Boris Kagarlitsky: The Hobbesian world of ‘multipolarity’


In his latest letter from a Russian prison, Boris Kagarlitsky discusses the need for an alternative to the “individualist logic of modern liberalism and the totalitarian aggressiveness of the new conservatism.”

A global petition calling for the release of Kagarlitsky and all other anti-war political prisoners can be signed here.

The letter was translated from the original Russian version by Renfrey Clarke, who translated Kagarlitsky's latest book, The Long Retreat: Strategies to Reverse the Decline of the Left, available now for pre-order from Pluto Press.

In today’s Russian prisons, a sign of a prosperous and materially well-off cell is the presence of a television set, usually provided together with a refrigerator. For me, the television is less a source of pleasure than of torment, as I have already explained several times. The shrill, malicious voices of the propagandists literally pierce my ears, while the vulgar humor makes me want to vomit. But the television, which is constantly turned on, nevertheless has a positive effect as well. In scientific terms, it provides a window into the dominant discourse.

In this respect, I particularly like [Andrei] Norkin’s “Meeting Place” show on the NTV channel. Here you have it explained to you, intelligently, calmly, and without the hysterics you hear on the other programs, why it is correct and necessary to kill people, to seize other people’s land, and to deprive them of their property, while restricting the rights of everyone who disagrees with the existing authorities. Everything is very good-natured, offered with a pleasant smile, politely and amiably.

During such a broadcast one of the invited experts explained to the hosts and viewers what a “multipolar world” is all about. In the view of this esteemed expert, a multipolar world is one where there are no commonly shared rules or moral boundaries, norms or principles, and where everyone acts as they please and seeks their own advantage to the extent that their powers permit. The other participants in the broadcast smiled benignly and nodded their approval. Everything was finally in its place.

Anyone acquainted with philosophy might readily observe that this description of the multipolar world accords completely with what Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan termed “the war of all against all.” This was the situation that prevailed in early modern Europe, and seventeenth-century thinkers saw no salvation from the chaos that inevitably resulted except through installing the harsh rule of a single authority, capable of imposing order even at the cost of restricting the freedom of one person or another.

The hegemon and sovereign, the “Leviathan” that imposed its order, might seem unsympathetic, but Hobbes did not see any alternative to it. Otherwise, the world would sink into bloody chaos. Since the time of Hobbes, the need to maintain order has been used in international relations to justify the hegemony of the leading powers, and as civilization has progressed these rules have been formalized in the shape of agreements and norms that are claimed not just to guarantee the rights of the powerful, but also to protect the weak and ensure the humanization of political practice. In reality, as we know perfectly well, the leading powers that take on themselves the tasks of maintaining order and ensuring its observance breach it constantly, while dreaming up all sorts of hypocritical excuses. Nevertheless, having rules that are broken from time to time is better than having no rules at all. This seems obvious and has been recognized by everyone.

The troublemakers and enemies of order have been various types of revolutionaries who have pledged to tear down the old “world of coercion” in order to construct a new world. As we know, this has not always turned out well. This is not so much due to the destruction of the old world but rather because the new world that is being constructed has proven time and again to be suspiciously like the old. Today, however, we are seeing a completely new situation, in which chaos and destabilization are being sown not by the radicals and anarchists, who now seem quite inoffensive, but by committed conservatives, defending traditional values.

In many cases, their rhetoric sounds almost revolutionary, since we are constantly hearing complaints about the injustice of the liberal order — complaints, indeed, with which it is hard to disagree. The trouble is that these complaints are not being followed even by the suggestion that different socioeconomic relations might be possible. Not only are the fundamental rules of capitalism spared from any degree of doubt, but to the contrary, these rules are taken to extremes, since in this case nothing except competition matters.

Why, though, are the traditionalists now prepared to sow chaos on a scale of which not even the most fervent anarchists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could have dreamt? After all, the anarchists did not hold power, while the revolutionaries after taking power sought for the most part to defend themselves (with the result that they were quickly transformed into relatively moderate state leaders with an interest in playing by the rules, including the rules that protected their right to exist). Today’s conservative politicians are quite different. They possess real power and resources and are thus able to unleash destructive activity almost without limit.

The trouble here is that the traditional practices and values that the conservatives try to preserve or restore have long since come to contradict the logic of reproducing today’s economy and society. As a result, traditionalism has not only ceased to be an ideology calling for the preservation of the existing order, but to the contrary, has turned into a tool of its destruction.

As Fredric Jameson has argued, modern-day liberalism provides a much better fit for the cultural logic of late capitalism. Whether there is any point in defending this ideology and its logic is quite another matter. What is important here is not the crazy excesses of modern liberalism, with its cult of minorities and demonstrative ignoring of the interests and needs of the majority. Conditions of life, social opportunities, and needs are continuing to change, and liberal ideology, in the form it had assumed by the early twenty-first century, is in crisis.

Naturally, the solution to this crisis is not a regime of total competition combined with the repression of everyone who is not prepared to endorse “traditional values.” The war of all against all that is proclaimed by the ideologues of the “multipolar world” means an end not just to liberal civilization, but to any civilization whatever. Society, and indeed international relations, have long needed changes whose basis can only lie in a new culture of cooperation and solidarity, without which it will simply be impossible to solve the numerous problems facing humanity not only on a national, but also a planetary level.

The emergence of a new Leviathan, now on a global scale, is unlikely to provide an answer to this situation. The answer must be sought in social changes that make it possible to overcome both the individualist logic of modern liberalism and the totalitarian aggressiveness of the new conservatism.