Today I’d like to talk about a few terms that come up in a lot of discussions about Russia and Ukraine lately, and how people often manage to radically divorce these words from their original meaning. In fact, sometimes it seems they have become neologisms, used in a cult-like fashion where their mere mention is supposed to have certain connotations not normally associated with such words. Today I will deal with three such words.
Actual definition: “1: a former liberal espousing political conservatism
2: a conservative who advocates the assertive promotion of democracy and United States national interest in international affairs including through military means”
Neoconservative is a favorite term used by pro-Kremlin writers, typically those who aren’t Russian and who write in English. First, it shows how stuck these people are in the Bush era, when neoconservatism actually meant something. Look, guys, I hated Bush and the Iraq War too. That doesn’t make Putin better or excuse an openly imperialist foreign policy. It was wrong for America and it’s wrong for Russia. Principles. Get some.
Seriously though, neoconservatism had its trial by fire during the Bush era, and it failed miserably. You can say what you want about militarism continuing under Obama, but the fact is that we are a long way off from ever seeing anything close to what we saw in 2003. Even Obama himself proclaimed the era of large-scale military operations to be over. In light of economic developments, as well as developments in the realm of military technology, he is pretty close to the truth. The US Army has been radically slimming down for over a decade now. In spite of the modernization of the Chinese PLA and Russia’s bizarre flopping around like a child having a tantrum on a supermarket floor, there doesn’t seem to be any reversal in this trend. In other words, in a few years, it may be literally impossible for future US leaders to contemplate another debacle like Iraq. That’s not to say that the US won’t try to project force around the world militarily, but it is unlikely to project it the way Bush and his actual neocons did.
Another problem with Kremlin fans using this term is that they don’t seem to realize how important it is that the person your labeling a neocon was A: at one time a radical leftist or at least progressive liberal, and B: conservative now. If your target was always a conservative, they’re just a conservative. That might seem like a semantic quibble, but it’s an important distinction because you’ll notice that the conservative zeal for war languishes during Democratic administrations.
For example, conservative pundits attacked Clinton over involvement in Bosnia, Somalia, and to a lesser extent, Kosovo. I even distinctly remember hearing talk-radio show hosts and other pundits say that Clinton’s air strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan after the 1998 embassy bombings were nothing but a distraction from Clinton’s sex scandals. Similar talk was heard during the campaign against Yugoslavia the following year. More recently, conservatives have expressed no desire to go to war on Syria, even after the use of chemical weapons in 2013. Would the Bush administration, dominated by actual neocons, fail to leap at such a beautiful pretext for military intervention?
On the second point, if the person you’re labeling is actually left-wing now, you can’t rightly call them a neocon and lump them in with people like Dick Cheney or John Bolton. And no, belief in things like universal human rights or liberal democracy does not make one a neocon.
Now I have to touch on one important point, namely the claim that neoconservative is a euphemism for Jew, and thus people who use it are antisemitic. First of all, some of the most prominent neoconservatives are non-Jewish, such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, General William G. Boykin, Newt Gingrich, and Condoleezza Rice. At times, this is a loaded accusation designed to shut down debate with what amounts to an ad hominem.
Having said that, it is indeed true that real antisemites have deliberately drawn correlations between Jews and neoconservatives, and as such they sometimes use it as a “dog whistle” when in mixed company. Of course if you know anything about antisemitism, you know that antisemites will take any group or trend they don’t like, pick out a few prominent examples with Jewish heritage or make some up, and then proclaim that this group or ideology is dominated by Jews. Words like “banker” and “Communist” have also historically been used as euphemisms for Jews.
The problem here is that by their very nature, dog whistle words are hard to spot. They’re designed so that you can always deny any insinuations, perhaps by making a factual statement like the one I just did about non-Jewish neoconservatives. In this sense, context matters. Go on the comments section of sites like RT and you’ll often find fans talking about the “Anglo-American-Judean empire,” or variations thereof. Obviously when you see a person like this talking about “the international bankers,” and “Zionist neocons,” it’s not unreasonable to think they might be talking about Jews.
