I stayed up entirely too late last night reading about Russia’s Institute for Dynamic Conservatism (IDK) and it’s concept/agenda of ‘super-industrialism’. It’s the opening of a rabbit-hole leading through the avant-garde visions of Russia’s contemporary ‘neoconservative’ milieu to the problems facing the country’s long-term economic development, resulting from the crisis of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic transition to laissez-faire capitalism. In its grounding in a sort of ‘lost futures’ mentality and willing embrace of state-led development, it bears a curious resemblance to what is currently happening in the United States, where factions in each of the dominant parties are dialing back to developmentalism as a means of advancing forward again.
A little background: the IDK was founded in 2009 by Vitaly Averyanov, Maxim Kalashnikov and Andrey Kobyakov, and has been closely tied to—and perhaps is even synonymous with—the Izborsk Club, an institution formed in 2012 to promote the unity of its ‘avant-garde conservatism’ with a renewal of Russian statecraft. The Club’s founder and president, Alexander Prokhanov, has long since achieved a kind of iconoclastic image; he had been a member of the Soviet Union of Writers in the 70s and 80s, and during the events of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt against Gorbachev, it was his essay “A World to the People” that provided key intellectual background for the effort. He subsequently became a high-ranking member of the National Salvation Front, an anti-Yeltsin coalition of communist and nationalist groups that played a central role in the country’s 1993 constitutional crisis. Throughout these events Prokhanov was the guiding force behind the paper Zavtra (Tomorrow), a descendant of the earlier opposition journal Den (Day). Another figure affiliated with Zavtra was Aleksander Dugin, and it was through the pages of the publication that Eurasianism first became a rallying point for those opposed to Yeltsin and his post-Soviet reforms. Dugin himself has been a major figure in the Izborsky Club, illustrating the close-knit nature of this intellectual network.
The concepts of the “Fifth Empire” and the “Russian Doctrine” are the key concepts underpinning the IDK’s work. The former was first developed by Prokhanov, and defines the emergent Russian state as the fifth iteration of an imperial form, proceeded by the “Kievan Rus… the Moscow Kingdom… the St. Petersburgh Empire of the Romanovs… [and] the Red Empire of the Soviet Union”. The latter, meanwhile, is the product of IDK founders Averyanov, Kalashnikov, and Kobyakov, and serves as the developmental framework that will allow the Fifth Empire to be truly realize. The doctrine, according to Averyanov, has shifted over time to respond to changing conditions, while its core ‘essence’ has remain fixed. As he a laid out in an interview with a journalist from Zavtra”
The essence of our proposed ideology and transformation program is the formation of a centaur of orthodoxy and an innovative economy, high spirituality and high technology. In such a centaur, the face of that Russia as it is to be in the 21st century will appear. Its bearer should be the new attacking class – imperial, authoritarian, and not liberal-democratic. This should be a class supporting the dictatorship of super-industrialism, not replacing the industrial structure, but growing over it as its continuation and development. (And not the “post-industrial” chimeras, this mixture of Manilovism – the cultivation of oligarchs “apple orchards” by the hands.
Averyanov went on to add that the basis of this ‘super-industrialism’ was the sort of industrial processes developed under the Soviet Union, and would stand in marked contrast to the ‘post-industrial’ processes that had held sway in the period of liberalization. This mode could only engender “lateral paths” such as “information technology, mobile telephony, [and] virtual reality”, all of which merely “lulls, rather than stimulates, the creative forces that were boiling in people at the industrial stage of development”. The alternative path, by contrast, will be organized around “nuclear energy, space, artificial intelligence” and biotechnology—alongside the renewal, on a mass scale, of religiosity based on the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Maria Engström has described how, for the Russian conservative avant-garde, the retrograde era, soon to be displaced by super-industrialism, is a “new Middle Ages”. This is a sort of neo-medievalism quite different from, say, Dugin’s stated desire to see a return to the “Great Times” of “antiquity and the Middle Ages”. It is, above all, a neo-feudal condition:
It is precisely the existing neoliberal, oligarchical globalism that is seen as the new Middle Ages through the conservative prism… For example, conservative futurologist Maxim Kalashnikov describes the near future built by the global oligarchy as “new feudalism” where the “islets of paradise” are separated from the rest of the poor world by the wall. These “islets of paradise” constitute affluent territories which have their own infrastructures, armies and are built around transnational corporations.
