“The Problem is Not in the Illusions, but in the Aims of the Apparatus of Power” – Interview with Gintautas Mažeikis
Interview with Gintautas Mažeikis by Miglė Bareikytė
I remember when professor Gintautas Mažeikis, during the first week of the semester at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, told his students, including me, that we should read Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment”. We were young, the book was poorly translated, perplexity set in. I was one of the students who had graduated from the M.A. program in Social and Political Critical Studies, which Mažeikis, together with the philosopher Leonidas Donskis, had created in Lithuania. Reading texts on critical theory, history of feminisms, and post-structuralism, or learning about dissidents and psychoanalysis with inspiring scholars and activists, including J.D. Minniger, Jurga Jonutytė, and Robert Van Voren, was unheard of at the time in a post-Soviet country, and contributed to broadening the debate and the production of critical knowledge in Lithuania.
Today, Mažeikis is one of the most prominent public intellectuals and progressive voices in Lithuania and the Baltic States. In addition to publishing academic books on critical political theory and participating in conferences, he also writes articles in the media on a wide range of topics and participates in activist gatherings, thus embodying the notion of an interdisciplinary scholar who crosses the invisible boundaries between academic and other publics. I spoke to Mažeikis about Russia’s war in Ukraine, geopolitics, Belarus, Sergei Loznitsa, cooperation with critical intellectuals in Russia, the dangers of ressentiment, and, of course, the “Western Left”.
Gintautas Mažeikis: It is necessary to distinguish between the state apparatus, which has hundreds of thousands of people and is autocratic and operates according to the principle of vertical power, and the rest of Russia, which is very diverse and heterogeneous. In Russia, as nowhere else, we see a huge division in terms of wealth, in terms of centres, regions and remote regions, in terms of nationalities and religions. It is only propaganda and the vertical of power that create the illusion of one nation, one citizenship, that create the spectacle of the nation, in the Guy Debord sense. Russia is united as long as the propaganda television is on. If its power is suspended, the power vertical will also waver. Even the Russian language, which seems to unite everyone, loses its importance when one goes to the autonomous Russian Republics of the Caucasus or visits the peoples of Siberia, and becomes only a means of instrumental, but not local “spiritual” communication. There is always the possibility of a more radical federalisation of Russia or the threat of its fragmentation. And when Russian citizens, without exception, are currently being blamed for the war in Ukraine, many nations [within Russia, M.B.] will only look for more ways to secede and keep away from Russian war crimes and historical shame in order to avoid collective responsibility, once the Kremlin is weakened.
In one of your texts, you provocatively compare the geopolitical ideas of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and problematise a policy based solely on international law to overthrow the authoritarian state apparatuses in Belarus and Russia…
I investigate Kissinger and Brzezinski as two of the most prominent writers, who discussed the main geopolitical challenges and factors following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a consequence of this geopolitical break. This is precisely how Vladimir Putin explains the assumptions of this war, as an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union’s field of interests, only this time in the name of Russia. I therefore agree with those authors who argue that this war could lead to changes in the geopolitical world order, where, contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations, Russia will be removed as a geopolitical actor and, in its place, the EU’s influence will be considerably enhanced. There is no universal law that regulates the geopolitical world order, although it is constantly discussed at the UN, NATO, G7, G20 summits and in certain agreements. Geopolitics is mostly guided by the principles of Realpolitik and the corresponding diplomacy. The aim here is to weaken Russia’s aggressive and essentially terrorist politics by exhausting it through the war in Ukraine and sanctions, while on the other hand avoiding global escalation of conflict and therefore not helping Ukraine appropriately.
What are the ways in which Western states should be fighting authoritarianism and “propaganda television” – both in Belarus and Russia, and, by the way, within their own borders (we can look at the cases of Hungary, Poland, and even to some extent France) – but do not do so, in your opinion? Moreover, what individual and social tactics could increase resilience and maybe even fight against today’s disinformation from Russia?
