1996 ELECTION – AN ALL-IMPORTANT TURNING POINT

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(This is the second of a two-part series on the 1996 Russian presidential election. They are based on notes I made at the time in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. I was an accredited observer in both rounds in Moscow Oblast. A reporter accompanied me on the first round and a program appeared on CBC Newsworld, but I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.)

The first round results had Yeltsin edging Zyuganov and Lebed running a strong third. While I got the placing of the top two wrong I did correctly understand Zyuganov’s inability to build on his December vote. But, Zyuganov had hardly been one of the CPSU’s stars: his highest position being in the central propaganda department, a place where they put the clunkers. The strong showing of Aleksandr Lebed was significant. What seems to have happened is that the people whom I, based on past practice, expected to swell Zhirinovskiy’s poll figures, voted for him instead. Likewise, Yavlinskiy slipped badly: clearly many of his voters went over to Yeltsin, understanding that a vote for him was wasted; the beginning of the end for him: a recent poll shows that he and his Yabloko party have completely faded from the political scene. But what I had got right was the central reality that the majority didn’t want the communists back and they understood that to vote for anyone but Yeltsin was effectively to vote for Zyuganov. The reality that Yeltsin was unpopular and that conditions were miserable for most Russians had no effect on this decision. Neither did American election wizards nor flashy rock concerts.

Anyway, Lebed was the kingmaker and a deal was swiftly made. Yeltsin replaced Pavel Grachev as Defence Minister with Lebed’s nominee; Lebed himself was appointed Secretary of the Security Council of Russia. His reasons for supporting Yeltsin were strikingly similar to my villager’s: “I was facing two ideas – an old one that has shed lots of blood and a new one which is being implemented very badly at the moment but has a future. I have chosen the new idea”.

In fact, the election results were rather sophisticated. The electorate essentially told Yeltsin that he was re-elected but there must be more order, less corruption and the war in Chechnya must be stopped. And, to a considerable extent, they got what they wanted. Lebed stopped the war and, eventually, we got to Putin and his team. The better future did run through that 1996 choice.

After the first round results it was a matter of calculating whose votes would go where in the second round. I made a simple Excel program in which I played with various assumptions and I concluded that the probability of Yeltsin’s second round victory was pretty robust. Lebed’s support for Yeltsin was a major plus and now the anti-communist vote (“reformers” as they were simple-mindedly labelled in the West) had the choice of staying home and risking a communist return, or holding their noses and voting Yeltsin. A VTsIOM poll, taken before Lebed’s appointment, showed agreement with my assessment of movement from supporters of their candidate to Yeltsin in the second round: 39% of Lebed’s (14% to Zyuganov); 51% percent of Yavlinskiy’s (6% to Zyuganov); 14% of Zhirinovskiy’s (25% percent to Zyuganov).

The whole point is that, whatever people may think today,

you didn’t have to like Yeltsin to vote for him.

With respect to considerations of whether the vote was fraudulent there are some reflections to be made. While I do not rule out small-scale shaving of numbers, the objective realities were that Zyuganov’s support was high but flat and the anti-communists would unite around someone. A fact, that many today are unwilling to accept, is that the majority did not want the communists back. Therefore a communist defeat was always probable and the question was who would be the one to defeat them. In the absence of a “third force”, Yeltsin was the most likely beneficiary. No need for fakery or American wizardry.

The second vote on 3 July met everyone’s expectations with Yeltsin four points over 50% and Zyuganov stuck at 40.7%. The remainder ticked the “Against all” box.

In retrospect the election was a supremely important moment in post-USSR Russian history because it opened a path that has proved to be successful. In 1996 there were two opposing stories about recent Russian history. I wrote a report arguing that the election had shown that the majority favoured one of the stories. I am rather interested that today the losing story has gained at least partial acceptance in the West. And some Russians never abandoned it. And strange that is: if you approve of the Putin Team, as most Russians do, the real world reality is that Putin would not have appeared had the 1996 vote gone the other way. But politics are often more passionate than rational.

Since the breakup of the USSR, the Russian opposition had a consistent opinion that Yeltsin was not the legitimate head of a legitimate state: he had been elected in 1991 as president of a Russia which was part of the USSR; he was one of the trio that had broken up the USSR; he prolonged his rule by extra-constitutional means including violence; his so-called reforms were the robbery of the common wealth. The electorate knew this and Yeltsin and his gang could not survive a fair election. The theory was bolstered by the success of opposition parties in the elections after 1991. The strong version was that the whole process had been orchestrated by Russia’s enemies in the West and that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the accomplices or dupes of these foreign conspirators. It was a story which explained how the – to them – popular and successful USSR had so quickly collapsed. This story was the glue that held together an opposition at whose rallies could be seen posters of both Nikolay II and his murderer.

Therefore the 1996 presidential election could be seen as a contest over the correct interpretation of the “October events” of 1993. The opposition claimed that the defenders of constitutional order were destroyed by an unconstitutional regime; Yeltsin’s supporters maintained that constitutional order, faced with an armed revolt, took forceful but legal measures. The election was an opportunity for the people to choose one or the other. The opposition believed that the Yeltsin gang could not afford to lose and therefore would never risk a free election. This notion took a beating: Yeltsin did have the courage to risk election and he won. The population did not buy the opposition historiography; they decided that Yeltsin had been the legitimate head of a legitimate state. Which is not to say that they approved of all that he did or even liked him very much. As argued above, Yeltsin was the lesser evil.

The 1996 election was highly significant: it returned legitimacy to the government. A quarter of a century later, Putin, chosen by Yeltsin himself, is undeniably the legitimate president of all the Russias.

It is, however, interesting to see in 2021, references to Yeltsin’s having destroyed Russia’s democracy in October 1993. That is, in my opinion, a ridiculously over-simplifed view.

