Time for a Zemsky Sobor?

British politics are at a total impasse. Having earlier this week rejected 8 alternative solutions to the problem of Brexit, the House of Commons has now for a third time also rejected the withdrawal agreement signed by the British government and the European Union (EU) to allow the United Kingdom to leave the EU. At this point, many Brits are unsurprisingly fed up with the whole affair, and just want a decision, however rotten it might be, just to get it done. The House of Commons, however, has proven what I said earlier in the week – that it is utterly incapable of reaching a decision, any decision. So how can Britain get out of this mess?

The most obvious solution at this point is a general election. Since the current complement of the Commons can’t agree on anything, it’s clear that the makeup of the Commons has to change. That means an election.

As an election would mean putting off a decision on Brexit for some time, a prerequisite is a long Brexit delay. Under the terms of the failed withdrawal agreement, a final settlement on the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship was to be signed by 31 December 2020. It would therefore make sense to postpone Brexit to that date and work on agreeing not just the withdrawal terms but also the final settlement by that time.

Step one, therefore, needs to be a long postponement. Step two needs to be a general election.

The problem with this solution is that it assumes that a new House of Commons would be better able to reach a decision than the current one. It’s certainly obvious that it can’t be any worse in that regard, so this solution is worth a try, but it’s far from a dead cert. Given that public opinion in the UK is almost equally split on the Brexit issue, an election may just end up reproducing the existing balance of forces in the Commons. This is especially likely because the two main political parties – Conservatives and Labour – are themselves split and not capable of giving voters a clear choice vis-à-vis Brexit options. For voters to have that choice, the existing party system would have to be destroyed and the election fought between entirely new forces. That isn’t going to happen.

So this option should be tried, but I’m not confident that it will work. If it doesn’t, what then?

At that point, I think, the only way forward will be to seek a way of forcing the Commons to accept some solution – whatever it may be – by going over its head to the British people. But commentators who propose this seem stuck on the model of a referendum. This isn’t a good method. A referendum requires a clear question on a limited number of options, ideally just one. But solving Brexit requires discussion of multiple, complex options; and not a simple ‘yes, no’ answer, but a degree of compromise between solutions. A referendum can’t provide this.

A different method of providing a ‘people’s vote’ may therefore have to be found. One possibility would be some form of constitutional convention. And here perhaps the ancient Russian model of the Zemsky Sobor comes in useful. A Zemsky Sobor traditionally represented all estates of the Russian people. Political parties were not involved in the process (a necessary requisite for success in the Brexit instance, I suspect). And though the Zemsky Sobor was purely consultative, and had no official political authority, its legitimacy was such as to give its recommendations great power.

Such a consultative assembly would, of course, be entirely outside British constitutional convention. But it seems to me that at this point Her Majesty the Queen might be entitled to conclude that the people’s representatives have failed both her and the people, and therefore feel entitled also to find a different way of making the people’s wishes known to her in a manner which bypasses the existing power structures.

Would it work? I have no idea. But as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.

In the name of God, go!

cromwell
Oliver Cromwell dismisses the Rump Parliament

I don’t often do two posts in one day, but the shenanigans in the British House of Commons have impelled to take to my pen once again.

Over the past few weeks, the House of Commons has twice rejected the withdrawal agreement signed by the British government and the European Union (EU) to regulate the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. The House has also rejected the idea of leaving the EU without a deal. So today it voted on eight different options, each laying out an alternative route for the UK to follow. And lo and behold, it voted against all of those too!

That means that the next logical step would be to vote a third time on the withdrawal agreement. But the Speaker of the House has said that the rules don’t allow that. And even if they did, since the ruling Conservative Party lacks a majority, the agreement could only get passed if the government got the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But the DUP is adamant that it will oppose the withdrawal agreement come what may. Which leaves the UK facing a no-deal exit from the EU. But that’s also been rejected! If you can make sense of all that, then, as Kipling said, ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’

What this all makes clear is that the British parliament, as currently constituted, is incapable of making a decision. It’s time for it go. At this point, what the UK really needs is a modern version of Oliver Cromwell to come in and sweep them all away, as the Lord Protector did in 1653 when he dissolved the Rump Parliament. I was never much of Cromwell fan, but now I understand what he was about.

So let’s hear his famous words from 20 April 1653. They could well be said today.

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice.

Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.

Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?

Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place.

Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!

 

My inner Pobedonostsev

Watching the unfolding drama of Brexit and the fall out of the Mueller report in the United States, one can’t help but feel more than a little despairing about the state of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. For sure, I’m glad to live under such a system of government, but at the same time moments like this make one realize that it’s not all that it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Meanwhile, the Chinese go on from strength to strength. It’s enough to bring out one’s inner Pobedonostsev.