Propaganda is an ongoing systematic persuasion that operates in much the same way as a broad mechanism of sanctions, when it is acted not through a single information or financial campaign, but systematically, over a long period of time. And disinformation is always short-term or even episodic, it aims for a short-term effect and can even undermine systemic propaganda objectives. Propaganda is usually aligned with strategic policy objectives. Russian propaganda and disinformation is very massive, almost total, but it is incoherent, because there are no clear war aims, which change from week to week, no clear ideology and therefore it is not effective enough, especially when trying to influence Western society. The measures taken to stop Russian disinformation are partly correct: the blocking of Russian propaganda channels, the openness of information from Ukraine, the presence of many international (Western) media and various human rights committees, societal participation, multiple perspectives, and ethnical diversity. Societal participation is related to the involvement of Ukraine and its supporters in a multi-channel information action, not only in Ukraine itself, but by working together with those who have fled the war to the West. The key is to avoid an informational ‘power’ vertical that would immediately make it similar to Russian propaganda. And the flaw is related to the myths and stereotypes that are still alive in the West and in Central and Eastern Europe: Putin as a wise leader, the Russian army as the victor of World War II and liberator, Russia as a country of leftness and equality. And it is very difficult to change something in Russia itself, although the dissemination of democratic information, however weak, is absolutely necessary. I have to agree that the most important battle in Russia will be between the television and the refrigerator. That is why Russia will now be simply stealing Hollywood and other films and concerts to improve the quality of the image it shows, and will desperately seek to keep its fridges full of broiler quarters and cheap vodka shipped from Asia. This is no consolation for the intellectuals and the elite, but the Kremlin wants to avoid a revolution and the elites do not matter anymore. The country is slipping back into a state of military communism, a new totalitarianism. On the other hand, one day, the wounded soldiers and their stories, or the reports of their deaths in Ukraine, or the rumours—horrible and worrying, the same rumours that have brought down a number of states and systems—will challenge the power of the television and the refrigerator, and then it will no longer be clear whether the Kremlin’s power will hold.
Let’s discuss ‘the West’ and ‘the Left’. It seems to many today that the so-called ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ movements and intellectual stars in the West would bury Central and Eastern Europe with their own hands. The left-wing movement in Poland, Razem, broke away from Diem25 after Yanis Varoufakis’ ambiguous comments on Russia’s war in Ukraine; Noam Chomsky, like many on the left, seems to criticise the ‘expansion of NATO’ more than Russian aggression. Why is there the current divide between the Western and Eastern European left and progressive movements? Why do the progressive movements from the West hit and miss their current analyses? Or is NATO to blame for everything?
The European left, and in particular the radical wing (further to the left than the traditional social democrats) is very deeply stereotypical. The stereotyping of history suggests that Putin’s Russia, or the current Russian Communist Party, is at least somewhat left-wing, without seeing that it is in Russia where one of the world’s worst exploitations exists, as the condition of the regional workers, especially beyond St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk and a few other major cities, testifies. However, Russia’s oligarchic capital, the impoverishment of its citizens by taking the money abroad, the neglect of the social sector (health, social assistance), the weakness or even the absence of active and independent trade unions, do not indicate to the Western left that Putin’s Russia has nothing to do with the left, but is an ultra-right-wing state run by the oligarchs and the special services. The Western Left is following the old Lenin–Trotsky legend, which has nothing to do with the real attempts to create independent soviets in 1917–1921, which were shot by the Bolsheviks. It is this ideological stereotyping of old textbooks and thinking that prevents a proper assessment of the Russian aggression and encourages to believe in the Russian propaganda machine and to ignore international law, which is again considered to be capitalist invention, and not parliamentary agreements. Russia began its aggression as early as 2014: one only has to analyse the war and battles of that period. Over a million refugees have fled from the Donbass to the depths of Ukraine. Russia entered an army of thousands of marked and unmarked troops into the Donetsk and Luhansk area in 2014, and many of the commanders of the separatists were military volunteers from Russia. The 2022 war is just an escalation of the 2014 war. NATO has only a third-rate role in this whole story, because even basic light (non-assault) armaments are provided by individual countries, many of which are not even NATO members, such as Sweden.
