Connecting the dots

Things haven’t been going well for the alarmist defenders of the status quo lately. The brilliant strategy of linking Putin to Brexit failed, while Brexit itself succeeded (assuming you can call that success). The dictators of Turkey and Russia appear to be embracing each other once again after that little lovers’ quarrel last year. Hillary’s lead over Trump is far from comfortable. As such, it looks like some of the pundits are starting to despair. At least that’s the feeling you get from this Edward Lucas article.

To his credit, he doesn’t pin any of this on Putin, unlike some other pundits who apparently haven’t learned how Russian propaganda works (PROTIP: Claims that make Putin look like an omnipotent strategist only help his image). But there are two passages that raise an eyebrow.

First there’s this:

“The West’s values of rule of law, democracy and capitalism form the best combination of political and economic arrangements the world has ever seen. So we don’t need “sovereign democracy” because our own system works fine. Nor do we need a “new European security architecture” (code for giving Russia the right to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs) because the existing setup—based on the Paris Charter and the OSCE—works perfectly well.”

Now my reaction there was that in spite of the Western system’s clear accomplishments, it is far from “fine” for most of the world’s population. Oddly enough, Lucas goes on to acknowledge this from another angle:

“This argument can sound complacent, but it is in fact the opposite. We assume that things go wrong in our system. The issue is how we deal with them when they do. The Western system, in essence, is a means for settling disputes peacefully and fairly—in elections, in courts, or by negotiation.”

Then there’s this:

“This argument can sound complacent, but it is in fact the opposite. We assume that things go wrong in our system. The issue is how we deal with them when they do. The Western system, in essence, is a means for settling disputes peacefully and fairly—in elections, in courts, or by negotiation.”

Followed by this admission:

“But the foundations of that system are under strain. We don’t have an answer to mass migration. We don’t know how to deal with terrorism. We don’t have an answer to politicians such as Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who uses a democratic mandate to crush opposition. Our economies are doing an increasingly bad job in distributing the fruits of prosperity.”

Now having read all that, I’m surprised that Lucas doesn’t connect the dots and realize that these symptoms exist because there is something wrong with the liberal system, and in fact things like Putinist Russia and authoritarian Turkey are just two more examples of by-products. Can he really believe that it’s just an accident that this system, that supposedly allows everyone to settle everything via peaceful means, is simply “doing an increasingly bad job in distributing the fruits of prosperity?” Here’s a hint- take a look at who “picks” that fruit and then who has been getting an increasing share.

The truth is that the Western liberal system is failing because at its core, it really isn’t about human rights, prosperity for all, or justice. That half of the equation the Kremlin-fans actually get right on some level. Liberalism began as the philosophy of a rising European middle class- the bourgeoisie. The liberty and equality they originally sought was to be limited to themselves- property owners. Liberalism had to be “tamed,” so to speak, over centuries by radicals- those who insisted that equality and liberty should be enjoyed by all instead of a privileged few.

While Lucas is correct that countries like Russia and China offer no decent alternative to his “Western” system, and indeed they are much worse, the fact remains that we do need an alternative. Humankind simply cannot go on inhabiting this planet if it is unable to master the use of our finite resources and peaceably solve the conflicts that plague us. We cannot fully solve these problems within the confines of a system which relies on capitalists’ profit motives to address them. Tech billionaires and venture capitalists aren’t going to save us.

We must eventually evolve to the point where the idea of people suffering from malnutrition or being homeless when there is a surplus of housing and food seems as immoral as child marriage. We must come to see that forcing people by virtue of birth to work for such low wages that they are spending years if not decades of their lives just trying to stave off destitution is a modern form of slavery. In short, our system is great; I will not deny Western liberal capitalism any credit it has rightly earned. But civilization can do better. Humankind must do better.

