An iconoclastic look at personality-based rule in democracies, I [Putinism]

April 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

We rely on democracy to protect our right to individuality because we believe that personal choice is worth defending. It seems like a simple enough equation, but recent years have seen its inversion: the cult of individuality has found a place at the very top tier of democratic rule. The  personalities of those ruling are becoming more important than the actual principles of rule.

In no way can this be made compatible with democracy proper.

A small body of academic literature has been developing over the last decade referring to the personalization of democracy. A 2010 analysis defines the phenomenon as “individual political actors hav[ing] become more prominent at the expense of parties & collective identities” (Karvonen, The Personalization of Politics 4). It corresponds to the cult of individualization that seems to pervade every aspect of life today, blurring the distinction between leader & celebrity, oligarch & hero. The governator was  just the beginning.

For a fuller definition, we might turn to Vittoria Camprara & Zimbardo:

Perceptions of the personal characteristics of candidates competing in the political arena have gained considerable importance in a world that acknowledges the importance of persuasion &  consent in the exercise of power, &  in which the influence of images conveyed by the media is pervasive. Personality, in fact, now accounts for a considerable portion of the variance in candidate preference accorded by voters, often more than traditional political programs. (Personalizing Politics 584)

In effect, citizens  — supposedly empowered through individualization — look for mirrors of themselves to elect, assuming that this is the best way to protect their  own interests. Not only does this prevent the election of leaders belonging to minorities, it  also encourages the homogenization of society [people trying to make themselves as similar to the leader so as to have more political sway or rights] under the idol of presidency.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the prototype of personality-based rule in today’s discourse.

Few would take issue with the notion that there is a cult of personality happening in modern-day Russia — the President not appearing in public for 11 days caused a global stir, in fact.  The Telegraph  offers seven reasons to explain the Putin popularity cult after a November 2014 poll showed the leader’s popularity to be at 85 per cent, which might surprise those of us who focus on the fact that he has broken international law & continues to be unprosecuted. The reasons listed can be reduced to: decisiveness; satisfying the territorial claims of nationalists; identifying the state with himself; smearing, prosecuting, or co-opting potential rivals [although after the February 27 shooting of Boris Nemtsov, other forms of elimination have been imagined]; violations of media freedom; fear of dissidence; & a general rise in economic prosperity.

The shapes of Putinism are diverse. The residents of one town, Krasnokamsk, last month petitioned to rename their home Putin, to “raise the image of the city. With such a great name — the city is destined for prosperity”. Other soviet strategies are also used. Notably, it seems St. Petersburg will be graced with a permanent likeness of Putin this May — a 2008 proposal for a Moscow statue was rejected on the basis that the immortalization of Putin should be the decision of “future generations”. His image is used in a rather different — though no less glorifying — ways more commonly. Putin is undoubtedly treated as some sort of a sex icon. This helps to explain at least three things: (1) why his most stable support has always come from women; (2) the presence of the nationalist organization known as Putin’s Army which targets young female enthusiasts & threatens to tear up anyone smearing their president; (3) & this:

[NB: a Ukrainian version has been recorded as well]

But what exactly does it mean to be pro-Putin? Does it mean, for Russians, voting for economic stability or protecting national minorities in other states? Or nothing at all? Studies that have looked into Putinism as an ideology affirm it is the last of these. Gleb Pavlovsky agrees. He was one of two key advisors to Putin from 1999 to 2011; he has a unique insight into Putin’s outlook on life & rule better than almost anyone else’s. In an exclusive interview on the subject — given after being dismissed for opposing the third Presidency of the oligarch — Pavlovsky gives a guided tour into Putin’s mind: “The President is above them all, like a tsar. For Putin that is dogma. He thinks that in old societies and states there is a sense of order — people don’t aspire to destroy their opponent when they are victorious at the elections — and we don’t have that sense of order. He also thinks that all forms of power in Russia so far have been unperfected: he wants to build a strong, durable form of government.” It’s no wonder, then, that he insists on showing his soldierly chest.

A macrocosmic perspective of state as the extension of the ruler’s body dates back at least to the middle ages &, yes, does call Machiavelli to mind. That this might be impossible in a true democracy could be the popular opinion in the West, which has always liked to distinguish between it’s own problems & that of the East. But Russia is nominatively a democratic state. Could we have forgotten how to assess democracies? Regarding Russian expansion, isn’t it Putin that the EU & the US are afraid of & not Russia itself? That the country cannot actually afford a military conflict with the West is well-known, but the means of warfare have changed immensely over the last two decades — enough that most people wouldn’t recognize war. What Putin might be able to achieve is to undermine the principles on which the West is grounded as he pushes Germany or the USA to new types of aggression. Although, it could be that their democratic facades are not much better than Putin’s Russia.

Part II of this blog post series will question  the degrees of democracy & personality-based rule in the EU & its member states [for these are meant to be the models of democracy today & are polemic to Russia]. The series will conclude with Part III on the Balkan states & other imitation democracies.


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