There’s a parallel here with certain strands of discourse that have emerged in the West across the 2000s and 2010s that also emphasize a sort of neo-medieval or neo-feudal characteristic to the near-future—or even to the present age. The futuristic Moldbuggian image of a global patchwork of sovereign corporations (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kalashnikov’s ‘islets of paradise’) has often been described as neo-feudal arrangement, and has even been affirmed as such by many of Yarvin’s followers (see, for examples, the writings from 2017 on a “feudal hierarchy of sovereign corporations”, or the debates a year prior as to whether the post-anarchocapitalism of Neoreaction or the neo-absolutism of Heroic Romantic Reaction act as the true heir to the Moldbuggian canon).
On a more critical side, the dynamics of Silicon Valley capitalism—the ground for Moldbuggian and NRx currents—have been castigated for exhibiting a neo-feudal flavor, which it cloaks under the ideological blinders of the ‘sharing economy’, the ‘gig economy’, and the more generalized dressed-down, cool, flexible forms of labor. Valerio Mattioli, in a 2018 article on the “digital Middle Ages”, took the comparisons further by suggesting a cultural counterpart to accompany this evolution, noting the rise of “digital folklores” (I’ll offer my interpretation of contemporary UFO cultures, based on the studies of D.W. Pasulka, as evidence of this) alongside distinctly non-modern temporalities that scramble the progressivist division of past, present and future. A flurry of activity emerged in the Italian weird theory scene as a response to Mattioli’s article, based around the concept of the “Gothic Insurrection”, which attempted to weaponize this condition in an attempt to steer it towards alternative ends (I cataloged this debate last year on my old blog, for those interested in revisiting this moment).
On the part of the Russian conservative avant-garde, the response to the new Middle Ages isn’t to continue deeper into the leveling process, but to put in motion an “imperial remodernization”, as Engström describes it:
Remodernism is characterized by a fusion of the leftist idea of social justice and the rightist idea of overcoming fragmentation and localization through the weakening of corporations and the oligarchy along with strengthening the state. This ideal can be achieved in practice through implementation of the program of a new industrialism. Aesthetically, these ideas are manifested in a style which can be described as industrial neo-classicism reminiscent of Greco-Roman antiquity, the European Enlightenment, the Soviet modernization project, the era of industrialization and space exploration.
The art of Timur Novikov, Alexei Gintovt, Anton Chumak, and Stepan Liphart all amount to iterations of this tendency. In its neoclassicist mode, it’s something closer to a neo-neoclassicism, as neo-classicism and gigantism formed a vital component in the aesthetic fabric of the Stalinist era. This was a return to antiquity as the ultimate expression of modernity and modernization, viewed as the simultaneous realization and supersession of the ‘heroic avant-garde’ that flourished in the initial phase of the Bolshevik revolutionary experiment. Boris Groys has illustrated the logic behind this apparent paradox by recourse to—ironically—Trotsky, for whom the occulted impulse of the avant-garde was not a “break with the past”, but the reconnection with another tradition, a hidden tradition that snakes across time. “All the dreams of the oppressed people, all the dreams of liberation, go through thousands of years of human history, expressed by different kinds of art. All of them are actually our tradition. The revolution has its own tradition. It is not a break with tradition”. Because Soviet development envisioned itself as leading to the ultimate fulfillment of this tradition, it angled itself towards not the permanent flux of history and the ever-shifting sands of linear temporality, but towards a non-time outside of history: an emancipated eternity. The aesthetic modes of the heroic avant-garde were a reflection of the Dionysian flux and the flow, but the Apollonian neoclassicism and monumentalism that replaced them was to reflect this unwavering, permanent state.
The contemporary aesthetic template, by mixing neo-classicism and related forms to advanced technology (see, for example, the piece at the opening of this post), calls back to the simultaneity of these styles with the modernizing developmental push. It’s a cocktail to reflect what a remodernization might look like, yet this for very reason it operates in a function different from its earlier deployment. In the era of ‘authoritarian high modernism’, it took the sheen of a triumphalism, an indicator of a future so close that it was connecting. In the present moment, but contrast, it operates a rearguard function, falling closer to the metapolitics I discussed in my previous post on Dugin and Deleuze.
