Bare Sovereignty: Ideology’s Event Horizon

Happy BoRder Guard Day!

Happy BoRder Guard Day!

During Putin’s second presidential term , the elevation of sovereignty to something of a fetish was made clear by Vladislav Surkov, then Putin's Deputy Chief of Staff, now personal adviser to Putin, and always gray cardinal.  In a February 2006 speech to United Russia's Center of Party Training and Cadre Preparation, he acknowledges the belief that globalization renders sovereignty increasingly obsolete, only to reject the idea in the strongest terms.  Globalization threatens Russia's very independence no less than military occupation by a foreign power: NGOs and multinational corporations can take control of a weakened state, so Russia's only option for survival is strong state sovereignty with full control over the country's borders and territory. Russia, according to Surkov, is a state-forming people, and therefore cannot find its destiny in such transnational entities as the European Union.  Internally, the greatest threats to Russian "sovereign democracy" are the oligarchs, who would bring us back to the 90s, and extreme nationalists and communists, who would bring us even further. [1]

Surkov's identification of extreme nationalism as an enemy underscores the difference between bare sovereignty and mere nationalism, which on the surface would seem to have much in common.  Nationalists are easily coopted into bare sovereignty, but they are ultimately being sold a bill of goods.  Nationalists are invested in blood-and-soil, essentialist identifications of a Russian ethnos with a set of identifiable Russian cultural values.  Nationalism means to save the Russian people, the Russian nation.  Bare sovereignty sees both the source and the object of salvation as the Russian state. Before 2014,  was the latest, and most effective, response to the post-Soviet anxiety over loss of a great power status.  In the 1990s, the mourning over great power status verged on the melancholic; by contrast, Putin has leveraged the shaky prosperity brought by high oil prices into a cure for what ailed his country.  The most reflexively cynical critique of this admittedly cynical system would be to see bare sovereignty as power only for the sake of power. That would suggest something along the line of Orwell's definition of power at the end of 1984: the boot that is constantly coming down on the subject's face.  But Orwellian power is pure biopower, ensured and enjoyed through its exertion on the bodies of the people.   Bare sovereignty hardly needs the people at all.

The genius of bare sovereignty lies in its very emptiness.  Eurasianists like Alexander Dugin found it a convenient repository for their ethnographic fantasies, but without needing the regime to endorse them.  A huge cultural space was left open, one that had proven quite creative both for Putin's supporters and his opponents.  Since 2000, there have been several prominent literary works that treat contemporary Russia (and its historical past) as the subject for works of fantasy, describing an alternative-universe Russia much like our own (such as Dmitry Bykov’s Living Souls, discussed above).  The past master at this particular genre is Vladimir Sorokin, whose Day of the Oprichnik and its sequel, The Sugary Kremlin, paint a world that is technologically and politically our contemporary or near future, but with a restored Russian monarchy and a state security apparatus modeled on its precursor under Ivan the Terrible.  

Despite the vast political chasm that divides Bykov and Sorokin from Dugin, all of them were essentially content providers under the empty regime of bare sovereignty.  Ideology proved to be nothing more than a sideshow next to the real drama of state power.  We are approaching the Marxist critique of (non-Marxist) ideology as false consciousness, Zizek's equation of ideology with fantasy, or at the very least an understanding that ideology is simply a distraction.  It doesn't matter what story the sovereign tells his countrymen; the crucial fact is that he stands there, speaking from a position of power. 

Next: What Not to Wear: Discarding the Emperor’s New Clothes


[1] Mark A. Smith. Sovereign Democracy: The Ideology of Yedinaya Rossiya. Conflict Studies Research Centre, 2006. 3.