Excerpts from the book
This book has evolved from Uladzimir Matskevich’s posts on Facebook, which were published as a series of arguments between February and May 2019. It is a live, plain internal dialogue of the philosopher and an address to politicians, civic activists and all those who are ready to hear and understand him.
For Belarus, 2019 was a time of aggravation of many political and social processes, which led to a revolutionary situation. From the very beginning of the year, the media started discussing the issue of “deeper integration” with Russia. The threat to the country’s independence became real and called for action. Uladzimir Matskevich responded to it with the campaign “Refreshing Breeze”. On his page, he asks: “Where is the philosopher’s place in social transformation? What do they do and how?” His personal story, a story of intellectual work in social transformation, becomes a preamble to answering these questions. The philosopher’s place, Matskevich believes, is on the “front line”, in the most acute situations of political and social conflict.
The book consists of three parts. The first part, “My Place of Power”, is about the philosopher’s and intellectual’s self-identification in political and public practice, their place and work. The second part, “Lack of Meaning”, analyses the situation in the country on the eve of transformations and upheavals. Uladzimir Matskevich explores the nature of the contemporary Belarusian dictatorship, the state of the public sphere, moods, identity, and social foundations for change in society. The third part, “Coming After You”, is a performative statement. It contains an open letter to the president and proposals for a course of action for political leaders. After the events of 2020-2021, these proposals serve both as an imprint of that political situation and a basis for reflection and criticism of revolutionary action.
Dictatorship = mess
A new topic has been thrown into the media space: dictatorship.
Actually, there is nothing new about it; everybody has been talking about “Europe’s last dictatorship”, and for a long time now everybody is correcting themselves — the second last one.
The dictator himself has long ago admitted to being a dictator. However, his entourage was somewhat offended by this admission, and they tried to pretend it was a joke.
But recently the presidential press secretary Natalya Eismont announced that there is a dictatorship in the country, that it’s okay, that a dictatorship can be in demand in the world and it can become Belarus’ brand.
I have been saying for a long time that everybody is wrong: Belarus is not the last dictatorship. Belarus has established the first dictatorship of the 21st century. Therefore, nothing was surprising for me in the statement of Natalya Eismont.
You heard me right, a dictatorship.
That’s right, a fashion for a dictatorship is spreading in Europe.
In the past, dictatorship was an embarrassment that was often passed off as a special form of democracy.
But in the age of post-truth, of fake news, of the sacralisation of opinions over knowledge and truth, dictatorship may become attractive, it may be a manifestation of the freedom of opinion.
As a matter of fact, it is. Lukashenko is a dictator, he is much liked by Russians and Ukrainians, who feel that order is better than mess.
But they cannot see from the outside that Lukashenko is a dictator of a mess.
The country is a mess, total pluralism, and it is this circumstance that makes a dictatorship possible.
Belarus has established the first dictatorship of the absolute post-modernity era. Although it was established in 1994, it has become a harbinger of 21st-century political fashion.
The Belarusian dictatorship is quite unlike the dictatorships of the industrial and post-industrial epoch.
All the dictatorships of the industrial era, except the Bolsheviks, were nationalistic, some with elements of fascism that did not give importance to ethnicity and blood, others with elements of Nazism, where blood and ethnicity became central pivotal elements of the ideology.
The Bolshevik dictatorship in the USSR in the first decades did not seem to be nationalistic at all. Internationalism was seen as its main feature. But this was explained by the hope of a world dictatorship of the proletariat and a world permanent revolution. When that hope faded, Stalin brought nationalism back into the ideology. This was not Nazi-type nationalism. It was more like fascism, albeit with elements of anti-Semitism at certain periods, of genocide against certain small nations and intending to erase all ethnic differences in a future “new historical community — the Soviet people”.
The Soviet people had to become something like the American people. Just as Americans could remember their ethnic origins, but all became Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, etc. Americans, so the Soviet people could remember that their ancestors were Tajiks and Tatars, Chukhnas, Latvians or Belarusians, but all became equally Soviet.
Reservations were created for the Indians who did not want to dissolve into the all-American community. Something similar would have been created for “indigenous peoples” in the USSR, had it not collapsed in time.
But that is not so important to me now.
Something else is important!
