Our 'Democratic Imperialism' versus Their Old School Russian Imperialism
Will actual democracy in Ukraine escape being absorbed by either Imperium?
Some observers might scoff and suggest that “Ukrainian Democracy” is an oxymoron. Isn’t Ukraine just a place run by government “Of the Oligarchs, By the Oligarchs, and For the Oligarchs?” Indeed, isn’t that much how the United States was run in the 1890’s? Back then the big money, oligarchic interests – literally the John D. Rockefellers, J.P. Morgans and Andrew Carnegies of the world – financed the campaigns of the right candidates for President and channeled the appointment of the right Senators representing the right commercial interests. As one Senator had observed, “Instead of alluding to our senators by the names of their states, … it would be more fitting to call upon the ‘Steel Senator,’ the ‘Oil Senator,’ the ‘Sugar Senator,’ the ‘Wool Senator,’ and so on.”
It is, perhaps, a credit to democracy in America that it assertively addressed this problem of oligarchy. Among many other things, the United States fired up the substantial process of amending the Constitution in 1913. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution ultimately required the selection of Senators from each state by “direct election”—election by the general electorate—in place of selection by each state’s legislature.
I say “perhaps,” because one can always find cranks who would complain about the capacity of the electorate to vote with intelligence on any matter or for any person. That famous one-liner of that famous crank, H.L. Mencken, does come to mind: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” That passage is literally not more than a one-liner published among a list of one-liners in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1916).
It is unfortunate that Mencken never devoted (to my knowledge) much if any energy to identifying modes of governance that could serve as superior alternatives to “democracy”. But, it would be fascinating to get his views on the idea that American democracy is again caught up in government “Of the Oligarchs, By the Oligarchs, and For the Oligarchs.” Would he perceive that proposition as too extreme, as histrionic? Or might he perceive that the lore of democracy in America has always been more myth than reality?
Suffice to say that democratic, constitutional governance can be difficult to implement and no less difficult to maintain. One can find observers like Robert Michels who suggested in Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) that democratic process is vulnerable to being hijacked by elites. The elites may call it “Our Democracy” in our current day and age, but is it?
In The Administrative Process (1938), James Landis took great care to advance a concept of “our democracy”. He didn’t call it that, but he granted to us one of the clearer expositions of a concept of governance-by-expert. He was very specific: The administrative agencies of government should be staffed by the experts, and the experts should be insulated from both judicial oversight and political accountability. Experts, presumably, would then be free to exercise their expertise without distraction, and we could count on them to do the right thing. That was not a problem. Presumably. A problem would be subjecting administrative agencies to direction by elected officials or by individuals appointed by elected officials. Further, outside parties should not be able to challenge agency diktats in court. Judges could not themselves be expected to judge matters with expertise of their own and should thus not be enabled to interfere.
John Landis articulated his vision of governance-by-expert during the Great Depression, a time when the traditional alternatives to administrative process—basically, exchange between autonomous parties in free markets—seemed to be doing such a bad job of marshalling society’s resources and making society better off. One could easily find observers in the West looking to the Soviet East with great hope and enthusiasm for alternative ways of organizing society. And, wittingly or not, that’s what James Landis’s vision ultimately conformed to: a Sovietization of society by which administrative agencies run everything. Everything would be rational. Everyone would follow the science, and everyone would be happy. The experts would be there to lead the way.
Leave it to artists to discern that there’s something missing in this vision of a rationally engineered sendero luminoso (“shining path”) to paradise. An early contributor would be Yevgeny Zamyatin with his novel We (1921/22). We likely went some way toward inspiring Brave New World (Aldous Huxley 1932) and 1984 (George Orwell 1949). We is remarkable, because one might have expected the Soviets’ First Five Year Plan to have inspired it, but the Soviets rolled out that plan in 1928, several years after the book’s first publication. But Zamyatin had clearly been paying attention to Vladimir Lenin’s oratory. That would have included stuff about allowing the experts to impose the discipline of Scientific Management (the “Taylor System”) on “the whole of society” and running society like one great enterprise. Rational. Scientific. No one would own anything, but everyone would be happy.
For later expressions of the themes illuminated by Zamyatin, I would direct the reader to the film Logan’s Run (1976) and, even better, to George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138 (1970). What was going on in the 1970’s that people were making films inspired by We and Brave New World?
In “The Greatest of All Novels” (The New Criterion, March 2019), Gary Saul Morson avers that “The intelligentsia’s way of thinking is still very much with us [since the publication of War and Peace in 1869], and so Tolstoy’s critique is, if anything, even more pertinent today.”
“If we concede that human life can be governed by reason, then the possibility of life is destroyed,” the book’s epilogue instructs. Even more than their Western European counterparts, Russians were obsessed with establishing a hard social science, as certain as physics. Any Western theory that promised such certainty found enthusiastic Russian supporters. In England, utilitarianism supported moderate liberalism, but by the 1860s Russians took it as proof of revolutionary socialism. The French positivist Auguste Comte, who coined the term “sociology,” originally planned to call his new discipline “social physics.” His Russian followers presumed that this “physics” already existed. Of course, Marxism—or “scientific socialism”—would eventually triumph over its rivals.
