30 December 2014

Yugoslavia and the betrayal of democracy

Cross-posted from Oriental Review and Global Research:

I have recently been reading a book by Czech economist Jaroslav Vaněk entitled The Participatory Economy: an Evolutionary Hypothesis and a Strategy for Development; it was written in 1971 and therefore at places feels a bit dated, but it contains many ideas which are both prescient and utterly profound, and perspectives which even at this late date came to me as surprising and counter-intuitive. The book makes the argument for a market-based economic democracy in which the cooperative, worker-managed firm holds a central place, and asserts that this setup: a.) would provide a basis for a larger number of firms in the market, better-proportioned in size with regard to one another; b.) would reduce the most crass and cutthroat aspects of capitalistic competition in the market; c.) would make full employment easier to attain; d.) would significantly reduce inflation and runaway ‘growth for growth’s sake’; whilst at the same time it e.) would operate very close to an optimal level of economic efficiency. Though when Vaněk veers into social theory to make the cases for the equivalence of political and economic self-determination or for the ‘convergence’ of economies both planned and market, he heads out onto thin logical ice, the central argument itself is intriguing. Even more intriguing is the case-study he makes of the Yugoslav economy during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Vaněk asserts that Tito’s Yugoslavia in the wake of the Stalin-Tito split was the closest society in the world to his ideal of a worker-managed economy, and that as a result it was able to provide an example of a highly-efficient, humane and human-scaled economy, sporting near full employment, incredibly high educational standards and a high standard of living, which was the envy of many of the other nations in the region. He notes that the Yugoslav economy was built through a long process of trial-and-error, but that its income growth between 1951 and 1959 was unparalleled anywhere else in the world except Japan. Under the influence of Yugoslav economists Edvard Kardelj and Branko Horvat, it was, so it seems, a successful experiment in the flavour of economic democracy advocated by Vaněk (and before him, non-Marxist leftists in the British tradition, namely William Morris and G. D. H. Cole).

Vaněk’s sketch of Tito’s Yugoslavia is intriguing and appealing, and indeed counter-intuitive to most American audiences. It opens up a view to the possibility of a more humane economy, one with a greater eye to the organic participation of (as opposed to the state- or market-segregation of) the human person in his own work – an important theme which has been touched upon also by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. Indeed, Vaněk is at his most beguiling when he begins to explore the decidedly non-Marxist, non-materialist – moralistic, spiritual, even religious – dimensions of his economic vision. He places a great deal of emphasis on man’s fundamental roles as creator and as co-creator, as participants, however imperfect, in the work of God. Vaněk is concerned – as indeed all religious men and women ought to be concerned – that the ontological disconnect in both capitalism and communism between moral man and the fruits of his work forebodes an exchange of the true for the merely expedient (as in advertising); an exchange of artistic and religious pursuits for mere accumulation; an exchange of meaning for mere diversion. The words Vaněk uses for this alienation under both capitalism and communism are not sparing: ‘purposeless’, ‘self-centred’, ‘incomplete personality’, even ‘mutilation’. It is little wonder indeed that he seeks after a more participatory model in which this systematic alienation between creator and created may be eased!

Much as I can sympathise with these aims and concerns, I do indeed have some deep problems with Vaněk’s political analysis, though. Vaněk is an idealist, as many Czechs indeed still are, and holds a burning zeal for political democracy which shines forth very clearly in his writing. There is not only charm and wit but also a thirst for truth in his reasoning, and it is difficult not to be swayed by it. And yet there is still a tragic dimension to the democratic project that he too-often overlooks; the Yugoslav experiment did not occur, and likely could not have occurred, in the context of Western-style liberal parliamentarianism. Given the recent history of my own nation, I believe it a highly incredible position also, that the adoption of a degree of political democracy (what he calls ‘inner’ self-determination) correlates in any meaningful way with a nation’s respect for the sovereign integrity (‘outer’ self-determination) of other nations. In fact, what ultimately happened to Yugoslavia in the wake of the Soviet collapse provides a highly tragic counterexample.

Once its usefulness as a geopolitical buffer between the West and the Soviet bloc evaporated with the dissolution of Soviet Union itself, the Yugoslav economy was deliberately sabotaged and broken by the political nexus of IMF-managed Western capital. As historian Michael Parenti describes it, previously Yugoslavia had borrowed from the West in part to expand its domestic consumer production, and previously the IMF had obliged. But one of the preconditions of the IMF loan given to the Yugoslavs in 1989 was the imposition of what, by now, should look like an all-too-familiar prescription: austerity. Public programmes were slashed; wages were frozen; the currency was devalued and the system of worker-managed firms began to fray as their sources of investment began to dry up and as the legal framework which had supported them vanished under IMF ‘restructuring’. These reforms were pushed through at the beginning of the following year, to disastrous effect on the unique Yugoslav economy.

