Monday, December 26, 2011

Pravda, and Neuroticism

Little more than two decades ago, there used to be a country called the Soviet Union, ruled by a Communist Party that had little tolerance for ideological deviance. The mouthpiece of that party was called ‘Pravda’, staffed by petty ministry-of-truth bureaucrats whose purpose it was to enforce the party’s monopoly on power and extol the virtues of Communism, if need be through denigrating slander, an art that was perfected during Stalin’s years. The Pravda mentality is, it seems, alive and well in Armenia, with two minor variations: the ideology to be defended is no longer Marxism-Leninism, but petty nationalism, and the mouthpiece is called ‘’.

In a particularly vicious and chauvinistic piece on that web-based news outlet, a certain Marina Ananikyan takes issue with those citizens who dare question their own republic’s defence policy, who want to celebrate Azerbaijani culture (‘non-existent’, according to the author) on Armenian soil, or those who have dared question the wisdom of the decision by the French parliament to criminalise denial of the Armenian Genocide. After viciously attacking and ridiculing Armenia’s NGO sector, the author concludes that: “People capable of treason should be called to account.

The mentality that allows one to classify the expression of an opinion, or the organization of days of culture, or the advocacy of human rights, or, in fact, the questioning of a foreign legislative act as ‘treason’ has always eluded me. And it is intimately linked to the completely skewed attitude towards statehood that pervades so many former Soviet societies. The state is there to be obeyed, to be served; as in Soviet times, and as in Leninist political parties, once policy has been established, it must be adhered to by all citizen-comrades. Any dissenting voice is immediately qualified as ‘treasonous’ and sent into the realm of dissidence. An echo of this attitude could also be heard in the confrontation between the governor of Syunik province and environmental activists protesting the expansion of copper mining, where after a few sinister threats, the activists (‘shrimps’) were basically called upon to shut up and serve their state.

I guess the choice here is between a jealous, neurotic state that demands obedience and crushes dissent wherever it sees it, or a self-confident, tolerant state that thrives on pluralism and debate, turning diversity of opinion into a strength. M. Ananikyan and have clearly chosen the neurotic variant; their readers deserve better.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Back to the Future, Again?

Is this how it feels before global calamity? The problem with historically transformative disasters – the two World Wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union – is that they are usually accompanied by a confluence of circumstance and agency that causes the situation to spiral beyond the control of political actors. Witness the dramatic acceleration of the Soviet Union’s hitherto gradual decline following the August 1991 coup. Or, in a more conventional vein, the deadly forces unleashed like a coiled spring by a few shots in Sarajevo, in August 1914.

Economic crises and financial crashes provide even more appropriate examples of what complexity theorists call this the ‘butterfly effect’: a minor event (‘the flaps of a butterfly’s wing’s in China’) is amplified through an unstable system out of all proportion (in the conventional narrative, into a hurricane). Joe Shmoe fails to pay the sub-prime mortgage on his woefully overvalued home in Duluth, Ohio, and Italy goes bust, with or without a few human blunders in between.

Today, we, in the supposedly victorious post-Cold War West, may be finding ourselves in a similar situation, where an unstable set-up could combine with political ineptitude to produce the most unintended results. The world (or, to be more exact, the Western) economy has been considerably weakened by the ongoing financial crisis, whose underlying systemic tensions and imbalances are still present in unmitigated form. The banks may have been saved, but only by transforming private into public debt, pulling down the weakest sovereigns in the process. Global trade still places China as the export manufacturing powerhouse it was before the crisis; efforts at encouraging domestic consumption there have been piecemeal, and the yuan is still undervalued. The financial system remains, for all intents and purposes, unreformed: it has been tweaked at the edges, but over the longer term, its capacity to produce systemic crises has neither been eliminated nor in fact mitigated. The Euro’s possible death-throes are an ominous sign that these imbalances are creating a tipping point, at the other end of which lies financial, economic and political chaos.

