Russia, the World Cup and the Game of Equivalences

As the World Cup in Russia ends, a Portsmouth writer who prefers to remain anonymous responds to issues raised by David Edwards’ article last week and argues that the West’s imperial crimes should not dissuade Westerners from critiquing Russia’s or any other state’s.

We live in a strikingly different world from fifteen years ago. The US and British War on Iraq was a great crime that led to incredible destruction and suffering. It’s a crime whose victims have seen no justice. However, despite the West’s long and shocking history of imperial violence and support for human rights abusers, there are real dangers in reading the present through the categories of the past. Within those of us who are repulsed by the conduct of our governments there has always been a psychologically understandable – but nevertheless deeply shallow – tendency to play the game of equivalences. It’s a tendency that motivates people to ask questions such as, ‘How can we criticise the Iranian authorities when our government sells lethal weapons to the House of Saud?’. David Edwards is guilty of making these false equivalences in his recent piece republished on Star & Crescent.

Edwards informs us that some sports journalists are hypocrites because, while their World Cup coverage doesn’t flinch from drawing attention to Putin’s authoritarianism and warmongering, there was no such criticism of Britain’s imperial misadventures in Iraq and Libya or arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the time of 2012 London Olympics. However, this conceit serves as little more than a fig leaf for the game of equivalences. Iraq was the biggest political issue in Britain for years after the invasion; British newspapers hardly needed to remind their readers of it. While the situation in Libya was completely different, with a popular uprising begging for outside support while Gaddafi looked primed to deliver the kind of world-historical massacre in Benghazi that Assad and the Russian air force would later visit on Homs, Aleppo and Ghouta. The chaos that visited Libya afterwards was typical of post-dictatorial societies, but there seems at least a decent chance for a constitutional order there now.

The moment we live in is not the moment of the neo-conservative, Atlanticist imperialism. The grave of that moment lies in Iraq, where Bush and Blair’s delusions were exposed by the exorbitant blood spilled and the treasure squandered recklessly. To get to the present moment we had to pass through that horror into fresh ones, where the Arab Spring risings for democratic government were drowned in blood, in Bahrain and Egypt (with Western complicity) and above all in Syria, where the Russian state came to the aid of the monstrous totalitarianism of the Assad dynasty. Alongside North Korea, Assad’s was easily the most repressive regime in the post-fascist and post-Stalinist world. A regime for which mass executions, torture and sexual violence were everyday techniques of rule.

This game of equivalences also strips two nations of their respective histories. Britain is a country that owes its democratic institutions to its social movements, above all a working-class movement that, through Chartism and the trade unions, made the still-unfinished project of equality a social reality. But Britain was also a deeply racist society that oversaw a gigantic empire that authored titanic crimes. It is now a society split between the two histories; whose inability to acknowledge the crimes of its imperial past led to the delusions of Brexit.

In Russia, a long history of absolutism was shortly interrupted by a revolution for equality which turned into a nightmare of police rule and mass terror. Now it is a kleptocratic state where former KGB men and their patronage networks carve up the country with Putin refereeing their struggles as monarch and chairman. A regime that considers secret policeman and state torturers, in the words of Russian Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev, ‘our new nobility’. It is a state that has never decolonised – as the Chechens, Tatars and many other minorities will attest.

Liberal societies are the way they are because popular movements forced the implementation of new values that, however partial in execution, was accepted by power holders and by the public as legitimate. This is an important and novel historical creation that has allowed struggles for equality, justice and freedom to organise. This is not the case in authoritarian regimes. This matters in this moment because the course of history is taking a dark turn; the once ‘liberal democracies’ – oligarchies with a historically unprecedented degree of political freedom – are becoming more authoritarian for the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage.

The rise of right-wing populism and nationalism across the world from the US to Modi’s India to the concentration camps of Xinjiang is the rise of closure; these systems of government enforce their values from above and force society to accept them without question. The public are not allowed to openly question these values. The fundamental ‘open space’ (as coined by the political philosopher Claude Lefort) of political democracy means that we can posit our own values, even if it means the minority fighting against the power of the rich and/or the conformity of the majority. This is how rights for workers, women and LGBT people were won, by challenging the institutions of power. Democracy means that state and society is not the same thing, that society can legitimately call power into question.

Russia is crucial to this ‘authoritarian moment’. Not only because it helps Assad commit genocide while the world does nothing, or because Trump becomes President using the white supremacist playbook, or because right-wing racist parties are on the rise everywhere, but because Russian plays a role in this moment that can be called the organising centre of world reaction. In providing loans and support to the French National Front and other European ‘post-fascist’ parties, in stirring up ethnic animosities in the Balkans and in its support for figures like Trump, Orban and ‘Tommy Robinson’ (usually through its ‘news’ channel RT) its geopolitical strategy is the diffusion of the hatred of difference. Its ideologues are quite open about wanting to bring authoritarianism to power and the fascists that appear in its media dream of a state system of ethnic blocs that represent their citizens whether they like it or not. And the far right in the West love them for it.

Another danger in the game of equivalences is that we as citizens become just a mirror image of the chauvinists, that we mistake the state for society and forget that the unfinished projects of our democracies don’t count for nothing. In this moment, it matters a lot because the whole project of global authoritarianism is not to denigrate the West but to denigrate the whole of idea of political and personal freedom. When Russia attacks liberal society it attacks not its failures but its successes – multiculturalism, democratic values, gay rights, post-conventional morality, human rights discourse.

Therefore, in solidarity with Syrians and Ukrainians under Russian bombs, but also in recognition that fascist politics are special dangers to society, we must recognise the normalisation of the Russian state that both the World Cup and the game of equivalence provides is the road to a much darker future.

Image courtesy of Voice of America News: Scott Bob report from Azaz, Syria republished under a Creative Commons licence.