Survival Horror in the 21st Century: Pessimism and Democracy in the Age of Putin

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By Stuart Austin

Dystopian fiction, despite being set in an imagined near or far future, tends to reflect the fears of the present. The zombie apocalypse, a staple of popular culture the world over, confronts the audience with a mindless, stateless, mass of inhumanity; unable to truly mobilise or articulate its desires other than slow shambling (or sprinting) unstoppably towards its target.

Nothing resembles such a nightmarish scenario in our contemporary reality more than the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection in Washington D.C. – at least in the world of Western liberal democracies. And like in our popular imaginings of hordes of the undead, the mob failed to mobilise once it reached the seat of power in the U.S. The insurrectionists never worked out how they would precisely achieve their goal of preventing the confirmation of Joe Biden as President, nor what they would do if they succeeded. They seemed mindlessly focused simply on targeting the symbols, offices, politicians and police officers with violence and vandalism.

It can feel to many, in the second decade of the 21st Century, that Western liberal democracies, and the international order they lead, are the undead of our political reality. Depending on your position on the political spectrum, Western liberalism is either too woke and cosmopolitan – threatening “traditional” values and majority identities – or not woke enough – trapped within terminally corrupt, inherently racist and sexist institutions. Like the zombie shuffling around a shopping mall, we are struggling to frame our language and our arguments in favour of liberal democratic ideals and forms of governance. But, unlike authoritarian or illiberal, populist actors, Western liberals are questioning whether they even have the strength to fight for what they believe in.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research (WIN) – 19,422 citizens from 24 countries across the globe about war and attitudes towards it – Europe reflects the highest percentage of people who would not fight for their country: only 33% said they would, followed by just 48% of those from the Asia-Pacific region, and 52% from the Americas. This compares to 67% of those polled from the Middle East and North Africa. Europeans also felt the most insecure about the future (59%), followed by the Americas at 54%.

The same might not be said for one of Donald Trump’s key demographic bases, the ultra-conservative Christian Evangelicals, who recently celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s removal of citizens’ constitutional right to abortion as a victory for the “Moral Majority”. The Rapture Ready Index – a ‘DOW Jones of endtime activity’ – currently sits at 186; just three points down from its all-time high of 189 in October 2016. Scoring particularly high are factors such as Leadership (‘The potential win by Democrats’); Liberalism (‘The left has become fanatical in its opposition to Trump’); and Globalism (‘The Biden admin is all for globalism’). Of course, this market in evangelical Christian popular culture is designed to keep its followers in fear, but at the same time, evangelicals appear full of hope. Political movements centred on tapping into people’s fears have dangerous social implications.

The logic of populism dictates, perhaps naïvely, that crises can unite and rally societies, but recent years have proven otherwise: the COVID-19 pandemic exposed great global and national divisions and inequalities. Strikingly, within the 18-24-year-old demographic, 55% believe that the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin is to blame for its war on Ukraine, as opposed to 80% of those over 65 polled by WIN. Meanwhile, attempts by the then-incumbent Trump Administration and Republican Party lawmakers to overturn the democratic election result have not fizzled out; the U.S. appears more viciously partisan than it has been in decades, with Americans increasingly believing that civil war is likely within ten years.

For now, the U.S. has still exhibited a largely-but-not-entirely peaceful transfer of power, but the ‘American century’ appears to be over, despite efforts by the Biden Administration to reverse the illiberal stamp of his predecessor – President Biden issued 17 executive orders on his the first day alone. There is no longer a geographic focus for those aspiring democracies to draw inspiration from and emulate. Apocalyptic and dystopian entertainment – “apocatainment” – is increasingly produced from all corners of the globe to critical acclaim from Western audiences. South Korea in particular has notably produced historical zombie series Kingdom, followed by Netflix’s most-watched survival-drama series, Squid Game. Pessimism is a global phenomenon; our reality is so horrific, perhaps fictional nightmares are preferable.

