Something strange went on in the First World with regards to evolution of political movements in the early XX century. I will preclude my argument by pointing out that the post is going to be pretty long, but it offers a pretty detailed review of two different political dichotomies taking place in various parts of the world and contains some interesting information some people might not be aware of. Reading this, you might get an insight into where I am coming from with my political views and why I do not see, for example, any of the major political parties in the US to be worthy of anyone's vote.
Former USSR and other former authoritarian nations
I was born in USSR, shortly before its spectacular collapse. Decades of failing central-planning policies, in combination with rapid aging and abolishment of any notions of meritocracy in the ruling class, culminated in a staggering economical meltdown sending ripples throughout the world and emptying shelves in the Soviet socialist stores. After several years of endless demonstrations and a failed coup staged by KGB in attempt to stop the desperate liberalisation reforms by Gorbachev, the system finally fell apart, and many territories split from Russia and became independent.
Disappointed with the extremely poor performance of a central-planned socialist economy, most post-Soviet countries immediately embraced liberal democracy and free markets, looking up primarily to the US and worshipping the individualistic system here. Everyone who could afford it moved here or to other Western developed countries, and everyone else wanted to build a similar system back home.
Unfortunately, for various reasons (corruption, mafia and lack of proper demolition of Soviet authoritarian institutions) the liberal sentiment was short-lived, and by the beginning of 2000-s only Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were still embracing the goal to build a US-like system, while all other countries went back to authoritarianism. However, the sentiment did not die out completely there, and opposition groups in many of the post-Soviet republics kept fighting for liberalisation, however hard it was.
Approximately half of my life I lived in Russia, and its political landscape formed in early 2000-s is a pretty good representation of the general political make-up of post-Soviet republics. Here is what it looked like:
- Group 1: Liberals/Progressives
Various opposition forces, barely represented in the government, generally promoting wide social freedoms and free market capitalism. On the West such groups are usually called "Libertarian", but in Russia we just called them "Liberal", as they promote individual liberties above everything else. We also sometimes called them "Progressives", given how they wanted to distance Russia from the Soviet past, although this term is considered a bit more loaded.
Currently they have no representation in the government.
- Group 2: Authoritarians/Conservatives
These are the political forces dominating the government. They promote various values centered around collectivist values and restricted social and economical freedoms. Note that "Authoritarians" is what they are called by the liberal opposition, and "Conservatives", while rarely explicitly used term, is how they are seen by the rest of the population.
As the numbers of these folks are much greater, their makeup is more nuanced, and I would split them into three major subgroups:
- Subgroup 2.1: Socialists/Communists
These guys do not need introduction. I will mention, however, that Russian socialists/communists have relatively little in common with the Western ones, and while they still promote central planning economy, shared means of production or even property in general, "worker rights" and other things, they do not embrace the social equalisation Western ones do; they largely want restoration of the Soviet system, with all of its explicit totalitarian traits.
They have quite significant representation in the government, as the second largest party in Russia (Communist Party of Russian Federation) is also the second largest party in the parliament.
- Subgroup 2.2: Nationalists/Fascists
These ones focus their ideologies around the ideas of white supremacy and Russian national superiority. These are far more sinister than something like KKK in the US or AfD in Germany; they have some extreme proposals, sometimes advocating for purges/enslavement of various national minorities. Their economical policies are all over the place, but the general sentiment is that the market must work in a way that advantages ethnic Russians and disadvantages everyone else. They also believe in the need for a strong dictatorial leader.
They do not have a direct representation in the government and, actually, generally are quite opposed to it (read up on one of its leaders, Limonov, who was harshly persecuted by the ruling regime and spent a lot of time in jail) - however, a lot of congressmen have connections with them, and the third largest parliamentary party, ironically called "Liberal-Democratic Party", features a narrative quite sympathetic to their cause.
