Vladimir Putin's portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

Monster in the Sovereign Myth: Putin’s Russia and the Image of Leviathan

For those fleeing missiles and tanks in Ukraine, one despot’s emergency is the oppression of another sovereign state. In Putin’s increasingly isolated view, Russia is not whole without Ukraine – whether that Russia appears in a nineteenth-century tsarist or a twentieth-century Soviet fantasy… The monster in the despot’s mind, even one that seems less and less in touch with reality, can wreak real havoc in the world. Putin is no longer the shadowy dictator behind serial poisonings of those who oppose him, no longer the face on the wall behind a power-hungry mayor in a movie; his campaign of wholesale destruction has come within twelve miles of the Polish border.  

By Heidi Hart 

In the 2014 Russian film Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a car mechanic named Kolya faces a string of misfortunes that echoes the tribulations of Job: the local mayor is after his house and land, his wife sleeps with the Moscow attorney trying to help him, her body is found on the rocks by the seashore, and he is imprisoned for her murder. In the end (the spoiler is important here), the mayor takes over Kolya’s property to build a lavish church for his friend the priest, who tells his congregation to “trust in God” in the final scene. My short summary doesn’t do justice to the film’s long moments of grim beauty: sweeps of barren land and power lines and sea, a rainy windshield reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 Once Upon a Time in Anatoliaand a whale skeleton that somehow companions Kolya’s despondent son on the beach. 

The whale is emblematic of the film’s Leviathan title, standing for the immense sea creature God tells Job that he will never comprehend, in the poetic climax of the biblical text. Amid several other films with the same title in the past 35 years (including a sci-fi horror movie and a docu-fantasia on the US fishing industry), this one plays on the frightening mystery of unknowable life in the ocean, but in a more allegorical way. The forces at work in – and against – Kolya’s life are centered not in the sea but in the office of the mayor, who harangues the Moscow lawyer in front of a portrait of Putin. This small man’s oversized ambition, to expropriate a citizen’s home for his own project in the pocket of the church (though he claims it’s to be used for electrical infrastructure), is as senseless as Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine, all in the service of a narcissistic, nationalist myth. 

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat has pointed out, strongman figures have several traits in common, despite individual forms of “charisma” that attract populist sentiment: they “channel nostalgia” while imagining a grandiose nationalist future; they share “paranoia” and “narcissism”; they “need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography”; and they rely on “toxic, arrogant masculinity … they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength.” In the office scene in Leviathan, the mayor uses Putin’s portrait to make himself seem larger and to legitimize his own arrogant project. Putin looms behind him, more threateningly if one sees the movie in 2022, as bombs explode in schools and homes and hospitals across Ukraine in present time. The elusive monster lives.

The word “leviathan” has not always sounded menacing in a political context. In his 1651 treatise Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes used the biblical image to stand for a more benign form of sovereignty: a social contract in which individuals trust in a despot who knows best and acts for the common good. The book’s frontispiece image shows an oversized human figure with scales for skin, representing the multiplicity of individuals in the social contract. This idealistic notion has of course failed to hold up amid the power grabs and barbaric wars of the past century, and it seems even more out of touch today. Political philosophers who have brought Hobbes’ idea into debate with modern history include Carl Schmitt, whose 1938 The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes was a form of reckoning with his sense of betrayal in the Nazi party – and an effort to detach the leviathan image from its own mythology, seeing it instead, via Hobbes, as a “machinic antimonster” (Wainwright and Mann, 2018: 14). This text’s anti-Semitic, anti-democratic strain works against the pluralism Hobbes’ own text attempts to allow, favoring instead an idea of nationalist homogeneity. 

The political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (among many others) has engaged with Hobbes and Schmitt in showing what happens when sovereignty insists on a permanent “state of exception,” as occurred after September 11, 2001 in the United States. “The declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government” (Agamben, 2005: 14). In the Afghanistan and Iraq war decades, with amplified state powers encroaching on civil rights at home, the US became an example of sovereign power far exceeding Hobbes’ beneficent ideal. In comparison with the current era of growing populist nationalism around the world, however, even George W. Bush’s falsely justified “Operation Iraqi Freedom” seems (also falsely) benign. Walter Benjamin’s 1921 insight that a “state of exception” or “emergency” can be the norm continues to haunt political philosophy today: “The tradition of the oppressed classes teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about the real state of emergency” (Benjamin, 1969: 258). 

