Tag Archives: liberalism

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.

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Human Rights- A case study (Pussy Riot)

Frequent readers know that I have often complained about Westerners who attack Russians for supposedly not respecting human rights or progressive values without questioning whether anybody ever bothered to properly present those values in Russia or the illogical, yet natural associations Russians have with terms like “liberal” due to their national history. I have seen such Westerners react in horror to the way Russians denigrate the term “liberal” with the pejorative term “liberast.” What they fail to realize is that back in the late 80’s and early 90’s these people who called themselves liberals deliberately took the wrong side as the country descended into chaos. Rather than criticize the neo-liberal, “shock therapy” economics which were creating so much human suffering, many of these “liberals” praised the country’s morally bankrupt leadership and insisted that the horrors of the day were in fact the fault of Josef Stalin. So yeah, the Russian perception of what we call liberalism may be wrong, but it’s wrong for a reason and we have to understand that.

Now I complain about people not explaining these ideas to Russians, but what about me? The reader might ask what effort I’ve made to explain these ideas to Russians, at least for the sake of properly representing them. Truth be told quite some time has past since I had political discussions with Russians.In the past two years or so I’ve been far more concerned with work, family, and generally doing my own thing. I offer advice and opinions when asked for them.

Still, I do feel that just once perhaps I should try to explain one of these concepts myself, just to set an example for other English speakers who might be interested in discussing these ideas with Russians. I don’t put my explanation in Russian because I’d rather just explain it verbally if need be, but having this in English means that it won’t just reach English-speaking Russians but also those Western Team Russia fanatics who don’t seem to understand these concepts themselves. I’m often sickened by these people getting mad when Russia is criticized for something like suppression on freedom of speech, and then supporting the government when it actually engages in censorship. Either it’s all sensational propaganda or there really are limitations to free speech here and you support them for some bizarre reason.

For starters I’m not a liberal in any sense. I’m with Karl Marx, who found the classical liberal values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood to be positive and progressive, yet inevitably undermined by the needs of the capitalist mode of production. I’m also no fan of using the words human rights without qualifiers. For one thing, I’d rather have horse rights than human rights. Also, have you ever even read the UN Declaration of Human Rights? Just have a look at these two items from Article 25:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

The United States is a flagrant violator of both these alleged rights, and virtually all nations violate number one. I can cut Morocco or India some slack on things like this, but world economic heavyweights like the US or UK have absolutely no excuses. Who sanctions the sanctioners?

Contradictory and ignored as many of those alleged rights may be, it does not mean that I oppose the idea on principle. In principle human rights is a morally progressive concept. The only problem is that it presupposes a type of human equality which the system not only cannot provide us, but in fact cannot have if it is to function. If by whatever means any society manages to fulfill rights such as Article 25 paragraph 1, the capitalists of that society will face disaster. They require the majority of people to be denied that right so that they will have to come to work for them, on the bosses’ terms.   But this is a digression. The only reason I’m bringing this up is because I’m trying to point out that flaws aside, ideas like human rights, equality, liberty, democracy, etc are inherently moral and good. Where governments fall short on any of these matters is a question of these ideas meeting contradictory conditions in the real word as a result of our mode of production.

Now that the preliminaries are taken care of, let me get to the subject of our case study, namely Pussy Riot.  I actually chose Pussy Riot because I find them to be both stupid and pretentious, their music being as bad as their understanding of politics. Their “feminism” is a complete joke and they’ve been involved in various stunts which can be called very misogynistic in nature. The Western media totally misrepresented them simply as “feminist punk rockers.” In short, I deliberately chose a subject that I strongly dislike and don’t agree with, because you shall soon see the concept of liberal values in action. Watch and learn.

First let’s start with some of the arguments which were made by Team Russia supporters and fans of the Russian government, and discuss why they are utter bullshit.

Argument: If they had tried that in Saudi Arabia, they’d be dead!

