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Those “European values”
Democracies need to actually deliver. That means more than virtuous ideas and good intentions.
The current president of the increasingly autocratic European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, who has never once been elected to public office and around whom lingers the persistent air of corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance, has this to say about “European values” and need to vigorously defend our innately superior systems of governance:
We should not lose sight of the way foreign autocrats are targeting our own countries. Foreign entities are funding institutes that undermine our values. Their disinformation is spreading from the internet to the halls of our universities … These lies are toxic for our democracies. Think about this: We introduced legislation to screen foreign direct investment for security concerns. If we do that for our economy, shouldn’t we do the same for ‘our values’? We need to better shield ourselves from malign interference … We will not allow any autocracy’s Trojan horses to attack ‘our democracies’ from within.
In a recent address to the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, the EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, uttered the following remarks:
Europe is a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that the humankind has been able to build - the three things together.
Given that over the past millennium Europe has been at war with itself more often than not, given the European colonial powers’ execrable role in the subjugation and exploitation of vast swathes of the Global South for a good half of that millennium, you might think some humility and self-reflection might be on order, but apparently historical awareness is not part of Borrell’s job description.
Leaving that aside, looking at our situation through the lens of historical materialism it should be clear that the personal liberties and political freedoms these mandarins so rapturously extol were made possible by favorable economic conditions. As we became more prosperous, the competition for basic necessities diminished, allowing our societies to become more free and open, more liberal in the generic sense. Destroy the economic fundamentals, all that good stuff will whither and disappear. This unfortunate trajectory is already well underway; Western liberal democracies are becoming increasingly illiberal and undemocratic, something only magnified during the Covid crisis. It may be lost on Ursula von der Leyen but should not be lost on us that our so highly esteemed “European values” cannot be preserved with force, only cultivated.
If Von der Leyen, Borrell, and the rest of the Brussels nomenclature were pragmatic, were grounded in the real world and understood how the real economy works, were genuinely accountable to the European citizenry, which they are most decidedly not, they would understand that to preserve European society in some kind of recognizable, sustainable form they would at this moment need to be urgently pulling out all the stops to safeguard the economy, in particular ensuring access to affordable, reliable energy supplies to keep our homes and offices, heated, our factories humming. If that meant picking up the phone and calling Vladimir Putin to settle the Ukraine crisis and getting the pipelines operating again, so be it. Instead they flail about with yet more rounds of ineffective, counter-productive sanctions packages that amount to little more than virtue-signalling, along with harebrained schemes likes energy price caps.
Some years ago, I had an exchange with an aging American lefty living in Berlin. He was horrified by the rise Victor Orbán in Hungary and the AfD in German, among the other so-called “extreme right” movements in Europe. He saw them as mortal threats to the hard-won struggles for tolerance and civil rights that he as a Gay man enjoyed in cosmopolitan Berlin. I pointed out to him that the greatest threat to the civilized society he valued came not from the fringe but from “centralist” establishment politicians, such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who have embraced neoliberalism and are actively participating in the destruction of our shared prosperity, hence the liberal values they made possible. They, along with the Brussels technocracy, are the problem, not Victor Orbán. But he could not wrap his mind around this, nor can the contemporary European Left more generally, it is sad to say.
That was of course the fatal error that Mikhail Gorbachev made: he drank the ideological Kool-Aid pushed by neoliberal reformers from the West that political reforms would bring economic rewards. In other words, he got it completely backward and paved the way for the disastrous Yeltsin era of the 1990s, which nearly destroyed Russian society. The Chinese, who are said to have studied no subject so closely as the fall of the Soviet Union, have been careful not to make the same mistake:
This brings us to Mikhail Gorbachev who visited China in May 1989. At that time, there were two political forces in China. One the one hand, we had the students whose hero was Gorbachev, known for his prioritization of political reform. The students welcomed their hero with a slogan — “Today's Soviet Union, Tomorrow's China’ — which was very appealing to China's intelligentsia.
On the other hand, we had Deng who believed that the most urgent task was to improve people's livelihood. In his view, all other reforms, including political ones, had to serve this primary goal. He believed that copying the Western model and placing political reform on the top of the agenda, like the Soviets were doing at the time, was utterly foolish. In fact, that was exactly Deng's comment on Gorbachev after their meeting: “This man may look smart but in fact is stupid.”
Zhang Weiwei: “My Personal Memories as Deng Xiaoping's Interpreter: From Oriana Fallaci to Kim Il-sung to Gorbachev” (25 Aug 2014)
As China and Russia become more prosperous, they will become more free and open, more liberal if you prefer. One important caveat: they will not do this by aping the models presented by Western liberal democracy. Why should they? It is pure Western chauvinism to insist that our (now failing) examples should be the measure for all.
Although many in the West may strenuously disagree with this contention, including perhaps some of my readers, democracy is not just procedure and process; it is also about outcomes. The fact that China over the past seventy years has lifted some 800 million people into the middle class, peacefully, without wars of conquest or neocolonial exploitation, makes it for me the largest, most successful democracy in the world. If you disagree, how do you measure democratic outcomes? What is the outcome of thirty, forty years of neoliberalism here in the West? If you don’t like mine, what are your metrics?