- Subgroup 2.3: Moderates/National-Socialists
(They are not actually called "National-Socialists" in the mainstream discussions, but that is what they are, pretty much, by definition.) These are the people trying to maintain a stance somewhere in between the previous two subgroups: they acknowledge the idea of Russian superiority and are willing to take some steps to discriminate against other groups, but do not go extremely far with it, and economically they favor something akin to Hitler's system, with severely restricted market run by state-controlled corporations, but nonetheless featuring some basic enterpreneurial freedoms and private property notions. Note that this is not
the same type of system as what can be found in the mainland China; it is a highly protectionist and isolationist system with a lot of central planning and highly encouraged corruption and cronyism.
They have a lot of representation in the government, especially the ruling party "United Russia" and the dictator, Vladimir Putin.
Now, I do not want to spend too much time talking about Russia. The reason I wrote all this is because a very similar makeup can be found in many other currently or formerly authoritarian/totalitarian countries. In China opposition is mainly represented by free market liberal democrats, while the ruling party has two extremes (Maoists on one end - subgroup 2.1 - and radical Chinese nationalists - subgroup 2.2) and mostly is composed of the moderates embracing both ideas to a large extent (Jinping is one of such moderates, leaning towards subgroup 2.1 arguably). On Cuba the dissident movement also embraces the US-like system (you can see this notion being strong in Florida, where the Cuban immigrant population is very large - just talk to random Latin-looking people on the streets of Miami, and you will hear libertarian ideas again and again), while the ruling party is trying to find the middle ground between the two extremes (hardcore Castro/Che fans - subgroup 2.1 - and Cuban exceptionalists - subgroup 2.2), with Raul Castro introducing some careful liberalisation reforms.
I could go on and on. Something that all these cases have in common is that the response of the dissident movements to high suppression of freedoms is the desire for individual liberalisation reforms in all regards, social and economical alike. What on the West is often called "Libertarianism" arises from people's desire to be free from the governmental oppression, and that oppression is seen as both social and economical; the notion that the government should control either social or economical aspects of people's lives in order to achieve some "collective good" is seen by dissidents in authoritarian regimes as dangerous and illogical, especially given their current experiences. All of this makes perfect sense to me, and me growing up in authoritarian Belarus and Russia certainly heavily contributed to me becoming a libertarian.
Western world and other First World nations
When I still lived in Russia, I genuinely believed that the above makeup is universal; that it must be, to a great extent, be present everywhere. There are freedom lovers, people who want to be free from the governmental and communal oppression, and then there are authoritarians of various kinds, typically either wanting to oppress people through class struggle (socialism/communism) or through nationalist isolationism (nationalism/fascism). Obviously I was aware of other types of authoritarianism as well, for example, Islamic fundamentalism - but those mostly exist in barbaric tyrannies of the East and are not applicable to the more civilised world. Or so I thought.
I did not pay too much attention to the intricacies of the domestic political processes in the developed world, thinking that the notion of freedom has long won there and people are now only debating some fine details of how to assure individual freedoms. I genuinely thought, for example, that Democrats and Republicans in the US differ only on very narrow subjects such as whether assault rifles should be sold without a license requirement or with one.
When I moved here in the US and learned a bit about the major political groups here, I was stunned. I was shocked to discover that some of the things that even dissidents in Russia or China do not really question any more here, in the free world, still are actively debated - and, moreover, the debate is often over which of multiple authoritarian proposals to choose! For example, when it comes to women's rights, Democrats want to "expand" them by making it easier for women to receive child support from men, something that never made sense to me and was slightly akin to slavery - but, on the other hand, Republicans want to either restrict abortions or to let men have a say in the matter, which also resembles slavery, just in a different way. Where are the actual liberal proposals: "Just leave people be and take the government out of this" - ?
In general, it turns out that in the First world the political make-up is quite different from what I expected. It is split into the "Left" and the "Right" camp, and both of these camps are authoritarian in different ways. The "Left" resembles the subgroup 2.1 mentioned above, but takes a much softer stance on the social freedoms, still embracing the identity politics there, but overall permitting people to make a lot of choices that in the authoritarian world are unimaginable. The "Right" is closer to the subgroup 2.3, also with a softer stance on social freedoms and slightly softer stance on economical freedoms, but with a strange admixture of traditional religious values. Both "Left" and "Right" have horrible authoritarian stances on some issues (the "Left" is harder on economy, and the "Right" is harder on social issues, but both have authoritarian stances in both aspects).
