Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow: a summary of Russia’s place and direction in the new global political order

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Senior Officers of the Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow (23 March 2017)

On 23 March 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech to senior officers of the Military Academy of General Staff in Moscow. Lavrov chose to focus on Russia’s role in international politics – a not surprising choice, given his position as foreign minister for such a large and varied nation as Russia is. The entire speech is not long – less than 20 minutes – but it is worth examining as it summarises how Russia has come to have the role it has and how its role fits into the new global political order of the early 21st century.

First Lavrov lays out the very specific and essential values and principles that support and influence the role the Russian state plays in international politics. One factor gives Russia a very solid foundation that most other countries can only dream about: sheer physical size that gives the country a variety of physical environments and climates, abundant natural resources and a unique location straddling and uniting both Europe and Asia. This factor is a result of Russia’s expansion across Siberia and central Asia over the centuries, resulting in many different peoples and cultures residing together, suffering together and working together to build the nation. Such experience gives Russia a unique point of view and paradigm that enable it to encourage dialogue among different nations and to form partnerships among nations, civilisations and religions in which all are considered equal.

Given Russia’s history of different peoples, faiths and societies sharing the same space under one government, we should not be surprised that Lavrov emphasises public respect for the state that encompasses all these peoples and provides them with security, stability and a share in the collective wealth they create. This respect enables the state to be strong enough to pursue domestic and foreign policies beholden to no other country. In other words, respect for and trust in a strong government go hand in hand with a secure economy (financial and productive), a cohesive if not homogeneous national culture encompassing a rich history and traditions, and the state’s ability to safeguard all of these and other elements that help to provide and enforce stability. These factors together provide what might be called “soft power” that Russia can project and model to other nations.

From here, Lavrov discusses Russia’s role in international politics, in particular the country’s role as an economic and political centre to which other countries are drawn. He notes the improvement in Russia’s military capabilities and the nation’s determination to use military power in strict compliance with its own laws and with international laws to defend its own interests and to assist other nations that call on it for help. In this, Lavrov cannot help but notice that other major nations use their military to pursue agendas that violate their own laws and international laws, and that infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and overthrow their governments with the intent to occupy their lands and drain them of their resources while the true owners are displaced, forced to serve their occupiers and to live in poverty or are scattered around the planet.

Lavrov sets considerable importance by historical traditions and trends in helping to determine Russia’s role in world politics since the nation became a major European power under Tsar Peter I (1696 – 1725) after defeating Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. He observes that efforts on by other countries to shut out and deny Russia (or the Soviet Union) as a major power have ended badly: one might ask Napoleon I or Adolf Hitler for an opinion in this regard. Nevertheless even today Europe and the United States through the EU and NATO have sought to demonise the country and its leaders by painting Russia as a poor, developing (or deteriorating) nation or making false accusations such as invading Ukraine, forcing people in Crimea to vote for “annexation”, helping to shoot down a civilian passenger jet over Ukrainian territory or infiltrating and hacking other countries’ electronic databases for the purpose of throwing elections. In particular Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed as an authoritarian and corrupt despot who salts away large sums of money into offshore investment funds owned by personal associates or in expensive palaces and vineyards.

Surveying the world as it is, Lavrov sees that power is definitely shifting away from the North Atlantic region (the US and western Europe) towards the Asia-Pacific region (in particular China) and Eurasia. In addition Latin America and Africa are taking on more importance as regional power blocs in their own right. A multi-polar world that is not dominated by any one nation or power bloc is inevitable. In such a world, a nation that considers itself exceptional, not bound by the lessons of history, and believes it can force its interpretation of democracy (as a cover for its real agenda) onto others will end up bringing instability, chaos and extreme violence instead. In the long term, that nation will also become weak and become unstable. The changes that are bringing about a multi-headed international order demand that countries work together and cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and not to compete against one another.

In this, Russia can set an example by pursuing a pragmatic and consistent foreign policy based on its experience and history as a nation of different peoples and cultures living and working together in diverse environments to achieve common goals in relationships of cooperation and mutual respect.

Lavrov’s speech is significant inasmuch as it supports speeches and interviews given by Vladimir Putin that also stress mutual respect among nations and cooperation based on common interests or desires to solve common problems. The speech also demonstrates very clearly that Russia is aware that its approach and foreign policy, even its very existence, are perceived as threats by the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. Russia is aware that the Americans are following an agenda inimical to Russian interests and to global peace and security. Pressure is on Russia then to pursue its interests and to try to uphold international laws and conventions in ways that don’t ratchet up global tensions and give the US an excuse or an outlet to cause war or create the conditions for them. Surprisingly this is not difficult for Russia to do, given that what currently passes for political leadership in the West is mediocre at best.

After the speech Lavrov took questions from his audience on issues such as global media / information and Internet governance (with respect to cyber-security, combating hacking and dealing with propaganda and false media narratives), rescuing and returning Russian prisoners of war in Syria, limiting strategic arms (nuclear and conventional), the use by the United States of staged and managed chaos across North Africa and western Asia, the split between globalist politicians acting on behalf of transnational corporations and “populist” or “nationalist” politicians claiming to represent the voice of their publics, the changing nature of war to include non-violent means of waging war (through control of the Internet and media, for example), and Russia’s interests in the Balkans. The questions show the audience’s concerns and depth of knowledge about what it considers to be the key issues facing Russia in its neighbourhood. Lavrov’s replies reveal a sharp intellect at work, tremendous historical and geopolitical knowledge and a keen interest in contemporary global affairs.

The speech and the Q&A session that follows can be viewed at The Saker. An English-language transcript follows.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2016): shaping the world of tomorrow needs mutual understanding and co-operation, not lies, propaganda and destruction

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XIII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, October 2016)

As is his usual custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the final session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club’s 13th meeting, held this year in Sochi, before an audience that included the President of Finland Tarja Halonen and former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. The theme for the 2016 meeting and its discussion forums was “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” which as Putin noted was very topical and relevant to current developments and trends in global politics, economic and social affairs.