And the following collapse of Yugoslavia’s now-fraying political institutions was given a hearty push by the Bush Administration in the form of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act of 1991, which denied aid to any regions of Yugoslavia which failed to declare independence within six months. The targets of this act were Yugoslavia’s industries and state assets, which Western capital interests were eager to acquire. Opportunistic politicians, encouraged both politically and economically to rebel against the Yugoslav government, began fanning the flames of nationalist ressentiment in every corner of the former republic – which already had ample grounds to grow in an economic environment where ordinary folk were now beholden to foreign interests, powerless, jobless, destitute and increasingly desperate.

The dismantling of Yugoslavia was a tragedy. It was a tragedy in part because of the hollow nature of the democratic idealism upon which the Yugoslav government was depending in the West. And it was a tragedy in part because the West viciously betrayed and stamped out not only the Yugoslavs – of whom over a hundred thousand were murdered and four million driven from their homes in the resulting fratricidal wars over the decade to follow! – but the Yugoslav model as well, which might have been instructive in some ways for political and economic practice in both West and East.

It is indeed necessary, both in the West and in the East, to continue to find ways of easing the alienation which occurs when the ordinary person is severed from the fruits of his work, the spiritual gulf that leaves, and the corrosions of induced passions and wants, of directionless work and of meaningless leisure. Vaněk’s participatory economy based on worker-managed firms – both in theory and in his example of 1950’s and 1960’s Yugoslavia – provides one interesting, and by no means wholly unconvincing, vantage point from which to do this. But it is also necessary, now as much as ever, to cast a critical eye upon the idealistic democratic language in which the geopolitics and finance of America and Western Europe are wont to cloak themselves. Here again the example of Yugoslavia is unfortunately instructive.

22 December 2014

Consistent life ethic, Zoroastrian-style

A Parsi Zoroastrian family from Gujarat (image courtesy Livemint)

I have Alexander Patico at Orthodox Peace Fellowship to thank for this one!

Reminding us (as we all ought to be reminded at this time) that the Magi who visited Jesus in the Gospel of S. Matthew were Iranian Zoroastrians, he very kindly posted an excerpt from the Zoroastrian sacred scripture Avesta which does more than hint at a complementary pro-life ethic which makes responsibility for caring for children familial first, but secondly the social responsibility of the child’s neighbours and the community of believers more generally. Here is the quote, from the Vendidad 15, verses 13-19:
‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, and she says, “I have conceived by thee;” and he replies, “Go then to the old woman and apply to her for one of her drugs, that she may procure thee miscarriage;”

‘And the damsel goes to the old woman and applies to her for one of her drugs, that she may procure her miscarriage; and the old woman brings her some Banga, or Shaeta, a drug that kills in the womb or one that expels out of the womb, or some other of the drugs that produce miscarriage and [the man says], “Cause thy fruit to perish!” and she causes her fruit to perish; the sin is on the head of all three, the man, the damsel, and the old woman.

‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, so long shall he support her, until the child be born.

‘If he shall not support her, so that the child comes to grief, for want of proper support, he shall pay for it the penalty for wilful murder.’

O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If she be near her time, which is the worshipper of Mazda that shall support her?

Ahura Mazda answered: ‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, so long shall he support her, until the child be born.

‘If he shall not support her ... It lies with the faithful to look in the same way after every pregnant female.’

21 December 2014

Ukraine, Syria and MH 17

Firstly, John Médaille has recently shared a most remarkable story from Sputnik News regarding the possible motivations behind the American-backed coup in Ukraine which unseated Yanukovych. George Friedman, the CEO and founder of intelligence contractor Strategic Forecasting (also called Stratfor, a corporation which does a lot of contracting work with the CIA), has admitted that American involvement in the coup in Ukraine was an attempt to distract Russia from its successful involvement in keeping the Syrian situation reasonably stable, where indeed a last-minute Russian-brokered deal managed to avoid a direct shooting war of the US against the Assad government.

Secondly, Investigative journalist Anatoly Sharij interviews a former Ukrainian soldier, who claims that a.) BUK 312 was under the control of the Ukrainian Army at the time MH 17 went down (and he had been a member of the operating unit); and b.) that BUK 312 did not shoot down MH 17. Also, since the story went public, according to OpEdNews contributor Michael Collins, the Ukrainian government has retracted the ‘damning’ picture of BUK 312, and Anatoly Sharij has been forced by the Ukrainian authorities to flee the country.

