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The World Before the Thaw
Welcome to the era of pseudo-ideology
The fundamental difference between 20th-century dictatorships and our own today is ideology. Back then, aspiring despots could camouflage their thirst for power with ideals—nationalism, racialism, communism—that plausibly addressed the chief anxieties of the age. Ideology was a lever that moved millions and overawed the opposition. Under the “leadership” and “vanguard” principles, rulers personified the ideology and stood on a plane of absolute moral supremacy: They had authority to murder entire populations and wage savage wars. Most were true believers. Stalin and Hitler, Mao and Castro, lived and died without a twinge of regret.
History has buried these old ideologies. They were defeated in war and outcompeted on every front, and now, in William James’ phrase, they have become “dead options.” Nobody today believes in revolution. Nobody thinks society can be radically transformed unto perfection according to some ideological scheme. We are, no doubt, somewhat sadder but infinitely safer for the loss.
The 21st century has inaugurated the era of pseudo-ideology. Marxism-Leninism in rigor mortis, for example, is called the “great rejuvenation” in China, “Juche” in North Korea, “anti-imperialism” in Cuba, “Bolivarianism” in Venezuela. These constructs are “pseudo” not merely because they are incoherent patchworks of slogans and exhortations, explaining nothing and persuasive to no one. The reason for the epithet is functional.
The grand ideologies of the last century arose after World War I and the Great Depression had discredited the liberal order. They grew into mass movements that aimed to overthrow that order and impose utopia by brute strength. In their doctrines and their consequences, they were moral monstrosities, every one of them, but they represented organic attempts to grapple with the big questions of a particular moment in history.
A pseudo-ideology is designed by the people in power to keep them in power. It is blatantly self-serving and artificial. Far from grappling with big questions, pseudo-ideology rests on a foundation of avoidance. Far from seeking to overthrow the establishment, it demands its perpetuation unto eternity. A world justified by pseudo-ideologies must lapse into the political equivalent of suspended animation. That is our world. All around us, decrepit regimes cling to power by default. Dead ideologies are digitally exhumed and cannibalized. Absent the ferment of new ideas, the flow of history has frozen solid.
This describes the democracies as well as authoritarian nations. Everywhere, a mutinous public struggles in vain against a glacier of mendacity. In the twisted echo chambers of the web, the public can only rage impotently against the ice age while waiting for a thaw.
China and the Ghost of Marxism-Leninism
The People’s Republic of China is the poster child of contemporary authoritarianism. The Chinese economy has grown prodigiously. Chinese technology seems competitive with Silicon Valley. The Chinese military is the most formidable in Asia. For many Western intellectuals, China is the country that can get things done: Its political structure, immune to populism and petty public squabbles, from a distance looks like a Platonic republic that can impose painful but necessary fixes on problems like climate change and the spread of contagious diseases. This tale of authoritarian success—endorsed and promoted by the Chinese leadership—doubles as a critique of democratic failure.
It should not be confused with reality. China today is ruled by a clique of brutal and greedy princelings whose progenitors perpetrated some of the most appalling crimes in history. The current generation hasn’t exactly repented: It’s responsible for the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong and a slow-motion genocide of the Uyghur population in the western part of the country. From its revolutionary past, the Chinese Communist Party has retained only the apparatus of repression—proletarian ideals have no place in a country run by corrupt millionaires. Legitimacy completely depends on prosperity yet economic growth has stalled. Mortgage debt is at a fever-high. So is youth unemployment.
But the most striking feature of the regime is its intellectual exhaustion. Like Mao moldering in his mausoleum, communism is a painted corpse. Not a single party member believes in such a thing. None can point to any principle loftier than inertia as a reason why the party should stay in power. A pseudo-ideology, equal parts elitism and nationalism, is preached and repeated with great solemnity, but the language is opaque and often verges on absurdity. For example: The regime calls itself a “democratic dictatorship,” as if confessing its ideological incoherence. Xi Jinping, who hopes to turn the system into a one-man show, has proclaimed “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” but this must be taken ironically—China is a fast-aging country and has already tumbled into the abyss of depopulation.
Xi himself is a mediocrity several sizes too small for his emperor’s robes. His policies have weakened the economy, alienated China’s neighbors and trade partners and, for the first time in 30 years, sent a desperate Chinese public into the streets openly protesting the party’s rule. In the belief that Covid-19, like his subjects, could be terrorized into submission, Xi declared the ruthless zero-Covid mandates to be “a people’s war to stop the spread of the virus.” Less than a year later, he raised the white flag and abandoned the policy. What happened? Either he was unnerved by the magnitude of the anti-lockdown protests or pressured by a rival power center. Neither possibility is a good omen for the ruling class.
