(CounterPunch, Weekend Edition March 14-16, 2014)
A Dangerous Ploy
Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats most of the time. There are many reasons why. Fundamental philosophical or ideological differences are not among them.
This is not the accepted view. The conventional wisdom has it that they adhere to different philosophies — that Democrats are liberals and Republicans are conservatives. Maybe something like that was more or less true once upon a time. Nowadays, the contention rings hollow.
For one thing, it gives Democrats and Republicans too much credit. It also insults liberalism and conservatism.
Lately, the idea that Vladimir Putin is one of the “bad guys” has also become conventional wisdom; on this, Democrats and Republicans agree. This is remarkable — not just because it is their custom to disagree, but also because it wasn’t long ago that the opposite was the case.
George W. Bush looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, beheld his soul, and saw that it was good. Only unreconstructed Cold Warriors gainsaid him. Now Hillary Clinton, echoing the media consensus, likens Putin to Hitler. As every kindergartener knows, this is shorthand for evil incarnate.
On this, she speaks for the entire political establishment.
However real liberals and conservatives have no reason to demonize Russia’s leader. Liberals should welcome him in under their capacious tent. Conservatives should embrace him.
Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans demonize him.
Since philosophical differences don’t explain this, there must be some other reason. Could it be because Russia is the country Putin leads?
Neither Americans nor Europeans are genetically anti-Russian, and neither are they disposed to denigrate Russian culture. But their political and economic elites are sensitive to any and all suggestions that the economic system from which they benefit is not, as it were, a blessing unto the nations.
This makes Russia a problem for them inasmuch as, even today, the conventional wisdom has it that Russia’s relation to capitalism is problematic.
Ironically, conservatism’s is too. Liberalism’s is not.
Indeed, liberalism has been joined to capitalism from Day One.
Intimations of both emerged in the Netherlands and England as early as the sixteenth century, and the two developed almost in tandem — joined, before long, by capitalist centers in Western Europe and North America.
Early liberalism was, in effect, capitalism’s justifying theory.
Political philosophers have been advancing views of what liberalism is ever since, and liberal politics has assumed a wide variety of forms.
Still, in all its varieties, there is a common core. As the name suggests, it has to do with liberty or freedom. More precisely, it has to do with distinctively liberal views of this core value.
The conception of liberty to which liberals are most wedded, historically and conceptually, is individualistic and negative; individuals are free to the extent that they are free from coercive interferences.
This understanding sometimes melded into more positive conceptions, according to which individuals are free to the extent that they are able to do the things they want to do, and it has lately been joined to less individualistic understandings derived from seventeenth and eighteenth century (small-r) republican political theory.
The idea has also lent itself to a wide range of philosophical elaborations, bearing on notions of equality and justice and on other deep problems of moral philosophy.
But as a political doctrine, liberalism’s underlying emphases have remained fairly steady over the years: its focus is and always has been to minimize coercive, state interferences.
Liberalism is therefore a theory of limited government. In earlier times, it opposed absolutist theories according to which the sovereign’s power is in principle unlimited. It won that battle long ago.
It is therefore fair to say that except for a handful of unreconstructed devotees of defunct illiberal ideologies, everyone is a liberal nowadays. Conservatives are liberals too.
In common parlance, illiberalism and “dictatorship” are sometimes conflated. This is understandable, but it can also be misleading.
There are regimes in weak or failed states that have dictatorial characteristics, and there are political leaders who sometimes act “dictatorially.”
That is how our media now portray Vladimir Putin. And it is how some Tea Partiers, exceptionally deluded ones, portray Barack Obama.
But regardless of the merit of these charges, the fact remains: where the sovereign’s power is restricted by enforceable laws, liberalism is all there is. This holds for the United States, and it holds for Russia as well.
The first liberals were mainly concerned with commerce; their goal was to substitute the invisible hand of the market for the visible hand of the state, and to replace feudal property relations with a private property regime.
Liberalism’s old mercantile and feudal enemies are gone, but its doctrinal commitments remain.
“Libertarians” continue to echo positions taken by the first liberals; their faith in free markets and private property is unbounded. Conventional wisdom places them in the conservative camp but, in reality, they are as liberals can be.
Mainstream liberals are less doctrinaire or, as conventional wisdom has it, more “pragmatic.”
That word too has philosophical roots that bear only a vague relation to how it is used in our political culture. There, “pragmatic” just means “open-minded” or “flexible.”
In that sense, mainstream liberals generally are pragmatic. Within the broad limits set by their overriding commitment to liberal principles, they are fine with whatever works.
