Are any common values possible at all in a divided society? Isn’t it an illusion? And isn’t the value approach outdated in general in the era of atomised, postmodern society? Is it possible for it to have a deep perception of values and ideas that go beyond the limits of the advertising and marketing gimmicks generated for the clip-oriented consciousness?
One of the sessions of the recent Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2022 was devoted to the role of values and value politics in modern society, both in the world as a whole and in Russia.
Among the various aspects of this topic, a number of participants in the discussion raised the question of a higher, one might say, metaphysical archetype, which combines all the value orientations and ideals of a particular society. In relation to Russia, the term “Russian dream” was used to define this archetype.
Naturally, if we are talking about values from the standpoint of primordialism, rather than proceeding from a social construction or even a social engineering standpoint, then such an approach is quite possible. One can postulate existence of an initial archetype or monad, within which all the ideas and values inherent in a given society are combined. It is also clear that it is practically impossible to prove the objective existence of a given archetype in a rational, positivist way. This, however, does not prevent various primordialist paradigms from functioning not only in relation to ethnographic descriptions of archaic and primitive societies, but also within the framework of modern, post-structuralist approaches to various scientific disciplines studying the society of the 21st century, from social psychology to semiotics, for example.
At the same time, it is obvious that the key characteristic of this national archetype or monad is that it clearly opposes one’s sense of nationhood toward belonging to a different nation; it incorporates an a priori denial of the universality of value attitudes. Hence, according to this logic, it follows that national values are primordial, and universal ones are nothing more than a social construct. Another aspect of this archetype is the presumption that it embraces the entire society, that society is absolutely homogeneous in composition. It is here that the primordialist dream collides with the realities of social life in the 21st century.
One of the key questions that arises is whether or not a single semantic field exists for the different strata of society. It is obvious that certain value orientations can only be taken seriously by society, rather than just seeming like artificial constructs, if they’re grounded in such a field. In the same sense, when generational, class, interregional and other differences turn out to be in fact too divisive to create a single environment for the perception of ideas and behavioural priorities, then there is no need to talk about any values that unite the whole society.
This raises the question: are any common values possible at all in a divided society? Isn’t it an illusion? And isn’t the value approach outdated in general in the era of atomised, postmodern society? Is it possible for it to have a deep perception of values and ideas that go beyond the limits of the advertising and marketing gimmicks generated for the clip-oriented consciousness?
Recently, an article about basic values in modern Russia was able to generate a rather tangible response in social networks and the media. Judging by the composition and status of the authors of this article, to a certain extent it can be regarded as a kind of quasi-official interpretation of Russia’s value policy today and in the future. Or as an invitation to discussion from high rostrums. The authors of the article proposed a kind of hierarchical structure of values, which they called a “pentabasis”. According to the logic of the authors, the five steps of this system are as follows: person-family-society-state-country. At each of these levels, separate groups of value attitudes are formed, which are then brought together.
If one perceives this methodological concept, one cannot fail to note that in it, in our subjective opinion, the absence of several levels where such values are formed values at once. First of all, the “great leap” from the family immediately to society as a whole (which the authors define as the “family of families”) looks quite idealistic, if not mythologised. Here disappears, firstly, a small social group, the inner circle of communication of each person. This, according to the laws of social psychology, affects not only behavioural patterns, but also the upbrining and initial social testing of those life ideas and value systems that distinguish each person. Moreover, in the context of the widespread use of social media, this small social group for a modern person can be not only offline, but also online.
The next level, which, in our opinion, directly affects the establishment of value horizons for each person is a large social group that determines his identity: it can be a social class, ethnicity, gender, generational stratum, religion or lack of it, educational stratum, a sense of belonging to one’s hometown, on the one hand, and to the place where a person lives now, on the other, etc. It is these factors that, as a rule, determine the range of values that can, with a certain degree of conventionality, be called truly primordial for each person, and by no means social constructs.
It’s only then that all these small and large social identities, which each person has, merge into the whole society. This can happen harmoniously or inharmoniously, in conflict; here there is a question of efficiency, including state policy in relation to a particular social stratum. Without taking into account all these features, society as a whole may appear too monolithically homogeneous. This is returning us to the same primordialist archetype of the national dream, which we mentioned above. The authors of the article, however, do not use the term “national dream”, but “national code”; in any event, the essence of the issue does not change from this. It cannot be ruled out that it may be desirable for certain purposes of state policy, but is unlikely to be so in reality, at least if we are not talking about purely totalitarian regimes.
Furthermore, in the aforementioned “pentabasis”, above society are the levels of the state (understood as a system of real power) and the country (understood as patriotic integrity). Recognising the right of the authors to their position separating these two levels, and without going into disputes on this issue, nevertheless, it is impossible not to notice that there is nothing above the level of the country in the “pentabasis” of values. There is no “world” level in this basic hierarchy.
Of course, this can be fully explained by the current realities of Russian geopolitics, as well as the emphasis on the denial of any universal nature of ideas and values, which was and remains characteristic of Russia’s official value policy. This again brings us back to the idea of a primordial and purely national dream.
It is also characteristic that the authors of the article synthesise the statements of their respondents about “metaphors for the image of the future” in a certain way. Among them, in particular, “messiahship, uncertainty, a state of permanent expectation of a miracle,” and “an orientation towards cult images of the past” are mentioned. Thus, in fact, the primordialist monad of the national dream loops the future with the past. It highlights teleology, predestination, fatalistic optimism, and divine providence—all elements that can be found in any standard description of the primordial picture of the world. And there are many of them, for example, in the famous ethnographic books of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Or in the Epistemic theory of miracles by Baruch Spinoza. As you can see, these concepts have not faded away in the 21st century.