The October crisis of 1993 had several causes and those most remembered are the differences grounded in opposition to the Yeltsin team’s policy which, in essence, was the uprooting of the communist structure accompanied by an orgy of looting and the destruction of people’s savings and livelihoods. A frightful and lawless time for most.

But there was a structural cause which made a struggle inevitable. Gorbachev’s 1988 design to democratise the USSR involved a Congress of Peoples’ Deputies which elected a sitting legislature, the Supreme Soviet; that body elected a chairman who would be the leader of the country. And so, through 1989, Gorbachev chaired the meetings of the Supreme Soviet. As time went on, however, it became evident that the country’s leader could not do what he had to while refereeing endless debates. It also became clear that the Supreme Soviet was too big and too prone to mere talk. In 1990 the system was changed: the Supreme Soviet continued to exist but grafted onto it was an executive presidency. Gorbachev became president and his deputy became speaker of the Supreme Soviet. Exactly the same process was followed in the RSFSR: a Russian Congress, Supreme Soviet and Boris Yeltsin as speaker. Yeltsin learned what Gorbachev had and in 1991 the Russian Federation adopted a presidential system; Yeltsin became president and deputy speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov became speaker.

This solved the problem of ensuring a powerful executive to do all the unpopular things that had to be done but, in doing so, created another problem: which was supreme? The Congress of Peoples’ Deputies had been elected to be the nation’s sovereign power, the Supreme Soviet its daily manifestation and its speaker the leader of the country. Then these powers were given to the president. So there were two supreme powers, two first citizens and any act by one actor which was opposed by the other could be deemed unconstitutional. Thus, as Yeltsin was determined to act, most of his actions were considered unconstitutional by partisans of the Supreme Soviet; to Yeltsin’s side it was they who were unconstitutional.

It was dual power. And there are only two ways to settle a dual problem condition. If one or both of the powers agrees to step down, a peaceful resolution is possible. If not, it’s war. In England in the 1600s the struggle was between King and Parliament; the issue was settled over forty years by civil war, regicide, dictatorship, restoration of a limited monarchy, a second overthrow of the king and a second and more limited monarchy. In the USA the question was whether states which had created the union could leave it; a four-year war determined that they could not. And so, Russia, like the other two, fought it out in October 1993 with, it should be noted, much less blood shed. In December a new Constitution formalised the supremacy of the Russian president. In October the opposition to Russian President Yeltsin was led by his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov and his Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoy. Exactly the same thing had happened in the August 1991 coup attempt against USSR President Gorbachev which was was led by Anatoliy Lukyanov (his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet) and Gennadiy Yanayev his Vice-President. Yes there were policy disputes, but dual power was the root cause.

In conclusion:

  • The 1996 presidential election was an immensely important turning point in post-USSR Russian history; it made possible what we have in 2021.
  • My first essay argued that Yeltsin won because the majority did not want the communists back and Zyuganov could not extend his appeal past his base. The stagnation of Zyuganov’s support and the gradual migration over to Yeltsin of other peoples’ support was clearly shown by the many contemporary polls. If anything, Betaneli’s polls made the argument more compellingly because his findings, starting so far away from the others’, converged with them at the end. American election whiz kids had nothing to do with this: at most they might have made a bit of difference in the margins; they “rescued” nothing.
  • My second piece argued that the election resolved the legitimacy argument and the historiographical dispute in Yeltsin’s favour. The executive president, not the speaker of the Supreme Soviet/parliament, was Russia’s first citizen. This has endured.

To repeat Lebed and my villager: the one way had been exhausted, so they gave the other – dismal as it had been – a chance. And they were correct: it is very hard to see how one could get to today’s Russia – pretty successful by any measurement and growing more so – had Zyuganov won the 1996 election.

(As a postscript to illustrate the stagnation of Russian politics, of the top five of 1996, Yeltsin is dead, Zyuganov is still head of the KPRF, Lebed is dead, Yavlinskiy is still around but no longer head of Yabloko, Zhirinovskiy is still the head of the LDPR. Of the other players, Yeltsin, Lukyanov and Yanayev are dead and Gorbachev, Rutskoy and Khasbulatov still alive. Putin is the new boy.)

Unfortunately the American boasting (I have a memory – I was Canada’s representative on the G7 group that met monthly – that we rather laughed at their claims) and subsequent stories have kept alive the notion that the election was fixed, that Zyuganov really would have won and that the opposition view of Yeltsin the usurper who used tanks to destroy Russia’s nascent democracy was correct.

It’s curious to see that story still living 25 years after. Even among those who support the future made possible by that 1996 turning point.

1996 ELECTION – THE AMERICANS DIDN’T ELECT YELTSIN

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(This is the first of a two-part series on the 1996 Russian presidential election. They are based on notes I made at the time in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. I was an accredited observer in both rounds in Moscow Oblast. A reporter accompanied me on the first round and a program appeared on CBC Newsworld, but I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.)

When, four years ago, the losers concocted the story that the Russians had got Trump elected and beginning the unending series of stories, investigations and allegations, many people said that that was fair enough because Americans had got Yeltsin elected president of Russia in 1996. There was even a Time magazine story to that effect “Yanks to the Rescue“. You can see the argument made on this video.

I was there and I don’t believe it. I watched the polls carefully and a month before the first vote reported:

So the fundamental facts are these: Yeltsin is the only man who can stop the communists and Zyuganov is doing nothing effective to broaden his base from those who supported him in December… This election will be about the lesser of two evils and, at the moment, and with the dynamic of the situation, Yeltsin appears to enjoy that status.

Most Russians didn’t want the communists back and understood, that, like him or like him not – and he wasn’t popular – voting for Yeltsin was the only way to avoid them coming back.

I earlier published an anecdote of a conversation I had with a villager during the election who said that, while life in the village had been pretty dismal, he hoped it could be better for his children and that was why he was voting for Yeltsin. And he was correct: the route to the future did run through Yeltsin. Yeltsin gave way to Putin and the Putin team has achieved much. Russia in 2021 would look very different indeed had Zyuganov, still alive, won in 1996.

