Thursday, June 25, 2020

Affray in Aksai Chin, all eyes on South Asia

The recent scuffles between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley along the border of Aksai Chin at the line of actual control, which have resulted in the first deaths since 1975, have been the subject of some interest in the Anglophone press. As usual, the best possible response to this seems to belong to Larison at The American Conservative, who rightly argues that the scuffle is none of our business and we’d do best to stay well clear of it. There have been a lot of far worse takes, most of which involve the kneejerk anti-Chinese sentiment which is currently en vogue on the American right, as well as some portions of the centre and centre-left.

The timeline of events seems to bear out the wisdom of Larison’s cautious approach. Not only does this spat have little to do with us. But it is also far from clear – despite the unthinking consensus among Anglophone mass media and the unverifiable assertions of the usual ‘intelligence’ – that this was an act of unilateral and unprovoked Chinese aggression. Dustups like these have been occurring regularly over the past few years, and much of them have to do with ‘infrastructure projects’ which are in fact logistical military concerns on either side. The disputed territories have in fact been matters of contention for decades.

The recent Indian revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, and administrative division of the territory into two separate provinces, also seems to have played a role here. This is a move that has appeared threatening to both Pakistan and China, and seems to have aligned Pakistan with China in an informal strategic formation against India.

It appears that the immediate spark for the recent escalation, though, had to do with the D-S-DBO road running north-south along the western side of the Galwan Valley, which is one of the strategic ICBR projects that India is using to shore up border defence.

What has been interesting to see is the response from India’s neighbours – in particular the plucky little dragon kingdom of Bhutan, which has traditionally been strongly aligned with Indian gæopolitics. As I noted before, even though Bhutan does not want to lose territory to China, there are more critical strategic considerations for them right now. Bhutan wants to preserve its diplomatic independence from India. And most importantly: they don’t want a war between India and China. And so, Bhutan’s response to the brawling between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Ladakh has been a water strike that critically affects tea and rice farmers in India’s Assam region. Gentle reader, if this strikes you as bearing a certain redolence to the plot of a Veit Helmer comedy, rest assured you aren’t the only one – though, granted, the stakes are indeed a trifle higher.

Intriguingly, Bhutan is not the only country which has begun using fresh water politics as a foreign policy tool. Nepal, too, has begun using its sources as leverage when dealing with India’s foreign policy, cutting off water to Bihar Province. It is not by any means an accident that Nepal’s government made this move the week after the standoff with China in the Galwan Valley – and Nepal’s partnership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative has actually given them a bit of a stiffer spine when it comes to asserting themselves vis-à-vis India.

And it’s not just in the Himalayan Plateau that this is happening. Bangladesh – also a signatory to the Belt and Road initiative on the maritime route – has recently signed a trade deal with China, and at that just four days after the Galwan standoff. This raised several eyebrows in India, it seems. Sri Lanka, too, has signed onto the ‘Maritime Road’ project initiated by Xi Jinping as part of the Belt and Road in 2013. Since then there has been a flurry of investment in Hambantota on the southern coast, where Chinese firms have been busily constructing transit and shipping infrastructure. And we can bet that Sri Lanka is keeping a close eye on the developments in Galwan, and that they are learning how much strategic leverage they have in the growing contention between India and China. As Dr Dayan Jayatilleka put it, writing for the Sri Lanka Financial Times:
In the new historical period that has just been inaugurated, Sri Lanka’s destiny will not be ultimately determined by the internal dynamics as decided upon by narrow nativists, petty autocrats and the local military machine—as their intrinsically circumscribed consciousness presumes—but by the global, continental and regional dynamics of Great Power rivalry and the alignment and role of Big/Pivotal/Emergent Powers within that Great Power rivalry.
The Belt and Road Initiative – that is to say, the attempts of China to rebuild the two southern routes of the traditional world system – is still something that small states like Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka need to be approaching with caution. Not for nothing is it connected with the term ‘debt trap politics’. Informal œconomic imperialism is certainly something to be wary of coming from China, though it’s necessary to understand that China still looks at its southern neighbours through the same lens as Wei Yuan did, in a defensive way. At the same time, Nepal and Sri Lanka both appear to be using their BRI involvement as part of a toolkit for asserting a certain degree of œconomic and gæopolitical independence for themselves, such that they are not aligned in a unipolar way with Indian strategic interests. The alignment of these new relations appears to be for the benefit of these small countries, when considered from a blunt realist perspective.