A succession of events in recent weeks have forced reminders that modern democracies require non-democratic elements in order to function well, be they constitutional monarchies or republican presidencies loaded with executive power. The United Kingdom – one of the world’s oldest continually functioning parliamentary democracies – recently witnessed two transfers of power: one completely expected for some months, the other taking the nation by surprise. Boris Johnson gave way as Prime Minister to Liz Truss, even if one can question the democratic credentials of Truss’ direct mandate from just 81,236 individuals, from a population of nearly 70 million citizens. The monarch who invited Truss to form a new government, Queen Elizabeth II, died two days later, after 70 years on the throne; her son and heir, the Prince of Wales, immediately assumed the throne as King Charles III, followed by an historic televised proclamation ceremony. These transfers of power were stable and peaceful. The outpouring of mourning for the Queen and the now legendary “Queue” stretching 10 miles and 24 hours for her lying-in-state especially revealed one important source of glue still holding the United Kingdom together, even as Brexit, the energy crisis, inflation and anxieties of union dissolution fill the airwaves.

At the time of writing, Italy is also on course for a peaceful transfer of power, albeit by its sovereign voters electing its first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini. Some liberal analysts are less pessimistic than may be expected, however. Giorgia Meloni may well cause long-term damage to Italy’s democracy by strengthening executive powers over that of its parliament, but Italy sorely needs political stability, and with a strong mandate Meloni has started to transition from a populist politician into one more traditionally conservative, write Elettra Ardissino and Erik Jones. It remains to be seen whether this accurately reflects a pattern with populist politicians on the campaign trail having to face the practical reality of running a government, or whether it is a naïve hope that surely Italy will stay, in the liberal sense, “normal”.

Democratic elections alone do not solve political problems, and the concept of sovereignty lends itself well to authoritarianism, especially of the kind threaded with nationalism; after all, democracies require the nation-state and therefore loyalty to the nation. Freedom of speech, which liberals and populists alike champion from differing perspectives, allows for laboratories of alternative thinking, including anti-democratic projects. Voters cheer on the repressive arm of their states when they appear tough on law and order and the right “bad guys” are punished. Most importantly, people want hope.

Globally, however, the picture for democracy in the age of Putin feels bleak. Modern liberal democracies are relatively young in the history of organised political systems and have proven to be fragile. As Freedom House warns from its Freedom in the World 2022 report, 60 countries have experienced democratic decline in the last year, in comparison with 25 that have improved freedoms for their populations. This continues a 16-year trend in in the overall global decline of democracies. The question then is, if democracy is dying or stuck in a limbo of the undead, how can liberals reanimate their civic discourse, values, ideals and arguments, in order to re-enchant those illiberal wavering states?

‘Democracy’ and ‘sovereignty’ are not frozen concepts, and proponents of a liberal democratic world order should therefore apply to their conceptual framework the idea that theirs is not necessarily the default form of universal governance, nor a permanent or “infinite” feature of the international system. From 1989, Western liberals fell into historicism, assuming that liberal democracy is the normality, after its alternative of Soviet communism suddenly collapsed throughout 1989-1991. The West has since learned the harsh lesson that other normalities, less free and democratic, do exist, and not just the obvious candidates such as the People’s Republic of China. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a creeping exceptionality for governments the world over to wield their executive power over their populations’ lives, freedoms and economies, in ways one could describe as constitutionally illiberal, or perhaps liberally authoritarian. Current trends suggest that increasing hybridity is the most likely equilibrium in the dispute between the supranational and the nation-state, especially in a potentially post-national European Union.

Reframing the concepts of freedom, championing democratic institutions, allowing for undemocratic elements within their political systems and squaring sovereignty with pluralism – especially in supranational organisations which require political unity whilst juggling each member states’ security interests, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the United Nations – are the great challenges that liberals must look square in the face. If they give in to pessimism, and remain in an undead stupor, they may find a larger, illiberal breakaway factions storming at the gates once again. Should such a nightmare crisis reoccur, liberal democracy as we have known it may not long survive the age of Putin.

Stuart Austin is Publications Editor at LSE IDEAS and was Research Assistant for the Engelsberg Chair in History and International Affairs from 2020 to 2022. This blog was inspired by the two conferences The Rise of Pop Pessimism and Its Implications, and Democracy in the Age of Putin.