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.

 

A clash of two worlds existing in parallel: the Q&A Session after Vladimir Putin’s Valdai 2014 speech

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 2: Q&A Session

This second part of my essay focuses on the Q&A session that followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Final Plenary Session of the XI Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club held in Sochi in late October 2014. Part 1 deals with the President’s speech and can be read elsewhere on this blog.

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people starting with questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and (later in the session) Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

As demonstrated by Milne and Dutkiewicz, a number of Western representatives in the Q&A session took for granted a particular point of view about Putin in which he behaves like a stereotypical autocratic dictator who has stashed several hundreds of millions of US dollars in bank accounts throughout the world and who conducts his foreign and domestic policies on the basis of self-interest, greed and expediency, and on that basis asked Putin rather slanted questions that seemed intended to rattle him and/or force him to contradict himself over points he made in his speech. Thus a media representative, Neil Buckley, asked Putin if he considered Ukraine to be a real and sovereign country and why there apparently were soldiers in Russian uniforms in Eastern Ukraine aka Novorossiya. To his credit, Putin not only patiently answered the questions (even though some were repeated but in a slightly different guise) but took the opportunity to explain something of Ukraine’s 20th-century history and how it became a hodge-podge nation of a number of ethnic and religious groups with nothing in common and even very different pre-1945 histories. He holds his own well against other speakers by  being able to recall and quote details of issues discussed with little prompting.

One of the more (though slightly) thoughtful questions came from Toby Trister Gati who wanted to know something about Russian-US relations and perhaps what Putin had in mind while criticising the US and its actions in the Middle East and in Ukraine: was he referring to the US President, the US political elite or American citizens generally. Putin seemed genuinely surprised that Gati did not know how the US is destabilising the Middle East by helping the terrorist organisation ISIS. The President kept coming back to the American insistence that it (the US) is always right and that it is an exceptional country bringing democracy to the benighted corners of the Earth.

Another of the few intelligent questions batted to Putin was one by academic Robert Skidelsky who expressed concern over Russia’s reliance on energy exports and the country’s low levels of economic diversification. This gave Putin the opportunity to expound on the economic and financial reforms that have taken place since he first became President in 2000.

An interesting question was posed by Nikolai Zlobin to Putin on whether Russia was making a great mistake by isolating itself from the rest of the world and in so doing, becoming more nationalistic and less democratic. Again this question reflects the prevalent viewpoint that Putin is re-establishing the Soviet Union in all its isolated and isolating ersatz glory in a Russian form. Putin’s reply was that Russia does not intend to shut itself off – it is the rest of the Western world, under pressure from the US, that is shunning Russia. In answer to Zlobin’s statement that Moscow has shut down various educational exchange programs, cut off certain non-political non-government organisations (NGOs) from Russian funding and clamped down on certain foreigners and dual citizenship, Putin pointed out that these programs, NGOs and the foreigners who had been asked to leave had been financed from abroad to carry out agendas that amounted to spreading propaganda of a subtle kind and portraying certain political and economic ideologies and philosophies as the only ones for Russia to follow. He also pointed out that the US has similar laws that prevent  backdoor subversion of US culture and society through exchange programs and charities. To rub salt into a wound, Putin even took apart aspects of US political culture – such as indirect electi0n of the President by an electoral college, contrary to what most American voters themselves believe – and pointed out the hypocrisy of a nation that tells others what to do but does not practise what it preaches. Putin and Zlobin both discussed nationalism in its American and Russian contexts and came to agreement on its ability to unite people in a nation and at the same time cut them off from others and set countries onto paths of isolationism and distrust of others.

In answer to a Chinese university academic on what he meant by “conservatism”, Putin assured him that he was referring to its original meaning of preserving the best of policies, attitudes, values and traditions that have stood Russia well over the decades, even centuries, and being open to everything new that is effective and worthwhile, and which helps Russia to advance and grow. Some people will recognise this as the kind of conservatism that used to exist in politics in the Anglosphere around the middle of the 20th century before it was distorted by Thatcherism / Reaganism and which is still represented by commentators like the American palaeo-conservative Pat Buchanan.

The Q&A session was generally more noteworthy for what the questions say about the mind-sets of the people who asked them than what they were actually about. The questioners generally proceeded from an assumption that the US is basically good, that the current US government has lost its way and, if only it had better politicians who were less self-interested and more genuinely interested in advancing their country’s welfare and in cooperating with everyone else, then US President Barack Obama would fulfill his presumed role as a sort of Messiah who would eliminate all inequalities and discrimination, abolish poverty and wrongdoing, and lead his people into a New American Century, all shiny and glittering with gold. There is no consideration at all that perhaps the US government and its agencies are populated by rogue elements answering to a power other than the American people, and that the country’s institutions, values and belief systems are much to blame as they continue to attract the most psychopathic personalities into the upper political, economic and social echelons. Clearly Putin operates on a different planet than many of the people who quizzed him. Thus there was a certain amount of repetition in some of the questions and an obsession with the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, suggesting that the people asking the questions couldn’t believe what they were hearing from Putin and trying to grill him until he came up with the answers they were expecting.

On that note, I conclude that the Q&A session was not in itself as highly informative and illuminating about Putin’s speech as it could have been, apart from Putin’s replies to Professor Feng Shaolei about conservatism and to Nikolai Zlobin about Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.

