Utopia as Our Future or Just Another Mirage? Reflections on 2020 Valdai Club Report

The most recent Valdai Report is more “practical” as justification for new approaches that many may think on first reading. It does not only provide a sharp critique of the current international order, but suggests a possible alternative future to it as well as some tools to make it happen. Valdai Report is – in spirit – a cry for a deep transformational change necessary for our own survival, writes Piotr Dutkiewicz, Co-Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Management, Carleton University, Ottawa.

The annual edition of the Valdai Club Report, published before the general meeting of the Valdai Club, usually catches the attention of experts and Russia watchers for at least two reasons. The first is that the Valdai Club’s perceived proximity to those in power in Russia usually provides some deeper insight into Russian politics’ inner circle’s thinking. The second is the quality of its co-authors that makes it a fascinating and engaging reading. This year’s Report entitled “History, To Be Continued: The Utopia of a Diverse World” is very much different from previous papers. It does not analyse the current global/regional issues that dominated international relations over the year since the last Report, but provides a colorful picture of what the ideal international order would look like in 2045, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the UN. 

2020 Valdai Report explains: “Why do we believe that the concept of utopia is newly relevant? The international agenda is clearly exhausted, beyond the normal ebb and fl ow of the development cycle. It is the loss of a meaningful and universally accepted frame of reference. We could try to patch up our crumbling reality by manipulating artificial concepts, defunct ideologies, and decayed institutions. But attempting to delay the inevitable would only make the eventual collapse even more dramatic.”

During the fictitious address of UN Secretary-General Ghan Twan Eng at the formal UN General Assembly meeting in Nairobi on September 23, 2045, he describes a frictionless world of international relations driven by respect for civilizational differences, justice, and respect for the less powerful players. This new world is represented by wise leaders who were able to see and act if the focus of politics “must be on a clear distinction between good and evil.” In this new world – which has learned all the lessons from past crises (including the Covid-19 pandemic) – an “unrestrained consumption has been replaced with the philosophy of conservation at the international level and in individual societies.” The struggle for power and influence by 2045 is being replaced by an effective search for the common good where “Even the super-powerful rivals which would have clashed for world domination in the past have to come to terms with each other. And today we have a civilised competition, the fruits of which are available to all other states as well.”

It seems to me that the authors of 2020 Valdai Report decided to jump bravely into describing a utopian future of the world international order for quite good reasons. 

The reasons why it will be a popular and inspiring reading are – at least threefold.

The first is that we cannot continue to live in and reproduce the current socio-political-environmental-economic system without spiraling into deeper and more frequent crisis. Thus, introducing more radical changes and departing from the previous institutional and ideological setup in devising policies that are influencing global/regional/local well-being becomes a new all-embracing imperative. We seem to be in a situation where crisis represents a permanent feature of the contemporary socio-economic system, because that system is consistently legitimized via socially constructed fears, panic, and media manipulation. 

Secondly, as Mike Davis suggests (Davis, 2013 ), “Utopia in the most profound sense is not the dream of paradise but the defence of the necessary against the realistic.” “Realism” instead of playing a useful but limited diagnostic function became the guide for policies thus blocking necessary transformations of the existing order that need to break with the vicious circles of poverty, inequality, domination, and hegemonic power. 

Thirdly, Utopia can be also seen not entirely as a grand philosophical design but rather as a virtual structure of the alternative future and thus propose a concrete toolbox from which international community can select tools to create solutions for their communities that are culturally and socially specific.

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In that sense, the current Valdai Report is more “practical” as justification for new approaches that many may think on first reading. It does not only provide a sharp critique of the current international order, but suggests a possible alternative future to it as well as some tools to make it happen. Valdai Report is – in spirit – a cry for a deep transformational change necessary for our own survival.

As always, general, all-embracing and future-oriented normative prescriptions of the ideal new world order like Valdai 2020 Report beg further clarifications, elaboration, and substantiation. By definition such texts will be always incomplete. This Report is no different. The most problematic one – from my perspective – is to blame pandemic for almost all current problems. 