Putin noted that the previous year’s Valdai Club discussions centred around global problems and crises, in particular the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and this gave him the opportunity to summarise global political developments over the past half-century, beginning with the United States’ presumption of having won the Cold War and subsequently reshaping the international political, economic and social order to conform to its expectations based on neoliberal capitalist assumptions. To that end, the US and its allies across western Europe, North America and the western Pacific have co-operated in pressing economic and political restructuring including regime change in many parts of the world, in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in western Asia (particularly Afghanistan and Iraq) and in northern Africa (Libya). In achieving these goals, the West has either ignored at best or at worst exploited international political, military and economic structures, agencies and alliances to the detriment of these institutions’ reputations and credibility around the world. The West also has not hesitated to dredge and drum up imaginary threats to the security of the world, most notably the threat of Russian aggression and desire to recreate the Soviet Union on former Soviet territories and beyond, the supposed Russian meddling in the US Presidential elections, and Russian hacking and leaking of emails related to US Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s conduct as US Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012.

After his observation of current world trends as they have developed since 1991, Putin queries what kind of future we face if political elites in Washington and elsewhere focus on non-existent problems and threats, or on problems of their own making, and ignore the very real issues and problems affecting ordinary people everywhere: issues of stability, security and sustainable economic development. The US alone has problems of police violence against minority groups, high levels of public and private debt measured in trillions of dollars, failing transport infrastructure across most states, massive unemployment that either goes undocumented and unreported or is deliberately under-reported, high prison incarceration rates and other problems and issues indicative of a highly dysfunctional society. In societies that are ostensibly liberal democracies where the public enjoys political freedoms, there is an ever-growing and vast gap between what people perceive as major problems needing solutions and the political establishment’s perceptions of what the problems are, and all too often the public view and the elite view are at polar opposites. The result is that when referenda and elections are held, predictions and assurances of victory one way or another are smashed by actual results showing public preference for the other or another way.

Putin points out that the only way forward is for all countries to acknowledge and work together on the problems that challenge all humans today, the resolution of which should make the world more stable, more secure and more sustaining of human existence. Globalisation should not just benefit a small plutocratic elite but should be demonstrated in concrete ways to benefit all. Only by adhering to international law and legal arrangements, through the charter of the United Nations and its agencies, can all countries hope to achieve security and stability and realise a better future for their peoples.

To this end, the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen should be respected and the wars in those countries should be brought to an end, replaced by long-term plans and programs of economic and social reconstruction and development. Global economic development and progress that will reduce disparities between First World and Third World countries, eliminate notions of “winning” and “losing”, and end grinding poverty and the problems that go with it should be a major priority. Economic co-operation should be mutually beneficial for all parties that engage in it.

Putin also briefly mentioned in passing the development of human potential and creativity, environmental protection and climate change, and global healthcare as important goals that all countries should strive for.

While there’s not much in Putin’s speech that he hasn’t said before, what he says is typical of his worldview, the breadth and depth of his understanding of current world events (which very few Western politicians can match), and his preferred approach of nations working together on common problems and coming to solutions that benefit all and which don’t advantage one party’s interests to the detriment of others and their needs. Putin’s approach is a typically pragmatic and cautious one, neutral with regards to the political or economic ideology of whomever he deals with, but an approach focused on goals and results, and the best way and methods to achieve those goals.

One interesting aspect of Putin’s speech comes near the end where he says that only a world with opportunities for everyone, with access to knowledge to all and many ways to realise creative potential, can be considered truly free. Putin’s understanding of freedom would appear to be very different from what the West (and Americans in particular) understand to be “freedom”, that is, being free of restraints on one’s behaviour. Putin’s understanding of freedom would be closer to what 20th-century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin would consider to be “positive freedom”, that is, self-mastery, with the implication that for people to have self-mastery, societies need to provide the conditions in which such people can exist and thrive.

The most outstanding point in Putin’s speech, which unfortunately he does not elaborate on further, given the context of the venue, is the disconnect between the political establishment and the public in most developed countries, the role of the mass media industry in reducing or widening it, and the dangers that this disconnect poses to societies if it continues. If elites continue to pursue their own fantasies and lies, and neglect the needs of the public on whom they rely for support (yet abuse by diminishing their security through offshoring jobs, weakening and eliminating worker protection, privatising education, health and energy, and encouraging housing and other debt bubbles), the invisible bonds of society – what might collectively be called “the social contract” between the ruler and the ruled – will disintegrate and people may turn to violence or other extreme activities to get what they want.

An English-language translation of Putin’s speech can be viewed at Paul Craig Roberts’ blog at this link.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2015): in the midst of war, a plea for co-operation, mutual respect and trust leading to renewal and reconciliation

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (October 2015) 

Compared to his speech at XI Meeting in 2014, this 2015 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t quite as ground-breaking but it is full of fire nevertheless. In his speech, Putin spiked the United States government and its elites for following a path that has not only led to war and instability around the world, and continues to do so, but which has the potential to spread poverty, ignorance, distrust and a degraded culture as well, one that celebrates and encourages even more chaos and brutality.

The theme of the XII Meeting was war and peace and Putin had plenty to say about the current global drive towards war, driven in the main by the United States and its allies. Starting from a general perspective on the role of war as a catalyst for relieving tensions and re-organising and establishing new political, social and economic hierarchies in the world, Putin observed how the threat of war diminished in the period after the end of World War II in 1945 – a period in which diplomacy under the threat of nuclear war prevailed – until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, diplomacy as a tool for resolving long-simmering tensions and conflicts has increasingly fallen by the wayside and the use of force by the United States to achieve its aims in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, has come to be the first resort. Along with this flexing of military muscle and the chaos, violence and brutality that have followed, comes the creation of economic blocs, based on neo-liberal economic ideologies, between and among nations with the signing of treaties whose details and implications are deliberately hidden away from the public and never discussed or mentioned until long after the ink used to sign the documents has dried. At the same time, governments, corporations and the media actively seek to withhold and censor information, analysis and opinion that oppose the aims of their agendas; plus they use databases and database networks to gather and share information about citizens and their families for various purposes which can include blackmail, psychological manipulation, marketing and pushing products and services for profit. Constant wars against terrorists and terrorist movements – themselves the consequence of US-led invasions of countries (and in the case of ISIS, possibly the creation of the US government and its agencies, to serve as a substitute army keeping Middle Eastern countries weak and divided) – result in the displacement of people in those countries, leading them to flee in their thousands to Western countries, usually by any means available (no matter how hazardous and expensive), which are not only reluctant to offer safe haven to them but actively and aggressively throw them back into the seas or imprison them in detention centres where they face abuse, violence and death from fellow refugees or prison guards working under stress. The refugee crisis is used by Western governments to whip up hatred and prejudice against refugees, and to encourage and escalate public support for more invasions of the countries being destabilised to “stop” the refugee flow.

