Thursday, January 11, 2018

Flattery at the Monkey Cage

I have piece at the Monkey Cage on what flattery in authoritarian regimes might say about flattery in the Trump administration. There is probably nothing there that is not already very familiar to long-term readers of this blog, but it may still be of interest.

A couple of notes. The piece references (via link) an article by Victor Shih, “‘Nauseating’ Displays of Loyalty: Monitoring the Factional Bargain through Ideological Campaigns” which I discussed here years ago. It’s a fun paper!

The piece also alludes to some examples of Soviet localities and organizations using flattery to “recruit” patrons. This comes from a couple of fascinating accounts in an a volume of essays on the Stalin cult edited by Klaus Heller and Jan Plamper. The first, by the historian Malte Rolf, discusses the decentralized dynamics of cult production in the 1930s, when Soviet municipalities and other organizations attempted (often without much success) to use requests to rename themselves for a leader, or otherwise to commemorate certain top leaders, as part of efforts to “convert” symbolic capital into material resources or protection (the late 1930s being the time of the Great Terror):
It was a general strategy of regional officials to cultivate the veneration of a leader from Moscow’s party elite. Each region tried to recruit a patron of its own from the height of the pyramid of power. […] The local Party elite in Novosibirsk attempted to enlist Kuibyshev as a mentor of his former place of exile – a project that was unsuccessful because of Kuibyshev’s early death in 1935. Regions tried to monopolize and “colonize” certain members of the Moscow power elite, to whom they could afterwards turn by referring to their “special” relationship to the region. This claim emanated from the regional elite and was tolerated, perhaps even greeted, but not initiated by the cult objects themselves (p. 200).
This was sometimes a matter of life or death. A local party committee in Voronezh tried to get Kaganovich to come to a festival in his honour “in a desperate attempt to bolster its position within the regional Party hierarchy”, which was at risk in the terror. (Many of the members of the committee were historians, whose “object of study … was in a state of constant rewriting” at the time).

Other examples were more mundane: a medical institute that tried to rename itself in honour of Molotov as part of an attempt to become a doctorate-granting institution; a University that tried to rename itself in honour of Kaganovich partly to secure funding for a new dorm; and so on. (One must remember that this was a planned economy, so all kinds of resources were allocated by the centre). Rolf is good at noting the inflationary dynamics of the process: when the lower-level committee planned a bust of Lenin, for example, the higher-level administrative unit had to have an even bigger one; and eventually
the omnipresence of the glorified names of the leaders led to a devaluation of the names’ symbolic capital. Since almost every institution bore the name of a leader, the original symbolic function of distinguishing the few honored by this privilege lost its meaning. But even such a devaluation of symbolic capital did little to contain the further expansion of leader cults; on the contrary, it became well-nigh impossible for any Soviet institution not to bear the name of a leader (p. 205)
One problem people ran into was that many of those who were honoured in the early 1930s fell from grace in the terror. So after the first renaming, there was another counter-wave of “renaming streets, buildings, and institutions. This wave erased the “enemies of the people” from the country’s map” (p. 205), and also reduced the number of “usable” leaders, diminishing the utility of such practices for securing patronage.

The other account, by Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov and Olga Sosnina, looks at gifts to Soviet leaders. The main thing they note is that these gifts were understood as part of a sort of “moral economy” of (indirect) reciprocity. Factory groups, party committees, and the like produced gifts partly as “reciprocation” for the “gift” of socialism, but also for more concrete resources – and perhaps, in some cases (it’s hard to tell for sure) in the expectation of reciprocation by the object of the gift. (Of course, people didn’t necessarily think of these gift-giving rituals as explicitly asking for anything; that’s not how gift-giving works).

These gifts were quite various, and sometimes bizarre. Gigantic rugs or porcelain vases with the image of Stalin, “a grain of rice with the portrait of Stalin”, models of rockets or tractors, “a miner’s pickaxe made of silver and rare sorts of wood”: these were not meant to be used, but to foreground the gift-giver (the institution, usually) who made them, and to reaffirm their place within the Soviet order.

But this sort of stuff is not uncommon. I had the chance to visit the National Museum in Beijing in December, and a couple of exhibitions (one on the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, apparently stressing Sino-Soviet relations, and one on the “reform and opening up” era, celebrating the achievements of China post Mao), and gifts to leaders were a major part of the objects exhibited (sorry for the bad quality pictures). Here are some plates with Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and portrait of Mao (probably given by Chinese organizations to Russian ones, though I couldn't decipher the descriptive info, since it was in Russian and Chinese):

And here some porcelain vases with Lenin and Stalin:

And here is a sword to Hu Jintao from Hugo Chavez (descriptive label in Chinese and English, this time):

Gift-giving is a common aspect of political flattery; and it often attempts to put the gift-giver in as good a light as the recipient.

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