It – for instance – starts with a question related to Covid-19 pandemic: “Can the huge, global, diverse and interconnected world suddenly stop dead, paralysed by a collective fear?” What follows is an analysis of the key consequences of Covid-19. It seems to me that the “fear factor” that is a key for Report’s contributors to explain international and domestic politics has much deeper origins that authors of Valdai Report suggest. Rather than acting as an expedient but ad hoc political tool (related exclusively to Covid-19 pandemic) fear has become the de facto essence of politics. Fear now provides an impetus and reason for politics, replacing – in part – other sources of legitimisation of power. Zygmunt Bauman proposed that states (small and big) have a limited capacity to govern because we are in a state of “inter-regnum”, in which “the inherited means of having things done no longer work, yet the new and more adequate ways have not been invented, let alone deployed” (Bauman and Della Sala 2013 ). The condition of inter-regnum has resulted from the progressive separation and divorce of power (an ability to have things done) and politics (the ability to decide which things are to be done), and the resulting disparity between the task at hand and the tools available to the state or international community. The result is that we (a people) fear that the gap between the scope of tasks to make our life more secure/stable and the ability of institutions to deal with them is an abysmal and ever-widening gap. Thus, fear is no longer merely an expedient ad hoc political tool (used and more frequently misused during the Covid-19 pandemic), but rather has become the essence of politics. Fear – unfortunately for us/citizens seem to provide the main impetus and reason for politics (Covid or no Covid), replacing legitimating discourses around democracy, justice and the common good. So, fear may be a part and parcel of a “new normal”. 

Another – it seems to me – under-elaborated theme in the Report is the issue of transformative agency. In between “now and then” someone has to act, do the job, transform and maintain renewed international order. The key element in making any transformational change is the identification of an agent/agency that will develop and carry out changes. In the Valdai Report this seems to happen due to Deux ex Machina. “Gratefully, – authors suggest – pivotal periods tend to produce new leaders with energy and vision, and the will to translate it into reality.” To me, the answer to how far we can transform the system lies in the results of the ongoing ferocious struggle between the two global elite factions represented by global financial capital and industrial capital. These two large, elite factions, with radically different goals, interests, social bases, and views on the future of global development are engaged in a clash for global power. 

As we have suggested with Elena Chebankova (Chebankova, Dutkiewicz 2020 ) during the past five decades of the 20th century, the first party has been composed of the various factions of “liberal and later neo-liberal” elites that hold control over the flow of financial capital, portfolio investments, and information technologies. The second group has been represented by the conservative cohort of politicians backed by the industrial capital responsible for the production within the sectors of heavy industry, the military, agriculture, and resource extraction. Both parties have their representatives within the governments of states around the world and global political elites. During the first half of the twentieth century, industrial capital led globalization in alliance with the financial capital that provided monetary resources for the expansion. Both strands of the capital were successfully engaged in the global production and distribution of goods based on the classic principles of accumulation and industrial capitalism. This symbiosis of global and industrial capital has imposed global rules and regulations. At some point in time (around late 1960s), however, financial capital got tired of playing the role of the younger brother to the industrialists. By the end of the 1990s, financial capital began to participate in global processes as a separate group of actors, independent from industrial capital and guided by a simple drive towards wealth accumulation. Somewhere along the way, financial capital dispensed with the principles of liberal economics and, as aptly observed by Nitzan and Bichler (2013 ), merged capital and power. 

The future of who will have real power to transform the system belongs to the winner of that fight.

Finally. It is unlikely that the current crisis, as many of its predecessors, is capable of a radical transformation of the world that will lead to 2045 harmonious world of Valdai report, because a radical change would be equal to building a just order on a new economic basis or sliding into the unashamedly totalitarian abyss.

As food for thought Valdai 2020 Report will be very welcomed by old and new readers for its fresh and witty approach to the future of international relations.

Valdai Club Presents Its Annual Report ‘History, To Be Continued: The Utopia of a Diverse World’
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.