Recently, Qin Gang, the foreign minister handpicked by Xi, disappeared from sight for a month and then was replaced without a word of explanation. This doesn’t happen in a serious country: At times, with China, one can peek through the pseudo-ideology of an ultramodern great power to discern the soul of a tinpot despotism.
The Chinese public has made clear its preference. “Xi Jinping, step down!” people shouted during the lockdown protests. “Communist Party, step down!” But the system is held together by sheer will to power. It can’t be reformed, it can’t evolve—but neither can it step down. Chinese politics are stuck in a rut, and the public will have to wait for something to get it started again.
Russia and the Ideology of Gangsterism
After visiting Russia in 1919, journalist Lincoln Steffens famously wrote, “I have seen the future, and it works.” If he were to repeat the trip today, he would amend his judgment to, “I have travelled to the past, and it’s still a freaking mess.” Welcome to the time machine disaster that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Even in our age of immobility, no other place on earth is so deeply buried under the shadow of its own history.
The most important fact to remember about Russia is that it’s not the Soviet Union. It doesn’t awe the world with superfast industrialization or seduce leftists like Steffens with claims of perfect equality. Far from being a model to the nations, Russia today is the decaying rump of a dream of utopia. The economy is as dependent on the oil markets as that of any Gulf sheikdom. Andorra has a higher standard of living; Belize, a longer life expectancy. Population numbers are crashing: In 2100, by one estimate, there will be more Tanzanians than Russians. And while the government still owns a stock of aging nuclear missiles, the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine has blown up the myth of the invincible Russian military machine.
Putin is the avatar of Russian decadence. While orchestrating the plunder of the country’s economy and the corruption of its social life, he has promoted the idea that decline isn’t a matter of misrule but of conspiracies hatched by foreign devils. The unforgiving enemy of Russia is the present. The ideal future is therefore the past: Geopolitically speaking, Putin wants the Soviet Union back—and the tsarist empire too. His pseudo-ideology is a concoction of patriotism, Slavism, “Christian values” and a sincere loathing of the West. It adds up to a murky vision of fearful power and bloody conquest in the style of Stalin and Peter the Great, of cultural magnificence as once exemplified by Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, of the economic self-sufficiency of the old five-year plans—a replay of Mother Russia’s greatest hits, culminating, it goes without saying, in the apotheosis of Putin himself.
There’s an astronomical distance between Putin’s pseudo-ideology and his actual politics, which are personal in the worst way. If you are a journalist critical of the regime, you get gunned down in the dark. If you are too vocal in your opposition to the war with Ukraine, you are suddenly flying out of your hotel window. If you are a popular opposition politician, you are somehow poisoned by a lethal nerve agent. It’s pure ramshackle gangsterism, upheld by the principle that the strong have a right to bully the weak. That applies to neighboring countries as well as to a captive population.
Attacking Ukraine now seems like a gross miscalculation, but the trick had worked before. In Georgia, Crimea and Syria, Putin had outmaneuvered presidents Bush and Obama while his forces smashed local resistance without difficulty. By trampling on the fiction of a “rules-based world order,” he earned a reputation as illiberal ogre and master manipulator: He was said to be responsible for the election of Donald Trump. It may be that he believed his own reviews, or that his minions said “yes” one time too many—or that, at the age of 69, with the price of oil high and an enfeebled president in Washington, he felt this was the last opportunity he would have to realize the pseudo-dream of resurrecting the empire of Russia’s past. But in Ukraine, as he moved from dream to reality, he stepped into a trap from which there is no escape.
Putin can’t win the war on any terms that will preserve his image of mafia godfather to the world. His forces are unable to advance, but retreat would open a political wound that could easily prove fatal. Nearly 50,000 soldiers have been killed fighting for a pseudo-ideological fantasy few of them understood. Russia has been unplugged from the rich consumer economies of Europe and there’s no alternative to turn to—dependence on China has reached a natural limit, and “Asia” is a geographic term, not an integrated market. Already the husk of the Soviet Union, Russia is about to become a husk of itself.
It’s difficult to imagine how such a failure cascade can be sustained. At the same time, it’s almost impossible to conjure a plausible scenario for regime change. Putin has been weakened and humiliated, but he remains inevitable. Best evidence for that proposition came with the mutiny of the Wagner Group mercenaries, an incident that began as “Game of Thrones” but quickly degenerated into a Russian version of “Idiocracy.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary commander, railed for months about the shortage of military equipment and general incompetence of the war effort. By June, Prigozhin felt ready to bring the matter to a head: He declared “war” on the ministry of defense—not, let it be noted, on Putin—and sent his troops on a “march of justice.”
