On the Ideology of Superiority, its Detractors and Promoters
At the end of 2020, Liz Truss, a UK government minister, shocked some, and amused others, by mentioning the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault in a highly unusual speech. “While we were taught about racism and sexism, — the Tory minister said, — there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write. These ideas have their roots in postmodernist philosophy — pioneered by Foucault — that puts societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view — truth and morality are all relative.”
The speech appeared in full on the UK government website but less than 24 hours later those particular words were redacted. An opposition politician called it “rant” and “bonkers”. The government almost recanted, admitting that Truss’ attack on “the failed ideas of the left” could not be part of the government’s official message.
I find the speech extremely interesting and, by contemporary political standards, very honest. And that is not just a matter of style. The modern Ideology of Democracy is characterised precisely by leaving out what would be its fundamental message. It is implied, not declared. That is its main difference from the ideologies of the XX century. In a way, those were more honest, even if, some, more abhorrent. The modern ideology’s ultimate message might also be ineffable even to its proponents. This is a matrix kind of ideology that most people, politicians included, are too “within” to be able to define.
The government removed the speech not because it was not truthful, but precisely because it was.
Politicians sell policies and need to do some explaining to the extent they market them, but exposing the ideology in any thought-provoking way contradicts its purpose. People were mainly upset by the speech because Truss pitted anti-racism and anti-sexism against learning to read, write and do other things useful in the competition for the sweet prizes of the free market. From that standpoint, Foucault was an odd overkill. But Truss got carried away and, inadvertently, pointed to dialectics beyond ideology in a routine sense of the word.
Foucault investigated the meaning of power and control in the ways we think and interact. It is hardly news to anyone that populations are controlled not just by direct surveillance, physical force and various threats, but also by the appeals to conscience, religion and a system of incentives. Foucault’s analysis of social control and power relations was particularly consistent and radical and he considered virtually everything in our social, cultural and personal lives, even our frustration with ourselves, to be a result of control. True, he did not only blame governments for all that, but confronting his theory of power, the “Discipline” and “Punishment”, would be too much even for such a brave pre-Christmas mood Liz Truss must have been in delivering her speech.
What she said and what she did not say represent two levels of ideology. Conservative values have a counterpart in the left-wing ones and they fight it out on one level. But the other level of ideology sees those antagonistic positions as acceptable parts of democracy, as long as they are kept under control. From that level’s point of view the “culture wars” are a controlled process. This level of ideology has a controlling and unifying function. Its narrative is the superiority of democracy while attacking opponents outside of its sphere means control of the acceptable debate inside.
Revealing honestly one’s identity in the “culture wars”, is too juicy and intimate a position for a government member to be spotted in, as this undermines the higher level of the unifying Ideology of control. Trump was doing just that, big way, and so he was considered an enemy of democracy long before he tried to overturn the election results. The Ideology of Democracy needs to attack “non-democratic” narratives, and Trump failed to do that, on top of taking sides in “culture wars”. A UK government minister should never do it; if anyone may come close to articulating the narrative of the Ideology of control (or democracy), it is the foreign secretary specialising in attacking outsiders, the Russians, for example.
There are enough targets for the Ideology to attack: enemy propagandists, conspiracy theorists, trolls, hackers et al. Those uncanny Russians prone to interfere and infiltrate, poison and blow up; as Obama’s director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, the Russians “are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favour, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique”. But there are dangerous natives too, the Westerners going too far in questioning their own governments, let alone exposing the war crimes. The Ideology of Democracy is, by definition, very flexible, but very robust at the same time. The Ideology will find just the right balance in separating what is already pointless to defend (e.g. some of the Iraq war lies) from what one can still use to smear an opponent: the stigma of freakishness, conspiracy theory peddling, or even treason. As one close associate of Assange’s put it: “Julian, you’ve gone too far!”
In “Beyond Good and Lying” I argued that a real power-of-the-people, unlike democracy in its current form, would be much more careful about the demarcation of the border between legitimate dissent and conspiracy theory. It is a painful subject, or rather, it has to be. It has to be dealt with despite the ungainliness of the problem.
Foucault maintained that the state wants individual unhappiness to appear as a purely personal psychological problem, which it isn’t. It is a result of social control by the powers that be.
(The same should be said about gun and police violence in the U.S, among countless other “issues” the Ideology wants to be compartmentalised and emotionalised). “Conspiracy theories” can be seen in similar light. Firstly, such phenomena are not exclusively the fault of those who get involved in it, but also of society as a whole. And secondly, the system uses the “conspiracy theory” stigma in its censorship operations.
