From the Globalization of the Elites to Globalization for All

President Vladimir Putin’s address at the 13th Plenary Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi on October 27, 2016, was a significant event not only because it formulated Russia’s foreign policy agenda but also because it helped to understand the new long-term trends in the world’s evolution and the global social structure. Many Russian observers compared the address with the President’s famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Interestingly, their analyses were of opposite nature. A number of experts declared that the Valdai address was an anti-Munich of sorts and that Russia’s readiness to normalize relations with the West and pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence was in contrast with the emphasis on the danger of a direct clash between the two superpowers that was manifest in Munich. Thus, the 2016 Valdai address was declared a sign of peace, with some experts, reminiscent of the old allegories, even referring to Vladimir Putin as “the only European in Russia.” Other analysts, on the contrary, discerned a “new Munich” and a clear signal that Russia would firmly defend its national interests rather than go against them. In their view, this was a consolidation and enlargement of Munich.

As I see it, the President’s address, for all the importance of its takes on the current world politics, goes far beyond the traditional analysis of the international balance of forces and focuses on new trends in the evolution of global society and their expected impact on world politics in the future. Therefore, the presidential address is neither anti-Munich, nor a new Munich; it is, if I may say so, above Munich, representing a higher level of world development conceptualization and emphasizing logic of the future rather than current problems.

The President’s analysis of irregularities in the globalization process is a keynote of his address. Earlier this term was invariably interpreted as a gap between the “golden billion” nations and the rest of the world, where the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer. Accordingly, overcoming the globalization irregularities was understood as the need to speed up the advance of the “rest of the world.” This encouraged BRICS to come up with the “three silver billion” concept, which became the ideological basis for its policies. The “middle stratum” of the modern world, according to the concept, has more rights to a global representation of humankind’s interests than the upper crust of the “golden billion” nations and the world financial and economic institutions it controls. To remove this country-to-country inequality, many ideological manifestos of the anti-globalist movement quite radically called for a “fair redistribution” of the world wealth and capital in favor of the poor countries.

However, the presidential address put the issue in a different perspective by shifting the focus from the cross-country and inter-civilizational aspect to internal contradictions in the Western countries themselves. (Let it be noted in the parenthesis that the BRICS countries’ political success in consolidating the efforts of the “rest of the world” for proper representation of its interests makes this shift quite logical and justified.) The President saw the growing alienation and contradictions between the elites and civil society in the West as the main problem at the current stage in globalization. It is this contradiction that forms the conceptual challenge to the status quo in the world economy and global politics. Formulating the problem so directly and clearly at the top political level is of extreme importance.  

Vladimir Putin said: “Essentially, the entire globalization project is in crisis today […]. I think this situation is in many respects the result of mistaken, hasty and to some extent over-confident choices made by some countries’ elites a quarter-of-a-century ago. Back then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, there was a chance not just to accelerate the globalization process but also to give it a different quality and make it more harmonious and sustainable in nature.” But the elites in the “golden billion” countries chose a different path of development intended to consolidate solely their own interests. “The result,” the President continued, “is that the system of international relations is in a feverish state and the global economy cannot extricate itself from systemic crisis. At the same time, rules and principles, in the economy and in politics, are constantly being distorted and we often see what only yesterday was taken as a truth and raised to dogma status reversed completely. If the powers that be today find some standard or norm to their advantage, they force everyone else to comply. But if tomorrow these same standards get in their way, they will be swift to throw them in the bin, declare them obsolete, and set or try to set new rules.”

As a result, this approach has alienated the elites and civil society and this is what is calling into question the stability of global development. In this connection, President Putin says: “But it is very clear that there is a lack of strategy and ideas for the future. This creates a climate of uncertainty that has a direct impact on the public mood. Sociological studies conducted around the world show that people in different countries and on different continents tend to see the future as murky and bleak. This is sad. The future does not entice them, but frightens them. At the same time, people see no real opportunities or means for changing anything, influencing events and shaping policy.”