Actual definition: Economic theory which emphasizes deregulation, free trade, privatization, and strict fiscal policies for governments.
Believe it or not, I’m including this one because it’s not only misused by pro-Kremlin sources, but pro-Ukrainian leftists and Maidan supporters as well. First of all, anyone familiar with the works of Ha-Joon Chang, such as Bad Samaritans or 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, should already be aware that just because a particular developed country espouses neoliberalism or neoliberal policies, it doesn’t necessarily practice what it preaches. If they do now, they probably didn’t in the past. For example, the “free market” is practically God in America these days, yet the US still subsidizes agriculture and gives all kinds of tax breaks to private businesses. It actually seems to be a feature of neoliberal thought to be totally oblivious to the government role in developing the private sector, whether we’re talking about history or the present.
Once we understand that neoliberal theory isn’t always backed up by practice, it helps us understand why the term can be so problematic at times. For one thing, neoliberalism looks very different depending on whether we’re talking about a developed country or a developing nation. In the latter, cash-strapped government are usually unable to resist the “recommendations” of organizations like the IMF. No subsidies for them. That being said, it’s also true that states which seem to have the opposite of neoliberal policies aren’t necessarily better off. Having said this, we can talk about who is misusing the term and how.
On one hand you have the pro-Kremlin people. These could be confused leftists who think that Russia actually supports their struggle, or it could be the Kremlin’s darling right-wing conservatives, simply using the term to infiltrate and corrupt leftist discussions. The Ukrainian conflict, for example, will be portrayed by such people as a struggle between the neoliberal US and EU backing Euromaidan, and Yanukovych and Putin opposing the global capitalist hegemony on the other. There’s just one problem with this claim- it’s utter bullshit.
First of all, as I and others have pointed out plenty of times, Yanukovych was no enemy of the IMF or the EU for that matter. He was the architect of the EU Association Agreement that he ultimately turned his back on, and he had earned praise from the IMF for implementing their recommendations. Russia, of course, is a WTO member with numerous Special Economic Zones. Ukraine, by contrast, shut down its SEZ’s in 2005. What about privatization? Well one of Ukraine’s largest companies, Naftogaz, is entirely state-owned. As far as I know, there are no plans to privatize this oil and gas giant any time in the future. By contrast, BP owns 19% of Russia’s Rosneft, and the Russian government only controls just over 50% of Gazprom’s stock. One would think if Euromaidan was all about turning Ukraine into 1970’s Indonesia, Naftogaz would be on the privatization chopping block months ago.
Now the other group I’ve seen butchering this term seems to be Ukrainian leftists, mostly Trotskyites, and other Trotskyite supporters from abroad. Perhaps trying to fight back against the Russian-propaganda about neoliberalism, have rather stupidly started labeling Russia’s regime as neoliberal. As I said before, states which espouse neoliberal policies don’t always practice them at home, but there is no way in hell that you could call Russia’s system neoliberal. Remember when I said that having a system which is almost the direct opposite of neoliberalism isn’t necessarily a good thing? Well Russia’s an example of that.
True, Russia has had a flat tax since 2001, every billionaire’s wet dream. It also has the VAT tax, which is regressive according to some critics. Beyond that, however, there’s not much neoliberal laissez faire going on here. That is unless you interpret laissez faire as letting the country and various boondoggle projects go to shit because you’re too busy siphoning money out of the budget. Much of Russia’s economy is at least partially state-controlled, and the state bureaucracy is huge. That is why it makes more sense to call Russia’s system neo-feudal rather than neoliberal, insofar as your success and well-being is often dependent on your loyalty and closeness to Vladimir Putin or someone in his circle. In short, Russia just isn’t neoliberal. It doesn’t espouse neoliberalism, and it doesn’t practice it.