Therefore, 1996 was a tremendously important inflection point.

The first key to rationally analysing probabilities was to consider the election realities of Gennadiy Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Any observer knew that the communists had a solid and dependable base that would certainly turn out. There was good data from the December 1995 Duma elections when all “communist” parties (not only Zyuganov’s KPRF) received about a third of the votes. It was a reasonable assumption that Zyuganov would retain most of this support six months later. “Brownshirts” took about another 20 percent with Zhirinovskiy’s party (LDPR) taking about half of that. It could also be assumed that he would stay in the race and keep most of his votes. But some of the “brownshirt” vote would go to Zyuganov who campaigned pretty hard for derzhava (Great Power State). Therefore, in January, before any polling was done, we could assume a theoretical maximum for Zyuganov of 35-40%. Zyuganov’s problem was how to attract the other 10-15%. He could get it by persuading people that he wasn’t really a hard communist; that would lose him some of his core but, because they had no other place to go, he could expect to keep most of them. The rules required a run-off between the top two if no one won over fifty percent on the first round. It was highly probable that Zyuganov would get to the second round; the question was who the other finisher would be.

And this is what the video referred to above doesn’t understand: Zyuganov had got the largest vote in December but he hadn’t got more than half; to win the presidency he had to get more than half. Zyuganov’s situation, not Yeltsin and Clinton, was the fixed background against which any analysis had to take place. None of this had anything to do with American whiz kids or money squandered on American-style pizazz: the fundamental reality of Russian politics in the 1990s was there was a strong core of communists – about a third of the population – who would certainly turn out and vote. And that was the situation that opinion polls showed in January: Zyuganov was well in front of Yavlinskiy, Zhirinovskiy, Fedorov and Lebed with President Yeltsin in the middle of the pack. Thus, from the perspective of January 1996, Zyuganov looked like the sure winner.

Some people have stuck at the January moment, failing to take the dynamics into account. But the December election had shown a second reality and that was that the majority did not want the communists back: the communists got a third but they didn’t get half. The dynamic of the interaction of these two realities was the key to understanding the election outcome. And over the next six months what I consider to be the central understanding gradually emerged: if you do anything but vote for Yeltsin, you are effectively voting for Zyuganov. Splitting the vote means Zyuganov wins; staying at home means Zyuganov wins. Only voting for Yeltsin will keep Zyuganov out.

There was one outlying pollster which, although differing from the others at the beginning, served to confirm this trend: Nuzgar Betaneli and his Institute of the Sociology of Parliamentarianism. While the other pollsters asked for whom would you vote today, he claimed to be predicting the final result, although he never explained his methodology, and, as events showed, he wasn’t able to see any farther into the future than the others. In April he gave Yeltsin 16-20% and Zyuganov 38-47%. There was a rumour that his results accorded with the Kremlin’s internal polls and caused an apparent panic which was reflected in Korzhakov’s musings that the election should be postponed or cancelled.

But by May he had upped Yeltsin to 27% and dropped Zyuganov to 42%. In short, Betaneli agreed that Zyuganov was staying within his bounds but that Yeltsin had burst through his. This was the essence of the election dynamics. Betaneli agreed with other pollsters on the remaining candidates; his main disagreement was putting Zyuganov up to 15 points ahead of everyone else’s estimate. At this point numbers were less important than the dynamic. Again, there was no need for American legerdemain, just the reality that Zyuganov wasn’t expanding his appeal, a majority did not want the communists back and they were holding their noses and going for Yeltsin as the most viable alternative.

Two realities made Yeltsin the anticommunist centre: the first was the power of incumbency and the second the lack of a “third force”. He could have been pinched out had the “liberals” coalesced but that would have required Yavlinskiy, Fedorov, Lebed and Gorbachev to sink their differences and unite around one of them. Another scheme floated was a “government of national trust” uniting everyone and leading to a postponement of the elections. But nobody was willing to give over to another and neither of these ideas ever got off the ground. (This was the time of the colourful expression “taxi parties”: all the members could fit into a taxi and drive around in circles. But no taxi would ever merge with another.)

As time went on we could see people, understanding the dynamic, swallowing their misgivings and declaring for Yeltsin. Pamyat, the very first super-nationalist faction, declared for him; Yegor Gaydar, in opposition for more than a year, and Boris Fedorov, whom he fired, came over. Cossack leaders supported him because he’d done something for them. The Russian Orthodox Church quietly instructed its clergy to remind parishioners what the communists had done to it. Primorskiy Region’s Governor Nazdrachenko, who had strongly opposed the border settlement with China, supported him. Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, a very canny player, strongly supported him.

By late May the trend was very pronounced and Betaneli, for all his claims to be able to see farther, was no longer the outlier. The average of ROMIR, CESSI and VTsIOM gave Yeltsin 33.5% and Zyuganov 23.2%. Betaneli had the two even at 36% each. The dynamic was holding: Zyuganov stagnant and the other candidates leaking support to Yeltsin.

The last three polls were VTsIOM (11 June), ROMIR (10 June) and ISP (Betaneli) (7 June). All got the most important thing right which was the steady rise of Yeltsin’s rating over the campaign and the flatness of Zyuganov’s support through the same period. The first two got the order of the top five right; ISP had Yavlinskiy beating Lebed. VTsIOM had very accurate predictions for Yeltsin and Zhirinovskiy and the best fit for Lebed and did detect a rise in his score at the last moment (from seven to ten percent). ROMIR was best for Yavlinskiy and ISP best for Zyuganov. So, generally speaking, the pollsters were in the ball park; Betaneli/ISP, having reversed his starting position, had Yeltsin at 40% and Zyuganov at 31%.