A scene from the movie “Leviathan”: The mayor harangues the Moscow lawyer in front of a portrait of Putin.

For those fleeing missiles and tanks in Ukraine, one despot’s emergency is the oppression of another sovereign state. In Putin’s increasingly isolated view, Russia is not whole without Ukraine – whether that Russia appears in a nineteenth-century tsarist or a twentieth-century Soviet fantasy. Waking the “leviathan” of an idealized Mother Russia baffles many in Moscow (at least those with access to factual news), as much as those in Europe and the US, watching our own leaders walk the precarious line between military aid and outright intervention. The monster in the despot’s mind, even one that seems less and less in touch with reality, can wreak real havoc in the world. Putin is no longer the shadowy dictator behind serial poisonings of those who oppose him, no longer the face on the wall behind a power-hungry mayor in a movie; his campaign of wholesale destruction has, as of this writing, come within twelve miles of the Polish border.  

This dictator has caught the world off guard. Even in a recent, research-based novel postulating how the next world war might unfold in 2034, China is the aggressor against Taiwan, baiting a US warship and launching a conflict between a future form of NATO and a China-Russia-Iran alliance, in a time when today’s brands of populist nationalism seem to have dissolved. The worst thing Russia does is destroy undersea internet cables, along with some sharks in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I reviewed this book last month, I took issue with its fleeting references to climate crisis, sensing that the heavy wars to come will be more local, as water and food and breathable air become dangerously scarce. I also felt the authors placed too much nostalgic value on the epic-movie, “good, clean war” of tanks, fighter jets, and a common enemy (Hart, 2022). Now, seeing these machines in live and horrifying footage makes me think history is cyclical in a more literal than just ideological way. I did not see this coming, though I worried about Putin’s posturing and “de-nazification” propaganda. Even if the US is, for once, on the right side of this conflict, that’s cold comfort as the news of bombings and civilian deaths grinds on, and as the nuclear threat (that old Cold War leviathan) raises its head, however vaguely, in anti-NATO rhetoric.

Putin’s invasion is especially sinister in a world just wobbling out of a pandemic and amid a climate threat that this conflict only exposes and increases, with oil production ramping up to meet the resulting energy crisis. Developed countries’ fossil-fuels addiction has become painfully clear. What forms of leviathan will rise up next to haunt, torment, or maybe even aid us humans and the many other species now at risk? A 2018 book addressing this question, before history’s latest turn made it far messier, is in fact titled Climate Leviathan. The authors trace their term through Hobbes and Schmitt, Benjamin and Agamben, to posit three possible models for climate-crisis response: “Capitalist Leviathan,” or technocratic adaptation in the neoliberal vein; “Climate Mao,” or large-scale Communist-style efforts to reduce emissions; “Climate Behemoth,” or reactionary resistance, Trump-style, to enforcing regulation or reduction of carbon profits; and “Climate X,” or environmental organizing efforts in the form of “mass boycott, divestment, strike, blockade, reciprocity” (Wainwright and Mann, 2018: 182). 

Though they could not have foreseen today’s monstrous show of “sovereign” power, Climate Leviathan’s authors place their own bets on “Climate X,” which can apply to anti-strongman uprisings as well. If the sheer number of protesters risking the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, not to mention bottom-up resistance in Ukraine, is any indication, there is a chance that activism may have some effect. The “village consciousness” or collective, wandering narrator in Ukrainian literature, as in Nikolai Gogol’s equally disturbing and hilarious stories (for all his tug-of-war between Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms), gives me hope. Films like Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan remind me what’s at stake, though, and that the persecuted underdog does not always win, or even survive. The end of the current news-ticker and satellite-image movie that I cannot bear to see is a dictator glorying in his stolen edifice and asking for the people’s trust.


References

Agamben, Giorgio. (2005). State of Exception. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (1969). Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Wainwright, Joel and Geoff Mann. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.

MEP-Panel1

Mapping European Populism: Panel 1 – Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU 

Moderator

Boguslawa Dobek-Ostrowska (Professor, the chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, Poland).