Does that mean that Russia is better off? Of course not. One of the most stunning statistics is the fact that 35% of Russia’s wealth is owned by 110 individuals. In other words, Russia’s very non-neoliberal system seems to have achieved very neoliberal results, like those you might expect to see in some debt-ridden central African nation, and at least they can blame things like colonialism and war for their troubles.
Obviously I am politically opposed to neoliberal economy theory for a number of reasons. I am also not beyond acknowledging the concrete accomplishments of such policies, it’s just that I’m more concerned with the well-being of the masses as opposed to investors or entrepreneurs. There’s a strong argument that liberalization of the Russian economy, done correctly, could have a positive effect. At the same time, state run enterprises do no good if most of their revenue is being skimmed off by a gauntlet of bureaucrats or being pissed away on go-nowhere prestige projects, the military, or state propaganda organs. Part of having a realistic understanding of the world is realizing that if you can’t have Marx or Keynes, there are still worse systems than neoliberalism out there. The laissez faire policies in Victorian Britain or Gilded Age America would make both those nations seem like social democratic welfare states by comparison.
Actual definition: A far-right wing authoritarian ideology which rejects liberalism and Marxism. It often claims to represent a “third position” or “third way” between capitalism and Communism, but in practice it always ends up being much closer to the former, only without typical liberal democratic rights.
Obviously you’re going to get a lot of controversy whenever you try to define fascism. Traditionally, scholars like to make up checklists of what constitutes a fascist ideology. They will usually include items such as “strong belief in traditional gender roles,” or “a cult of a national leader.” I’m not claiming the right to redefine fascism myself, but I have a huge problem with checklists. For one thing it allows people to take superficial commonalities and then make a false equivalency. For example, some people have used such checklists to say that the US is fascist, or that Soviet Communism is fascist. Aside from being superficial, these checklists also leave out historical context, which means the reasons why two states might have had something superficial in common could be totally different.
Groups like Ukraine’s Svoboda party or Praviy Sektor are fascist because of their right-wing nationalist beliefs. That being said, there are many people in Ukraine who don’t see a problem with those parties, or their historical ancestors the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, not because they themselves are fascists, but because they actually believe those organizations aren’t fascist. In case you haven’t heard, openly identifying oneself as fascist hasn’t been too popular since about 1945. In Eastern Europe, this means that many post-Soviet movements have rehabilitated fascists or fascist collaborators as “freedom fighters” or “patriots.” This is not to excuse those people, but rather to make two points. The first is that for most of them, their tolerance of former fascists is based largely on ignorance or indoctrination, not malice or actual sympathy with fascist beliefs, and second, one must understand that fundamental fact if they are to wage a successful struggle for hearts and minds against the real fascists.
By the same token, Russia is a country that cannot shut up about “defeating fascism,” and yet it hits pretty much every mark on every respected checklist of fascism, so much so that virtually every far-right wing party or organization in Europe, the US, and Canada admires Putin’s regime. Let’s make our own checklist, just for shits and giggles.
Cult of the leader? “Who else if not Putin? So what if he changes the rules to remain in power? Russia needs a strong hand to rule it!”
No real opposition/liberal democratic rights? Check! One of Putin’s alleged “opposition” candidates has on several occasions called for the elimination of elections and giving Putin the title of “Supreme Commander.”
Xenophobia, jingoism, and belligerent attitudes toward other states? Check!
Paternalistic attitude toward minorities? “Oh you Tatars and Buryats are fine, as long as you realize that Russians are the nation-forming nationality. We also get to make jokes about your language, and culture! Unless you’re Caucasian, in which case we will only do so behind your backs. Please don’t hurt me.”
Glorification of war? “We beat the Swedes! They’re still mad about us wrecking their empire! We beat Frederick the Great! We beat Napoleon! We uh…I think we won the First World War, right? We definitely won the Second World War! If only our German brothers didn’t screw up and attack us! We could have ruled the world! I really admire the German soldier! That’s why I do reenacting as a Waffen SS officer! We also kicked the shit out of Georgia! And we really showed those ukrops in the Donbass and Crimea too! Stupid brother peoples! Why don’t they stop whoring themselves out to the West and horror themselves out to us instead? Guess we’ll have to go to Kiev and find out!”