Challenging the New World Order: Vladimir Putin’s Valdai 2014 speech

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 1

Founded in 2004, the Valdai International Discussion Club brings together experts ranging from politicians to economists, public servants, journalists and academics from around the world to analyse and debate on Russia’s role and position in the world. The first meeting was held in Veliky Novgorod near Lake Valdai, hence the name of the club. The goal is to promote dialogue and debate on political, economic, social and other major issues and events of importance both to Russia and the rest of the world.

In 2014 the eleventh meeting was held in Sochi and it was here that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech in the final plenary session of the meeting (as is his custom) that in the future is likely to be seen as signifying a major turning point in geopolitical history. Under the theme of New Rules or a Game Without Rules, Putin declared that Russia will no longer participate in international politics according to rules set by the United States and its allies but will forge its own path as a regional power in its neighbourhood, as determined by the will of the Russian people, pursuing the path of peace and economic development and avoiding war where possible unless threatened by others. By making this statement, Putin has put Russia on a path the country has never trod before – previously Russia in various manifestations has either copied and followed other (usually Western) countries or has cast itself in a messianic role, whether as successor to the Byzantine empire, leader of the Slav nations or leader of the Communist world – and by doing so, has perhaps shown the rest of the world that there is an alternative to the tired Cold War paradigm that posed one set of countries and ideologies against another set of countries and ideologies, and both sets having long outlived their usefulness and relevance to a world beset by ominous developments that transcend political, economic and social divisions.

The Content of Putin’s Speech

Putin noted that current geopolitical institutions, systems and law mechanisms have become weak, distorted and ineffective against a rising tide of violence, instability and brutality in many parts of the world, in particular in parts of the Middle East and in Ukraine. Increasingly countries, Russia included, are searching for ways that will lessen their dependence on the use of the US dollar in trade and are establishing alternative financial and payments systems that do away with the US dollar as the reserve currency. The use of sanctions against Russia and other countries like Iran are undermining trade and causing economic stress in EU countries in spite of the fact that these countries have initiated sanctions under pressure from the US. Putin also referred to the 2013 banking crisis in Cyprus, in which that country’s government attempted to seize monies from uninsured savings accounts in major Cyprus banks as part of a bail-out agreement struck with finance ministers of Eurozone countries with the blessings of the EU and the IMF, as a motivator to seek out alternatives to the current global financial system that help preserve political and economic sovereignty.

From Putin’s point of view, much of the blame for the breakdown in the systems and mechanisms that maintain world peace and stability lies with the United States which, since the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War, has broken its promise made to Russia by then US Secretary of State James Baker that the US would not extend NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact nations, and has sought and instigated regime change in several countries in western Asia and northern Africa as outlined in the Project for the New American Century, authored in part by neoconservative historian Robert Kagan whose wife Victoria Nuland is the current Assistant US State Secretary to John Kerry. Regarding itself as the winner of the Cold War, the US and its allies have tried to impose their own narrowly interpreted and highly militarised solutions onto major world and regional problems and conflicts: solutions that have the effect of throwing gasoline onto fires to put them out. Putin referred to US-led overthrows of governments in Iraq and Libya, and the current US attempt to unseat Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria, with all the dire consequences that have followed and resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, and large-scale environmental catastrophe that surely must influence global climate change, as examples of such hubris on the part of the Americans.

Having surveyed the sorry state of the world thus far, Putin comes to the question of whether to live by New Rules or No Rules. He explicitly rejects the No Rules option because the current global situation is clearly on the path to No Rules. He reminds his audience that nations must agree on fundamental values and to co-operate in finding collective solutions to common problems and issues. Major participants in such co-operation must lead the way in behaving with self-restraint and in ethical and responsible ways that others will be happy to follow. International co-operation and relations should be based on international laws that are themselves based on moral principles and respect by nations for one another and their interests.

Within this world of New Rules, Putin places Russia decisively on a path in which the country will emphasise pursuing its own development with an emphasis on open, democratic and accountable political and economic institutions, selectively adopting those modern global trends that would enhance the country’s progress and strengthen its society by emphasising traditional values that have stood the country well in times of crisis. Russia will look back into its history, forward into a likely future and around it to find and draw upon those resources and forces that will ensure and enhance its progress. Putin explicitly rejects the idea of Russia becoming an empire again and envisages the country as being a partner willing to work with others on the basis of mutual interest and respect.

The Russian blogger known as chipstone summarises what he believes to be the main points of Putin’s speech, what follows are  chipstone’s words (explained further by myself where they don’t appear to be too clear):

1. Russia will not play in the proposed “game”, leading the backstage trade on trifles. But she is ready for any serious discussion and agreement, if they will contribute to the security and will be based on a fair and equal integration of all interests. [Russia refuses to play any more games and indulge in backroom horse-trading on trifling issues; Russia is interested only and ready for serious discussion and agreement based on whether this contributes to collective security and on fairness and consideration of all parties’ interest.]

2. Any system of global security [is] destroyed. The future is not guaranteed. And this destroyer is, as they say, first name and patronymic. [All current systems of global security are in ruins, there are no more guarantees of international security, thanks to the United States of America which has trashed them.]

3. The builders of the New World Order have failed and built a castle in the sand. Build or not a joint world order to solve not only Russia, but without Russia and expense, this issue is not resolved. [The creators of the New World Order have built a house with a foundation of sand. Whether a replacement order should be built is not only Russia’s decision but any such decision to create a new system of order must include Russia’s participation.]

4. Russia favors a conservative approach to the implementation of any changes in the society and the existing elements of the order, but does not refuse to consider new products for their meaningful implementation. [Russia prefers to tread carefully where fools would rush in, in introducing social change but would be happy to discuss and test such change first where justified.]