The new formation of two developing blocs of œconomic and gæopolitical partners, one over the old Silk Road and one over the old Maritime Route, is something to watch with interest. At present it appears that India’s strategic options are limited. To be blunt, Modi’s government hasn’t done itself many favours by antagonising both Pakistan and China at the same time over Kashmir, and the disputed territories on either side. And the fact that many of the small nations appear, for the moment, to be drifting into China’s gæopolitical ambit, is further reason to continue to observe carefully.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A grim but needed look at ‘90s Russia

As I’ve said over on my other blog, the film that made me into a critical Russophile – this was long before I became Orthodox – was the movie Brat, starring the late great Sergei Bodrov, Jr. One of the reasons that it made me sympathetic to Russia, or to be more precise the Russian people, is that it unapologetically portrayed what life was like for a certain class of Russians during the nineties. The cops were on the take. The government was nowhere. People were out of work. Those who relied on military benefits or pensions or any kind of social services were thrown to the wolves. Many became homeless, or turned to alcohol or drugs for escape. Crime became a way of life among Russia’s élite and middlemen, and the rest of Russian society had to live with that. Brat shows much of this en passant, but it effectively conveys a good deal of the hopelessness and hardscrabble reality of life for many people in urban Russia at the end of the twentieth century.

This fascination with a painful era in Russian history is one reason why I became interested in the figure of Sergei Glaz’ev: the co-founder of the pro-administration left-nationalist Rodina Party in Russia and recent aide to President Putin for Eurasian integration through the Customs Union, who has long been an outspoken critic of the liberal œconomic reforms that plunged Russia into chaos. I picked up the English translation of his essay Genocide: Russia and the New World Order. Don’t let the sensationalist title turn you off. Glaz’ev, a keenly sensitive œconomist with a good eye for big picture realities, was the only œconomist ever to resign his post in the Russian government, in protest at the harmful policies and outright theft that was going on all around him, and which his bosses were not only enabling but encouraging. In his view, the ‘shock therapy’ policies of the Russian nineties, and the concomitant demolition and outsourcing of most of Russia’s productive sectors, had an effect on Russian society that legally merits the descriptor of ‘genocide’. The statistics he puts forward on this are damning. He estimates the total number of excess deaths in Russia during the five years under shock therapy to be 3,890,000.

Glaz’ev – who had a front-row seat for much of this action – goes into considerable depth when describing each policy component and ‘phase’ in Russia’s structural adjustment. Price deregulation led to a wave of inflation that wiped out the value of most Russians’ bank savings. Privatisation of state-owned enterprises led to a wave of frantic speculation, producing spectacular wealth for the richest Russians and for foreign investors, but also creating a wave of unemployment and destitution. The speculation wave created pyramids and Ponzi schemes, which increasingly desperate Russians bought into and lost even more from. IMF-imposed deflationary ‘fiscal discipline’ led to social services being wiped out and the withering of Russia’s manufacturing and research sectors. And finally the government was called in to prop up, not the suffering population, but instead the investor class as the œconomic realities on the ground began to catch up to the frenzy of speculation and hyper-profit at the top. Glaz’ev also points out several ways these policies might have been structured differently: to bring about the desired reforms to a market-oriented œconomic structure without causing so much misery at the bottom of the social ladder, or so much built-in instability at the top.

In describing the ways in which these œconomic policies, taken together, utterly demolished the Russian social fabric and destroyed Russian lives, Glaz’ev is unsparing, albeit brisk and matter-of-fact. Again with admirably-sourced statistics, he highlights not only the death toll, but the sense of overall societal despair, the rise of alcoholism and drug abuse, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the propitious rises in divorces, abortions, infections and parasitic diseases, felonies, suicides and accidental deaths and injury. In order to keep the society complacent and demoralised, Glaz’ev suggests that family structures were deliberately attacked by the architects of ‘shock therapy’, and that there was an active propaganda policy of pornography and live-for-the-moment hedonism targeted specifically at Russian youth – specifically to keep them politically-quiescent. The picture he paints of how Russia changed between 1992 and 1998 is not at all pretty, but it is necessary to know if we want to understand how Russia has gotten to this point, or why their cultural priorities are where they are.