I refer, of course, to the late Tsarist-era Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, known generally as the arch reactionary of the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Pobedonostsev had a few choice words to say about liberal democracy and the free press. As a rule, historians use these words to indicate the negative role he had on Russian political development. But on days like today, some of what he said doesn’t look so unreasonable after all.

The problem with democracy, Pobedonostsev argued, was that although it claims to represent the ‘general will’, it fact it gives power not to the ‘people’ but to those minority groups which are best organized. ‘In theory,’ he wrote, ‘the elected candidate must be the favourite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting.’

This pretty much summarizes what Mancur Olson called the ‘logic of collective action’ and nowadays comes under the rubric of ‘public choice theory’ – the theory that government favours concentrated minority interests over diffused majority ones. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happens. Where the Procurator of the Holy Synod went wrong was in assuming that it only happens in democracies. In his imagination, an autocrat could stand above all this and represent the general will. But politics happens even within authoritarian states, and the results are often much the same. In fact the situation may even be worse in authoritarian states because the ‘general will’ has no alternative means of expression, such as a free press.

But Pobedonostsev was sceptical of the value of that too. Indeed he said some pretty harsh things about the ‘fourth estate’, remarking that:

The press is one of the falsest institutions of our time. … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great majority of readers … is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured for any editor who provider for the satisfaction of these hankerings.

This, I think, is a fairly good description of the dynamics behind Russiagate. Anti-Trumpers were desperate for some salacious scandal which would discredit the US president, and so the editors of the American media gave it to them. And, from the editors’ point of view, it worked. The more they played the collusion card, the more their ratings went up. Take the example of the leading Russia propagandist MSNBC. As Vanity Fair reports:

The ratings don’t lie. Five or six years ago, MSNBC’s viewership was down, and the network was flailing. As with the rest of the news media, the Trump saga has given it a turbocharge. Indeed, MSNBC had its best ever year in 2018, wrapping up with about 1.1 million daily viewers on average, a 121 percent increase from the first quarter of 2016, according to the network. Compared to the first quarter of 2017, right before Mueller got to work, ratings are now up 43 percent, the network’s data shows. In other words, if Trump helped bring MSNBC back to life, Mueller cranked up the electricity running through its veins.

If democracy was really what its name implies, now that the collusion claim has been shown to be false, those who peddled it should be expected to pay a price. In reality, there’s little chance that those responsible for the deceit will be held to account. For as Pobedonostsev pointed out,

The journalist … derives his authority from no election, he receives support from no one. His newspaper becomes an authority in the State, and for this authority no endorsement is required. … How often have superficial and unscrupulous journalists paved the way for revolution, fomented irritation into enmity, and brought about desolate wars! … It is hard to imagine a despotism more irresponsible and violent than the despotism of printed words.

At this point, bearing in mind the free press’s culpability in ‘fomenting irritation in enmity’ via Russiagate (which has poisoned American minds against Russia) and in bringing ‘about desolate wars’ (such as the invasion of Iraq), one has to admit that Pobedonostsev was onto something. Of course, his solution – censorship – was hardly any better, and probably a whole lot worse. But the basic critique is on the nail. Too much of the Western press is all too ready to spread all sorts of toxic nonsense just to improve its ratings, and it is completely unaccountable. This can hardly be said to be the ‘rule of the people’.

Do I have a solution to this problem? No, I don’t. It could be that there isn’t one, that we just have to accept Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. I’m sure that if I did have a solution it wouldn’t be Pobedonostev-style autocracy, any more than it would be communism, or any other authoritarian system. But if we are to find answers to problems, we first need to admit that we have them. And for that, my inner Pobedonostsev may actually have a useful role to play.

No collusion. Quelle Surprise!

So it’s official. After almost two years of investigation, involving who knows how many tens of thousands of hours of labour, Special Investigator Robert Mueller and his team have concluded what any sensible person could have told them before they started, that there is ‘no evidence’ that US President Donald Trump has in any way colluded with the Russian Federation. The obvious lack of evidence has not stopped a large cohort of politicians, journalists, and social media trolls from insisting over the past two years that Trump is a Russian agent, a tool in the hands of the Kremlin, or even a ‘traitor’. Along the way, they’ve told us again and again that the decisive revelation was just around the corner, that Mueller would ‘flip’ General Flynn or Paul Manafort, or whoever else, and that these people would soon spill the beans, proving Trump’s guilt beyond all doubt. But now, it turns out that it was all a ‘nothingburger’ after all. Quelle surprise!

Sadly, those responsible for spreading the collusion story are unlikely to pay any personal price for the millions of words of nonsense they have spewed forth since 2016. Don’t expect Luke Harding, Molly McKew, or Rachel Maddow to fall on their swords shouting ‘mea culpa’, let alone expect their bosses to fire them. But there will be a price to pay nonetheless. Some of that price will be domestic-American, and some will be international.

