Infernal Machine   /   March 6, 2014

The Spectacle and the Square

The ancient Greeks gave European civilization three great political technologies: the spectacle, the square, and rhetoric. This long winter we have seen each at work in remarkable ways in Russia and Ukraine. In Sochi we saw pure spectacle in Putin’s Olympics. In Kiev we saw the power of the square, as protestors gathered in Maidan, or Independence Square, to practice rhetoric (well before they clashed with riot police). Now that we may be moving toward a disaster of one kind or another in Ukraine, we would do well to reflect on the present life of these ancient political technologies as they are playing out in Putin’s so-called Eurasia.

The intellectual context here is the work of Russian political scientist Aleksander Dugin, who some describe as the founder of the ideology of Eurasianism, or National Bolshevism, and whose thought has been enormously influential in government circles in Putin's Russia. Like many other post-cold war intellectuals—most famously Francis Fukuyama—Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory pronounces “the end of ideology,” arguing that of the three great ideologies of the twentieth century—communism, fascism, and liberalism—the last, and the last alone, has won.

The consequence has not only been the defeat of powerful alternate dreams of political and economic order, but the end of liberalism itself as an “ideology”—that is, as a consciously propagated and debated belief system. The end of the cold war, we might say, brought the end of liberal rhetoric. No longer the subject of debate, liberalism is in Dugin’s words “a kind of mandatory given.” The result is “the postmodern metamorphosis of liberalism into the form of postmodernity and globalization,” a kind of global society of the spectacle where peoples everywhere are subject to the logics of consumer capitalism and highly individualized “human rights.”

The “Fourth Political Theory” (i.e., Eurasianism), in Dugin’s view, represents a “crusade” against postmodernity and its co-conspirators. And yet, in a move strikingly Foucaldian, Dugin argues that the “Fourth Political Theory” must not reject postmodernism so much as learn from it and reappropriate it: “The Fourth Political Theory must draw its ‘dark inspiration’ from postmodernity, from the liquidation of the program of the Enlightenment, and the arrival of the society of the simulacra, interpreting this as an incentive for battle rather than a destiny.”

And so we come to Sochi, where an obscure Russian village was transformed into opulent stage for the spectacle of the Olympics. Whereas for the Greeks the virtue of the spectacle was found in a reprieve from the ordinary order of things, above all battle, for Putin the spectacle was reinvented as a field for his Eurasian ideological battle. To hell with “human rights,” Putin’s Olympics announced (gays were here the “symbolic” target), let’s put on a muscular show. And so, too, we have since been faced with the spectacle of Crimea and the southern territories of Ukraine, where military posturing and “protest tourists” have reappropriated the American-born postmodern war toward the ends of Eurasianism.

So much for the spectacle, what of the square? Since last fall, Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, has been the site of such pressure on the notion of  “the end of ideology” and the triumph of the “postmodern era” that, whatever the future violent triumphs of Eurasianism it will never be able to credibly claim to have raised ideology from its twentieth-century grave. The people on the Maidan have done that. As Timothy Snyder has beautifully written,

What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word maidan exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for “square,” a public place. But a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word agora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society. During the protests the word maidan has come to mean the act of public politics itself, so that for example people who use their cars to organize public actions and protect other protestors are called the automaidan.

In ancient Greek society, the spectacle and the square were two distinct but complimentary political technologies. In Russia and Ukraine, during the course of this long and fateful winter, they have become representative of two, now opposing, political and "ideological" possibilities for the twenty-first century.