Answer: Is “slightly better than Saudi Arabia” what you’re aiming for? Some years ago there was an uproar in America about the construction of an Islamic community center in the proximity of “Ground Zero,” which became misconstrued as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. A common argument used by the child-like, mouth-breathing “patriots” was that Saudi Arabia would never allow somebody to build a church on their territory. The very simple answer to this was, and still is, “That’s Saudi Arabia, this is America.” The United States protects individual’s religious rights, Saudi Arabia doesn’t. And yes, the United States is “better” than Saudi Arabia for that reason alone. Russia should be better than Saudi Arabia in this matter too, not simply “we didn’t cut their heads off” better.

Argument: Most Russians approve of the punishment they got.

Answer: This is a logical fallacy known as an appeal to popularity, which incidentally is very popular among government supporters. Most Germans at one time approved of the Nazi regime, which in 1941 set about the murder of over 25 million Soviet citizens. Popular doesn’t mean right.

Argument: Are you familiar with the disgusting stunts Pussy Riot members were involved in before the “Punk Prayer” incident which landed them in jail?

Answer: Yes, I am. I also believe that some of the stunts they engaged in, such as putting on an orgy in a public museum, could be prosecuted and perhaps should have been. I do not know the details of the museum incident, but I’m quite certain they would have received heavy penalties for that in the US. Of course none of this is relevant to what Pussy Riot was actually jailed for.

Argument: Pussy Riot is a plot by the West to overthrow the Russian government! (Yes, I’ve seen this argument made by some pretty big Kremlin supporters and “intellectuals”)

Answer: If your government is so weak that it can be realistically threatened by three pretentious, self-important women singing an incoherent song in a church, perhaps it deserves to be overthrown. Seriously you would have the Democratic Republic of Congo pointing and laughing at how fragile your regime must be.

So now that we so easily smacked down those pathetic arguments, let me explain what lessons we can learn from the Pussy Riot case. First of all, I’m not making an argument that they should have gone free. They did indeed commit a crime; in Russian law it’s known as hooliganism whereas in America it would probably be something like criminal trespassing or more likely disorderly conduct since the church would be considered private property. Freedom of speech is never absolute, but in this case the right to free speech was infringed by deliberately modifying the charge so that the perpetrators could be severely punished.  In the US or most industrialized countries they would never have seen jail time for such a stunt.  And just as an aside, keep in mind that the Russian court over-turned their conviction shortly before the Sochi Olympics earlier this year. That means the court is tacitly saying that they were not guilty of the very charge they concocted to send them to a labor colony for nearly two years, i.e. “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” If you believed the court was right when they were convicted, you have to explain why it was wrong when it changed its mind.

Of course this all leads us to a bigger issue, which is the concept of rule of law. Like any liberal concept, it has its limitations, but it sure is better to have it instead of being without it. See in the US, where rule of law does exist, church owners could press charges against someone putting on an impromptu demonstration inside their chapel during services, and a prosecutor can certainly charge them. But he can only charge them according to the law. He can’t charge them with sedition because their protest was political. In sentencing, in an American court at least, they would be protected by the eighth amendment when it comes to sentencing. This is why they’d most likely be convicted of some misdemeanor and forced to pay fines, do community service, and perhaps attend some classes on anger management or whatever. The Russian penalty for hooliganism is a very modest fine, and I would not condemn the Russian judge one bit if they increased that genuinely tiny fine at their discretion in this case. The point I’m trying to make here is that in a society run by laws, it doesn’t matter how angry everyone is with the defendant, or if the defendant is genuinely an asshole. What matters is what the law says, and every citizen should be subject to this law equally.

Now at this point I can predict the beardos*, Russian and non-Russian alike, should be worked up into a frothing rage. I just compared the US to Russia, and suggested that the American way of doing things is superior. Well American or not, it is.  Also let me head off the typical beardo response to this topic of equal rights, which usually involves insisting that Russians have a “different culture” and therefore don’t need rule of law or rights or whatever. First of all, this is racist and anti-Russian, regardless of who is saying it. If you’re Russian and you believe this, you are a self-hater, plain and simple. Second, the idea that Russians don’t value being able to express opinions or that they have no interest in being treated equally under the law is simply nonsense. Any Russian you meet can tell you at least one story about some activity they witnessed where someone in their life was able to skirt the law due to connections or their wealth.  They are visibly upset when they discuss these stories. You will never hear a Russian say, “Yeah I get dicked over by the police, my boss, and bureaucrats all the time but it’s cool because I’m Russian and our culture is different.” As far as I’m concerned that argument, regardless of who advances it, is as disgusting as the claim that Africans actually lived better in slavery.