Absent a movement dedicated to this purpose, cynicism and moral relativism spread. That’s where the less savory players of the capitalist world worm their way into people’s minds. Like maggots, they prefer to feed on a rotting corpse. So a question remains. How long will leaders of NATO countries take to realize that the most powerful weapon they have against such regimes isn’t in any of their arsenals- it’s their societies? And if they fail to realize this and do not change for the better, then we’d better hope there are enough good-minded, morally upright people left in these societies to fight for a real alternative.


24 thoughts on “Connecting the dots

  1. Mr. Hack

    A very well thought out review of Lucas’ recent article. I’m a new reader of your blog and appreciate this kind of serious review that offers insights and ideas that make one think. Don’t stop your satirical stuff though, as they say ‘variety is the spice of life’. Keep up the great work!

  2. AndyT

    Also, more and more self-professed “liberals” are spending most of their time babbling about “identity politics”, “micro-aggressions”, “triggers”.

    While I believe most of them are well-meaning individuals, I think they are helping their supposed opponents to make our societies more and more atomized, too – women vs men, BLM vs “All lives matter”, etc.

    Furthermore, their struggles are unlikely to inspire people trying to make a living out of their meager wages or to find a decent job, etc. – for example, should the average blue collar worker/housewife/underpaid intern really care about “safe spaces” in campuses?

  3. mariinskyrose

    Ghandi (who was educated in Britain) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr did not seek to reform their societies by merely touting “liberal, Western values” against their liberal, Western oppressors — but by appealing to the *Christian* conscience invisibly underlying the best fruit of those very systems.

    The key to Western (and global) hopes will not be found in the bloodshed and Reign of Terror unleashed at the Bastille. The key to change is the words of Jesus sung by the choirs at sunrise inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

    Cue Les Miserables!

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I’d suggest not reducing Indian independence or civil rights to Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. There was a lot more to both than that.

      1. mariinskyrose

        And, by contrast, I believe all the evil havoc wreaked by the post-Enlightenment modern, scientific, and industrialized world can be boiled down to three words.

        “God is dead.”

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I think if you check you’ll find that in that post-Enlightenment modern world, far fewer people die violent deaths, poverty is much lower than it was before, and people live longer, healthier lives. The solutions to our present problems won’t be found in an idealized past.

      3. mariinskyrose

        World Wars I and II come to mind.

        Some of the great problems of both Europe and Russia have to do with the failure to truly face up to, make sense of, and reconcile with the massive self-inflicted carnage and evil of their recent past.

        The current refugee crisis brings back haunting memories and opens the lingering wounds.

        The “European Union” was created, in large part as a bandage to the wounds, but the truth is, Europe is not at peace with herself. And each individual country in it needs to do some intensive soul searching.

        France is getting desperate.

        Britain will start via Brexit, in her own healthy way. And in my view, stronger separate parts will make for a better whole in the end.

        Soviet nostalgia is toxic for Russia. For obvious reasons — as you often well note in your blog.

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Yes, in spite of those wars far fewer people died violent deaths in the 20th century than before. You could point out how the civilian casualties in war have been rising though. This is no doubt due in large part to increasing urbanization.

  4. Asehpe

    I agree in principle with your point, but I wonder if part of the problem isn’t an exaggerated vision of “first world problems” as being worse than they really are — perhaps fueled by the perception that “the élites” are getting everything and “the people” is getting nothing in the first world.

    Coming from a third-world country (Brazil, despite its economic boom, and taking into account its current streak of bad luck), I always find it a little hard to believe that the “underclass” of first world countries can feel so angry about problems that seem so small. Many of those who voted for Brexit for reasons other than “get them damn foreigners outta here!” seem to me to be exaggerating their problems. The NHS is quite a success, people live healthy lives and can get unemployment money to go on living while looking for a job — what exactly is making the lower class suffer so much? The problems you mention — people who work for starvation wages, high child mortality, etc. — are not first-world problems. Now I’m not saying they are not humanity’s problems and have to be tackled, but I am saying that they are not the reason why the lower classes seem so displeased with globalization and “the élites”. Can’t it be that too many people just don’t realize that they already have a pretty decent life and a pretty decent country?

