Russia, decolonization, & the capitalism/democracy muddle

15 05 2023

A slightly modified version of this article (with footnotes) can be read at E-Flux Notes.

The ideas of decolonizing Ukraine, and of decolonizing Russia, are both “in the air.” They are also two entirely different things.

Like many postcolonial scholars, Ukrainian intellectuals have a pretty good idea of what “decolonizing Ukraine” means: it means national self-determination on a political level, accompanied by some measure of cultural revitalization. The details of the latter are debated, but some measure of “Ukrainization” in education, language laws, and the like — echoing that which took place in the 1920s (and was subsequently and violently negated in the 1930s) — is part of the picture, if only because cultural change helps to consolidate political change. (For a sense of this, see these articles in Krytyka, the writing of Timothy Snyder, and the long list of sources on the Ukrainian Institute’s Decolonization page.)

That’s not to say that Ukrainian intellectuals are united in acknowledging Ukraine’s colonial status. Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak argued in 2015 that “Within the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Ukraine was more core than colony,” and that the postcolonial paradigm was “of little relevance” in explaining the events of 2014’s Maidan revolution and what led up to it. Still, the cultural dimension of decolonization has been prominent in the years since 2014, and it concurs with a view we’d get from any number of sub-state or neo-national peoples — think of the Québecois, the Catalans, the long-established (statified) Irish, et al. — that culture and language matter. By the same token, looking to India should suffice to remind us that culture, in a multi-ethnic state (no matter how successfully postcolonial), will always remain tricky and challenging; and given Ukraine’s historical as well as contemporary multi-ethnicity, may always remain so. (On Ukraine’s historical complexities, see, e.g., Brown, Abramson, and Durand.)

But what might “decolonizing Russia” mean? (Similarly, what could decolonizing the world’s other massive, historically imperial state — China — mean? Here’s a curious depiction of what this suggestion might entail.) And what forms could global solidarity with such a decolonial project take?

If decolonization, by definition, is a collective self-liberation, a freeing from the perverse effects of colonization, it’s important to note that there can be “perverse decolonizations,” in which reactions against alleged colonial harm are replaced by new harms, or old harms in new guises.

And there is the question of whose decolonization is the real decolonization: when Russians present themselves as decolonizers and de-imperializers, purportedly decolonizing themselves, their “New Russian” compatriots, and the “Russkii mir” from the “liberal West”; when Ukrainians see themselves as decolonizing and de-imperializing from imperial (or neo-imperial) Russia; when supporters of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” see themselves as decolonizing (if not de-imperializing) from “Banderite” Ukraine; and so on? As Nikolay Smirnov writes in “Crisis of Decoloniality and Inevitability of Decolonization” (Posle, March 10, 2023), “Elements of imperial and decolonial ideologies are woven together into an irrational combination of geocultural neurosis that turns into military-political psychosis.”

One could at this point throw up one’s hands and say “We can’t possibly know who is right here.” But like most debates skewed by layers of misinformation and counter-propaganda, this would be neither honest nor helpful. To get at its dishonesty, however, it’s not enough to provide simple factual correctives. In what follows, I’d like to argue that unraveling the decolonization puzzle will involve assessing the role of two other key features of the world at large: capitalism and democracy.

My starting assumption is that the global decolonization movement, which exploded across the global South in the middle decades of the twentieth century, has hardly fulfilled its mission in these remaining mega-states. In this, Russia and China are little different from the colonial settler-states of the Americas and Oceania (the US, Canada, Australia, et al); in some respects, they are worse.

To think through what decolonizing Russia (or China) may involve requires thinking through the similarities and differences between these remaining mega-states and the Euro-colonized states around the world that have been decolonized to various degrees, including external colonies like those that made up much of Africa and parts of Asia for centuries, as well as the mentioned settler-colonial states. But it also, crucially, requires thinking through the forms of economic neo-colonialism that global capitalism has enabled to continue around the world to this day. These processes are related and cannot be thought apart from each other today.