The key reason behind this, according to Vladimir Putin, is the emasculation of democracy in Western countries themselves and its reduction to sheer procedure aimed at perpetuating the establishment’s hold on power: “Yes, formally speaking, modern countries have all the attributes of democracy: Elections, freedom of speech, access to information, freedom of expression. But even in the most advanced democracies the majority of citizens have no real influence on the political process and no direct and real influence on power. People sense an ever-growing gap between their interests and the elite’s vision of the only correct course, a course the elite itself chooses. The result is that referendums and elections increasingly often create surprises for the authorities. People do not at all vote as the official and respectable media outlets advised them to, nor as the mainstream parties advised them to. Public movements that only recently were too far left or too far right are taking center stage and pushing the political heavyweights aside.” As demonstrated by the developments of recent years, these contradictions are only mounting: “It seems as if the elites do not see the deepening stratification in society and the erosion of the middle class, while at the same time, they implant ideological ideas that, in my opinion, are destructive to cultural and national identity. […]

“This begs the question: who is actually the fringe? The expanding class of the supranational oligarchy and bureaucracy, which is in fact often not elected and not controlled by society, or the majority of citizens, who want simple and plain things – stability, free development of their countries, prospects for their lives and the lives of their children, preserving their cultural identity, and, finally, basic security for themselves and their loved ones.”

In the end, the President comes to the conclusion that there is a conflict between “globalization for the chosen few” and “globalization for all,” which, in my opinion, is one of the key outcomes of his Valdai address. This growing antagonism is placing on the agenda an inevitable future transformation of the West. It is this transformation – the establishment’s attempts to immobilize it and the civic forces’ efforts to promote it – that will form the fulcrum of future politics.

Admittedly, this theme is not new in the context of modern culture. Scenes of over-regimented Western society and (seemingly hopeless) civic protests against the regimentation arise from “The Matrix,” the Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“We will rock you” musical), and many others. The civic activists say as much (Occupy Wall Street and Slavoj Žižek’s ideas). But this contradiction is not yet felt as acutely at the top political level. The historic importance of Vladimir Putin’s Valdai address is precisely in that it brings this warning across to the Western elites.

The specter of this imminent transformation that stalked the Valdai forum made certain Western experts say openly that the West is facing a revolutionary situation, where, to quote Lenin, “lower classes do not want to live in the old way and the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way.” Such a situation may culminate in a revolution.

In the context of the approaching 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia (1917), the post-Valdai discourse on the “new revolutionary situation” is particularly symbolic and indicative. As is only natural, these potential revolutions in the West will have little in common with the Leninist-type “proletarian revolution.” A more apt term is “civic revolutions,” or a protest by practically all social strata against the elites and their domination. Already now we can see the EU and US establishments challenged both from the left (Bernie Sanders, Alexis Tsipras) and from the right (Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen). In parallel, there are independent civic protest movements, such as Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy.

But whether peaceful or revolutionary, the incipient transformation of the West is certain to change the world politics already in the middle term, making the ongoing debates on the balance of forces in international relations inspired by the Cold War tradition totally irrelevant. It is precisely the transformation of the West and the emergence of the new “post-revolutionary” West that was predicted in the context of the Valdai address that will make this issue outdated.

In this connection it is important to emphasize one more thing. We see many civic activists (left, right, and independent) focus on Russia. The values that it promotes (sovereign democracy, responsibility, spirituality) are perceived with a growing sympathy by the protesters in the West. In this context, as the Soviet Union was a symbol and example for the world national liberation and revolutionary movement in the 20th century, so the new Russia can become a symbol for the future civic revolutionary movement in the West in the 21st century. Therefore we in Russia face a new task of huge historic importance: we must be worthy of this symbol and example invested in us by the world progressive forces.

Prof. Dr. Oleg Barabanov is Program Director of the Foundation of Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Academic Director of the European Studies Institute at MGIMO University.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.