Another reason why the “different culture” argument doesn’t work is that this idea of rule of law exists in numerous other countries, many of which are quite culturally diverse, if not economically and politically diverse as well. They also happen to be those countries with the highest living standards. I’m terribly sorry but one would have to be a complete blithering idiot to believe that the assimilation of rule of law in Russia would somehow be detrimental to Russian society. The only way it would change Russia culturally is that it would lead to the punishment of many criminals, greatly reducing corruption, and it would help people trust each other more. How terrible. But if you still disagree, by all means make your case against rule of law in the comments of this entry.

So what did we learn here today? Well here we have the case of a group I personally despise who committed a minor crime. Rather than wishing to see them be punished severely with nearly two years in a labor colony, however, I stick by the idea that they should have been punished in accordance with the original, correct charge in spite of my personal feelings about them or their ideology. I would even accept the charge as modified(i.e. “motivated by religious hatred”), but not with two years of jail time. Perhaps Pussy Riot should have been made to attend classes where they could learn how deliberately offending people’s cultural values actually alienates them from your cause, and throwing live cats at McDonald’s workers on 1 May makes you a raging asshole. Then again, Russia doesn’t really have any kind of system or institution for teaching people how to get along with each other and to refute and rehabilitate extremists of any kind, does it? Never mind, that’s another article.

 

 

*For some reason I’ve taken to using the term “beardo” to describe Team Russia fanatics, based on the strange coincidence that whether Russian or not, the most fanatical among them have beards. I don’t know why this is, but every time I read what they write I can’t help but imagine a portly man with a beard shaking his sweaty fist, stamping his feet and screaming, “You’ll see! Your decadent West will soon collapse! Russia doesn’t need you! Russia doesn’t want you! Russia is rising while your society is crumbling! Just you wait!”  If you’re reading this and fit this description, please stop. You’re embarrassing yourself and Russia.

Stop the flow

It’s so in vogue to label Russians and other Eastern Europeans as homophobic without questioning how it got that way. It’s just assumed that these people are more traditional and to blame the Soviet regime which isolated these countries from the scientific and psychological community when it developed on the topic of human sexuality. That’s a very palatable explanation for certain Westerners because it allows them to feel morally superior without considering what role their countries played in creating this state of affairs.

It is no secret that Russia’s “traditional values” lobby has deep ties to American fundamentalist Christian organizations. Thanks to the massive torrent cultists Christian missionaries who flooded into Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the “socialist” regime, one cannot claim that these reactionary sentiments rose entirely on their own. Indeed, post-Soviet Russia was a haven of many right-wing ideologies, often copied from the West and inspired by the Cold War idea that Communism had “ruined” Russia, but it seems to me the organic, local attitude towards LGBT people was one of apathy, not hatred.

It is indeed odd that evangelical Christians flock to places like Russia to peddle their nonsense, given the fact that many of these people subscribe to an end-times prophesy which dictates that Russia will attack Israel and then be destroyed by God in the process. Not to mention the fact that these are typically “Bah-bul believin’ churches” which no doubt hold Russian Orthodoxy as being on par with Roman Catholicism, i.e. heretical blasphemy for the hell-bound.

This recent article from Americans United for Separation of Church and State documents a recent influx of hucksters into Ukraine. They’re lecturing Ukrainians on the founding values that made America great, which no doubt entails free trade, low government regulation, low taxes, no social services, and of course, lots and lots of Jay-zus.

The article says that these people are free to travel and we can’t stop them. I disagree. I think there are ways to stop them, seeing that some countries have restrictions about people who are known for preaching hatred or people who are identified as cult leaders or members. Perhaps the US government can’t do anything about it, but the Ukrainian government can do something if pressured. And they are under a bit of pressure now, aren’t they?

It is regrettable that Eastern Europe’s political spectrum is nearly all right-wing, but we have to remember that our enlightened Western nations turned their countries into a dumping ground for every conman, nutcase, cultist, and crank. When our societies rejected these people we should have figured they might take their bullshit on the road so we could either warn other countries about them or organize to meet them there so they would not be unopposed.