Any miscalculation would be disastrous at this point. At stake is not just a common currency, or a particular economic model. At stake is the very structure of security on the European continent, in Western Europe since World War Two, in the centre and the east since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But what the myopic Eurosceptics in the conservative party and on the pages of the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Spectator either do not realise (or do not want to realise), is that is isn’t simply Italian and Greek pensions, the Franco-German axis, European democracy or that is at stake with the failure of the common currency; it is the very idea, the very mode of thought that has made Western Europe the most peaceful region in the history of mankind over the past 60 years.

De-securitisation and a-security are central to this mode of thought: the idea that there are no longer security issues between European nations, and that threats are defined and tackled collectively, be they of a military, political, economic, societal or environmental nature. This is precisely what dampened the modern European curse of nationalism following World War Two, and it has become taken for granted to such a degree that we might actually end up inadvertently losing the very stability it has provided over the past decades. This has happened before: the crowds that cheered their armies into the meat-grinder that World War One was to become were blinded by the progress, prosperity and European hegemony of the years that came before. Those – like David Cameron - who see the possible fall of the Euro as an ‘opportunity’ are in no way less small-minded.

In fact, a plethora of anti-European market fundamentalists – among others Daniel Hannan, Norman Tebbitt and Janet Daley, and the larger part of the parliamentary Conservative Party – have made a point of populating the pages of the British press with a curious and incoherent mix of the euro-sceptic and germanophobic. As usual, they accuse Europe of a lack of democracy, nay, even of organising coups; the solution, they say, is not the democratisation of Europe’s institutions but a return of powers to Westminster. Staunch parliamentarians that they are, they suddenly discover the wonders of the not-so-parliamentary referendum. And, with a mindset stuck somewhere in 1945, they accuse Germany of trying to take over Europe, the implication being that the United Kingdom would have to play its traditional role of ‘balancer’, as in the good old 19th century. For good measure, they also advise the PM not to trust ‘them frogs’, no doubt remembering the past glories of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson. Some people apparently don’t mind taking the term ‘conservative’ to its absurd, retrograde extremes.

Purposefully or not, all this finger-pointing serves to camouflage the one elephant in the room: the dismal failure of the Anglo-Saxon model of unfettered, minimally regulated capitalism in fulfilling the very promise of prosperity it has been dangling in front of the overwhelming majority of society for decades, but could only deliver at the cost of massive indebtedness. Contrast this with the success of the much more tightly regulated and consensual German economy – where employers, trade unions and the state co-ordinate instead of engaging in never-ending class warfare – and the inherent power relations that drive such narrow fake patriotic rhetoric become clear.

This is not about defending democracy; after all, none of these instant radical democrats are clamouring for referenda on that insultingly archaic and undemocratic institution much closer to home, the Corporation of London, or the austerity measures and cutbacks that have affected millions right here, in Britain. This is about transferring powers back to nation states, whose individual regulatory power will pale into insignificance when confronted with the might of transnational corporations and financial entities whose market capitalisations and turnovers can rival an individual country’s GDP. This is about diverting attention from local socio-economic failures through a primitive appeal to parochial nationalism. This is about divide, rule, and obfuscate, and certainly not people power.

The implication of this euro- and Germany-bashing is that Greece and Italy would have had a choice in the absence of intervention from Brussels to retain the ridiculously inept governments of Berlusconi and Papandreou. But the argument is flawed on two levels that go beyond the simple observation that both changes in government were approved and legitimised by elected parliaments. Firstly, ‘Europe’ was merely acting as an intermediary, transmitting the demands of the market to these nation-states; if anything, it is the market – sacrosanct to the Eurosceptics mentioned above - that is fundamentally undemocratic, and shifting power to nation-states wouldn't change that one jot. Quite on the contrary, on their own, outside an economic and political union, nation-states would be at the mercy of these markets to a far greater extent. Could the UK, Greece or Luxemburg take on wannabe (?) monopolists like Microsoft, extortive multinationals like Europe’s mobile telecoms operators, and professional gamblers in the financial sector on their own? Hardly. ‘Desist, or we’ll take our jobs elsewhere’ and ‘Regulate, and we’ll take our money elsewhere’ would become even more frequently heard refrains than they are today. Try to organise referenda against that.