There followed a perplexing sequence of events. Wagner units took control of the Southern Military District Headquarters, out of which the war was being run. Wagner tanks trundled north toward Moscow without encountering opposition. They came within 125 miles of the city before Prigozhin backed off in a move that surprised even the cynical Russians. He had no choice. Wagner Group was fully funded and supplied by the Russian state. Prigozhin himself was a Putin enforcer, a minor thug in Russia’s hierarchy of organized political crime. Without Putin, he was a nameless shadow. It is a measure of the regime’s ineptitude that such a bit actor could get so close to the Kremlin walls.
For all the drama, nothing changed. Putin is still in charge. Prigozhin’s career ended predictably in what has been called a “fatal plane crash.” Russian soldiers continue to die in large numbers to no particular purpose. Despite the surface chaos of events, history in the depths, where nations are broken and remade, remains frozen solid.
For an instant during the mutiny, however, ordinary Russians seemed to think change was at hand. Crowds cheered the mercenary units on their northward march; women offered flowers. It was a telling delusion. The Wagnerites, many of whom were criminals recruited out of prison, represented the most tainted elements of a gangster regime. Only in Russia could they be mistaken for redeemers. Crushed by the dead weight of the past, the public there was willing to deny reality in the desperate hope of a thaw.
The Democracies and the Irresistible Itch for Control
We might expect the democratic nations to proportionately thrive as authoritarianism declines into unreality. By all rights, our thinkers and commentators should be in a frenzy of intellectual activity, disputing, say, the application of digital technology to democratic theory or the place of noncitizen immigrants in a democratic polity. This hasn’t happened. The spread of pseudo-ideas has been universal. From the United States to Britain to Brazil, democracy as the rule of the people—as an ideal of freedom—has been perverted into its opposite by the keepers of the established order.
The ideological sickness of democracy is everywhere apparent. Political institutions that depended on a monopoly of information have been rendered dysfunctional by the digital storm. The voting public, now in command of the information landscape, has lost all faith in the system, starting at the top, and periodically erupts into the streets to vent its nihilistic fury. The elites who manage the institutions, accustomed to being respected and obeyed, have been shocked to learn that the public finds them worthless and contemptible.
The elites in the democracies inhabit structures that resemble the Chinese Communist Party: Both were organized in the 20th century along steeply hierarchical lines and both are too ponderous and bureaucratic in a world that moves at the speed of light. And like the Chinese communists with their mausoleum regime, democratic elites have watched the intellectual foundations of their authority disintegrate completely. The theory holds that the people are sovereign; if the people repudiate the system, paralysis ensues.
The solitary question of democratic politics today is whether anyone has the legitimacy to govern. Evidently, a new approach is needed. Frightened and confused, the elites have jettisoned the ancient ideals of democracy—equality, rule of law, freedom of speech—and settled on a pseudo-ideology of control.
The game is played with a few simple moves. An existential crisis is declared—the pandemic, for example, or the climate, or white supremacy or disinformation. To dawdle in debate is said to be criminally negligent. Mandates must be imposed at once—total lockdowns, deindustrialization, “equity” arbitrated by government, censorship of the information sphere. Every mandate increases the arbitrary power of the elites, who can pose as defenders of science, truth and the American way. The arrangement has been fondly nicknamed “our democracy”—as in, “Social media is causing a threat to our democracy.” Any who oppose “our democracy” are beyond the pale: populists, insurgents, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, climate deniers, vaccine skeptics, Russia lovers, hate speech promoters, fake news peddlers, a long and growing list of sinners who have lost the right to be heard.
The malice of the opposition requires the rule in perpetuity of the guardian class: To that end, principles are mere tactics. Mandates, preferably by executive order, are the ideal tools of “our democracy.” Social justice really means the subjugation of points of resistance like religion and small business. Popular anti-elite figures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil must be demonized as bigots and aspiring tyrants. They belong in prison. The words “populist” and “far right,” when written in the prestige media, signify the politically unclean who must never be allowed near the temples of authority.
