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The current conflict in Ukraine has had the effects of bringing ‘western’ governments closer together while widening rifts between rulers, mostly bound to follow the US/NATO directions, and the citizens ruled by them, who feel increasingly ignored and forced to accept decisions taken from above that are critical to their fates and on which they have no say, even though democratic systems should give them one.
A recent debate hosting a prominent French former high government official involved in various transatlantic thinktanks reflected the ideology that inspires most neo-liberal leaders in western Europe and North America but alienates them from perceptions in the rest of the world, especially in emerging countries whose international influence is steadily growing.
The discourse of the aforesaid official was in keeping with the views expressed again and again by the dominant intellectual and political class ‘west of Istanbul’ and recently echoed in India by the Secretary General of the United Nations. While affirming that freedom and democracy, as upheld in the west, are equally applicable to all peoples and that there is no nation ‘not ready’ for western style-democracy, the French policy-adviser deplored the rise of authoritarian ‘autocratic’ regimes and pinned the blame on some evil leaders without explaining why such potentates rise and retain long-term power if all peoples supposedly want democracy and are ripe for it. Neither did he confess the collective economic and financial predicament of ‘model democracies’ which generally suffer from massive over-indebtedness, bloated social security systems, deeply corrupt and opaque dominant banking institutions and unregulated mass immigration; the results being inflation, sky-rocketing economic inequality, widening poverty and rampant social discontent.
There was no reference to the fact that blossoming democracies have made themselves so dependent on a few ‘autocracies’ for basic necessities such as energy, food, raw material and manufactured goods, despite their own vaunted moral and material superiority, and have so conspicuously failed to change the political systems in those essential but deeply objectionable partners. When the critical role of the People’s Republic of China as the factory of the world, and mainly of the democratic west, was pointed out the speaker breezily noted that there is another China which is democratic and prosperous: Taiwan. Nobody remarked aloud that Taiwan is not recognized as a state by any of the western ‘democracies’ since the seventies.
The focus of the aforesaid presenter’s ire was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine about which he expressed his horror and revulsion, calling it a genocide and a crime against humanity, on the basis of unverified Ukrainian government claims. He sounded as if Russia has just invented war as an instrument of modern policy, ignoring the fact that democracies had been waging invasions and bombing campaigns in the last thirty years under the leadership of the American paragon of freedom and justice. When this was raised by someone in the audience, he blithely retorted that ‘he did not accept whataboutism’ – a favorite line of American apologists). Broadly, this could be translated more cynically as ‘we do what we have to do but others have no right to do it’. Noticing that the audience looked unconvinced, he went on to say that he regretted the Iraq war but noted the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein. In other words, the US and its allies attack bad people who presumably deserve it.
The orator drew the conclusion that many expected from the current Ukrainian tragedy. He declared that neutrality in the face of such an egregious violation of human rights is tantamount to complicity and he squarely laid the blame at India’s door without naming it. The message was an echo of GW Bush’s famous line: ‘you are either with us or against us. He went on to rue a decline of democracy and rising authoritarianism but, short of explaining why, he let his listeners speculate whether there is an intrinsic reason for western-style democracies to decay and fail.
The defence of western (self) righteousness too often relies on people’s tendency to forget. The unmitigated condemnation of Russia’s action in Ukraine is based on the omission of events in the last eight years since the US-funded coup which imposed a pro-western NATO-supported regime in Kyiv. It also implies the justification of western military operations in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and a few other victims of ‘Atlantic’ hegemony. The denunciation of tyrannical policies in other parts of the world turns attention away from the growing surveillance and authoritarianism enforced in many confirmed liberal democracies where political correctness, national security, minority rights, the environment, sanitary precautions and ideological imperatives are increasingly used to discredit, silence and ban contestation and opposition, often in breach of the laws. The alleged concern to block and discredit ‘fake news’ and ‘hate speech’ is a convenient rationale to muzzle inconvenient statements that run counter to the State-promoted ‘Party line’.
US Courts have recently handed judgments which acknowledge and condemn the Federal Government’s drift towards an authoritarian ‘total surveillance’ regime. We have seen examples of repressive policies in the European Commission’s decision to ban all Russian media in the EU, in the New Zealand Prime Minister’s statement to the effect that only what the government says is true and in joint western states’ commitments to censor dissenting views on such subjects as compulsory vaccination, the efficacy and harmfulness of mRNA genic injections (including assessments from reputed scientists and medical professionals) or on the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Going back to the points made by the orator, he argued that most of the problems encountered by western countries are related to the nefarious effects of Russian propaganda which, according to him, is responsible for widespread resistance to compulsory COVID-vaccination and to the draconian restrictions on liberty recently enforced in most western democracies. He deplored that people regarded lockdowns, confinement and bans on gatherings, as well as the long-term closing of most businesses, as a form of medico-pharmaceutical authoritarianism. Yet the allegation that the western public felt oppressed and deprived only due to malicious insinuations of ‘enemy’ media obviously flies in the face of reality and evokes the paranoid theories spread by Stalinism, Maoism and McCarthyism.
States which claim to detain the copyright for democracy see themselves as mankind’s conscience but don’t want to be questioned on their own standards and assign the blame for their failures to dissenters and enemies. Ironically the speaker deplored that France now has many more people voting for ‘far-right’ or fascist parties than Ukraine. Is a democratic state one where ‘liberal parties’ are locked in a permanent electoral contest with ‘non-democratic (leftist and rightist) ones’ or should the latter be banned?
Towards the end of the session, a member of the audience asked for a definition of democracy and freedom. The short answer of the speaker was that a country is free and democratic when people can say what they want without fearing consequences. Apart from the fact that mere freedom of speech (especially if it isn’t taken into account) is hardly most people’s foremost need, western countries by no means apply what they preach since various sorts of speech are condemned by law and punishable in almost all of them. That shows the limits of the abstract definition of free speech.
The final reflection that comes to mind however is that neoliberals, like the speaker alluded to here, have no practical way to implement their utopian vision of what the world should be. The aforesaid French intellectual advocated waging a continuous struggle against autocracies until they are defeated: ‘Until Russia, as he put it, builds a monument on Red Square to the victims of Stalinism and Putinism’. Those who think like him can only envisage ever more sanctions and ultimately war as means to coerce governments which don’t submit to their rule. Their lack of success so far has not taught them to change their views. The increasing western reliance on subversion, economic expropriation and brute force to compel dissidents to submit is making the world more dangerous by the day because the ‘liberal democratic’ camp no longer has overwhelming financial and military superiority. Those who cling to Fukuyama’s thesis on the End of History should remember that he has since given up on his own theory.