Secondly, even if the flawed mechanisms behind the Euro are to blame for the imbalances affecting Southern Europe, the solution to these flaws is more, not less of a more democratised Europe; and this choice for Europe, democracy and the Euro goes beyond the simple logic of economic expediency. Shrinking the European project, or risking the latter through a collapse of the Euro would be the height of irresponsibility, precisely because of the ‘butterfly effect’ and its associated dangers described before. Abandon Europe, and all bets are off, security-wise. For the first time since World War Two, 'Europe' will not have tackled a major security challenge collectively. Once this logic of nationalist competition takes hold, once relationships are re-securitised, there is no knowing where it will end, as it spills over from the economic into other security sectors and affects issue-area after issue-area. What might be inconceivable today could become reality tomorrow: Mearsheimer’s back-to-the-future thesis might perform one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the history of social science.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Defending the Indefensible.

One can only guess what led Mr. Benon Sevan - former under-secretary of the United Nations - into publicly attacking critics of the current regime in Armenia (“so-called pundits, rabble-rousers, including self-serving former government officials”) for trying to “bring about a regime change not through the ballot box but through encouraging a mob culture”. One could not fail to feel a measure of puzzled, slightly nauseated discomfort at his de-crying of the excessive negativity heard about the Republic in the Armenian media. Whatever the reason - fawning servility or accidental ignorance - the sight of someone of Mr. Sevan's stature defending the indefensible was not at all appetising.

Of all the hundreds of negative reports, is not there at least a single positive development to report on? Contrary to the ongoing politically motivated negativism, there are indeed many successes and improvements achieved in Armenia which deserve to be congratulated and encouraged”, so goes the argument. No country has become democratic overnight, it is posited, and centuries of foreign occupation and seventy years of communist rule have apparently turned poor native Armenian brains into such incoherent goo that they are not able to comprehend the complicated ins-and-outs of electoral democracy and the rule of law. Counting ballots correctly is a very difficult task, it seems.

It is fair to ask whether there has been any society in history that has achieved progress through the kind of self-congratulatory censorship Mr. Sevan proposes. Armenians could, of course, fill the pages of their newspapers with stories of Armenia’s glorious victories and successes – Pravda-style – only to see a polity without critique and introspection inevitably end in Brezhnevite stagnation. Armenians could, naturally, pretend life in Armenia is fab while hundreds of thousands vote with their feet and seek their economic prosperity and political liberty in foreign lands. And Armenians could, as a matter of fact, close their eyes to the authoritarian excesses of Armenia’s leaders, excesses that, far from being the mysterious product of some centuries-old trauma, are the conscious efforts at usurpation by a corrupt elite whose insidious politics and organised criminality are inextricably intertwined.

But when Mr. Sevan directs critics of the current authorities towards the ballot-box, he leaves out the crucial fact that it is the heavy, sweaty hand of a this elite that rests on that box and does the “counting”. In the absence of elected government, it behoves outsiders to respect those who try to resist injustice and effect change, instead of siding with those who, over the past two decades, have turned this country into one gigantic money-making racket, based on government of some people, by some people and for some people.

Those who want a clearer view of the real dangers Armenia is sleep-walking into should urgently re-read Dr. Jirair Libaridian’s recent open letter on the current situation, one that offers a depressing but harshly realistic contrast to Mr. Sevan’s advocation of self-indulgent and entirely misplaced complacency.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten Years On

Alongside marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a relative, 9-11 probably ranks as one of our lives’ starkest, clearest reminiscences. Emotions always help jog the memory; and no emotion does that better than raw terror, the one raw sentiment that these attacks were designed to instil with such chilling effectiveness. For some, that terror consisted of witnessing a world-changing atrocity live, on television; for others – with relatives in the towers, the Pentagon, the planes – that terror mixed with the much closer grief of personal loss.

