Newsnotes 1998 12

Notes on the News

by Gwydion M. Williams

Liberal Autocracy In Russia

Sound-bitten politics

Get-poor-quick

Microsoft – Big Bill Knows Better Than You.

Internet news

Liberal Autocracy In Russia

The precipitous decline of Russia under Liberalisation has naturally left a lot of ordinary Russians angry and confused. And prone to blame someone like the late Galina Starovoitova. A soft target and scapegoat for the crimes of ‘liberalisation’ – she was personally sincere, and thus not rich and not protected by a swarm of bodyguards.

But while she was definitely brave and honest, how liberal was her Liberalism?

“Galena spoke in favour of passing a law on the forbidding of communist and fascist activity in Russia. She considered both equally dangerous for democracy. The Communists stated that this was a witchhunt. And now we see that the red-browns went a-hunting themselves.”

Thus spoke Sergi Alexeyev for the Russia’s Democratic Party, after the assassination of Galina Starovoitova, the party’s most notable MP. (Guardian, 24th November.)

The Guardian feature-writers saw nothing odd in Russia’s most notable Liberal wanting to ban parties that won a large proportion of the votes in free elections, elections that were in fact rather biased against them. There was in fact a logic to what the late Galina Starovoitova seems to have been advocating (not that any other media source gets beyond the platitude of calling her politics ‘liberal’. Liberal Autocracy applied in a state of confusion might have worked. And since the Soviet Model had long ago dropped socialism and had no coherent ideas beyond hanging on to power, I expressed support for Boris Yeltsin when he banned the Communist Party after the failed coup of 1991.

Liberal Autocracy was not tried. It had worked passably well in a number of societies, beginning with Cromwell and doing wonders for France under De Gaulle. A system of definite authority, reshaping the society, but with the fixed intention of allowing democratic rule to start or resume in time. That time being the point where a coherent and reformed ‘demos’ or mass society has been built.

No such ‘demos’ existed when the Soviet model fell apart. What had been built by Stalin was confused and demoralised by Khrushchev, then kept in a kind of frozen chaos by Brezhnev. It was not like the early days of North America, where large numbers of immigrants came from self-organising societies and readily reproduced much the same pattern in a new land. Nor the later immigration, where people from very different background were encouraged – sometimes compelled – to discard their past and fit into the structures and cultural patterns that already existed in the USA. Russia in 1991 was a society that no longer knew what it was, and no aspirations beyond a desire for a West European standard of living.

Under American advice, Yeltsin then set up a slavish copy of the Western system, as the dominant New Right then understood it. And that wasn’t in fact a very good understanding.

Americans have been through centuries of social conditioning that makes them spontaneously Babbits. Selfish little consumers who know instinctively that all the talk of freedom does not mean you can do the wrong thing. Processing Russians into Babitskis might have worked, given the extreme demoralisation of the nation back in 1991. But it would have been a processing, an imposition, a possible goal for a Liberal Autocracy. Something like what Deng Xiaoping ran in China, with great success, though he was both wiser and more confident in his own culture.

If the intention was to restructure Russia on American lines, giving simple democracy to the existing population was damn silly. Western advice in fact waltzed unintelligently between sympathy and repression. Yeltsin was encouraged to take a hard line with his Parliament, whose speaker was a Chechin who preferred to operate within the wider framework of Russia. When this hard line led to a predictable uprising, the West applauded Yeltsin as a good democrat for shelling his own democratically elected parliament. They wouldn’t have approved had President Clinton used such methods to resolve his own little difficulties with Congress. But in the sacred cause of anti-Communism, almost anything was allowable. And there was genuine surprise when the result turned sour,

Eastern Europe has succeeded because it did allow its former Communists real power. Some returned to government, or have been in and out again, they are participating in real democracy. Whereas Russia’s parliament was treated as a hollow sham. A talking shop which was needed to make Yeltsin’s rule respectable, but which must be prevented from doing the wrong thing, as the Americans saw it.

Meantime the economy was crapped up. America was built on commercial values, by people who mostly came from market-oriented societies. Yet America runs by a vast mass of subsidies, protection and pork-barrel politics. Only for foreigners do they want the benefits of unregulated market forces.

