The greatest challenge to the world order is not the figure of Vladimir Poutine. It is rather a syndrome, a set of political tendencies that freeze across the world and that could be described as Putinism. At first glance, countries like India, France, Hungary, Israel, China, Turkey or even the United States look like a motley bunch, each with a distinct history. Yet powerful political forces in each of these countries grapple with a worldview not so far removed from Putinism. And the danger to the world is that poutine may well survive Putin’s downfall.
The thread that connects these countries is not only admiration for the Putin phenomenon. Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and now the rising force in French politics, Marine Le Pen, have all been admirers of Putin. Turkey’s interests do not match Russia’s on Ukraine, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan admired Putin. The position of the Indian government may take on a veneer of sophistication, but the show of sympathy for Putin among India’s military, diplomatic and economic elites is as staggering as it is nauseating. The rightward shift in Israeli policy had something to do with immigration from Russia. The Chinese may be wary of the consequences of the war in Ukraine, but they share Putin’s goals enough not to want him to change his behavior.
At first glance, Putinism might seem like a peculiar Russian affliction: a product of a sense of humiliation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, stoked by authoritarian rule. But its key principles are widely shared. The most obvious is anti-Westernism, its avowed aim of displacing Western hegemony. That in itself might not be a bad thing. But here, the West is not so much a geographical or even cultural idea as an ideological idea. In this construction, the West is a substitute for “liberal”. It merges anti-Westernism and anti-liberalism. If you are against the West, you oppose liberalism, and if you hate liberals, you oppose the West. This explains, in a way, why Trump, Le Pen and Orban align themselves with Putin. For they also want to rescue the West from its association with liberalism and construct it as a more cultural or racial entity. This also explains the internal contradiction of Hindutva attitudes towards the West. They might strategically court Western power, but they are also against Western hegemony – what they mean by that is simply the ascendant power of liberal ideas.
The association of the idea of the West with liberalism is one of the most powerful errors in intellectual history. The West has been liberal only intermittently; and the strongest arguments for liberalism are not rooted in Western cultural experience but in the demands of human freedom and dignity. But this fusion of the West and liberalism allows anti-liberals to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism and anti-Westernism. This allows them to trash liberalism while looking like national heroes. The West has a lot to answer for: racism, imperialism, exploitation. But in this worldview, anti-Westernism is just a convenient whistle to being anti-liberal: it allows authoritarianism and ethnic supremacy to be draped in the cloak of virtue.
Second, there is an affinity in their attitudes towards historical time. Putin might have a fantasy of creating a Great Russia reminiscent of Peter the Great. But these fantasies of undoing the past by erasing the present of other peoples or minorities are not unique. China imagines itself recreating its position as the Middle Kingdom; India as terrorizing its minorities to recreate the fantasy of an Indian history without a Muslim past; Turkey has always been fascinated by neo-Ottomanism, and references to a Greater Hungary, whose political borders are not the current moth-eaten product of the nation-state system, have been numerous in Hungarian elections. It’s a fantasy world, but one that can allow control and purification in its name.
But there is also a hostility to the recent past, an ambivalence towards the post-1989 world. In Russia, this hostility is, of course, apparent. But even countries that fared well in this now much-maligned neoliberal phase of economic reform and globalization are ambivalent about this era in political terms. This economic reform was accompanied, according to this account, by a political weakening. This weakening took two forms. The first is the reduction of the state to day-to-day goals like economic growth. The post-1989 world was not just one of economic deregulation, but one in which the state detaches itself from its higher goals or the achievement of its ethnically defined nationalist goals. It also displays a fundamental political weakness: a reluctance to assert control over culture, civil society and the economy, all in the name of a certain idea of freedom. It is no coincidence that it is the political constellations that were booming immediately after 1989 that are being decimated. In the French elections, Macron had already made a turn to the right, but it is the decimation of the center and the left that strikes. But the spread of the post-1989 “liberal left” in France, Israel, India, Hungary, as if it were a kind of old regime that had to be overthrown, is quite astonishing.
Third, there is obvious comfort with violence. Other ideologies have also deployed violence. And there are differences in the institutional contexts that allow the use of violence. But in Putinism, the threat of violence, internal or external, or its intermittent deployment, is itself the sign of success. It’s useful for rallying nationalist sentiment, it’s a crude assertion of ethnic privilege, and a sign of male revenge for humiliation.
There is an obsession with demography, the ethnic composition of populations. There is a lingering distrust of the foreign and the cosmopolitan. In a somewhat strange phenomenon, what unites these countries is that they all hate the figure of George Soros, now emblematic of the foreign hand. They envision changing the relationship between civil society and the state again, where civil society is expected to serve the purposes of the state rather than being self-governing in its own right. There is a discomfort with pluralism, a contempt for moderation, a disdain for freedom and a confusion between ruthlessness and achievement. Putin may lose, but Putin is ascendant as an ideology – now aligning itself with white supremacism, French chauvinism, Israeli right-wing assertion, Ottoman dreams, Chinese aggression or Hindutva aggression. They want to tear down the West but what they really want to tear down is liberalism.
This column first appeared in the April 14, 2022 print edition under the title “Triumph of Putinism.” The writer is Editor-in-Chief, The Indian Express