Putin singled out the example of Syria where the process of regime change, starting in 2011 with the aim of ousting President Bashar al Assad, in ways similar to the Kiev Maidan revolution against President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine over 2013 and early 2014, is in full swing with takfiri fighters belonging to groups such as Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qa’ida offshoots, all funded and armed by foreign governments, fighting the Syrian Arab Army. Putin observed that such terrorist groups are hard to fight if they are being used as a de facto army to overthrow governments that, coincidentally, the US and its friends do not like.

Putin went on to say that Russia launched a military operation in the form of airstrikes on the Islamic extremists at the request of the Syrian government. Russia understands that if the terrorists in Syria win, they will send many of their number to Russia itself, in particular into the vulnerable region of Daghestan and its surrounds. Putin emphasised that the world must support the revival of Syria and Iraq, and assist in their reconstruction and revitalisation of their institutions. A plan must be developed for these countries’ reconstruction, for the restoration of their infrastructures, their hospitals, housing and schools. This is an opportunity for all countries throughout the world to come together and offer assistance to these two long-suffering nations. What is most noteworthy about Putin’s speech at this point is its emphasis on the Syrian people as the major party in deciding Syria’s future and deserving respect, civil treatment and autonomy in the decisions they make about their institutions and future from the rest of the world.

While the theme of the XII Meeting may have been war and peace, the theme of Putin’s speech is that for peace to reign, nations must co-operate together, respect one another and trust one another and in the rule of international law. This is very much a speech that follows from his speech at the XI Meeting in 2014. The fact that Putin ended his 2015 speech by speaking of renewal, restoration, hope and opportunity, and the hard work that must be done to achieve revival, demonstrates that he and his government are looking beyond helping Syria get rid of ISIS and other terrorists, and stabilising the country. An opportunity for Syria to become a model of reconstruction, renewal and reconciliation for the Middle East and the wider world is present and ready for the taking. How many Western politicians can be said to be as forward-looking as Putin? Given the way in which the US has blundered in the Middle East and north Africa over the past decade and how Germany brought chaos and confusion when it offered a haven to thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in Turkey, with no apparent thought for how to bring them over or how they would be settled, it seems that having a vision of the future and achieving it is something beyond Western leaders’ capabilities – to the detriment of the West.

This essay is based on the English-language transcript of Putin’s speech at the Vineyard of the Saker blog.

Vladimir Putin’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly: offering an alternative vision to the world

Vladimir Putin’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City (28 September 2015)

Apparently Russian President Vladimir Putin last attended a session of the United Nations General Assembly way back in 2005. He sure wasted no time in making his presence felt the second time with this speech. He began by referring to the historical context in which the UN was born in 1945 and reminded his audience that the decision to create the UN was made in Yalta … in Russian territory at the time. How some diplomats must have squirmed, and how the Ukrainian delegation must have fumed … or not, since its members walked out on Putin at the beginning of his speech. Putin then went on to say that over the decades the UN, and especially the UN Security Council, has not always been unanimous in its decision-making and the permanent members of the Security Council have frequently resorted to the right of veto on various contentious matters. He pointed out that the UN was never expected to act as one, and that its mission was to seek compromises based on a variety of different views and opinions.

The bulk of Putin’s speech is concerned with the state of the world after the end of the Cold War in 1989, and how one nation (which Putin does not name but can be assumed to be the United States) has attempted to reorder the world to suit its hunger for endless power by exporting and initiating social experiments like colour revolutions to those areas of strategic importance: areas such as the Middle East and Ukraine. The result has been chaos, endless violence of an unspeakably brutal and vicious nature, extreme poverty, dislocations of hundreds of thousands of refugees, terrorism spreading around the world and an utter disregard for human rights, diplomacy as part of a solution to problems, and the concept of national sovereignty. Putin refers specifically to the rise of ISIS in power vacuums created in Iraq and Libya after the US / NATO-initiated overthrow of their governments in 2003 and 2011 respectively, and criticises those governments who thought they could manipulate groups like ISIS and others as de facto armies to weaken and overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his government.

Putin’s speech then turns to a proposal to change the current state of world affairs by adopting a set of common values and interests that emphasise co-operation, stabilisation of the world’s major trouble spots, restoring peace and respect for and obeying international law. This proposal is consistent with other speeches Putin has made , notably at the 2014 Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi, where he has stressed Russia’s interest in co-operating with other countries as partners to deal with issues and his nation’s disinterest in remaking the world according to a particular ideology or set of beliefs that do not consider other countries’ interests. Putin stresses that Libyan government institutions and structures need to be renewed and restored, that Iraq’s new government needs support and that Syria also requires support for reconstruction. From Putin’s viewpoint, the main obstacles to this proposal are the West’s blinkered Cold War mentality in which the West is made up of the good guys and the Communists are all the bad guys – never mind that Communism faded away over 20 years ago, and Russia is now solidly capitalist – and the US presumption that it should remain the sole superpower on planet Earth and can and should stop anyone from challenging its belief that it is unique and exceptional and has been ordained by God to bring freedom, democracy and corporate junk culture to the world.

Putin’s speech also covers the situation in Ukraine and his belief that peace and stability are possible if only all parties to the Mink agreements of 12th February 2015 adhere to them. Putin goes on to discuss the importance of economic co-operation and how what he calls “economic selfishness” – capitalist greed by any other name – will distort global trade, disadvantage nations (especially Third World nations) and cater for the interests of a small number of people through treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Climate change is mentioned as a major challenge requiring international co-operation and sharing of information and skills.

What I take away from Putin’s speech is that he is offering a vision of the world in which all nations co-operate as equal partners in tackling major global problems (such as climate change and the depletion and destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems) that are beyond the capacity of any one nation to deal with, through special forums under UN auspices. In this world, everyone agrees to respect international law and works together to create an environment based on mutual respect and equality for all. Institutions, systems and structures are shaped to benefit everyone and not serve a privileged elite.

