Those who’ve seen footage of the recent anti-war protests in Russia may have spotted a few appalling characteristics in the (absence of) crowds. Firstly, there seems to be an enormous gap between the expected revolt and the actual deeds in the streets of Moscow and other cities. Based on the seriousness of the situation, one would expect insurgency all over Russia, citizens setting fire to the streets and tearing down government buildings.
Because for many, the risk of being jailed during a riot may even be more alluring than the prospect of being sent to the front-lines and serve as cannon fodder. Yet, surprisingly, the majority silently consents. Apart from some courageous gatherings and multiple arrests, nothing significant happened. Nothing, at least, that would seriously concern the regime.
Secondly, during this modest uprising, one might also have noticed the difference with other, more successful protests elsewhere: the overall lack of unity. As one protester after another is arrested or beaten up, most bystanders stay uninvolved, film the uproar or simply back down, although outnumbering the police by far.
This tells me that the underlying causes may be more severe than one would suspect on the surface. It’s the sheer inability to unite. And that might be the result of a dangerous form of social disintegration; years of disentanglement of inter systemic human bonds, cold estrangement from fellow citizens. More bluntly: the entire social system that is supposed to unite people, is rotten to the core. Human connections, vaporized by apathy and indifference, mistrust, confusion and denial. And this is not limited to Russia.
The role of citizens in a well-functioning society lies in concrete actions otherwise known as civic duty. These can begin by gentle gestures: listening to each other, retaining dialogue and maintain the irregular flared up discussion, but also to rebel when needed. According to Marcus Aurelius’ meditations, civic duty belongs to the palette of natural, social behavior, guided by reason. It requires social responsibility from all citizens in all layers of a society.
Essential is that all society’s strata connect in public spaces and exchange perspectives on a regular basis to form lasting ties. Commonly shared values need to string citizens together and make them resilient against impulses of violence. This mechanism will prevent a society from overshooting into dangerous absolutes and will encourage consensus instead of fragmentation. All inhabitants of a state, in this case, are the watchdogs and guardians of their own inclination to irrationality. It will ideally do justice to the complexity of a nation-state. Suchlike societies will reflect, not deflect.
But today, one can observe certain eroding tendencies that undermine the realization and containment of social nations. Apathetic and indifferent citizens begin abandoning their position as key critical elements of a healthy society. Extreme examples of this phenomenon can be seen in Russia, where the negligence of civic duty has indirectly culminated into strict totalitarianism, thousands of deaths in a senseless war, not even to speak of internal repression and state terror.
Not coincidentally, many thinkers have mentioned indifference and apathy as the biggest threats to democracy. Conversely, they’re the closest companions of every autocrat. Taking current Russia as an example, we see that years of oppression have robbed the citizens from their public voices. Civic unions have evaporated, were annihilated or went underground, isolating every individual or family on exile. As distant islands, they’re unable to form any noteworthy counterweight against a government that’s rapidly running towards self-destruction.
The two terms can be supplemented with distrust and denial. When society is stricken by these two factors, it may furthermore enlarge the chance of individuals leaving their post as active actors in a democracy. Those affected by this feeling may seek refuge in conspiracy theories and end up denying all about which there is wide consensus, such as ethical standards. Doing so, they place themselves outside of the democratic game, for they lost confidence in its functioning. Paradoxically, this group often claims to be the most critical. In reality, they merely contribute to the deconstruction of the system they are trying to save. They become islands.
The threat of disintegration of social structures is not limited to Russia. Dotted all over Europe, citizens begin acting like separate atoms, moving independently from another, downright denying their interdependence. Estrangement from human proximity speeds up the decay of democracy, which on its turn is interconnected with loneliness, despair, war and eventually, destruction.
On the branches of separation, the fruits of apathy are ripening.
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Photo credit: Pawel Janiak.