    Yes, the liberal world order has to solve the world’s problems. It cannot ignore those who are really suffering. But I’m afraid that the discontent and anger do not come from those who are really suffering — it comes more often than not from those who don’t realize that they aren’t really suffering.

    Which is why I’m not sure that, even if, as you suggest, liberalism evolved into something capable of tackling the world problems you mention and even solve them to some degree, this would be enough to calm down the people. There will always be people who feel “dispossessed” or “underprivileged” or what not, even if by rational measures they shouldn’t feel that way. No matter how close to paradise we come, there will always be those who think they were not given a fair deal. And any politician who can tap on this dissatisfaction will always manage to go far, because such emotions, not being really based on rationality, cannot really be defeated with rational arguments.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think it’s a matter of relative privation. Sure, some of the poorest Americans may be way better off than people in a favela, but what good does it do to point this out to them? Still, this definitely seems to be a first world issue, because it seems that it’s their working class that tends to suffer from globalization compared to workers in other countries.

      Also I think past success has another edge to it. The feeling that things are declining and that you’re not able to provide a better life for your children hits hard, especially in America where that was considered “the dream” for so long.

      1. Asehpe

        Maybe you are more optimistic about human nature than I am right now — I think the Trump phenomenon is just depressing me. But frankly, the point to me is exactly that it doesn’t make a difference to point out that the poor in Europe and the US are often much better off than favela people in Brazil. Well, it should matter. Because it is a rational point, and it addresses the rhetorics of exaggerated anger and emotion that these anti-“élite” movements seem to have — witness the Trumpists’ anger, or even the anger of Brexiters at “the communist EU, undistinguishable from the URSS”. Note, in both the Trump and Brexit cases, how much of the anger seems to come from xenophobia (‘damn foreigners are taking our jobs!”) rather than from concerns about how poor they are or whether or not they are being left out. Better — it is the feeling that the government is on the side of “them damn foreigners” that creates a large, if not the largest, portion of the feeling of ‘being left behind’, not so much actual real-life conditions. Are Americans angry more because of not being able to guarantee their children a better life than they’ve had themselves, or because of Mexicans? Do they really want the economy to improve and their slice of the pie to increase, or just that damn big wall, paid by the Mexicans?…

        Again, maybe I’m being pessimistic and expecting the worse from people… but it’s hard to listen to RNC speeches without feeling like that.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Here’s some good news- I’m not the only person pointing this out these days.

      Of course his ideas about everyone in society being satisfied with prosperity are utopian due to conflicting class interests, but generally workers have been much better off when smarter, more forward-thinking bourgeois types understood that they needed to share prosperity with the working class for their own good.

  5. stefanholander

    Did you see this defense of the liberal world order, from a Russian government-connected think tank? It basically argues – against Putinist media – that if a ‘new’ world order is coming it will most likely be some kind of new ‘liberal’ world order, which in turn means that the current policies and modes of ‘patriotism’ will be totally insufficient. It doesn’t really usethe word ‘liberal’ in the putinist sense of ‘non-traditional’, nor does it take on the issue of social/global justice that you do here, but I thought the attempt to separate the fact of a ‘liberal world order’ from the idea of liberalism as an ideology was interesting.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      That article is so sane and level-headed that I’m convinced that author must have already been condemned as a Russophobic foreign agent. Thanks for that great find.

  6. Bruxellois

    I’m a regular reader of your blog, and just wanted to say that I very much enjoy your work – all your articles are well-informed and well-argued, the above being a case in point. The current liberal order is in trouble, and though I am very much attached to many aspects of it (I work for one of the European institutions, so it could hardly be otherwise), you are right that humanity must do better. I hope that in the future I can contribute to the debates in the comments, but for now, keep up the good work.


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