The Rasputin Theory of Politics

We are obsessed with shadowy advisors and sinister agents. Here’s why that’s bad.

Photo by Jordhan Madec on Unsplash

It took two bullets, two glasses of poison and the Malaya Nevka River to kill Grigori Rasputin. His killers, the most eminent of whom was Prince Felix Yusupov, were convinced that the man they had murdered was the dark hand behind the Russian throne. They were right. For years, the wife of the Tzar, Alexandra Feodorovna, believed that it was the presence of the peasant mystic from Siberia that was keeping her son from death. The influence the gaunt, bearded holy man worked on the dying Russian Empire has long since become infamous in popular imagination. To talk of Rasputin is to talk of charismatic advisors bending the wills of weak leaders to their own nefarious ends.

The spectre of Rasputin has found new life in our own times, despite having been shot, poisoned, and drowned over a hundred years ago. The deeply partisan political landscape has led some commentators to describe change not as material interests meeting the sharp edges of reality, but in terms of palace intrigue, plotting, and the manipulation of kings by cunning viziers. For these people, Boris Johnson’s newfound interest in sustainability is the work of a coterie of long fingered greenies and socialists, led (somewhat remarkably) by the World Economic Forum, the Prince of Wales, and Boris Johnson’s girlfriend. Similarly, the government’s reinstatement of lockdowns is the work of dogmatic experts fixated on the eradication of Covid-19 at the expense of mental health, community, and civil liberties.

The liberal Left is not immune from such thinking either. For many, the figure of Steve Bannon cast a mildewy shadow over Trump’s first year in office. Bannon, no doubt a talented political operator, cultivated the persona of a dark, maverick outsider. His shambling figure and comments about ‘deconstructing the administrative state’ belied an ultimately unremarkable few months in power. This ‘deconstruction’ was less a Derridean attack on the status quo and more an off-the-shelf Republican policy of smaller government. For many, Dominic Cummings was Bannon’s technocratic UK counterpart. Both a political outsider and talented campaigner, Cummings was credited with getting Johnson into Number 10. However, despite being the official unofficial hand behind the throne for Johnson’s first year in government, it is difficult to see what kind of impact Cummings has had. Certainly, the lean, agile, start-up- style government described in meandering detail in his blog is no closer to fruition.

This is not to say that advisors aren’t influential. After all, to understand Romanov Russia, you need to understand Rasputin. However, an obsession with shadowy influences and whispered voices means that you are not able to question your own position. Johnson is not interested in sustainability because our current economic system is destroying our planetary life-support systems: it is because environmentalist socialism is being dripped into his ear by scheming councillors. Lockdowns are a result of corrupt voices and naïve experts capturing the blinkered mind of the Prime Minister: Covid-19 does not, in fact, present much of a threat. By believing Johnson won because of the dark ingenuity of his backers, the Left in Britain does not have to reckon with the fact that they themselves championed neoliberal policies that led to the alienation with politics embedded in EU scepticism. Similarly, the Democrats do not have to worry about the fact that they offered nothing more substantial than ‘we are not Trump’ in 2016.

Deeper than this, however, is that our willingness to discount material explanation for vague and shadowy forces is evidence of a breakdown in trust of our democratic institutions. The much spoken of partisan divide in politics means the idea that anyone can act for the common good is rapidly approaching unthinkable. Here, the Right has got the edge over the Left. For 30 years leaders on the Right have weaned their base on the belief of the inherent order of markets, the supremacy of individual rights over the social fabric, and an outsized distrust of anything resembling ‘big government’. Consequently, there exists on both sides of the Atlantic a suspicion not only of the idea that there can exist problems that require collective solutions, but even that there is any form of government that can be trusted to solve them.

Unfortunately, governments have long only confirmed these suspicions by acting in the interests of business rather than the people they represent. When it is obvious that our democracy is rotting, are we surprised people believe that we are led from the shadows by the whispers of advisors and mutterings of blank-faced experts? Until people once again feel that government governs for them and not capital, we will not be able to exorcise the ghost of Rasputin from our politics.

Art, language, and politics.

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