The Virus in our Heads

Almost daily I watch one or the other transmission of the Russian-speaking channel 1TVRUS, because I want to know about the mood of our largest neighbor. The English-language programs of RT (Russia Today) are less informative in this respect, because they are geared towards Western expectations. “Vremja pokazhet” (Time will tell) is aimed at a Russian audience. It’s a talk show that’s louder and wilder than any other I know. Regularly discussants shout down each other, as if the volume of their voices were decisive for the quality of opinions.

Yesterday, for example, the Corona epidemic came up there too – how could it be otherwise? -, but in a way that surprised me. Obviously, talking about this disease gives smart people the opportunity to feel particularly smart and superior. Some of them wondered whether it wasn’t a sign of collective – especially Western – mental confusion to make so much out of a kind of flu, when other diseases such as tuberculosis claim far higher numbers of victims without anyone being particularly upset about it. Particularly clever discussants insisted that panic was carelessly being bred in the public mind!

No, I would have liked to answer

Much greater danger lies in the know-it-all virus of people who close their eyes to a simple truth. Every country’s health system – especially that of a less prosperous state like Russia – is designed to serve an average number of patients. It has (X times) a hundred beds, if on average (X times) a hundred patients are expected on a monthly basis. Long known diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes, stroke – but also influenza – are included in such a calculation. If the number of beds were to be increased by even ten percent beyond average demand, this would place an excessive burden on the budget of any state. We all know that modern medical equipment consumes enormous financial resources. For this reason, all states limit the number of beds to the necessary minimum.

Now, the peculiarity of coronavirus or Covid-19 is that its spread – unless the sharpest countermeasures are taken – generates exponentially and within a very short lapse of time so large a number of serious cases especially among elderly people that the number of beds needed (with very expensive intensive care equipment) rises so to speak over night to (X times) two hundred and more. States are confronted with such an emergency only in times of war. Regardless of whether they be governed democratically or by an authoritarian regime, they cannot afford to let terminally ill people die in front of overcrowded hospitals. That is why China has made an admirable effort to create thousands of additional hospital places within a couple of days, and why kindergartens, schools and universities are now being closed all over the world, so that the highly aggressive virus less easily takes hold first among young people (where it causes little harm), but is then transmitted by the latter to the elderly, who are likely to cause the collapse of the entire system.

The know-it-all virus in the heads of those

who see only panic-mongering in such precautionary measures is at least as great a danger as Covid-19 itself. But the virus of deliberate ignorance causes us to worry even more.  The great event of these days, an event that finally steers Russia into the path of an undemocratic, autocratic state, is hardly discussed in the talk show “Vremja pokazhet” – or if it is, it is so under cover of pretended ignorance. How beautiful, we hear, that the country is finally getting a New Con­stitution, which includes social demands usually absent from such documents, namely that all people are entitled to a minimum wage and that the size of pensions should keep pace with yearly inflation. In Russia, there is rapture over what is believed to be a tremendous social progress. Of course, nobody explains how the government is supposed to keep its promises if oil revenues – the main source of Russian social expenditure – were to dry up, which may indeed easily happen in times of depression.

But that is not the point anyway

What is at issue – and everyone knows this, but hardly anybody in Russia dares to say so publicly – is an amendment added at the last moment to the new constitution – added, as it were, in passing during its second reading in the Duma, so that nobody might think that it was its main item and purpose from the very beginning. The new Constitution is intended to give Vladimir Putin the possibility to retain the office of president even beyond 2024, the last year of his presidency according to the old Constitution. For this purpose, the parliament and the Russian people were baited with minimum wages and pension indexation – a Russian operetta or political farce of a very peculiar kind.

