We need to be more than right

In a liberal democracy we should be making space for small, dissident, and unconventional opinions and parties.

John O’Sullivan
29 June 2016

Former Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty remarks at IRI’s Beacon Project transatlantic round table in Vienna delivered on 28-30 April 2016. It seems that those who have been fighting against communism and totalitarianism in the past, now will have to put on their uniforms for a new battle that may last well in the future.

The speech about Vladimir Putin, it is inevitably one about ourselves, about our weaknesses and our divisions. It must therefore include a good deal of self-criticism and the revelation of serious differences among democrats that Putin has excelled in exploiting.

First, however, the Russian president himself.

Putin has only really ever had one job: namely KGB intelligence officer. In that capacity, he served in East Germany. We can conclude that he has developed at least one skill: namely, corrupting people. Discovering their weaknesses and exploiting them, blackmail, intimidation, and if those fail, brutality.

He took over the presidency as the agent of himself and other siloviki, not then all billionaires, in the KGB machine. They in turn took over the state. That was not very difficult because Russia was and is a post-totalitarian state.

A post-totalitarian state differs fundamentally from a post-authoritarian one because of what it has inherited from its totalitarian predecessor. As the scholar Avierez Tucker has pointed out, an authoritarian state can be seen as one that has crushed its previous political elites but allowed all its other elites—from choreographers to astronomers to businessmen—to remain in place. Provided they don’t interfere in politics, they can continue to lead and represent their specialized realms of human activity with little let or hindrance.

As a result, when the authoritarian regime is overthrown and democracy established, a few prominent people go to jail but otherwise all the activities of society except for politics continue largely unchanged but perhaps revived and stimulated by the freer atmosphere.

A totalitarian regime, on the other hand, is one in which all the different social elites are either replaced or controlled by the political elite—and as time goes by, that means the national security elite. When such a regime is overthrown, all its constituent institutions are for a time headless. Either they then morph into a more democratic society, slowly growing new leaderships across the board (often with help and guidance from the West and bodies like IRI, NED, and RFERL), or they lapse back into a soft totalitarianism in which the political and national security elites manipulate all the other elites behind a mask of democracy.

Look today at Russian television: its news programs and documentaries have all the outward appearance of free Western media including debate and “controversy.” But they are dictated by the Kremlin to ensure that the right conclusions are reached or, if that is too improbable, that the wrong conclusions are avoided, or if even this stretches credulity too far, that no conclusions at all are reached on the grounds that truth is unknowable and all perspectives on it equally valuable.

The fatal weakness of a post-totalitarian society is that national security elites have limited skills. They can lie, cheat, blackmail, murder, but they can’t paint, dance, grow things, discover cures for cancer, or even win at sports without cheating.

Above all they cannot create wealth. So they have to take over companies, industries, economies, and countries; exploit them to the max, and when they collapse into bankruptcy, take over the next victims and start the process again.

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What does this mean in the case of Russia? To amend an old joke, most countries own an intelligence service. Russia is an intelligence service that owns a country.

Its intelligence officers or siloviki have the aim of protecting their personal wealth and power, and they see this as Russia’s overriding national interest as others have argued. They divide and conquer, and in modern Europe that means inter alia dividing people on the basis of their opinions and ideologies.

Intelligence services do not have opinions, morals, world-views, philosophies, economic theories, or political views. They have an excellent working knowledge of all these things which they bring out and display as the needs of the occasion warrant. And conservatives—especially conservatives out of power or highly unfashionable—are among their targets.

Thus, if there’s a Moscow conference of right-wing anti-Americans in Europe or Asia, they bring out Alexander Dugin to explain how geopolitics means the eventual triumph of Eurasia over the Anglo-Americans. Then they put him back in the cupboard again.

Or if there are religious conservatives who hold traditional moral and religious views, they point out that Moscow today is the main source of ideological resistance to a Western liberal agenda of abortion and gay marriage and invite them, expenses paid, to a world conference on traditional values in Russia—maybe at one of the more decadent Black Sea resorts.

If a gay rights organization in Afghanistan were to appeal for help, I’m sure that Putin would be happy to meet them in a dress and high heels—Chatham House rules, of course.