If the UN looks antiquated and battered, that is not because the principles it was founded upon are necessarily old-fashioned; the real reason is that the West has used the UN and its institutions to benefit its elites where convenient, and in the last 20+ years has turned its back on the UN, what it represented in the past when it was founded and what it might have been. We have been brainwashed and manipulated by our politicians and media to believe that the UN is an incompetent and bureaucratic organisation that, Nero-like, fiddles about while conflicts initiated by unseen actors rage around the world. As demonstrated by its meddling in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and farther afield in Ukraine and other countries, the West has forgotten its history, forgotten that might never really makes right, and forgotten that the violence and chaos it creates in other countries will one day (as the current flood of Syrian refugees – among whom there may be ISIS operatives – into Europe is demonstrating) come back a hundredfold.

Putin’s address serves as a reprimand and a warning to the West that if it continues the way it has over the past 20+ years, there will be Hell to pay.

Xi Jinping’s Address to the UN General Assembly’s 70th Session: China projecting its power abroad in a low-key, pragmatic way

Xi Jinping’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City (28 September 2015)

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, made his first speech to the UN general assembly at the opening of its 70th session. An interesting speech it is too and English-language transcripts are accessible on the Internet. A full transcript can be found at this link.

Xi begins his speech by acknowledging the momentous events that formed to background to the formation of the United Nations and noting China’s particular role in defeating Japanese imperialism and aggression. He reminds his audience to learn from the tragedies and sacrifices made by soldiers and civilians alike during World War II to avoid repeating grave mistakes that would result in more violence, bloodshed and unnecessary deaths, and to strive for a better future and peace. Part of this striving involves promoting economic development and progress, and this requires co-operation, building partnerships and recognising that countries must be mutually interdependent to work on challenges and threats that spread beyond national borders.

To that end, the bulk of Xi’s speech emphasises strategies, exchanges and security networks and institutions that uphold and promote fair dealing and justice, end social and economic injustice, acknowledge joint contributions and share benefits among all partners. In particular Xi stressed that countries need to abandon a competitive Cold War mentality and paradigm in which some countries are good and others bad, based on one state’s particular interpretation of some nations’ economic and social ideologies, and urged that the UN and its Security Council return to their core roles of ending or minimising conflict and keeping peace.

Xi’s speech also urged his audience in the assembly and beyond to accept and respect nations’ differences and to recognise that no one culture or civilisation has all the answers to the world’s problems. Instead nations should appreciate one another’s history and uniqueness and draw on their differences for exchange of ideas and solutions to problems.

Interestingly Xi also referred to the need for societies to care for nature and to balance economic development with the natural environment. This is surely an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that in recent decades the country has neglected its natural ecosystems in its pursuit of economic and industrial progress to the detriment of nature and the Chinese people themselves.

The remainder of Xi’s speech is basically a list of pledges by China to continue supporting and working for peace, contributing to global development and pursuing policies and paths that promote co-operation. He finishes off by announcing the establishment of a 10-year US$100 million peace and development fund to support the UN’s work and to help set up a permanent peace-keeping group. China will also provide US$100 million free military assistance to the African Union to help establish a permanent standby force for emergencies in Africa.

Xi’s speech illustrates China’s typically pragmatic approach to projecting its power abroad: not by throwing its weight around in other countries close to home but by investing in projects in other nations, particularly in Third World nations, that bring economic development and industry to host countries and benefits for Chinese investors themselves. The emphasis on balance and harmony among partners might be seen to be drawing on Chinese values that promote stability and discourage individualist behaviours.

Whether the Chinese government and Chinese corporations are committed to the values and actions espoused in his speech in their behaviours remains to be seen however. Chinese investment in Africa and other developing countries has not always resulted in transfer of technical knowledge and skills from China to recipient countries, and the lopsided nature of Chinese economic investment and its effects has led to some resentment on the part of those countries where this investment takes place. Additionally China does not have a good record in investing in countries with human rights violations. If China is experiencing severe ecological problems in its own territory as a result of rapid development and industrialisation, it’s likely Chinese companies are doing no better in cleaning up their own messes in other countries where they operate. “Accepting” and “respecting” nations’ differences might mean ignoring possible consequences of Chinese economic investment and activity, especially where such actions are taking place in countries where respect for human rights and the natural environment is low, discouraged or punished.

Where the speech becomes very interesting is towards the end in which Xi pledges to commit resources to support the UN by establishing a peace-keeping force and to assist African nations to respond to national emergencies. This is far more than, say, Japan has done in the 70 years since the UN was founded. Xi’s pledges also potentially bring China into conflict with those Western countries that have an interest in destabilising particular African nations and keeping them subservient to their own interests and ideologies.

Ideological assumptions of capitalism highlighted in “Speaking with: Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change”

Christopher Wright, “Speaking with: Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change” (The Conversation, 4 September 2015)

On the eve of her visit to Australia in late 2015, to promote her book “This Changes Everything” which was published in 2014, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein spoke to Christopher Wright on  capitalism as a way of life and its impact on the Earth’s systems, in particular weather systems and climate. The interview begins with a discussion of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it brought to New Orleans in 2004, and nature of the the US government’s response in cleaning up the city, caring for the people left homeless and the city’s reconstruction. If you followed the news – the alternative news media, that is – on that response, you’ll know the US sent in the army to patrol and police the city, put many homeless people into shelters that endangered their health and actually caused many deaths, and seized properties that were later redeveloped for the benefit of private individuals and corporations. Social inequality actually increased as a result, property prices rose beyond the ability of people forced to leave the city, and many people who had to leave New Orleans are still unable to return. The example of New Orleans became a microcosm of the way in which wealth and power influence and shape government policy and action, and ensures that inequality continues while ignoring the possibility that Hurricane Katrina may not be a unique phenomenon (and is likely to occur again) and dealing with the root causes of the storm.  The interview can be downloaded at this link.

Klein contrasts the US response to climate change with that of other countries such as Germany and finds that the American actions are typical of the neoliberal ideology that dominates the Anglosphere and influences government policies and corporate behaviours in economic, environmental and cultural matters. She does not blame capitalism but goes straight to the historical foundations of capitalism – and other socioeconomic ideologies such as Communism – in the 17th century and fingers the Cartesian philosophical revolution (which includes the notion that the universe is like a machine and can be analysed and understood) as the conceptual paradigm that became capitalism’s bedrock.

Other topics discussed in the 22-minute interview include the corporate promotion of “green capitalism”, that economic growth and preservation of the environment to forestall climate change are compatible, and how this notion merely avoids dealing with the root causes of the problem; the response of people around the world in confronting climate change and the solutions and strategies they have developed, based on local conditions and their relationship to land; and Australia’s role in contributing to climate change and what the country can and should do to reduce its carbon emissions and other pollution. Klein emphasises that global collective action is important and that Australia can and should lead the way in minimising its emissions and lessening pollution.

