The merger of our singular hopes and desires for personal gain with the power and security we feel when surrounded by large numbers of similarly compelled individuals creates in folk a mindset which has been described as the most complete and functional antonym for "Good", far more so even than the more obvious "evil": Apathy.
This WaPo story is about one of our species' more recent phenomena of bio-cultural evolution on a massive scale; Russia.
Because of that enormous civilization's historic relationship to the West, and its situation between Europe and Asia, Russia has always been both a unique originator of cultural experimentation and a subtle and sometimes devious incorporator of values and techniques from both the greater Chinese and general European traditions. This short journalistic analysis gives some hints as to Russia's unique assembly of both paternalistic submission and individualistic aspiration.
I don't believe either genetically dependent ideological propensity will dominate, despite what the rich and powerful of the West and East may prescribe as "the Best outcome". I believe that Russians will continue to do what they have always done; what all civilizations have always done; evolve in both a predictable and unimaginable Human way.
Russia's Apolitical Middle
By Masha Lipman
Monday, June 4, 2007; Page A15
Among Russia-watchers, the phrase "burgeoning middle class" has become common. A recent study found that about one-quarter of the country's 140 million people were "middle class." A consumer boom is a new reality, with crowded shopping malls, growing sales of foreign cars (up 65 percent in March from the same month last year), fast-expanding Internet access and Russian tourists becoming as familiar as Germans or Brits at some international resorts.
The question is why the middle class matters. Is it about more than improved living standards? Is it, as some speculate, conducive to greater demand for the rule of law, a democratic polity and better governance?
Such demand is not found in today's Russia. As the Kremlin has steadily expanded and tightened control over the public realm -- stripping other institutions of authority and restricting people's political rights -- the "burgeoning middle class" has shown as little yearning for political participation as has the vast majority of the rest of the population. As with the majority overall, those in the middle-income group have accepted the paternalism of Vladimir Putin's government and remained apolitical and apathetic. They have not taken action to reclaim the territory encroached upon by the Kremlin.
This doesn't mean that the quasi-middle class is fond of the Kremlin's ways or the quality of its governance. But it's a long way from grumbling in workplaces -- or even in op-ed columns and blogs -- to getting politically involved.
And why should they get politically active, or even vote, for that matter? It is assumed -- quite rightly -- that in a Kremlin-controlled political environment, elections are devoid of meaning. But those in the middle class don't mind being unrepresented; as long as life is good, their non-participation suits them fine, just as it does the state.
[Sound familiar, my American comrades?]
If you replace "Kremlin-controlled" with "Two Party" then I think the obviousness of the top-down nature of the two systems can not be ignored.
Americans DO have a long history of individualism, at least in our myths and legends. At least we claim to be all about "the individual"; even as we incorporate the larger concept of Family as an unassailable element when discussing individualism.
I'm not saying this is wrong. I believe that more Americans haven't bought into the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand because, as a culture, we Do include the family as a fundamental extension of the individual, which I believe is basic variant of our species innate altruism. I also think that, despite our current leadership crisis, whereby the Democratic Party is failing horribly to end the War which it was elected specifically to decommission, Americans believe in the democratic process. They believe that their voices will be heard and their interests looked after.
They (we!) just have it too good right now (even with $3 a gallon Gasoline prices) to turn the focus of their individual attention spans towards the political system which is now and has been buying them off with promises of ever more Chickens in our pots, and cars in our garages.
The Western middle class is rooted in institutions and immersed in regulated interactions such as paying mortgages, buying insurance and saving for children's educations. Westerners invest in the future and expect the system to be effective and fair; if an administration fails to meet those standards, the middle class assumes it can vote the government out.
Unlike its Western counterparts, Russia's middle class does not believe it can make a difference, nor do middle-class Russians (or the population at large) think much about the future. A poll taken late last year found that about 50 percent of Russians didn't know what would befall them in the coming months, and a third said they could not plan beyond one year. The mood is to spend, not save. This offers another perspective on the consumer boom: About 70 percent of the typical middle-class Russian's income is disposable, compared with about 40 percent for Westerners.
For now, members of the middle class enjoy the new consumption opportunities and are unlikely proponents of change. This attitude might shift, though, if government policies interfere with their new lifestyle. Should the government become less generous after the election, the affected groups may unite to stand up for their interests. The current apathy ("optimistic submission," a cynical observer called it recently) might give way to a desire to hold the government to account.
But change may also come sooner. Greedy, rent-seeking elites have been engaged in an intense rivalry for power and property. The Kremlin may find it harder to contain this feud, especially if there's less rent to divide. This struggle will hardly be pretty or democratic, but if it spills over it will most certainly politicize society.
[But is America ready to be so re-energized?]
The differences used to be so obvious. American (Western, even) Capitalism versus Soviet (Russian, at its core) Communism. Nothing in common. No congruities except for our individual needs to eat, drink and, however possible and in whatever culturally shared style, be merry.
We all want to be happy and to feel secure, and at this point in history, it appears as if we in the Western democracies are all willing to give up our greatest responsibility as individuals to desperately cling to the illusion of self-determination which those of our cousins in the East and even the incredibly resilient folk of the tradition of Russ have long considered less important than their mere survival and control of the lives they lead under their own roofs.
My point in ALL this is simple: Individualism as proclaimed in the West must show that it is effective and productive and Good For All if it is to survive as a relevant and salient fundament of our civilization, rather than as merely a legend which once held sway. Individual Russians and other Asians who share this value (genetic predisposition?) will continue to come to our Western shores in search of opportunity to experience the most sublime possibility of freedom.
But will our civilization still support those who seek its reality?
Or will we have succumbed to the basic human fear of insecurity because we have so many things, and just can't be bothered with such "esoteric" details as the actions of our politicians?