Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

29 March 2005

Orthodoxy and political culture

Why is it that one never hears of military coups d'état in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain or the United States? Why does federalism work in Germany and India but not consistently in Nigeria or Russia? Why does constitutional government function so smoothly in most of Europe, and more recently east Asia, but scarcely at all in subsaharan Africa or the Middle East? The answer is to be found in that all-important concept of political culture, which can be defined as the total complex of political institutions and supportive traditions characterizing a given people, including attitudes towards political authority, participation, political rhetoric, styles of leadership, expectations of government, limitations on government action, and so forth. The word constitution, used in its older unwritten sense, might in some respects be deemed synonymous with political culture.

There have been efforts at quantifying or measuring political cultures, the most famous of which was undoubtedly that of Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba nearly half a century ago, whose results were documented in The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. A more recent and fascinating study of regional political cultures within a single country was published by Robert Putnam a dozen years ago, titled Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. A decade and a half ago Seymour Martin Lipset came out with a book, Continental Divide, comparing the political cultures of Canada and the United States.

Since the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, much work still needs to be done in studying the unique Russian political culture. Samuel Huntington sees Russia as the pivotal state in what he describes as a distinct Orthodox Christian civilization, whose values clash with those of the west. By contrast, Nikolai Petro views Russia and the Orthodox countries of Eurasia as sharing a common civilization with the west. In The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Petro argues that Russia's political culture, which appears to outsiders to foster little other than dictatorial régimes, is more complex than this stereotype would have it. In fact, there has long existed, side by side with authoritarian and totalitarian rule, an alternative political culture, often found amongst domestic dissidents and émigrés. This political culture is one which Petro calls "constrained autocracy," focussing on the complex of independent social initiatives which, since the late 1980s, has come in the west to be called civil society. Here the emphasis is not so much on the formal mechanisms of democracy and popular rule as on those institutions serving to limit the power of the autocrat.

Petro has recently weighed in on the subject with the following article: "The Orthodox Are Coming," in which he explores the implications of increasing Orthodox Christian influence within the European Union as its outer boundaries move continually eastward. Indeed, Petro sees the Russian Orthodox Church itself as one of the more crucial institutions supportive of civil society, if not always of political democracy in its western forms. Writes Petro:

A new generation of Western scholars on religion (Zoe Knox, Christopher Marsh, Elizabeth Prodromou, Nikolas Gvosdev) have even applied Western literature on civil society to contemporary Orthodoxy. By looking at the Church’s highly delegative, almost “confederative” system of administration, and focusing on its community-centered initiatives, they argue that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is playing an important role as the country’s largest civic organization.

Petro believes it is time to rediscover what unites east and west rather than what divides us:

We, in the Catholic-Protestant West, should prepare for the coming of the “Orthodox Century" by appreciating all that unites us. If the dividing line between East and West continues to exist in our hearts and minds, removing it from the political map of Europe will accomplish very little. In the long run Europeans must become much better educated about their common Byzantine and Eastern Christian heritage. Even in the short run, however, the essential elements of this common inheritance can be used to shore up pan-European democratic institutions. Recent scholarship by Silvia Ronchey, Helene Ahrweiler, and Antonio Carile, provide a conceptual link between Byzantine political thought and the modern age, and highlight how much current European aspirations to pluri-culturalism and subsidiarity (the idea that matters should be handled by the lowest competent authority), have in common with the Byzantine political model.

To be sure, there is something to be said for Petro's approach, which is a worthwhile corrective to those who would paint the Russian and Balkan political cultures in a single monochromatic hue. Yet there are two difficulties with his interpretation which ought not to be overlooked.

First, far from being a western construct, the notion of a fundamental east-west divide finds longstanding support within Russia itself, where there is a rather substantial subculture fearful of the decadent, apostate west. This is the side of the Russian soul which is insular and xenophobic, claiming a unique role for "Holy Russia" in upholding true belief against the heresies of Catholicism, of the various forms of protestantism and of modern secularism. Eurasianists, as they have sometimes been labelled, place little if any value on democracy and constitutional government, which they view as alien imports.

Second, even if Petro is correct in identifying an alternative political culture championing the independent initiatives of civil society, it is by no means inevitable that its adherents would govern in significantly different fashion from their opponents if they were to inherit the reins of power. Good intentions do not by themselves translate into representative constitutional rule, especially if there is no past experience with this in the political culture as a whole.

Of course, this should not be taken as an argument for cultural determinism. Yet cultures do not generally change quickly and abruptly. The habits of centuries are not easily shaken off, as Putnam discovered in his study of the Italian regions. This is where Huntington is almost certainly closer to the mark than Petro in isolating the apparently ineradicable boundaries separating the world's religiously based civilizations. It also suggests that the outer boundaries of the European Union may one day prove to be narrower than is generally supposed, despite the formal presence within Europe of Greece and Cyprus -- for now at least -- and soon-to-be members Romania and Bulgaria. Might Dimitri Obolensky's "Byzantine Commonwealth" be recreated as a counterpart to a western-oriented European Union? I doubt this is to be wished for, but we shouldn't be surprised if something like this does eventually occur.

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