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.