Speakers

“Populism in Poland 2015-2021. A short journey from theory to praxis,” by Dominika Kasprowicz (Professor of political science, the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Poland).

“The Orbán regime after 12 years, before the April 2022 general elections,” by Zoltan Adam (Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Economic Policy and Labour Economics, Institute of Economic and Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest).

“Scanning the far right in Croatia and Serbia,” by Vassilis Petsinis (The University of Tartu, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies).

“Comparison of authoritarian and populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia,” by Miroslav Mareš (Professor, the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University).

 

Anti-vaccine activists protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's official residence in Albany, New York on June 14, 2020. Photo: Wirestock Creators.

The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic 

Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. March 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0011

 

Paolo Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 

Reviewed by Maximilian Wolf*

The Covid-19 pandemic has not been an easy time to be a populist. Those in power, whether it is Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Boris Johnson in the UK, quickly demonstrated the dangerous insufficiencies of populist governance — from corrupt PPE deals to unsubstantiated accusations against China and the peddling of dangerous conspiracy theories. Those still vying for influence in their respective democracies, meanwhile, were forced to change tactics as lockdown measures proved, overall, popular in most Western countries and new alliances with the ‘anti-vax’ crowd made for some strange bedfellows. 

Today, two years from its onset, the pandemic has ushered in some significant and lasting changes in populist discourse throughout the world; populist popularity has largely stabilized — Johnson and Bolsonaro, though weakened, remain in power, Trump lost his election but still received well over 74 million votes (the second highest tally ever, behind Biden’s 81 million) — but their reputation has, on the whole, been lastingly damaged by record case and death numbers, fiscal mismanagement and alarmist discourse regarding vaccines that has struggled to mobilize more than the most conspiratorial among their followers. For all its damage, Covid seems to have provided democracies with an overdue booster shot of healthy skepticism towards populist politics. 

The flipside of this coin, however, is that global politics (not least since the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces) have remained in a state of prolonged crisis — and crises breed populists. The political landscape, especially in the liberal West where two years of strict distancing measures and curfews were met with the greatest resistance, has been irrevocably altered by Covid-19; unaccustomed to such degrees of political uncertainty, the ground remains rife for the populist seed to sprout. As Dr. Aline Burni noted on a recent panel for ECPS: “The impact of the pandemic [on populism] has not been homogeneous,” adding that prolonged crisis can “create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.”

In The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic (Verso, 2021), Paolo Gerbaudo of King’s College London has put forth a perspicacious and timely new take on what this post-Covid political landscape in the West might look like. His “diagnostic of the present” (Gerbaudo, Loc 105)[1] examines the most critical ideological shifts that characterized the ‘populist moment’ of the last decade, and how these currents will shift as we feel the aftershocks of the pandemic. In so doing, he not only introduces an intriguing new vocabulary to elucidate those macroscopic transformations that precipitated the rise of the populist wave of the 2010s but speculates on how the pandemic might — or might not — alter their course in the coming years. 

Gerbaudo’s core contention is that the era of unchallenged hegemony of the neoliberal consensus is over: already weakened and slowed down by successive crises, diminishing growth and growing disillusionment among working class voters throughout the West, the pandemic has brought the centrifugal, expansive tendencies of globalized capitalism to a grinding halt, triggering in its place a centripetal impulse, a reorientation inwards and the return of what he calls a “protective neo-Statism” (Gerbaudo, Loc 101) — Covid as a watershed moment, the birth of a new hegemonic era of endopolitics (Gerbaudo, Loc 179).

The Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant, heretofore unseen emergency measures mobilized in response to it — from closed borders to huge financial interventions as businesses faltered and millions were furloughed, to massive expansions of nation-state powers to control, track and surveil its citizens — constituted the perfect storm for the already embattled exopolitics of Western neoliberalism. Gerbaudo however explicitly affirms that, while Covid provided the “tipping point,” (Gerbaudo, Loc 764) the resonance of such inward-looking, nationalistic, and security-centered discourses has been steadily growing over at least the past decade — one need looks no further than the immensely successful slogan to ‘Take Back Control’ championed by the Brexit campaign years before the pandemic. While the growing salience of ‘illiberal’ and anti-globalization discourse is nothing new, Gerbaudo approaches it from a phenomenological angle, as he defines this era of the ‘Great Recoil’ as one characterized, above all, by a state of “global agoraphobia” (Gerbaudo, Loc 1129). This agoraphobia — the fear of open spaces — was already the driving force behind the endopolitical impulse which found its expression in the global popularity of authoritarian and nativist populist discourse. 

