Chapman on Diesen, 'The Decay of Western Civilization and Resurgence of Russia: Between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft'

Author: 
Glenn Diesen
Reviewer: 
Roger Chapman

Glenn Diesen. The Decay of Western Civilization and Resurgence of Russia: Between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Rethinking Asia and International Relations Series. New York: Routledge, 2018. 218 pp. $149.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-50032-7.

Reviewed by Roger Chapman (Palm Beach Atlantic University) Published on H-Russia (February, 2019) Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg (University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53190

Putin's Russia: A Model for the Western Far Right?

Glenn Diesen’s The Decay of Western Civilization and Resurgence of Russia: Between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft is a bold, provocative, polemical, and dense work, offering a vision of a future in which Russia provides a path to a new world in the aftermath of the collapse of European civilization. The author, a Norwegian professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and an adjunct research fellow at Western Sydney University, reasons that the Western world—“the so-called international liberal order” (p. xi)—has, as the result of hubris, allowed its virtues to morph into vices. This is why, he claims, the disintegration of Europe is underway. At the same time, the author defends the policies of Vladimir Putin and those who regard this leader as a “global brand” (p. 185). Also, he offers a defense of the “American romantic nationalists,” representative of Donald Trump and his ideological framer Steve Bannon, and their embrace of Putin’s Russia (p. 176).

In many respects, this work is reflective of the contemporary period, and its sympathies lie with global unrest, specifically right-wing populism. There seems to be accord with those who seem hell-bent on making come to pass that line of W. B. Yeats: “the centre cannot hold.” Diesen seeks to explain why “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”[1] In certain respects, this author comes across sounding like Alexander Herzen, who in 1849 wrote of Europe: “I see the inevitable doom of old Europe and feel no pity for anything that now exists, neither the peaks of its culture nor its institutions.”[2]

Though Diesen believes Russian culture offers the answer for the way going forward, he fails to provide any practical “What Is to Be Done.” Instead, he seems to be doing nothing more than adding intellectual oil to the flames of the culture wars. Consequently, he may remind some readers of Ivan Turgenev’s Vasily Barazov, the nihilist figure in the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, who believed that the existing institutions “call for complete and unqualified destruction.”[3] At the end of his work, Diesen writes, “the populists recognise the need to tear down the existing order” (p. 186). In Fathers and Sons, someone of the older generation challenges Barazov for desiring to “destroy without knowing why.”[4] The same critique might be leveled at Diesen; though he does explain (albeit in a very biased manner) the reasons for the ongoing rage of the populist Right, he fails to show how Russia offers a remedy for the cultural crisis taking place in the West. He admits that Russia has “societal problems ... in many ways worse than the West,” but he weakly believes “there are indications of Russia moving in the right direction” (p. 186).

Diesen’s Decay is divided into four sections: “Theorising Civilisations,” “Rise and Fall of Political Liberalism,” “Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism,” and “Resurgence of Russia: Neomodernism and Geoeconomics.” Each section is composed of two chapters, except for part 4, which has three chapters. Each chapter is broken up by subheadings and concludes with a summary. The book also has an introduction, conclusion, bibliography, and index. Sources are cited parenthetically. The writing style, though mildly esoteric, is of quality.[5]

The theoretical framework for Decay is of a binary structure. Culture is viewed as being composed of two categories: gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society). The former is representative of “traditional communities” and the latter of “larger complex societies” (p. 15). The gemeinschaft is about the local and it embraces the natural, primitive, primordial, instinctive, irrational, and spiritual. In contrast, the gesellschaft is about the global and it pertains to the modern, rational, contractual, and impersonal. A healthy society maintains a balance between the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, but Diesen views liberalism as a disrupter of that balance by placing a preference on the gesellschaft. Community is harmed by the gesellschaft with its emphasis on individual freedom. Also, morality tends to be undermined by the gesellschaft because morality is determined within a gemeinschaft context.[6]

