A feature, not a bug

So the long awaited indictment of Western liberalism is here, sort of. Honestly there’s so much to be said about this one could write a book about it, and indeed one did. It’s called Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo. It’s a slog but it’s definitely worth reading. What I’m aiming at here is a streamlined version of my own argument in response to a certain “meme” that’s been floated around the Russian watching world lately.

The meme goes something like this: Western, and particularly European liberal democracy is wonderful, so wonderful, that it is the pinnacle of human achievement in the fields of government and society. Everyone was enjoying this wonderful utopia in the European Union, which proponents took to calling simply “Europe,” until one day this really bad thing happened.

An evil entity from the East called Russia, led by ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, started stirring up trouble in paradise. He made inroads via connections between organized crime and his intelligence services. He took advantage of corrupt politicians. He forged connections with right-wing extremist parties and helped nurture them. Oh if only that nasty old Putin had never showed up, the liberal Shangri La once again live in peace and prosperity!

Of course this idea is absolute bullshit. For one thing, much of Putin’s behavior is little more than a continuation of policies his predecessor Yeltsin started, only the latter never faced any consequences for it. Creating pseudo-states and frozen conflicts? Russia was doing that in the early 90’s. Authoritarian tactics? Putin still hasn’t called out the tanks and snipers on his own people- Yeltsin did that. Corruption and organized crime? It was all there.

While it is true that the criticism of such policies began in earnest under Putin, it was typically just that- criticism. The “entrepreneurs,” our natural betters in the enlightened free market religion, were more than happy to invest in a rising Russia  enjoying high oil prices, just as they were happy to accept shiploads of dirty money from Putin’s corrupt elite. They still do in fact. Not only that, there’s a powerful lobby of European businessmen and their political puppets trying to get sanctions lifted on Russia so they can return to business as usual, Ukraine be damned.

And what of the rise of right-wing extremism? Many of these parties existed long before Putin, and espouse nationalist ideologies with roots in Cold War anti-Communism. Right-wing movements and organizations are often beneficial to the ruling class, which is why they’ve often been able to find wealthy donors and patrons. What is more, right wing populism has received a big boost from Europe and America’s failure to resolve their own class contradictions and domestic issues. This might explain the curious phenomenon of nationalists siding with Putin’s Russia in spite of a long-standing national beef with that nation.

European values failed to stop the rise of Jobbik in Hungary. While some might be tempted to point out the connection between Jobbik and Russia, how to explain the rise of the Law & Justice Party in Poland, which at least for the time being is historically anti-Russian? Again, these parties, organizations, and ideologies have been around for quite some time and Russia is just reaching out to them and making connections. The supreme irony is that the strange post-Cold War anti-Communist hysteria in Europe and the States has led to the rise of right wing groups who then side with Russia, much in the way Solzhenitsyn rejected Western liberalism for a right-wing romantic view of tsarism. Contrary to the misinformed opinions of many liberal pundits, Putin’s Russia doesn’t care whether its foreign supporters revile Stalin and the Soviet Union- plenty of people in his own elite actually express similar views. Once again reality outsmarts the liberal academics.

I must respectfully disagree with Brian Whitmore’s suggestion that Russia has “weaponized” globalization. Globalization has been weaponized by many countries in the past, and Russia is merely joining the fray. That it has hitherto been able to punch far above its weight as of recent years is a side effect of capitalism. Here we have a system dominated by the wants of capital, not human beings, and capital is without morals.

There are two reasons why I felt it necessary to point these things out. The first is that the West has a long history of supporting brutal dictatorships and otherwise exporting those problems which used to exist within their own borders in the past, such as child labor or violent suppression of labor activism. From time to time some of these regimes become to much of an embarrassment to the Western leaders, or they simply cease to be useful. When this happens, from time to time the West has sought some form of intervention to replace those leaders. Whether or not this is just is another matter, but what isn’t just is the West continually building up these regimes and leaders and then demanding that the population join in their condemnation of said regimes and leaders when they run afoul of their former benefactors. What is more, we’re all just supposed to forget about everything that happened before that point, and let our governments off the hook no matter how deeply in bed they were with one particular regime or another.

Let me put this another way. Suppose the American populace rallies behind the cause of a ground war in Syria and Iraq against both ISIS and Assad, something that our morally upright elites would find ideal. After all, one time Americans did rally behind a war in Iraq that was sold as being every bit as necessary as this one, and look what happened there. But let’s say we just pretend all that didn’t happen, and we also decide to buy into the idiotic myth that the aforementioned invasion had nothing to do with the rise of ISIS, as some pundits have been suggesting as of late. Okay, then what? Hold that thought, we’re not done yet.