President Putin is very popular with a majority in his country

Many Russians even adore him like a reborn tsar. Even abroad he meets with the admiration of those who hope for a strong leader in their country too. Putin’s popularity is based on the fact that he restored to his countrymen much of their lost self-confidence. We all cheered Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev when he liquidated the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s, a majority of Russians probably sided with this bold reformer, because most of them hoped that the West would reward their willingness to break with the past. But that did not happen. Instead, Russia was humiliated and had to suffer the trauma of economic collapse during the 1990s without the West providing any help to alleviate its misery. On the contrary, the then President Yeltsin was urged to privatize Russian oil wells so that they could be bought up by Western corporations. And additional salt was later rubbed in the Russian wounds. Barack Obama, who at other occasions refrained from hurting the sensibility of other people, frivolously proclaimed that Russia was nothing more than an insignificant “regional power”. With regard to its economic output, this state­ment is certainly true. Russia’s national product is roughly on a par with that of Spain, even though the Russian federation is more than thirty times larger and is home to about three times as many people.

Putin was not able to change this situation,

even though he has now been directing Russia’s destiny for almost twenty years. As before, state revenues are based primarily on the sale of oil and gas – the rest of the economy being still underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the new tsar managed almost effortlessly to win over the Duma, the Russian parliament, for the New Constitution and its primary aim to prolong his presidency until 2036. Even if there is no electoral fraud, the Russian people will most likely vote for its implementation as Putin has achieved something else which contradicts the claim that people are primarily concerned with material prosperity. As I said, he restored self-confidence, namely the feeling that Russia is once again respected abroad as a great power – most recently even equipped with a supersonic missile system against which the existing Western defense is up to now powerless.

The realization that psychological factors

play at least as important a role among states as material ones, is of utmost importance for anyone seriously wanting to uphold international peace. If we refuse to respect others when they need solidarity and compassion (and that was the case of Russia during the 1990s), then respect will be forced on us by means of fear. This is exactly what Putin succeeded in doing. He has once again transformed an army almost disbanded at the time of Gorbatchev and Yeltsin into a powerful instrument ready for war, and he is now breeding a nationalism – even a new Russian chauvinism -, which unmistakably has the purpose of teaching the West to again be afraid of the Russian bear. Thus, he has taken revenge on all those who denigrated Russia as a weak “regional power”.

Putin continues to take revenge

by persistently trying to prove to his own people and to the West as well that the Soviet Union was to thank for the liberation of Europe from the yoke of fascism. Yes, Vladimir Putin is doing everything possible to recall the supposed liberation of Europe in military parades, on national holidays and in his public speeches. Untiringly, he claims that the world is indebted to the Russians for this great historical achievement. But instead of giving Russia the recognition and gratitude it deserves, the West begrudges the Russians this triumph achieved at so immense sacrifices and instead maliciously distorts history. That is the message almost daily spread by Russian media and by Putin himself.

All this constitutes a subtle mixture of truth and lie. Incurring immense sacrifices – much greater than those of the Western powers – the Russians defeated Hitler, who had insidiously invaded their country. In a glorious struggle they saved their country – and that is a reason for every nation to celebrate. But the Russians only liberated themselves and by no means Europe, because its entire eastern part only exchanged Hitler’s regime of terror for the no less bloody terror of Stalin. One dictatorship replaced the other, one unscrupulous tyrant made room for the next, one regime despising freedom merely followed its predecessor. The Russian President blatantly falsifies history when he praises Russia’s actions as a grandiose act of liberation. Can he really be unaware of the fact that the former Eastern bloc countries have a completely different look at the past? Certainly not! The Russian president’s great skill is demonstrated by a tactic that rarely fails to have an effect on the unsuspecting: accuse others of falsifying history when you do it yourself.

Here we are confronted with the most dangerous virus

because it colonizes our heads with particular tenacity. It is the virus of resentment. Russia, our great neighbor, so admirable in many respects, has been wounded in its pride. The nation has been humiliated. I do not say this with the intent of justifying or excusing Russian politics. But I am convinced that Putin’s success is closely linked to the failures of the West. He has turned the real and the felt humiliation of his country into a powerful political drive. What the AfD is striving for in Germany, namely national greatness and power (and the suffocation of all democratic dissent if it stands in the way of this ultimate goal), has become reality in today’s Russia. Ideologically charged slogans like “home­land” and “fatherland”, “glorious army”, “self-sacrifice for the community” – all this is conjured up daily in the Russian media and the president’s speeches. In Europe, we believed that such invocations were once and for all a thing of the past. Nor were we particularly afraid as long as NATO was far superior, at least technically, but now that Russia may boast of a definite ballistic advantage, the world has become a different place – especially for Europeans. The Russian bear is showing its muscles again. Since we refuse to like him, he is intent on teaching us fear.