In his analysis, Diesen applies what he calls “neoclassical realism.” Classical realism, like the Judeo-Christian tradition, views human beings as having inherent tendencies toward evil, resulting in evitable conflict between people. Neoclassical realism does not regard evil as the problem, but “rather the predisposition to conflict derives from the duality of Man and contradictory impulses” (p. 19). The reader will note here how Diesen uses “Man” generically, which is in keeping with the conservative sensibility that pervades his work. But unlike the traditional conservative, his ideas on why there is conflict is explained by the duality of the dispositions that led to the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Diesen suggests that George Kennan, when developing his containment thesis, had in mind this view of human nature. Diesen goes on to elaborate: “The stability and endurance of civilization is largely contingent on finding a balance or metaxy between the rational and irrational; universal and particular; society and community. Failure to appreciate the duality and contradictions in human nature, a key weakness in liberalism, triggers a ferocious swing of the Hegelian pendulum from one extreme to another at the peril of civilisation” (p. 32). Civilizations rise, decline, and experience rebirth due to the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, Diesen argues. As a result, the pendulum swings back and forth between order and chaos. There are cyclical patterns. Moreover, civilizations have four seasons. The author’s meta-analysis takes the reader back to the ancient world of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and while there is a headiness in the panorama of such a grand sweep of history, the more discerning reader will have to stifle the awareness of complexity in order to enjoy what comes across as intellectually stimulating. The author backs up his ideas on the cycles of history by quoting from Giambattista Vico, Brooks Adams, Konstantin Leontiev, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Carroll Quigley, and Pitirim Sorokin. Applying the past to the present, Decay argues that “the failure to harmonise the traditional and modern eventually polarises civilisation between the cosmopolitan elites who benefit disproportionately from complex society, and the internal proletariat who seek to recreate the community” (p. 49).

Diesen suggests that today’s Europe, in seeking replenishment of its exhausted gemeinschaft, has the possibility of turning toward its periphery and choosing between America, Islam, or Russia. Of the three, he favors the Russian alternative, explaining: “The American civilisation largely extended the life of European civilisation following the Second World War, albeit itself succumbing to decadence. The Islamic civilisation is making its incursion into Europe by migration with a rapid demographic shift unprecedented in peacetime. The more compatible Russian civilisation inherited and embodies many of the characteristics of Western civilisation and offers the prospect of a return to traditional European traditions, cultures, and values. Irrespective of the ability to deliver, Russian conservatism is predisposed to have a strong appeal to an internal proletariat within the decaying Western civilisation, which seeks to revive its community, culture, and ethos” (pp. 49-50). Before elaborating on Russia, the author provides an overview of political liberalism and economic liberalism, presenting the problem within the framework of the culture wars. He argues that Europe is floundering because of the imbalance between civic nationalism (liberalism) and the ethno-cultural and religious, respectively the gesellschaft and the gemeinschaft. By trying to exist solely on civic nationalism, Europe has lost its way. “The narrative of the West prospering solely on liberalism tends to depict the advancement of civic identity as progress, while ethno-cultural nationalism belongs to a bygone era,” Diesen writes, adding that such is a mistaken notion (p. 55).“The failure of the state,” in fact, “to harness and represent ethno-cultural distinctiveness results in it becoming a rival authority,” hence the outbreak of culture wars (p. 64).

With the deconstruction of meta-narratives, and their role in cultivating the gemeinschaft, Europe has become a “postmodern graveyard” (a term used in the title for chapter 4). For Diesen, political liberalism is synonymous with postmodernism. This section of the book is a one-sided attack, a typical conservative caricaturing of those who affirm multiculturalism and inclusivity. Here the overall argument lacks nuance in failing to consider the degrees and ranges of postmodernism, but rather the extreme is held up as normative.[7] Diesen goes so far as to assert that postmodernism underlies American critical judgment of Putin, which ironically is a type of posturing suggestive of the postmodernist claim of “victimhood” (a concept Diesen had earlier elaborated on in the chapter).[8] During the Cold War, prior to postmodernism and its “deconstruction of language and rejection of absolute truths,” the United States did not think to refer to any moderate Soviet leader as the “New Stalin,” but today with Putin, the author opines with apparent indignation, there are those Americans who have “no problem referring to him as another Stalin or Hitler” (p. 90).[9]

As for economic liberalism, Decay argues that laissez-faire economics is a type of “anarchy” (p. 95). Geoeconomics as a neo-gesellschaft is categorized as “liberal delusion” (p. 110). Rather, he maintains that societies will have a better chance of finding the right balance between gesellschaft and gemeinschaft by finding alternatives to the laissez-faire. Here he advocates protectionism for maintaining gemeinschaft. Diesen also offers this insight: “The assault on the nation-state in the name of economic efficiency and globalisation inevitably motivates a radical backlash from the defenders of the nation-state, who then have incentives to contest global warming and other challenges that cannot be resolved by the nation-state alone” (p. 126).