Suppose the public rallies behind the US on Ukraine, and joins in the condemnation of Putin’s regime in Russia until it somehow collapses and is driven out of power. What Americans or Europeans are actually supposed to do to effect this is not clear, since Western leaders were adamant from the beginning of the Crimean crisis that there was no military solution (Russia apparently disagrees), but let’s ignore that plot hole for a second. Putin’s gone, Russia falls in line with whatever the Heritage Foundation thinks it should do. Then what? We just go back to our previous system, where all of working society is expected to bow in deference to the holy entrepreneurs, sparing nothing in the name of their profits and their rights to bend our political institutions to their will as they see fit.

Eventually those savvy investors will find profitable opportunities in new regimes, and new dictators will arise. It is fallacious to assume that whoever follows Putin will necessarily be worse, but there’s little reason to assume it will be better. I foresee a big risk whereby simply not being Putin, a corrupt Yeltsin like figure may get another free pass. This in turn could lead to more Yeltsin-like incompetence, which will then create another opening for an authoritarian, reactionary character just like Putin. If we don’t stop the cycle, it will repeat.

So to sum up that point, I have no problem acknowledging the moral superiority of the West versus regimes like that of Putin or Assad, but I’m not going to let them off the hook for their role in creating, nurturing, and coddling such regimes. I’m not about to lend my admiration to businessmen who made millions if not billions off of Putin’s Russia, and then suddenly got all concerned about human rights and democracy only when they got kicked off the trough by their former partners and friends. And that brings me to my second point.

The EU cheerleaders and fellow status quo supporters love to pretend that Russia is some kind of external threat to their system, rather than being a part of that system. This fantasy reminds me of some Republicans in the US who have recently taken to publicly condemning Donald Trump. Here is a rather passionate piece on that subject that I must admit I have some respect for. Congratulations, principled Republicans, you actually managed to wheedle some sympathy out of me. But you’re not getting that much, for a very simple reason. Trump didn’t just drop out of the sky to ruin your party with bigotry and childish antics. As one author put it, the GOP needs to “own” him.

Racism, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism have been regular features of the Republican party for years now, and the last two races against Obama provided plenty of examples. Thus my sympathy is severely limited when I see members of the conservative intelligentsia moaning about the popularity of their circus-like political figures. They promoted this kind of idiocy through their astroturf lobbies, media, and internet sites, and now they act as if they can’t understand why so many in their audience take that seriously.

So it is with liberal democracy, capitalism, and “Europe.” These leaders, their pundits, and academics want to pretend like Europe or the West’s problems are external when they are really just features of their own system. To look at one example playing out right now, Moldovan citizens are rallying in Chisinau against a horribly corrupt government in a movement that was quickly and incorrectly characterized as “pro-EU” versus “pro-Russian” opposition. In reality, both sides have united against the current government, which has robbed them mercilessly. Unlike Maidan, however, in this case the robbers were the sitting pro-EU government, not the pro-Russian side. So much for “European values” and rule of law.

True, one cannot ignore the fact that Russia is increasing its influence in Europe, but Putin is merely doing what a virus does to someone with a compromised immune system. He has succeeded not because he is strong, but because he was allowed and enabled by a system that is incompatible with the highest ideals of human rights. Putin’s Russia isn’t a bug in the system of capitalism. He’s a feature.


20 thoughts on “A feature, not a bug

  1. ramund

    What’s wrong with the word ‘Europe’? Though it generally refers to the map that includes other countries than EU’s.. The problem is we’re not pretending it’s an external threat, we don’t need to, we know it is. We’ve known it was for as long as we’ve been. Because it’s always been what is called ‘aggressive’ you never know what it does, all you know it often enough is not fair, not by the rules, is harmful and they then shrug it off.

    All thinking individuals understand Russia is not Putin and vice versa. But Putin has a quality that boosts the whole procedure enabling them to be bolder, much bolder.

    Criticism didn’t start alone, it started with fear. Russia has been Russia but it has kept Russia inside Russian borders before Putin, so when he was elected, people said, “we’re doomed” and the most skeptical ones “the whole world is doomed”.

    Of course we can go from suspecting it’s an external threat – if you like to think of it all as one system – into suspecting an internal threat, because that’s what it would be called in the case.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I’ve noticed a clear tendency to use the term Europe to refer to the EU, and not the continent.