As this agoraphobia is experienced, it manifests itself in the three triadic ‘master signifiers’ that, in Gerbaudo’s view, already anchor and delimit the endopolitics of the Great Recoil: sovereigntyprotection and control (Gerbaudo, Chapters 3, 4 and 5). He dives deep into the origin, genealogy and contemporary inflection of each of the three terms over the course of three chapters, and outlines their relation to the current sociopolitical conjuncture, arguing that, so far, only the populist right has effectively moulded its discourse to match this neo-Statist impulse. 

Whether it is Brexit, Le Pen, Salvini, or Trump: Gerbaudo locates the origin of their recent popularity in their ability to recognize the growing salience of endopolitical (or anti-exopolitical) discourse and articulate it in reference to an excluded “Other” — be it immigrants, the European Union or the ‘cabal.’ In line with the recent ‘affective turn’ in the literature on populism, Gerbaudo thus views populist popularity as in large part determined by their ability to inflect their discourse in relation to the master signifiers that emerge out of collective emotional experiences; in the era of global agoraphobia, the discourse promising to ‘take back control,’ re-establish borders and protect its citizens proved a powerful discursive tool, particularly among working-class voters and those who felt left behind by the liberal exopolitics of the last 50 years. 

Importantly, however, it must be borne in mind that these master signifiers are not a priori reserved for right-wing, exclusionary discourse: populist left actors, like Syriza or Podemos in Europe — and albeit nowhere near as successfully as its counterpart — have also managed to penetrate a largely similar bloc of alienated voters employing a globalization-critical and anti-capitalist discourse surrounding economic and social security and democratic control — in Gerbaudo’s terms, a “socialism that protects” (Gerbaudo, Loc 267). Although the content of their endopolitics differs strongly, both have tapped into the same rising disillusionment with the globalized exopolitics of the neoliberal center while articulating their resistance in different ways. In this view, the populist moment was just the democratic expression of this growing agoraphobia related to the demand for sovereignty, protection, and control, with different populisms simply representing differing ways of inflecting this “neo-statist trinity” of signifiers within the same social context (Gerbaudo, Loc 4203).

For Gerbaudo, this presents an opportunity. Looking to the future, the second half of his book applies its discourse analysis to develop strategic insights for a progressive politics in the neo-statist era of the Great Recoil. The centripetal impulse, cemented by the ‘return to the nation-state’ we have witnessed throughout the pandemic, is here to stay; rather than rejecting national politics out of hand — as the orthodoxy of internationalist progressivism has largely maintained — Gerbaudo’s final chapter aims to re-situate the question of the nation within the progressive discourse of tomorrow. He argues for a “progressive reclaiming” of nationalist terminology as a way to hegemonically combat its capture by the right-wing ethno-nationalist imaginary (Gerbaudo, Loc 3795). Although his notion of a “democratic patriotism” as a way to “overcome the false opposition” between modern cosmopolitanism and a retrograde nationalism remains opaque, Gerbaudo makes a strong and convincing case for a deepening and reinvigoration of democratic processes and the re-articulation of the nation as a “protective structure” as the means of embedding the master signifiers of protection, sovereignty and control at the heart of a progressive discourse suited for the challenges of the post-Covid era (Gerbaudo, Loc 4000).

Overall, Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 


The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic by Paolo Gerbaudo (Verso, 2021). 288 pp. £13,59 (Hardback), ISBN: 9781788730501 


(*) Maximilian Wolf, MPhil, is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies. Maximilian was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. After receiving his BA in Politics at the University of Exeter (UK), he completed his MPhil in Political Sociology at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge (UK). His work has focussed on discourse analyses of both right- and left-wing populist phenomena, and an abridged version of his Master’s thesis, entitled Locating the Laclausian Left: Progressive Strategy and the Politics of Anxiety, has been accepted for publication in issue 3/2022 of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Populism (forthcoming). Besides ECPS, Maximilian now works for a governance think-tank in Vienna. Beyond populism, he is passionate about health and fitness, rugby, chess and science fiction. 


