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Putin and the Capitalist Fantasy of the Authoritarian Anti-Hero

The continuing power of Putin, both in terms of the length and security of his rule as well as his ongoing appeal to large segments of the population, reflects his skill at marshaling an affective capitalist fantasy of authoritarian nationalism. In particular, his support stems, in no small part, from the portrayal of himself and his allies as protectors of Russian sovereignty. Even more so, in the public championing of his singular ability to not be confined by the prescriptive dictates of foreign countries and international law. He stands, in this regard, as a capitalist anti-hero; one who is attractive exactly due to his willingness to take on the perceived colonial aspects of globalization even as he expands the scope of political authoritarianism and economic marketization at home.

Crucial to the legitimacy of Putin is his framing of politics around an affective discourse that combines in equal measure patriotism, state supported capitalism, social traditionalism and aggressive jingoism against foreign threats. Reflected is, akin to what is found in China, a capitalist fantasy of authoritarian nationalism. It is one that leans on the exclusive capability of a strong sovereign, in this case found not in a party per se but a leader, to preserve the country’s prosperity and guide its development contra enemies from without and within. Moreover, it is underpinned by a commitment to maintaining and taking advantage of a global market economy.

This fantasmatic narrative is demonstrated in both the regime’s domestic and foreign policies. At home, Putin has castigated internal dissent as “anti-Russian.” Not surprisingly, he has coupled such charges by strategically presenting himself and his rule as the leading protector of Russia’s conservative culture (Bai, 2015; Kaylan, 2014). In his 2013 State of the Union address he railed against the West’s “genderless and infertile” liberalism while trumpeting Russia’s “traditional values” (Whitmore, 2013). The incarceration of the punk band Pussy Riot exemplifies this trend, as they were imprisoned for publicly singing a satirical song about Putin and the country’s generally orthodox legacy. More broadly, the regime has ramped up its rhetoric and repression against those deemed to endanger Russian culture, namely homosexuals, a situation that the New York Times referred to as “Mr. Putin’s War on Gays” (New York Times, July 27, 2013).

Tellingly, Putin has defended this state-sanctioned social repression on the grounds that such practices and identities represent something distinctly “foreign,” specifically Western. He regularly railed against a “unipolar” world, and the problems of external socio-political as well as cultural threats to Russian sovereignty. Specifically, he directed his attacks against the USA, arguing that:

One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well who likes this? Who is happy about this? (Sternthal, 2012)

By contrast, he espoused the need to strengthen Russia through his strong leadership to repel these “foreign” enemies. He argued that it is essential to bolster the country’s defenses in order to make sure that other countries do not perceive Russia as weak, thus strengthening their international power overall. This condemnation fits within a broader discourse attributing the problems of the country to malicious desires of non-Russian exploiters. It is a fantasy built on centuries-old paranoia, but this time in support of a capitalist autocrat.

And yet, such established despotism has a relatively new twist in the contemporary age under Putin. Notably, it is firmly anti-globalization but pro-capitalist. Or to put it differently, it focuses attention on the population’s fears of the specter of an unstoppable global capitalism backed by and for the benefit of the West. In a September 2013 speech he declared, in rhetoric that he had mined countless times before and would continue to afterwards, “It is evident that it is impossible to move forward without spiritual, cultural and national self-determination. Without this we will not be able to withstand internal and external challenges, nor will we succeed in global competitions” (David, 2014). To this effect, it reflects prevailing feelings of powerlessness connected to globalization. Through Putin, the country is able to regain its agency, to fight back and seemingly forge its own destiny rather than merely accept internationally proscribed mandates for how it should conduct its affairs.

In practice, this authoritarian agency is manifested in the ethos of portraying Putin, as previously described, as the capitalist anti-hero. He is a figure who does what he wants while disregarding, indeed even basking in, the condemnation of the global community. He treats the rules of the current order as strictures to be broken when and wherever he sees fit. Tellingly, despite or perhaps more accurately exactly because of Western condemnation, Putin is seen by many global leaders, particularly autocratic ones, as “The New Model Dictator” (Caryl,

2015). His conservative machoism and willingness to challenge US and European hegemony, appeals to rulers like Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary. In the words of Washington Post reporter Erin Cunningham (2015) “Putin ... is therefore seen as a virile strongman who crushes dissent and stands up to the West.”

The recent and ongoing international dispute over the Ukraine almost perfectly encapsulates this anti-hero persona inhabited by Putin. It is not so much that he supported the annexing of the Eastern part of the country to Russia nor that there is strong evidence he is continuing to interfere in Ukrainian politics to reflect Russian interests. It is rather that he is so publicly dismissive, at times almost satirically so, when called by the foreign community to defend or account for his actions. The Economist (2015), lays out the political calculation, some may cynicism, at the heart of this strategy:

Against this background a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and de-escalation of tensions with the West would push the focus back onto economic and social problems, lowering Mr Putin’s ratings, just as happened after Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008. A continuation of the war in Ukraine and the stand-off with the West will keep his ratings up for longer.

The consequence of this anti-heroism, thus, is one that detracts from the country’s more fundamental social and economic problems, many of which are connected to structural issues of ongoing marketization mixed with oligarchy. In this way, his positioning of himself as a fighter of Western hegemony, and its ideology of corporate globalization, bolsters the nation’s market transformation. He is, therefore, a capitalist anti-hero. He is one of international capitalism’s most public transgressors - the “bad boy” who refuses to bow down to not only foreign rivals but a new world order prioritizing the legal rights and power of multi-national corporations. However, he strategically deploys this subversive persona to ironically entrench marketization and with it authoritarian capitalism at home.

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