Thought Archive

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Journey of a disaffected liberal. Part 1

17 years ago winds of change blew above the reeking corpse of the Soviet Union. The tyranny that oppressed my family, dispossessed, killed and tortured millions in the past was no more. The period of its collapse was bloody and painful as if to remind ourselves about a price of freedom regained. Incredible reawakening preceded the demise of the state. I remember an almost spiritual feeling of elation amongst “democratic” forces protesting against this or that in Baku or in Moscow (there were protest marches almost every day), and soul searching and feeling of remorse for the past misdeeds, so uncharacteristic of the Russia of today. But most of all I remember that many Russians, and us on the periphery of the USSR, had an incredible outpouring of love for the West, sometimes bordering on cheesiness. The perceptions of the West, were shrouded by our own naivety, and included our belief in the West as a saviour and possessing a secret to everlasting happiness. The ideals that the West stood for – human rights, and human dignity, democracy and rule of man-made law appealed to everyone at least in theory, not because of the deep-seated belief but of desperation. Communism was morally discredited force, and Political Islam could not present any possible alternative to the way the society developed. I, with many others was a firm believer and defender of liberal democracy against its nasty opponents of rabid nationalism and authoritarism. These latter concepts were not in fact presented an alternatives goals for the society – they were camouflaged within an overall frame of reference. And that frame of reference was clearly European and Western. For our societies to be Muslim and European was not a problem, for this is what indeed we were since 19 century. Russia by similar token was both Russian and European and this did not created any schisms in the minds of people of the Soviet Union who longed for Europe.

1990s was period of doubts and ever diminishing hope that democracy and the rule of law in its Western sense will be established in the region any time soon. A lot of things have changed since then – 9/11 was followed by Afghanistan. Afghanistan was followed by distastrous campaign in Iraq, bombing was followed by another bombing. Islam was being maligned in the Western eyes and democracy was being given a bad name by American blunders and outright criminality. These developments proceeded slowly until it became obvious that we could not operate in the previous frame of reference. Now, after so many a disaster, Azerbaijan (and Turkey, and Russia too) feels slighted by the West, and rightly so. These trends of alienation will only continue.

But why would one abandon European ideas so easily and without fight. As we know, series of scholars of civilization, including Arnold J. Toynbee, Alfred Kroeber and Carroll Quigley have identified and analyzed "Western civilization" as one of the civilizations that have historically existed and still exist today; this civilization exists in much wider context as well. In particular, Toynbee referred to the intelligentsia formed among the educated elite of countries impacted by the European expansion of centuries past. While often pointedly nationalist, these cultural and political leaders interacted within the West to such an extent as to change both themselves and the West.

The societies of the defunct Soviet union and its elites, of which your humble self considers himself a part of, were pointedly nationalist (if urbane nationalists) rather than religious or otherwise totalitarian. However as things go on, these elites will feel alienated from their peoples, especially since their European ways, might identify them with the current idol of the day – the West. This has already happened in Russia, where the blend of nationalism and idea of Russia as a counterweight to the West has triumphed.


riri said...

Welcome to the club! This is a very interesting topic that will occupy humanity till the day of Judgement I expect (or till the end of time if you find the idea of the Day of Judgement too archaic). What is certain is that the best and most effective way for us humans to learn is by experience and through our senses and general faculties (it is very clearly expressed in Islam for example through the Qur'an). This is why people would fall for every well expressed ideology, until it is proven in practice to be totally wrong and unsuitable/unsustainable (communism for example, even though when you read Marx, you will be compelled to appreciate the cold logic behind his analysis which contains many true premises). Some will say, well that could be applied equally well to religion(s) as they are a form of ideology. But is this accurate? And does religion have a place in politics? Beware, the answer will have to be politically correct ;-)

NoolaBeulah said...

Classical liberal democracy (which I continue to believe is the least worst of all systems) is not really an ideology because, as it was created in England, it is built on negatives. If you look at the founding documents (Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1688), you will not find anything about the equality of man or any real assertions at all. They are mostly about limiting the power of the central authority, so there's a lot of "The King shall/must not...". These documents are part of a very gradual process, which continued over 700 years. Part of that process was not widening suffrage until people had the education to deal with it.