But in the end it doesn’t matter how we think about Russia

and its president. It is important that we accept both for what they undoubtedly are: pivotal powers that decide on war and peace in our world. A good relationship with Russia is therefore just as essential as a good relationship with the United States. We should do everything possible to dispel Russian resent­ment. However, we will only succeed in doing so if we also take equivalent steps at home. Resentment arises from exclusion, humiliation and contempt. Several million Germans who vote for the AfD feel marginalized, humiliated and disparaged. No matter how politically uneducated and narrow-minded these people may be, if you exclude them, humiliate them and make them contemptible, we transform them into a real danger. The refusal of dialogue is the beginning of the end of democracy.

Instead of wondering

what circumstances generated such narrow-mindedness, i.e. instead of searching for our own failure, we take the so much more comfortable way of demonization and humiliation. This happened with regard to Russia, and this happens again in our own countries. If it is true that since this century at the latest we are all passengers on the same fragile boat, then everything depends on strengthening in all states the awareness that we now share the same destiny being part of the same world community. Certainly, we must insist on telling and being told the truth, but we can no longer afford to resort to exclusion, humiliation and contempt.

Is Democracy still alive?

We are used to measuring this form of government above all by the degree of freedom that a government grants its citizens. Viewed from this perspective, the picture is as bright as it is gloomy. No one prevents me from expressing even the most absurd opinions. I may even call publicly for the overthrow of the government, provided that this is done without insulting specific individuals and without denouncing the democratic constitution as such. We should not regard this as a matter of course. In Putin’s Russia, we see opposition members disappearing under unresolved circumstances; in China, they are simply eliminated under resolved circumstances. Countries such as Germany or Austria not only allow an almost unlimited freedom of speech but to a certain degree even of action. I am not forbidden to organize my life according to personal preferences living as a single person, in a homosexual relationship or as a protester with long hair or full body tattoo or even as an accepted dropout somewhere in the province. In the leading democracy of the West, in the US, I am even allowed to publish books in which I offer detailed descriptions of how to best crack the safes of rich people. Yes, and nobody prevents me from selling the tools that are best suited for this purpose. I am only forbidden to realize such recipes or to put those tools to a practical test.

This distinction is generally valid in the US. No law forbids me to openly confess my liking for human butchers like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as long as I do not take concrete steps to translate their ideas into practice. Even a cursory glance at history teaches us that individual freedom, as it seems self-evident in the US or in contemporary Western democracies, never existed to such an extent.

Seen from this perspective, we have good reason to be grateful

for not being citizens of Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. Many people who do not want to keep their own opinions in check would have to spend their lives in a prison cell – unless, that is to say, they are threatened with something even worse. These are facts that are hard to argue about. And yet, we have to say that such gratitude is not very widespread and rather meets with sneering smiles. We may be astonished by such reactions but they are not so difficult to understand. Let us for this purpose take a second look at Russia or rather at the international broadcaster RT (Russia today). It is striking how many outstanding Western intellectuals regularly appear at this platform – by no means only those who are sympathetic to the policy of the new Russian Tsar. They take this as a welcome opportunity to familiarize a wider audience with their thoughts, because they have little chance of being invited by the media in their own country.

It is true that in western democracies

everything may be said. Nobody wants serious thinkers to shut up, even annoying oppositionists, unscrupulous quacks, radical do-gooders or incorrigible reactionaries are allowed to speak out unhindered. The question is whether what they say will be heard.

Here the odds are definitely against them. Media concentration in a few hands has so much progressed in Western states – above all in the US – that opinions are now sifted and controlled by a handful of press moguls. This means that only those they admit as politically correct have any chance of being published and known by a broad public. Of course, social media such as Facebook etc. still open an almost limitless field to the freedom of expression, but at the cost of being unnoticed and unheeded. Utmost freedom is indeed perfectly compatible with an undemocratic control of media-effective opinion. The end of this development could very well be a de facto opinion dictatorship.