The dictatorships of the industrial era were ideological, they introduced unanimity. Ideally, total unanimity, with criminal prosecution of dissent and thought crime.
Some scholars have distinguished two types of twentieth-century dictatorships: authoritarian and totalitarian.
Authoritarian dictatorships are unfinished totalitarian dictatorships.
Totalitarian ones achieved complete unanimity, punished and killed dissenters.
Authoritarian regimes tolerated dissent, just kept it under control.
This distinction does not seem essential for the twentieth century and the industrial age. Authoritarian dictatorships simply did not have time to develop into totalitarian ones. These are stages in the development of one type of regime rather than different types.
But for the 21st century, such a division may prove heuristic. The fact is that modern dictatorships do not need the ideology and unanimity of their nations.
On the contrary, modern dictators (Lukashenko is the first, Putin the second, Hungary and Poland are to follow) sponge on pluralism.
The more opinions in the society, different and not distilled down to each other, the safer for the dictator and his regime.
Pluralism of opinion should not be confused with dissent. Pluralism of opinion is more of a non-thinking than a dissenting opinion.
With such pluralism, a point of view is similar to a bump in the road. People hold their opinion not because they arrived at it by reflection, but they simply internalised it in imprinting as an irrational attitude.
This opinion takes the form of a meme; it is just a doxa (a commonly held opinion) framed in words, usually without meaning or significance.
Therefore, the doxa person is incapable of being critical of their bump. It is there, and that is all. To do otherwise is simply unthinkable.
That is, it is generally difficult to apply the categories “conceivable-unconceivable” to such a doxa. Rather, unimaginable. It is simply impossible to imagine something different from one’s doxa (opinion, bump).
It is impossible to imagine, but everyone constantly encounters other opinions, sees others who have climbed up on other bumps, who have a different vision.
Since an understanding of other opinions necessarily requires a critical attitude toward one’s own opinion, while a person who has irrationally acquired their opinion (by compulsion, stupid memorisation, zombification, conformist agreement) is completely incapable of criticism, only two types of attitude are developed toward all other opinions:
total rejection expressed in an evaluation of a different opinion as stupidity, absurdity or enemy propaganda;
total indifference. “You have that opinion and I have a different one”. “I don’t bother you, don’t you bother me”.
Indifference reaches the point where people have opinions that contradict each other, such as “orthodox atheism” or “union state”, “market socialism”, etc.
And the more hollow the doxa, the more contradictory the opinion, the more orthodox the person becomes.
By occupying one’s own bump with such an opinion, one becomes incapable of communicating with others.
Postmodernists call it a dissensus society.
Dissensus is the opposite of consensus.
In a dissensus society, people cannot agree with each other, and over time they even stop trying.
It is precisely this characteristic, the dissensus state of modern society, that the dictatorships of the 21st century are taking advantage of.
They do not need the unanimity or consensus in society sought by Hitler with Goebbels and Stalin with the whole party.
It is enough for them that the orthodox with different opinions cannot agree among themselves and work out resistance plans against the dictatorship.
The worst thing for twentieth-century dictatorships was dissenting views. For the dictatorships of the 21st century, the scariest is “having a point of view” – just a thought.
Thought implies a rational way of generating opinion. Thought is not opinion, although it can include opinion — either as the beginning of thought (thinking as a process) or as a conclusion. The conclusion of thinking is not always the same as the initial premises or hypotheses.
The rational opinion is already knowledge, claiming something forbidden in the society of dissensus — the truth. Or claiming to be correct in some categories under certain circumstances.
Nothing irritates postmodern dictators more than the claim to truth. They are willing to acknowledge, even support, the stupidest, most paralogical and absurd opinions, but with all their anger they will batter any opinion that even hypothetically claims to be true or at least correct.
So Natalya Eismont knows what she is saying and doing. A quarter of a century of dictatorship, the first dictatorship of the 21st century, the first dictatorship of the digital age, has taught the first dictator and his entourage something.
Citizens of Belarus!
Free citizens who know their rights to their own opinions!
Sit on your bumps of view!
Listen to no one, agree with no one!
Beware of consensus with anyone and on anything!
The truth alone can be worse than consensus! And it is great that it does not exist!
Everyone is deluded except you personally.
Lukashenko is deluded too, but he has the right to be, unlike those who occupy the bumps of view in your vicinity.