I spent some effort calculating “correction factors” for the polling numbers because polling was pretty new to Russia and there were a lot of errors that observation over time had shown. Generally, “liberals” were over-estimated, Zhirinovskiy very under-estimated and communists somewhat under-estimated. But I kept to the lode star that, whatever the numbers produced by individual pollsters, the dynamic was the indicator: Zyuganov flat, Yeltsin gathering the others. And so my final prediction was that Yeltsin would win a second term although I thought he might come second to Zyuganov on the first round and I expected Zhirinovskiy to come third. For what it’s worth, a panel at the Carnegie Institute just before the vote estimated Zyuganov 31%, Yeltsin 28% and Zhirinovskiy 10-11%.

In the event, we were both wrong: in the first round Yeltsin edged Zyuganov 35.8% to 32.5, Lebed was a strong third at 14.7%, Yavlinskiy was 7.4 %, Zhirinovskiy 5.8% and the others were deep in the weeds (Brytsalov coming dead last. Anybody remember him? YouTube does). I observed the election counting at a military base near Moscow and there Lebed won comfortably with Yeltsin second.

One of the things that the Americans were supposed to have done was put some zip into Yeltsin’s campaign ads. I saw little evidence of that. Perhaps Yeltsin’s most effective ad was this one but there was nothing very impressive about the others. The best ads I saw were for Lebed. The one I most remember was at a work site where people were complaining that the country was going to the dogs and there wasn’t anyone who could lead the way out, a sprightly girl pipes up “есть такой человек, ты его знаешь!” (There is such a man, you know him) and Lebed’s face would appear. (And, amazingly, YouTube has preserved one of the series.) This played to his reputation as a man who could make hard decisions and was the very essence of мужественность (manliness, courage). Something he was to prove later in the year when he went to Chechnya, recognised the war was lost, and swiftly negotiated a ceasefire and withdrawal with Aslan Maskhadov. Zyuganov’s advertising was very Soviet – long screeds on cheap paper which probably didn’t shift a single vote.

The media coverage did heavily favour Yeltsin. Some of it was understandable: Yeltsin used the power of incumbency, was doing newsworthy things and his campaign style was far more active than Zyuganov’s; added to which, most reporters did not want a return to the days of GlavLit censorship. But the coverage was pretty heavy-handed: for example, in the last week, TV carried a program about the Cheka terror, an unflattering movie about Stalin and a hagiographic profile of Nikolay II. But Yeltsin ran a much better campaign than Zyuganov: he bribed the taxpayers with their own money (not unknown in our politics), apparently defused the Chechnya disaster, buried the health issue with his frenetic activity and directed his campaign to the issues people were concerned about; and he was cunning: in Novocherkassk he spoke of the strikers gunned down in 1962. So, while he shamelessly used the incumbent’s advantages, he did things that deserved coverage.

So, the dynamic operated: Zyuganov never got past his start state and Yeltsin gathered in the anti-communist vote. Not that surprising. American political operators had little effect.

MAYBE KARL MARX WAS RIGHT AFTER ALL

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Before Marx socialism was a sort of voluntary wish thing, no doubt growing out of Protestant fantasies of life in early Christianity when everything was supposedly shared. There were a few attempts at building Christian socialist communities and most of them had unhappy endings – the Munster Anabaptists’ ending especially so. Secular socialist communities – Robert Owens’ attempts for example – also came to little, albeit more peacefully.

Marx’s claim was that he made socialism scientific by which he meant that he believed he had discovered the mechanism that had driven society through history: he concluded that socialism was the inevitable next stage of evolution. He and his collaborator Engels laid out the theory in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Marx spent the rest of his life working out the details. Class struggle – the means of production – the triumph of the bourgeoisie in modern times – labour theory of value – surplus value – the more the bourgeoisie succeeds, the more it creates its destruction: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” It’s a complete theory of history and society. The driving force of the coming socialist period is the emmiseration of the proletariat – as the owners of the means of production squeeze more surplus value out of the workers, they become more powerful and richer while the condition of the workers becomes worse:

The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.

By the same process, more and more formerly rich capitalists are ruined and pushed into the ranks of the miserable workers (“One capitalist always kills many“) until – and the details are never really described – there are so few rich and so many poor that:

Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

The final stage doesn’t need to be especially violent: at the end point, there are so few super rich that whether they’re hanged from lampposts or pensioned off like the last emperor of China doesn’t make much difference in the great scheme of things.

Marx believed that he had discovered the laws, the processes, the machinery, that drove history and society: the way things are and will be, that must be: scientific. After Marx, socialism is no longer something to be wished for, something some rich benevolent owner might create if we asked him politely, an appeal to Christian conscience, but something that is the very mechanism of the way things are and the way they must develop. Socialism is hard-wired into history.

But, right away, there’s a contradiction: if it’s scientific, nothing you or I can do will make it come faster or slower so there’s no point in joining socialist parties: Newton’s laws of motion don’t care whether you or I create a society to proselytise for them. But if it’s important to work towards socialism – and Marx himself was closely involved in at least one effort to do so – then it’s not inevitable and, therefore, not scientific. This created two threads in Marxism – spontaneity (it is going to happen in its own time) and voluntarism (it has to be made to happen).

The scientific expectation that A leads to B and B to C came to a crisis in the late 1800s. Eduard Bernstein argued that things were not following the path that Marx had foreseen half a century before – ownership of capital was not concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, the conditions of the workers was not growing worse. In a word, political developments – the working class’s political power – were changing Marx’s laws. From this conflict of theory and observation was born the idea of what we now call social democracy. Socialists should work within the system to reduce working hours, break up monopolies, eliminate child labour, force up wages, support labour unions and so on: in Marxist terms, use political power to compel the owners to give up a significant portion of the surplus value. Social democracy could be harmonised with the idea of free enterprise by describing it as levelling the playing field. If the essence of the free market is competition, then who can disagree with the idea that labour’s demands should freely compete with capital’s in conditions where each is level; if competition in output is desirable then it is desirable in inputs as well. The mixed economy: the dynamism of the free market prevents the stagnation and bureaucracy of socialism and the power of labour prevented the crushing of the weak and the government is the enforcer of the balance.