The elites fear the majority and have learned to deploy the structures and procedures of democracy against it. France is a good case in point. Emmanuel Macron, the president, is a creature of the elites. His support rarely reaches a third of the public and currently stands at 25%—yet the institutions of the Fifth Republic have bestowed on him two significant electoral victories. In 2022, Macron lost control of the National Assembly, yet the rules of the system have allowed him to mandate policy (for example, pension reform) without legislative approval. Macron talks of a “Jupiterian” presidency and loves to strut within the gilded halls of Versailles. That’s “our democracy,” French style.
But nowhere has the defection of the elites been so pronounced or the pseudo-ideology of control so dominant than here in the U.S.—where, after all, the latter was invented. Confronted with broken institutions, a troubled economy and a war in Ukraine, the people in charge have focused their energy on pronoun fights and advocacy of “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.” Mandates abound on race, sex, language, manufacturing, vaccines, energy and land use. An elaborate censorship mechanism has been instituted to blot out offensive opinions before they can pollute the digital sphere. As part of this effort, the Biden White House demanded and obtained the collaboration of the news media and the scientific establishment as well as the craven submission to federal bureaucrats of the social media platforms.
Criticism of the pseudo-ideology constitutes a firing offense; opposition is a crime. For helping to expose the censorship scheme, Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger have been labelled “a direct threat,” words usually reserved for terrorists in Washington, D.C. Congressional Democrats are clamoring for the Department of Justice to prosecute Clarence Thomas, who happens to be the most doggedly conservative justice on the Supreme Court. And, of course, there’s Donald Trump, presidential candidate and Beast of the Apocalypse to the elites, looking these days very much like St. Sebastian with the arrows of outrageous justice sticking from of every inch of his aging body. To date, Trump has been charged with 78 felony counts but the competition to find more is intense.
In a sublimely ironic moment, Antony Blinken, our secretary of state, chose to chastise “Russia’s conviction of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on politically motivated charges. The Kremlin,” he thundered, “cannot silence the truth.” Blinken seemed genuinely clueless about what he had just said. The joy of pseudo-ideological posturing is that one can bully the “opposition leader” with Putinist methods while functioning at a level of unawareness worthy of Emmanuel Macron.
Future Risk and the Resumption of History
A true ideology is like a bulldozer—a force for change. A pseudo-ideology is an agent of inertia and the status quo. These fables are “pseudo” because they’re false, self-serving and comfortably dull. Yet they appear to work. Except for the inexorable erosion of moral and human capital, little has changed over the decades in Xi’s China or Putin’s Russia—or, for that matter, the Iran of the ayatollahs, the North Korea of the Kims and the Arabian peninsula under the house of Saud. Few prospects for change are visible from where I stand.
In the democratic nations, a pseudo-ideology of control has enabled the ruling elites to maintain a tenuous grip on power. The networked public can generate enormous amounts of pressure but has yet to attain concrete reforms of the system. The French public, for example, took to the streets in massive anti-government protests in 2018, 2022 and again in 2023. Macron understood nothing and changed nothing. His response to the most recent disorders was a demand for greater control: “we need to reflect on social media use among the youngest [and] on the prohibitions we must put in place.” If “things got out of hand,” he added, it might be necessary to “cut” access to the web. Planned legislation by the European Union would give him the authority to do just that.
Populists who claim to represent the public’s hunger for change when elected have been unable to deliver on their promises. Trump and Bolsonaro have come and gone with little to show for it. Boris Johnson led Britain out of the EU, won a smashing political victory then got lost in the wilderness without a promised land in sight. Giorgia Meloni of Italy has implemented vaguely Reaganesque policies that fail to address the fundamental question of elite control. The populists have failed for the same reason that the street revolts have failed: Both are driven by a politics of negation. Both rage against the rule of the elites but lack a coherent alternative to put in its place.
History will resume again when an authentic ideology is proclaimed that will overwhelm the spurious narratives of the old regime. The missing element today isn’t equality or wealth or power but imagination. The reformation of democratic politics and society must first be conceptualized before it can be carried through. And there’s no telling where change will come from or what it might look like. Discredited systems of representation could be swept away. A digital messiah could arise to purify the world with fire and sword: Even now, William Yeats’ rough beast could be slouching toward Bethlehem to be born again. There are worse options than “our democracy.”
But long-term optimism shouldn’t be ruled out. The new information structure, cause of so many sterile upheavals, holds the potential for new forms of government from below, new means of participation by the voters in the decisions of the modern state. To the degree that the public knows itself to be the active force of history, the toxic alienation of the present will dissipate. Democratic institutions can be reformed and improved, not just battered to pieces. Again, it takes imagination. This much is certain: The pseudo-ideology of control will not be overthrown by slogans or riots but by a new and meaningful ideology of freedom.