Guest Post: Life for Yourself as a Way Towards Putinism.

(Below is a essay by Dmitry Ahtyrsky which originally was written in Russian. I helped translate it into English as I think its message is not only applicable to Russia, but to modern-day US, and it echoes a lot of what I was writing about recently but with more depth and insight.)

By Dmitry Ahtyrsky.

One of the central shortcomings of anti-Bolshevistic discourse of post-Soviet Russia during Perestroika was the gospel of the so-called ‘life for yourself.’ The old notion of serving the ideals has compromised itself, as those ideals turned out to be false, simulative, manipulative, and buffoonish. As a result, selfish cynicism has been declared to be an ideal condition. “Thoroughly chewing your food, you help the society.”[1] Abstract economic doctrines of such economists as (Milton) Friedman’s, which are regarded as either neo-liberal or neo-conservative and which state that your best contribution to society is to maximize your own profit, proved to be conveniently handy.

‘Life for yourself’ evangelists, however, have ignored the fact that the society in USSR has not been collectivist, but, on the contrary, it has been deeply atomized. A cog didn’t serve in the interest of parts of the mechanism that comprised the machine. It didn’t serve anyone at all; to be more precise, it served only in its appearance, without possessing an agency. A society is a society, as opposed to a mere collection of individuals, only when it includes free, voluntarily cooperating persons. Even if this collection of individuals as a whole serves a purpose, that purpose is not the well-being of the whole, but some external interests. Moreover, those interests are those of a deity or an evolutionary process, but, instead, of people, who, along with the power, have also appropriated the function of speaking on behalf of a deity, delivering the laws of God and/or Nature to the masses. Enthusiasm fueled by repression is false. Such conditions of reigning false enthusiasm nurture atomized, profit-seeking, self-interested egoists – and ‘social’ becomes a euphemism either for a direct coercion or corrupt interactions. In such a system the word ‘corruption’ means a ‘corruption’ of a coercive hierarchy rather than a disintegration of horizontal societal bonds – producing a maxim that ‘the only thing worse than a corrupt totalitarian regime is a NON-corrupt totalitarian regime.’ The absence of genuine horizontal collectives not overseen from above – the collectives of equal individuals – IS an absence of ‘society’. As a result, every separate person in such a simulative ‘society’ resides in his own solitary confinement cell and can interact only with prison guards.

When such an atomized individual finally leaves the heavily structured system of control and domination – the system that has stimulated atomization, as opposed to collectivism – he’s being invited to continue behaving in the same way he did under the false collectivism: “Live for yourself.” What does such an invitation mean and where does it lead us given the absence of civil society and its institutions? Did those advocates understand that the emergence and operation of civil society are simply impossible in a world where such an egotistic manifest reaches its goal and plants itself in the mass consciousness of all those separate atoms, unaccustomed to critical thinking?

Naturally, those ‘living for themselves’ never became citizens. As a result, the ‘civil rights’ that they have received turned out to be no more than a simulation, a weak forgery prompting giggles from slave holders and slave traders. The ‘freed’ contingent failed to form a society. Individuals haven’t learned how to be free, as this pseudo-freedom of an egoist offered neither equality nor brotherhood. In this egoistic pseudo-freedom there can be only masters and servants.

Instead of leading towards freedom, the hatred of all things ‘social’ led, instead, towards the ‘new old slavery’. Unable to self-organize, the sheep found themselves not on greener pastures, but inside another corral. Civil society emerges only through free, uncoerced striving towards a common good, which is understood on the basis of a peer-to-peer networking consensus.

This striving towards the common good assumes a decidedly critical analysis of power. Resistance against such power that seeks to suppress and control by decomposing the social whole into atoms represents striving for the common good and not, as a authorities would like us to believe, an ‘anti-social behavior’. Actual resistance is possible only in an atmosphere of mutual help and cooperation; only after this condition has been met can the emergent force – in the form of civic association – work with the ‘administration.

One can argue that even the most selfless and idealistic knights, when they acquire power, could become tyrants. This can happen when there’s a misperception that the structure of oppression can one day become ‘ours’, when people put their trust in it without any levers of control, hoping that, at last the ‘wrongs will be righted.’ They won’t be. Civil society is a constant civic activism, constant peer-to-peer cooperation counteracting the corrupt and parochial social tendencies. Any state lacking such social activism will, in a very short time, become a fascist, totalitarian state.

It is precisely this kind of process that we’re witnessing yet again. And Putin isn’t even an initiator of it. Putinism is, among other things, a result of cynical-egoistical constructs that show contempt towards anything ‘communal’, that scorn any altruism. Constructs that are more fitting for a mob boss in a strictly enforced criminal hierarchy than for a free citizen.

By the way, any talk of “homeland” or, in a broader sense, of common good, is frequently understood as being about the rulers – in the words of Saltykov-ShchedrinMany tend to confuse the two concepts: “Fatherland” and “Your Excellency, or, as an old Soviet adage goes, “In our country everything is for the good of a man, and I have even seen that man.”  The possible aversion (the consequence of the past simulations) towards the idea of common good can be compared to an attempt to cure a headache with a guillotine. Thus, Putinism, with its characteristic assessment of any social activity as ‘everything is paid for’ and ‘everything is PR’ is the logical extension of such egotistic denial of ‘communal.’ As it turns out, the exalted egoistic cynicism of ‘free individuals-wolves’ can effortlessly convert into ‘extreme declaration of forced jubilation’ at the appearance of the master.

Let’s not confuse ‘common good’ with ‘Your Excellency’. Let’s not forget that the word ‘republic’ literally means ‘common affair.’ The existence of this ‘common affair’ and the shared efforts in the name of ‘common good’ is precisely what enables a person to be free, to possess individual freedom, as well as freedom of choice and a claim to privacy. Refusal of the ‘communal’ destroys the ‘private’, producing the atomized lack of individual space. Under slavery both the common and the private cease to be. A slave lacks both individuality and society.

An egoistic cynic will, inevitably, conclude that a ‘bad master’ can be rid of by means of a ‘good master.’ Such cynic is ready to accept a mediocre master if that means protection from social chaos. This dynamic will continue until social cynicism is overcome. True freedom is only possible within an amiable, friendly framework, in the openness towards an equally free and respected Other. Such openness yields real, as opposed to simulative, society. And this openness transforms an atom into a person.


[1] A popular quote from a Soviet satire ‘Twelve Chairs’ by I.Ilf and E. Petrov



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