You mention the historical stereotyping practices of the European left. One of their results, with an inadequately nostalgic perception of contemporary Russia, I would argue, is the stereotyping of the whole Central and Eastern Europe, which in the 21st century is still perceived as a buffer territory between the West and Russia, sometimes with an aura of strong nationalism. Where do you think the desire to stereotype not only Russia, but also Eastern Europe, which would be very easy to both visit physically and to communicate in, for example, in English, comes from – not only for the Left, but perhaps for Western societies in general? Or perhaps my question itself suggests a kind of nostalgic ressentiment that is typical of Central and Eastern Europe, which is sad that the West does not understand it?
I think you are right to mention the morbid sadness of Central-Eastern Europeans that assumes that the West does not understand them. This is related to the incapacity to be politically autonomous and to deconstruct the post-totalitarian consciousness of the West. It is strange to see Central Eastern Europe being guided by those Western ideals which were formed during the Cold War under a hard binary opposition: the West–the Soviets. These concepts, these evaluations that grew out of the Cold War binarism, are distorted and deformed, but they are considered to be correct, and are tried to be adapted to, even though it is precisely in this set of stereotypes that we are absent. And then it is incomprehensible that today Ukrainians defend Western democracies and Europe more than the French or the Germans, more than the Spanish or the British. It seems to me that Lukashenko’s attack by artificially constructed refugees on Lithuania, Poland and, to a lesser extent, Latvia, has sobered up the politicians in Lithuania and Poland to the necessity to negotiate in the context of Central and Eastern Europe and that we are not always able to agree with the Western partners. It happened even before the Russian aggression against Ukraine. We can [find a common language with the Western partners, M.B.], when it comes to LGBT+ rights or the green economy. But the war in Ukraine fundamentally changes a lot: in Poland and Lithuania, it is suspected that, in the event of a war against our countries, NATO may also limit itself to minimal military assistance, assuming that this will be enough to fulfill Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, because it does not say that it is necessary to defend, but only, to help defend, to rise to the challenge of war. And to help defend also means that it could be enough to send technical and information assistance. Thus, Poland and Lithuania face a challenge that is completely unexpected for them: that we have to think for and defend ourselves, that we have to understand what is going on around us, and that we can no longer blindly trust the Western intellectuals and their post-communist reasoning. This does not mean that we should abandon Western post-structuralist philosophy or Critical Theory or the achievements of art and culture – on the contrary. But one has to think on one’s own and be very critical about the weaknesses and dangers of the existing treaties with Western countries.
Critical humanities studies in Europe draw heavily on post-World War II texts, following poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies, practice theory, and other intellectual movements that emerged after World War II. There are voices now – especially in the context of the tensions among the left-leaning people in the West and East of Europe that I mentioned earlier – that we need to read new books that could help the West to understand the long-ignored societies, perspectives, and their diversity in Central and Eastern Europe. Would you agree with this statement? If so, which authors would you include in such a list?
I would only partially agree. Some [representatives, M.B.] of Critical Theory (broadly defined), which I not rarely rely on, are helping us today to overcome the old ideologies and manipulations: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, but also Jürgen Habermas, for whom I have great respect as a theoretician of the public sphere and communicative action, but also Axel Honneth and Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek. The classic collection of texts is extensive, but, with the exception of Žižek, they reflect little of the transformations of societies in Central-Eastern Europe, and even less so reflect the events in Russia and Ukraine. Today, in the time of war, it is difficult to say who will reflect clearly and critically, in a left-wing sense, on the events of this war. However, there is a certain group of thinkers for whom I feel great sympathy: the philosopher Uladzimir Mackievič currently imprisoned in Belarus by the Lukashenko regime, who is one of the founders and methodologists of the University of Letuchiy (Flying University). In Russia, the philosopher and publicist Aleksandr Sekatsky is interesting; in Ukraine, the phenomenologist and publicist, thinker of Georgian descent, or publicist-philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze. But, from the point of view of Critical Theory, I especially would single out Uladzimir Mackievič.