In short, whatever works. Relativism rules. If you’re caught out in contradictions, point out that there is no truth, only truths or multiple perspectives. And, by the way, everyone’s corrupt. Cynicism rules too.

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Peter Pomerantzev—not incidentally, the son of a star of, first, the World Service of the BBC and, later, of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—has worked out the implications of this “philosophy” in his mind-changing book Everything is Possible and Nothing is True.

So to has David Satter in It was All a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway. It creates the facsimile of a genuine news service and genuine debate. RT does this well to a small audience. Russia’s domestic media does it much better to a much larger captive audience. But how does it work in the world of the Right, loosely and widely defined?

That brings me to us—not the Right but the West and its different divisions.

My first point about us is to point out that the West is currently in the early stages (maybe middle stages) of an ideological meltdown and emergence of new political divisions.

Trump is an example of that in the United States. Here the basic division of centre-left and centre-right governing parties is being replaced by a larger and more diverse version of the multi-party system. Some parties are more or less respectable; others not. But they are all smallish and rising and they have few friends in the conventional mass media. So Putin exploits their neediness by offering them money and attention.

Jobbik and the National Front receive direct subsidies. Others get invited to Moscow. Others appear on RT. Earlier it was said that RT has a small audience. Yes, but many of these new politicians aren’t asked to appear on any other channel. They are grateful, and they spread RT’s work and existence through social media. And they are open to the temptation to be grateful to Putin for their brief and small celebrity status.

Whose fault is it if they fall for this temptation? Well, theirs of course; and Putin’s; but also ours. In a liberal democracy we—including journalists—should be making space for small, dissident, and unconventional opinions and parties.

Not that we should offer them a free pass to the public. We should subject them to argument, debate, and hostile interview. But they should not be able to complain that they have been suppressed or allowed on television only at election time.

Consider also that some of these parties may turn out in retrospect to have been telling unfashionable truths — as were Reagan and Thatcher in the détente-minded 1970s. As for truly poisonous factions — neo-nazi and not-really-post-communist parties, for instance — they will grow faster in the dark than in sunlight.

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More important than Putin’s cultivation of small parties, however, is his ability to exploit our new ideological divisions. These ideological disputes are also the children of the post-1989 landscape. And we have to accept that some of them will divide the people in this room as well as more widely. Here are three:

1.   Human rights, customs, values, and traditions.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we may have differed on the West’s use of human rights in diplomacy, but mostly we didn’t differ on what human rights were.

They were not imprisoning and torturing political opponents, not censoring the press, and not shooting at demonstrators. It was easier for Western governments to lobby dictators not to close down free media than to hold the free elections that would overthrow them.

But everyone could agree on the need to defend a broad range of civil or procedural rights. Today the concept of human rights has expanded to include rights—for instance, abortion rights and gay marriage—that challenge not dictators but the traditional customs and mores of other societies. Such rights are controversial in the U.S. and Western Europe where they represent the ideas of advanced progressive opinion. They outrage many decent people in much of Europe, especially in small towns and rural areas, and in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Again, as with procedural rights, there would be overwhelming support for a more prudent human rights policy that, for instance, opposed the criminalization of homosexuality. To make the legalization of same-sex marriage an important plank of American foreign policy, however, makes America an enemy to traditional society in most of the world.

Putin exploits the anger this causes by posing as the guardian of Christian rights and moral tradition. This is nonsense, of course. Putin’s regime is an utterly amoral one that uses Christian values and the Orthodox Church as weapons of national interest. But he is exploiting a real problem created by our imprudence and fuzzy thinking.

Many of these new “human rights” would be more properly treated as differences of moral opinion to be settled by domestic political debate rather than by international treaties and agencies. We have to find ways of handling what is a moral debate within the West without trying to impose the views of one side in that debate, namely the progressive side, on countries where religion and a conservative sexual morality are living beliefs among most citizens.

U.S. foreign policy seems at times to be bent on imposing what Benedict XVI called “a dictatorship of relativism” everywhere. That plays into Putin’s hands.

2.       Post-Democracy versus Democracy

As Anna Fotyga remarked, there is a surprising problem with the term “liberal democracy.” As a defender of liberal democracy as pure as Marc Plattner of the NED has written, there is always a tension between liberalism and democracy, between majority rule and the liberal rules designed to prevent the misuse of majority rule.