Decolonization and Russia

The idea of decolonizing Russia has become popular in some places, for good reason. Among others, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Sergej Sumlenny of the pro-NATO the Center for European Policy Analysis, The Atlantic’s Casey Michel, Poland’s Lech Walesa, the European Parliament’s European Conservatives and Reformists Group, and any number of Ukrainians and many Poles have argued on behalf of it. The Forum of the Free Peoples of Russia has published a Declaration on the Decolonization of Russia, with signatories from Buryatia, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Siberia, Ichkeria, Velky Novgorod, Kolomna, and various other parts of what is still the Russian Federation. (For those like me living in Berlin, it’s well worth seeing the Kunstraum Kreuzberg’s current exhibition entitled “Өмә [ome],” a Bachqort word meaning “collective self-help practices,” consisting of work by artists from the many ethno-national groups historically colonized by Russia and united by the vision of decolonizing Russia.)

Urging caution, on the other hand, Russia (and fascism) expert Marlene Laruelle writes that

A collapse [of the Russian state] would generate several civil wars. New statelets would fight with one another over borders and economic assets. Moscow elites, who control a huge nuclear arsenal, would react with violence to any secessionism. The security services and law enforcement agencies would crush any attempts at democratizing if that meant repeating the Soviet Union’s dismemberment. Although decolonization sounds like liberation, in practice it would likely push the whole of Russia and ethnic minority regions even further backward.

The University of Exeter’s Kevork Oskanian adds that

Falling empires have a tendency to crush smaller peoples underneath their weight, and pushing for Russia’s dismemberment may achieve exactly that. A “guided” dismemberment would require the defeat of a nuclear power, and social engineering over territories over a vast scale with a probably unwilling majority population. As for an uncontrolled implosion, all it takes is imagining multiple mini-Russia’s with their own nuclear devices to get a sense of what could ensue: the 1918−1920 civil war, but with armed-to-the-teeth reds, whites, and greens, with ethnic minorities stuck in between. The 1990s Balkans, but much, much more violent — and genocidal. As so often in International Affairs, one has to be careful what one wishes for.

Oskanian advocates for “a change in governmentality away from the ‘Imperial’,” “authoritarian, hierarchical ‘power vertical’”, but “[w]ithout setting much of Eurasia — and perhaps the world — on fire in the process.” Others see similar risks.

The existence of Russia’s nuclear weapons — the largest stock of such weaponry in the world, by most estimates — serves here as a trump card by which even the prospect of a Ukrainian victory in the war could seem threatening if it would result in the collapse of Russia as we know it. If the latter were to happen, it would take an extraordinary effort — a united front of the rest of the world, presumably organized through the UN Security Council (minus Russia) — to “secure the nukes” and prevent their falling into the “wrong hands.” (Imagine the Wagner Group’s Yevgeni Prigozhin getting his hands on some nukes.) And with US-China antagonism growing, anything resembling the kind of global unity that would require looks extremely elusive these days.

In an insightful piece called “What Kind of Decolonization Do We Need?” Russian political theorist llya Budraitskis recently argued that real decolonization is possible only if “Russians rewire their own consciousness and reconsider their past and present, the imperial and chauvinistic foundations of which paved the way to the current war.” But that that still leaves many questions unanswered. Budraitskis critiques the “epistemic disobedience” narratives of theorists like Walter Mignolo, which have in fact supported Putin’s own pseudo-decolonial anti-Westernism, but offers only a vaguest sense of what an adequate decolonization may look like.

Asking “who should ‘decolonize’ whom and for what?” Budraitskis ends the piece with another question:

“Decolonization invokes the need to recreate the country and raises the question: what binds us to each other, if not a centralized state and its attributes – a uniform education and culture, a unified language? Everyone must answer that question for themselves.”

