Putin has made politics a spectacle.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The New Authoritarians

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
Read More.
a | A

Since the end of the Cold War, rising gross domestic product and regular elections have come to mark progress in large parts of the world. Such apparent resemblances to Western-style capitalism and democracy still enthuse many commentators. But do they actually conceal the deteriorating political and moral health of emerging economies until it's too late?

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

A case in point is Russia, the site of the first major experiment in westernization after 1989, which has witnessed high GDP growth and routine elections during most of the previous two decades. In his startling and illuminating book, "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia," Peter Pomerantsev describes "the bankers, lawyers, international development consultants, accountants, and architects" who hoped to remake Russia into their image of the West.

For them the long evolution of "Western civilization," Pomerantsev writes, came to be "condensed into bullet points: ‘Elections? Check.’ ‘Freedom of Expression? Check.’ ‘Private Property? Check.’" 

As an aggressively revanchist and oligarchic Russia shows, such stocktaking was pitifully inadequate. It ignored the fact that a functional market needs a stable society -- one in which property rights are protected from predators, the media is reasonably independent and the rulers, while strong enough to prevent fraud, are restrained from abusing their immense power to garner the best cuts of the economy for themselves and their chums.

Such basic prerequisites did not exist in Russia, or the countries which, once hailed for combining liberal capitalism with democracy, now manifest political, economic and psycho-social pathologies that we have yet to properly diagnose.

In Russia, regular elections, multiple parties, and a free media exist. But they have a nominal as opposed to substantive existence. The experience of India and Turkey, too, tells us that crony capitalists using easy loans from public banks, and acquiring cheap land with the help of politicians, are not entrepreneurs. A largely corporate-owned media that can be forced to bend before the powerful is not free.

It is also clear that GDP statistics do not capture the growth of extreme inequality. And the stock exchange index is hardly an accurate indicator of the overall state of the economy.

Still, false labels multiply, obliterating nuances and distinctions. One consequence of this weakened sense of reality, and corresponding growth of fantasy, is that rulers find it easier to persuade the ruled to inhabit a make-believe world, a "society of simulations," as Pomerantsev calls it.

"'Everything is PR,'" he writes, "has become the favourite phrase of the new Russia." For the New Russians, as indeed for many New Indians and New Turks, "life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable."

Ideological promiscuity rather than consistency defines the new authoritarians. With its contradictory rhetoric and actions, Putin’s regime “can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime."

Putinism itself is an ideological collage, drawing upon economic liberalism and nationalism as well as conservatism, Orthodox Christianity and Eurasianism. You can also see the same evidently incompatible projects of racial-religious chauvinism and economic modernization among populists and authoritarians from Turkey to India and Japan.

Their rhetoric is ever-shifting. As Pomerantsev points out, the new authoritarianism "instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains … climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd."

Thus, its exponents don't have to be overly crude in their assertion of power. Indeed, such leaders as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, and Shinzo Abe slickly use egalitarian social media to project themselves as unique, omnipotent and indispensable. Against such masters of PR, who deploy the latest communications technology to repackage politics as continuous spectacle, traditional political formations of the left and the right can only look clueless.

Putin’s remarkable popularity, two decades after Russia embraced capitalism and democracy, is one sign among many that the conventional indices and tools used for assessing emerging economies have told a very misleading story. Writing about another emerging economy in the 19th century (the U.S.), Tocqueville warned that the "the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable" to describe the subtle form of oppression in a formally democratic society. "I myself seek in vain," he wrote, "an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself."

Such a quest for fresh intellectual vocabulary may be beyond the journalists and commentators who obsess over GDP, or who rehearse the fusty narratives of liberal democracy and capitalism. These laggards could learn a few things from a cutting-edge absolutism like Putin’s -- what Pomerantsev terms "the twenty-first century’s geopolitical avant-garde."

Certainly, the PR-driven autocrats seem aware that the most persuasive narratives today are hybrid and open to continuous improvisation. In an ironical twist of history, it is the new authoritarians of the East who expound a suavely postmodern politics while their Western critics look unimaginatively one-dimensional, if not clueless.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net