It is a very good talk, easy for most people to follow and understand, though by necessity due to its short duration the interview does not delve much into details and specific actions that we in Australia could or should take to minimise the impact we make at local, regional and national levels on our environment.

The really interesting part of the interview was at the halfway point where Klein talks about the historical circumstances in which capitalism and industrialisation were born: the two more or less came about together in northwest Europe, specifically in England and surrounding countries. Klein makes no reference to the state of the Christian religion at the time which regards humans as superior to nature and places humans as stewards of nature rather than regard humans and nature as co-equals and partners who must co-operate to survive. In particular the Western Christian idea that humans are born in a state of sin and are incapable of improvement unless they worship the Christian god goes unmentioned. Nor does she refer to Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy which, among other ideas, informs capitalism’s view of individuals as essentially self-interested and not naturally given to co-operate for the sake of co-operation. Any analysis of the historical development of capitalism and the various philosophies and ideas that inform its worldview needs to examine the historical context – the culture, the politics, the dominant religions – in which capitalism grew.

 

Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue: clarion call for everyone to know and resist resurgent global fascism

John Pilger, “Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue”, JohnPilger.com (26 February 2015)

Australia’s conscience comes with a real name: this is John Pilger and true to form, he has written an excellent essay on the resurgence of fascism in Europe and the rest of the world, to the extent that we all now stand on the brink of another major world war and the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used to wipe out whole nations – as if in the form of DU-enhanced ammunition they weren’t already slowly annihilating countries like Iraq – becomes greater every day. This fascism has a distinctly American face: its roots are in the American belief in Manifest Destiny and the notion that the United States is unique because it was founded on the principles of freedom and democracy, and therefore its civilisation is superior to others. This American fascism relies extensively on propaganda in the form of news media, Hollywood film and television output, and other cultural product, and is reinforced by pervasive surveillance through digital technologies, the manipulation of financial markets, the collusion of academics and so-called experts, and widespread censorship and misrepresentation and manipulation of facts working hand in velvet glove with global media and cultural exports.

Pilger ranges widely through examples of US warmongering and violence throughout the world, and how governments and corporate news media have consistently lied about American psychopathic behaviour, in the event demonising impoverished people or people standing up for their rights and convincing the Western public that such people are the villains. He brings his readers up to the present day where in Ukraine the criminal regime of President Petro Poroshenko has ferociously prosecuted a war in the country’s eastern Donbass region (which sits over considerable Yuzovka shale oil deposits, for which the company Burisma Holdings – and guess which US politician’s son sits on that company’s board as a director?) that has resulted in the deaths of thousands and displaced 2 million people, many of whom have fled to other countries. This conflict serves to help demonise Russia and its president Vladimir Putin who are frequently portrayed in the Western news media as aggressive and intent on fashioning a new post-Soviet empire encompassing currently independent nations like Armenia, Estonia and Kazakhstan. Pilger correctly identifies the aim of war against Russia: it is to grab that nation’s considerable energy and other natural resources for commercial exploitation that benefits a small global elite at the expense of the rest of us. In this context, Vladimir Putin and Russia have to be treated as Global Enemy No 1 for committing the unpardonable sin of following an independent course.

Pilger comes to the point of his article which is for the rest of us to wake up and learn the truth, and refuse to follow or co-operate with those individuals, organisations and governments pursuing the path of fascism. Knowing the truth, we must awaken others as well.

The article can be read at this link.

Direct Line with Vladimir Putin (April 2015): concentrating on domestic issues, Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis

Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” (RT.com, 16 April 2015)

Every year since he has been President of Russia, and also when he served as Prime Minister under Dmitri Medvedev’s term as President from 2009 to 2013, Vladimir Putin has willingly fielded questions about the Russian economy, politics, social issues, foreign policy and just about any other topic raised by Russian citizens live on this 4-hour Q&A marathon broadcast by four Russian TV channels and three radio stations from Moscow. The questions come to Putin through many channels: studio audience, phone-in or phone messages, live video links and electronic mail. The 2015 edition ran for five hours and over three million questions and messages were received by the show. Over the years, the show’s hosts have changed but Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel have been the main stalwarts and this year was no different. Kleymenov and Sittel receive able assistance from people monitoring the questions coming into the studio through various media.

Due to the length of the Q&A session and to the variety of questions and issues raised ,  this essay attempts to group the questions and responses into rough groups relating to the Russian economy, social and political issues, foreign policy and particular issues that arose during 2014 and early 2015. I make no claim to being impartial in looking at and emphasising particular parts of the marathon session. My essay is based on the English-language transcript provided by The Vineyard of the Saker website.

Economic Issues

Maria Sittel was the first to lead off with a question to Putin and this question dealt with the complicated economic situation that faced Russia for most of 2014. Western economic sanctions were applied against Russia as a result of the political crisis that erupted in Ukraine after February 2014, the ensuing restrictions on non-Ukrainians and their use of their own languages in public life, Crimea’s independence referendum and the peninsula’s subsequent return to Russia, the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, and the West’s perception of Russia ‘s response to that war; and the deliberate crashing of global oil prices by the United States and Saudi Arabia by flooding world markets with oil with the aim of wrecking the Russian economy, perceived to be wholly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Russia responded by imposing its own economic sanctions on EU and other Western products entering Russia, thus stimulating its own industries to replace those products, and by entering into trade deals with other countries. The Russian rouble was allowed to fall in value and the Russian Central Bank hiked up interest rates to stem the decline. (Though The Saker disapproved of this move, in retrospect it may have been a brilliant master-stroke: Russian oil is bought and sold in US dollars, so Russia would be hoarding US dollars until such time as the value of the rouble is low enough that US dollars can be exchanged for roubles, and then Russia would flood world markets with US dollars, depressing the US dollar’s value.) Putin’s response to Sittel’s question was to highlight positive developments in Russia’s economy over 2014 / early 2015. In response to Kleymenov’s question as to whether Russia could have acted differently, Putin replied that Moscow took the best approach possible at the time.