Domestically, the Democratic Party are the big losers here. At some point, late in 2016, while the US presidential campaign was still ongoing, the Democrats decided to play the Russia card big time. As I noted back on 2 November 2016, ‘With a week to go to the US presidential election, Clinton is actually behind Trump in the latest polls. Her response? Double down on the Putin theme.’ But as I also pointed out, ‘it isn’t working’. And it didn’t. The ‘Trump as a Russian agent’ meme served as a distraction from the real problems the Democrats needed to address in order to win elections. But instead of learning that lesson from Trump’s victory, the party quadrupled down on the Russia issue. In the process it has wasted two years hammering home a false narrative which has no obvious relation to the everyday needs of ordinary voters. This can’t be helpful.

The fantasy which Democratic politicians and their enablers in the media have woven has surely also served to discredit them, at least in the eyes of those already inclined to regard their outpourings with some degree of scepticism (true believers will not, of course, be affected). There’s a lot of talk about Russian ‘disinformation’. But whatever rubbish may, or may not, flow out of the orifices of RT pales into insignificance against the vast effluence of rotten manure that pours from the mouths of the American establishment once it firmly sets its mind on something. As I’ve noted before, there’s a reason why people turn to alternative media and conspiracy theorists: they’ve lost faith in the mainstream. The outcome of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal is going to accentuate that tendency. ‘Why should I believe the New York Times or the Washington Post after all that?’ people will ask. And the only possible answer – that for all their faults they’re still better than InfoWars – isn’t always going to convince.

Perhaps, if there was some moderate alternative out there, this wouldn’t matter so much. But another effect of Russiagate has been to silence moderate voices. The collusion story has popularized the idea that Russian ‘agents’ are out there seeking to undermine our democratic systems. It’s not just Trump who’s been accused of working with the Kremlin. The charge has spread far and wide to include anybody who might express doubts about the existence of a massive Russian conspiracy working away to destroy our societies from within. Arguably, Russiagate and the proliferating volume of think tank reports denouncing the ‘Kremlin’s Trojan Horses’ are intimately connected. The result is an impoverished public debate about Russia and the policies that we should pursue toward it.

This in turn has international consequences. Although the collusion story has failed to force Trump out of office, it has obliged him to change the track of his foreign policy. What that policy would have been in the absence of Russiagate, we can never know. But President Trump’s attitude to Russia has been very different to that of candidate Trump. The latter argued in favour of improving relations with Russia; the former has taken multiple actions designed to worsen them. The idea that he may have been driven to do so by a desire to distance himself from accusations of being a Kremlin stooge seems very plausible. Quite possibly, therefore, the collusion accusation has had a very negative, and quite unnecessary, effect on East-West relations.

All of this was quite avoidable. There was no shortage of commentators pointing out from the start the enormous lacunae in the arguments that Trump was a Russian agent, drawing attention to the enormous deficiencies in supposed evidence such as the dossier put together by former British agent Christopher Steele, or demonstrating the sloppy logic in works such as Luke Harding’s dreadful book Collusion. But all this was ignored. One has to suspect that this was because it didn’t suit the purpose, which wasn’t to report the news but to depose Donald Trump. Perhaps the only thing one can say in Russiagate’s favour is that for all its awfulness, it’s still not as crazy as Brexit. We can at least take solace in that.

The Strongmen Strike Back

In his book Modern Russian Theology, American scholar Paul Valliere notes that Western liberals have great trouble understanding the great late nineteenth century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. (I’m not sure that many even try, but let’s put that aside, and consider just the few who do.) Solovyov, explains Valliere, was a liberal theocrat, and that’s something your average Westerner just can’t cope with. S/he sees the theocrat and immediately thinks ‘reactionary’. The idea that there could be a ‘liberal’ theocrat is so completely outside their frame of reference that they dismiss it out of hand, and conclude that the guy really was a reactionary after all (which, of course, he wasn’t).

Solovyov was far from exceptional in combining elements of liberal and authoritarian thinking. As readers of my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism will discover, in the history of Russian political philosophy (as also, I’m sure, in the history of other countries), efforts to do so are extremely common. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Liberalism is a political ideology. Authoritarianism, like democracy, is a method of government. At least in theory, liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy are both possible. In practice, of course, such absolute constructs are hard to find, but so too are pure ‘liberal democracies’. Liberalism in its many manifestations – economic, social, political – is often imposed from above on unwilling populations in decidedly undemocratic ways. Economic liberalization in developing countries, for instance, is often the product of intense pressure from Western lenders and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it’s certainly not democratic.

