In his very readable travelogue To Jerusalem and Back: a Personal Account (1977), the Jewish-American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow darkly suggests that democracy appears to be a brief moment in the history of mankind.
At the time, and with the hindsight of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and subsequent collapse of the once frightening Soviet Union behemoth, this warning of Bellow’s seems to be misplaced. Enter the Russian Federation’s Vladimir Putin and his seemingly endless wars (against Chechnya, Georgia, the Ukraine and Syria) in an apparent attempt to regain the glory of the former Soviet Union empire.
Rather similar to Putin’s playbook during the war in the Ukraine, Russia recognised Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 as independent countries and even subsequently occupied these territories. And Russia did not shy away from carpet-bombing Georgian and Syrian cities (as it does now in Ukraine). Despite being shorn of her many colonies, the successor state to the former Soviet Union is still the largest country on Earth.
Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and successfully annexed Crimea, while in February this year he approved a special military operation that turned out to be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As of late, with substantial support from the West and the United States, Putin’s armies are experiencing setbacks in the northeast and the south of that country. His reversals on the battlefield are perhaps reminiscent of the ghost of 1812 — Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia — and Hitler’s miscalculation of June 1941 when he expected to conquer Russia in one summer offensive.
Despite his setbacks in Ukraine, Putin shares many corollaries with other tyrants in the 21st century. Just as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is playing to the audience with irresponsible and even careless jostling with nuclear weapons, this ploy is also no stranger to Putin, who has recently begun making veiled and not-so-veiled references to the possibility of using one or more smaller nuclear nukes against Ukraine’s forces on the battlefield.
By the same token, Putin also seems determined, as is China’s Xi Jinping, to rebuild a formerly lost empire in the service of the fatuous idea of the so-called nation state. According to Orlando Figes, a British scholar of Russia and the author of The Story of Russia (2022), a very recent text on Russian history (including the invasion of Ukraine), “[f]or the Ukrainians, this is essentially a war of liberation from an empire. Russia is behaving in an imperialist way.”
The war in Ukraine could have its mirror image in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a group of islands China’s Qing Dynasty had to cede to Japan in 1894, as a result of the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Putin may believe that Ukraine is not a real country and that the Ukrainian people are not real people, just as Xi might believe the same of Taiwan and its people.
But the larger point, as elucidated by my referencing of Saul Bellow earlier, is whether the Ukraine war has shifted the geopolitical balance to the extent that democracy may very well be doomed in the run-up to devastating climate change in the 21st century.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Figes argues that “the sacralisation of power … testifies to the power of a godlike czar”. This is a tradition which goes back to Ivan the Terrible and China’s First Emperor.
Stephan Kotkin, professor of history at Princeton University and the author of a three-volume biography on Stalin, contends in a podcast with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, that “[t]he shock is that so much has changed, and yet we’re still seeing this pattern that they can’t escape from”. Even though Putin’s regime is not that of Stalin or the czars, what has essentially remained the same is that an individual makes these decisions affecting the lives of millions of people.
The important thing to remember about authoritarian regimes, says Kotkin, is that no matter how bad they are about everything (not feeding their people or providing security for them or failing to educate them), this does not matter. All they have to do to succeed is the “suppression of alternatives”.
For Kotkin, the challenge for authoritarian rulers (as we have, to an extent, seen in South Africa) is not economic growth, but the management of theft to keep the loyalty of its patronage. Putin, for example, does not have a bank account abroad that the West can expropriate. Putin’s money, says Kotkin, is “the whole Russian economy”. The argument is that the elite does not need the taxes or the votes of the populace.
By extracting minerals — diamonds, gold, rare minerals, oil and gas — the oppressors are in a position to emancipate/liberate themselves from the oppressed, says Kotkin. Is this what is happening in Russia, in Myanmar, in North Korea and in Iran?
Kotkin suggests that the West is not a geographical area but rather a collection of ideas consisting of the rule of law, respect for individual rights, plurality of opinion, et cetera. This would imply, as Karl Popper argued, that as defenders of democratic values, we should emphasise the potential falsification of all theories (including political and social theorising) as well as its critical evaluation — that is, no theory is ahistorical or absolute. Popper was one of the foremost philosophers of science in the 20th century and a staunch defender of the “open society”. Crucially, he defined the “open society” as “an association of free individuals respecting each other’s rights within the framework of mutual protection supplied by the state, and achieving, through the making of responsible, rational decisions, a growing measure of humane and enlightened life”.
The open society and the values of individual freedoms and scientific advancement that it entrenches, are, according to Popper, in all manner superior to its authoritarian rivals. Even though the United States has also fought countless wars of unjustified imperialism — Iraq comes to mind and many other disastrous military interventions in Latin America — and, as Noam Chomsky recently pointed out, the US is certainly not the defender of democratic values, which it pretends to be, this should not deter us from our defence of responsible democracy.
Even if Bellow is correct in suggesting that democracy is but a brief candle in the dark (much as Voltaire indicated critical thinking might be in a world dominated by dense religiosity), it is still worth fighting for.
Bearing in mind the stake that the military-industrial complex, and the extended Biden family too, may have in the war in Ukraine, this is perhaps the best reason every effort should be made to preserve democracy in the face of multiple onslaughts by a range of actors from North Korea to Iran.
This remains true, despite the rightful casting of doom, on the possibility of democracy into the 21st century by one of our most creative novelists, Saul Bellow.