Still Kleymenov and Sittel pressed Putin more by bringing out a big gun: former government finance minister Alexei Kudrin who criticised Moscow’s application of the “Strategy 2020” programme he (Kudrin) helped develop, saying that Russia has not gone far enough in pushing structural economic reform. He urged that under the present economic conditions, Russia needs to adopt Strategy 2020 and pursue it fully, rather than use it as a guide or handy source of individual policies to be picked at. Putin replied that Strategy 2020 was in effect as a guide but its full practical implementation is difficult as it would squeeze incomes that are already too low in crucial areas of economy and society such as primary and secondary school education. One can sense here a clash between Kudrin’s preferred neoliberal reforms which among other things might have imposed austerity measures on the bulk of the working population and Putin’s liking for a mixed economy in which capitalist and socialist policies and programmes co-exist and complement one another in different proportions depending on the particular socioeconomic spheres in which they are applied.

Agricultural Issues and Issues affecting Small Business

Whether by accident or deliberate choice, several questions targeted at Putin focused on Moscow’s support for agriculture and small farmers in particular. A number of farmers, especially dairy farmers, called attention to the difficulties small farmers have in obtaining bank credit to develop their herds and increase milking capacity and yields. One farmer in particular complained that his dairy farm had yielded no profit over the 15 years it has operated and that he distrusted the official statistics given by the dairying industry as they did not reflect the reality he was experiencing. Another dairy farmer complained that government funding was going to large farms while small farmers were “left with crumbs”. To these people, Putin replied that Moscow had allocated an extra 50 billion roubles to support agriculture and another 4 billion roubles to subsidise the leasing of equipment. In addition, Moscow had also increased subsidies for farmers on bank loans taken out to increase working capital.

A third farmer complained that small farmers had to compete against larger agricultural enterprises to supply milk to customers and that small farmers who wanted to supply milk and other products directly to customers through farmers’ markets needed help to do so from local municipal authorities. Putin sympathised with this farmer, added that council authorities had had problems in the past with outdoor markets selling expired goods and that Moscow would take up this issue with regional governors and they in turn would contact council authorities about it.

The issues raised by small farmers point to the need for the Russian government to assist small and medium-sized farming enterprises financially and in marketing their products. Support could be given to small farmers to form private co-operatives that would market and distribute their produce directly to customers. The relevant government ministries could consider offering business advice to small farmers, establish a system of banks specifically to offer loans to small farmers and set up a unit to offer financial advice. Such systems could also be part of broader systems to offer advice and funding to small businesses and entrepreneurs generally.

Indeed there was a brief discussion about raised interest rates for small business loans that annoyed two questioners from Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk. Putin said he would look into the situation of Sberbank’s raising of the interest rates for small business loans and refer it to the head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. There were support programmes already in place for small to medium-sized businesses including a two-year tax holiday for new businesses.

Politicial and Foreign Policy Issues

Kleymenov brought out liberal politician Irina Khakamada who spoke of the recent gunshot death of the liberal political activist Boris Nemtsov and queried how the investigation into his shooting was going and whether other opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny are able to run for parliament on an equal footing with politicians allied with Putin. Putin pointed out that suspects in Nemtsov’s murder had already been arrested and charged a few days after the killing but those ultimately responsible for hiring the hitmen and who stood to benefit from Nemtsov’s death were unknown. Putin also said that opposition politicians should be able to campaign on an equal basis with other politicians provided that they have popular support and that their activities are within the law.

The issue of Boris Nemtsov’s death was taken up again later in the show by Ekho Moskvy radio station chief editor Alexei Venediktov who queried why investigators were unable to question eyewitnesses hiding in Russian territory, and insinuated that this demonstrated a weakness in Russia’s internal security. Putin replied that investigations were still ongoing and that among other things they would lead to the real killers in due course.

A number of people raised concerns about Russia’s place in the world, whether Russia would be attacked and who Russia’s friends were in the revived fight against a resurgent Nazism in Ukraine. Putin tended to skirt around these questions, more out of the need perhaps to be diplomatic and not reveal state secrets. To one military historian who asked if Russia should respond to those countries that refused to send leaders to attend the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow on 9 May 2015, Putin replied such countries were free to do what they liked; the Victory Parade was Russia’s celebration after all and Russia could celebrate without others.

A newspaper editor, Konstantin Remchukov, challenged Putin in suggesting that his (Putin) popularity ratings were based on people’s perceptions of the West as bullying Russia and their feelings of patriotism and nationalism rising as a result. Remchukov wanted to know what Putin would do to counter radical nationalism (and by implication risk seeing his popularity plummet). Putin replied that he did not agree with Remchukov’s perception of his popularity and that Russian people knew and understood what was really happening. (In other words, Russian people have more intelligence than what Remchukov credits them with.) From Putin’s point of view, nationalism, patriotism and xenophobia are not to be confused and that nationalism has no place in Russia which historically developed as a multinational / multicultural society dominated by no one religion.

Social Issues

As one of the assistants to Kleymenov and Sittel remarked while monitoring the phone calls and SMS text messages, many questions put to the President concern housing, utilities, the ability of Russia’s healthcare system to cope with particular conditions affecting many people and the cost of medicines. Particular questions on Russian healthcare focused on the system’s ability to deliver prompt treatment at the level needed by people with life-threatening or chronic diseases and conditions. The show received complaints from people registered in special categories to receive free prescriptions for certain drugs but who were unable to obtain such prescriptions because the medicines were not available in the areas where they lived. One woman expressed a fear that the Ministry for Health was planning to stop importing foreign medicines. The questions asked suggest that Russia needs to develop a pharmaceutical industry, ideally spread over a number of cities in its European and Asian territories, to make drugs either under licence from Western pharmaceutical firms or to develop its own drugs. Other questions indicate that the healthcare system needs to do more to provide proper treatment and care for the country’s most vulnerable groups: pensioners, cancer patients and children with chronic conditions who live far from the major cities. There may be a huge discrepancy in people’s access to quality healthcare between the larger cities and towns on the one hand and on the other small provincial towns and villages in isolated areas where transport links need development.

Interestingly with respect to housing, the main issue that arose was the plight of people who had taken out mortgage loans in foreign currencies some time before the rouble began falling in value, and who were now having problems in paying off their loans. Putin said his government could investigate ways of helping such people but no more than it would help people who had taken out mortgages in roubles. He pledged that the government would subsidise mortgage loans to help support the growth of residential construction and to help people buy affordable housing. The country has been experiencing a housing construction boom in recent years and subsidising mortgage loans will help maintain and increasing available housing stock.