Where the book really got interesting – at least for me, the left-Eurasianist – is where he went into the question of ideology and the conception of Russia among the world œconomic élite. Here he borrows a good deal of language from Immanuel Wallerstein and the world-systems theorists. He is well aware, indeed, that the interests of the global financial jet-set are not the same as the national interests of the states they come from, and so he quite deftly sets himself apart from a paranoid nationalist discourse that posits either an international Jewish conspiracy or a cabal of Russia’s national enemies. In this way he also highlights a point of intersection between the conservative international-relations realists and the Marxists to whom he is indebted for his analysis:
Five hundred transnational corporations encompass more than one third of all manufacturing exports, three fourths of world raw materials trade, and four fifths of the trade in new technologies. They employ tens of millions of people and are active in virtually every country in the world. The genesis and base location of these transnational corporations are approximately evenly divided among the United States, the [EU] and Japan. They exert decisive influence on the foreign economic policy of these countries, as well as the international organisations they control, and they use this influence in their own interest on the world market. It is important, however, not to exaggerate the degree of consolidation within what, for convenience, may very conditionally be called the world oligarchy. This phenomenon does not fit the hackneyed models of world imperialism or a Masonic plot. It is a tendency, rather than a well-formed organisational structure. This tendency does, however, subsume the formation of certain institutions and organisational structures at the national and international levels, for purposes of shaping and realising the interests of major international capital.
However, he does indeed use Wallerstein’s concepts of core, semi-periphery and periphery to describe the relation of the G7 nations to the rest of the world, and to describe the differentiated interest that the financial élite take in each stratum of nation-state / œconomic complexes. Furthermore, he shows a finessed and sympathetic understanding of the dynamic that relates national governments to international finance capital. In the developed countries of the core, Glaz’ev notes that the realist interests of the national governments are often treated as identical with those of the élite, even though that isn’t necessarily truly the case. In the truly peripheral countries, the local managerial class is made thoroughly dependent on investment and capital from the core, and therefore adopts a comprador character in which they service not their nation’s interests, but the interests of this international capital. In the semi-periphery, precisely where Glaz’ev positions Russia, the contradictions in interest between international finance capital and national interests are made most visible.

Even though Glaz’ev does have a certain mild inflection indicating the messianic tendency in Russian thought, it does not appear at this point in his analysis. He is well aware that the world œconomic élite, despite being given to hateful paroxysms of russophobia, in fact have no special interest in Russia outside the aforementioned tendency to œconomic self-interest. In Glaz’ev’s analysis, Russia is primarily important to the élite first as a ‘milk cow’ to be strip-mined for its natural resources, and finally as a sacrificial animal to be split up and rendered politically-impotent. In Glaz’ev’s telling, the true challenger to world élite interests in Asia is not Russia, but China – even so, Russia’s own interests demand that it resist and disrupt the pressure of international finance capital on its own markets, and marshal the power of the state to rebuild Russia’s infrastructure, social safety net, indigenous productive capacities, scientific and technological research capabilities, and spiritual capacities. Even though this is almost a footnote for Genocide, the stress on Russia’s religious traditions and social-spiritual genius is necessary for understanding Glaz’ev’s project in full.

Having detailed the rapid, systemic and deliberate destruction and bankruptcy of Russia’s productive capacities, state structure and social fabric, Glaz’ev goes into detail to discuss how Russia might be brought back from the brink. His œconomic approach may be considered broadly ‘post-Keynesian’. He proposes that Russia undertake a whole-system approach, marshalling all state capacities and non-tax revenues to de-dollarise the Russian banking system, centralise foreign currency reserves and expand the money supply to expand the horizon for productive growth. He advocates hard price controls on necessities like fuel, food and electricity. He advocates a sustained programme of attacking organised crime and corruption, and purging state structures of all white-collar criminal influences. He also sets forward a plan for renationalising and recapitalising bankrupt businesses and instituting a selectively-protectionist policy for Russian manufactured goods. And finally he recommends deliberate, robust and aggressive industrial, R&D and infrastructure policies on the national level.