Leonidas Donskis once claimed that there are no left-wing movements in Central and Eastern Europe. What is the situation now, what movements and tendencies of progressive thought would you single out in Central and Eastern Europe?
The biggest problem is the definition of leftism. For a long time after György Lukács, the left has been associated with representing class interests in the development of industrial relations and thus associating itself, or even competing, with trade unions. Today, however, technology, production, and distribution have changed, the main areas of capital circulation have changed, as have exploitation, where the promotion of irrational, uncontrolled consumption has become one of the means of oppression. The new forms of capitalism no longer correspond to the old writings and analyses of either the left or the right. And while in the West the left, albeit at the expense of a great deal of fragmentation, has analysed the new trends in capitalism and realised that there can be digital forms of leftist action, such as the Wikipedia project, in Central and Eastern Europe, the party constructs of Marxism-Leninism, that have nothing to do with either economic or sociological analysis, still linger on. This has condemned the new social-democratic parties that emerged from the communist parties to decades of stagnation, which still believed that the left-wing name of the party and its links with large-scale production and the securing of jobs in heavy industry were the aim of their activities. In this way, those who called themselves leftists turned into conservatives according to their circle of interests. Even worse, many of the Social Democratic leaders, in the Soviet tradition, were and still are openly homophobic, ignoring the green economy, pursuing traditional nomenklatura politics and the bureaucratisation of society. This has only fostered the further torpor of traditional social-democratic parties in Central and Eastern Europe. And the new left movements, which are open to lively trade unions, face many challenges: attempts by the right to brand them as Leninists, their own temptation to national communism, or to the illusions of Marxism-Leninism, or to the demonisation of the parliamentary EU, of the US, and of NATO. The Russian army is bombing not only Ukrainian military bases and residential districts, but is destroying all the major factories, and the Ukrainian territorial defence units, although egalitarian and made up of 90% local workers, are ignored by the European left, and thus, without feeling it themselves, [the European left, M.B.] are separating the Ukrainian workers and their territorial defence from the bookish fantasies of the Western left.
What do you think about today’s bans and disavowals of culture from Russia? Are there any authors from Russia that you still read and will continue to read?
I myself was born in Russia (Vorkuta, Komi Republic), served for 3 years in the Soviet Northern Fleet (near Murmansk), studied for 6 years at Leningrad/St. Petersburg University and I have many ties of friendship with St. Petersburg. I am in contact with my colleagues, many of them professors, almost every day. They are persecuted by the authoritarian Putin government, some of them have been prosecuted and many of them have been dismissed from their jobs. This does not prevent me from communicating at the same time with my friends in Belarus and Ukraine, who are either in opposition to Lukashenko or who are volunteering by helping the Ukrainian army and the Territorial Defence Units. So I also read in Russian, but I also try to read in Ukrainian, many politicians’ [discourses, M.B.] as well as novels, for example, of Serhiy Zhadan, who I think is going to be one of the Nobel Prize laureates in literature. But these are my personal preferences. Although, for example, the fate of Daniil Kharms, the Russian OBERIU founder [avant-garde collective of Russian Futurists artists, M.B.]—he was starved to death in one of the prisons in Leningrad at the beginning of World War II—is an example of how terrible the Soviet repressive machine was, and which is still in operation today. However, I also understand those Ukrainian intellectuals who today refuse the Russian language as such, and I accept their invitation to read in Ukrainian or Belarusian.
And what do you think about the recent scandal of the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, who left the European Film Academy claiming that the Academy’s reaction to Russian aggression was too soft and conformist, but was also kicked out from the Ukrainian Film Academy after claiming that it was important to cooperate with critical artists from Russia, and criticizing the Ukrainian Film Academy’s focus on Ukrainian ethnic identity?