For myself I would argue that the balance within liberal democracy has tipped too far away from democracy and towards liberalism with more and more powers being transferred from Parliaments that are democratically accountable to the voters — and towards courts, bureaucracies, and transnational institutions that are accountable either to themselves or to no one.

To make matters worse, these non-democratic institutions are often driven by opinions very different from those of the voters. And though they begin modestly by correcting those laws and regulations that arguably violate the Constitution, they go on to lay down their own positive laws, i.e., to legislate, if unchecked.

The longer this continues, the more that the substance of majority-rule democracy is whittled away and replaced by judicial oligarchy. Maybe we should call this system post-democracy as John Fonte of the Hudson Institute does.

Whatever it’s called, this development is exploited cleverly by Putin with his notion of “sovereign democracy.” Well, it’s sovereign alright—he’s the sovereign—but there’s little of democracy about it.

Though fraudulent, however, this an appealing argument when the judges cite human rights to free a terrorist or to overrule border control. Putin today is wooing the “sovereigntist” critics of global governance who resent and oppose the weakening of democratic and national rights that this drift of power threatens. He has a strong negative argument even if he offers no solution.

We need to think our way through this problem before Putin divides us further on it. Ryszard Legutko of Poland’s Law and Justice party has just written an important book discussing the totalitarian temptations in a free society. We should read it and other books. Again, this is a question we need to settle before Putin wins over democrats who wonder why their own governments keep ignoring it.

3.      Anti-Americanism.

Anti-Americanism is an important plank in the new developing ideology of anti-Westernism within the West. Ironically, this anti-Americanism is a reaction to the success of NATO and the West in the Cold War.

It has persuaded some conservative sections of Western society that their values are being undermined by an America that they no longer need as a defence against Russia.

There is some truth in this, as I argued in points 1 and 2 above: the US sometimes embarks on progressive crusades unsettling to its traditional supporters in Europe. But they take this argument farther so that it effectively treats America’s and NATO’s assistance to democratic movements in Europe as a hostile form of cultural imperialism.

Some even argue that American popular culture is an insidious threat to a deeper European culture (though European attempts to imitate it show no great superiority.) And the 2008 financial crash is widely seen as proof that America’s economic theories, in addition to reflecting the law of the jungle, don’t even work. (Fortunately, this last attack has diminished somewhat as Europe lags behind the US in recovering economically.)

This cocktail of anti-American prejudices is a potent one, and has become almost a part of some new national personalities; along with commercialism and pacifism, it helps to define the new German identity.

It hobbles all kinds of cooperation between Europe and America. Putin exploits it very effectively. He presents Russia as Europe’s main defence against the American threat, himself as its principal opponent, and Eurasia as its alternative and anti-dote. The answer to all these sophistries is plain and simple: Ukraine. Compared to the alternative, America is a very modest threat indeed. And the U.S. is still needed.

How should we respond to all these challenges? There is no alternative to telling the truth and countering bad arguments with better ones. Sophistry has been with us since Socrates and Plato. But it is inconsistent with reality and so is always exposed in the end. Lysenkoism eventually collapsed because it grew less corn.

While debate is still raging, however, we need to be more than right. We need to be eloquent, witty, dramatic, engaging—in a word, entertaining. That means we should not only be making news programs, documentaries and pamphlets, but also plays, musicals, opera librettos, novels, graphic novels, television sit-coms—in a phrase, conquering the culture. We won’t do that if we lack talent, and even talented people won’t succeed if they write propaganda rather than follow a genuine insight into life, love, and truth.

But think of it this way: We can’t possibly do worse than socialist realism.

John O’Sullivan is president of the Danube Institute in Budapest and editor of Quadrant in Sydney. He served as vice president and executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He was an advisor to Prime Minister Thatcher and helped on the writing of her memoirs.

 The Beacon Project is run by the International Republican Institute and sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.  It aims to support a stronger and broader transatlantic dialogue on how to jointly defend the core values the democratic world was built upon, against threats from both outside and within. It particularly looks at propaganda and disinformation as one of the major threats to democracy and freedom.