Saturday, 1 March 2014

Another BRIC in the Wall: Enlightenment Ideals Under Threat as Russia Invades Ukraine

So it would appear that Vladimir Putin is celebrating a successful closing of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi by invading its neighbor, Ukraine. As I've been suggesting on various forms of social media today, this looks like it's pulled straight from Adolf Hitler's playbook - lest we forget, Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and two years later annexed the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, ostensibly to protect the German-speakers in the region. Of course, like the current fracas, that was more of an excuse to flex Nazi Germany's power.

The parallels are interesting, but I don't think we should take them too far, either. Even despite the outcry caused by Russia's (rather provocative) stance on gays prior to the Olympics, I doubt that the Russians are about to embark on a vast pogrom against gays or Muslims or ethnic minorities within their borders.

But it's a little disheartening how easily geopolitics falls into the same old patterns. Ever since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been seeking to retain its influence over its former satellite states - after all, this isn't the first time Russia's interfered in Ukrainian politics since then. More instructively, this interference appears to follow more or less exactly Russia's intervention into Georgia, another former Soviet republic that had attempted to forge a more westward path.

This should also be a continuing rebuke to American triumphalists who declared the "end of history" when the USSR collapsed. While I'm aware that Francis Fukuyama, the originator of that phrase, has modified his stance somewhat, I don't think anybody in a policymaking position, either in the US or more generally in the West, has really followed him back to a reality-based view of the world.

It may be true that we've seen the end, at least for now, of clashes between political ideologies, but the enemy of liberal democracy seems to be, not totalitarianism, but a deeply cynical political nihilism. You can see it in China as well as Russia, and potentially in places like South Africa, which also sometimes get held up as future model economies.

Note that "economies" is an important word here - the cynical political nihilism I speak of comes from the fact that everybody seems to have decided that the only aspect of a country worth working on is the economy. In his rather magisterial History of the World, Andrew Marr notes that humanity's technological advancement has handily outstripped its political advancement. He's right if you think about it - we may be running around with phones in our pockets that are better than what put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, but when we go to vote we're doing so within a system put together just over 200 years ago and modeled on something invented over 2,000 years ago.

(Incidentally, I'm referring to the republic, as practiced in Rome, rather than democracy as practiced in Athens; but for purposes of time comparison, effectively, same difference.)

But I'd go a step further than Marr, and suggest that our economic development has also outpaced political development, with equally dire effects. In fact, it may be the more pressing problem, in the short term.

In practical terms, countries like China have realized that liberalizing the economy doesn't mean they have to cede any political power to the masses, they just have to ensure that people have access to internet (to play World of Warcraft) and cash (to periodically despoil the shelves of Hong Kong's boutiques). Russia and its satellite countries have discovered that their political elites don't even need to cede economic power to a very wide section of the population - just a couple of oligarchs who can be conveniently thrown in jail whenever the folks in charge like.

It's worked for them, to the extent that in recent years there's been a lot of talk of the BRIC countries running this century. But that's true only if you value nothing but economic growth - and it's worth noting that Brazil and India, the other two BRICs, suffer from some huge wealth gaps and social problems that don't look like they're being alleviated by this notional growth into economic behemoths.

At the same time, the US seems to be turning into a BRIC itself, as it cedes political power to corporations (the modern purveyors of feudalism) and builds up a wealth gap as wide and unpleasant as that in Sierra Leone (at least, if you use New York as a benchmark for the whole country). And bricks, I hardly need remind you, tend to sink.

Sorry for the pun, but in chasing some vision of "perfect" free-market capitalism and treating economic laws as being as immutable as physical ones (I can't remember the source of that quote, but in lieu of it I'll note that economics doesn't even have laws), we're shedding our democratic and, more generally, our Enlightenment principles. You may not agree, but I certainly hold these principles to be a force for good in the world, and applicable worldwide - even if we haven't always lived up to the principles, and even if the US Founding Fathers were a bunch of slave-owning racist oligarchs, the idea of giving everybody a say in their own fate is a principle we should continue to aspire to.

Unfortunately, this principle is continually under threat, and never more than it is now, today, as Russian tanks roll into Ukraine and the US government continues to spy on the entire world's online activity. But let's at least start by recognizing the problem, all of us - and then we can start fixing it.