All of the political theorization described above is the prelude to the section of the book that extols Russia as an alternative to the “decay” of Europe. Russia is said to have maintained its gemeinschaft, despite the times in which leaders forced modernization, due to its vast Eurasian landmass. The author offers an overview of Russia’s various waves of modernization, imperialistic expansion, industrial push to catch up with the West, the development of the Trans-Siberian rail line, Napoleon’s invasion, the defeat in the Crimean War, the naval defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and the internal debate between Slavophiles and Westerners. He notes that there developed in Russian Eurasian culture a romanticized view of the agricultural life, with “striking similarities to Thomas Jefferson’s idealised agrarian society,” which served to promote the gemeinschaft (p. 137). Unfortunately, instability in the early twentieth century led to the Communist takeover, which was a major neglect of the gemeinschaft (all described by the author in several pages). The Boris Yeltsin period is described as a “criminal revolution” with neoliberal economic reform plunging the nation into chaos, poverty, and near-colony status with the West (p. 140). Putin’s emergence as a leader, however, brought stability, in part, by nationalizing the country’s natural resources. Diesen concludes, “Russia is at a civilisation crossroads as it grows in strength at a time when a post-Western world is emerging” (p. 144).

The New Russia that has been developing during the Putin era is said to be characterized by a Eurasian resurgence and an embrace of post-postmodernism or neomodernism. As Diesen describes it, neomodernism is an alternative to postmodernism, representing “the return of order by erecting walls” while recognizing “the primacy of the nation-state as the ideal vehicle to balance the traditional and modern” (p. 148). Due to the dynamics of the post-Cold War, Russia was prevented from integrating with the West. Over time, this turned out not to matter since the international power balance was shifting toward Asia. With Europe suffering stagnation, the West ceased being a role model it once was: “The embrace of multiculturalism, third-wave feminism, and identity politics were all symptoms of postmodernism gradually deconstructing Western civilisation” (p. 150).

The end of the Soviet period, Diesen states, freed Russia from ideology, thereby allowing it to be pragmatic, something the West, tethered to its “end of history” mentality, has been unable to do. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address, which castigated both Communism and capitalism for failing to consider the spiritual, is now regarded as a prelude to Russia’s new path. That the former dissident near the end of his life was a supporter of Putin lends further support to this narrative of a Russian revival of romantic nationalism that balances the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft; however, this leaves out some important details: “Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, before Mr. Putin showed his true colors with cold-blooded murders of opposition figures, the creation of an authoritarian state and the invasion of Ukraine and Crimea.”[10]

Finally, Decay offers an explanation for why Russia has become a beacon to the Western populist movement. With fewer traditions being maintained in Europe, “conservatives gravitate towards romantic nationalism and authoritarianism in an effort to restore the past.” In such situations, Diesen continues, “the traditionalist or nationalist looks towards the gemeinschaft-based civilisation at the periphery as an ally” (p. 164). The peripheral choices for Europe, as already noted, constitutes America, Islam, and Russia. According to Diesen, America is not a viable choice because “American culture goes the way of the dodo as religion and tradition decline, while the vulgarity of its popular culture loses its ability to distract from the decadence”; and as for Islam, “it has little capacity to offer renewal of culture” due to “lack of commonality or cultural harmonisation” (p. 165). Consequently, populists in Europe, as well as in America, are looking toward Moscow as an ally due to Russia’s “unapologetic advocacy for the traditional, spiritual, and the nation-state” (p. 166).

Readers who are interested in learning why the Far Right, in both Europe and the United States, is attracted to Putin’s Russia will gain insight by reading Decay. This developing story has been in the news for some time. Near the start of this century it was reported that white supremacists like David Duke were trekking to Russia to engage with Russian nationalists.[11] Also, right-wing conferences, such as the International Russian Conservative Forum, have been held in Russia and these no doubt were encouraged by Putin to cultivate “useful Western idiots” for the purpose of advancing his foreign agenda.[12] In 2017, The Atlantic published a piece on “how the Russian president became the ideological hero of nationalists everywhere.”[13] Diesen may simply be elaborating on these developments, offering an academic eye, but some of his ideas seem to fit in with the alt-right. He occasionally slips in a supportive comment, such as, “authoritarianism is usually understood as being negative, yet it is also a moral virtue” (p. 172). As earlier noted, Decay borrows some ideas from the German fascist Oswald Spengler, plus it refers to Edward Luttwak’s “Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future” as a “renowned essay,” and it quotes Pat Buchanan and the ideas of Steve Bannon with apparent approval (p. 171).[14]

