"the socialism of fools", a formidable weapon in the hands of elites, a melancholic striving to recover something lost, Ilya Budraitskis, LeftEast, political ignorance and civic inadequacy, thought linking the upper and lower stratas, Vampires and Idiots
What Can We Learn from Vampires and Idiots?
by Ilya Budraitskis, March 9, 2020
In what follows, we have republished a chapter from Ilya Budraitskis’s new book, Мир, который построил Хантингтон и в котором живем все мы (The World Invented by Huntington in which We All Live. Moscow: Tsiolkovsky, 2020), following a review of the book by Vasily Kuzmin (translated from the Russian by Rossen Djagalov). Many thanks to Giuliano Vivaldi for the translation of Budraitskis’s own text and to the internet journal e-flux, where Vivaldi’s translation first appeared. Kuzmin’s review is available in Russian at the bottom of the page.
Vasily Kuzmin’s Review:
The Tsiolkovsky publishing house just brought out the new book of our comrade Ilya Budraiskis. It is a study of conservatism, starting from the emergence of this tradition to its concrete expressions in Russian society. Indeed, the reader will be particularly interested in the latter. Today’s conservative turn in Russian society represents a fascinating combination. Having originated on the ground of neoliberal reforms, it has shifted its rhetoric since then. If its initial discourse was about some “normalization” and the overcoming of the consequences of “shock therapy,” then towards the beginning of the 2010s this was no longer necessary.
After the Bolotnaya protests the Putin regime was forced to seek a different ideological legitimacy. It was precisely the regime [that] established the famous “spiritual foundations (“dukhovnye skrepy”), on which it still rests[,] and [that] proclaimed the imperative to defend the god-given Russian state from the assassination attempts of the revolutionaries, led by the evil West. “The silent majority,” in this logic, supports the state, assisted in this by the new conservative morality and culture. But there are problems with this morality. Ilya points out that even after proclaiming patriotism and homophobia, patriotic bureaucrats still send their children to London whereas Orthodox members of Parliament are having fun in private gay parties.
The author’s term “anti-revolution” is also very apt. This is the most precise characterization of the state ideology of the Russian federation in the next decade. It is precisely anti- rather than counter- since the latter assumes some new and social forms.
The paradox lies in the fact that the weaker the chances of a revolution, the more virulent is the state’s fear and repression. And it’s perfectly possible that its thoroughly exaggerated and inadequate cautionary measures will lead to a result [completely] opposite to the one intended.
The attention to conservative Russian values reached its peak during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, Huntington enjoyed a resurgence at the time: in his Clash of Civilizations, he predicted the division of the world into eight civilizations, defined by political culture and religious-ethical norms. To Russia he assigns the role of a core state of the aggressive “Orthodox civilization.”
For Huntington, such civilizational belonging amounts the most stable of properties. But after the peak there inevitably comes a decline. The commercialization of education and medicine, the pension reform, the sovereign internet and other “presents” to the population are clearly not helping the regime’s stability. Russia’s president is not opposed to playing the role of the eternal authoritarian leader.
The world Huntington invented has become the world Putin inhabits. Will the readers also want to live in this world, closing their mouths with conservative ideological pacifiers—this is the question that the author leaves us with. To understand the nature of the enemy is to get a trump card in the struggle with him. This is why Ilya Budraitskis’s book is so important and necessary reading for anyone who doesn’t want to accept the current status quo.
Ilya Budraitskis, “What Can We Learn From Vampires and Idiots,” from The World Invented by Huntington, in which We All Live:
The German socialist August Bebel once called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.” A fool from the lower classes, the thinking went, indignant at the existing state of things but unable or unwilling to locate the real source of his unhappiness in the capitalist mode of production, instead found a facile but false target in the Jews. The result of this fool’s bad decision would prove catastrophic: instead of joining the ranks of socialists, he became their fiercest and most dangerous adversary. “Socialist foolishness” merits neither indulgence nor understanding. It is, moreover, a formidable weapon in the hands of elites, who are wise enough to know how to exploit it.
This kind of connection between the foolishness of the lower classes and the devious resourcefulness of the upper strata is not unique to the massive fascist movements of the twentieth century. We are talking about here […] something more complex and multifaceted, which possesses a tremendous ability to adapt to the new circumstances faced by the conservative spirit today. This style of thought linking the upper and lower stratas is making electoral breakthroughs once again, like those of Trump in the Republican primaries in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK, and parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in Europe.
A film still from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver” shows Travis Bickle at a rally.
It has become a commonplace to say that support for such phenomena is a manifestation of protest. Astute observers are ever ready to discover hidden rational causes behind these irrational electoral expressions: the downfall of the welfare state, distrust of the establishment, or the consequences of austerity policies. However, when the radical Left invokes these grievances, it falls on deaf ears. But when they are reflected through the distorting mirror of conservative rhetoric, they strike a resounding chord.
This protest is expressed through a melancholic striving to recover something lost—to return to and repeat, through a disgruntled vote, a certain lost idyll. The global party of this “idiotism” (that is to say, political ignorance and civic inadequacy) is opposed today by an Enlightenment coalition of the political mainstream, the media, and a large section of the left-liberal public, who are all inclined to support the “lesser evil.” A conservative, reactionary wave is undoubtedly a significant evil, because it launches its offensive at the level of meanings and values: isolationism instead of openness, racism and sexism instead of tolerance and respect, coarseness and authoritarianism instead of pluralism and a culture of dialogue. The correct choice in each of these oppositions, it would seem, is clear to everyone who is not a complete idiot. But the masses of the “unenlightened,” the ill-mannered, and the irrational are growing, and their leaders have scored a series of victories—as though they know something about society and its future that is inaccessible to those in the enlightened coalition.
This figure of the sinister conservative subject who knows enlightened society better than it knows itself was a significant presence in the historical Enlightenment during a long stretch of its history.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the figure of the vampire emerged in European culture at the same time as the birth of political conservativism. This vampire, first appearing in the pages of a well-known novel by John Polidori, was completely unlike the insurgent corpse of today’s popular superstitions. The new vampire was a Byronic beauty, an intellectual, and an aristocrat whose easy prey were the naive, enlightened representatives of high society, for whom there existed nothing beyond the limits of a rational, knowable world. The vampire carried out its attacks with impunity, existing on the frontier between the rational world of the living and the irrational world of the dead—the latter having been denied and displaced by the Enlightenment.
An astute representative of the retreating pre-bourgeois era which the bourgeois could not completely bury, the aristocratic vampire posessed the secret of its unconscious. He alone was capable of revealing the contingencies of the Enlightenment’s triumph, its hidden ambiguities and limitations.
An illustration from Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845–47).
Such were the first astute conservative critics of the French Revolution, such as de Maistre and Burke. They did not deny the Revolution itself—did not doubt its significance as a colossal transformation. Indeed, for them it signified something greater than it did for the revolutionaries themselves. These critics were able to discern how the revolution conceived of itself (i.e., as the triumphant victory of reason over prejudice) and posit its place in an enduring history which was essentially represented as a grand conglomeration of prejudices. Behind the illusion of the triumph of freedom, the conservatives saw dependence on, and restraint by, circumstances.