I was listening to an episode of the Cracked podcast recently and it gave me an interesting inspiration. These days a lot of left-wingers, including intellectuals, have jumped on Russia’s post-modernist, wacky-land bandwagon. It’s easy to make fun of them, to get angry at them, call them hypocrites, etc., but in the process we sometimes lose sight of the real issue. In fact, many of these leftists are siding with Russia because they too have fallen into patterns and abstraction, forgetting what they are struggling for in the first place. I wanted to lay out a few points in the interest of creating a meaningful dialog of reconciliation and hopefully a rebirth of real leftist politics.
1. Many Russia supporters are fighting a proxy war…and it’s not working.
The idea is simple. You will hear this again and again- Someone has a problem with their government. They see that their government seems to have a problem with Russia and vice versa. Ergo they decide that Russia is an ally. The same goes for the Russian media vs. the so-called “Western media.” RT says to question more, which is exactly what these people think they already do.
What they fail to realize is that by regurgitating Russia’s propaganda and taking its side, they are actually contributing to a world where fascism and oligarchical control are strengthened, not weakened. Hungary is one example, now the Czech Republic might become the next. The Russian foreign-language media says that the West doesn’t really care about democracy or human rights, that it’s politics are dominated by corporations. With a few minor quibbles, they’re actually right. All they are leaving out is the fact that Russia’s regime positively loves that fact about the West, and they were benefiting from the market-first policies of countries like the UK, US, Germany, Italy, and so on.
2. The left needs to decouple ideas that have nothing to do with each other.
There seems to be this idea that “success” abroad will somehow be bad for people who are struggling against the domestic policies of their own government. Let’s go back to the best example we have in the 21st century, the Iraq War. Many of the debates surrounding the war centered around how successful the removal of Saddam had been. Defenders of the war attempted to extol the benefits and progress that was allegedly being made in Iraq, while detractors focused on the downsides. To be sure, the latter happened to be right. The war was a complete debacle because it was planned and executed by people who were not in touch with reality. The insurgency going on in Iraq and Syria today is only a reminder of how idiotic that move was. But what if it wasn’t?
Suppose that Iraq worked out exactly how ideologues such as Paul Wolfowitz said it would- troops bombarded with flowers instead of mortar rounds, oil revenue paying for reconstruction, genuine liberal democracy, and what not. What then? Would this somehow have been worse for the American worker? Or shall I say would it have been worse than what actually happened in Bush’s second term and after 2008? Is there some parallel universe where the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were both smashing successes, and thus labor unions were outlawed, everything is privatized, attendance at evangelical Protestant church is mandatory, and so on? Was not the Iraq War in our universe an unmitigated disaster, and yet here in 2015 after numerous high profile cases in the past few years, a black man was shot in the back and killed all because of a broken tail light? What would happen if Iraq were a thriving, functioning democracy today? Would cops just gun down anyone darker than Cillian Murphy from the windows of their cars without bothering to even stop? Please, tell me. Fill in the blank.
In short, part of the problem is that people are making connections between things which are not connected at all. Yes, imperialism is an issue, but that means any imperialism, not just American or “Western.” If you don’t believe that there can ever be an imperialist country which could possibly be on the side of right, I wonder what side you would support in the Second World War. Great Britain was an empire and Churchill vowed that he wouldn’t concede one inch of its territory. Nonetheless, Germany, Italy, and Japan were also empires but with far more regressive ideological foundations. From a utilitarian perspective, Great Britain was definitely the lesser of two evils.
So many leftists have made a bizarre logical leap by acting like Ukraine is some kind of square on a chessboard that “the West” is trying to occupy, and we have to side with Russia and oppose this…Why, exactly? Oh sure, we all have plenty of legitimate grievances with our own governments, but would you prefer those governments be more like that of Russia? Would you like to be investigated and arrested for “extremism” because you shared one of those “opposite of what America does” memes on Facebook? These days your politicians have to pretend they care about you. Would you prefer that they not?
In truth, Russia is exactly that kind of state that most leftists claim is lurking just around the corner. Massive wealth inequality? Russia makes the US look like Norway by comparison in this respect. Cronyism? Please. Russia wins hands down. Bailouts that privatize reward while shifting the risk to the public? There’s the so-called Rotenberg Law. Fascism, militarism, and foreign wars? Russia makes Bush’s post-9/11 America look like Canada. The only reason they aren’t starting more wars is because they lack the capacity. The Kremlin’s propagandists can certainly dream, though.
What this all boils down to is that if the US and other Western governments happen to be on the right side in Ukraine, it doesn’t mean that leftists have to surrender and stop criticizing their own governments. It also doesn’t mean we need to uncritically support the Ukrainian government. Ukraine’s ability to maintain its existence as a unified, independent state falls largely on the shoulders of the government. Banning Russian films or Communist symbols while doing nothing to help working people simply sends the message that Ukraine isn’t worth fighting for. And indeed, there is no reason why working people should fight and die for a state where they are pushed aside to make way for the wishes of oligarchs and businessmen, foreign and domestic.