Engström comes to a similar reading in a 2014 paper on the influence of “contemporary Russian Messianism” on the country’s foreign policy apparatus. There, she describes how the intent of the conservative avant-garde’s writings are to “enchant and bewitch; they emulate the style of the manifesto and are full of metaphors, stark epithets and exaggerations”. Max Weber had famously argued that modernizing processes, bringing with them great bureaucratic structures and the rationalizing techniques to bear on the whole of society, exacted a “disenchantment of the world”, through which the religious orientation of traditional society was lost—but here the reverse happens. (Re)modernization becomes the very means to a re-enchantment takes place, and the cold positivism that is the typical hallmark of Western technocracy is obliterated through an all-encompassing spiritualization. The “centaur” of “high spirituality and high technology”, or as Engström calls it, the unity of “the technocratic Soviet element and the mystical Orthodox one”.
For Alexandr Kustarev, who labels the conservative avant-garde as “antisystemic conservatism”, there is an undeniable sheen of the millenarian perspective at work:
…antisystemic conservatism of the Late Modern period is radical in its rejection of the present, which is proclaimed to be degenerate and is doomed to perish. It is constantly looking for, and ﬁnding, signs of the coming ‘crash of the system’. Without these apocalyptic ‘forebodings’, without the image of the Doom and the coming ‘salvation’, its passism would look like a fruitless aesthetic pose.
On twitter, ekstasis asks
I think this is an apt comparison, though I would also suggest (as evidenced by my ongoing industrial policy round-up series—which I hope to return to soon!) that both the conservative avant-garde and Thiel are symptoms of a wider dynamic at work, one that arises out from the context of long-range capitalist stagnation. While the United States and Russia have different particularities and unique developmental pathways, the similarities here—besides being lashed together in the global capitalist system—are that there are sectors in each that perceive a ‘deviation’ from a previously-cemented trajectory, which then urges a form of return to correct this mistake.
We get a sense of this in a document drafted by the Izborsk Club titled the “‘Major Breakthrough’ Strategy”. Taking cue from the theory of Kondratiev Waves, the report notes that “Since the early 2000s, the world economy has entered a turndown phase in the long wave… This indicates that the potential for further growth, based on technologies of the fifth wave of innovation, is now to a large extent exhausted”. This situation “is a reincarnation of the Great Depression”, which calls forth a specific sort of solution: a “mobilization ‘Major Breakthrough'” that is able to kick off the accelerated growth of the next wave. An immense industrial policy:
The key idea of a Major Breakthrough, to be implemented under the Mobilization Project, amounts to an outrunning development of basic production facilities of the next technological mode, and to taking out the Russian economy, as early as possible, into the growth phase of a new long economic wave. To do so, one ought to concentrate and direct resources into the development of the technologically most promising manufacturing units, which requires a goal-focused national finance and investment policy, embracing the appropriate instruments of monetary-and-credit, fiscal-and-budgetary, foreign economic, and industrial policies. These should be guided towards developing the basic units of a new technological mode and reach synergies when building clusters of such units, which requires a coordination of a macroeconomic policy with the priorities of long-term engineering and economic development. Such priorities ought to be defined, based on the long-range regularities in economic growth, global trends in engineering and economic development, and national competitive advantages.
Research-and-engineering forecasting enables one to define key directions in the development of the oncoming technological mode: biotechnologies based on molecular biology and genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence systems, global information networks, and integrated high-speed transportation systems. To those one should add such branches-carriers of the new technological mode that will cause much of the demand for the new products: aerospace technologies, production of construction material presets, aviation industry, nuclear power industry, solar energy.
The “Major Breakthrough Strategy” seems to cast doubt on the efficacy of the previous wave of growth provided by the previous wave, describing it as a phase of “growth without development… based [on] the remaining production technologies left over after the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s”. This would align with the observation that so-called ‘post-industrial’ growth was only capable of producing “lateral moves” that mired the social order in a regressive state. But to discover the sort of imperative that is being set here, one has to go back before the 1990s or even the 1980s, to rediscover what the Soviet Union’s ambition was prior to its fall into prolonged stagnation and, ultimately, implosion.
For Paresh Chattopadhyay, in The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience, the stagnating development that rippled across Soviet society was due to its inability to properly make the leap from what Marx described as absolute surplus value to one of relative surplus value (this account, of course, identifies the Soviet Union as a form capitalism). In the phase of absolute surplus value, surplus value is produced by the indefinite prolonging of the working day, while in relative surplus value, it is achieved by raising the productivity of labor via mechanization and various techniques in a limited time frame. Absolute surplus value thus reflects an early mode of capitalism, whereas relative surplus marks a capitalism characterized by continuous technological and organizational change.
