Recently I’ve had a desire to sit down and write a long polemical rant in response to all this talk of right-wing populism and “illiberal democracy” that’s supposedly sweeping Europe right now. It’s not that I deny it’s happening, it’s just that those who seem most concerned about it also seem unwilling to acknowledge its real cause and as such, they don’t really have much of a solution.
Part of this thesis includes the idea that the nefarious Putin is at least partially responsible for this regression in Europe, via his government’s connection with far right parties in Western and Central European states. In reality, many of these parties existed before Putin even became president, and their ideologies of course are much older. In essence, my counter-argument is that Europe’s capitalist system and its response to crises creates fertile ground for the rise of right-wing populism, and that same ground is also fertile for Kremlin manipulation.
At this point I’m sad to say that this is not that polemic article I wanted to write. I’m simply too busy and we’re talking about a long, philosophical polemic. So consider this a trailer. But it is a trailer I’m able to create thanks to Peter Pomerantsev and his latest article on the Litvinenko killing. This is because while others are focusing primarily on the killing itself, Pomerantsev holds Britain’s elite accountable for their complicity in enabling and encouraging Russia’s corrupt elite, their brothers by class.
Only after the release of the British investigation has there been talk of freezing the assets of the two main suspects. Why hasn’t this happened before? That they weren’t convicted in a court of law isn’t an excuse; they haven’t been convicted now. Moreover, why is it that only in 2015 did the British government suddenly got concerned about Russian money laundering through London real estate? Even after that From Russia With Cash documentary, Navalny found that the deputy prime minister Shuvalov purchased a 500-square-meter luxury flat in London. This was the middle of 2015. Why wasn’t this guy on a sanctions list?
Sadly there’s a certain breed of pundit who believes that one should only criticize the Russian government while giving Western governments a free pass, even when the latter has aided and abetted the former in numerous ways. This lack of accountability is infuriating because it begs the question as to why we should believe that these Western leaders won’t do the exact same thing again with a post-Putin Russia. At the end of the Cold War, anti-socialism meant turning a blind eye to Yeltsin’s corruption and human rights abuses. This led directly to Putin in more ways than one. Will the West repeat the same mistake by giving whoever succeeds Putin a free pass? If there’s profit to be made, I’m fairly confident that they will.
Putin’s Russia is, in a number of ways, a natural product of the free market religion that has come to dominate the world. For one thing, this system involves developed democracies exporting those woes they used to visit on their own workers to those workers of other countries. Democracy, in its flawed liberal form, is a luxury of the more developed nations. Meanwhile people in poorer countries get to make do with dictators who often count on Western aid. If not that, they can usually count on the West to turn a blind eye to their money laundering and consumption, as is the case with Russia.
Secondly, when you say let the “market” decide, sometimes it decides in favor of bad people. This is because the market is an abstraction. All that matters is money and commodities. Therefore attempting to reconcile lofty humanist values with a “free market” ideology is simply folly. If the market had its way, slavery would be legal. Oh wait…Slavery’s technically not legal and yet even today as many as 21 million people are held in one form of bondage or another as modern slaves. Terrible, but think how much we’d pay for t-shirts if Uzbek cotton weren’t picked by slaves!
Sure, national borders still exist, and the ruling class of various nations have their divergent interests. As such, you get something like what we see with Russia these days, where Putin and his capitalist cronies’ interests collide with those of the European Union bourgeoisie. As such, Putin finds himself compelled to do whatever he can to try to force his opponents to respect his sphere of influence. But we must not let these events happening in recent years blind us to the far longer period of time during which European and American leaders happily accepted ill-gotten money from the very same Russian elite while making all sorts of deals and investments which were beneficial to the Kremlin. Likewise, the relentlessly pro-business, austerity-for-everyone-else system in the West has made it that much easier for Putin’s propaganda to fall on fertile soil. Indeed, Putin’s Russia was in many ways built with Western money and Western approval.
Therefore if we buy into the West versus Russia dichotomy, blind to the past, we will certainly fall for this same trope in the future should the West and Putin reach an understanding, or if Putin is replaced by another lover of the free market. Let’s not be duped yet again.