Lack of basic rights? Most Russian media is owned by the state. Independent media faces constant threats, inspections, violence, or warnings about content over the most frivolous issues. People have been arrested, questioned, and/or convicted for retweets, posting pictures on social media, blog posts, and in one case, wearing Ukrainian-colored ribbons to an event.
Use of violence and state coercion against dissidents? Critics are labeled “foreign agents,” and “fifth columnists.” They are said to be in the pay of foreign governments. They experience harassment, violence, and in some cases they have been killed.
Promotion of religion? The church enjoys the favor of the state, contrary to Russia’s constitution which specifically forbids it. Religious figures are allowed to say whatever they want about anybody, but any criticism in return can lead to prosecution for “offending the feelings of believers.”
Anti-Communism? This might seem odd to some, as the Western media is always keen to portray Putin’s Russia as a neo-Soviet Union. In reality, the continued use of Soviet symbols and defense of the Soviet Union in Russia has nothing to do with belief in Marxism or even socialism, and everything to do with political convenience, necessity, and maintaining a narrative. This is why you hear people say that Lenin was a utopian and a German agent, possibly financed by the USA and Britain, while Stalin was a Russian nationalist who loved Russia and wanted to restore the Russian empire. If that bit about Stalin sounds familiar, it’s basically the Trotskyite narrative, only it’s portrayed as a virtue instead of a negative thing. You could quote Stalin for hours on end to some of these Stalin-portrait toting babushkas and they’d hiss at the dastardly, Russophobic, anti-Christian views of “Trotsky” or some other “traitor.” The point of defending Stalin or the NKVD isn’t about defending socialism, but rather about priming people to accept an authoritarian system. This is why they often don’t deny claims about repressions, even if they are exaggerated or out of context. They want people to believe they happened, but that they were justified, and that’s so much worse than flat out denial.
So it’s not easy to call Russia’s regime “anti-Communist,” that is until you actually go deeper and realize that the Stalin, the USSR, and the Communism these people believe in is actually right-wing and conservative. This is why they have historically taken the side of far-rightists, fascists, and even monarchists in Russia, against liberalism. Historically, real socialists generally sided with liberals and social democrats when faced by monarchists or fascists.
Anti-liberalism? You betcha!
Obviously I could go on, and we could write entire articles on any one of those criteria. Indeed, many have already been written by myself, or others. The point I’m trying to make though, is that like a lot of systems, fascism is what it does, and not what it says. Checklists are fine, but any accurate definition of fascism must include that it is a far-right, conservative political trend. Yes, it borrows from some left-wing ideas. There are specific historical reasons for that. That doesn’t make it left-wing or equal to left-wing movements. Also one must remember that vast chasm between what fascists espouse, and what they actually do in power. Historically, fascists promised to reconcile capitalists, peasants, and workers around the concept of the nation and a leader, rejecting Marxist concepts of class and class struggle. In practice, they almost always ended up being corrupt states known for cronyism, nepotism, and super-profits for rich industrialists. In the same way, Russia’s leaders are portraying it as a bastion of traditional values and morality, when in fact degeneracy and corruption is far more prevalent here than in the supposedly decadent West.
Speaking of which, there’s one more thing to be said about that last point. Fascists often like to claim that we’re living in a sort of dark age. Sure, liberalism has brought us so much in the way of material progress, but we are morally sick and degenerate! The promiscuity! Perversion! Decadence! Heard something like that anywhere? Yeah, it’s bullshit. The original fascists were saying the same thing almost 100 years ago. Their ideological predecessors were saying it before them. You can go back to the time of fucking Socrates and hear this same bullshit. Obviously this is a pretty common thing, due to most peoples’ woeful lack of knowledge when it comes to history, but for fascists it’s usually a central part of their ideology.
And so ends this quest to get people to stop misusing words in political discourse. I’m sure nobody will ever misuse these three words again.