Lukashenko is a dictator, and there is an opinion that this is a good thing!
May his dictatorship last forever!
May it become the national brand of Belarus!
And this is the song and anthem of twentieth-century dictatorships. This is no longer relevant to us.
There everyone is enchained by one chain, bound by one goal. And there is only one dandy against all.
Here it is all against everyone, everyone has their own aims and their individual shackles.
That is why it is even easier to rule us.
I asked the question “What don’t you like about the country? What are we missing?”, I didn’t provide an answer and waited two days. There were few comments, even fewer answers. But the response was interesting.
What we lack is trust, publicity, justice, ease, fresh air, freedom…
It’s clear that it’s a reaction of my Facebook bubble. There are no “classmates” in it. It doesn’t include those who don’t have enough to support themselves, provide for their basic necessities. Those who don’t have enough money for basic necessities don’t have time to surf the Internet and read big texts, they probably are hard at work.
But here is what is interesting! They have smartphones. And many of them have computers. These are not the most necessary things in life!
Can a person who has a smartphone in their pocket hardly make a living? I don’t know, anything can happen. But it is obvious to me that the standard of living in this country is much higher now than in Soviet times. Higher than in the 1990s and even higher than in 2008. However, there are far more dissatisfied people. Why?
Because of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid!
The lower layers of needs from his pyramid are satisfied in the country. Everyone knows this, but few people take it into account. True, there are poor and extremely poor people in the country. But there are also such people in the richest countries. In any city in the world, you can find homeless people, beggars, tramps. Even at the highest rate of economic growth, there are unemployed people. They are dissatisfied for understandable and visible reasons.
But the mass discontent of the Belarusians is not connected with the lower layers of needs, with the subsistence level, with security and confidence in the future in the sense of hunger and cold. Discontent is caused by other needs. Here is what the commentators under my previous post name.
The Belarusian authoritarian regime has a leftist deviation. It takes care of the poor, it keeps the subsistence level at a safe level, it guarantees this minimum and even slightly above the minimum. The promised $500 salary threshold is reached from time to time, and the average income of Belarusians fluctuates around this figure.
Leftist politicians and regimes know how to talk about the lower levels of needs according to Abraham Maslow. In past eras, it was more the right-wingers who cared about the higher layers. But after World War II, Europe and the developed countries managed poverty in their territories. They began to allocate huge sums to fight poverty in other regions — Africa, Asia. There was a time when post-Soviet countries were recipients of this aid.
But times have changed. Sometimes circumstances and times change faster than consciousness and rhetoric. The political rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities (“pint and pork rind”, “$500 average salary for all”) is bluntly archaic. But the rhetoric of the opposition is practically the same.
Meanwhile, people need trust, respect, fresh air, etc.
Trust and respect are “double-edged” notions. People need self-respect and they want to see people who are worthy of their respect. People need someone to trust and they want to be trusted.
In other words, people need some intangible values now. The hierarchy of the Belarusians’ needs has changed.
But the rhetoric of politicians and officials has remained the same, outdated.
What do the Belarusians want? What do they lack in the country?
They lack freedom. Justice can be found neither in institutions nor in courts. Sociologists say that over 80% of Belarusians trust no one, not only in politics and the government but in everyday life as well. They lack respect. Love, probably, as well.
If we try to briefly formulate the Belarusians’ discontent, to outline what the country lacks, what we need and what we want, we have to recall the proverbial words of Yanka Kupala:
“And what is it, then, for which so long they pined? — To be called human!”
“To be called human” is the main aspiration of the contemporary political situation in the country.
If there is an opposition to the regime and Lukashism in the country, it is the people who want “to be called human”.
But what does it mean? And here we have to reconsider the beginning of this poem by Yanka Kupala written in 1905-1907. To forget about bast shoes, thin shoulders, about those “woes and troubles”. Now there are new troubles and new woes.
The Belarusian regime makes the human in human beings meaningless.
Therefore, answering the question posed to myself in the previous fragment, I say:
We are missing the meaning!
It is the main thing that needs to be sought and found now — meaning.
The meaning of human existence. Not of biospecies, a primate, but a HUMAN.
A human must be found in a human.
A human needs freedom, justice, dream, hope, self-fulfilment, and self-actualisation.
