class and ideology, nowhere more so than where I live in the UK. Then, as the old economy changed and the Cold War ended, this became a poorer predictor of how one votes. In a world where government was a consumer service provider, marketing labels predominated. Sales firms such as Experian served up concepts like “the Ford Mondeo Man”—the swing voter whose desire for a certain type of car politicians had to fulfill. Now Mondeo Man seems far too fuzzy. Political targeting is more granular, looking for the little trigger which will get you out to vote.
Social media both helped crack open the vessels in which the old ideologies and identities were pickled in, and to ferment a new approach. Tom Borwick, digital director of the official Brexit campaign in the UK, thinks that for a population of 20 million, one usually needs 70 to 80 types of targeted social media messages: Animal Rights and Pot Holes, Death Penalty and Health Services. And, as Pavlovsky already knew in 1990s Russia, in a situation where groups you target are so varied, where identity itself is so fractured, one unites them round a vague feeling, as any concrete ideology would get in the way: Drain The Swamp or Take Back Control. And instead of a coherent vision of the future, conspiracy becomes the way you lasso your vote together. The Deep State (for Trump). The CIA (for Putin). The Establishment (for everyone).
“Conspiracy,” says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, “is what you have after ideology has died.” And just like Russia in the 1990s, these pop-up movements scatter after they have made their mark, to be reformed again in new configurations for fresh ends. Even the so-called “far Right”, seemingly so energized by the internet, dissolves when you approach it: Brexit nationalists march alongside Identitarians dreaming of an EU Empire in the name of Freedom of Speech; anti-Islam activists who claim they don’t like Muslims because of their treatment of women stand next to anti-feminists of the Manosphere. These groups can coalesce for a few moments around a march, but then fall apart, only to join up in new constellations for new missions.
The greatest mistake in this endlessly formless and reforming flux is to think something could be solid. In 1917, after the Russian Empire fell, thousands of White Russians escaped by boarding ships which sailed from Crimea away from the big batteries of the Bolsheviks. On board was a whole civilization floating on the water: newspapers, a brothel. White Russian intellectuals debated the finer points of the differences between Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism, and how they would return to rebuild Russia any moment now. Running into a social media fight the other day between “Conservatives,” “Progressives,” and “Centrists,” I was struck with the same feeling: how nostalgic it felt, as if that compass meant anything coherent any more. Where is the Center? The True North? When in the UK Thatcher’s Conservative Party now brazenly claims “fuck Business!” and the far-Left leaders of the Labour party have become the City of London’s more reliable partner? Or in the United States, where détente-leaning Democrats now gnash at Putin, while Republican Cold Warriors now approve Kremlin conquests (and where the Kremlin assembles its international allies with targeted messages to every segment, just as it did in the 1990s at home)
In this flux one clings on to simple binaries like lost parents. If Right versus Left don’t explain the world then maybe Closed versus Open psychological profiles do? Or is it all about the “Somewheres” versus “Anywheres”? This latter duet updates the old anti-semitic trope of “rootless cosmopolitans” with split loyalties pitted against hearty blood and soil nationalists committed to their local worlds. It’s a binary sometimes used to explain the Brexit vote in the UK. A recent study shows up its limitations. While it is true that people who’d lived abroad were more likely to vote Remain, the split between cities and countryside was much smaller than it was first considered. Most importantly, in both the countryside and cities, people who played an active role in local life, the opposite of the “rootless,” were the ones more likely to vote Remain.
And if we think, instead of ideology, some algorithm holds a solid identity out there for us, we’re wrong. Recently I’ve been looking for my digital self, for some company which holds all my data and can thus give me my own data Dorian Grey Portrait (let it be ugly, but at least it will be me!). I haven’t found it. Instead there’s broken bits of information (something about health, something about shopping), jagged edges which can be added and stacked up in different patterns according to different short-term purposes—little writhing squiggles of impulses and habits which can be impelled to vibrate for a few seconds to get me to buy something or vote for someone.
Where will the flux take us?
I’ve met many who think it can be configured as a new post-class socialism, all the different resentments targeted at Oligarchs and Tax-Dodgers and The Establishment. Perhaps. But if so, it will have to pick its way with care to harness but never intertwine the very different economic angers of students in big cities and the “left behind” in the flyover states. Whatever socialism this will be, it won’t be one you can put in a big tent for long. In the UK, the Labour party has at times managed this trick by accident more than by design; internal divisions mean they can lead different campaigns in different places.
Meanwhile it would be foolish not to be alarmed. Along with the collapse of the old linkages, nastiness has been normalized. If Russia is where the future first arrived, then it’s a warning too. The only way to keep a magicked up “majority” together is through finding bigger and badder conspiracies to play at war with. Krastev has playfully asserted that a certain type of Western liberal’s newfound alarm at Russian “interference” is powered by a deeper fear, that what’s left of the West is becoming more like Russia: the lack of belief in any positive ideology, the wild relativity, elections which change nothing, and institutionalized corruption.
But for all its human tragedy there was also a sense of possibility in the Russia of the late 1990s and early 2000s—an opening. Am I the only one who feels that way today?