Partly for this reason, they are not interested in promoting classical liberal economic doctrines. A more important reason is that their main concerns are not economic at all.
They are advocates of tolerance, and all it implies.
This focus is hardly new. It predates the French and American Revolutions.
Many factors combined to turn liberalism into a philosophy of tolerance. The devastation brought on by the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation was perhaps the most important.
The shift in emphasis has been so profound and its consequences so far-reaching that hardly anyone these days, outside libertarian circles, still thinks that economic and political liberties comprise a seamless web.
Indeed, mainstream liberals generally favor regulated markets and restrictions on property rights. But, for them, these are only secondary concerns. Their main interest lies in defending such rights and liberties as are elaborated in, say, the American Constitution’s Bill of Rights and in The Declaration of the Rights of Man.
If only to make their lives easier, political officials are constantly tempted to run roughshod over these protections. But where the rule of law is maintained, there are limits to how far they can go. This is true in Russia, it is true throughout the EU, and it is true in the United States as well.
Is Putin qualitatively worse than ordinary leaders of liberal states? Is he worse than Obama? The answer is of course, or so we are told.
After all, how could a graduate of the Harvard Law School and a teacher of Constitutional law at the University of Chicago be less liberal than a former official of the KGB?
But when the final reckoning comes, the obvious answer may not seem obvious anymore.
What has Putin done that is worse, from a liberal point of view, than putting the entire planet under 24/7 surveillance? Has he ordered assassinations without any semblance of due process, the way Obama has? Has he deported some two million people? Has he protected kidnappers and torturers?
And then there is the Edward Snowden question, where the views of Obama et. al. on transparency and press freedom stand revealed, and where Putin has been on the side of the angels.
It is almost axiomatic that free expression is better protected in Obama’s America than in Russia today. But is it true? Compare America’s corporate media with RT (Russia Today) TV, the television service now derided as Putin’s propaganda network.
The level of commentary and analysis on RT is far superior, and the diversity of views is greater. If that is what a propaganda network is like, then bring it on.
Putin is said to be violating international law in the Crimea. This is surely a mark against his liberalism because support for the rule of law is central to liberal politics.
But, in this too, is he worse than Obama? At least he is not a serial offender.
Of course, Democrats are notoriously spineless, and also reluctant to stand up for liberal values when one of their own is in the White House. So when the call goes out to demonize, they demonize. No surprise there.
Were they better liberals, though, they would surely resist the call. They might not be on Putin’s side in the Crimea, but they would have to regard him, at worst, as one of their own; one who has gone astray. They would regard Obama that way too.
Then there are the conservatives.
At its most fundamental level, conservatism is a frame of mind that accords a high priority to conserving things as they are. In much the way that liberals accord pride of place to the absence of state interference, conservatives value stability and order above all.
They are therefore change-averse, and they are especially loath to tamper with fundamental institutional arrangements. Change is disruptive; the more radical the change, the more disruptive it is likely to be.
No doubt, this temperament is more widespread in Republican than Democratic ranks.
But as a full-fledged political philosophy, conservatism hardly exists in our political culture. How could it when what we have to conserve is inherently destabilizing!
Since the dawn of the Christian era, conservative thinkers throughout Christendom have drawn upon theological notions, like the doctrine of Original Sin, that imply support for institutions that maintain order through political and moral coercion.
Because many of the first settlers in British North America were religious refugees, this strain of conservative thought has been a presence on the American scene from the time the first Europeans arrived. But the situation evolved, and pre-Enlightened ways of thinking waned.
Indeed, the republic established in the aftermath of our War of Independence was liberal from birth, and its founding principles were those of the Enlightenment.
This is one reason why strains of thought that have anti-liberal implications have had a hard time taking hold. Another is that we have no feudal past and therefore no historical memory of non-capitalist ways of life that enhance stability and order.
Capitalism, after all, is a revolutionary economic system; it overthrows and reconstructs everything it encounters. As The Communist Manifesto famously proclaimed, under its aegis, “all that is solid melts into air.”
Conservatives today, real ones, live in capitalist societies and therefore accommodate to its destabilizing consequences. But the tension can never be entirely overcome.
This is why our conservatives are, at best, only risible facsimiles of the genuine article.
Nevertheless, nearly all Republicans and alarmingly many Democrats call themselves “conservatives.”
They are not entirely wrong because there is at least one characteristic of authentic conservatism that they share with the real deal.