Lenin hated Bernstein’s conclusions (“revisionism“) and in What is To Be Done? took a different course: an informed and disciplined few should drive development. And that led to the USSR and, at its flaccid end, the “developed socialism” of Brezhnev. (Parenthetical aside: Brezhnev is what Plato’s Philosopher King looks like when actual humans try it out in real time). Interesting to observe, however, that both Bernsteinism and Leninism were voluntaristic approaches: the future will be created by acts of will today. So much for scientific socialism.

The mixed economy worked pretty well for a long time and social democracies in Europe delivered high standards of living and social justice across the board. Even the USA, with its hatred of “socialism”, delivered a fine standard of living to its “proletariat” thanks to the power of labour unions and majority voting. Rather than wretchedly existing at the edge of the commodity cost of labour like the protagonists of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a worker in the West could buy a house and support a family. Altogether, the generality could agree that a good balance had been struck and Marx’s predictions had been disproven. The collapse of the USSR and its satellites fired a nail gun into his coffin. Marxists turned into whiskery crazies shouting on street corners that it can’t have failed because it was never really tried!!!

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But that was then and this is now. What started me off on these thoughts was this headline: “The 3 Richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Of The Country, Study Finds“. That’s pretty astonishing: 3 people could buy out 160 million Americans: pay off their rents and mortgages, clear out their savings accounts, pocket their health plans, empty out their pension plans, throw their clothing into the Salvation Army box, pile their knick-knacks at the curb and cash out their tooth fillings. As to buying the other half, the only question is how many more billionaires would it take: a hundred, two hundred? How long before the three could buy up two-thirds of the population? (Last week, we’re told, one of the three added six billion to his kitty – that’s twelve of the latest Princess cruise ships or half a US aircraft carrier.) Before I heard about the big three I’d known of this study from 2014: “Researchers then concluded that U.S. policies are formed more by special interest groups than by politicians properly representing the will of the general people, including the lower-income class.” The two headlines are not, to put it mildly, unconnected.

Moving down to mere millions we learn that the “Ousted Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg left the company with stock options and other assets worth about $80 million, but did not receive severance as part of his departure from the embattled company, Boeing disclosed late Friday.” A gold-standard company, probably destroyed on his watch, and he pockets more moolah that you, I or all the readers of this piece will ever see. Meanwhile average wages haven’t changed much for 40 years in the USA. Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer.

What happened? Well, simply put, the rich grabbed hold of political power, took over the government and started to unlevel the playing field. Wherever they can exercise their power they do: executive salaries rise, university fees grow, parliamentarians grow richer, bureaucracies expand, government bailouts bail. None of this is new or unusual, of course: greed+power=more greed is an equation for all times and all places. But somewhere the West lost the countervailing forces that balanced the greed of the bosses with the greed of the unions. We see this throughout the West: super rich, enormous executive salaries, endless perqs for some; austerity for the rest. More dramatically in the USA, of course, because it is the West’s leader and its “early adopter”. Socialists and the institutions they encouraged provided a counterforce and brute power created a balance in which everybody got something. That counterforce disappeared somewhere.

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So, in a way, what Marx foresaw 170 years ago has come to happen. Much later than he expected and much differently than he expected. His theory held that the owners of the means of production – Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers – would rule the world. But of the three Americans who, we are told, can buy half the population, one is an investor, another a software developer and the third the inventor of a mail order store. Where are the means of production? Well – another irony – they were sold to China.

So the super rich in the West own intangibles;

The communists in the East own the means of production:

Not exactly what Marx expected.

And yet: three people as rich as half a country? Legislatures that do what they’re told by their paymasters? That is rather like the late stage capitalism that Marx was talking about – a few, very few, super rich and a large number of emmiserated people.

As Marx might say today, opioids are the opium of the people.

So what happens next? COVID-19 is brutally exposing the fact that these Western societies aren’t actually very efficient. Is it significant that three quarters of the COVID-19 cases are in NATO countries? Only six months ago, they were supposed to be the best prepared. Endless wars go on endlessly, debt piles up, wealth gaps grow, austerity policies grind on. The propaganda of Western exceptionalism is still strong but weaker and less convincing with every failure.

The world is changing and Karl Marx doesn’t look as out of date as he did 50 years ago.

RUSSIAN RESHUFFLE

(Also published at Sic Semper Tyrannis, Strategic Culture Foundation, picked up by JRL, Technical Politics, The New Dark Age,

(Written on the evening of. So subject to reconsideration/revision/outright denial as we learn more.)

I didn’t expect any of it. Neither did anyone else, whatever the so-called experts outgassing on the US Garbage Media may be pretending. I don’t know what it all means. Neither does anyone else. (Well Putin & Co do, but they keep their cards close to their chests. As we’ve just seen.)

What do we know? Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Council (Rus) (Eng) and started off with how important it was that the birthrate should be raised. Fair enough: he wants more Russians on the planet, the government’s programs have ensured that there will be quite a few more but there are still more to come. Many programs planned; some of which will work: after all, not everything works out as we hoped does it? He mentioned how dangerous the world is – especially the MENA – and said at least Russia is pretty secure (as indeed it is except against lunatics addicted to the Book of Revelation.)

Then the constitutional stuff. He believes the Constitution needs a few tweaks. Important officials should really be Russians and not people with a get-out-of-jail-card/alternate-loyalty-card in their vests. Reasonable enough: they should “inseparably connect their lives with Russia and the Russian people without any assumptions and allowances.” (Good idea actually. Can we in the West steal the idea? We vote for X but who does he vote for?) Russian law should take precedence over decrees contaminated by the “Rules-Based International Order” (“we make the rules, you follow our orders“). The PM should be named by the Duma. (A pretty big change, actually: let’s have more details on the division of labour please. In some countries the head of state is The Boss – USA, Russia (now), France – in others the head of government is The Boss – Germany, Canada, Denmark. There is a serious carve up of powers question here that has to be worked out in detail.) Constitutional changes should be approved in a referendum. The President either should or should not be bound by the no-three-terms-in-a-row-rule (I personally can’t figure out what “этим” refers to in “Не считаю, что этот вопрос принципиальный, но согласен с этим. Не считаю, что этот вопрос принципиальный, но согласен с этим.” But, no doubt we will soon learn.)