While expressing such criticism of society I wonder how much it can change in practice. That question is as important as any theoretical one. And so I am to offer a practical approach to the conundrum.
In “Beyond Good and Lying” I suggested that if we have not been very successful in solving our problems by imposing a high moral standard on society, the default position of our worldview should be perhaps that humans are weak and not bound by the moral law the XVIII century Prussian philosopher Kant claimed to carry inside himself. The new premise being that all people (including governments and NGOs, but also the I, the author of a text, including this article) lie, we need to develop an equivalent of the falsifiability method Karl Popper offered for science. Or let’s put it like this. If the presumption of innocence (truthfulness) in the intellectual world (including journalism) has not worked well, let us presume guilt (untruthfulness) and let the author prove him-/herself right.
According to some, I am a peddler of a conspiracy theory. I investigated a criminal plot known as the Magnitsky case. The unusual part was that I had believed one version of the case to be true and found it to be false while working on a film about it. In the end, I made a film that told the story of my discovery, while describing the version I had initially believed, as well as the version I put together as a result of my investigation. The film was structured as a falsifiable case. By its very form and contents, it was open to being proven wrong. It was attacked and censored, but all my attempts to allow my opponents to prove me wrong failed. Instead it is said of me, as one official put it, that I am entitled to my opinion that the official Magnitsky case was a hoax, just as some people may believe that 9/11 was a false flag attack.
And yet, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (§§202- 205) confirmed the key thesis of my version of the Magnitsky case, and Norwegian censorship report admitted that the censorship of the film had been one of the most prominent examples of a failure of the freedom of the press in Norway. And Norway is in better shape than most countries in terms of media freedom; in Germany, for example, the fact that the film was censored (by ZDF/ARTE) with the knowledge, if not on instructions, of politicians, was simply covered up. The point is that the published evidence that the official Magnitsky version is a hoax may coexist with the governments and the mainstream media turning the hoax into a prime political narrative. Such “coexistence” does not make sense, or does it? Logically it doesn’t. Ideologically it does. And that is by no means a peaceful coexistence, but an unequal fight. The Ideology suppresses logic and those trying to use it.
And yet, though Magnitsky was not the hero fighter against corruption the Ideology makes him out to be, he did die in a Russian jail. That is to be condemned, as even if he was ill, he probably could have been saved by better medical care. Now Alexei Navalny is said by his supporters to be ill in a prison camp, even if the authorities claim that this is just the way the opposition is whipping up the crowds. There is a certain ethical difficulty in transmitting the knowledge I have of the Navalny case in such circumstances. And yet it must be done, as that difficulty is itself a part of my subject matter.
Once in March of 2017 the Financial Times asked me to write an Op-Ed on a spike in the Russian opposition activities. I wrote, among other things, that though Navalny was seen in the West as the leader of the Russian opposition movement, he was a divisive figure even within the opposition. Why? Because he insulted foreign migrants and posted hate-speech videos. An FT editor asked me to provide evidence for my claims. After I did, he stopped responding to my emails, and my piece was never published. It wasn’t the first time I was writing for FT, but the first time they decided not to publish what I wrote, even if they had already approved the text apart from that reference to Navalny’s racist slurs.
I am afraid this is a vivid illustration of my ideology thesis, whereby two levels of ideology are not only distinct but clashing. The liberal, anti-racist ideology is trumped by the ideology of control. The latter sees the racist Navalny as an asset in the fight against Russia as the enemy of democracy. The values of humanity and racial equality sacred, admittedly, to a good citizen, are suddenly worthless as they are in the way of the Ideology of Democracy’s geopolitical ambitions.
Now, what I didn’t mention in the unpublished piece for FT was the fact that Navalny, being a popular blogger, was the main distributor of the Magnitsky hoax in Russia, and Bill Browder, the author of the hoax, praised Navalny for that to me personally at a meeting in Oslo. Browder said that Navalny should be Russia’s next president. If that happens, Browder would be able to return to Russia where he had lived for many years, before becoming “Putin’s enemy No 1”. That is his version of the events. The Russians convicted him for tax evasion.
The essence of the Magnitsky hoax is in dressing up a case of financial fraud (by a Western group) as a human rights crime (by the Russian government) and establishing a whole legal and political “Magnitsky process” to cement an alibi.
The case is the matrix of the West’s relations with and attitudes towards Russia. It is bad news for her if the man who wants to be the country’s next president embraces the Magnitsky fraudulent narrative.