Ten years on, the mastermind of these attacks is dead. By all accounts, Al Qaeda is a mere ghost of its former self, its most important operatives neutralised, many of its networks dismantled. But will, as Fukuyama asserted in this week’s Observer, the West’s challenge by extreme and violent Islamism be a mere blip on the radar compared to the importance of the rise of China, especially when viewed fifty years hence?

Yes, 9-11 was about the violent, extreme ideology of Jihadist Islamism. And, as Fukuyama contends, it is quite probable that particular mode of thought will fall by the wayside. That is, if our leaders have the foresight not to saw the seeds of terror in an ever-growing number of Islamic states. It was particularly chilling, in that context, to hear Tony Blair engage in an exercise of spectacular intellectual dishonesty by claiming the Iraq invasion made the world a safer place. The cherry on top was his advocating military action against Iran.

If hijacked 767s act as our terror, the driver of our fears and wars, don’t F22s, drones and hellfire missiles have the same effect on those expendable as ‘collateral damage’? This is not about good, old-fashioned Western self-flagellation, not about blaming ourselves for outrages like 9-11 and 7/7. Indeed, the vicious ideology behind these atrocities has a comprehensive totalitarian and obscurantist world-view, and the core carriers of that ideology would probably not stop before these goals are realised, no matter what. But ideologies only die once their core constituencies are isolated, once they are unable to create and maintain the decentralised networks of operatives and supporters that radiate outwards from them. Creating the conditions under which their ideological claims are validated by levelling one Islamic country after another can, to put it mildly, not be helpful, for the West at least. The terrorists, on the other hand, will be much obliged.

But 9-11 was not only about the emergence of global violent Islamism, in the narrow ideological sense. Fukuyama, it seems, is repeating the mistake he made in ‘The End of History’, by confounding the concrete manifestations of grand historical patterns with the patterns themselves. Terrorism – as has been so often pointed out – is a tactic, a specific method within a broader, ideologically driven strategy. And it is the change in tactics towards mega-terrorism that is far more important than the ideology driving that change. Various waves of terrorism have been informed by diverse ideologies – anarchism, nationalism, Islamism. But there is one thread running through all of them: their increasing violence, their wider geographic reach, and the resulting escalating body counts. It is in the nature of humans to produce extreme ideas. Al Qaeda showed a willingness and ability to kill thousands for these ideas; the extremists of the future – whatever their ideological substance - will have at their disposal means of destruction unimaginable to their predecessors as technology continues proliferating. Divorced from its substantive ideological aspect, abstracted into human history, 9-11 becomes a much scarier, much more defining event. If Al Qaeda is defeated, it will morph and reincarnate under a different banner, whose colours are entirely unknown today. You can count on it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Millstones and Molotov Cocktails

‘Greece is at an existential crossroads’: a statement that has been repeated over and over again in the international media, at European summits, and in the Vouli. On the streets and squares of Athens and throughout the country, that existential crossroads is not something remote and impersonal, something abstract and far-away. It concerns people’s own livelihoods, their personal existence, their very ability to feed their children. And when humans feel threatened so profoundly in their everyday lives, they tend not to ‘give a damn’ about the lofty (?) motivations that underlay the Euro, the supposed attractions of the European project, or the world’s interest in wider financial stability. They disavow the system. They revolt. Some do so using petrol bombs. Others do so through their voting patterns. Greece’s tortured political history suggests resistance could tend towards the former rather than the latter if Greece’s and Europe’s political leaders don’t tread very carefully. But there is yet hope for peaceful and profound change.

The problem goes beyond mere questions of constitutionality or economics; it emerges, above all, from Greece’s broken, post-dictatorship social contract, the very basis for its failed societal model of the past three decades. It is easy to forget in 2011 in how far the period of stability in post-dictatorship Greece has been the exception rather than the rule within the broader context of recent, twentieth-century history. Spain’s civil war – a cause célèbre throughout Europe in its day – has been written of extensively, and has in many ways overshadowed that other, perhaps equally cruel European civil conflict, in post-World War Two Greece. The resulting constitutional instability and internal turbulence reached their nadir only during the cruel-but-farcical Colonels’ Regime of 1967-1974; when Greece entered the EU in 1980 as the ‘Hellenic Republic’, the scars within its society hadn’t healed. Substantial portions of its population remained disenfranchised and excluded. The subsequent flow of European grants and subsidies provided a cure of sorts, but resulted in a social contract that was entirely distorted and ultimately untenable. In fact, it would perhaps have been better had Greece joined the European Union at a far later date.