This is being reported by some alt news outlets (including Global Research above) basically as Ukraine confessing to having shot down the plane itself. It is true that the Ukrainian government has been caught in a lie here. A fairly big lie at that. And its subsequent behaviour, throwing its own press releases down the memory hole and going after journalists, is incredibly suspicious. That the Ukrainian government is responsible for shooting down MH 17 might turn out to be the reason why, but we should probably still reserve judgement there. Still – to quote Alice in Wonderland – curiouser and curiouser.

I certainly hope that real and impartial investigations into both claims can be successfully mounted (or, in MH 17’s case, continued). If there is some decent corroboration on both stories, it could open up a profound basis for critique of the dominant State Department line. In the meanwhile, my heart and prayers go out to the innocent people of the Donetsk Basin who are continuing to pay the price, being trapped by their loyalties and by a government which no longer values them.

19 December 2014

Sanctions are (still) breathtakingly stupid

Even if you’re not a fan of President Putin, the easiest and most effective way to ensure his recalcitrance to cooperate with the West on the world stage whilst simultaneously driving more and more Russians into his welcoming arms (including ones who weren’t already there) is precisely this way that the US Congress, President Obama and his minions in the State Department have been going about it: using sanctions. In spite of all the salivating articles you’re likely to find strewn about the Anglophone blogosphere gleefully predicting Russia’s impending doom – and, indeed, partly because of them – Russia is going to become a far more hostile place to America, Americans and American interests, both real and imagined, than it has any need to be.

It’s really not that tough to figure out why sanctions don’t work. America has created a situation where ordinary Russians are being made to feel the effects of having a government that doesn’t bow to America’s every whim. The Russian people understand quite well that they are under attack by the West: these sanctions are creating a siege mentality which builds ever greater sympathy for Putin and his government. The neocons can continue to scream ‘false consciousness’ in the press all they like; the reality of the matter is that Putin has played his domestic political cards masterfully even in the midst of what is likely to be a very tough economic crisis.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the stated aim of these sanctions against Russia – to get Russia to reverse course on Ukraine and Crimea – not only is not going to be fulfilled. Ukraine is likely to suffer far, far more on account of these sanctions than it would have if the American government had simply taken a more realistic stance on Russia’s security issues. Russian sympathy for the Novorussian fighters in Donetsk and Lugansk is likely to skyrocket, pushing Putin to be more and more open about giving them both military and financial aid. In the meanwhile, the Ukrainians in the west of the country are going to continue to be beggared by a venal, corrupt, illegitimate regime which privatises all the country’s state-owned assets and sells them at bottom-rate prices to European and American plutocrats, and bullied by that regime’s neo-Nazi enforcers.

Nothing good can come of this new sanctions regime, which has found support from across the American political spectrum: whether the progressives, the neocons or the supposedly-peaceable, supposedly free-trade-supporting libertarian right. The most recent round of sanctions, coupled with an authorisation of lethal military aid to the Ukrainian junta, was a notedly bipartisan effort – and, like all too many such bipartisan efforts, combines Republican sadism with Democratic cluelessness. The only dissent here has come from contrarians like Dennis Kucinich on the left and Daniel Larison on the right.

It is a sad day indeed – the cool heads are now to be found only outside the American political mainstream. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, the American people will awaken again to the wisdom of foreign-policy realism.

15 December 2014

Torture and tortured logic

In reaction to the recent CIA report, with regard to the renewed debate over the rightness or wrongness of torture, the Holy Orthodox Church has spoken down the ages with one mind and one voice. Holy and Right-Believing Prince S. Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’, abolished torture as one of his first acts following his baptism. As the Orthodox Peace Fellowship puts it:
God reminded Israel, “You shall not enslave others because you were slaves in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9) Likewise we, whose community includes so many victims of torture, should feel a special obligation to prevent torture because we know what it is like to be tortured. As a communal Church, each of us is included in the experience of our co-communicants and is accountable for protecting others from torture. Every time we enter the church building, see the icons, light a candle, we are including ourselves in the great flow of the Orthodox faith. When we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” many of whom were tortured and degraded. When we include ourselves in the Church, we are incorporating the lives and struggles of the apostles, martyrs, and saints into our own experience.
And in the words of the Basis of the Social Concept:
The Church insists on the need of humane attitude towards suspects, persons under investigation and those caught in criminal intent. The crude and improper treatment of these people can either fortify them on the wrong track or push them on it. For this reason, those awaiting a verdict should not be disfranchised even in custody. They should be guaranteed advocacy and impartial justice. The Church condemns torture and indignities towards persons under investigation.
No ifs. No ands. No buts. And this is in a highly nuanced and thoughtful document which, in good Orthodox mindset, is willing to speak to multiple conditions and scenarios in a broad scope, with the discretional humility of œconomia. There are no extenuating circumstances in Orthodox thought which can be brought to justify the torture of criminals or of criminal suspects, let alone of innocents. Zero. Torture is not only a gross sacrilege and degradation of the ikon of the living God in the human person, and therefore inherently, categorically wrong; it has the potential to warp and deform the spiritual development of all parties involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims all – making forgiveness and reconciliation prohibitively hard. The communicants of the Orthodox Church are all called to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered torture, no matter what other wrongs they have done.