The fact that high-ranking US intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky are barred from public appearance in the media of their own country so that in order to be heard they accept invitations by RT, suggests that we are already heading in this direction.

Western societies suffer from a paradox

On the one hand, their people are doing better than ever before. Material living standards have never been as high as in modern welfare states. In earlier societies people regularly starved to death – as we know, in some parts of the world, this is the case even today. That is not to say that we do not witness premature deaths in Western societies, but instead of being caused by want as in earlier times they are the result of excess: obesity and other luxury diseases of present-day civilization.

On the other hand, we do experience a process of creeping disempowerment of the democratic sovereign. Many people are painfully aware that their vote counts for less or even nothing; the trend towards abstention should be an unmistakable warning. People feel the same with regard to their electoral participation as with regard to their personal opinions: they may freely indulge in both, but in the end they hardly matter.

Is this resignation justified

or does it only indicate an oversaturation with benefits that one takes for granted? After all, it is still up to the voter to decide whether Mrs. Merkel or the AfD, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump come to power! And it is still up to the voter to elect a social regime like in Sweden or a decidedly neo-liberal one like in Great Britain. Such alternatives continue to be full of meaning! The democratic sovereign may still decide to use his voice for the sake of more social peace at home and greater respect from outside.

And yet the suspicion that even Western democratic states are granting their citizens less and less power is more than just an illusion. If Western peoples were really the lords of their own destiny, they should be happy with what is, after all, the outcome of their own choices. The barometer of satisfaction in Sweden or Great Britain would have to show a higher value than in autocratic China (before the Corona epidemic). But this is definitely not the case. A majority of Chinese look to their own future with optimism, while people in Western states – whether under left-wing or right-wing governments – face it with concern and fear.

But let’s leave psychology aside,

as it is subject to great fluctuations, and turn instead to those objective conditions that increasingly limit democratic freedom. Regardless of whether they are democratically governed or not, all modern states are forced to measure and align their own policies with those of their most successful competitors. Not only the latest inventions of technology, but also the most efficient organization of work or the most effective ways of attracting investment and international corporations are spreading like wildfire across the globe. Large companies always copied the best strategies of their competitors lest they fall behind. External pressure tends to be so overwhelming that they pay little or no attention to the needs of their workforce. But the same thing is happening between countries. These are increasingly behaving as if they were nothing more than variants of big corporations. Democratic self-determination is well on the way to being replaced by undemocratic external conditioning.

The progressive choking of democratic self-determination

is not the work of malicious conspirators against democracy – it is the result of external conditions. Without Germany and Austria succeeding in maintaining a presence on global markets through innovation, they will not be able to maintain their current standard of living. But in order to remain at the top, they must subject their people to the same degree of performance – and ultimately the same working conditions – as their most successful competitors. They must even allow the same concentration of banks and corporations as soon as mere size becomes an advantage in global competition.

And even more: they will have to sacrifice their own industries if their competitors gain an advantage by doing so. The policy of outsourcing industrial production to Asia was not the result of democratic decision nor of government planning – not even the CEOs of German industries wanted to do so, but it was dictated from outside by Germany’s most powerful competitor, the US. After the United States had embarked on this path, giving it a huge cost advantage, the Europeans had no choice but to follow suite, otherwise European products would no longer be able to compete with American products on world markets.

Why does the struggle between left and right political camps

seems rather unimportant after Tony Blair in England or Gerhard Schröder in Germany? Not at all because these two ideological positions suddenly lost credibility. It still makes a big difference whether we want to realize a maximum of material equality or a maximum of freedom.

The loss of significance of both positions is the result of external constraints. It is due to the fact that the individual state is no longer able to enforce its preferences when these are in conflict with the demands of global competition. In other words, the margin left to the democratic sovereign is increasingly restricted by globalization. Freedom only exists where neither a nation’s economic and military position nor the standard of living of its population is at stake. In the election of its President, Austria was able to choose between Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer – a difference like between light and darkness. In Francois Hollande’s France, millions of people could take to the streets for or against homosexual marriage – the pressure from outside triggered by global competition only played a role insofar as the decision for this form of human bonds was considered “progressive” by most Western states. But even a decision against homosexual marriage would not have had any influence on the French standard of living.

