The Legasov principle

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People in all totalitarian societies are familiar with the difference between members of the power structures being “with them”, or merely “among them”.

The first refers to true believers (or sociopaths) who are the hard core of the regime.

The second are the “good ones on the inside” – basically decent people who, while being inside the power structure and playing its game, are nonetheless well-intentioned pragmatists who make life livable for others. Often, they’re talented, and had to join the Party and make the right noises to be permitted a career – like the fictionalized, and probably even the real, Valery Legasov.

The system never fully trusts them, but relies on them for its existence, which is why it must keep them constantly on the defensive.

They’re the yoked reasonable element within an insane system.

Worse, they’re part of the baddies’ calculation.

By acting reasonably and responsibly in an unreasonable and irresponsible system, they blunt the sharpest edges of its insanity and protect it from itself. Auxiliaries and enablers, they clean up the leadership’s messes, like the personal butler of a self-destructive celebrity who always cleans up the room, pays the bail and handles the journalists.

Here’s my provocative thought: Maybe don’t?

The standard narrative is that they’re the good guys for making life under a mad system tolerable. But maybe making the system tolerable makes them complicit in keeping it running. Maybe they’re legitimizing and stabilizing it, and protecting it from true reform.

Instead of a quick fever, society gets stuck in a decades-long chronic infection, like when you suppress the urge to throw up after eating a bad kebab and feel sick for days instead of feeling VERY sick for twenty seconds.

It’s easy for me to say from a relatively free country, but perhaps the right strategy in that situation is accelerationism – let the insanity run its full course as quickly as possible, encourage the purity spirals and ideological singularities, comply maliciously, make the system drive itself over a cliff in the shortest amount of time. To make things really better, sometimes you have to make them worse. Much, much worse.

A quick dramatic implosion, even if there’s blood in the streets (easy for me to say when it’s not mine), might entail less total suffering than keeping the Soviet Union in place for 60 years. In the parable of bad kebab, it’s sticking your fingers down your throat, because the alternative is worse.

Maybe the good people in bad systems are actually helping the bad systems exist. Maybe the bad people at the top of such systems count on them for it. Depend on them to do it. It’s not like the thugs and zealots can actually run anything.

Naming the principle after Legasov might be unfair, as he was reportedly a firebrand and troublemaker throughout his career. Nonetheless, naming him will drive clicks and traffic to the website, so deal with it.

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This difference between “with them” and “among them” was central during the Nuremberg trials. It was recognized plenty of the National Socialist Workers’ Party members were not actually Nazis as such, but played along for a range of reasons ranging from opportunism to talent and expertise they were not allowed to use unless they joined – a typical deal with the devil that all totalitarian systems try to force on people, and one of their identifying features. This is why Rudolf Hess got a different treatment than Albert Speer, or Wernher von Braun. (Who was also too useful to hang.)

Postscript 2:

There are other kinds of “joiners” who aren’t true believers or sociopaths. They may be careerists. Those are different from the “Legasovs”, who have to join to get the careers they deserve, whereas careerists join to get careers they don’t deserve.
Or they may be lukewarm supporters of “the idea in general, despite the flaws in implementation and some bad people at the top, and hopefully we can reform it”. Those are idiots – the bad people at the top are a feature, not a bug, it’s not a matter of a few bad apples but of fundamental evil of the entire edifice, and such systems are unreformable. There is no socialism with a human face that isn’t a PR ploy by the hard core.

Postscript 3:

1. The system’s tolerance for dissent is proportional to the dissenter’s value to the system – great scientists can get away with more than a rank and file worker. That’s how Sakharov dodged the bullet – literally.

2. Every “good person on the inside” is constantly balancing a tradeoff between self-preservation and higher principles that has breaking points in both directions – at sufficiently high personal stakes, most good people will sacrifice all moral principle. I know you think you wouldn’t, but try holding onto that notion when your childrens’ future is on the line. But faced with sufficiently high moral stakes – like the danger of more nuclear power plants exploding – they’re equally capable of sublime heroism.