And the Belarusians in their country have obstacles, limits, a glass ceiling everywhere.
Young people have nowhere to study. To get modern knowledge, competencies, skilfulness rather than studying “something and somehow”.
Enterprising people have no space to grow, no space to develop.
People with honour and dignity are better off not appearing in public.
Where should one with “intellect and talent” go?
What should one hope for? What is there to dream about?
All these are the most important and fundamental questions of current politics in our country. All the rest are derivative issues, problems and difficulties.
Well, who among the politicians is capable of answering these questions?
Nobody, it is not a politician’s business.
It’s a philosophy.
Answers to these questions first, and then politics.
 Trans. by Vera Rich.
The essence of fascism is personal arbitrariness and voluntarism.
There is no law, no rights, no rules — there is only the will of the individual, one superior person or persons who are granted to use arbitrariness with the favour of the superior person. Everyone can be deprived of this favour at any moment.
So why was the Freedom Day celebration banned? Well, they banned it so that everyone could understand that last year they allowed it not because the policy had changed or some “soft belarusianisation” or “liberalisation” had begun, but because the regime had shown favour.
The only meaning of all decisions is to punish and pardon without any order or law, without any policy, plan, or strategy.
There are two fundamental errors in the understanding of such regimes.
A bit of clarification on this.
Naive “pique waistcoats” come up with some kind of change of course after each event. Now they discover that the regime has “turned to the West”, then “soft Belarusianisation” began, then suddenly some “liberalisation”. All this has nothing to do with the way decisions are made by a voluntaristic regime.
There is no strategy for such a regime. And if there is no strategy, it cannot change. There are no plans, no programmes. I mean, all this exists on paper. But it means nothing. Thousands of specialists draft laws, concepts of “development of small and medium business”, and so on. People are engaged in “business”; they see some sense in it.
Sometimes they even manage to push through a decree, a law, a regulation. To get permission for something.
But that’s not because the regime has adopted a different concept, taken a different course. Not at all. Simply because it has allowed something to happen. Showed favour.
And guessing about changing course, strategy, changing the concept, that is all nonsense.
This does not happen. Moreover, if this were to happen, it would mean the end of the regime. The beginning of the end.
Concepts, strategies, courses — all of this presupposes some kind of decision-making rules, rules of conduct, both for the regime itself and for other people. But if there are rules, not everything depends on the will of an official and the superior person.
And this is something that such a regime can never allow.
Secondly, it is naive to think that the voluntarism of the regime is determined by the mood of the decision-maker.
That’s what underachievers think when they go to an exam and wonder whether the teacher is in a good or a bad mood today. Perhaps in an exam, it makes sense.
But a dictator is not guided by his mood in decision-making. He can’t afford it. After all, then the changing moods can be seen as the law by which decisions are made. And then whoever knows that law will be able to control or manipulate the dictator. It would be possible to flatter the dictator and get the necessary permission.
That, in itself, is not scary. Especially since he has already told us that his favour can be bought for a few million.
The threat is that someone from his inner circle will be able to create a small business of selling the dictator’s favour and to profit from it.
By doing the dictator little favours (changing his mood), it’s possible to get the right decisions for the right people.
And that means that someone will control and manipulate the dictator himself.
No dictator, until he falls into senility, would allow such a thing.
But in old age, senility overtakes everyone, and dictators are no exception. They are human beings too.
Elderly dictators are managed by their secretaries, cooks, chauffeurs, attending doctors.
And then comes the climax of dictatorship.
Don’t ask me what to do.
First, try to understand what has been said.
Only with understanding does it make sense to ask what to do. And answer.
There is a lot to do. If we do not want to live to the senility of a dictator, falling into our own senility.
The best and most correct solution to a problem generates new problems.
The solution found becomes a problem itself, because the problem it was meant to solve has already been solved, but the solution is left to live its own life.
Successful ways of solving old problems become a tradition; old problems are already solved, but the old ways are not suitable for dealing with new issues.
To keep the tradition from looking empty and silly, we have to simulate or imitate the old problems, pretending that they are solved traditionally.
New problems are hardly and very belatedly recognised by the individual as well as by society, and the old ones are well-known to all. Therefore, new problems are not solved and all efforts are spent on imitating solutions to problems that have already been solved.