A few enthusiasts spoke of the ‘coming boom’ in Russia. It boomed, all right. It blew up, and came close to bringing down the world financial system with it. Of course a crisis that threatens American and West European interests will be contained by the intelligent exercise of state power. But Russia is now suffering a continuous decline, much poorer and worse organised than when it abandoned the Soviet Union.

I doubt if there was anyone substantial behind the killing of Galina Starovoitova. Her party was part of a declining fragile centre that is weak in part because of the inability of all the little parties to work with like-minded people. Outside of St Petersburg she had very little support. Why should any of those seriously seeking power at the centre have considered her worth killing? If anything, she is more of a problem dead than alive.

Possibly she touched on some particular corrupt interest that thought it worth killing her to silence her. Or maybe it was connected with local politics in St Petersburg, which was her power-base. Or just offended one of the fragmented mass of ordinary Russians deeply offended by what has been done to them all through the 1990s. And violence has become endemic. The Guardian mentions a whole range of people including a couple of Communists among the victims of Russia’s endemic violence.

Assassination routinely happening within democratic politics is a peculiarity of American culture. You only find it there, and in places where America has had a strong cultural influence.

The Russian tradition of romantic political assassination by idealistic killers who were quite happy to be caught and punished did not really survive the Revolution. Oh, and a lot of the nihilists were disciples of Adam Smith. It’s an older tradition in Russia than Marxism, which may be why Khrushchev was so easily able to revive it in the 1950s.

[Russian liberalism has since sunk well below the reduced state it had reached by 1998.  They can’t win a single seat in the national parliament, and have only a handful in the numerous regional parliaments.]

 

Sound-bitten politics

You can underestimate the intelligence of the American public, the recent US elections showed that. The notion that lying about his private life made Clinton unfit for office was obvious nonsense. The net result was a Republican campaign that firmly shot itself in the foot.

Newt Gingrich did show a bit of sense, in seeing that he was finished. He then did what both Heath and Thatcher failed to do – sacrificed himself in good time to keep his brand of politics alive.

 

Get-poor-quick

The defect of any get-rich-quick scheme is that the money has to come from somewhere. Often the greedy investor, which causes me no grief. But also sometimes from poor and needy people.

After the recent storm damage, France cancelled debts owed by Nicaragua and Honduras. This rated a mention on the BBC World Service and half a sentence in a small article on page 17 of the Independent (12th November). I didn’t see it anywhere else, and certainly not at its true significance.

Large masses of debt can be written off, when it suits the Overclass. They even managed to bail out a hedge fund, when it suited them. “Too big to fail” is coded language for “this could hurt us, and not just a bunch of little people.

When it is only ‘little people’, they get squashed. In the USA, they are even dopey enough to vote for it.

 

Microsoft – Big Bill Knows Better Than You.

I have used quite a lot of Microsoft products, at home and at work. I have found them clever and well written. But also that they make no provision for you living differently. Thus you have an electronic diary that is wonderful if your whole life revolves round having meetings and servicing a huge network of contacts. For a more normal life – even for work below the level of senior management – it seems less relevant.

Bill Gates is very much the product of corporate America.   Changed but retaining many old features. And retains the standard view of life as a burden on money. Whereas some of the pioneers were self-made and from poor backgrounds, Bill Gates came from a moderately successful family in the corporate-American subculture. Thus he was able to flourish where other pioneers didn’t understand the rules and ran into trouble.

Bill’s own efforts to keep control have run him into legal problems, though this too is standard for corporate America. As indeed are cycles of rise and decline, and his decline may perhaps have just started. The agreed take-over by AOL with its huge number of customers of Netscape with its alternative to Microsoft technology may produce a revolution in computers over the next few years.

 

Internet news

The Internet may have developed as a vehicle for pornography and peculiar discussion groups, but it has gone far beyond that. It also grew as a vehicle for many other sorts of specialist dialogue, including the rapid exchange of information between scientists and mathematicians working in dozens of specialist areas. And now it is also becoming a means of mass publishing.

A recent survey found that BBC Online was the most popular Website in the UK, with as many as a million page-views for top items like the Leonid meteors and the Starr report. It deserves it too. Much more informative and detailed than CEEFAX. Like a news bulletin, except you can go right to the items that interest you.

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