My point here is that liberalism v. authoritarianism is a false dichotomy. If nothing else, it ignores the vast differences between different regimes which are labelled as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘illiberal’. Most observers would agree that North Korea fits those descriptions. But many nowadays also apply them to Hungary. Yet to categorize the two countries as in any way alike would be clearly absurd. The differences far outweigh any superficial similarities. Liberalism and authoritarianism are sliding scales, not absolutes. They are also not binary opposites, but are often combined in seemingly paradoxical ways.

Robert Kagan is having none of this, however. Kagan’s a big name in the world of American political commentary, a prominent exemplar of neoconservatism (though apparently he himself prefers to be called a ‘liberal interventionist’). For some odd reason, American governments listen to him, so we have to pay some attention to what he says. And in a long essay in The Washington Post, entitled ‘The Strongmen Strike Back’, what he tells us is that ‘Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic order. … We in the liberal world have yet to comprehend the magnitude and coherence of the challenge.’ As he writes:

Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony. … It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption … reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.

According to Kagan, authoritarian rulers are no longer content just to sit at home, but are seeking aggressively to export authoritarianism and undermine democracy in the West. Moreover, he says, ‘These authoritarians are succeeding.’ This, he considers, is extremely dangerous.

Why is it dangerous?

Continue reading The Strongmen Strike Back

National Security Threats

A few days ago, I posted a story about Sweden. Although it’s notionally a neutral country, it contains a strong pro-NATO element which is quite vocal in playing up the threat that Russia allegedly poses to its national security. As part of this trend, the liberal newspaper Vestmanlands Lans Tidning was today in full ‘red scare’ mode, warning Swedes of the terrible dangers posed by a new building being constructed in the town of Vasteras. As you can see in the picture below, the building is scary indeed.

sweden church
A threat to national security

Continue reading National Security Threats

Out of the blue

‘It’s not a question of whether he [Putin] will attack, but where.’ So writes Mikheil Saakashvili on the website of Foreign Policy magazine this Friday. According to the tie-chewing former president of Georgia,

In Crimea, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, or anywhere else Putin considers Russia’s backyard, territorial gain has never been an end in itself. Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive.

Saaskashvili doesn’t mention his own responsibility for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War or the fact that Putin wasn’t even president of the Russian Federation at the time. He also doesn’t mention that Russia’s other recent military ‘adventures’ didn’t just come out of the blue. The Georgian war came after years of civil conflict in South Ossetia; the war in Donbass after a violent revolution/coup in Kiev; the Russian military campaign in Syria after four years of civil war in that country. In no instance, did Russian troops just appear out of nowhere in a country which was otherwise completely stable. But that is what Saakashvili would have us believe Putin is now planning.

For Putin’s poll numbers are falling. It’s true that they’re still at a level which would cause just about any Western leader to jump up and down with joy, but they’re down from what they were a couple of years ago. And, if you follow Saaskashvili’s thesis, that means that the Russian president will looking for something to divert his people from their domestic travails. And what better than a short, victorious war? For as Saakashvili says, ‘Putin is both predictable and logical: Invading a weaker neighbor delivers a cheaper and faster ratings boost than, say, improving Russia’s dystopian health care system.’

Again, let’s put aside the unfortunate fact that Putin has responded to his recent decline in popularity by announcing reductions in defence spending and a renewed focus on domestic policies, such as health care and infrastructure. Let’s assume our ex-Georgian friend is right. There’s still a problem. Who could Putin invade next? Attacking a NATO member would be too dangerous, says Saakashvili. Putin won’t do that. Therefore, he concludes, ‘Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden.’ He continues:

I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm unopposed. But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built up on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra. NATO wouldn’t, but Putin would.

So one day, we’ll wake up and discover that Russian troops will have occupied part of Finland or Sweden, with no warning, and despite the fact that Russia has no quarrel with either country and claim on any of their territory. Really? Does anybody believe that? This is nuts.

I realize that picking on Saakashvili is perhaps not fair. It’s been clear for a while that his grasp of reality is a little shaky. But my gripe isn’t really with him. Foreign Policy is normally regarded as a respectable journal. It’s the sort of thing you find on the bookshelves in airports. People read this guff. The editors ought to feel some sense of responsibility for what they publish, and not print absolute hokum which inflames international tensions on the basis of pure fantasy. But it seems like they don’t any more.

Maybe I’m just a typical grumpy old man, imagining that things were so much superior ‘when I were young.’ Perhaps my memory is faulty and journalistic standards weren’t actually any better back then. But when it comes to things Russians, they’re pretty poor right now. No self-respecting journal should be publishing inflammatory nonsense like this. Foreign Policy’s editors should be ashamed of themselves.