In the end, Glaz’ev also remarks on the unique ‘comparative advantages’ that Russia possesses and can build on: a vast territory, an abundance of natural resources, a highly-educated populace, a wealth of theoretical knowledge and technical know-how that can be marshalled into the sphere of advanced technologies, miniaturisation and biotech. But he also remarks in a way echoing Nikolai Berdyaev on Russia’s unique spiritual heritage:
The Russian character and Russian spirituality can play a decisive role in Russia’s natural progress into the future world civilisation, as one of its leading countries. The traditional Russian qualities of collectivism, unselfishness, striving to help others, ‘universal sympathy’ and self-sacrifice are key elements for a new organisation of social production, devoid of ‘œconomic egoism’, and based on the principles of mutual help, cooperation and trust… Reliance on traditional values in Russian spiritual culture, such as patriotism and self-sacrifice for the common good, creative labour, and the primacy of the spiritual over the material, will be necessary to overcome the systemic crisis in Russia and bring about its rapid rebirth as a great power, which unites the values of œconomic and spiritual-intellectual progress, sustaining high rates and quality of growth, and combines harmonious social relations with responsibility for supporting global stability and the sustained development of human civilisation.
I admit to being thoroughly fascinated by Sergei Glaz’ev. His admittedly sketchy synthesis of world-systems theory and gæopolitical realism, animated by a hard analytical distinction between the interests of international finance capital and national capital, is nonetheless fascinating. Though he is clearly aware of the dynamics of Eurasian integration, and the potentialities of cooperation with China – otherwise he would not be in the position he is now – I would have liked to read his further thoughts on the subject, though I’m aware they will be in Russian! And although his emphasis on building a muscular, interventionist and welfare-oriented state belongs very firmly on the left, as well as his unabashedly heterodox monetary policies and his international analysis, Glaz’ev combines these with a concern for the stability of Russia’s families and the genius of Russia’s traditional religious expressions – Orthodox Christianity in particular. Glaz’ev’s unique blend of Marxist analysis, post-Keynesian policy recommendations and Orthodox spiritual values aims precisely at the sort of left-conservatism I’ve tried to give voice and expression to on my blogs.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The lives of poor folk

Sennaya Ploshchad’ and St Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, 1840s
Painting by Paul Marie Roussel
Poor people are subject to fancies—this is a provision of nature. I myself have had reason to know this. The poor man is exacting. He cannot see God’s world as it is, but eyes each passer-by askance, and looks around him uneasily in order that he may listen to every word that is being uttered. May not people be talking of him? How is it that he is so unsightly? What is he feeling at all? What sort of figure is he cutting on the one side or on the other? It is matter of common knowledge, my Varvara, that the poor man ranks lower than a rag, and will never earn the respect of any one. Yes, write about him as you like—let scribblers say what they choose about him—he will ever remain as he was. And why is this? It is because, from his very nature, the poor man has to wear his feelings on his sleeve, so that nothing about him is sacred, and as for his self-respect—!
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk
I recently read Dostoevsky’s first full-length work, Poor Folk. When it was first published in 1846, it was heralded as a minor masterpiece of realist fiction, and I can certainly see why that is the case. Dostoevsky gradually reveals, in an epistolary format, the lives of two working-class residents of Saint Petersburg, two second cousins Makar Alekseevich Devushkin and Varvara Alekseevna Dobroselova. Devushkin is a government copy clerk of middle age, who lives in a wretched subdivision which he shares with some half-dozen other tenants and their families; he makes meagre wages, is constantly fretting over the threadbare state of his wardrobe, and is constantly in debt. However, he dotes upon his younger cousin Varvara, a seamstress who lives with her housekeeper in a similarly wretched situation just across the street, and writes to her often – often giving her expensive presents which he can’t afford.

This novel is really quite cleverly put together, dropping us in the middle of their correspondence and giving us these elliptical hints as to their life situations at each turn. Even at this early stage in Dostoevsky’s writing, the dark confinement of Saint Petersburg makes itself felt as an unspoken ‘third character’ in the background. The constraints and frustrations of both of the protagonists make themselves felt, at their most powerful, with a tremendous blunt force. The novel is naturalistic, but it is a naturalism markedly different in character and intent than Aksakov’s pastoral accounts of his family past. Dostoevsky hasn’t quite yet reached that point in his career where everything is ponderously meaningful, and yet even the piffle – that is the right word – the two epistolary narrators exchange with each other has the benefit of revealing to us the hard constraints they are both under. There are certainly elements of Poor Folk that remind one of Dickens, but those reminders are subtle.