5. Russia is not going to fish in the troubled waters of chaos, is not going to build a new empire (we just do not need it, we would have his master), but is not going to save the world and at the expense of himself, as has happened before. [Russia has enough territory to satisfy its imperial ambitions if any, Russia is not interested in building empires and certainly will not be the world’s policeman at its own cost.]

6. Russia is not going to reformat the world for themselves, but do not give reformat themselves to please someone else. We’re not going to close the world, but woe to those who try us “close”. [Russia is uninterested in reshaping the world to its preference and will not allow anyone to reshape Russian territory and society according to their interests. Russia will not be isolationist and will not tolerate being shut off from the rest of the world.]

7. Russia does not want the onset of chaos, not seeking war and it is not going to start first. Nevertheless, today Russia is considering the prospect of a global war almost as inevitable, is ready for this and continues to prepare.Russia does not want war, but not afraid. 

8. Russia is not going to take a proactive stance in opposing the mountain – the builders of the NWO as long as it does not concern her vital interests, preferring to give them the opportunity to stuff as many cones as sustain their head. When violent Russian involvement in this process, at the expense of its interests, little nobody seems. [Russia won’t object to those still pursuing their dreams of a New World Order as long as they don’t impinge on Russia’s interests; Russia is happy to let those countries whack themselves silly but if they try to drag Russia into their schemes, then they will really know what it’s like to be whacked!]

9. In its foreign and domestic policy the more power Russia will increasingly rely not on the elite and backroom deals, and the will of the people. [Russia will follow foreign and domestic policies aligned with what the Russian people desire or prefer as opposed to backroom horse-trading deals.]

The Q&A Session

(Originally when I wrote this essay, only a small early part of the Q&A session had been fully translated or retranslated from a Russian translation into English. As the whole Q&A session is now available in English, and is lengthy to boot, I will write a second essay covering the questions and Putin’s responses.)

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people including questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

The rest of the Q&A session will be covered in Part 2 of this essay.

Some Observations

That Russia seems content to be only a regional power in its sphere of influence may disappoint those people who want to see a new world power leading a coalition of nations pulverise the United States and its allies. But such a scenario would be a repeat of old Cold War fantasies and would certainly play into the US government’s own desires of provoking Russia into war. From the experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Russia is well aware of the pitfalls of travelling down that path again and how among other things the arms build-up and race against the US which the war in Afghanistan entailed weakened the USSR and distorted its economic decision-making and priorities. Also there would be no guarantee that a rerun of the Cold War would not come to corrupt Russia’s decision-makers and its economic elites in the way the Cold War corrupted the US the first time. The Russian strategy means that the US and its fellow head-bangers will continue to bash themselves silly (and waste taxpayers’ money) with trying to stir up conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East and other arenas, only to see these conflicts fizzle out to their own disadvantage.

It might seem extraordinary that for the first time since 1945 a major power is content to remain within its own region and not take active steps to ensure that peace and stability in places beyond its immediate neighbourhood endure. This scenario is one that might strike Americans who know their country’s history well as being similar to the isolationist policy that the US tried to follow after World War I, to the extent of spurning membership of the League of Nations. The fact that the most powerful nation in the world in the 1920s and 30s turned its back on the rest of the world may have encouraged countries like Germany, Italy and Japan to pursue their ambitions and embark on empire-building; if the US did not support the League, then those other countries also would not support it. Isolationism as a nation’s foreign policy then failed to prevent instability and the drift towards another major world war. But this is not to suggest that Russia will follow isolationism in the same way that the US did; Russia may very well follow a selective isolationism in which the country will concern itself mostly with issues in the Eurasian region but will retain membership of the UN or its successor organisation, and might intervene in situations far beyond Eurasia if requested to do so as a third party mediator perhaps under UN or similar auspices.

What I think is most likely at this point is that Russia will refuse to be at the beck and call of every insecure small nation or group of such nations (like, say, the so-called Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; or the Vyšehrad nations Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) to intervene militarily in every problem that these countries perceive as threatening to them (whether they actually are or not) and to turn its armed forces into a mercenary global police force for hire, as the US has done over the past 60+ years. Whether in the long run that turns out to be a good thing or not, or the right path or not, we cannot judge from our vantage point in which most major global issues and conflicts have become extremely polarised politically.

What Putin has done is to signal the end of an age in which ideology and abstract concepts determine inter-relationships among nations and whether some nations should be judged “good” and others “bad” by selectively applied criteria from particular mishmashes of ideologies held by dominant partners. Instead his speech heralds an age in which nations greet one another at face value and co-operate as partners on pressing global issues, finding common cause and working together on agreed principles to resolve problems. It is time to approach and tackle problems as they are on their own merits and to find the most appropriate solutions based on the nature of the problem and the context at hand, and whether they will benefit most of those people who might be affected by the problem, not on whether it adheres to a narrowly interpreted abstract ideal. Pragmatism and policies based on fairness, justice and accountability should govern nations’ relationships with one another.

Disappointingly but not surprisingly, Putin’s speech was either not broadcast on mainstream news media in the Anglosphere or was cherry-picked over for comments he made that would back the Western propaganda narrative of Putin as a dictator and tyrant whose removal from the global scene is now due. Anyone reading who has not yet viewed the speech can watch it on Youtube by clicking this link; the Q&A session follows as well. An English-language transcript of the entire session can be read here.