Contemporary conservatives are liberals; everyone is. But liberals on the self-identified liberal side of the liberal consensus, the ones who take tolerance more seriously than what the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick called “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” typically want the state to be as neutral as possible — not just towards competing religions and ways of life but towards all conceptions of the good that are in any way contentious.
For them, the state’s role is not to promote particular conceptions of the good, but rather to treat competing conceptions fairly.
Conservatives, on the other hand, genuine ones, are still true, or true as they still can be in modern pluralistic societies, to particular conceptions of the good; conceptions that accord with their underlying philosophical commitments.
Liberals have conceptions of the good too, of course; but they regard them as matters of individual conscience only. Conservatives are inclined to want to use state power to promote the conceptions they favor.
Our self-styled conservatives are like them in this respect.
But is this not what Putin is accused of by those who call him a dictator? And, for that matter, are not the conceptions of the good that Putin is charged with wanting to promote basically the same as the ones his demonizers uphold?
To hear Republicans and Democrats tell it, Putin is running the show for reactionary Russian clerics – either for opportunistic reasons or because he believes their gobbledegook or both. But why is that a problem for American politicians, especially for the self-styled conservatives among them? Apart from theological niceties of no political significance, our home grown theocrats are on the same page.
Real conservatives should therefore embrace Putin, not vilify him; and not just for his purported pre-Enlightenment sympathies.
Being pessimists about human nature, real conservatives tend to favor authoritarian political styles and hardheaded, realist diplomacy. They like strong leaders, and despise floundering, clueless moralizers – like the ones now making foreign policy in the United States.
They have a point: liberal internationalists – humanitarian interventionists especially – are more dangerous.
But, then, why demonize Putin for being the kind of leader real conservatives admire?
It was telling that one of the less fatuous attendees at the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington effectively, though grudgingly, agreed.
Rudolph Giuliani took his turn disparaging Obama by praising Putin’s leadership. Instead of muddling along like Obama from one situation to another, Putin, Giuliani pointed out, knows where he is going.
Like other great conservative leaders of the past – Charles de Gaulle comes immediately to mind – Putin approaches politics and diplomacy like a game of chess, envisioning the larger situation and anticipating the right move several steps ahead.
And so, when it suits his purpose, he will bail Obama out, as he did when he had backed himself into a corner from which, without Putin’s intervention, he would have gotten the United States bogged down in Syria’s civil war – to the detriment of everyone involved.
Or, when doing so is in his interest, he can prevail over the American president, notwithstanding the fact that the United States has a stronger hand to play.
Under the true conservative tent, there is evidently still room for a kind of greatness that is lacking in the liberal wing of the larger liberal fold.
Greatness, but not goodness. On this, as on almost everything else, George W. Bush was wrong. Hillary Clinton is wrong too.
Putin is the closest approximation the world now has to the great conservative leaders of the past. Conservatives should appreciate this about him. But the gap between real conservatives and the self-styled ones around us is extreme; they might as well be different species.
Still, though, the question remains: why is Putin demonized?
I would venture that the fact that Putin is the leader of Russia has more than a little to do with it.
Even in what Gore Vidal aptly called the United States of Amnesia, it registers at some level that, a century ago, Russians moved history forward; that they broke free from the capitalist system.
The Communists who led the Russian Revolution then went on to organize and oversee the construction of a historically unprecedented, ostensibly socialist, order. It was a valiant effort – undertaken in an economically backward country and in the face of the relentless opposition of far stronger enemies.
Tragically, what they concocted turned out to be a mixed blessing at best. Seven decades later, it all fell apart.
But Communism – in Russia, and then in Eastern Europe and China — was a living presence throughout much of the twentieth century; its effects on politics and reflections on politics were profound.
Even in a country and at a time when Republican-leaning states and regions are described as “red,” the memory of Communism lingers at some level.
Putin is no less pro-capitalist than anyone else in the liberal fold, and he is as fine a conservative leader as one can be in today’s world.
The east –the Russian part as much as the Chinese – is no longer even remotely red (except perhaps in the sense that Republicans are), but the memory persists in our collective consciousness.
And so, when a Russian leader becomes an obstacle in America’s way, the empire strikes back. Step one is to vilify the leader. And if there is anything our foreign policy establishment and our compliant corporate media are good at, vilification tops the list.
Demonizing Putin may be useful in the short run to the empire’s “bipartisan” stewards.
But, they are dealing with someone more formidable than themselves, and they are getting in over their heads. It is a cynical and dangerous ploy from which incalculable harm could follow.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).