A man complained that his rural town’s regular train service had been cancelled a year ago and that as a result people were unable to move around. The cancellation of the service particularly affected young people’s ability to attend colleges and universities. Putin promised to look into the town’s situation and to find a solution that was both economical and helpful to the town’s population.

Crimea and Ukraine

2015 is the second year that people in Crimea would have been able to participate in the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin show. The main questions focused on the peninsula’s transport links with Russia, in particular the ferry links between Crimea and SE Russia at Kerch Strait and the poor state of the air terminal and runway at what I presume is Sevastopol. Putin mentioned that Aeroflot was cutting the price of tickets to Crimea from several cities and that ferry services between Crimea and Russia would be increased.

The elephant in the room that is Ukraine was present in many questions and at times the situation in that country and the ramifications for Russia were discussed at some length. Direct Line received a report that a prominent journalist in Ukraine, Oles Buzina, had just been shot dead and that a former politician Oleg Kalashnikov, associated with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had also been killed previously. The hosts and Putin expressed condolences to Buzina’s family. Irina Khakamada asked Putin if Russia had troops in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and Putin emphatically said no. An online question asked why Russia’s support for Ukraine had failed given that Russia had invested the equivalent of US$32-33 billion in Ukraine; Putin’s reply was that the Ukrainian government itself had wasted the money with the greed and corruption of its politicians.

At this point Putin delved into a brief and interesting lecture into why Russia had allowed Ukraine to develop the way it had since 1991 when Ukraine became independent: Ukraine is a sovereign state and must be allowed to make its own way in the world. As a fellow sovereign state, Russia must respect Ukraine’s decisions even if they incur bad or injurious results. There is no desire on Russia’s part to revive an empire or force other countries into an imagined sphere of influence in spite of Western propaganda that says the contrary. At the same time, Putin recognised that a considerable number of Russians and Russian-speaking people live outside the borders of Russia in neighbouring countries like Ukraine and that their interests had to be considered. The way to do this, according to Putin, is through interaction, cooperation and mutual respect.

On the question of the future status of Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, Putin took a minimalist position in stating that he hoped for the recent Minsk II agreements, brokered with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of Germany and France, would be implemented and adhered to by the Ukrainian government. In the long run, whether Donetsk and Lugansk would stay within Ukraine or not would depend on the people living in those oblasts and their decision would in turn depend on the Ukrainian leadership’s attitude towards these two regions.

Some Observations

Firstly the very notion that Vladimir Putin would participate in a marathon 5-hour session answering questions, not all of which might be spontaneous and unscripted, seems quite astounding to most Western audiences used to seeing their leaders participate in carefully orchestrated 1-hour “debates” in which all replies have been scripted and vetted in advance. Certainly some questioners appear to have been pre-selected which might explain why Alexei Kudrin and Irina Khakamada, both prominent opposition politicians, got the gong to ask their questions at the expense of other, perhaps more pressing requests. The fact that people in Crimea and Donbass refugees were favoured by Direct Line might suggest pre-selection at work as well in addition to Crimea and the Donbass being issues of considerable importance and urgency in Russia at this time.

Why prominent opposition politicians like Kudrin and Khakamada were given air-time when they could have raised their respective questions in parliament seems a puzzle. It could be that the issues they have raised are in the public interest, given that among other things Boris Nemtsov’s murder attracted worldwide attention. However Putin was able to turn a potential source of criticism into his advantage: the police investigation into Nemtsov’s death netted suspects within a week of the killing. The propaganda value that the West could have mined from Nemtsov’s death ended up being very limited. Also by giving time to Kudrin and Khakamada, Putin gave them the opportunity to hang themselves by their own opinions of what was important and what was not. Khakamada by her own admission and assumptions placed more importance on Western impressions that Russian military units were present in eastern Ukraine than on actual facts: she could have travelled to the area or areas close by and seen for herself that no Russian troops were stationed in positions to invade.

I note that this year’s Q&A session was the longest so far in the programme’s history and I expect that next year’s session will be just as long if not longer. There surely will come a point when the producers realise “Direct Line …” is becoming unwieldy. I can see it running to about six or seven hours but no more. There is a need perhaps to set certain guidelines about what people can ask or petition of the President so as to preserve the programme’s reputation for serious journalism as well as not to waste time with frivolous requests.

The very fact that people pepper their President with questions, requests and petitions which he says he will take up with the relevant regional governors who in turn would be expected to refer to and discuss with the local municipal authorities in charge of the issues raised suggests that democracy from the ground up might still be weak in parts of Russia. There may be regional and local government authorities that still have an authoritarian outlook and culture and which only jump to pressure applied from above. (Much the same can be said about the relationship between and among the different levels of government and their respective relationship with their voters in many supposedly more democratic Western countries; in many governments at regional and even local council levels, ideology and politicking have usurped priorities such as delivering services required by communities.) No doubt a situation in which regional and local government authorities in Russia are more attentive and responsive to their constituents’ needs would be much better than what may currently exist. Citizens should be able to appeal directly to their relevant authorities (through citizen-initiated referendums, online petitions or mini-Q&A sessions with regional governors for example) to get certain things done that benefit their families and communities. Perhaps Moscow itself is working towards this goal. A criticism that could be made about shows like Direct Line … is that they are simply a 21st-century version of rulers holding court and receiving petitions and requests from subjects which are then delegated to the appropriate advisors and ministries.

The impression of Vladimir Putin that I come away with is that he is an intelligent and pragmatic politician and leader who, while he may keep his cards close to his chest, seems dedicated at the very least to leave his country in a much more developed, more prosperous and freer position than it was when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1991 from Germany. This work requires the revival and strengthening of social and cultural institutions and values that were weakened or repressed during the Soviet period and which would serve as a basis for a new Russian society. Putin recognises that Russia is in a period of transition, in the process of becoming, and that he has responsibility for leading the country through that transition – though what the result will be may not necessarily be what he imagines – but still, he is determined to progress to his preferred goal of a Russia strong and secure in its place in the world. This goal is very much in agreement with what he said in his Valdai 2014 speech, in which Russia would not aim at being the world’s enforcer but rather concentrate on its own development and defend its own interests and territory.

The episode can be seen at this Youtube link.