So, a somewhat less presidential republic. Details to be decided. Many details. But I’m confident that it’s been worked out and we will learn. Putin & Co have shown us over 20 years that they don’t make things up on the fly.

Then we learned that the entire government had resigned – but individuals to stay in place until replaced. Then we learned – a fast few hours indeed! – that Dmitri Medvedev was replaced by somebody that no one (other than Russian tax specialists) had ever heard of: Mikhail Vladimirovich Mishustin. (Russian Wiki entry – none in English so far.) Those cheering Medvedev’s dismissal (something predicted and hoped for by a sector of Russianologists) had to then swallow this: not tossed out into ignominy and shame, as they wanted, but something else. Putin says that there is a clear distinction between government and presidential concerns; defence and security are clearly in the latter. But Medvedev has always been closely following defence and security issues and it is suitable and appropriate that he continue to do so. So a new position, deputy heard of the security council, will be created for him. So what are we to make of this? Medvedev has been given the boot and a sinecure? Or he’s been given a crucial job in the new carve-up of responsibilities?

After all, Russia’s problems keep getting bigger but nobody is getting any younger. Especially the problems from outside. For some years Washington, an implacable enemy of Moscow, has been getting less and less predictable. Lavrov and Kerry spend hours locked up negotiating a deal in Syria; within a week the US military attacks a Syrian Army unit; “by mistake”. Who’s in charge? Now with the murder of Soleimani, possibly on a Washington-approved peace mission, Washington has moved to another level of lawlessness and is exploring the next depth as it defies Baghdad’s order to get out. A pirate power. The outside problems for Moscow aren’t getting smaller, are they? Washington is certainly недоговороспособны – it’s impossible to make an agreement with it and, if you should think you have done so, it will break it. A dangerous, uncontrollable madman, staggering around blowing everything up – is any foreign leader now to be assumed to be on Washington’s murder list? Surviving its decay is a big job indeed. The problems are getting bigger in the Final Days of the Imperium Americanum.

So, maybe Moscow needs more people on the job.

So are we looking at a new division of labour in Moscow as part of managing the Transition? (To say nothing of the – what’s the word? – Thucydides trap?). Mishustin looks after the nuts and bolt of Russia’s economy and internal management. Medvedev looks after defence and security – something not likely to get smaller — while Putin looks after the big picture?

But this is only the first step in The Transition and we will learn more soon.

NOTE 16 January. The Presidential website now has the actual words on the issue of defence and security:

There is a clear-cut presidential block of issues, and there is a Government block of issues, even though the President, of course, is responsible for everything, but the presidential block includes primarily matters of security, defence and the like.

Mr Medvedev has always been in charge of these matters. [Дмитрий Анатольевич всегда занимался этими вопросами}. From the point of view of increasing our defence capability and security, I consider it possible and have asked him to deal with these matters in the future. I consider it possible and will, in the near future, introduce the position of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council. As you are aware, the President is its Chairman.

WHY YOU HAVE RETIRE TO SEE REALITY

(I wrote this under a pseudonym three years ago today and we still see it all the time.)

Ex-President Sarkozy of France is recently quoted as saying two things: “Nous avons une civilisation en commun avec la Russie. Les intérêts des Américains avec les Russes, ce ne sont pas les intérêts de l’Europe avec la Russie”. Europe has a common civilization with Russia and our interests are not the same as Americans’. “La Crimée a choisi la Russie, on ne peut pas le lui reprocher”. Crimea chose Russia and you can’t blame it.

In doing so, he has added his name to a long list of ex-officials who contradict the official line on the Ukrainian catastrophe that we see promulgated by virtually all present office-holders.

Many people have noticed this and speculate why former office holders should have such different opinions from present office holders. One common theory is that they are blackmailed into obedience by Washington. Another, which we can see in Hungary and the Czech Republic today, is that speaking out of line can bring sudden “spontaneous protests” supported by the local American Ambassador and people who have some (later revealed) connection with USAID or the NED. “Exes” aren’t as vulnerable to blackmail or a Washington-orchestrated regime change as “presents”.

While I do not rule either of these explanations out – how could I? we know that Washington spies on everybody and we know that these “spontaneous” protests are nothing of the sort – I have been wondering and I believe there is a simpler cause that also operates.

I worked in a bureaucracy for several decades. Bureaucracies are pyramids. Most occupants – many think of little else – wish to rise and the easiest way to rise is by attracting the benevolent attention of a higher up. This leads to what might be called “schedule flooding” as people compete for the boss’s time. And so, the higher ups have almost no unscheduled moments. The only case in which a higher up would have any free time is when he has a truly powerful will and intellect to carve out that free time. But such individuals are not common; too many, in fact, are von Moltke’s stupid and industrious.

So let us imagine President Smith of Yourland and his daily schedule. At the top of the pyramid of pyramids, thousands of underlings seek a few of the 1440 minutes a day he, and every other mortal, has. His schedule is filled with meetings and briefings for months in advance. And that’s just the expected meetings – inevitably some crisis will pack the schedule even tighter.

Very few of these people seizing some of Smith’s 1440 minutes will tell him he’s not doing a very good job or that the Conventional View of Things is defective. That would not attract his patronage.