I have followed this story, which is symptomatic and related to the uncertainties of collective responsibility for war crimes committed in Ukraine. This is a topic that is just beginning to be discussed and is very unclear. The only positive precedent for collective responsibility is the punishments for Nazi Germany, but there a system of measured guilt and personal accusations was created. The Ukrainians rightly aim to be compensated for their suffering and sacrifices, to have their struggle fairly shown, but they have no mechanism for the distribution of guilt, and that encourages, at times, unjustified russophobia. Instead of cooperating with dissidents opposing Kremlin Russia from the same Russia, there are attempts to stop them everywhere, not only on the front line or in territories already conquered by the Kremlin. People are being killed in the war, this is why the living do not like or accept talk of pacifism and cosmopolitanism, when rage is needed and when the living are only alive because of the thousands shot. But Sergei Loznitsa precisely emphasises his cosmopolitanism and cooperates with the Russian opposition in the West, with its artists, and finally with his old friends, by taking part in the tusovkės [parties] and bohemian meetings of dissident Russian speakers in the West. In peacetime, this would be a great privilege, helping the artist to raise his ratings and to communicate with the best directors and actors, to be in his element. On the other hand, the various post-Soviet unions of writers, cinematographers, painters etc., are jealous, conservative, and nomenclatural and do not always make politically motivated actions. They are the same in Lithuania. The canceling of Loznitsa is a typical case of the canceling culture that is widespread in Europe and worldwide. I believe that this is foolishness, a recklessness not realising the international importance of their own elite. On the other hand, one also cannot condemn the decisions of the people who are being bombed and shot today: they expect more patriotism and sacrifice. I think, I hope, that this canceling event [of Loznitsa, M.B.] will soon be stopped as ill-considered.
The study of propaganda comprises one direction of your academic activities. Social and political critics have often analysed propaganda, ideology, discourses and the dependence of individuals and society on them. Michel Foucault talked about individually inevitable discourses, Slavoj Žižek argued that we all live in an ideology that cannot be transcended. According to these theories, reality is soaked in discourses constructed by ideological practices. Interestingly, in a similar vein, some ‘activists’ on social media are now claiming that everything we read and see these days, about Russia’s war in Ukraine included, is ‘fake news’, disinformation, and that nothing needs to and is possible to be believed. As one of the founders of the first critical social and political theory studies in Lithuania, what is your opinion on the relationship or tension between social and political criticism and propaganda? Would you agree that the theorists and populists who make such claims (i.e. that ‘everything is fake news’) about the ideologisation of everyday life are thinking critically?
Today’s social and political critique draws on similar sources to Critical Theory: philosophy, sociology, political economy, psychoanalysis. This complex of research and analysis and critique is necessary to develop concrete measures that would help defend participatory democracy of agreements and extend the rights of diversity. There is no longer any point in escaping beyond ideologies and discourses: they have filled the entire information and communication space. Today, the aim is to defend reliable information sources and minimise destructive disinformation campaigns by empowering citizens’ free agreements and relationships between different (not-similar, heterogeneous) communities, and to solve the real problems related to exploitation, ecology, the Anthropocene, but also new authoritarian regimes and new fundamentalism. The problem with Russia is not that it has strange para-histories about a mystified past, but that the mechanisms of resentment are at work again, bringing up the only grand narrative again, which is turned into a pseudo-religion. Small illusions, as long as they do not become part of the grand narrative and part of the power vertical, do not bother anyone, after all, it is the birthplace of many literary and cinematic genres. The problem is not in the illusions, but in the aims of the apparatus of power, of the various industrial complexes, and especially when they start using disinformation systems.
This interview was originally published by Kajet Journal.
Gintautas Mažeikis is a philosopher and cultural theorist, currently the head of the Department of Social and Political Theory at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Miglė Bareikytė is a postdoctoral researcher of media studies and politics at the University of Siegen in Siegen, Germany.