Unresolved new problems prevent normal life and development, and the enthusiasm for imitating the fight against old problems creates an illusion of plenitude of life and a simulation of meaning.
It is never necessary to solve old solved problems. They are no longer problems, but merely minor annoyances, since solutions have been found.
Only new problems need to be solved.
But new problems can only be seen by those who have solved the old ones.
Modern Europe is struggling against the totalitarianism and nationalism of the first half of the last century, which was defeated and destroyed long ago.
And does nothing against the new totalitarianism of the new scientific and technological revolution era.
The unequal battle between discourse and narrative.
Fifty or sixty years ago, postmodernists announced that the time of grand narratives was over. But they forgot to specify where and when that time existed and where exactly it ended. The time of narratives ended in Germany, France, Benelux, Scandinavia. But in half of the countries in Europe, it was the grand narratives that dominated. The grandest and most powerful narrative reigned indiscriminately in the USSR, but it also spread over a large part of Europe and various other regions of the world. A similar narrative defined life in China. And these narratives were countered by a no lesser “free world” narrative.
Postmodernists buried the narratives too early. They mistook a local regional situation for a global one. That’s the usual and mediocre Eurocentrism they fought against.
At the same time, they have confused the very notion of “narrative” so much with fragments of structuralism and other fashionable approaches that they are still unable to puzzle it out.
What is “narrative” is best explained by one of the most talented and ironic postmodernists, Carlos Castaneda. He portrayed the postmodern narrative itself in the form of Yaqui Indian mythology and magical practice. Don Juan Matus used the category of “membership in world description” in the same sense that postmodernism uses the category “grand narrative”.
A narrative is a language plus the sum of the narratives in that language that specify a description of the world. People participate in the narrative by using that language, reading and listening to narratives about the world and broadcasting those narratives, adding something of themselves, challenging individual statements. By questioning, they only magnify, amplify and reinforce that narrative. Or, in Don Juan’s words, they accept membership in the description of the world.
Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda, the postmodernists and phenomenologists that Castaneda impersonated, understood and knew that the world and the description of the world (narrative) are not identical. The world is different from the description, and different from any description, whether it is closer to the truth or further from it. And the very descriptions of the world (narratives) compete and antagonise each other.
Thus, the monolithic pseudo-Marxist narrative (“scientific” communism, historical materialism and dialectical materialism) and the pluralistic description of the world in the European and American narratives competed and fought with each other during the Cold War.
Moreover, since there were many different descriptions of the world in the West, and the Soviet pseudo-Marxist description was among them, postmodernists refused to recognize the Western pluralistic description of the world as a single narrative. This may be correct. And Alexander Zinoviev is completely wrong in his book The West, uniting and integrating the main points of all European doctrines and ideologies into a single super-meganarrative. I will not dwell on this for the moment.
Something else is important to me. In Belarus, the time of the grand narrative is not over. The Soviet monolithic narrative has been destroyed. Just as the postmodernists considered the liberal, nationalist, and communist narratives destroyed in the 1960s. But no place is ever empty: the old narrative has been replaced by a new one.
Svetlana Kalinkina commented on another of Lukashenko’s hours-long “big talk” with the words: “This is how he sees the world”. Yes, that’s a wise remark. The whole “talk”, which only had the appearance of a talk while being a long monologue, is a big narrative, a narration, an expanded picture of the world, I.e. the description of the world in Don Juan’s sense.
This is a very important circumstance.
Describing the world according to Yaqui shamanism is a shamanic magic act. A skilled shaman doesn’t need to feed his followers with narcotic cacti. European shamans mastered the art long ago. I am not going to figure out how strong shaman-magician Lukashenko is, there are enough experts in this.
I am interested in another important aspect: who are the accomplices of that description of the world which is present in Lukashenko’s narration?
I can answer: all who enter into communication with him, speak with him in the same language (in this case, the difference between the Belarusian and Russian languages is absolutely irrelevant), develop or criticise cases, facts, inferences in this narrative.
All those who talk to Lukashenko, and all those with whom Lukashenko speaks, are all accomplices and co-authors of one description of the world. All these people are dominated by one grand narrative.
There is simply no other narrative in the country.
I may be objected to by giving the example of Zmicier Lukashuk, who presented the shaman with a book “in another language”, or liberal public favourite Yaroslav Romanchuk, who was present at that “talk”.