What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …) – more to genius than meets the eye (and ear …)

Christopher Hartney, “What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …)” (WEA Sydney, 28 October 2014)

What makes a genius? Is genius inborn in certain individuals, irrespective of where they live and what they do, or does a certain environment have to exist to cultivate genius? Is genius, especially the lone genius, a real figure or is genius a myth that tells us more about the society that needs the genius myth and what it values? Why do some societies need the genius and others not? Why is it that at particular times in a society’s development, geniuses may appear at the same time in the same arena of intellectual, artistic or scientific endeavour, as in the case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently conceiving of natural selection as the driver of evolution? These questions were all tackled in just under 90 minutes with varying degrees of success by University of Sydney lecturer Christopher Hartney at WEA Sydney as part of its annual George Shipp lecture series.

Starting with Voltaire and working his way through individuals such as Mozart, Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison, Hartney delivered a fast-paced lecture that pulled in insights from aesthetics, philosophy, science and religion. He explored different concepts of the genius such as the genius as hero, the genius as prophet and other stereotypes. Hartney also pointed out the phenomenon of concurrence in which two or more creative people, acting independently of one another, have the same idea at the same time: this calls into question as to whether people considered geniuses are genuinely innovative or are merely conductors through which ideas and inventions may come into being. Hartney then explored the social context in which genius may arise and noted that geniuses often are never fully integrated into their societies: rather, they may be antagonistic towards some aspect or aspects of the culture in which they live and tend to set themselves apart from it in some way. They may be considered eccentric, bizarre or socially maladjusted; a common cultural theme in Western society is that of the mad scientist who works on his (rarely her) own pursuing projects that promise both great revelations and discoveries for humankind and great disaster as well.

The talk was very dense with information and there was little opportunity for audience input for most of Hartney’s time until the end. I must confess that early on I felt a bit dozy and missed quite a bit of Hartney’s speech. Hartney was very entertaining and fluent, very sure of his topic and I imagine quite a few people who attended the talk must have been spellbound.

In the space of 90 minutes, covering so much ground, Hartney did not go into much depth into each aspect of his lecture: it was clearly intended as an introduction into the nature of genius and its complex relationship to society. There was not the opportunity to investigate why some ideas and inventions often wait many years, even decades, before they become reality or are mass produced for the public. There was also no time to explore why genius often comes in pairs, as in famous song-writing duos – think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during The Beatles’ heyday, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin – or in founders of corporations such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Inc who conceived the idea of making personal computers as opposed to computers for businesses and organisations, or Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the founders of Sony. A third issue that Hartney was unable to investigate was why some creative individuals go unheralded while others take credit for their work, and why some people are brilliant at coming up with ideas but are unable to bring their ideas to full fruition: is the nature of the individuals themselves that their genius goes begging during their lifetimes or is it that society for some reason cannot accept their ideas and inventions at the time but is only able to accept them later if they come from somebody else?

Hartney concluded his talk by observing that genius is as much a product of nurture as of nature: genius may be genetic but it must be encouraged by a family upbringing and education that recognises and prizes individual ability and effort; genius needs interest and immersion in a particular field which may require and lead to isolation from others; genius needs to incubate, experience the moment of revelation and discovery, and then to develop and elaborate on the discovery and bring the concept into material reality and usefulness. This all must take place in a social context in which others are willing to accept the idea and give genius the time, space and resources to develop the idea.

On that open-ended conclusion, the audience cheered and I daresay many people were inspired enough to pursue the ideas in Hartney’s talk further.

 

 

 

5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked: cherry-picking easy targets to attack so as to look good

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp / Business For Scotland, “5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked” (September 2014)

At this time of writing, there remain just a few days to go until Scotland has its independence referendum and already the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps have escalated their war of words across the UK media to a shrill intensity. To counter some of the fear tactics and scare stories concerning how an independent Scotland will cope and thrive economically, Business For Scotland’s Chief Executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp has come out with guns blazing in a series of short videos, all of which can be viewed on Youtube, to explain how Scotland can pay its own way and fulfill its independence dreams. He concentrates on five scare stories that the No Campaign has been drumming up and which various Business For Scotland speakers and campaigners have had to confront the most in meetings and interviews, and demolishes the objections the No Campaign has raised. All the videos in which MacIntyre-Kemp takes apart the scare stories are very brief, running for less than three minutes each. They can be viewed at this Business For Scotland link.

In Video 1, MacIntyre-Kemp addresses the issue of bank bail-outs and points out that the two major banks in Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were bailed out in the cities where they are headquartered or registered; that is, in the City of London and New York City. He ends his talk by suggesting that banks headquartered in Scotland should be nationalised and regulated so that they are not allowed to rack up huge debts and require massive multi-billion pound bail-outs.

Video 2 deals with the issue of who subsidises Scotland: MacIntyre-Kemp turns that assumption on its head by pointing out that Scotland contributes more in tax revenues to Westminister than it receives back. In Video 3, he tackles the issue of how Scotland will be able to prop up public services like pensions and asserts that Scotland will lock in increases  to pensions which will be based on increases in average weekly earnings. He argues that a revitalised economy will be able to arrest a brain drain of young qualified professionals away from Scotland and at the same time attract skilled immigrants and together these groups will provide a substantial tax base that will support pension payments to the elderly and the needy.