Assuming Smith is intelligent, wise, a good manager, industrious, well-educated, knowledgeable, a good character judge with a strong sense of reality, he will just be able to keep his head above water and drive ahead the two or three issues that he really takes an interest in. Fortunately, in contrast with less-favored parts of the world, the electoral system in Western countries produces leaders who are all of these things and we never have to fear that schedule flooding will drown a stupid, incompetent, foolish, lazy, ignorant narcissist.

What happens when President Smith leaves office? I recommend this anecdote of former British Prime Minister Macmillan – The Telephone is immediately disconnected. Yesterday every minute of his time was competed for, today none is. He’s dug a hole in water.

But now he has some time to think quietly and some actually do think. Some, as Sarkozy apparently has, think their way to an understanding that Europe is being ruined in service to Washington and that it’s perfectly natural that Crimeans should want to get out of the Ukrainian catastrophe and return home.

So, one reason the exes outnumber the presents in this case is that they have the opportunity to contemplate the forest because they no longer have every minute occupied by people telling them how important the bark on their favorite tree is.

HOW I GOT HERE

Reprints

      http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2017/10/how-i-got-here.html

      http://russia-insider.com/en/how-i-became-kremlin-troll-patrick-armstrong/ri21379

(Now that the book is out I publish my entry. Most of the people who wrote their “how I got here” sections were awakened by the relentlessly one-sided coverage of Russia by the MSM: they suspected that it couldn’t possibly be that one-sided and started looking.

Putin’s Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls Kindle Edition; Phil Butler (Author), Patricia Revita (Illustrator), Pepe Escobar (Foreword)

I started work for the Canadian Department of National Defence in 1977 in the Directorate of Land Operational Research of the Operational Research and Analysis Establishment. I participated in many training games in real time and research games in very slow time. The scenarios were always the same: we (Canada had a brigade group in West Germany) were defending against an attack by the Soviet/Warsaw Pact side. In those days NATO was a defensive organisation and, as we later found out, so was the other side: each was awaiting the other to attack. Which, come to think of it, is probably why we’re all here today.

I enjoyed my six years, often as the only civilian in a sea of uniforms, but I realised that a history PhD stood no change of running the directorate so, when the slot opened, I contrived to switch to the Directorate of Strategic Analysis as the USSR guy. I should say straight off that I have never taken a university course on Russia or the USSR. And, in retrospect, I think that was fortunate because in much of the English-speaking world the field seems to be dominated by Balts, Poles or Ukrainians who hate Russia. So I avoided that “Russians are the enemy, whatever flag they fly” indoctrination: I always thought the Russians were just as much the victims of the ideology as any one else and am amused how the others have airbrushed their Bolsheviks out of their pictures just as determinedly as Stalin removed “unpersons” from his.

That was November 1984 and Chernenko was GenSek and, when he died in March 1985, Gorbachev succeeded. While I didn’t think the USSR was all that healthy or successful an enterprise, I did expect it to last a lot longer and when Gorbachev started talking about glasnost and perestroyka I thought back to the 20th Party Congress, the Lieberman reforms, Andropov’s reforms and didn’t expect much.

In 1987 two things made me think again. I attended a Wilton Park conference (the first of many) attended by Dr Leonid Abalkin. He took the conference over and, with the patient interpretation of someone from the Embassy, talked for hours. The Soviet economy was a failure and couldn’t be reformed. That was something different. Then, on the front page of Pravda, appeared a short essay with the title “A New Philosophy of Foreign Policy” by Yevgeniy Primakov. I pricked up my ears: a new philosophy? But surely good old Marxism-Leninism is valid for all times and places. As I read on, I realised that this was also something new: the author was bluntly saying that Soviet foreign policy had been a failure, it was ruining the country and creating enemies. These two were telling us that the USSR just didn’t work. As Putin told Stone, “it was not efficient in its roots”.

These things convinced me that real change was being attempted. Not just fiddling around at the edges but something that would end the whole Marxist-Leninist construct. As far as I was concerned, it had been the communist system that was our enemy and, if it was thrown off, we should be happy. Sometime around then I was interviewed for a job at NATO and the question was what, with all these changes, was NATO’s future. I said it should become an alliance of the civilised countries against whatever dangers were out there: the present members of course, but also the USSR, Japan and so on.

Well, that didn’t happen did it? I remember a very knowledgeable boss assuring me that NATO expansion was such a stupid idea that it would never happen. He was wrong too.

In 1814 the victors – Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria – sat down in Vienna, with France, to re-design the world. They were wise enough to understood that a settlement that excluded France wouldn’t last. In 1919 this was forgotten and the settlement – and short-lived it was – excluded the loser. In 1945 Japan and Germany were included in the winners’ circle. At the end of the Cold War, repeating the Versailles mistake, we excluded Russia. It was soon obvious, whatever meretricious platitudes stumbled from the lips of wooden-faced stooges, that NATO was an anti-Russia organisation of the “winners”.

But I retained hope. I think my most reprinted piece has been “The Third Turn” of November 2010 and in it I argued that Russia had passed through two periods in the Western imagination: first as the Little Brother then as the Assertive Enemy but that we were now approaching a time in which it would be seen as a normal country.

Well, that didn’t happen did it?

And so the great opportunity to integrate Russia into the winners’ circle was thrown away.

For a long time I thought it was stupidity and ignorance. I knew the implacably hostile were out there: Brzezinski and the legions of “think” tanks (my website has a collection of anti-Russia quotations I’ve collected over the years) but I greatly underestimated their persistence. Stupidity and ignorance; you can argue with those (or hope to). But you can’t argue with the anti-Russians. Russia wants to re-conquer the empire so it invaded Georgia. But it didn’t hold on to it, did it? No but that’s because we stopped it. Putin kills reporters. Name one. You know, whatshername. Provocative exercises on NATO’s borders. But NATO keeps moving closer to Russia. Irrelevant, NATO’s peaceful. Putin is the richest thief in the world. Says who? Everybody. Putin hacked the US election. How? Somehow.