Fortunately, some of the historically colonized peoples of the Russian Federation are already asking themselves this question. This is evident in last year’s “Appeal to Decolonize the Russian Federation,” which, for security reasons, was put forward anonymously by a working group with “participants from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the regions of the contemporary Russian Federation, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Buryatia, the Republic of Sakha, Kalmykia, Udmurtia,” and relying on the “existing appeals of the indigenous peoples of Russia.” The appeal demanded “regional autonomy in decision-making and local self-governances instead of a vertical, repressive-centering apparatus of power,” “new autonomies […] formed along territorial lines,” “inclusion and a radical acceptance of diversity,” and which mentioned the risk of “global ecocide” and the suffering of Indigenous peoples from the climate crisis and the exploitation of nature.

It is also evident in the creation of the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR), intended to counter the propaganda (as they see it) of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). The ICIPR’s (and Memorial’s) recent report on “Influence of Putin’s Aggression Against Ukraine on Indigenous Peoples of Russia” details the disproportionate impacts of the war on Indigenous communities, as well as ongoing effects of Russian extractive industries, intimidation of Indigenous activities, and victimization of civil society initiatives connected to Russian imperial aggression. The report deserves to be widely read and shared.

Seen in the light of Indigenous cultures on the territory of the Russian Federation, academic decolonialism may appear somewhat of an elite concern. But let us consider some of the forms it takes.  

The Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Paolo Sartori, an Islamicist and Eurasianist scholar, distinguishes between three trajectories of Russian decolonialism. The first, directed at Russians “nostalgic for the imperial past”, he sees as a somewhat lost cause (even if it is the most important one, in the long run). The second, directed toward the broadening of academic Russian and East European studies departments so that they are more inclusive of non-Russian, non-Slavic, and non-European histories and voices, he sees as successfully proceeding with something of an urgency today.

And the third, targeted at “historians of Central Eurasia,” he argues, has actually succeeded over the last few decades, such that “No one in the West today would be able to publish an academic work on these regions without reflecting on the process of historical erosion produced by Tsarist and Soviet archives and emphasizing the historical agency of Central Asians and Caucasians. The post-colonial approach,” he continues, “is such a widespread phenomenon that not only in the West, but also in Russia original scholarship” is “debunk[ing] the myth of Tsarist and Soviet Sonderweg, itself hidden behind the figleaf of modernizing projects.”

The problem is that academic work, produced in elite, metropolitan institutions, does not necessarily translate into policy changes at the local and sub-national levels where that work is most relevant (or, in this case, in Moscow, where it is even more relevant, but is currently constrained by censorship and propaganda).

Taking all of these views into consideration, it becomes evident that “decolonization” is something of a wild card with many potential meanings, not all of them promising. What’s missing from many of these discussions, I want to argue, is an analysis of the relationship between colonialism/coloniality and at least two other forms of political-economic asymmetry shaping the world today: capitalism and democracy. Fortunately, they are related (though not in the way some popular voices assume). This makes it easier for us to think of the three together. Let me explain.

What about capitalism? And democracy?

Capitalism, when it’s unfettered by democracy or “the state,” privileges the wealthy over the poor. Those who have wealth are able to make more of it; those who do not have it, cannot.

Making more of it involves commodifying what has heretofore been uncommodified (and therefore “common”): people are turned into “labor” (their potential as workers for capitalist enterprises), land and “nature” become real estate and property (buyable, sellable, commodifiable), behavior is turned into the “data” for surveillance capital, and so on. (See Polanyi and Zuboff on these processes.) Wealth is “grown” at the expense of community and social self-sufficiency, which are broken up (including over centuries of colonialism); of ecological integrity, which is similarly dismembered and scrambled (resulting in the current Anthropocene climate and eco-crisis); and of the future – these are all capitalism’s “externalities.” To render capitalism sustainable requires internalizing all of them. (All of this is rudimentary Environmental Economics, and not even the more radical Ecological Economics.)