For Tolstoy, such aspirations were sheer nonsense.
The Battle of Austerlitz stands out, in the estimation of some observers, as Napoleon’s greatest victory. True or not, it stands out as an example of that aphorism, generally attributed to that same Napoleon, that goes something to the effect of, “One should never interfere with an enemy who is in the middle making mistakes.” Morson illuminates passages in War and Peace about the conduct of the battle to make his point:
At the council of war before the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), the Russians and their Austrian allies plan their campaign according to their supposed science and are certain that “every contingency has been foreseen.” They suffer a disastrous defeat.
General Pfühl attributes every loss to the failure to carry out his orders to the letter, and since such precision is never possible in battle, he can always argue that, just as he predicted, “‘the whole affair would go to the devil.’ . . . He positively rejoiced in failure, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.” As we would say today, his “science” is “nonfalsifiable.”
By contrast, Prince Andrei, a person of absolute intellectual integrity, does learn from disconfirmation. When he enters the army, he attributes Napoleon’s success to two factors—his mastery of military science and his great physical courage under fire. Justly confident of his own courage and intellect, Andrei dreams of becoming the Napoleon who conquers Napoleon. Austerlitz teaches him that, whatever accounts for Napoleon’s success, it is not some purported military science.
So, “The intelligentsia’s way of thinking” is inspired by rationality and science. It is also inspired by a militant Puritan will to build a “City on a Hill” where the “City” stands in for a concept of the common good or, in the language of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “general will,” la volonté generale. Bring these things together—science, rationality and the Puritan will to do good in the world—and we can make a gift to ourselves and the world of an optimal governance-by-expert. That is the neo-Puritan project dressed up as “Wilsonian Democracy,” although these days we hear it simply in the United States as “Our Democracy,” because who is Wilson?
Wilson, of course, is Woodrow Wilson. His writings are infused with passages that one could just as well have extracted from Rousseau, albeit in lighter form. Now, let me appeal to “Wilsonian Democracy” or, the same thing, “Our Democracy” to advance this proposition about affairs in Ukraine:
The American and European establishments have been engaged in their neo-Puritan project to extend their concept of democracy to ends of the earth. There may have been some effort to cajole the governments in Russia under Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin to buy into the neo-Puritan project, but that never worked. There seems to have been some hope that even the Chinese would buy into it. And, oddly, Chinese governance under the Xi Jinping regime seems compatible with it. Some neo-Puritans, like Justin Trudeau, enthusiastically look to China as an example of rational governance. But not Russia, it seems.
Rather, the kleptocratic clique that has governed Russia for some decades has demonstrated that it is intent on pursuing Old School Russian Imperialism. Russian Imperialism is inconsistent with the neo-Puritan project. Russian Imperialism does not, for example, buy into gender studies or into the catechism of “climate change.” The Russian economy is principally driven by mineral extraction. That would include oil and gas, and lots of it. And that could go some way toward explaining why the neo-Puritans have been intent on undermining Putin and his clique. The kleptocratic clique is a regime to be replaced with one amenable to “Our Democracy.”
In the language of some observers, the neo-Puritan project amounts to “Democratic Imperialism”—See, for example, In Praise of Empires (Deepak Lal, 2004)—notwithstanding the fact that there is nothing democratic about it. Democratic Imperialism is, however, something that both self-avowed neo-liberals and neo-conservatives can sign on to, and these are the people, alumnae of the World Economic Forum and such, who run the neo-Puritan program. They don’t like “the Russians,” and there’s the key point: They perceive the conflict in Ukraine as an opportunity to diminish those same Russians and ultimately, to destabilize, the Russian regime. With enough pushing and prodding, could Putin’s regime topple?
In the middle of this are the Ukrainians. They surely did not ask to be attacked, but, now that they are being attacked, they have license to do something they’ve never been able to do before: tap into a deep will to dignity and physically fight “the Russians”.
The Poles have a long, storied history of fighting the Russians. There is a statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko situated at the northeast corner of Lafayette Square—right across from the White House in Washington, DC—for Kościuszko (and Lafayette) had joined the Americans in their fight against British rule during the Revolution; Kościuszko also led peasant armies against the Russians. He is an important national figure in Poland. The Ukrainians will now have their Kościuszkos.
One can imagine that, when the fighting is over, the geographic span of Ukraine may be somewhat diminished. But, Ukrainians will have made a point. They will have stood up and fought for themselves. They will then be able to get back to the difficult business of building up their democracy. But, will the neo-Puritans clamor to march back to Ukraine to envelope it in their own imperium of “Our Democracy?” Can they not just leave the Ukrainians alone?
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