I quoted Hanlan’s razor a lot – “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. And, stupidity and ignorance there were (a favourite being John McCain’s notion that the appropriate venue for a response to a Putin piece in the NYT was Pravda. And then he picked the wrong Pravda! (But he won’t hate Russia or Putin any the less if he were told that, would he?) At some point I came to understand that malice was the real driver.

I suppose it grew on me bit by bit – all the stupidity converged on the same point and it never stopped; but real stupidity and ignorance don’t work that way: people learn, however slowly. I think the change for me was Libya. I started out thinking stupidity but, as it piled up, it became clear that it was malice. I’d seen lies in the Kosovo war but it was Libya that convinced me that it wasn’t just a few lies, it was all lies. (My guess is that Libya was an important development in Putin’s view of NATO/US too.)

Naive perhaps but, for most of history stupidity has adequately explained things and malice is, after all, a species of stupidity.

So what’s the point of writing? I’ll never convince the Russia haters, and there’s little chance of getting through to the stupid and ignorant. And most people aren’t very interested anyway.

Well, this is where malice meets stupidity. If we consider the Project for a New American Century, the neocon game plan “to promote American global leadership”, what do we see twenty years later? Brzezinski laid out the strategy in The Grand Chessboard at the same time. What today? Well, last year he had to admit that the “era” of US dominance, he was so confident of twenty years earlier, was over. There’s no need to belabour the point: while the US by most measures is still the world’s dominant power, its mighty military is defeated everywhere and doesn’t realise it, its manufacturing capacity has been mostly outsourced to China, domestic politics and stability degenerate while we watch and there’s opioids, spectacular debt levels, incarceration, infant mortality, недоговороспособны and on and on. Donald Trump was elected on the promise to Make America Great…. Again. Hardly the hyperpower to lead the globe is it?

The Twentieth Century was the “American Century” thanks to limitless manufacturing capacity allied to great inventiveness anchored on a stable political base. What is left of these three in 2017? Can America be made “great” again? And wars: wars everywhere and everywhere the same. And what other than malice has brought it to this state? Malice has become stupidity: the neocons, Brzezinskis, the Russia haters, the Exceptionalists, scheming “to promote American global leadership”, have weakened the USA. Perhaps irreparably.

So, who’s the audience today? The converted and people at the point when a little push can break their conditioning have always been there. But now there is a potentially huge audience for our efforts: the audience of the awakening.

Which brings me back to where I started. Except that it’s the USA this time:

IT’S NOT WORKING

We’re here and we’re waiting for you: you’ve been lied to but that doesn’t mean that everything is a lie.

After the Trumpquake — Что делать?

http://us-russia.org/4507-coming-together-to-generate-ideas-for-a-new-foreign-policy-agenda.html

Question: (Coming together to generate ideas for a new foreign policy agenda). In the end, the 2016 US presidential campaign did what democracies are supposed to do: it gave the electorate a clear choice between two different visions of the country’s future and the policies each party proposed to take us there.  When faced with the prospect of “more of the same,” meaning more impoverishment of the middle and lower classes, more risks of new wars:  it ‘threw the bums out.”

Unfortunately, on the way to this happy outcome the level of political culture on display by the presidential candidates and their campaign staffs sank to unprecedented lows and vicious personal attacks on each other often obscured the policy differences between the candidates.

Nevertheless now that the outgoing President Obama and the incoming President Trump have shaken hands at their first transition meeting in the White House, it is time for the rest of us to make our peace with one another.  This, however, should not mean ending our differences of opinion on policies.  On the contrary, what the country needs now is a good dose of debate and in particular partisan, as opposed to nonpartisan discussion of our foreign policy issues, since we have for the past 4 years at least been stumbling into a very dangerous confrontation with both Russia and China without the benefit of free public discussion of our options.

What concretely can we all do to force the media, the foreign policy establishment to ‘come out and play’ now rather than sulk and spit venom at the victorious Trump team?

The encouraging truth is that reality eventually triumphs; the discouraging truth is that it only does so over a long and painful time. Trump’s victory is, in its way, a victory for reality but a mighty effort remains.

What can we do in forums like this one? Keep talking about reality I suppose: the reality that the neocon domination of Washington has failed in every way possible; the reality that Washington’s endless wars have been failures; the reality that every failed war has planted the seeds of the next; the reality that a extraordinary opportunity was squandered in the 1990s; the reality that making Russia into an enemy is stupid, unnecessary and extremely dangerous; the reality that “exceptionalism” is exceptionally dangerous, destructive and stupid; the reality that the MSM is lying about Syria, about Russia, about Ukraine and about almost everything else; the reality that Putin is not a “thug” determined to re-create the USSR; the reality that Russia is not “isolated”, in “economic freefall” or on the edge of “regime change”; the reality that “The West” has been on the wrong course for two decades. The reality that the neocon/liberal interventionist route leads to destruction.

We may eventually hope that our little drops of water wear away the stone. Perhaps some of us have had an effect on Trump’s thinking, or Flynn’s thinking, or Bannon’s thinking. But we will probably never know and, in truth, it’s almost impossible to work out the influence.

But if Trump can get the Russia relationship right, then a great number of Washington’s international entanglements will be easier to remedy. And he does seem to be interested in getting that right.

But I think, in the last analysis, we have to agree with the great physicist Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In short, a new foreign policy for the USA will have to advance, to paraphrase Planck again, “one political funeral at a time”.

But it’s encouraging that Trump’s election has produced so many political funerals.

Today’s Putin Quotation

Only a strong – effective, in case someone does not like the word strong – effective democratic state is able to protect civil, political and economic freedoms and to create the conditions for a good life for the people and the prospering of our native land. (только сильное, эффективное, если кому-то не нравится слово “сильное”, скажем эффективное государство и демократическое государство в состоянии защитить гражданские, политические, экономические свободы, способно создать условия для благополучной жизни людей и для процветания нашей Родины.)

Putin address to Federal Assembly, 8 July 2000