To be managed in the public interest, capitalism requires a state that is willing to rein it in so that its benefits (public or private) don’t outweigh its public costs. And to ensure that the state actually does that requires some form of democracy, or at least democratic accountability. (The difference between democracy as such and “democratic accountability” allows us to talk about how non-democratic states, like China, Iran, or today’s Russia, can maintain their power structures over time. If they retain some accountability to a sufficient proportion of their population, they prevent revolt. As any good student of Chinese history will tell you, however, that never lasts.)

“Anti-imperialists” on the political Left like to say that the Russia-Ukraine war is a “proxy war” between the world’s most powerful imperial force — the U.S.-led West — and Russia, which threatens it. This is the “inter-imperial vector” of the current war, as Svitlana Matviyenko has referred to it. That some of them fail to criticize Russia tells us that they see the U.S. as the global empire and Russia as something like the inheritor of the “anti-imperialist” Soviet Union.

But this position, today, is untenable. Russia is no less capitalist than the U.S. If anything, it is more nakedly capitalist — it is klepto-capitalist and petro-capitalist to the max. It is so because it is now almost completely unencumbered by democracy. Similarly, China, Iran, and most other “non-Western” states (think Venezuela) are thoroughly capitalist. They capitalize on the world (people, land, behavior, et al.) to grow their own economic power, for the benefit of the power holders, sharing their wealth to the extent that it helps them retain their power. They work on capitalist vectors, and to the degree that those are expansionist (as in the case of today’s Russia and China), they are also imperialist (or neo-imperialist).

That those vectors do not always align with the vectors of Western-led capitalism does not make them any less capitalist; it only makes capitalism multi-vectoral. Just as Ukraine for years oscillated between rival oligarchic groups — the Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kyiv “clans,” among others — so is the world today becoming a territory fought over between rival international oligarchies. (Some of these happen to align with the vectors of fossil-fuel capitalism versus “green capitalism,” which are relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the EU’s response to it. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The only force we know of that is capable of keeping capitalism in check today is not socialism (if it ever was), and certainly not anti-Western autocrats like Putin or Xi. It is democracy. But let’s get a little more precise than that.

To the extent that democracy involves redistribution of wealth (whether produced by capitalism or otherwise), it is socialism. But socialism can take state-capitalist forms, as it has in many of the historical forms of “actually existing socialism,” such as the USSR’s. While democracy could take socialist (i.e., social-democratic) forms, it could also be developed on anarcho-communalist (radically democratic) lines, as in Kurdish Rojava today; on “traditionalist” lines, as in Zapatista controlled southern Mexico or, historically, among many Indigenous peoples; or on purely liberal-democratic lines, with enough of a nation’s population receiving, or perceiving, enough benefit from the capitalist economy that resistance to it is minimized. It is mixtures of the liberal and the socialist forms of democracy that flourish across much of Europe today. Perhaps these are the best we can come up with, on the scale of today’s nation-states.

Democracy alone, however, does not necessarily contain capitalism’s externalities, or even those of fossil-fuel capitalism (as we see in Norway today). To truly do that, it must be ecological — which is the next looming challenge for the democratic world.

But if Ani DiFranco was able to sing, resignedly, about capitalism “gunning down” democracy so many years ago (“during the plague of Reagan and Bush“), it should be clear today that democracy at least exists — contentiously and sometimes fitfully, but also visibly and palpably — in the U.S. and much of Europe, but not at all in Putin’s Russia of 2022. In Ukraine, its growth in the last thirty years has been particularly volatile and episodic, but also unmistakable, with elements of self-organization unseen in many other places.

But what’s the relationship between democracy and decolonization? Here’s where a little more history can be helpful.

Decolonizing democracy

The concept of democracy that’s become most widespread is a concept built on the assumption that what makes us human is language, discourse, reason, and deliberation, and that therefore what is most significant for politics is the ability for all to voice their reasoned opinions and choose their mode of governance by exercising that “voice.” Democracy is that which happens in the speech acts of those who speak in the rarified arena of the polis, where the demos becomes “political” in order to exercise its rights to govern (kratos) itself. Democracy, in this sense, is a product of the European Enlightenment tracing its origins to ancient Athens.