I was disappointed by extremely tiny representation of classical liberal or, what people call today, "libertarian" political forces. In the US the Libertarian party is barely on the radar and seems to be run by a bunch of incompetent amateurs, and in the rest of the world Libertarian parties are not even on the horizon. Where are the Founding Fathers of our time?
In the last few years this took an even more sinister turn. Now both "Left" and "Right" worldwide are embracing identity politics of different sorts, endorsing censorship in the name of not "offending" someone, electing populist candidates with no substance in the message (I am looking at you, Sanders and Trump), questioning free trade and immigration... It starts looking really-really dicey. I am starting to wonder whether what I escaped from is making a comeback, and not in some impoverished Third World nation, but nowhere else than the free world.
What worries me the most is not even the views people from both major political camps promote, but the amount of contradictions between them. They somehow manage to merge the abstract notions of some freedoms and equality with absolutely horrid authoritarian proposals that obviously are going to lead to the opposite outcome. This ability of large groups of people to collectively hold such inconsistent world views is where the true danger lays: when people stop logically processing their views, then anything can be sold to them. It does not matter what people believe now; what matters is that they can, in principle, believe anything tomorrow - and that "anything" is unlikely to have anything to do with the values of individual freedom that made the developed world such an amazing place to be in the first place.
Am I saying that the political forces here are as bad as in Russia? No, not even close. What I am saying, however, is that they are much worse than one would expect them to be given the history of the free world, and, more importantly, that their messages are incoherent and inconsistent, hopping all over the place. All these achievements, this high quality of life, these freedoms that people take for granted - they might vanish one day, and nobody will even notice that something has changed. When people do not have any solid values to speak of and just swear the allegiance to one of the two political groups, conforming with their messages without truly processing them, then how can they know when something has started going wrong in the society?
What are the causes?
I honestly do not know the answer. It is clear that something changed significantly in the early XX century. Before that the liberal sentiment in the free world was strong, and most of the opposition to it consisted of various traditionalists, monarchists, etc. - conservatives in general, who were afraid of how fast the world was changing and wanted to slow down some or revert the trend. The Enlightenment doctrine stating that the truth can only be found by individual free search and open discussion started consuming itself, resulting in various aberrational ideologies stating that the truth has already been determined and questioning it is not allowed.
My leading hypothesis is that rapid industrialisation created a perception in the global society of rapidly growing inequality (which is not far away from the truth, but does not show the whole picture), coupled with massive replacement of old manual jobs with high skill-based jobs, leaving millions feeling lost in the chaos by the late XIX century. This is when massive populist demonstrations started happening all over the world, with new collectivist ideologies such as socialism/communism and proto-fascism, as well as old ones making a return such as nationalism and religious fundamentalism. The rulers, trying to contain these processes, but failing at it, resulting in countless diplomatic incidents, eventually broke into the First World War, and it has been going downhill from there.
Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan were the most obvious victims of these processes, but one would be naive to think that they only concerned totalitarian regimes and left the free world alone. In the US on this wave people like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt pushed through extreme economical regulations that had been unimaginable just a few decades ago and that would have the Founding Fathers rise up from the graves to begin a new Revolution, if they were able to do so. In Europe, after a wave of totalitarian revolutions and subsequent collapses, a new type of "social-democratic" governments arose that, while preserving the general democratic system, enacted harsh economical controls, culminating in the controversial European Union formation, which, while streamlining trade and immigration, in the end created a unified central-planned economical model - something Soviet dissident Bukovsky had warned about back when he was still spending time in Soviet prisons.