The point I'm getting to is that the view of liberal democracy in countries that don't have it is probably rather simplistic and sees it as the answer to all problems. (This is also the fault of Europeans, which since the French revolution, have often championed an ideological democracy, separate from the Anglo-Saxon version, which found its full realisation in the Soviet Union.) It is a means of limiting government and taming conflict, especially religious conflict. It does this, not by oppression (they'd done that - it didn't work), but with a confined freedom. This was epitomised in Queen Elizabeth the First's statement, "I would not open windows into men's souls". Do you know why? She had just put a law through Parliament that established the Anglican Church as the church of England, and which set out what people had to do to show their 'good faith'. But, if people showed the outward signs of 'good faith', no-one was to go and inquire what those people really believed - that would almost certainly be very different and would thus cause problems. So let's avoid the problems by not asking.

Hypocrisy. (This is the source of my use of that word in another comment.) But socially useful hypocrisy. That was the English method for a long time (the time of their greatest power).

Sorry to go on so much. I'm just trying to say that liberal democracy, as practiced in these islands, is not some grand theory about all human life; it's a gradually evolved method of avoiding and/or channeling conflict (for there will always be conflict) so that it doesn't disrupt society too much. (Do you know how far apart the benches of the governing party and the opposition are: two sword lengths; ie so far that the points can meet but they cannot clash - there are still hooks in the cloak rooms for MPs to hang their swords before entering the chamber.)

All of this is, I know, peculiar to the UK (though it is the basis of the American Constitution). It's not an ideology; it's a way of avoiding ideology. That's why you have someone like Alistair Campbell saying, while speaking on behalf of the very religious Tony Blair, "We don't do God".

Hazar Nesimi said...

Please wait for Part 2 sometimes next week. I think almost all ideas per se are ideologies, even if they are negative ones.
An ideology is a collection of ideas. Typically, each ideology contains certain ideas on what it considers to be the best form of government (e.g. democracy, theocracy, etc), and the best economic system (e.g. capitalism, socialism, etc). Sometimes the same word is used to identify both an ideology and one of its main ideas. So it is an ideology that developed OUT of Medieval English societal circumstances, for you cannot govern without ideas. Ideas are they key. Also , I understand a slow development liberalism in Britan, just as I understand (many do not) that liberalism and democracy are not one of the same, most of the time. So many times representative democracy is an oppressive instrument against the minorities, who can be protected in autocracy or oligarchy. Now, key issue is that the ideas of liberal democracy develop in certain conditions in certain societies - and I will explore this more in the future posts. This does not mean that liberal democracy can only exist in UK (patently not true) but it puts certain limitations on its application.

NoolaBeulah said...

I should have phrased that more carefully. I was using the word 'ideology' in the sense that Communism, Fascism and even Islamism are ideologies; ie, they claim to be total explanations of society and to govern every part of it. Nothing is too small to be out of their reach, and there is no room for dissent. There can only be one Truth.

Liberal democracy makes no such claim. In fact, it institutionalises dissent and allows even ideas opposed to its very existence to flourish. In this sense, it is not an ideology.

Sorry about the confusion.

Hazar Nesimi said...

True, so rephrasing this : ideologies claiming the Total truth are Totalitarian Ideologies. I agree that liberal democracy in this sense is definetely not Totalitarian. Ideology per se is not a bad word, as people make it to be. Totalitarian ideology may be.

Riri said...

Yes but in this case we are basically saying that Liberal Democracy inherently denies the concept of the One Ultimate Truth which cannot be discredited. This in itself is a problem that might be unique to the concept of Liberal Democracy as applied by the West. It makes people "too free" which leads to an ultimate sense of loss, confusion and purposelessness. And it inevitably leads to moral decay, because there is no constant and unchallengeable source of morals. What do you think?

NoolaBeulah said...

Riri, your last question is a good one. "Loss, confusion and purposelessness" - it may well be.

You see, I am a materialist. All my explanations exclude any force outside the physical and the psychological. If I look at history, if I look at my own experience, I can come to the conclusion that, in evolutionary terms (evolution - the most fruitful idea ever discovered), it may well be that humans need an absolute. Not because the absolute exists, but because we are very, very small in a universe larger than any of us can imagine. It may well be that the best (evolutionary) way for us to survive in this unimaginable space is to hold on to the idea that it has meaning, and that we count.

But let's be clear. This liberal system was built by people who believed in a Judeo-Christian universe. Even the skeptical Jefferson asked, in Notes on the State of Virginia: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?"

This is indeed a great question. Personally, I don't know the answer.

Hazar Nesimi said...

SO it may be that any society that comes to a point of refusing an absolute goal - may it be a paradise on Earth or beyond - in another World - or, inside oneself, is doomed and will cease to exist. There is a theory amongst some scientists that we indeed posess a "Faith gene", but if this is so, it is not clear why some do not have it, while others do.