One of the most moving parts of the early book is when Varvara discloses to Makar a diary that she wrote when she was younger, detailing her family’s move from the countryside into Saint Petersburg, her family’s debt woes, her father’s early death, her ‘adoption’ by her aunt Anna and her subsequent ill-fated romance with her tutor Pokrovsky. Her account of Pokrovsky’s relationship with his father – a twice-married, abused and shy man who seeks refuge in drink, but who sobers up thanks to his son’s ‘tough love’ – and her subsequent description of Pokrovsky’s illness and death, are told in a straight and matter-of-fact way, without much embellishment… and yet the emotional impact of the entire episode is remarkable. Dostoevsky may be speaking through his narrators, but they themselves only reveal to us what they choose to reveal to each other, and that clearly isn’t everything – as we can see by the end of the book. And in this way Dostoevsky skirts the ragged edge of sentimental melodrama without quite going all in.

Dostoevsky actually spares quite a bit of space for the mundane, trivial and œconomic details of his protagonists’ lives, how the want of a good cloak or a good pair of shoes can ruin their chances. This is particularly the case in Devushkin’s case, as his job as a despised copy clerk is at one point put in jeopardy on account of one of the buttons falling off his hand-me-down jacket, which happens in front of the government official he works for, when he is called on to account for a missing line in an urgent document he was supposed to copy. The reader is led to this point with a sense of utter dread for what will happen to Devushkin. But thankfully, ‘His Excellency’ takes pity on Devushkin and gives him another chance, as well as giving him an advance on his pay to spruce up his wardrobe.

What is interesting, too, is that Dostoevsky’s dual attitude toward Asia is somewhat on display, even here in his earliest novel that, on its face, has nothing to do with Asia! For Aksakov Asia – and in particular that part of the Urals where he grew up – is something of a pastoral idyll; for Dostoevsky Asia is both a ‘mythical’ source and a ‘tragic’ return. On the one hand, Varvara grew up there, and yet she does not talk about it except to say that she preferred it to Saint Petersburg (and little wonder!). It is the source of her happy memories, but these memories are not alluded to in her letters to Devushkin. On the other hand, though, it is also the place, alluded to as the ‘steppes’, where Bykov – Varvara’s elderly, lascivious and unfeeling suitor – promises to take her when they are married, and it is also where Varvara disappears to at the end of the novel, with Devushkin mourning over her as she departs to the steppes with Bykov. Though Dostoevsky’s attitude toward Russia’s eastward Asian frontier, its Tea Road alignment, would evolve later in his career, as we can see from his Writer’s Diary, the seeds of it are present in Poor Folk as the source of both Russia’s past and its unforeseen future.

Dostoevsky’s characters are given to certain psychological tics: Devushkin in particular has a style which is prolix and in some cases repetitive, and this style more than anything else reveals to the reader his nervous state and his overly-scrupulous, conscientious personality – which is particularly strained by the circumstances under which he is forced to live. And Varvara, as we can see through her letters, is deeply sensitive and able to cram a lot of meaning into a few elliptical phrases, but also has a certain hidden guilt or trauma, which we only begin to explore with her account of Pokrovsky. Here we can see some of the stylistic influences of Gogol on Dostoevsky, the psychological flourishes which he uses to give his characters expression. But unlike Gogol (most of the time), Dostoevsky approaches, and speaks through, these two interlocutors with a deep and humane sense of sympathy. He writes, not to judge these two or to hold them up as exemplars or object lessons of any kind. His interest in them is not, prima facie, political – despite Herzen (with some justification) calling this a major socialist work in Russian literature. Dostoevsky writes about them, instead, to understand and to love them.

Genuine sympathy seems to be the primary factor which separates Poor Folk from the common run of sentimental melodrama – and what elevates it above some of the other contemporary works of social realism such as those of Hugo or even Dickens. Dostoevsky would later follow up Poor Folk by delving into the tormented psychology of his narrator in Notes from the Underground: a novel which had a much less likeable protagonist but which still somehow manages a kind of sympathy for him. Herzen and Belinsky did correctly intuit that it broadened the scope of the literary world in profound ways, some of which were even political. Dostoevsky’s politics themselves took a rather different turn than Herzen’s, though certain commonalities continued to exist until the end of his life. Even so, Poor Folk is still a landmark in Russian literature standing at the transition between one generation of authors and the next; it deserves to be read for this reason, and also on its own merits as work of social realist fiction.