But as we know, that kind of democracy has always been limited to those who could, and were allowed to, voice their opinions. The lines of demarcation between the included and the excluded have shifted over the centuries, with women and minorities being allowed in — or, rather, asserting their way in through heroic struggles — but with young people and non-citizens still relegated to the sidelines.

But there is another model of democracy emerging in many social movements today, which questions the boundaries both of the demos — “the people” — and of the kratos, or the ways in which those people are ruled. Embodied in intellectual movements such as the affective, material, ontological, decolonial, and nonhuman “turns,” this emergent model takes the “ruling” to mean the governance, including the self-governance, of how we live — which means how we eat, love, breathe, organize ourselves, and relate to the world around us. Democracy in this sense is social, affective, ecological, and intergenerational; it involves relations with many others — humans and nonhumans, living and no longer or not yet living, who may or may not be able to participate in our deliberations, but whose interests can and should be accounted for. “The people,” then, are never just those who vote, and the “rule” is not restricted to those whose voices are represented.

This democracy — which like “4EA cognition” is physically embodied, socially and materially embedded, extended in time and in space, enacted in practices, and affectively primed and shaped — is decolonial democracy, or at least decolonizing democracy, in at least two senses.

The first is that it is not bestowed “from above” by those who bring it from outside (from Europe to the colony, from the core to the periphery, from civilization to the wilderness). Rather, it emerges from within the body of society. This makes it somewhat inchoate and unpredictable, with effects that may not always be laudatory, but which — and this is the second sense — revive something that is essential to the experience of democratic agency. It is decolonial because it revives the “memory” of agency that has existed before: in traditions of commoning, of resistance, of place-based inhabitation, and of self-determination.

This is the kind of democracy seen in mobilizations of recent years like the Arab Spring, today’s Iranian women’s rights movement, and the multiple mobilizations that have marked Ukraine’s recent history — the 1991 Granite Revolution, the 2004 Orange Revolution, and the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution. It is very much in evidence in the self-organization of resistance to the current Russian invasion. It decolonizes because it enables, confers, embodies, and gives shape to the agency of the demos. It expands the scope and scale of that agency whilst eliminating some of the barriers for expression and governance that had existed up to that point.

There are no guarantees that the results of these temporary expansions will get formalized into long-term, institutional democracies. In this, I agree with political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who suggest there is a “narrow corridor” of relations between society and the state that can lead to sustainable prosperity. Democracy in the sense I am using it represents “society” at its most active, but not necessarily most organized form; either way, the responsiveness of the state to that society will remain a work in progress once the war is ended. But even if the political results of the current mobilization are not evident, the memory of those “expansions of agency” will linger and, like earthquakes, will produce after-shocks in years to come.

By contrast, Russia today is a society tensing up for a seismic release of some kind. Laruelle, Oskanian, and the other voices of caution are quite correct, I think, that this could result in violence and suffering on a scale that dwarfs what we are seeing now. This is where it’s necessary to prepare for what’s to come — by working on a more accurate understanding of the Russian situation, and strengthening the coalitions that will be needed to bring international support for the decomposition process (let’s call it that) when it comes.

Europe’s other colonial powers have already had their explosive climaxes, primarily in the shape of two world wars. They and the United States, for all the existing tensions still to be found there (racial and cultural ones being especially obvious in the U.S.), have sufficient institutional means to “blow off steam” democratically. Their own decolonizations have proceeded variably, and far from completely, with plenty of room for further decolonization.

Russia has had none of that, and it has a long way to fall once it begins genuinely decolonizing. That process should not be resisted — for instance, by negotiating for Putin to “save face” and reconsolidate his power. But we do need to prepare to manage it when it comes.



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