Currency is the focus of Video 4 as for the time being Scotland expects to continue using pound sterling after independence. MacIntyre-Kemp suggests the confusion over the issue of currency has been stirred up deliberately by Westminster to persuade people to vote No. Should Scotland opt for independence, the most likely scenario will be that the Bank of England will support currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK to help stabilise the economies of the two states. In the final video, MacIntyre-Kemp explains how Scotland will be able to pay its way as an independent country, pointing out that among other things it will not need a large defence force and will commit itself to creating a society with sustainability as a core value. He rounds off his series of videos by declaring that the issue of Scottish independence isn’t about the economics but about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike out and create a fairer and more just society that could serve as an example for others including the rest of Britain to follow.

The videos are easy on the eye – they just feature MacIntyre-Kemp against a white background over which figures and facts float temporarily to illustrate what he says.

I admit to surprise that in all of these videos MacIntyre-Kemp doesn’t mention the issue of North Sea oil and how much oil really is within Scotland’s maritime territories to its north. This is significant if Scotland plans not only to adopt Scandinavian-influenced social welfare policies which in themselves would cost a fair few cool hundred billion pounds a year but also to invest in renewable energies and eventually wean itself off fossil fuels. Even if there were enough oil to last Scotland several decades (let alone some of the more optimistic claims that the oil could last a century!), there is the problem of how Scotland will finance exploration and drilling for the oil and how it will be able to control revenues and direct the bulk of them into a sovereign wealth fund and away from unproductive financial transactions such as property speculation (which drives up real estate prices in cities and towns), various debt bubbles and ingenious but ultimately harmful financial engineering schemes that make money disappear into tax haven black holes or unscrupulous scamsters’ bank accounts. Even before all this, there’s the problem as to whether Scotland will be able to claim the oil resources in its waters on behalf of its people before the US or UK pressures the country’s government through under-handed tactics: in this context, for Scotland to assume that currency union will ensure stable economies on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall might be naive in the least.

Another big problem is that an independent Scotland cannot rely completely on oil resources whose market prices can vary from one year to the next depending on what other oil exporters are able to sell and the levels of global demand for oil. The country could rely on providing financial services and inviting foreign companies to establish factories (Scottish manufacturing having declined over the last half-century or so under Westminister rule) but at a cost of offering subsidies, tax relief and other incentives (like low wages, importing Third World labour and waiving or ignoring OHS regulations) to compete against the rest of Britain and Ireland. This could well pull funding away from building up a social welfare net for citizens, a sovereign wealth fund and renewable energy projects and into the coffers of foreign firms.

There is a very real possibility also that the EU will not accept Scotland as a member unless and until its government imposes an austerity package on its citizens and conforms to other EU, World Bank and IMF requirements. Even if Scotland were to agree to undergo austerity, forgo developing a social welfare net and to restructure its institutions according to EU, World Bank and IMF guidelines, full EU membership cannot be guaranteed.

The assumption that small European countries are wealthier than larger European countries is lazy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being squeezed by their crippling debt and austerity programs, and several EU member states in eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia) are not exactly thriving either. About 1 in 5 people in Lithuania are living at near-poverty levels or below and similar proportions of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are also living close to near-poverty levels. Latvia is said to be losing 30,000 people a year as young adults are voting with their feet in search of employment. As for the wealthy small European countries, Luxembourg derives a considerable part of its wealth from being a tax haven as does Switzerland: hardly worthy examples for Scotland to follow.

Even so, in spite of what I have just said, I do realise the September 2014 referendum is a unique opportunity for Scotland’s citizens to decide on the future direction of their country. It will be a momentous event, one that may have flow-on consequences for what remains of the United Kingdom: it may well start conversations within England, Wales and Northern Ireland themselves as to their futures and devolving more power to the public away from their elites. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp says at the end of Video 5, independence isn’t just about economics, it’s about starting anew with a new set of values that stress fairness, justice, equality and sustainability.

The Pricing of Everything: a wide-ranging talk on neoliberal economics and its commodification of nature

George Monbiot, “The Pricing of Everything” (SPERI Annual Lecture , Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield, 29 April 2014)

Here’s a wide-ranging talk pulling in issues and aspects of contemporary politics and economics, philosophy and the place and value of nature and natural environmental systems in a global civilisation dominated by the values of neoliberal capitalism, and delivered in impassioned style by journalist and environmental / political activist George Monbiot. Since 1996, Monbiot has been writing a column on environmental and political topics for the British newspaper The Guardian and a transcript of his lecture can be accessed at this link.

It’s a long talk, about 45 minutes in length, but clearly structured around a theme of how societies these days are so dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideology that everything, even natural ecosystems, has to be priced in monetary terms; and how this ideology now pervades nearly all social, political and economic institutions and structures. This is just as well as Monbiot does not rely at all on visual aids whereas most other people would read off a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. Monbiot’s delivery and the stage on which he strolls about might be likened to a one-man monologue drama: the audience has to focus entirely on him. Since he bangs on without notes and with very little pause, not even for a drink of water, one might think the danger Monbiot should have foreseen would be that his talk would wander off up hill and dale on pet topics; to some extent, that does happen. Fortunately he has considerable experience in public speaking and presenting his material, and his talk is much less dry than would be expected given its subject matter.

