The Fruits of Apathy

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.

Civic Duty

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.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2022. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photo credit: Pawel Janiak.

International State Terror

In his outstanding work The Rebel, Albert Camus came up with two concepts in regard to what he called ‘state terror’. Roughly paraphrasing him and others, I will draw some parallels with the ongoing war in Ukraine. In this light, Camus spoke of two forms of state terror in which revolutionary thought could overshoot, namely: rational and irrational state terror. The first, rational terror, will be elaborated on thoroughly in relation to the logic Russia is currently subject to. Helped by these concepts, this piece will argue why the war won’t end anytime soon and why it should be taken seriously.

States that apply terror, feel the need to sacrifice concrete, palpable life in order to create totality and fulfill an oblique destiny. In other words, they need to suppress and kill for a supposed greater good; a greater good that is far from certain. Irrational state terror, according to Camus, is what has been practiced by Nazi-Germany. What makes it irrational, is that its logic inevitably led to its own destruction. Taking the idea of movement and action to religious spheres after Nietzsche’s death of god, Nazi-Germany had set out on a crash course with the rest of the world in order to justify its existence; it always needed an enemy. It didn’t exist without war. For the first time in history, a state showed that it can create terror on an industrial scale.

Now, rational state terror, in relation to today’s Russia, finds its origins in the Soviet Union, in Lenin’s selective adaptation of Marx’ works. Lenin had rewritten socialist thought in a way that it would justify repression and suffering in the name of inevitable history. He claimed that an authoritarian regime would realize the predetermined lot of his union faster than simply waiting for it. He promised that at the end, when all is unity, the regime would be superfluous and dissolve itself. But no end date was given. Whether Putin’s Russia can be labelled as rational or irrational state terror, remains unclear until the final outcome of the war. Possibly it’s a mixture of the two.

According to Camus, an important component of rational state terror is the way it fabricates and manipulates truth -retroactively- in order to make all its actions seem rational as a logical means to an end. This mechanism is well illustrated in the works of George Orwell, like 1984, where newspapers are adjusted every second to match the changing reality and make it seem like the state is seamlessly following its own history. Unlike Nazi-Germany, which tried to hide its atrocities and horrors from the public and hypocritically pour out its violence over Europe, the Soviet Union presented repression as a necessary sacrifice: to achieve peace for all in an undetermined future, violence is justified in the present.

The state, in this case, wouldn’t even portray its violence as repression; merely as re-education to create totality and unity; a small detour along the Uighur camps in China. They would even take it a step further and claim that it is the unity of the state itself who is repressed by citizens who explicate deviant ideas. In a rational state, there cannot be any defiance, for all is totality: the future, the past and the present. Other perspectives that may distort this total image, must be either converted or destroyed without the possibility of martyrdom, which rhymes with the crusades in Europe’s dark ages.

This brings us to the terror in Ukraine. Why did Russia’s internal repression became external and spill over into Ukraine and previously Georgia, Chechnya and again, Ukraine? Above the much discussed strategic reasons for an invasion, Russia follows a certain logic, reminiscent of the Soviet constructs as described by Camus and others. In regard to the ‘deviant perspectives’ to the endeavored totality, Russia’s interference with Chechnya is interesting to begin with. When Chechnya revolted and tried to untie itself from the federation, its rebellion was smashed down by the freshly chosen president Putin. The goal: restoring totality. But the mechanism goes international, too.

The Kremlin’s knowledge of different perspectives, thriving in neighboring countries, creates eternal friction (which boasts nationalism and the need for a ‘strong leader’). Military or not, a state that pursues total unity exists in a perpetual state of war with opposing views, in Europe, Ukraine or elsewhere. A totalitarian state that has given itself the religious task of fulfilling human destiny, experiences continuous dissonance with neighboring democratic countries and is constantly reminded that its totality is unfulfilled. So the moment Ukraine moved into a more democratic direction, Russia’s latent dissonance accumulated into terror. Random attacks on civil targets might not just be a military tactic, it’s also a way of terrorizing and spreading fear, until Ukraine’s citizens will follow suit again and comply. If they refuse, destruction is what awaits them, to restore the totalitarian equilibrium.

