Ordinary Citizens or State Lackeys?

Written by Uilson Jones

Does the average, hard-working and honest citizen bear the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their national government? Or could the citizen be seen as an inalienable part of the state who plays the role of a lackey? Should ordinary citizens feel the urge to compensate and alter the negative decisions of their state? If yes, to what extent do people actually have control over their representatives in government and what mechanisms exist to implement this change? All of these probing questions aim to tackle, albeit at different angles, the fundamental concept of collective responsibility. If our answers to these questions differ based on what state it is or which group of people we are talking about, then our answers should most certainly be unsatisfactory. 

Democratic Control or Facade 

The third-wave of democratisation as outlined by Samuel Huntington, is also the latest, which welcomed the Communist Eastern-Bloc states to the family of ‘liberal democracies’. This immediately opened up the ability for citizens to intervene electorally by voting for political representatives at the highest level. The political landscape changed rather drastically, as the ailing Communist world gave in to what appeared to be a ‘vibrant’ and ‘healthy’ world of Liberalism. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even went as far as to prematurely proclaim the end of history. A representative system was hailed as the most democratic which allows for the population to exert considerable control over their states. 

Whilst this is all well and good, there remains a critical dilemma with regard to the extent of legitimate control ordinary citizens have over their states’ decisions – a democratic catch-22 of sorts. The system works very simply: the electorate, once every 4 years, elect parliament and/or the head of state depending on the specific electoral system in place. In other words, the electorate provides little input into the decision-making of their representatives. The democratic system functions so that the electorate delegates their decision-making power, trusting that the politicians they elected will make acceptable decisions. However, it is not difficult to tell that state representatives have been failing the ordinary citizens for a considerable period of time now, and we can see this being reflected in pathetic voter turnout as well as the sharp increase of political apathy

On Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility broadly refers to a scenario in which the individuals of a particular group are held accountable for the aggregate actions of the whole group. Thus, collective responsibility in this instance does not only allude to cabinet ministers and politicians, but also the general public. 

Some would jump to conclusions and equate the term collective responsibility with that of collective guilt. However, Hannah Arendt – a prominent Holocaust survivor and political philosopher – has outlined the fundamental difference. She claims that the discord between these two terms essentially stems from a semantic difference. Collective guilt implies that all individuals in a group are supposed to feel guilty about any harm caused by their state, while collective responsibility implies an inherent responsibility to fix or adjust for these injustices. Drawing on this distinction, it is evident that the former distracts and hinders action, whilst the latter empowers it. 

At least for Arendt, collective responsibility appears to be a rather positive internalisation of external decision-making which can prompt people to act in order to seek change. Ceteris paribus, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to arrive at. Yet, the world we live in does not exist inside of a vacuum, and one must factor in the options that are available to the general public that are likely to change the course of the state’s actions. 

Contemporary Cases 

Beginning on February 24th, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has provoked a wide array of reactions. One of the most crucial considerations which acts as a driver of foreign policy relations with Russia relates to the responsibility of ordinary Russian citizens for the invasion. In other words, should Russian citizens be scapegoated for the actions of Vladimir Putin’s regime?

First off, it is important to note that Russia’s transition from a quasi-socialist political system to that of a liberal democratic political system was permeated by corruption and authoritarianism through and through. The advent of Boris Yeltsin and the instability that came with his tenure in office were already telling signs that Russia was heading in the wrong direction. The political and economic chaos brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union culminated in the 1993 Constitutional Crisis where Yeltsin had decided to ‘solve’ the dispute by shelling the parliament with all the politicians still remaining inside. It is clear as day that Russia never experienced a healthy liberal democratic system. 

Moreover, the transition of power from Yeltsin to Putin took place in the context of a backroom deal between Yeltsin, the oligarchs and Putin which resulted in granting political and legal immunity for Yeltsin in exchange for Putin’s rise to the throne. 

Given that the Russian electorate have very little control over the political make-up of their country, it can be said with utmost confidence that the average Russian citizen has infinitely less say in political questions than that of the Western citizens residing in liberal democracies. 

So why do we see a trend occurring in which Russian citizens are scapegoated for the war itself? Why are Russian citizens, both at home and abroad, demonised for the invasion? These questions become more relevant when we seek to compare and contrast with Western countries. When the United States of America launches one of its countless wars of aggression (Korea 1950, Laos 1959, Vietnam 1965, Cambodia 1967, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989, Iraq 1990, 1991 and 2003, Afghanistan 2001, Libya 2011, Syria 2014 and many more), the public outcry rarely targets US citizens the way it does Russian ones. In fact, the US has participated in and led so many invasions of independent countries that it has a whole wikipedia page dedicated to it!

The answer cannot be as simple as citing Russophobia. Although evidence points to growing Russophobia, the problem is that it is percolating government policies towards Russian citizens. This can be seen in the myriad of policies employed by governments across Europe beginning with the outward restriction of immigration from Russia and visa bans, the marginalisation of Russian culture, etc. It is inconceivable that something like this could ever happen to American citizens. Herein lies the double-standard. 

In addition, a very weak point is raised by Western government officials who sit on their ivory tower and call for political revolution in Russia. If only things were as simple in practice as saying ‘do a revolution’! Revolutions are extremely violent and difficult affairs. The job of the revolutionary is far from easy as they face the gargantuan repressive power of the state that is equipped with enough capabilities to mow down protestors in the tens of thousands. Do not take my word for it; one of the most infamous revolutionaries, Mao Tse-Tung stated that: 

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Revolutions involve long and painstaking processes, but most of all they require patience. They happen as a result of a long and sustained build-up of dialectical contradictions between the interests of the state and that of the working and middle classes. By logic of deduction, it is not useful to simply state that a revolution is needed – this is obvious to everyone who is not a part of Russia’s status quo.

Thus, it is apparent that populations across nations have rather little democratic control over state decision-making. This is especially the case in Russia. The notion of a privileged and oligarchical overclass at the helm of Russian politics then heavily undermines the concept of collective responsibility. 

It is time to set political expediency to the side and overcome the biases in the treatment of different populations. Vladimir Putin and his party of oligarchs, the State Duma including all of its ‘controlled opposition’ parties and non-state actors who are inseparable from the state are the ones to blame. It is these groups that are directly responsible for the catastrophe in Ukraine, and exactly these people who now find themselves neck-deep in Ukrainian blood.

Edited by Veda Rodewald, artwork by Teresa Valle