John David Ebert Lecture on Oswald Spengler: a detailed summary of “The Decline of the West”

John David Ebert, “Mythologies of the Evolution of Consciousness: Oswald Spengler” (Astrological Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, March, 2001)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Oswald Spengler was a German historian and philosopher whose main claim to glory is his book “The Decline of the West”, published in 1918 and 1922, which covers most of the known history of the world and which asserts that civilisations are super-organisms that follow a life-cycle and must eventually die. John David Ebert’s talk on Spengler takes up the theme and frameworks of Spengler’s major work and expands them into an investigation of civilisation and the themes that dominate each major civilisation and how those themes are expressed in the arts and sciences. It’s a very detailed talk that  demands considerable general knowledge on the audience’s part, not to mention reserves of concentration, to follow. The lecture was part of a three-day workshop on Rudolf Steiner, Oswald Spengler and Jean Gebser at the Astrological Institute in Arizona state in early 2001.

The talk follows on from Ebert’s lecture on Rudolf Steiner but it can be heard and treated in its own right. Ebert starts off with a brief  biography of Spengler and the personal circumstances in which Spengler came to write “The Decline of the West”. In the first few pages of “The Decline …”, Spengler mentioned as his major influences the writer Goethe and the philosopher Nietzsche: the latter’s early work “The Birth of Tragedy”, an investigation of ancient Greek drama and its themes and concerns, becomes the focus of Ebert’s explanation of how Nietzsche’s beliefs and writings about how Western civilisation is in decline inform Spengler’s own writing. Ebert shows how Greek drama began essentially as a dialogue between two parties that investigates the relationship and tension between an individual and the collective will of society. Later Greek playwrights like Euripides were to muddy this relationship by introducing analytical elements. Nietzsche saw in this and in the Greek culture of Euripides’ time the beginnings of the downfall of Classical Greece due to an imbalance between the Apollonian (the world of the intellect, questioning and analysis) and Dionysian (subconscious tendencies of the society, spontaneity, spirituality) with an over-emphasis on the intellect. He drew from this that Western civilisation was also in the early stages of its twilight with the Age of Enlightenment and its emphasis on questioning tradition and custom, the products of the intellect and the society that is produced. This becomes the basis for Spengler’s own quest.

From there, for Spengler all civilisations pass through a definite life-cycle of religion passing into an artistic / lyrical phase and then going on into rationalism, politics and war. Ebert then goes through the eight major world civilisations that Spengler regarded as High Cultures and points out what for Spengler were their distinctive characteristics, themes and concepts of space. Spengler singled out Russia as an example of an incomplete civilisation that will become a High Culture. Ebert then treats the themes of Classical culture (the physical body, the polis, individual destinies subject to capricious fate), the Magian culture (Middle Eastern: the sacred text representing the Word of God, the rule of consensus, the concern with fulfilling religious duties and rules that govern one’s life, one’s destiny predetermined by God in advance) and the Faustian culture (Western: quest into infinite space represented by upthrusting spires of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, emphasis on a personal relationship with God, one’s destiny unfolding from within one’s character and personality traits). Each of these High Cultures develops its own mathematics and sciences, its distinctive music and arts and architectures.

Ebert continues with an explanation of how creativity develops during the duration of each High Culture, as manifested in the culture’s arts, literature, music and sciences. He uses examples from Western civilisation to illustrate how its arts and architecture mirror the development and maturation of the culture’s themes as one century passes into the next.

Ebert concludes his lecture with Spengler’s presumption to predict how Western civilisation will decline: politics will revert to what the High Culture began with as political institutions become deadlocked and can only be dealt with by force and war; the intellect recedes, there are fewer scientific and artistic geniuses and innovators, literacy declines and reason is replaced by belief, irrationality, the proliferation of religious cults and a return to spirituality. Populations will decline.

Ebert’s talk requires at least two hearings for most of his summation of Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” to sink in. If the listener will allow for the possibility that the time periods in which a culture’s growth, maturity and decline may vary a great deal – with the period of decline perhaps lasting hundreds of years in comparison with the culture’s youth and maturity which altogether might last less than 100 years – then Spengler’s proposition is easier to accept. Ebert does not say whether the period of decline might be highlighted with brief phases of rejuvenation from within the culture’s own resources or from outside.

Naturally Ebert’s audience seemed a little perturbed and uncomfortable with Spengler’s predictions of downfall for the West. If they were more familiar with Spengler’s work itself, they might also be a bit uncomfortable with the German’s assumptions about human nature and what he may have overlooked. It may be that Spengler was very pessimistic about human psychology and its potential for change. Spengler’s argument that all High Cultures experience a definite life-cycle might be founded on examples he selected merely to bolster his view: Ebert does not spend much time talking about the High Cultures of the Mexicans or of East Asia and if one were to live in Japan or Mexico for considerable lengths of time, one might find how aspects of indigenous cultures in those countries have blended with and been enriched by imported Western culture which in turn has also benefited from contact with other cultures. Indeed, from what I could gather from Ebert’s talk, Spengler seemed to have nothing to say about how some cultures gain the creativity and energy in the first place to grow. Equally there was nothing about how other cultures that start with the same advantages and limitations fail to grow and thrive. Why is it that some Indo-European cultures (Greek, Roman, Germanic) became dominant in Europe while others (Phoenician / Carthaginian, Celtic) didn’t? Couldn’t luck and coincidence have played a role?

For me, Spengler’s arguments can’t be divorced from the social and political context in which he grew up and lived, and the beliefs and assumptions of late 19th-century / early 20th-century German society, with their strong emphasis on race and biological influences on culture, must surely have played a strong part in his assumptions about human cultures. One wonders what he would have said about India under the rule of the British: would he say that Indian civilisation was in decline, due wholly to its internal developments, without knowing the role of the British elites in destroying the Indian economy through trade and other economic restrictions, and how those affected people’s lives?

The fact that Spengler’s book and views have become popular almost immediately after “The Decline …” was first published might suggest that if and when decline does come and deluge follows, they will be self-fulfilled prophecies. If Western civilisation does fall, couldn’t that be partly because certain of our elites were so influenced by Spengler and his followers’ views that the creativity and energy needed to revive this culture ended up being sapped by fatalism and a deterministic outlook?

The value of Ebert’s lecture is as an introduction to Spengler’s work and beliefs. Interested people may investigate further and try to read Spengler; others who just want a basic sketch of what Spengler thought and wrote about can start and stop with Ebert’s lecture.