      As for Russia staying within its borders, this is not true. They fomented proxy wars in Moldova and Georgia much in the same way they did in the Donbas.

      1. ramund

        Sure it is. I’m sure people will follow just as well. It’s not a mistake, just to ease speaking.

        Russia attacked Finland in 1939 because it wanted to redraw the border and later said it was a proxy war, the fault of all other countries but its own. The truth is nevertheless that it had negotiated earlier on pushing the border a bit and Finland refused. That’s why they attacked. Everything is called proxy.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        No the USSR quite openly attacked Finland in 1939 in response to an alleged cross-border shelling incident. There was some proxy like activity prior to that, but it wasn’t connected with an attempt to reconquer territory lost from the Russian empire.

        In any case this is irrelevant. Yeltsin got a free pass for his frozen conflicts and still does, in fact.

      3. ramund

        Yes, the Russians have said we started it. It just isn’t true. Not connected? Seriously? A fistful of miles from the border to new Petersburg. They wanted war. That’s not a free pass. What you’re saying is regarding it as a free pass. It is what you think it is. But had it been you driven out of your home by the ‘proxy’ Sayers, or have a leg blown to bits by a mine, you’d know the word injustice.

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Read what I wrote more carefully. You claimed they called the Winter War a proxy war- they didn’t. They openly mobilized their army, made an ultimatum, and invaded.

        In any case this is irrelevant. Finland is doing just fine right now. I’m talking about the fact that Yeltsin started frozen conflicts, engaged in brutal domestic wars, and used tanks and snipers against his own people- all the while being protected and praised by the liberal West. Then Putin, chosen by Yeltsin, continued in that same vein, taking things to their logical conclusion, yet suddenly the liberals started getting upset.

        They encouraged this behavior and now they want to be let off the hook. Fat chance.

      5. Jim Kovpak Post author

        You haven’t constructed a coherent argument. Come back when you’re able to.

        To start, you can explain why the Soviet Union’s open invasion of Finland in 1939 has anything to do with the West tolerating the activities of Yeltsin in 1991-2000, which directly led to those of Putin today.

        Go ahead and try to write some bullshit other than a coherent answer to that question and see what happens. I dare you.

      6. ramund

        I read the whole of your post and wasn’t that attached to the problem you see with Yeltsin and Putin (as you understand the reason you’re looking for it from my words is, not because your post had nothing else in it, but because personally that was what you were thinking about. However it isn’t fair to expect a random reader to read your thoughts, all we get is a text). I was not anywhere referring to Yeltsin, I’m more interested in the now. So I replied to the points I thought it was neglecting. I couldn’t say if it was neglecting Yeltsin, it certainly deserved a lot of attention, so I had and have nothing to add. But I’m glad you asked, and wish I could tell you something new about him as I’m sure you’re in dire need for some update.

      7. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Did you not write this?

        “Russia has been Russia but it has kept Russia inside Russian borders before Putin, ”

        The fact is that Russia didn’t just stay within its new borders prior to Putin. It fucked around in a lot of neighboring countries and got away with it. In fact, you could argue even Putin got away with it without much scrutiny until 2008, and it was clear that the EU nations just wanted that matter to go away. They were obviously willing to give Putin a pass on that one.

      8. gbd_crwx

        Actually, there might have been some proxy war in the winter war. If I understand it right, the soviet army were claiming to be acting on the kuusinen goverment, at least in the beginning.

  2. AndyT

    Some very valuable points here 🙂

    I’ve read very little by Mr. Losurdo – just a rebuttal of mainstream media’s anti-China hysteria, which however goes too far into the opposite camp, IMHO.

    Anyway, I kinda agree: instead of warning against “populist, philo-Russian forces”, our politicians should look at our systems’ flaws…

    Yelling “No populism!” is not enough.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think one of the problems with status quo defenders like Anne Applebaum and her ilk is that they basically act like this schoolmarm judging everyone (but Roman Polanski, of course). “Greece! You were bad! You need to fall in line for the good of Europe!” That sort of thing.

      Meanwhile Russia portrays itself as the bad boy, the class clown who subverts the system.

      Obviously the latter is absolute bullshit, and the Russian system promotes authoritarianism and submission to the “legitimate authorities” at all costs, but they understand the value of the subversive image.

      Applebaum and her think tank masters simply don’t realize that nobody wants what they’re selling anymore. Whether they consciously realize it or not, people are fed up with the “let the market decide everything; bend over backwards for the investors, banks, businessmen” system. They’re looking for an alternative, and in absence of a real one they’re falling for a false one with a slick marketing campaign.


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