These processes seemed to slow down some in 90-s, when the communist camp fell down and the dominance of free market capitalism and liberal democracy was widely considered to have been historically proven. On this wave some spectacular achievements were made. The "Asian Tigers", traditionally impoverished totalitarian caste-based societies, exploded with trade and innovations induced by rapid liberalisation reforms, and even some totalitarian countries such as China that weakened their grip on the economies and the societies enjoyed historically unprecedented economical growth.
However, it took less than one generation for the world to forget that lesson, and already in late 2000-s ugly statism was coming back in full force worldwide. Putin in Russia or Jinping in China are the most obvious examples, but W Bush in the US or Brown in the UK should not be forgotten either.
One might wonder why these processes have not been reversed, given that the industrialisation essentially has been completed and today the technological evolution is much more tamable, with anyone in the developed world being able to make a pretty decent living by putting in a relatively little effort. I do not know the answer, but I would make two observations: first, government expansion is known to be a runaway effect, hard to stop once it has been initiated and fuelling itself; second, just as our quality of life rapidly grows, so do our expectations from life, and, in fact, there is research suggesting that the growth of our expectations outweighs the growth of our quality of life, hence, ironically, over time the population becomes more and more dissatisfied with life and demands more and more radical solutions to this problem.
Something interesting I have thought of is the idea of long-term contrarian historical cycles. Think about it this way: the notions of freedom are so strong among the dissidents in authoritarian countries, because all they have known is authoritarianism. Never having tasted freedom, they appreciate the value of it more than anyone else.
What happens when in such a country the authoritarian regime crumbles, the dissidents' narrative takes traction and somehow sticks (something that did not happen in Russia, but, for example, happened in Estonia)? It is quite likely that this nation will go very far in its liberalisation reforms, at least for as long as the vigour is still there. It is possible that eventually the level of freedom in this nation will surpass that of the traditional liberty giants. That is, plainly speaking, Estonia may one day become more free than the US (one could argue that it already is politically, albeit they have some serious social tensions there that might not be resolved any time soon).
On the other hand, in nations in which widespread freedoms have been around for a long time people eventually start taking those freedoms for granted. At best they see them as currency to be traded for security or other comforting things, and at worst they see it as irrelevant.
In such nations, given the lack of meaningful opposition, the government will gradually expand and take over more and more areas of people's lives - and people in turn will change more and more towards supporting and further accelerating this motion.
Eventually such nations, in turn, may become authoritarian!
So there could be these cycles happening, where newly free nations often will liberalise to a very strong degree and exist in that regime for a very long time, after which the freedom will be gradually lost, until the nation is authoritarian again and needs liberalisation once more.
The evidence of these process occurring is somewhat controversial, but we, at least, see smaller cycles happening, where periods of tightening of the laws in order to stabilise the system give way to periods of red tape cutting and governmental shrinkage, and vice versa. It is no stretch to imagine that similar processes, but of a much larger magnitude, happen on a much larger scale.
There is a popular saying by Hopf:
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
While historically demonstrated to, strictly speaking, be incorrect, it may provide a decent and relatable analogy to this cycle hypothesis. As people become complacent with something, that something takes over and grows, creating a runaway effect forcing people to think outside the box trying to find a way to contain it - which creates a runaway effect in the opposite direction, and so on.
It is not all darkness
My narrative may sound very pessimistic, and, in a way, it is pessimistic. Hence many might be surprised that overall I actually believe that the world is rapidly becoming a very amazing place to live in. What humanity has achieved over the last two centuries is truly astonishing: we almost completely have solved the problem of extreme poverty worldwide, we have nearly eradicated racism and extreme nationalism in the developed world, we have built a global communication and trade network allowing people from most corners of Earth to benefit each other's lives almost immediately...
In the developed world even the poorest members of the population have access to the goods and services that a century ago nobody could even conceive of. In the US, for example, the average number of cars per household is nearly 2, and those cars are absolutely amazing, allowing anyone to travel from any point of the North American continent to any other point in less than a week of casual driving. We have so much food that far more people die to overeating than to malnutrition, and one of the biggest problems grocery stores have to deal with is what to do with all the unsold and expired food.
