Democracy is about form, not content

Ship of Democracy turned out to be a ship of fools

Democracy is about form, not content
Why is it that under authoritarian and dictatorial regimes neighbouring peoples live peacefully, but when empires collapse they begin to slaughter each other? Maybe the virtues of freedom are exaggerated or its definitions blurred? What do we expect from freedom, and what are we prepared to pay for it? The self-satisfaction with fashionable slogans is pure intellectual fetishism: freedom and democracy are most often coveted by people who have turned them into a kargo-cult.

A kargo-cult is when the natives see the incredible (in their mind) achievements of the white man and try to codify an unfamiliar form in a mystical way in the hope that it will bring them corresponding contents. People want to make their way to the trough, even if it means changing it. In the sixties my mother was a translator for Khrushchev’s meeting with some African revolutionaries. Entering St George’s Hall, their leader froze, amazed by the splendour surrounding him, and finally uttered: “How they live! Ten revolutions are not to be spared!”

Without wishing to play down the role of lofty aspirations, I cannot fail to note that people prefer to pay for their own ideals with other people’s lives. It seems that around that time a famous anecdote about a plane with a Soviet, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Negro on board began to crash, and the stewardess announced that somebody had to be sacrificed or they would all crash. The first, exclaiming: “God Save the Queen!”, the Englishman jumped out, the Frenchman followed with a cry of “Vive la France!”, the third was a Soviet – and with a cry of “Long live Africa!” threw out a Negro.

In roughly the same way the new Russia after 1991 demonstrated how the demos were thrown out with a cry of “Long live democracy! Could it be that democratic politicians were bad? I would not claim so. It’s just that they were dealing with objective reality. But the progressive intelligentsia, having got their hands on the trough, was still dealing with their illusions. I’ve been accused of cynicism from time to time, then of justifying autocracy, although it needs no justification – it is cynicism to say what you don’t believe in or to justify the rules of a game that you don’t like.

I was told a nice story about a well-known media outlet, which feeds like a calf on grants from both the “free world” and the “bloody regime”, with whose representatives my interlocutor was in contact. And they explained him simply: we have agreed that they will not cross the red line. We delineated, so to speak, the permissible limits of opposition and gave them the opportunity to riot in a small bowl with good food. The authorities, in my view, are acting quite wisely. And moderately and neatly, the opposition media can neither judge nor roar. All the more so, it performs a useful social function. The invisible hand of the administrative market cleverly distributes its carrots.

Autocracy and democracy share the same problems, and they begin when a particular social structure demonstrates the inability to hold on to power. In 1917, it happened first to tsarism and then to the Provisional Government. In 1991, it happened to the communist regime and in 1993, to the democratic regime. Any kind of power is a consensus mechanism, where the top is able to rule and the lower is willing to maintain this rule. Yeltsin was able to govern, but had to use tanks to disperse the Supreme Soviet. And when Zhirinovsky won the new parliamentary elections, the democratic intelligentsia was surprised to discover that Russia had suddenly gone mad. Since then, it’s not so straightforward with elections: you can manipulate democratic procedures to make good people win, but you can’t manipulate them to make bad people win. It’s like the best houses in Boston and Philadelphia.

This is not Russia’s problem, but democracy’s – as an institution that is supposed to create a perfect framework for imperfect people. People in general demonstrate an amazing inability to negotiate. The anecdotes about two Jews being three opinions, or two Ukrainians being a partisan squad, and three being a partisan squad with a traitor, reflect very well the problems of democratic organization of society. So any democracy adapts ideals to reality – the ship does not sail as it is named, but as it is laid down.

That is the essence of the kargo-cult: what does it matter that you cannot build a real aeroplane, if it is enough for you to cosplay pilots and establish real power through this sacred game? We wanted democracy after Soviet rule, which was a perversion of the idea of democracy. That is, we wanted a “real” democracy, not a Potemkin democracy. But the ship called “Democracy” turned out to be a ship of fools. Why do we – in general and after this experience in particular – love democracy, and why do we think it is shown to anyone? Seemingly obvious: because we like our votes to count.

But here we have a progressive 14% of the population who think the remaining 86% are stupid slaves who need the light of freedom and democracy in their lives (the numbers may be wrong, but the minority likes them). Taking power from the majority is constitutionally impossible. Let’s assume that the 14% have made a revolution. By what methods would they have to spread the light of freedom and democracy in order to retain power? However, our people have never been confused by contradictions. Don’t they understand that? The most stupid ones, perhaps, do not understand it. Those who are smarter do not care. Not the smartest are willing to argue about justifiable sacrifices (not their own, of course). Do you still find my defensive rhetoric surprising?

Let us first define what freedom and democracy are and what they are for. Obviously, for the functioning of a strong state that protects individual freedoms. But to protect everyone’s individual freedoms requires the restriction of everyone’s freedoms. Nationalists and multiculturalists, capitalists and communists, gays and homophobes, liberals and conservatives. A balance of checks and balances. Democracy is a form, not a content, because the content takes on a different form every time.

Everything is seen in comparison: compared to the Soviet way of life and the Soviet lie, Western democracies really did look like an attractive kingdom of freedom and intoxicating consumption. But now we realise that even Soviet propaganda, which scourged the evils of the Western world, was honest enough. It was simply selective and saw the flaws rather than the virtues. It was exactly the same thing Western propaganda did: do we have blacks being lynched? And you have dissidents on trial. Do we support bloody dictatorships? And you do not have a hundred varieties of sausage and toilet paper.

Today the Kremlin propaganda acts much more wittily, demonstrating how the “free world” is destroying its own values. And our idiots keep laughing in response, happily repeating: “And you have blacks being lynched.” Apparently, they haven’t had time to place a new slogan in their heads: “Black Lives Matter!” In principle, any propaganda is honest: it’s just that its essence is to come in from the outside, not the façade. People are the same everywhere. The authorities and the kargo culture of democracy are the same everywhere.

Because every country has its own natives who try to adapt the bright ideals to their own muddy realities. Syria or Turkmenistan is somehow not Norway or Estonia. But why is it considered easier to turn Syria into Norway than Estonia into Turkmenistan? Is man by definition called to use freedoms to create, not to destroy? Or only as a result of the historical conditions that have shaped him? When we say that the freedom of one ends where the freedom of the other begins, we realise that this frontier, too, needs border guards, and on both sides.

America has come up with a great formula for promoting its own achievements: “God created the people, President Lincoln gave them freedom, and Colonel Colt made them equal.” The main problem with democracy is that freedom, equality and fraternity are an oxymoron. The ideals of freedom contradict the principles of equality and the practices of equality contradict brotherhood and liberty. Civilisation is about changing forms of coercion according to objective historical conditions. If we lack a mind of our own, perhaps an artificial mind will take its place. Perhaps it will be offered to us by the next “smart vote”.

Alexei Aleshkovsky, VZGLYAD


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