Besides the tilt of the book, namely, Diesen’s apparent concord with authoritarianism and his refusal to use a double-edged sword when offering analysis of all positions, what is striking is its throwback to yesteryear. Reading Decay brings to mind Pyotr Yakovlevich Chaadayev, the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher who likewise believed Russia was uniquely positioned to provide solutions to the world’s problems: “I have a deep conviction that we [Russians] are called upon to resolve the greater part of the social problems, to perfect the greater part of the ideas which have arisen in older societies, to pronounce judgment on the most serious questions which trouble the human race. I have often said and I like to repeat that we are by the very nature of things made to serve as a real jury for the many suits which are being tried before the great tribunals of the world.”[15] There is nothing new under the sun, except this latest incarnation of Russian messianic thinking comes about 185 years afterward and this time it is being offered by a foreigner, though an obvious Russophile, who perhaps drank not Kool-Aid but kvass. But when he refers to Russia’s incursions into neighboring countries as “nation-building initiatives,” one can only think of Kool-Aid (p. 176). Diesen fails to consider that today’s Russia has excessive hubris of its own, whether it is the use of polonium against political expats in the UK, the annexation of Crimea and the covert war in eastern Ukraine, the doping scandal in its national sports program, the cyber-interference in American elections, or the disregard of nuclear treaties. Since the election process in Russia has not been free and fair, we have no way of knowing whether or not Putin’s gemeinschaft is a Potemkin village.

Notes

[1]. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919), in Readings to Accompany Experience Humanities, vol. 2, ed. Roy T. Matthews and F. DeWitt Platt (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014), 286.

[2]. Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore and the Russian People and Socialism, trans. Moura Budberg and Richard Wollheim (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956), 10.

[3]. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Airmont Publishing Company, 1967), 54.

[4]. Ibid., 53.

[5]. However, there is the occasional typo, such as “while” when it should be “whole” and “completely halt” when it should be “complete halt” (pp. 149, 179).

[6]. Diesen’s binary structure is suggestive of the culture wars. See James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); and the introductions in Roger Chapman and James Ciment, eds., Culture Wars in America: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Voices, and Viewpoints, 3 vols. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2014).

[7]. Diesen, who seems unaware that Russia is in some way or another also a postmodern society, has no engagement with Michael Epstein, The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism (Washington, DC: National Council for Soviet and East European Research, 1993).

[8]. Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), observes how “victimhood” claims are a problem of the Right as much as they are of the Left.

[9]. This kind of statement, thrown in an argument about postmodernism, is revealing. It also says something about how the author analyzes. Diesen fails to distinguish formal communication by the US government (during the Cold War or after) and popular discourse. Surely during the Cold War there were Americans who actually did regard all Soviet leaders as being one and the same, but US officials were above that. Official Washington, especially of late, has not been referring to Putin as being like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. Interestingly, the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman, in Forever Flowing (New York: New York Review of Books, 2009), dared to suggest that Vladimir Lenin was an oppressive and ruthless authoritarian who bears responsibility for paving the way for Stalinism. That novel was censored during the Nikita Khrushchev period, even though Khrushchev was one of the Soviet moderates. If applying Diesen’s analytical methods, Grossman would have to be a postmodernist for lumping Lenin with Stalin.

[10]. Michael Scammell, “The Writer Who Beat an Empire,” op-ed, New York Times, December 12, 2018.

[11]. “White Supremacist Duke Takes Message to Russia,” Toledo Blade, February 3, 2001.

[12]. See Neil MacFarquhar, “Right-Wing Groups Find Haven, for a Day, in Russia,” New York Times, March 23, 2015.

[13]. Franklin Foer, “It’s Putin’s World,” The Atlantic, March 2017, 13-15.

[14]. Edward Luttwak, “Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,” London Review of Books, April 7, 1994, 3-6.

[15]. Peter Yakovlevich Chaadayev, Philosophical Letters & Apology of a Madman, trans. Mary-Barbara Zeldin (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 174.

Citation: Roger Chapman. Review of Diesen, Glenn, The Decay of Western Civilization and Resurgence of Russia: Between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. February, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53190

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.