I happened to read a long and clever article published in a distant but familiar 2014 by Maxim Kantor, a Russian artist and writer living in France whom I respect. Kantor criticized Eurasianism, the doctrine which Russia subscribed to after rejecting Westernization. He concluded that no matter how you look at it, there is no other path besides democracy and liberalism. Anything else is fascism and Adolf Hitler.
Before deciding whether there is a third path besides liberalism and fascism (and whether or not fascism itself is a product of liberal capitalism), let’s take a look at what exactly democracy and Westernization — which Russia supposedly rejects — are. We speak of democracy all the time, implying it to be good, and correspondingly we believe the rejection of democracy to be bad. We refer to democracy all the time but almost never reveal the substance and meaning of the concept.
If democracy and liberalism are to be understood as the standard of living and lifestyle which have been achieved in certain Western countries, then it’s not just good, it’s great: human rights, legal protections, freedom of speech, social guarantees, high incomes. It should always be remembered that in the United Kingdom, a bulwark of economic liberalism and the free market, basic medical services are free. Not dependent on health care insurance, as in the U.S. and other countries, but government health care which is simply free, as it was in the Soviet Union. According to those who have dealt with it, the U.K.’s health care system is awful, much worse than ours — but quality is another question. British consultants from the International Monetary Fund advise undeveloped countries to reduce their budgets, slash welfare benefits, and refrain from financing health care, allowing it to be market-based. Yet the U.K provides free health care at home. That’s the kind of democracy we need!
The question is whether it’s possible to export democracy and a high standard of living without also exporting centuries of history and culture, the country’s consolidated position in the global market, and political and military might. Is it possible to become Europe just by copying formal democratic institutions without going through the fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Plague, the Reformation, the French Revolution, colonial conquests and the struggle for working class rights? Is it possible to become the same kind of wealthy nation that America is by copying the Bill of Rights onto a notepad, but without the advantages gained in World War I and victory in World War II? Is it possible to be like the U.S. by having the same bicameral legislature, but without the aircraft carriers and prisons of torture in Guantanamo Bay?
Or here’s another question: Are we certain that economic prosperity and the good life are products of democratic systems and not the opposite? Because we have the example of oil monarchies in the Persian Gulf countries right before our eyes. Their monarchies do not have the slightest whiff of democratic institutions, but much the opposite: Shariah law. Yet because there is a lot of money, locals generally live lavishly and are satisfied with life.
Could it not be that all kinds of democratic rights and freedoms, just like social guarantees, arise after the consolidation of the economy? When a country — or just its ruling class — can afford to make concessions or using some of its enormous wealth to pay off local laborers so they don’t cause trouble? As we see from history, the rise of the economies in Western countries generally occurred not as a result of market reforms, but because of predatory wars, conquests, and colonial or neocolonial politics.
So here is another paradox for you. Our liberals at home often say we should not strive for political domination in the world. We should not strive for military might. These imperial ambitions are not necessary for us — they come at a great cost to the economy. We need to take care of the population. We need to improve social welfare. Facilitate the growth of profits. Then our country, having become wealthy and comfortable, will defeat everyone without a single shot, because everyone will love us and want to be our friends. Rational, so it would seem.
But how can we grow wealthy and comfortable without being strong and influential? Liberals have nothing to tell us about this. After all, we’re not Singapore or even Finland. We are Russia. We have the largest territory in the world. If we weaken, others will bite and slice pieces off from us; take our resources as “concessions.”
Yesterday, half the world belonged to the peace-loving, democratic and liberal United Kingdom. And after plundering its colonies, the U.K. was ultimately able to support free health care at home. Let’s be realistic. We cannot become Singapore today or tomorrow. Singapores as large as Russia do not exist. For example, at the moment, the well-being of Russia and its citizens is connected to gas exports, since profits from the sale of gas fund pensions and health care. And in order to sell gas, we are constantly forced to promote our own interests in Europe. This is politics.