Where in the past only a privileged tiny minority could enjoy virtually endless supply of food, personal vehicle and a house, nowadays the majority of people in the developed world can afford it without a second thought.
We have racial, national and ethnic mixing everywhere, with people caring less and less about where you are from and what you look like, and more and more about what you can bring on the table as an individual and/or a specialist.
In the developing world, in a way, even more wonderful things happened. In China the average citizen has become 10 times richer over the last 30 years, for the first time in history lifting this country out of extreme poverty and launching it into an economical giant that is projected to soon rival the US economy. Even in the poorest countries in the world technology from the developed world finds its way in, the borders are being slowly erased, people travel back and forth for business, studies or tourism.
There is virtually no place on Earth where life today is not extremely good compared to what it was like 50 years ago (excluding obviously a few war-torn nations). For that matter, the borders between the First and traditionally the Third World are also start being erased, with people establishing various economical, social and political connections and even moving back and forth permanently.
Life is getting better and better, and if we somehow managed to keep our standards on the same level as 50 years ago, today most of us would be mentally living in pure heaven.
This does not mean, however, that there are no areas for improvement, or that some worrying trends are not occurring that could, in principle, eventually undermine all these achievements and bring us to some sort of dystopian society. I doubt it will happen, but the presence of these trends means that moving forward is going to be harder than it should be. By all accounts we, at this point, should have no serious problems anywhere on the planet and all enjoy carefree lives, and that simply is not happening (albeit we are gradually closing in on it).
In any case, it was not my goal to make this into a rant post, although somehow the amount of ranting in my posts tends to grow exponentially with size of those posts.
My main point here was to illustrate how inconsistent the positions of the "Left" and "Right" as seen on the Western political landscape are, how disappointing the lack of significant presence of unconditional freedom advocates, classical liberals or "libertarians", on the West is, and how this is likely not just an accident, but a result of a failure of the global society to properly respond to some trends happening throughout the XIX and XX centuries.
Politics on the West is not how many freedom fighters in the authoritarian world see it; it is far from the free paradise where all the fundamentals have been agreed on and people only debate some narrow and fairly irrelevant issues. People are still struggling with basics, incrementally so, it would seem. The idea many dissidents in other countries have that the American Revolution and the European Enlightenment have concluded the liberty vs security debate is deeply wrong, and it is hard for me to believe now that just ~7 years ago I genuinely held such a naive view.
It is still an inspiration, of course: at least here (for now, at any rate) we can discuss very sensitive issues openly. Political debates here are not just for show, and people from different parts of the political spectrum genuinely clash ideologically - it is not that puppet show that takes place in dictatorships, where all the questions and answers are prepared in advance and sensitive issues are left out. This is something to look up for; living here, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of nations do not have that.
Any comments or criticisms are welcome. For the people with whom I regularly have deep discussions here and who questioned my voluntarist/anarcho-capitalist views in the past, perhaps reading this post will give you an insight of where I am coming from and what background and type of thinking led me to this mindset. I by no means try to pretend that my views are somehow superior to anyone's, not even to the people who I described negatively in this post. I do think, however, that, unlike some people, I have thought out my views very well and subjected them to a very harsh scrutiny. My stances are by no means idealistic, and have been shaped in countless debates, including with myself, mental experimentation, Socratic method application and so on and so on.
My views are not static, and I change my stances on certain issues every now and then - however, my love for freedom is eternal and unquestionable. Freedom that goes far beyond just the social and economical political aspects, but penetrates all aspects of my life, from everyday interaction with others to the way I talk to myself, cultivate positive habits or strive for achieving various goals. I do not think that you can be truly free if your mind is not free, and freeing your mind from the prison of your past experiences and resulting preconceptions is arguably the hardest quest you can take on in life.
I respect people who have a different stance on this, but for me personally, if anything is, this is the
axiom everything else is derived from. If personal freedom is not important, then nothing is and we all might as well be robots doing our programming and never worrying about a thing.