It seems clear that the Soviet Union did achieve something beyond the equivalent of absolute surplus value. As noted by CIA analysts in the early 1960s (Jehu has written about this here, and you can read the analyst in question’s later report here), the Soviet Union was then embarking on a venture of decreasing labor hours. In 1956, Khrushchev reduces the working week from 48 to 46 hours, which would reduce again to 41 hours by 1961. The Seven-Year-Plan was even more ambitious: it “stated that the shift to a 35-hour workweek would be achieved ‘in the coming 10 years’, and that the workweek would be reduced even further during the following decade”. This was occurring alongside an increased emphasis on the role of automation in the “gradual development of socialist labor into communist labor”, and the Communist Party program of 1961 called for the
complex automation of production will be carried out on a mass scale, with an ever increasing transition to workshops and automatics providing high technical and economic efficiency. The introduction of highly sophisticated automatic control systems will accelerate. Cybernetics, electronic calculating and controlling devices in the industrial processes of industry will be widely used.
The role of automation in the Seven-Year-Plan raised eyebrows in the US, and was discussed at length in congressional testimonies by businessman John Diebold and labor leader Walter Reuther. Reuther, for his part, warned that Khruschev “believed that we [the US] will continue to fail, as we have in the past seven years, to match or approach the rate of growth achieved in the Soviet Union. He believes that it is only a matter of time until Soviet production surpasses ours, and the Communists are able to take world leadership away from us, not by military might but by economic power alone”. Reuther’s plan of action was to design policies equitable to maintaining stable growth in the face of increasing domestic automation; while some of the rank-and-file of the unions he represented pushed (curiously enough) for the reduction of the working week, he fought these demands and pushed instead for the Keynesian-inspired solutions of a guaranteed annual income.
The great moment of automation would not, of course, take place for the US, and the robust and productive economic tendencies that characterized the post-war era crashed on the reef of the 1970s. Evermore mechanized production would slip away in the face of de-industrialization, the mass movement of the productive base from the core to the global south—and as John Smith argues in Imperialism in the 21st Century, what happened here cannot be framed squarely within the dichotomy of absolute and relative surplus value. For the hyper-exploited laborers of the South, surplus value isn’t realized via increasingly mechanized production within shorter and shorter frames of time, nor does it proceed in the first instance through the indefinite prolonging of the working day (though this does occur). Instead, its primary characteristic is the mass suppression of the wage to the point where it exists below its value. This has been a great source of profit for transnational corporations, but over time it has come at a cost: falling rates of innovation in productive technology, slowing demand, and falling trade indices, all of which now threaten the stability of the core countries.
Nor would the moment come for the Soviet Union. The progressive reduction of the workweek would never occur, not even by the end of the 1960s, and over the next several decades little advancement would be made in the large-scale automation of production. The continuous technological change that was hoped for wouldn’t come, and intractable rigidities in the system produced a situation in which the cost of installing and maintaining industrial robotics was considerably higher than the maintenance and expansion of a human labor force. The situation was no better in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapid deindustrialization occurred, particularly in the country’s northern regions, and by 1996 Yeltsin was forced to reintroduce greater amounts of state control in the economy and “sensible protectionism” in a bid to promote stabilization. At the same time, the Russian economy was forced to shift itself to oil and natural gas exports as the primary sources of revenue streams.
The ‘Major Breakthrough’ is understood as being in stark contrast with this situation. In his interview with Zavtra, Averyanov describes the oil-and-gas economy as being ‘entropic’. But the Russian Doctrine has different plans: “The mission of Russia in our century is to destroy these tendencies and offer them a different development vector in return: negentropic, humane, and religious in spirit”. This vision doesn’t seem to coexist with the automated communism of the Khrushchev era—robotics, automation, and labor-time reduction don’t appear in their major documents, while descriptions of a mass mobilization of labor forces that seem closer to the Stalinist period do. But nonetheless, the work of the IDK, and the expanded milieu of think-tanks, journals, artists, philosophers, military theorists and bureaucrats, paint a revealing picture of a system looking for a way out from stagnation, and to reclaim a trajectory that has been lost.
To quote Engström, one last time: “In Russia, the ideas of second modernism and industrial sovereignty have not yet gone beyond [the] conservative avant-garde, but this should be anticipated in the nearest future given today’s growing international isolation”.