The talk begins with Monbiot’s explication of what neoliberal economics is (as he sees it), what it has done or not done, and how it has failed to deliver what its proponents claim it can do.  Free markets are held as a sacrosanct concept in being able to fulfill all social and economic needs more effectively and efficiently than any other economic system or ideology, and the role of governments is merely to ensure that markets are allowed to identify where needs are greatest and allocate resources to meet those needs without interference. Over the last 35 years or so, governments have retreated from actively regulating particular markets and economies with fiscal policies and relying instead on expanding or contracting money supply as mandated by Hayekian / Friedmanite monetarist economics. The result generally has been privatisation of the public sector, a concentration of wealth in the financial industry, the usurpation of the real economy (one that produces goods and services) with the financial economy resulting in the death of manufacturing in many First World economies, and greater socio-economic equalities leading to the shrinking of the middle classes and a rise in and spread of poverty across social classes.

Having failed to deliver what it was supposed to do, neoliberal economics through its adherents in governments, lobby groups, academia and various think-tanks has moved to the natural world to wring from it the wealth, natural and financial, to support its agenda. This trend in neoliberal capitalism to commodify, monetarise and generally shape and divide the natural world for easier consumption and devastation constitutes the bulk of Monbiot’s talk.  Had Monbiot stuck to delineating examples of how neoliberal economics preys, vampire-like, on the natural world, his talk on the whole would have been very good, even great. Out of the talk though wriggles out one issue that is at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist agenda: the drive for power and domination.

At this point, Monbiot veers away from addressing the issue of power directly and starts prattling about how progressive and social democratic parties have shot themselves in the foot by abandoning their core values and core audience in pursuit of votes and winning elections and ending up no different from the parties whose policies and programs they supposedly oppose. From there we end up in a woffle about intrinsic versus extrinsic values and Monbiot getting those rather mixed up with values that emphasise the autonomy of the individual versus values that stress collective needs over individual rights and freedoms. The talk ends in a call for people to “mobilise”.

I’m disappointed that at the moment Monbiot identifies power as the heart of the neoliberal capitalist project, he starts talking around it instead of pushing on and showing how the drive for power over resources and accumulating even more power has distorted our societies and culture and demeaned the practice and values of democracy, individualism and freedom as understood by 18th and 19th-century Enlightenment thinkers. Of course one could say that the desire for power over material resources and other people as commodities is as old as civilisation itself but only neoliberal capitalism would make a fetish and a religion out of a set of values and a mode of thinking that prefers narrow and selfish low cunning for short-term ends over thinking and feeling that consider the long-term interest and the interests of others as well as oneself. The curious detour into talking about how political parties and their interests have converged does not address the fact that all political parties now concern themselves with acquiring power and deploying it to their own selfish interests, collective and individual alike. Politics has become an industry and closed world unto itself with its own jargon, culture, particular forms of entry and access to new joiners (known in economics jargon as “barriers to entry”) and members whose careers are politics and being politicians, and who depend on sponsors (party donors, lobby groups and others with agendas of their own) for money, support and direction.

Equally Monbiot is in dangerous waters when he confuses the values of collective societies with intrinsically held values and the values of Hobbesian societies that pay lip service to individualism, freedom, egalitarianism and democracy but understand neither (or distort the concepts) with extrinsically held values. The example of Japan under shogun (especially during its Tokugawa period from 1600 to 1868) and military rule in the early 20th century alone shows how a nation based on collective structures and values can oppress its own people and the people of other nations it conquers.

The issue that remains unaddressed is that the neoliberal capitalist project serves a small wealth cabal that wields enormous influence over people’s thinking and feeling through the exercise of both hard and soft power. Hard power as in spending on large armed forces and using them to repress people or to destroy rivals rather than to defend the weak is bad enough but perhaps even more insidious is the use of soft power to mould people’s minds, emotions and thus their actions through media and media technologies, advertising, drugs and other psychological tools and methods. In this respect the call for people to “mobilise” is so useless it can be likened to rain falling on barren ground bereft of bacteria and other microbes and life-forms to turn it into soil. Oppressed people will simply be too afraid to resist the brainwashing or be unaware that what they believe and feel is natural, is not.

It seems that the work of the 21st century world is to undo the psychological harm to humankind caused by nations and corporations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Drones, detention and dormant journalism in “Coffee and Papers …” at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival

“Coffee and Papers with The Sydney Morning Herald, Jeremy Scahill and Antony Loewenstein,” Sydney Writers Festival (The Bar at the End of the Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company, The Rocks, 23 May 2014)

A lovely way to enjoy the extended Indian summer Sydney has been having in May 2014 was to turn up to this morning 1-hour panel session featuring Helen Pitt, the Opinion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, one of her colleagues whose name I unfortunately didn’t quite catch, and guest journalists Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Antony Loewenstein at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival. The panel session facilitator was Sherrill Nixon, also of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Wending my way to the session through The Rocks area and Walsh Bay, I nearly got run over by a car because my head was buried in a Google Maps print-out and I lost my way a bit around the various Sydney Writers Festival venues. I managed to reach the venue in time to buy cappuccino and chocolate brownie and settle down in the lounge area. I even managed to snatch a quick look at the Friday issue of SMH and check out my fellow audience members: a mixture of people of about mature or retirement age and some young journalism students. Everyone was in a good mood, expecting a stimulating hour of talk on current politics and issues.

Well the panel didn’t disappoint. After introductions, Scahill plunged into talking about the United States government’s use of military drones to prosecute global wars and eliminate people it considers to be major threats whether they actually are or aren’t. This topic is in connection with a recently published book of his, “Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield”, and a film “Dirty Wars” in which he features (and which I have reviewed elsewhere on Under Southern Eyes). Scahill in particular talked about Christopher Harvard, an Australian citizen, and Muslim bin John, a dual Australian-New Zealand citizen, who were both killed by a drone strike in Yemen in April 2014, and the reaction of both the Australian and New Zealand governments to their deaths: Australia’s reaction was silence and New Zealand’s response was to accept bin John’s death as “legitimate”.