If tomorrow we at last decided to change our role in the global market, and we switched from supplying raw materials to producing advanced technology, then what political and military might would this demand from us? In our case, if we really wished to become leaders in high tech, it would be necessary to win a third world war and become an empire the likes of which the world has never seen to gain and consolidate such a position! That’s because nobody would concede their place to us without a fight.
In recent decades, China has transformed from being an assembly line for international corporations to a being a sovereign technological power. But, wait. Why do the Chinese maintain the largest army in the world? Why are they building up arms, including nuclear weapons? Couldn’t they have just won their place by the strength of their economy and how attractive their lifestyle is? Or not?
But back to democracy. Theoretically, democracy is the power of the people. Or the participation of the general population in the rule of the nation. Or at least the formation of such regimes that rule in the interests of the majority. But let’s ask one question: Why is it that in the U.S., the model democracy, a simple farmer or worker has not once become president for its entire existence? It should be simple: With universal suffrage, and in a population composed mainly of ordinary people — farmers, laborers, service workers in hotels and restaurants, cashiers, teachers, petty bureaucrats in the government and corporations, the poor and unemployed – would they advance a smart and talented person from their own number and make them president to rule in their interests? Not once.
Representatives of a minuscule minority of landholders, financiers, oligarchs, aristocrats and members of elite families become presidents all the time — the same people, all the time. It’s either George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush. If not Bush, then who? Even the Black president, Barack Obama, was not truly Black, not a descendant of slaves, but came from a wealthy African family that came to the United States after slavery , and most importantly, he was protégé of a powerful bourgeoisie. And a woman has never been president, but that doesn’t seem important now.
Yet in the totalitarian Soviet Union, general secretaries and ministers were children of workers and peasants. When the son or daughter of a poor farmer or handyman becomes president in America, then we can talk about how the United States approaches the level of real democracy that existed in the Soviet Union. But at the moment, it’s all a bluff, not democracy. Karl Marx taught that in a bourgeois democracy everything is constructed so that the bourgeoisie always wins an election. By the way, from a political science viewpoint, this is the trick of “general” and “direct” elections. In elections for president or even members of parliament, the voter is forced to vote for people who are personally unknown to them. Therefore only candidates from the ruling or wealthy class have a chance, because only they can conduct an election campaign.
Soviet democracy involved the genuine sovereignty of the people and it meant multi-stage elections, which was the only way to form a national government. China, by the way, has learned from Soviet democracy. Direct elections created soviets (councils or gatherings of popular representatives) at a lower level; districts (city districts); volosts (peasant communities, consisting of several villages or hamlets); and settlements. Every higher-stage body was elected by gatherings from lower stages.
For example, in St. Petersburg, our multi-stage democracy would look like this: Residents from city districts (Nevsky, Tsentralny, Vasileostrovsky and others) elect their district soviet. The district soviets elect a city soviet. Together with soviets from other regions, the city soviet of St. Petersburg (a federal subject of Russia) would then elect the country’s Supreme Soviet. This is the familiar system of Soviet democracy.
Of course, real Soviet power was — especially in later years — spoiled, corrupt, byzantine and more complex (though more resilient). One party played a leading role in the system, and yet for all the flaws of the Soviet (and Chinese) model, it’s an order more efficient than the false American system! By the way, one more thing about the U.S. Why is it that for all its democracy and freedom of speech, parties, movements and so on, there are only two parties that participate in politics — the Republicans and the Democrats? Where’s the political diversity? Where’s the multi-party system?
At one time, we emulated U.S. Constitution, its elections and its legislature. We thought this cargo cult would summon the carriers of abundance. We believed in the magical force of “democracy” and “liberalism.” But there is no magic. A good life for citizens is a result not of “democratic choice,” but economic development. Economic development is a result not of “market reforms,” but political might. Political might can only be based on a nation’s strength, history and traditions. Therefore, we have no choice but to reject Westernization. We should stop looking to the West. But this does not mean we should start to look just as obsequiously to the East. We once taught the entire world: free government health care to the United Kingdom, and Soviet democracy to China. It’s time to start learning from ourselves.
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