A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP
I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.
Martine de Schutter
Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:
More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.
It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.
International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:
In a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.) It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.
Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:
What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.
Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks
Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:
Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.
“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.
“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”
Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.
You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.
Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page
Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.
Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:
Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938
Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:
Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis
By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)
Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.
Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP
You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.
Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.
We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?
Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism
More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.
Or the United States. America is always different — exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.
Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer — Who needs a roof, anyway? — becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn!
I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891
Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.
Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.
i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.
Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.
Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters