Ed West

Vladimir Putin is a reactionary autocrat, not a conservative

Vladimir Putin is a reactionary autocrat, not a conservative
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Apparently the new Muppets film features Russians as the baddies, a sign of the times as we increasingly draw into a new ideological cold war with the old enemy.

Or perhaps a hot, ethnic war, if events in Crimea get any worse, events which raise questions about western foreign policy. Why are we getting involved in this country ‘steeped in blood and carpeted with unquiet graves’, as Peter Hitchens calls it? Another paleocon type, the Telegraph’s semi-deprogrammed former leftist Tim Stanley, says that by provoking Russia into a direct confrontation we look foolish and weak.

The ideological cold war was the subject of last week’s cover story, in which Owen Matthews argued that, as in tsarist days, Russia is setting itself up as the leader of reaction. But it is also the case that the liberal-Left in the West is using Russian conservatism as the enemy by which it defines itself.

And I wonder what the replacement of Islam with Russian reaction as the antithesis of western values will do for western conservatives, and whether it will give the liberal-Left a chance to present them as the enemies of ‘our way of life’, as defined by the liberal-Left. This Daily Beast piece gives some idea of the shape of things to come.

English and American conservatism are very different to Russia’s variety, which is historically authoritarian and statist. Burkean conservatism is based on limited power, the little platoons and the maintenance of social and moral capital, as well as civic virtue. What would Edmund Burke do? He wouldn’t have approved of Cossacks whipping women, I’m sure.

Without civic and moral virtue countries remain weak and corrupt, and whoever gets in power tends to rob everyone else. (And judging by the Ukrainian presidential palace, ‘Republican virtue’ does not have an exact translation in any of that country’s languages.)

This is why simply exporting democracy to countries without these strengths, which take many, many years if not centuries to build and require a strong sense of nationhood, only leads to ethnic conflict and corruption. And yet that is American foreign policy.

The epitome of the high social and moral capital society was the America of the middle 20


century, defined by a large middle-class, stable democracy and low inequality and corruption levels; unsurprisingly, democracy worked very well during America’s paleoconservative golden age.

Since then the country’s moral capital has been declining at a steady rate; levels of trust have fallen through the floor, the country’s political system is extremely divided, wealth inequality is exceptionally high, and people vote along heavily racial lines, a very unhealthy sign in a democracy. Since the 1960s America has become a ‘proposition nation’, and it’s curious, looking at the recent Coca-Cola advert, that the United States is now the superpower defined by a utopian ideology.

Unless one also counts the European Union as a superpower, which as the people of the Ukraine have learned these past few weeks, it plainly isn’t. Maybe the new Northern Alliance, as described by Fraser in the magazine this week, will change that.