While all this criticism is fine, any leftist who wants to be taken seriously cannot support or give more credibility to a government that opposes pretty much everything they value, and if anything represents all the worst aspects of Western governments rolled into one, with no fetters whatsoever.
3. The enemy of my enemy is my friend…is a stupid strategy.
As I and plenty others have said, most people end up gravitating toward Russian propaganda because they like the idea of “alternative media” that attacks their own government and the “mainstream media.” This is age-old concept of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The problem is that when you look back through history, that usually doesn’t work out to well. If it works in the short term, it generally falls apart pretty quickly.
One problem is that another faction’s beef with your enemy may come from completely different roots. For example, we all know that religious American conservatives have views that are almost identical to those of Islamic fundamentalists, yet these two groups hate each other. That is because for these groups, the source of your backward, oppressive laws towards women or religious minorities is a deal breaker.
In the case of Russia, their government doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your student loan debt, your minimum wage, wealth inequality, immigrants, or human rights. Yes, they’ll give people a platform to talk about these things, but those people will be sharing it with Holocaust deniers, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, and neo-fascists, who will destroy whatever credibility they might have. Even if it’s technically not fair that pro-government pundits will lump them in with the nutjobs, it doesn’t matter. The tactic is effective, and it’s also avoidable.
Let me repeat this again. The Russian government doesn’t care about your cause. In fact, they don’t really have their own cause. The purpose of things like RT and similar media isn’t to convince or persuade. It’s to muddy the waters, make people lose touch with reality, all towards the goal of getting other governments off the back of the Russian government. Why? The Russian government is basically a group of thieves who want to be left alone to siphon off and steal as much wealth as they can. They don’t hate the West; on the contrary they love it. That’s why they vacation there, send their children to study there, and in some cases their relatives actually live in degenerate Europe and the decaying United States. This is all these people care about- stealing and not being held accountable for it. Are you willing to piss away your credibility and integrity for that? If so, go ahead and apply at RT.
There is one more reason why the enemy of my enemy is a really bad idea for leftists. Most of the time, we think of this maxim when discussing the history of states or political entities. A classic example would be the US backing of the Afghan rebels. The point here is that before we even consider all the problems with these strategies, it helps to remember that you need to have some kind of power and influence to implement them in the first place. Disorganized grassroots movements without any political influence, sources of funding, etc. don’t really have the kind of clout to be engaging in power politics where you can implement such tactics. This is why whereas leftists think they are somehow being subversive siding with Russia, they’re really just getting played.
4. The left needs to remember its values and align its tactics to match.
I think deep down people like Chomsky or Cohen don’t enthusiastically support the Russian government. Chomsky definitely criticized it plenty of times in the past, and Cohen should have enough knowledge about life in Russia to have his own misgivings. I’d like to think that what many of these people value are positive things. They want universal healthcare in the US. They want to see a higher minimum wage and they are pro-union. They want less money to be spent on “defense” and more on education and infrastructure. The problem is that decades of ideological struggle can sometimes lead one astray, where you forget about the core values you were fighting for and the struggle becomes an end in itself. That’s where the enemy of my enemy politics arise.
The problem with these politics is that it causes these career leftists to remove the agency of millions of people and treat them like pawns in a game of chess. It makes one say, “I am a dissident, opposed to the machinations of my government. My government is morally supporting your movement, ergo you are dupes and marionettes. I have the right to protest my government, but you cannot protest against yours!” This is patronizing, condescending, and it just plain doesn’t work. All it does is get leftists to discredit themselves by rallying behind corrupt government after corrupt government.
Part of the reason why capitalist interests have succeeded so much since the 90’s is the lack of any coherent resistance. Movements purport to be less radical or more radical, but there is little to show for it. In the end, results matter. Essentially much of the left needs to get back in touch with their values, their goals, and their motives as opposed to struggling for the sake of struggling. That is the only thing that will put fear into the hearts of ruling classes the world over.
In the future, people who are serious about progressive politics should consider engaging the “useful idiots” with some of these points, forcing their opponents to explain exactly how the continued existence of the separatist territories in Ukraine is somehow preventing the US government from reestablishing workhouses or banning trade unions. They should be able to tell us exactly what benefits the left can derive from siding with a government that is far more reactionary, far less accountable, and which funds our right wing opponents in our own countries. We might be harsh, but we are fair, because what this all comes down to is eliciting these people’s core values and demonstrating to them how siding with Russia and becoming mouthpieces for the Kremlin not only fail to advance those values, but are actually contradictory to them. It’s a bit revolutionary, but I think it will be more effective than labeling them Kremlin stooges.