Putin against the decadent West? A discussion between Huib Wursten and Fernando Lanzer. (An open invitation to contribute to others)

Do we have a metaphysical clash between Western democracies and traditional authoritarian societies?

Talking about western democracies Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Russian Duma’s Committee on Education and Dean of the Public Administration Faculty of the Moscow State University, recently said “in reality, we embody the forces of good in the modern world because this clash is metaphysical…. We (the Russians) are on the side of good against the forces of absolute evil…. This is truly a holy war that we’re waging, and we have to win it and of course, we will because our cause is just.  We have no other choice.  Our cause is not only just, but our cause is also righteous and victory will certainly be ours.”

Sergey Karaganov, connected to Russian president Vladimir Putin, predicted that democracy is failing and authoritarianism is rising because of democracy’s flawed moral foundations.  As he put it: “Western civilization has brought all of us great benefits, but now people like myself and others are questioning the moral foundation of Western civilization.”

What Nikonov and Karaganov discuss is the difference between traditional authoritarian societies and open,  secular societies in which all people are equal before the law and have the right to have a say in their government.

From a cultural point of view, they describe the difference between individualistic and Collectivist cultures.

In Collectivist cultures, the in-group people belong to (tribe, ethnic group, religious group, etc.) is the reference and starting point for morality.  Key element: in return for loyalty to the in-group, the in-group takes care of the group members.  Group convictions determine the preferences of the individuals.  Individuals are supposed to be in harmony with the thinking and the interest of the in-group.

In individualistic cultures, not the ingroup but the individual is the starting point of morality.  Equal rights for every human being, regardless of where people are coming from, their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.  In short, this value system leads to a strong belief in “Human Rights” for everyone on an individual level.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses moral behavior in individualistic cultures.  This morality developed under the influence of the Enlightenment.  Defending the right of individual human beings to control their own lives and to have a say in their government is a moral position.  Democracy is the logical consequence. Treating everyone equally before the law is a moral position.

Democracy and human rights are the consequence of the Enlightenment.

Spinoza and the Enlightenment

More and more people see the Dutch philosopher Spinoza as the most influential thinker of the Radical Enlightenment.  Like Descartes, Spinoza promoted Monism in which Matter and Spirit are two sides of the same substance, Nature.  Nature encompasses everything.  All transcendence or supernatural was rejected radically by Spinoza.  Therefore, belief systems like Christianity and connected political institutions lost legitimacy because they are based on supernatural revelations and miracles.  The logical result is that there should be a different arrangement between the State and Religion.  Spinoza promoted a new secular arrangement where the state and church are separated.  In this arrangement, freedom of opinion prevails above religious freedom.  In this new setup, morality is no longer based on the Bible.  Spinoza formulated a distinction between belief and knowledge.  Spinoza states that “true” belief is thus only good insofar as it is the way to true knowledge, awakening us to those things that are truly worth loving.  This comes after he demonstrates the differences between opinion [waan], belief [geloof], and knowledge [weeten].

After the Enlightenment, the dominant thinkers in the affected countries argued that there are no valid methodologies to decide whether one value system is better or more valid than another.  It is all relative and depends on where you are coming from in your reasoning: revelations in holy books, the teachings of enlightened people, trying to find explanations in human Nature, etc.  That, however, could lead to absolute relativism and bring society to the brink of anarchy.  The solution for individualist cultures is to adopt “Human Rights” as the point of reference.  This is reflected in the definition of the rule of law in Individualistic countries because the rule of law also encompasses a chosen parliament, a democratic system, plus recognition, and respect for human rights.  Almost 200 countries now signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The United Nations tries to hold these nations accountable, especially by naming and shaming.  However, reality shows that the influence of enforcement is limited.  One known trick is to call the rights “Western” and reject them as a “White, Colonial” value system.

It is essential to understand that “Human Rights” attempts to address moral behavior in secular countries after the Enlightenment.

Two examples from my practice show how this works in real-life situations.

  1. Female mutilation. Working in some African cultures, I was made aware of the cruel tradition of female mutilation applied to young women.  Seeing my anger, it was defended by the locals as an Islamic practice prescribed by holy scriptures.  Some Islamic scholars, of course, deny this.  But:  Who am I that I can refute religious arguments or references from a local to a holy book?
  2. Working in some rural, religious communities in Europe and the USA, it was explained to me that black people were considered inferior with reference to a story from the Bible. During the deluge, Noah was found drunk by his children. The story goes that his children tried to help Noah.  The exception was a son called Cham.  Cham ridiculed Noah.  Cham happened to have black skin.  As a result, according to the story, the black race is damned.

In both cases, the reference to holy books makes it very difficult to criticize the people for what they are doing.

The Universal Declaration of Human rights as a morality touchstone makes it possible to have judgments about what is right and wrong.  Again: the individual is the focus of all thinking about morality in this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  All Individuals have equal rights.  This also extends to minority groups.  The formulation explicitly says that the rights are for everybody, not regarding color, race, gender, religious affiliation, and sexual preference.

Universal values?

The critical question is: “is there a worldwide shared morality, and are the values of this morality identical to the values as formulated in the UN declaration?” There is some empirical support for the idea of shared morality.  The research of Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethologist, is worth mentioning here.  He found in his research that This sometimes creates challenging situations for members of the democratic secular societies when they are confronted with, what they consider, immoral behavior in other (sub) cultures. He found two fundamental pillars of morality and also found that these pillars are not limited to human beings.  He showed that they are even found in the behavior of primates like Chimpanzees and Bonobos.