Scahill also mentioned Anwar al Awlaki, the American Muslim cleric who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen, in violation of his rights as an American citizen under the US Constitution to hearing and knowing the charges against him and being tried in a court of law by his peers. The journalist also referred to an Afghani family who features in “Dirty Wars”: Scahill spoke of the midnight raid on their house by US soldiers in which family members including two pregnant women were killed and a couple of men were arrested. The men were later returned to the family with no explanation of why they had been arrested other than that the whole raid had been a mistake, no apology and little in the way of compensation.

Loewenstein referred to his experiences of interviewing asylum seekers detained on Manus Island after risking their lives on the high seas to come to Australia, and the difficulties he and other journalists experienced in trying to gain access to their interviewees from prison guards and security personnel.

The panel wove these seemingly disparate topics into a whole by discussing the current news media landscape and how it hinders the public’s right to know what governments are doing or not doing in their name. Few news reporters these days question their governments or government agencies and representatives and instead parrot the press releases given them by governments and pass them off as news. Scahill and Loewenstein spoke at some length on the nature of US President Barack Obama’s administration, how it has been instrumental in sinking the US’s reputation throughout the world and the news media’s role in shaping and disseminating misinformation and propaganda. Scahill referred briefly to the hold that corporations have upon the US government.

The panel guests were forthright and articulate in their views and opinions, and demonstrated journalism-as-advocacy in its best light. In the brief Q & A session that followed the panel discussion, Scahill and Loewenstein patiently dealt with questions on conspiracy theories: it was obvious that the two have been quizzed in the past about whether they thought the US government had played some role in the World Trade Center attacks in September, 2001. The panel seemed to perk up at a question from Yours Truly on journalism education in universities and colleges and whether it was too narrowly focused on media technologies and not enough on critical analysis of the news. (The thought had occurred to me during the panel discussions that one reason that journalists these days seem so compliant and do not challenge power is that their education may be essentially vocational with an emphasis on knowing current technologies and how to use them but not on developing critical and analytical skills that a generalist, humanities-based education would give them.) The SMH representatives admitted that in recent years, new recruits often did not have knowledge or experience in sifting through and judging the worth of information. Scahill and Loewenstein both stated that their education and training as journalists occurred on the job, apprentice-style, and that they had very good mentors (Amy Johnson and Margo Kingston respectively) to guide them.

While there wasn’t a lot in the session that was new to me or other audience members – apart from Scahill exclaiming that Australian journalism was old-school muckraking journalism – I did come away with a better appreciation of what he, Loewenstein and other investigative journalists are trying to do and what they are up against in a news media world that acts on the whole as a public relations front and cheerleader for governments and large private corporations. I may not always agree with the likes of Scahill on issues like the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Russia’s role in these but I respect that he and others are chipping away in their own way against the arrogance and indifference of powerful forces destroying freedom and democracy, and the despair and anger of people at their governments around the world.

 

Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates – a powerful presentation for animal rights advocacy

David Ritter and Will Potter, “Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates”, Voiceless 2014 Animal Law Lecture Series, Corrs Westgarth offices, Sydney, 2 May 2014

I had the opportunity and privilege to attend this very powerful seminar given by Voiceless, an animal rights and advocacy organisation, and its guest speakers David Ritter of Greenpeace Australia and Will Potter, an American investigative journalist, in the Sydney offices of the law firm Corrs Westgarth. The theme of the talks given focused on the rise of ag-gag legislation which is designed deliberately to target and silence animal rights advocates and reporters, preventing them from documenting and reporting on the suffering of animals in factory farms and abattoirs.

After introductions in which the audience learned about the work done by Voiceless since its inception in 2004 on animal rights, principally in the areas of the rights of animals living in battery conditions on farms and of the commercial hunting of kangaroos, the talks by the guest speakers began in earnest. David Ritter concentrated on the issue of dredging for coal in one part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast in the main. His speech also included a summary of marketing campaigns undertaken by animal rights activists in the past and the effectiveness of these campaigns. Not many visual aids were used but those that were – a brief film of an ad campaign linking a corporation’s palm oil product with the deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and the effects on the orang utang populations was included – proved to be very moving indeed.

Despite his jet lag which affected his voice, Will Potter proved to be a passionate and determined speaker, and a highly entertaining one into the bargain, holding most people if not everyone spellbound with his and other people’s experiences as animal rights and protection advocates and their brushes with the law. He spoke at length on the recent history of animal rights protest and advocacy and moves within the US government to curb such activity at the behest of lobby groups acting for agribusiness. The experiences of two activists he personally knew were quite horrific, with one of his friends re-arrested, thrown back into jail and even threatened with solitary confinement for speaking about his time in the slammer. Potter also spoke of how various acts pertaining to animal protection have been amended over the years until the language and particular definitions have been changed to mean something very different, even diametrically opposed, to what their original intention and meaning were.

Especially insidious was Potter’s mention of how terrorism and the meaning of the word “terrorist” have been re-defined to include environmental and animal rights and protection activists and campaigners. This is one example of many of how the US government uses fear and the language of fear and defensiveness to divide Americans against one another and control the public’s thinking and behaviour. The manipulation of public opinion through the news media and advertising campaigns is apparent. At the same time the manipulation can be jaw-droppingly arrogant and crude, with ad hominem attacks, false associations and cut-and-pasted language copied from past campaigns to denigrate activists.