Greek elites always saw the public sector as a tool of political patronage; Europe allowed them to expand this abuse, without moreover having to raise the domestic revenue that such an exercise in patronage would normally require. Andreas Papandreou (whose father Giorgios allegedly prophesied that he would run Greece asunder) at first hired left-wing Greeks in an understandable effort to correct their exclusion from the state in the decades following the Communists’ civil-war defeat; but things soon spiralled out of control, with successive socialist and conservative governments hiring sympathisers in turn, buying off public-sector workers with an ever-expanding list of (at times preposterous) benefits and wage rises. The private sector, meanwhile, was stifled under a mountain of rules and regulations, or smothered with productivity-reducing subsidies (Greece is 109th in the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index): sector after sector was turned into a ‘closed shop’, where only a few select, licensed, and usually ‘connected’ individuals were allowed to ply their trade. In return, those left outside of the relative safety of public service or monopolised private sectors were allowed to treat the payment of taxes as contributions to a charity called the ‘Hellenic Republic’.

Without these generous grants and subsidies from Brussels, Greek society would have had to confront the state’s spiralling expenses and inadequate revenues far earlier, and in a far more piecemeal fashion than is the case today. And without the entirely politically motivated admission of Greece into the Euro, Greek society would have faced the higher interest payments on its debt, soon disallowing any publicly funded ‘generosity’ on the part of its irresponsible elites. Quite apart from the issue of inadequate oversight and the fiddling of numbers, it is these subsidies and grants themselves that created an imbalance in the Greek economy that allowed for the continuation of venality in all impunity. As it happened, these subsidies crammed the countless difficult decisions that could have been taken in stages, over decades without causing much social disruption into today, overwhelming the nation’s body politic and tearing its fabric apart.

Re-establishing social cohesion on a more sustainable basis won’t be easy. The kind of economic shock Greece is going through more often than not results in a shifting of the political landscape, but this doesn’t seem to have dawned on many of the existing political actors. The established political centre is, in essence, morally and politically bankrupt; both Pasok and the ND have lost a large chunk of their electorates, even as they continue business as usual by playing petty partisan politics on Greece’s economic half-corpse. Predictably, both the populist right and unreformed radical left are screaming their lungs out hysterically in an attempt to pilfer votes from their mainstream counterparts, in a way that insults the Greek electorate’s intelligence. Greece’s trade unions are fully living up to their reputation as the unduly romanticised representatives of vested public-sector interests. And ordinary Greeks are looking on in growing disgust, confusion, fear and anger.

This existential crossroads could take the country in either of two directions: political-economic oblivion, or renaissance. The basic choice is there for Greeks to make. While still relatively disorganised and ideologically incoherent, the ‘indignados’ movement could form the basis of the latter by spawning political movements that could challenge existing elites and claim a place in the country’s parliamentary politics. And Greek politics needs new blood, badly; given Greece’s still-vibrant and articulate civil society, and the utter rot of its political elites, such new blood should not be too difficult to come by. The end result could be a ‘fourth republic’, with a renegotiated constitutional bargain, and a competitive economy where social progress is based on substantial private-sector growth rather than the pilfering of state institutions and overdependence on EU aid. Insofar as one cannot rebuild state and society with a millstone around one’s neck, default – preferably managed and gradual - should also be an option, an option a far-from-blameless Europe would have to accept and support. Failure to rebuild would mean the Molotov cocktail and the brash populism of the extreme right and the left gaining the upper hand; taking that millstone off the Greeks’ necks would thus be a wise investment, far wiser in any case than the maladministered subsidies and grants that distorted the country’s economy in the first place.