There are other interesting and relevant facts: about a man known as Navalny’ chief ideologue, who is also the chief coordinator of pro-Navalny mass protests; and about the above mentioned UK Foreign Secretary. The latter, Dominic Raab, since his time as a back bencher MP was the closest ally of Bill Browder in the UK political elite, personally promoting the UK’s version of Browder’s U.S. “Magnitsky Act”. The chief of Navalny’s operations is the Lithuanian based Leonid Volkov who in 2019 made known his position on Julian Assange:
“Both Assad and Assange badly need to be put on trial, I have zero pity for either of them.”
The Navalny case became more complex with his poisoning. It was a very strange affair, where many things made little sense. Navalny claimed that was not the first attempt by the Russian counter-intelligence to kill him, and the orders came directly from Putin. You cannot theoretically exclude that Russian secret services have grown so incompetent as to miss the target at least three times, but given such experience, be it unsuccessful, and the decision to kill him coming from Putin himself, Navalny surviving two days in a Russian hospital looks like an episode from a wrong script. The hospital situation would have been perfect for the killers to finish their business. Compounding the absurdity the Russians allow Navalny’s transfer to Germany, creating ideal conditions for being accused of murder in a global PR campaign, resulting in sanctions, calls to stop the North Stream pipeline project etc.
But perhaps even more difficult to fathom is Navalny’s return to Russia. Once at the peak of my own struggle with the Russian government, when it was announced that my film about Litvinenko was selected for the Cannes film festival, my house in Finland was broken into and gutted with a picture of dying Litvinenko placed on my bed. I had been planning to go to Russia for an urgent business, but I cancelled the trip. I subsequently made more “anti-Russian” films, was in a war zone and can claim that I am not a coward. But going to Russia after what appeared to be a clear warning did not feel like courage to me. It felt unnatural, irrational, counterproductive even, and so I didn’t go. One can always say Navalny is simply more courageous, and putting myself into the picture allows for a less theoretical judgement, bringing it closer to falsifiability described above. But giving yourself up to the people who had tried to kill you many times, pulled off coordinated operations across the vast country and put you through the experience of dying Navalny described in the Spiegel interview seems to me as unnatural as blowing yourself up for a cause.
Is this a subjective thing to say? Of course it is. And even if the comparison had something going for it, given Navalny’s cause is considered just and he wouldn’t be actually blowing up or hurting anyone else, there is no need to find fault in his return. But it is certainly unusual, even for a courageous politician. Is there something deeply shameful in a sceptical thought flashing through one’s mind here? Yet people are shamed, just for using common sense in this case. How dare you?! And yes, the shaming is another example of ideological control.
People start guessing when what they get by way of information is thin on detail and critical thinking and rich on pathos and ideology. We are so used to politicians, and some journalists, spouting tautologic banalities that we don’t register that their statements sometimes contain zero information, performing a purely ritualistic function. But sometimes the “information” has even a negative value, less than zero, so to speak. What do I mean by that?
The Chancellor Merkel announces that “Mr. Navalny was without any doubt poisoned by a chemical weapon of the so-called Novichok group.” Now, Russian politicians claim that Germany did not cooperate adequately with Russia on the question of the poison’s composition, and consider OPSW politically biased (there has been a controversy about OPSW’s Syria investigations), but it would be a stretch to claim that even the OPSW’s report completely supported the Chancellor’s categorical (“zweifelsfrei”) description of the poison as a chemical weapon of the Novichok-group. OPCW said that “the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics as the toxic chemicals belonging to schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15… (“Novichok” A.N.). This cholinesterase inhibitor is not listed in the Annex on Chemicals to the Convention.” But it is worse than that. According to Marc-Michael Blum, a German expert in chemical weapons testing who used to work for the OPCW, it is not possible to determine the source of the poison through the biomedical tests performed on the samples from Navalny by the Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
Did Merkel say that Russia was the source of the poison? No she did not. What she did say though, was that Navalny had been poisoned in order to be silenced and that there are questions that only (italics A.N.) the Russian government can and must answer. What are those questions that only the Russian government can answer? Why are we not told? Because she knows as well as her experts that the findings do not prove the Russian government had poisoned Navalny, which means, for example, that someone else could have done it, to frame Russia. That is possible logically, and talking about mysterious questions the Russian government should answer logically adds nothing to the equation. But ideologically it makes perfect sense.