The time passed very quickly and the presentations finished ten minutes later than originally scheduled but an informative 90-minute session was had by all.

 

 

Metaphysics goes to the movies with “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame”

Ray Younis, “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame” (The University of Sydney / Centre for Continuing Education, Saturday 8 February 2014)

Not often does a person get an opportunity to attend a discussion on metaphysics and its central concerns based on a dissection of a science fiction film so of course when I found out about this particular one-day seminar, I just had to go! I have attended quite a few of Ray Younis’s one-day adult education courses in the past at the University of Sydney so I had high expectations of what he would talk about and I was not disappointed in this respect.

Younis is quite an avid fan of Hollywood sci-fi films that dwell on issues like meaning and purpose to life, what it means to be human and the nature of freedom and free will. If there was money to be had in combining film reviewing and philosophy in an online or print newspaper column, he ought to be there. Unfortunately not even the ABC, SBS or Guardian Australia is quite up to this level of sophistication. The class basically ran through a screening of the entire film in its director’s cut version and particular scenes were analysed in detail with respect to cinematography, the genres that were referenced (science fiction and film noir) by the film, the use of lighting and shadow, and the scenes’ relevance to the film’s themes and the philosophical concepts and values expressed.

Metaphysics refers to the discipline of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts outside the physical world such as whether God exists and what the nature of that god might be, whether humans or their souls survive death and/or have immortality, and questions of freedom, free will and what it means to be human. The issues that “Blade Runner” addresses are those of what makes a human being human, what is the purpose of individual human beings, and what are worthwhile goals of human beings as opposed to mere beings. Tied up with these issues is the issue of how human beings should conduct themselves within a community of other beings, some of whom might qualify as “human” and others not by the standards of the community’s leaders, and whether those standards are fair or unfair, moral or immoral. How should humans behave towards others and live lives of purpose and integrity in societies that operate on principles and with values that are clearly at odds with living with purpose, dignity and respect for others?

The film portrays a hierarchical society with enormous social inequalities and a complicated class structure in which a small human-only elite dominates a vast underclass of both humans and replicants (cyborg beings created to perform the most dangerous or disgusting work). The human characters throughout the film, and the blade runner (professional killer of runaway or rebellious replicants) Deckard in particular, are portrayed as ciphers content with their allotted status in life and not knowing anything more than what is necessary for them to do their jobs and survive. The replicant characters are complex beings who know more than what they should, who have achieved self-awareness and can quote poetry, play chess and plan chess strategy, and talk philosophy. They thirst for more life because they are all too aware that their life-spans are limited and time is running out for them. Though the plot is fairly standard – Deckard hunts down the runaway replicants and manages to dispose of most of them – the narrative turns the plot elements on their head: the hunter becomes the hunted, humans are shown as dehumanised and the replicants end up teaching Deckard what it means to be human and to have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Pivotal scenes in this respect (and these were discussed in the class) were those in which Deckard confronts Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy Batty in turn: what these characters say and do to Deckard is important as a wake-up call to him. Zhora is shown as a trapped prey during Deckard’s pursuit of her in the crowded Los Angeles streets. Leon’s last words to Deckard are  “Wake up, time to die” before he himself unexpectedly is killed. Pris chooses to go down fighting even though she knows she has no chance against Deckard. Batty resists his programming as a replicant designed for combat and assassination duties by saving Deckard’s life and shows Deckard that he too can choose a new path in life and resist orders from an oppressive authority. Deckard is reminded of what he has lost in his career as a blade runner: honour (he killed two women in the back in cold blood), mercy and compassion for others weaker than he is.

Significantly though the replicants know they are going to die, they insist on choosing the mode of their deaths and if they have to die violently, they face their deaths as bravely as they can. Zhora, a combat model, keeps running for as long as she can and exhausts Deckard in the process; Pris, a pleasure model (and presumably not programmed to resist), fights Deckard hard with whatever resources she has; and Batty perhaps even accelerates his death by using up his strength to rescue Deckard from a fall, then calmly faces the inevitable with Deckard as his witness. In acting as they do, they go beyond their programming and exercise choice and will: they finally realise what it is to be human.

Other important scenes include Batty’s confrontation with Eldon Tyrell in which he converses with his maker on genetics and Tyrell tells him patronisingly that a life that burns twice as bright is only half as long. In his few scenes, Tyrell comes across as smug and somewhat slimy: the irony is that as the de facto ruler of the new Los Angeles, he is also constrained by his role and status and becomes less of a human than the creatures he created.

The frame-by-frame analysis of the film allows viewers to appreciate the ways in which elements of the film noir genre was employed to suggest the panopticon-style society that characterises Los Angeles in 2019: the use of flashing lights  in certain scenes reinforces the 24/7 surveillance and the prisons, both mental and physical, that bound Deckard’s character as he hunts down the replicants. Various motifs such as eye images, the repetition of musical melodies at particular points in the film, blue lighting, hazy atmosphere and the film’s setting in a dingy, rundown part of the future Los Angeles help to paint a picture of a complex yet brutal society in which just about everyone is an insignificant being of some sort.

Although there wasn’t much mentioned about the film’s themes that I wasn’t already aware of – for me, the film possesses great clarity – I did appreciate additional insights about aspects of the film’s messages that either reinforced or challenged my views.

My original post of my views about “Blade Runner” can be read here.