The collision between democratic and totalitarian systems is denuded by the mere description of a democratic system. Democracies, respecting various perspectives, admit that there is always an area of tension, of conflict between visions. But contrary to other systems, the democratic one perceives conflict -in the form of dialogue and debate- as its main advantage. And historical dialectics, but also pure logic, have shown that the immense human diversity cannot be squeezed into one or two simple state models. Democracy offers a platform for the diversity to come to consensus and do more justice to the vast human complexity. Law and shared values, based on mutual decisions, offer an overarching foundation that bridges the gaps of a multiform society. In more Nietzschean terms: chaos brings order.

Conclusively, this is simply a description of the logic a state can follow, and whence it can lead to the application of terror. And if the question is posed whether Russia is applying terror in Ukraine, the answer following Camus’ paradigm is a full yes. Nonetheless, lacking the military power to create the world it adores, those in the Kremlin have learnt from the past, and have refined their strategies into quite sophisticated methods of manipulating public opinion and blackmailing their perceived enemies. Yet, the force of action and movement, in order for such a state to justify its existence, is only stopped when it collides with another force. Until that moment, the day that it is halted, the 21st century Red Army will roll onward.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2022. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Deadly Relativism

Nearly two weeks after Russia’s devastating invasion in Ukraine, a curious phenomenon is unfolding: Gradually but surely, Western folks seem to habituate with the increasing human suffering and bloodshed just outside the EU’s doorstep. Intervals between news updates become longer, terraces are filling up with smiling and chatting people, while just across the EU borders, Ukrainian children die of dehydration and hunger and civilians are tormented. The initial solidarity that was expressed by fellow Europeans is -wholly according to contemporary tenets- on the verge of becoming cynical. Upon seeing another bombed building we give a misanthropic sigh, turn away our heads, remark that ‘the world is rotten’ and return to our safe bubble of denial. Not only citizens explicate this attitude. Also NATO, the most powerful military alliance to date, has taken such a powerless stance.

The inclination to respond cynical to peril possibly serves as self protection, as is the tendency to compare incomparable conflicts to prove hypocrisy. General tendencies are to mirror the media attention to the Ukraine conflict to the one in Palestine, or cry that the US also invaded Iraq in 2003, and therefore loses its right to condemn Russia. In all these exclamations there might be a proportion of truth, but by now, there are no states left with a clear conscience. And instead of diminishing the ongoing misery, this relativism works counterproductive and merely paves the way to indifference. And it is exactly indifference that is in the advantage of the the world’s shift towards authoritarian totalitarianism; instead of becoming rebellious, we lean towards its opposite.

Underlying this lethargic indifference sits a certain nihilism. A dangerous belief that good and evil are no different from each other. That all is forlorn, all is chaos. Everyone is wrong, and everyone is right, depending the perspective. Perhaps it was the omnipresent safety in Europe, that made its citizens insensitive towards their own ideals and values; ironically the very basis on which its cherished safety is founded. Because if we zoom in at the state of Ukraine, we see a country that is attempting to escape the cynicism that dominates former USSR countries. A nation that is willing to leave behind its past and embrace democracy, displaying a militancy the EU can only hope for. The bravery of Ukraine against this ruthless aggressor reminds Europe of its own forgotten fundamentals, that’s why Ukraine could also count on widespread sympathy. They have what we lack. A sympathy, which is on the edge of turning cynical because of crooked comparisons to earlier wars, mostly to the self serving goals of the ones who make them.

Yet in the modern world, which is constituted by a dynamic of contradictions (Marshall Berman), hypocrisy is never far away and does not suffice as an argument for an empty nihilism. One who claims to never have been hypocrite, is hypocrite. Preceding unfairness likewise, does not legitimize new unfairness. If Europe still contains ideals indeed, hypocrisy must be subordinated to our norms and values, otherwise our existence will soon be illegitimate. A Europe like that, dissolving in relativism, will be food for the mouth of indifference, cynicism; for gloomy regimes like Russia’s. It needs to formulate its values well and defend them like Ukraine does for us now.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2022. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photo credit: Benjamin Marder.