Leaving out those “questions that only the Russian government can answer” creates a logical hole in Merkel’s reasoning; it deprives her case of falsifiability. It is neither true nor false. It is difficult to believe that she does that unintentionally. It is risk free. She is in the position she is in because she has learned and exercises, like an illusionist, the power of ideology. Instead of seeing that dodgy logic for what it is the public draws a conclusion their leader does not. Most people are convinced Putin had poisoned Navalny. It’s all in the language isn’t it? It takes on a life of its own and soon we read “The global chemical weapons watchdog said Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a previously undeclared (italics mine A.N.) variant of a Soviet-era nerve agent.” (NBC) “Undeclared variant” — by whom? The Russians? The Soviets? OPCW said they had added Novichok to their list, but never had the stuff found in Navalny’s body on it. NBC clearly takes liberties with definitions (by both “undeclared” and “variant of…”), as most other journalists in this case.
There are inconsistencies in the official German and Navalny’s versions of the events, including conflicting statements about poison found on or in a water bottle, the timing of the poisoning, the question of who travelled with him from Russia to Germany etc. Why asking such questions seems such an impossible task? Whose “national security” is thereby endangered? But there are some strange things about the Russian position as well. For me, the one serious question I have for the Russian government concerns the phone conversation Navalny had (and taped) with an alleged participant of the poisoning operation. It did sound like the person, an FSB chemistry expert, had been involved in a clean-up of Navalny’s clothes. I’ve listened carefully to the recording and found unexplained peculiarities in it. But the Russian government, on the other hand, provided no coherent explanation of that episode either.
One is clear, the case has been heavily weaponised for the purposes to attack those outside of the Ideology of Democracy’s “coverage”. Countering the version installed in the minds of the western public with the help of the Ideology would be dismissed as coming from outside of democracy, considered “alternative facts’’, or alien rather, with no democratic rights, such as the right to debate.
That rejection, from the standpoint of the majority of the Russians, has a dark aspect. People see the western ideological bias as a racialist anti-Russian presumption of guilt. As with the Magnitsky case, Russia is not given a fair trial. Outnumbered in the mainstream international media field by a huge factor, prosecuted in a language, both figuratively, and literally, it often doesn’t understand, it is expected to answer questions that presuppose blame. Cooperation means self-accusation. Invited to be defendant in ideological show-trials Russia responds by hastily building an ideology of its own. Apart from building more rockets, jets, tanks and submarines.
Navalny’s organisation, FBK is now threatened with being declared extremist, which entails a summary clampdown. I cannot support that. It is a dangerous precedent and seems to prove Navalny’s point. He exposes the corruption of the elites and they shut him up for that. But it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. For years Navalny was able to publish his accusations in total freedom, even if many were conjectural and crudely populist, while the West claimed that Russia was not only corrupt but also utterly illiberal and intolerant of the opposition. The latter was simply not true. But soon it might be.
If someone hopes that power will just slip from the current type of leadership into the hands of the West’s favourites’ under the West’s pressure, one is mistaken. Something like that was imaginable and did happen, in the Ukraine, and even there not peacefully, and not quite conclusively. But in Russia, a pro-western change is a project of truly historic civilisational proportions and can only be attempted through a major cataclysm. Whether or not it will succeed, it is likely to involve a violent civil conflict. Simply because the majority distrusts the West, and the western Ideology of Superiority can only perpetuate that mistrust, not alleviate it.
But on the global scale, the Ideology is still strong, so much so that it is still influential within Russia itself. And that is what the West counts on. But what are the real numbers? And the dynamics, the trends? They may not be in the West’s favour in the long run. There is something in the Russian psyche that ultimately doesn’t respond well to the pressure from outside. The ideology Russia is hastily developing for itself, in response to that pressure, is known as Eurasian. China will not do Russia any favours per se. But the two have one important thing in common. They are both on the receiving end of the harsh radiation the western Ideology exposes outsiders to. And that is a stronger case for building a common defence than the West might hope. Generally, the West still being the most powerful civilisation, the ideology, apart from the economy, is the key to its cohesion and influence, while economy and ideology overlap in practice. The ideological West is still larger than the physical one but is shrinking. A glance at the map gives an idea of what might happen when the ideology will be contained within the West’s geographical contours.
What is known there as “illiberalism” is not my choice, but I am reporting that “liberalism” pushes others, e.g. my compatriots, to make that choice not in the latter’s favour. Unsurprisingly, it is the very language that lends “liberalism” its superiority status that is thereby rejected. Unless we find a channel outside of the Ideology, the break-down of communication will develop into something far more dangerous than a conflict of narratives.