But in a globalized world

it no longer depends on the decision of the democratic sovereign whether or not the country’s economy continues to follow a path of growth, whether or not it is dominated by international corporations and banks, whether or not Greta Thunberg’s demands are applied.

No – this observation needs to be corrected. It still depends on the democratic sovereign, because theoretically he could indeed elect a party that prohibits economic growth as well as any further increase in the consumption of resources. A democratic majority could even impose a radical green turn and initiate a basic transformation of the economy by reducing the current ecological footprint from more than two globes to the sustainable consumption of just a single one.

But this is precisely the step that no single state will take

Not because government or citizens are too stupid to recognize its necessity. After all, man has never been so foolish as to voluntarily devastate his own garden when he owes his survival to its fruits. The real situation is much more difficult and much more dramatic because the democratic sovereign literally fights against himself as he is torn between two insights that both have equal strength. Of course, every informed person would like put an end to ecological destruction rather today than tomorrow. But at the same time, everybody is equally aware that it would be of no use to his nation or to nature – if a single state sets an example that others do not follow. This applies both to sustainability in our dealing with nature and to the use of increasingly deadly weapons. The state that offers the world a truly Christian example by scrapping from one day to the next its entire nuclear armament will find itself the following day under the guardianship of villains who did not for a moment think of following its lead. Europe, militarily utterly weak when compared to the US, Russia and soon even China, likes to regard its weakness as proof of a higher moral stance. But it could one day bitterly regret this as fatal mistake if the superpowers exploit its weakness by making it the next theatre of war between them (like they did before to so many militarily defenseless states).*1*

The limitations of democratic sovereignty due to global competition

are a lot more pervasive than the interventions of the Brussels Commission in the sovereignty of European member states. In all central matters of national existence industrialized countries such as Germany, France or Canada follow the lead of the world’s most successful nations, just as every successful company constantly looks to its competitors in order to remain competitive. That is why consistent growth and the concomitant sell-out of nature remain categorical imperatives of governmental action as long as they give the individual state greater economic power in the race of nations and its citizens a higher material standard of living. States that would decouple themselves from this trend fall back to the level of developing countries or may even end up among “failed nations”.

The fear of relegation explains why CO2 emissions and the destruction of nature are constantly in the rise, although the need for green policies is being talked about more loudly every year. Every educated person is perfectly aware that progressive growth – both economic and military – is bringing humanity ever closer to its own ruin and that of the planet, but as long as the race of nations continues, they will not be able to do anything serious about it.

The question of whether we still live in democracies

thus allows for a twofold answer. Yes, we may still decide in favor of Merkel and against Höcke (AfD), in favor of Van der Bellen and against Hofer (FPÖ) – and that is an enormous asset. But unless being content with economic marginalization or imposed militarily domination, we must adapt to the most successful “role model” of leading competitors – in other words, we are forced to exchange a substantial part of democratic self-determination for a determination from outside – even doing so in the knowledge that it is precisely this race of competing nations that is leading all of them into disaster.

This insight amounts to an admission of powerlessness. But we must have the courage to face the truth, because only then will we be able to find a way of escape. This can only consist of a willingness in all states to renounce part of their sovereignty in order to put an end to the disastrous race that threatens everyone with both environmental and nuclear destruction. True, this demand too reduces sovereignty but it does so on a voluntary base in preventing disaster while current constraints from outside, that is the race of nations, make us involuntarily court disaster. In a globalized world, where each state influences the fate of all others by consuming scarce resources and destroying precious environment, events do no longer follow man’s true needs and intentions: democracy is in danger of degenerating into a mere farce. In the 21st century, man will reemerge as the master of his destiny only when he entrusts to an international authority the care for the tiny boat that (despite Mars and the Moon) will probably remain forever the only one for mankind.

1 How I hate to write this sentence! On a globe that already resembles a powder keg, every additional atomic bomb means another step towards the apocalypse. Unfortunately, strict pacifism is no alternative either when applied to a shark tank. The global race of nations has maneuvered mankind into a situation from which it can only rescue a supranational authority that ends this race.

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