At the same time, we must recognise that the same desires in the human heart which lead to torture and to its justification are there in every person. The line between good and evil runs, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sagely remarked, through every human heart. And the heart which cannot recognise its own evil is usually far, far closer to it than one which can. As bloggers and consumers of social media too many of us speak in a rarefied atmosphere divorced from practical knowledge – I myself am as guilty of this as any. But we are all called upon to look straight into the dark corners of our own souls and our own lives, and to look upon them with repentence and seeking mercy from the only one who can heal them.

The findings of the CIA report are grim indeed, but they will likely come as a surprise to too few of us, and too many of us will be all too likely to excuse them however they can, or brush them under the carpet if they can. I wish that we will find it within ourselves as a nation to peer into this very dark corner of our collective national soul; I confess, however, that I find myself pessimistic about the prospects. The hard questions about how we got to this point, and how we – Democrats and Republicans both! – need to repent of it, are already being forgotten in the saddening game of political dodgeball which has followed it. We’re still too quick to blame everyone for our ills but ourselves.

For this, as an American citizen, speaking for myself and for my own country even to that very small degree which I am able and competent to speak for her, I am truly sorry and can only ask that the Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

13 December 2014

Oligarchy no more?

Russia is not an oligarchy, according to New York Times op-ed contributor Masha Gessen. Also according to Masha Gessen, President Putin is the man responsible. What I don’t understand, though, is: this is a bad thing… how, exactly?

With regard to Gessen’s stated concerns about Russia’s poor, yes, inflation is a problem and will probably remain so for some time. This is to be expected in a market economy like Russia’s with a strong state presence as it weathers a changing political and economic climate, and there is of course room for a certain angle of critique there. However, current oil prices are being made artificially low primarily by political manipulation between the US and Saudi Arabia, in ways that certainly won’t be sustainable in the long-term; so in Russia there are not likely to be mass unemployment or starvation or out-of-control austerity measures from above the way there was under Eltsin and the oligarchs whose loss Mr. Gessen is here mourning. And not to be underestimated is the passion of Russia’s population for the political ‘outer self-determination’ (to use the terminology from economist Jaroslav Vanek’s text The Participatory Economy) of their country, even if it is at the cost in the short run of a certain degree of political ‘inner self-determination’. Given that the oligarchical class has historically been destructive both to ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ forms of Russia’s political self-determination, their present absence is not likely to be mourned even in the face of an economic rough patch.

From a purely political perspective, though, it is generally considered a good thing for the wealthy in a particular state to be subject to the requisite laws and authorities of that state’s government, rather than the other way around. That this development is now finally happening in Russia is in fact something to be grateful for, yes?

01 December 2014

Ferguson redux

The grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson Police Department, in the shooting death of Michael Brown this past summer, has reopened the wounds in the most spectacular ways possible – with riots, with tear gas and with a stunning reticence on the part of ‘white’ America to grapple with its legacy of racism. This legacy lives on in too many ways to count – to give but one example, the American state and its agents assume black children are ‘guilty’ in ways that they do not consider white children to be.

This legacy has troubling and often tragic implications. A twelve-year-old black youth playing with a gun was shot to death by a police officer who did nothing to confirm the threat, the way he almost certainly would have done had the victim of this shooting been identifiably ‘white’.

That the grand jury procedure would have engaged primarily in trial procedure rather than determining, as they should have done, the sufficiency of the evidence against the defendant to go to trial, with the prosecutor demonstrably failing to do his job, was reason enough for outrage. It should also be reason for deep introspection about the way the American society fails to value black life as equal with white life. And the saddest and most damning part of it, is not that we remain a racist society, and not that we have failed to repent adequately of it, but that we cannot even bring ourselves to see that we have a problem, but must instead discredit and eliminate all those who have that effrontery to bear witness to our sins even simply by existing.

Lord, have mercy upon us all.