Rise of the lumpen elite: is this really what we fought for?

The great battles waged on behalf of democracy in the 20th century have ended in crisis, proposes the painter and novelist Maxim Kantor. Shares in ‘democracy’ have crashed, while globalisation has led to the rise of a new super-rich lumpen elite which does not even notice that the world is on fire.
Maxim Kantor
24 October 2011


The 20th century drew to a close after a world war lasting 100 years to decide the best model for the future and the most effective method of crowd control.  The options considered included war communism, a corporate state, the Soviet model of centralised democracy, national socialism, an open society directly linked to a market economy, a federal and confederate state etc.  The concepts of democracy and liberalism had lost any meaning as ideals of social development and become simply mechanical.

30 years ago the word democracy was synonymous with freedom.  70 years ago people went to their death for democracy, imagining that they were dying for freedom.  But then they suddenly discovered that their enemies in the battle also described themselves as free and democratic. The majority of Soviet citizens were convinced that the USSR had democracy, but… there was democracy in the West too. 

The Lumpen Elite: a selection of etchings from Maxim Kantor's recent Berlin exhibition.. All images (c) Maxim Kantor

So what was the point of the Cold War? What was it trying to achieve? Are there perhaps several kinds of democracy?  Does each nation have its own?  Perhaps democracy goes through stages of development, where each new stage is quite unlike the preceding one?  Today’s citizens have suddenly understood that democracy is merely a system of government with nothing ideal about it at all.  Churchill’s much-quoted epigram “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time” is as accurate as Lenin’s mantra that “Marx’s doctrine is all powerful because it is true.”  It’s not difficult to see that both statements are a kind of incantation.  It was suddenly clear that the word ‘democracy’ is absolutely no cure-all remedy for totalitarianism and that democracy can contain grains of totalitarianism, and can be oppressive.

Religion and democracy

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by unbelief in the Western world. It needed to gain confidence in preparation for its conflict with the religious East. But faith was running out.  Our sacred democracy had been an object of faith for Western civilisation.  It had to a certain extent supplanted religion, claiming to be not just a social model but an expression of universal humanity.  Then suddenly it was no longer sacred. 

This crisis was comparable with the crisis in Christianity at the time of the Reformation, provoked by the selling of dubious ‘democratic’ indulgences. 

Problems of ideological inflation

The problem was not rapid changes in the Gazprom share price, nor was it the volatility of the stock market. The problem was that the shares in the West’s core company ‘Democracy’ had suddenly lost their value.  You can print another trillion dollars. You can even conquer inflation. But how can you overcome ideological inflation?

Recent events remind us of Plato’s analysis of democracy. Ancient democracy, once a model for the world, evolved into mob rule and tyranny.  After all, it was a democratic court that condemned Socrates.  As for the Roman republic, we all know how it developed from republican consul to emperor. In Russia today Putin is frequently compared with Augustus.

What do we need to treat – the symptoms or the disease?  Now the opposition has decided it would like to remove the KGB colonel who is democracy’s representative. But how will this change the situation which allowed a KGB colonel to become president of a democratic state in the first place? 

In our 21st century we have surrendered to the trappings of democratic power and forgotten the lessons of the past and what that battle was all about.

In Russia this question is now more urgent than ever.  Did we really fight for a capitalism with no trade unions?  For an oligarchy? For a society far more class-ridden than previously, even under socialism at its most mediocre?  Is corruption an inherent element of democracy?  If not, then why is there no alternative to the rule of corruption?

The pathetic social contract in operation under socialism has been destroyed. But no new contract has replaced it and the vacuum has been filled by a nationalist ideology. The only language people can still understand is the voice of blood.  Once the social contract collapses there is no other language.

The lumpen class 

These days, when the shadow of the Weimar Republic hangs over us all, when the voice of blood is as powerful as it was in the 30s, we have only one consolation: in our capitalist world there is no longer a lumpen class which could become the engine for a new fascism.

"The rich have grown richer, the poor poorer, and common history and a common goal have ceased to exist.  We keep on thinking we live in the same society as before.  But we don't: the middle class has lost its rights and the ruling class has been lumpenized. The lumpenized class is the elite."

The lumpen proletariat has morphed into the manager class.  No one is concerned about ownership of the means of production any more, because once labour is moved to the periphery it is no longer part of our civilisation.  What we value now is not the product, but the symbols, because they are safe. In the world of symbolic exchange agreement can always be reached!

But there IS a lumpen class!  It determines the course of our history today even more powerfully than it did in the 30s.  This new class is prepared to sacrifice the world. It is the lumpen elite.

The first result of the policy of globalisation is the creation of an elite which belongs to no particular country and is dependent on no government or regime. It rises above history, culture and tradition.  The lumpen proletariat represented danger from below, from the lower strata of society. The lumpen elite is isolated from society and is twice as dangerous. 

The lumpen upper class has come into being during the present crisis, which can be seen as a contemporary version of the classic 'collectivisation.'  It bears all the hallmarks of the collectivisation of the 1930s.  Both resulted in financial redistribution. Both involved the suppression of the the middle class, the very stratum that is the engine and culture medium of democracy.  The rich have grown richer, the poor poorer, and common history and a common goal have ceased to exist.  We keep on thinking we live in the same society as before.  But we don't: the middle class has lost its rights and the ruling class has been lumpenized. The lumpenized class is the elite. 

The lumpen elite has created its own parallel history and meta-language, as inaudible to society as the shouts of the crowd are to the elite.  The  ‘avantgarde’, that mantra we invoke, has become purely decorative and has no real relation to any real social processes.

Artists used to call themselves radicals because they wanted to get away from the art salons and deal with the real problems of life.  Art today describes itself as radical because it is so far removed from life that it has become an artificial language.  The new democratic salon has become the icing on the new cake of society. The lumpen elite is not dependent on society; it chatters away in its own joyful, daring language, without noticing that the world is on fire.

This has happened before.  The enlightened world used to speak artificial Latin, whereas the plebs used barbarian dialects.  The great Dante took a step towards the Italian language and made the whole world take part in the Divine Comedy.  The world today has taken a step away from a common language towards an artificial language. Having lost the aesthetic paradigm  – Christian or democratic – which brought together the beggar and the rich man, we have lost the criteria for making judgments.  The world of categoric values has collapsed. And look what is rising from the ruins.

It will very soon become clear to what extent democracy as part of the market was responsible for the rise of this new lumpen class.

Events are developing at breakneck speed.  We are sitting on the edge of the crater and listening to the lava swirling below, thinking that we have overcome the dangers and that liberal values have triumphed forever.

Just look at the builders of our world – Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Churchill – and those who came after them – Putin, Berlusconi, Blair, Sarkozy, Bush and the rest.  Are you sure that this is the result we fought for throughout the long 20th century?  Are you really?


A version of this article appeared in Russian, English and German in the catalogue for Maxim Kantor: Atlas Vulcanus, the exhibition shown at the Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin from April to September  2011. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData