01.03.2015

Abstracting and creating agitprop realities: a longue-durée view of political “storytelling” on two sides of the same post-Communist coin

Anyone who is - in a non-ideological way - trying to make sense of the major political stories of the most recent past and of the present “news” (or disinformation) content featured in the media, is having a hard time figuring what is really going on. The amount of information (mostly agitprop (=agitation and propaganda)) coming from the different corners of the boxing ring that is the arena of political ideologies is incoherent and contradictory, to put it mildly. That being said, we will still try to point out what in our view are the five most significant discrepancies of the last twenty-five years in the “political storytelling” between East and West, South and North, i.e. the periphery and core or centre of the global political order (or rather disorder) that has since been centered around the United States of America. It has, however, been an economic and political pecking order that has constantly been challenged and reshuffled ever since the end of the Cold War.
 

  
The Soviet flag being taken down on the Kremlin, Moscow, on December 26, 1991. This
marked the end of the existence of the Soviet Union sixty-nine years after its foundation (Source: YouTube)

In the first “long decade” (1988/89 to 2001) following the anti-Soviet reforms and/or protests that lead to revolutions, that started from Hungary (Miklos Németh/Gyula Horn) in November, 1988, and spread all across Central and Eastern Europe until even the Soviet Union itself was dissolved in late December, 1991, the US had its unchallegend “unipolar moment”. Washington's relations with both the now weakened Russia and the emerging China were mostly neutral or even amicable, they were seen as (second-rate) “partners”; post-Soviet Russia was in the U.S. view demoted to a regional power. The U.S.-led involvement in the war in the collapsing Yugoslavia (against a culturally Christian Orthodox, Russophile Serbia) and the first post-cold war NATO expansion into territories that just ten years earlier had been part of the Warsaw Pact, i.e. the Soviet military and political sphere of influence (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland), didn't meet any fierce resistance at the time - although Russia did support Serbia against the Western forces, but still had to tacitly accept the negative outcome for it (most significantly the breakup of Serbia with the foundation of Kosovo, and the independence of Montenegro that followed later).

Some (ideologically challenged, naïve, or unforesightful) elites in the U.S. felt that Francis Fukuyama's “end of history” had indeed come, with the main enemy of the previous five decades demoted and, in the short-term (i.e. normal U.S.) perspective at least, no one else on the radar (Europe or the EU, as more or less even until today, couldn't be taken seriously then, except as an economic power). The end of history” story was the first discrepancy between U.S. “storytelling” or “created reality” and factual challenges of that reality outside that bubble (mind you, the U.S. was dealing with such “important” issues as the sex life of their president during those years). The ideologues in the bubble of the 1990s had dismissed or underestimated what the involvement (by economic, military and/or political, covert intelligence operations) of their own country and its Western (and some non-Western) allies in the Middle East and South Asia had created as a backlash. Muslim-majority, but mostly secularist states had turned into new challengers of the American hegemony in their region, into extremist, Islamist fundamentalist states, committing or at least supporting acts of terrorism (Iran already since back in 1979, with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, some factions in Palestine and Egypt following suit), with other states in danger of also turning fully Islamist due to the catastrophic economic circumstances, that make a totalitarian, fundamentalist religious extremism attractive to desperate young populations. Furthermore, inequivocal and uncritical US support of Israel (and all the illegal Israeli policies) in the Israeli-Palestine conflict play(ed) its part in the trouble that had (and still has) been brewing there for decades. Those “chickens came home to roost” in a big way in what has to date been the most visible and obvious attack on and challenge of the U.S. hegemony, on that sunny New York morning on September 11, 2001 (soon abbreviated simply as “9/11”). Ironically (if we follow what has generally been presented as the narrative), most (fifteen out of nineteen) of the terrorists were not from Iran or Afghanistan, but citizens of Saudi Arabia, which officially has been (and still is) a US ally, but at the same time, the House of Saud (which is amicably linked to the “House of Bush”) has, more or less openly, financed Islamist terrorism regionally and globally.


Then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld speaking at a press conference in the pentagon barely eight hours after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Also at the podium: Sec. of the Army White, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Shelton, Sen. Warner (Virginia) and Sen. Levin (Michigan) 

So, this is the
second discrepancy between created reality and, at least “historical”, i.e. geopolitical, “truth”. The centre, i.e. the U.S. government, with its “friends and allies” in tow, described “9-11” mainly as “an attack on our Western values of democracy and freedom”
which had to be answered by a “crusade”, a “war on terror” (George W. Bush), that is going on to this day; the periphery, where the retaliatory action happened, had to suffer from two long and protracted wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and their consequences. Many instances of war crimes, e.g. torture and human experimentation, have been committed by U.S. forces as part of the “war on terror”. The periphery side of the “storytelling” was done by channnels such as Al-Jazeera: founded in Doha, Qatar in 1996, it came into prominence in the West in the wake of “9/11”, with the most comprehensive coverage of what was happening as a reaction to those attacks, i.e. the war in Afghanistan. It presented the “collateral damage”, i.e. the civilian victims of the bombings or drone strikes, and aired views that were very critical of that war and of the U.S. policies in relation to it. In November of 2001, the Afghan offices of Al-Jazeera were destroyed in a U.S. bombing raid on Kabul; the following month, a reporter of the network was abducted and brought to Guantanamo. So, the views on this “war on terror” differed, just as the results did: while there hasn't been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil anymore since “9/11”, U.S. allies have been hit in the years as a result of their participation in the controversial Iraq War (Madrid 2004, London 2005).

                         

                     George W. Bush: "CIA people [i.e. torturers] are really good people,
                               and we're lucky to have them" (Source: Young Turks)

The war on terror, dubbed “operation Enduring Freedom”, actually didn't bring freedom to many, on the contrary, it has
curbed many freedoms, for both centre and periphery: the civil rights of both U.S. and non-U.S. populations were severely infringed upon by acts such as the Patriot Act, which legalized massive surveillance (e.g. collection of all internet and phone data), basically abolished the basic legal concept of habeas corpus, i.e. the right to protest against unlawful detention, and promoted a militarization of the police force, especially in the U.S. As for (more or less covert) paramilitary or proxy operations abroad, private mercenary armies, unaccountable and “off the record”, have been hired to do the “dirty work”. Anyone can be dubbed an “illegal combatant”, and captured anywhere around the world, be it in the actual war zone or from their home, e.g. in Germany (Khaled al-Masri), and held indefinitely at camps such as Bagram or Guantanamo, where they faced “enhanced interrogation” (torture). Politicians all across the globe (but especially those of the “Five Eyes”, i.e. U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have since used the “war on terror” to massively increase the surveillance of their citizens.

The conclusion of this second discrepancy or paradox is: The
“democratic freedoms” were “defended” by getting rid of fundamental elements of democracy, i.e. civil rights. Whistle-blowers like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who have disclosed these paradoxes, i.e. the war crimes and/or mass surveillance practices mentioned above in the “name of freedom”, have paid the price of completely or at least massively losing their freedom of movement for that, as they are either already under arrest or facing arrest once they would be within reach of U.S. authorities. Those responsible for the, if not illegal, yet despicable practices, are getting away with them, scot-free.



                                 

            Trailer for the documentary "Citizenfour" by Laura Poitras, with Glenn                                   Greenwald, on the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (December 2014)
                                                   (Source: YouTube)

Even if we leave the morals aside and look at the results, we have to conclude that, despite all the military and intelligence efforts, the goal of reducing global terrorism has utterly failed: there has been a fivefold increase interrorist fatalities since “9/11, groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaida have not been weakened significantly, at least in the regions where they originated (Afghanistan, Middle East); others, such as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” IS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) terrorists, are a new Frankenstein's monster that sprung up as a result of the Iraq War and the civil war in Syria, armed with supreme weapons that had been supplied to the post-Saddam Iraqi Army and the Syrian Free Army/opposition to President Assad by Western countries. So, a new monster has been created, and the old ones haven't really gone away. Let's leave aside the debate on how beneficial it is to certain ideologues of illiberal “security measures”, in the West and elsewhere, to keep such monsters alive as welcome enemies and distractions from other urgent problems and issues.


                               
                            How the U.S. created ISIS by its disastrous policies in Iraq
                                       and Syria (Mark Danner, VICE News)


Let's instead focus on
the next, the third discrepancy, which, however, is related to the others we have described so far in more than one way: the discrepancy between what is described in the “created reality” as the shiny promise of “the pursuit of happiness” and wealth for everyone as long as he or she either is a “disciplined, hard worker” or has an “innovative entrepreneurial spirit”. This has been promoted in the rhetoric of the economists and their followers among the politicians of the “centre” for decades, especially since the 1980s. Their mantra is the introduction of "democratic", "liberal" capitalism, with little or preferably no regulation of the “free markets”, into every country, i.e. the transformation of “bureaucratic”, “old-fashioned”, “backward”, “socialist nanny states” etc. into “beacons of liberalism” for “free individuals”. This model was implemented in the national economic policies on either side of the Atlantic, in the 1980s by PM Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and by Pres. Ronald Reagan in the U.S., and and adopted as the mainstream economic wisdom by many, if not most, countries on the European continent - and elsewhere - within the next decades thereafter, especially after the end of the Cold War. What this, sooner or later during these decades, meant for workers (disempowered due to the destruction of the power of the unions, i.e. organised labour) in the economies of the “centre” was “flexibility” (newspeak for: greater job insecurity), “restraint” due to “more competition” (lower wages and living standard, with prices for energy and most other goods and services growing anyway), and “rationalization of the labour force” (cutting of jobs and “outsourcing” them to regions with lower production costs, i.e. cheaper workers). This ideology also has been promoting a weak state, that on the one hand doesn't curb the “market forces”, on the other hand doesn't collect too many taxes for the same reasons, especially not from those who could otherwise, due to “competition” reasons, move their business and money out of the country (as both Westerners as well as Russian super-rich did, so it goes across the board, globally (HSBC)).

The result: the standard of the public services (e.g. education, health system, transportation) that have been less financed by the state, or even entirely privatized, either has gone down, or those services/structures are accessible only to those who can afford to pay the price for them. The brunt of the taxes that carry the state's existence are paid by the middle class, as the upper class finds ways of avoiding to pay them, basically by moving most of their capital abroad, or hiding it in some elaborate investment banking schemes. So the story of “liberal capitalist globalisation” for the periphery, in this case the lower and middle echelons of these shiny happy “liberal” capitalist societies, has not been one of more, but of 
less freedom and security, a lower standard of living, if not poverty, and more inequality.

 
           American propaganda film "Make Mine Freedom" (1948), for " entrepreneurial                                                            freedom" and against evil "-isms"

In the years just after the Cold War, the advertisement and marketing“industries” flourished in those capitalist societies, they instilled a consumption and home ownership identity into the populace, claiming that even those with low wages and little money could “make it” and “live their (materialist”) dream”, i.e. afford to buy pricey consumer goods and/or real estate.




This led to a massive indebtedness of many of the working-class, and subjected them into
debt slavery. The banking sector, the favourite economic sector of the liberalist ideologues, was deregulated and the investment and commercial sectors of the banks allowed to merge again (due to the abolition of the Glass-Steagall-Act in 1999) and went out of control, producing enormous amounts of virtual money that was backed by nothing – obscure “financial products”, derivatives that had no other use than to transfer huge sums back and forth from one banking centre to the other, with legal or fraudulent (e.g. money-laundering) schemes created to skim huge margins off them, but with most of those profits staying within the sector. These developments mostly had little or no use for the real economy, and/or created little windfall for the states. At least not in the long run, because the inevitable crash came in 2008, resulting out of the collapse of the real estate and insurance market, that had been blown out of proportion. The banking crisis led to an increase in regulations on the one hand, but on the other hand, it let the banks off the hook. States, i.e. the same actors that the ideological market fundamentalists had been wanting to do away with at least in the field of business, jumped in to save the banks; it was claimed that they were “too big to fail” - incidentally, most actors involved in the fraudulent activities in the run-up to the crisis and in similar practices afterwards (of course, they didn't stop all of a sudden in 2008) also seem “too big to jail”.



    Towers of several big banks (Commerzbank on the right) in Frankfurt am Main,
Germany, the biggest financial centre of Continental Europe


This paradoxical situation is the
fourth ironic discrepancy: the state, that was derided as “too bureaucratic”, “too socialist” etc. for business to function and thus was constantly done away with in the last Cold War decade in the U.S. and U.K. and in the 90s and early 2000s in most other economies, was, in the form of the taxpayer, the saviour of many financial institutions who, had they been subjected to their own logic of an unregulated market, had been doomed. Yet despite this, paradoxically, the investment banks (most of them in the economies of the “centre”, i.e. the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany) managed to keep their status as free and mostly powerful institutions. The liberalist ideologues seemingly only had suffered a small setback, and then, after a short break, were allowed to act as powerfully they had before. The banking crisis was rather quickly turned into a “state debt crisis” (from mid 2010), and the debt of specifically those economically weaker states on the periphery of the eurozone identified as “the problem”. These states increased their debt in order to “save” not their populations, but their (or foreign, i.e. U.S., French or German) banks. Institutions such as the troika of the Eurogroup, made up of unelected representatives of financial institutions such as the ECB and the IMF, were created, not to regulate the banks, but, to continue implementing the ideology of socializing debt and privatizing profit. Public sector budgets and social welfare programs were cut, state assets privatized, state budgets slashed instead of increased (as neoclassical economic theory would suggest in times of crisis). This “austerity” led to rising inequality (within the societies as well as between the economies of the states) and more economic hardship, insecurity, if not unemployment and poverty, in those countries (e.g. Ireland and Italy, more significantly in Portugal, Spain and Greece). The problem was not dealt with primarily as a structural problem, but as a liquidity problem, i.e. the priority was on bringing those countries to first and foremost repay their debt, not on solving their structural problems that had let to their miserable situation. It was based on the interests of the creditors, i.e. the financial sector of the centre, not on those of the population of the periphery. Millions of citizens of (not only, but mostly) those periphery regions were driven into economic, financial and social hardship as a result. So again, the story that the elites (of the centre) and many media in the centre countries (most prominently Germany) have been telling (“state debt is the problem”) is different from the stories of the increasingly impoverished people on the periphery.



             NATO vehicles parade in Estonia, just 300 meters from the border with Russia

The
fifth and final story also plays on the (in this case Eastern) periphery of Europe and ties together the two strands we've followed here, the geopolitical and the liberal capitalist one: the battle in (and for) Ukraine and its geopolitical prequels in the region. The official story of the parties of this conflict diverge massively. The West, led by the U.S., has steadily been advancing both its geopolitical and its economic interests in Eastern Europe, since the end of the Cold War, while Russia, since the advent of Mr. Putin in 2000, has tried to regain its former Soviet grandeur, i.e. to appear back on the world stage as a superpower, not just a mere “regional power” (Obama). Under the slogan of “forming a more inclusive security alliance”, NATO was expanded in two steps, in 1999, and 2004, up to (some of) the borders of Russia. From 2002, the Bush administration advanced the idea of stationing a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, officially to protect against “future missiles from Iran” (discontinued in 2009, but not completely scrapped, only renamed). GWB's government also actively promoted NATO membership of Georgia after an anti-Russian (“Rose”) “revolution” was supported (financed) there by U.S. NGO's in 2003, and of Ukraine, after the (“Orange”) “revolution” of 2005 there (which was more like an internal infighting of pro-Western and pro-Russian oligarchs, with the former winning out for a while). “Intensive Dialogue” began between NATO and both of these former Soviet Republics then. U.S.-Russian relations had (at least officially) been quite amicable in the early 2000s - Russia was a “partner in the war on terror”, officially “fighting Islamists” in Chechnya - but increasingly turned sour in the mid 2000s, and frosty after the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, the first of two U.S.-Russian proxy wars, with the second one, the current war (that started in the spring of 2014) in Eastern Ukraine, now about to calm down at least for the moment.
                                . 


On the economic and political aspect of the conflict, both sides have opposite views on the future of the affiliation of the region that Russian official doctrine dubs “ближнее зарубежье“ (“near abroad”, comprising fourteen former Soviet republics), at least of the Western countries of it (Eastern Europe). Russia wants to keep its influence on them, and include them into a “Eurasian Union” (that ideally would also include all of Europe/the EU and stretch “from Vladivostok to Lisbon”).The EU, after massively expanding to the East by taking in eleven countries of the former Communist bloc since 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013), has been offering Ukraine a long-term perspective to join as well. Whereas the West (in this case: the EU) has held the “soft power” story of security, of the prospects of “economic prosperity”, and of “democracy”, in short, more or less successfully, in front of the noses of its Eastern European (now member) states and accession candidates, Russia has advanced its interests with a less rosy, but also less hypocritical rhetoric, by means of resources and money (gas and a new development bank by the "BRICS" states), i.e. “hard power”.


The leaders of the BRICS countries (Dilma Rousseff/host, Brasil, Vladimir Putin/Russia, Narendra Modi/India, Xi Jinping/China, Jacob Zuma/South Africa) and their guests from the UNASUR countries (Kirchner/Argentina, Morales/Bolivia, Bachellet/Chile, Santos/Colombia, Correa/Ecuador, Ramotar/Guyana, Cartes/Paraguay, Humala/Peru, Bouterse/Suriname, Mujica/Uruguay, Maduro/Venezuela) at the 6th BRICS summit at Fortaleza, Brasil, July 16, 2014  
 
    
Those differences between the West and Russia, that had been brewing for about a decade, already increasingly visible, but thus far kept “under the lid” at official state visits, sparked into an open conflict over the EU association agreement that Ukraine was about to sign in late 2013, but then refrained from doing so, under pressure from the Kremlin. Pro-EU protests, supported by the U.S., broke out on Maidan Square against the Yanukovich government as a reaction (soon abbreviated “Maidan” or “EwroMaidan”/Euro-Maidan); they led to the toppling of pro-Russian local and regional goverments in the Western half of the country subsequently, and eventually to a coup in the centre itself, in Kiev, in February, after snipers – to this day unidentified, although Western media blame pro-Russian, pro-goverment security forces – started shooting there; a peace deal brokered hours before that was therefore disregarded by the radical wing of the Maidan (see video below for detailed report). The stories diverge as well with regard to the extent of U.S. involvement in the Maidan, the character and members of the protest movement and the legitimacy of the newly-installed and later elected government of Yazenyuk (PM) and Poroshenko (President). Whereas the US and the EU see the new government they installed as legitimate and the revolution as broadly supported, democratic and peaceful, Russia claims Yanukovich, who fled into exile, is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine, and that the Maidan was a “fascist”coup by a small number of ultra-nationalists (“nazis”) . As a reaction to the anti-Russian Maidan, the Kremlin annexed the Crimean peninsula with its strategic naval base at Sevastopol in March last year. While U.S. and the EU blamed Russia of a “clear breach of international law” and have therefore launched sanctions on Russia, Moscow cited “protection of ethnic Russians there” as a reason, and staged an affirmative referendum to formally legitimate the move. Other stories have barely been covered in the West, such as the burning of 42 pro-Russian protesters in Odessa. The stories really diverge even more on Eastern Ukraine. Whereas Moscow keeps claiming that the “insurgents” rose up and are fighting alone and with no foreign support at all, the West blames Russia of arming and supporting the “separatists” (new UA government: “terrorists”) and of invading the war zone, i.e. the Donezk and Lugansk Oblasts, with its own troops. 


                                     

                               "Maidan Massacre Masters", an account of the Maidan
                                  and its prelude (Radio Svoboda/Radio Free Europe)



But, last, not least, what are the economic discrepancies and paradoxes of this conflict, and what does the future hold for Ukraine, if it associates itself with the EU, as the new government did by signing the controversial agreement in June of last year? The new, “soft” power (EU/West) vs. the old, “hard”, realist power (Russia) approaches, that is the
fifth and final agitprop discrepancy of our different stories. But Russia has no original counter-ideology anymore, with Communist ideology discredited. The West seems to have the better, the more successful, and in this case, the original capitalist agitprop of our times (after all, this type of agitprop was invented and “perfected” there): “hard” (economic and gepolitical) power (“the big stick”) interests are followed while “speaking softly”, with a liberal rhetoric (“speak softly, but carry a big stick”, Teddy Roosevelt).

Thus, Kiev is caught between a rock and a hard place. Russia will certainly not be helpful, due to being snubbed in the events of Kiev of early 2014 and thus having lost out at keeping (most of) Ukraine in its direct sphere of influence (let's disregard indirect forms of influence for now). On the contrary, Moscow will continue destabilising the southern neighbouring country. So Ukrainians are left with looking to the West only, having
traded being dependent on an authoritarian Russia and governed by a corrupt, pro-Russian oligarch for being dependent on Western financial institutions bringing the fruits of “liberal capitalism”, and “austerity” troika-style in the fight against corruption and economic misery (see above). If – as is already pretty clear by now, with the IMF having taken over already (along with their friends from Monsanto) - the same recipes (“free market capitalism”, cutting public infrastructure and lowering living standards, and, of course, privatization of profit and socialization of debt) are brought in as they, despite the new Syriza goverment's attempt to change that paradigm in dealing with their country, are and will continue to be followed in Greece, then, with those friends, Ukraine doesn't even need enemies such as Russia to stay in bad shape. The liberal capitalist agitprop storytelling of a “rosy future” will continue to be told, and it will be true for the future oligarchs of Ukraine, and their Western business partners, for the banks and for Chevron instead of Gazprom. But they will be in stark contrast to the stories that ordinary Ukrainians, hit by economic hardship, high prices, high unemployment and with low prospects of any meaningful future, now and then, will continue to be telling. All that's left to say is, then: To a “bright, democratic and free” austerity future!




Kommentare:

  1. Agitprop is the right word for describing the state of mainstream news. I like how you turn to Immanuel Wallerstein's world-system theory to distinguish our political myths from historical facts. However, you forgot one important development that needs to be updated: namely, the core zones of the capitalist world economy that you mention belong to the 20th century – the far East no longer belongs with the periphery. The gravity of the world the economy has been shifting eastward since the 1970s. And, in spite of being barely reported, the Chinese economy surpassed the US in late 2014.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/01/china-worlds-largest-economy

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  2. Thanks, Scott. Sure, I am aware that the Far East is no longer the periphery, and I haven't dealt with it in the article which focuses more on US-European/Russian or US-Middle East relations. But if you click on "China" in the top section where it is mentioned (admittedly, only once, but see above for explanation), it leads you to an article of the same content as the one you're linking too, i.e. that China has surpassed the US....

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