The two pillars of morality De Waal found are:

  1. Empathy: The ability to understand and to share the feelings of others.” It is safe to say that, in general, higher primates and humans everywhere share the ability to be empathetic and to understand that you should not do to others what you wouldn’t want to be done to you. This is important because it enables us all to enjoy music, books, paintings, and dance, originating from areas of the world very remote from where we were raised and where we live.  However, evidence also shows that the rules of morality in both the animal Kingdom and human communities apply mostly within your own community.  If monkey tribes meet other monkeys from a rival tribe, the rules don’t apply!
  2. Reciprocity: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! This is related to a sense of fairness and a sense of justice.  This means, among other things, that morality even predates religion.

Religious positioning

In 2013 Putin implemented antigay laws that were justified as a defense of conservative values against an assault of “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance,” which “equals good and evil.” Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, openly defended his determination to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture and to reject “adaptable family models” for “the Christian family model.”

To achieve such control in a country, they promote a one-party government overseen by a strongman, insisting that his opponents are immoral.

Empirical research on culture

Next to his findings on Individualism versus Collectivism Hofstede’s research can explain the emphasis on religion and “morality” in Eastern European countries by the consequences of his value dimension Uncertainty  Hofstede explains that in these cultures avoid ambiguity in rules for behavior. As a result, there is a need for a more rigid social code. Consequently, there is a resistance to accepting the equal rights of individuals in terms of sexual preference or alternative lifestyles.  They call this decadency and see themselves as bulwarks of traditional Christian values.

A second more practical reason for the tendency of politicians to speak on behalf of religion is that a state that claims to represent the laws of heaven has unlimited power on earth.  A long repressive regime can best be based on heavenly powers.  It is easy to persecute and suppress people with God on your side.

The reaction by Fernando Lanzer

I have no objections to what you have written, I agree with practically all of it. Yet I find that your text does not address the issues raised by the Russians quoted in the beginning.

Perhaps you have just begun writing and intend to continue and address those issues further down the line.

I want to add that I think the issue regarding the universal application of the law is not only about Individualism and Collectivism, but it is also combined with high and low PDI, plus low LTO.

Similarly, the attitude towards religion involves not only Uncertainty Avoidance, but also again PDI and IDV.

Regarding LTO, it plays a role as well. The Americans and British are religious fundamentalists to a great extent, despite scoring low on UAI, low on PDI, and scoring high on IDV. This righteousness of the US/UK culture seems supported by a normative (low LTO) aspect of those cultures, combined with the individualistic attitude of believing in a single truth, rather than “many truths.” According to this normative and individualistic perspective, relativism is perceived as dangerous and tantamount to total chaos.

When we talk about empathy, we should try to understand what the basis of those Russian statements about the decadent morality of the West actually is.

By the way, very similar statements were made by the Nazis in the 1930s… It’s ironic that Putin talks about the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine while his rhetoric is very similar to what the Nazis said about “the Western decadence” in the 1930s. In those days, Nazi ideology spoke of returning to the true values of the original German culture, that had been corrupted by the Western progressive ideas of miscegenation and commercialism. The Nazis were fighting globalization (although the term had not yet been coined) and advocating conservatism.

Where does this notion of Western decadence come from now, in the 21st Century? Why do the Russians embrace this idea? And it’s not only Putin, by the way; one might add that many diplomats and intellectuals in China, India, and Indonesia have also often expressed similar criticism, as well as several pundits in other parts of the Western world itself.

It seems to me that from Russia’s point of view the liberal ideology has failed to deliver on its promises of equal opportunity, freedom, and justice for all. From their perspective, as Democracy prospers it brings along “Jungle Capitalism” where we see the rule of money above all else. They see this as a “moneytocracy” rather than a meritocracy.

Inequality has increased and so has the concentration of income in the so-called “top one percent.” The idea of a self-regulating free market is perceived as a scam engendered by the very rich to become even richer by exploiting the working poor. Marx must be laughing in his grave.

The attitude of these (Russian) critics has become to throw away the whole Liberal ideology as being corrupted beyond repair. They offer enlightened despotism as a substitute. And that is the crux of the issue, in my opinion.

I can agree that the Liberal ideology has become corrupted, but it would be a mistake to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Just like Communism has turned out to be unfeasible in practice, so has the notion of “pure” Capitalism.

No one believes in Neo-liberalism these days, but the truth is that the neo-liberal movement was exactly that: an attempt to temper the chaos of a totally free market with interventions from the State to regulate the market and stave off abuse. In practice, these neoliberal ideals of moderation have also become corrupted, and we see now a kind of return to the unhindered exploitation of the masses that was prevalent in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. History repeats itself when we do not learn from it. We flunked the grade and now we have to repeat it until we eventually do learn the lesson and are able to move on.

The solution is to break away from the polarization between Autocracy and Democracy, East and West, Capitalism versus Communism, Individualism and Collectivism.

Breaking away from this is difficult; especially in the Contest cultures that dominate the English speaking media, for confrontation between two antagonistic forces is at the core of those cultural values.

Yet we are moving toward a multilateral world, rather than a bilateral one. We are moving from Contest cultures in the direction of Network cultures. I am not saying that the world will become one huge Denmark; just that we are becoming more aware of the world’s cultural diversity and complexity. Therefore, black or white solutions are not applicable nor sustainable.

The New Narrative must contemplate this complexity. It must describe how our reality goes beyond polarization. Sure, we can use dialectics as a way of exploring alternatives; but the synthesis is not simply about choosing between two extremes. It’s not even just about compromising between two poles; rather it is more about dilemma reconciliation by viewing issues as more than just bidimensional or even tridimensional. We need to look at issues as multidimensional.

According to this perspective, we should not simply reject Liberalism nor Autocracy. We need to dive deep into the underlying values of these political, sociological, and economic ideas to come up with better models to guide our interactions and ensure sustainability.