Right, the questions and remarks of a few people are out of place in the overall narrative and seem to contradict everything that is described and narrated in this mass shamanic ritual.
But it is not a narrative. These are scraps of discourse.
Discourse is not narrative.
Discourse differs from the narrative in its consistency, its linearity. Sometimes in discourse, lines may diverge or run parallel, but linearity and consistency are maintained. Discourse may be logical or not logical but rather associative, for example, but in any case, discourse is reasoning. In a greater or lesser degree evidential and argumentative, but still evidential and argumentative.
Discourse has a beginning and an end. Discourse is built upon something and arrives at something through several stages, steps of reasoning and proof.
If we tear away the beginning, cut off the end, strip it of a few important and necessary steps of proof and argumentation, discourse ceases to be discourse. A part of the whole is not the whole. To people familiar with Lukashuk’s or Romanchuk’s discourse, the fragments we heard pointed to the whole, to extensive proof and argumentative reasoning. But how many people are like that?
For other listeners, the lines and questions representing the stages, fragments and steps of the discourse exist only as elements of a narrative, a grand narrative.
And the narrative is neither consistent nor linear. It is neither logical nor evidentiary. It may contain fragments of chains of reasoning, questions and answers, logical connections, isolated disjointed arguments. But all of it is non-linear.
What does non-linear mean?
A line is a straight or curved sequence of points (but a point can denote bigger things, like arguments, logical conditions in an algorithm, etc.) between two particular points — the beginning and the end. A kind of linearity can be formed by any connected graphs (tree, star, etc.).
But a narrative is constructed in a fundamentally non-linear way. Everything in it is disjointed and if something is connected to something, then it is illusory or in random order. Postmodernists have coined a special term for such non-linear organisation — rhizome. A rhizome is an incoherent set of points, segments, lines, starting nowhere, ending nowhere.
In this sense, the narrative repeats the structure of the world, the world seems illogical and unreasonable, so the picture of the world must be the same.
There is no point in demanding logic and consistency from a narrative. It is not and cannot be there. Separate fragments can be consistent and logical, but they are not connected with other logical and consistent fragments.
It resembles the structure of non-woven materials. There may be compressed threads in such materials, but their structure, function and purpose are not the same as those of threads in fabrics.
A narrative can therefore assimilate different discourses. Just as dialectical materialism, for example, could assimilate any scientific theory, even those initially rejected as bourgeois. By imprisoning and shooting all the Weismanists-Morganists, the Stalinists brought genetics back into education after 20 years of persecution. Easy.
It is especially easy for the narrative to consume scraps of discourse.
Technically, a complete discourse has a significant advantage over a narrative. Discourse is logical, consistent, verifiable. In this respect, discourse is beautiful. Even if it contains isolated errors and inaccuracies and is far from the truth. Truthfulness cannot be applied to the narrative at all. And in terms of aesthetics, the narrative leaves a lot to be desired. The larger the narrative (for example, the collected works of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, or War and Peace, People in the Swamp by Ivan Melezh), the less truth, beauty and goodness it contains. In grand narratives there is a bit of everything: love and hate, good and evil, violence, crime, heroism, and it’s all in a disorderly heap.
Such is the narrative of Lukashism.
Why are Romanchuk and Lukashuk invited to the “big talk”? To give them the floor, but not to allow them to unfold the discourse. To cut them off in mid-sentence, not to let them finish, to limit the time, so that even after beginning with something necessary and ending with a correct conclusion, the interlocutor crumples the evidentiary and argumentative part. Then the questions and rejoinders of courageous opponents are easily included in the rhizome of the narrative and become a part of the description of the world. And such interlocutors themselves become members in this description of the world.
So what should we do, shouldn’t we just kill ourselves against the wall?
I would tell you, but…
This is the 13th step in the discourse. You can tell it to someone who has followed the previous 12 steps in a linear unfolding of thought, in a chain of arguments.
I will explain. A little bit later.
For now, I’ll just draw the line at this fragment.
You fight fire with fire. Narrative is fought by narrative. But not by discourse. All the more so if it is ragged and crumpled.
The battle between discourse and narrative is doomed to failure. Lukashism can only be opposed to another description of the world, to another narrative. And this requires membership in it.