[1] Gerbaudo’s book is, at the time of writing, only available in eBook format; the present review will therefore have to rely on Kindle ‘locations’ in place of page numbers.

HerculesMillas

ECPS Symposium: Concluding Remarks by Dr. Hercules Millas

Dr. Hercules Millas (ECPS Advisory Board Member) made this assessments at the end of The First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in the Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.

EckartWoertz

Dr. Eckart Woertz: “The need for multilateral institutions against global challenges: The impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation 25 years after the Barcelona Process.” 

Dr. Eckart Woertz (Director, GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies; Professor for Contemporary History and Politics of the Middle East at the University of Hamburg) made this presentation at the Second Panel titled “Pandemic of authoritarianism/populism: The state of democratic institutions, rights, and freedoms” during the First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the opening of the Natural Gas Pipeline (Turkstream) in Istanbul, Turkey on November 19, 2018.

ECPS Book Talks — The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay (Mar.26, 2022)

Date/Time: Saturday, March 26, 2022 / 5 PM (CET)

Click here to register!

Speaker
Dr. Cengiz Aktar

Discussant
Dr. Dirk Rochtus

Author Dr. Cengiz Aktar will discuss his book The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay (Transnational Press, London, 2021) with Dr. Dirk Rochtus of KU Leuven.

As most agree that no one can predict today how Turkey will evolve; which spirit will mark the country’s future. Who could have predicted the turn it has taken in recent years after having been a rising star in the early 2000s, a candidate for the European club, “the” model to follow, especially for Muslim countries seeking justice and prosperity? The failure of its candidacy, in which Europe has its share, has been the prelude to its progressive de-Westernisation accompanied by bellicosity on all fronts, at home and abroad. Western countries are trying to manage this “Turkish crisis” between incomprehension and blind detachment, between appeasement and complicity, between containment and apprehension of seeing this large country decompose in its turn. As a scholar who has witnessed Turkey’s never-ending transformation, Dr. Cengiz Aktar provides analytical tools to understand the split of a society between state, nation, religion, imperial myth and the West in this concise and well-documented study.  

Dr. Cengiz Aktar is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Athens. He is a former director at the United Nations specializing in asylum policies. He is known to be one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU. He was the Chair of European Studies at Bahçeşehir University-Istanbul.

In 1999, he initiated a civil initiative for Istanbul’s candidacy for the title of European Capital of Culture. Istanbul successfully held the title in 2010. He also headed the initiative called “European Movement 2002” which pressured lawmakers to speed up political reforms necessary to begin the negotiation phase with the EU. In December 2008, he developed the idea of an online apology campaign addressed to Armenians and supported by a number of Turkish intellectuals as well as over 32,000 Turkish citizens.

In addition to EU integration policies, Dr. Aktar’s research focuses on the politics of memory regarding ethnic and religious minorities, the history of political centralism, and international refugee law.

Dr. Dirk Rochtus is an Associated Professor of International Politics and German History at the KU Leuven/Campus Antwerpen and a senior fellow at the Zentrum für Europäische Integrationsforschung (www.zei.de) of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. He is former vice-chief of Cabinet of the Flemish Minister of Foreign Affairs (2005-2007). In 2007 he was awarded the ‘Bundesverdienstkreuz’ (Federal Cross of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Click here to register!

SheriBerman

Dr. Sheri Berman: “Populist and non-populist governance performance during the COVID pandemic and prospects for democracy in the West moving forward.” 

Dr. Sheri Berman (Professor of Political Science. Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University) made this presentation at the Third Panel titled “What’s next in a post-COVID-19 world?” during the First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.

BrettMeyer

Dr. Brett Meyer:“An analysis of populist leaders’ responses to Covid-19.”

Dr. Brett Meyer (Global Populism and Voting Behaviour in Advanced Democracies. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change) made this presentation at the Third Panel titled “What’s next in a post-COVID-19 world?” during the First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.

JensMaesse

Dr. Jens Maesse: “Post-neoliberalism in Europe? How economic discourses have changed through COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Jens Maesse (Institute of Sociology, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen) made this presentation at the Third Panel titled “What’s next in a post-COVID-19 world?” during the First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.