Western elites want to blame Russia for their own failures. That’s the premise of Shlomo Ben-Ami’s recent piece for Project Syndicate entitled “The Threat To Western Democracy Starts At Home.” In it, Ben-Ami argues that Western politicians and elites have a vested interest in exaggerating the menace of Russian electoral meddling in order to downplay their own complicity in globalization, inequality, and corruption in the West.
Ben-Ami is a former diplomat and politician on the Israeli left, who now works in conflict resolution. He’s supported Israel’s socialist, democratic, and green party Meretz, and clearly hews to a certain left-oriented worldview. But his conviction—similarly voiced by Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and others—that the problems of the West are borne first and foremost from material inequality and top-down injustice, betray a troubling paucity of thought. In fact, Ben-Ami’s prescription of what ails the West, while on the right track, doesn’t go nearly far enough due to being restrained by the strictures of postmodern liberal orthodoxy.
Ben-Ami’s principal point is well taken. Clearly things were not all sunshine and roses until Vladimir Putin waltzed in with a leer and ruined the whole enterprise. Clearly there has been considerable degradation of our democratic institutions; populaces have been beset by kleptocratic elites who promote the interests of multinational corporations and geopolitical strategies above those of their own citizens. Free trade and its “democratic” sellouts on both sides of the aisle are killing middle America. Ben-Ami is right that, whether under the guise of patriotic sloganeering, enraged condemnation of Russian troll farms, or the assumed moral superiority of the West, the script of the media and political establishment is almost entirely unconvincing. More and more are realizing that an endless game of political whack-a-mole with a new bad guy every few years doesn’t have any ultimate prize except for those running the game.
“Would Western democracies really look different today without Russian subterfuge?” Ben-Ami asks rhetorically. He adds that “the Western liberal order is not in crisis because of Russia. Western democracies must take responsibility for a crisis that, ultimately, is homegrown—nurtured by its leaders’ own failure to confront effectively the challenges of globalization.”
Although he grants that Russian meddling is a real thing and should be countered, Ben-Ami mocks the idea that Putin is the true threat behind the decline of Western civic life and the election of Trump. It’s the actions of the elites themselves, he says, that’s led people to jump ship. As an example of where Western elites fell far short, Ben-Ami points to the 2008 financial collapse and the incredible lack of punishment doled out to those responsible.
“It was not Russian President Vladimir who created the ethical crisis afflicting Western capitalism. That was achieved by US bankers, who, taking advantage of deregulation and financial interconnectedness, misguided the global economy to the 2008 financial meltdown,” he writes. He also labels recovery regulations after the crash as “inadequate.
Slamming Hillary Clinton’s “weak and visionless” 2016 campaign, Ben-Ami calls Donald Trump “the most uneducated and mendacious presidential candidate in US history,” and decries voters who believed Trump could be for real. He similarly calls out the situation in Europe and attempts to blame it on Russia, for example during the recent election in Italy.
“Populist parties once confined to the political fringe did not win nearly half the vote in Italy’s recent election because of Russian disinformation campaigns,” Ben-Ami writes. “They won because of mounting anger toward a corrupt political establishment that has failed to address major economic problems, from financial instability to high youth unemployment.”
According to Ben-Ami, the Soviet Union posed a much graver threat to the West and freedom than Russia does or ever will, given its demographic and economic situation. Instead of scaremongering over Moscow, Ben-Ami encourages the West to combat its “deep social inequalities” and “poorly managed globalization” by “upgrading institutions, improving democratic accountability, reducing economic and social inequality, and striving to ensure that globalization works for all.”
For all its solid points in exposing the shell game being played by the political establishment, however, Ben-Ami’s piece praises with faint damns. It doesn’t go nearly far enough in challenging the ethical and logical assumptions that form the secular humanist worldview. This only stands to reason, since Ben-Ami himself reportedly shares just such a worldview. The piece also lumps in a number of bromides under the label of “democracy” without considering that democracy itself may be too vague and propagandized a term to serve a useful purpose in discussions of solutions to the problems facing the West.
“The Euroskepticism of Eastern Europe’s ‘illiberal democracies’ reflects deep-seated religious and authoritarian traditions, which have impeded these societies’ internalization of the EU’s postmodern culture of secular tolerance and universal values,” Ben-Ami writes. He tellingly pairs “religious” with “authoritarian,” and assumes that “secular” and “universal values” should be normative. This is unfortunate because it precludes an important conversation about how the loss of traditional faith and community could be contributing to deracinated societies and corruption.
Worst of all, by explicitly stating his hope that leaders improve so that “globalization works for all,” Ben-Ami is endorsing—or at least treating as inescapable—the entire monolith of globalization. Granted, globalization itself has already sunk its claws into nearly everything, but it doesn’t mean it’s inescapable, nor that it’s even the primary threat facing economies and social structures. The rapid growth of technology and multinational corporate dominance combined with globalization form the basis of a vicious kind of cultural and economic arbitrage, lowering everything to a half-shut-down shopping plaza in a small town and valuing workers at increasingly lower global wages.
Although life might be better if we all had good jobs in places other than Amazon and Walmart, we can all feel deep in our marrow that material improvement alone isn’t going to save this ship or stop the pill bottles stacking up on the floor. The harsh fact is that technological hyper-connectivity tends to be a net negative for community life and family, especially when taken to extremes of uprooting us from our locales, faiths, and kinship relationships. As Thomas Storck points out, “the fundamental difficulties that are apt to arise from both economic and technology stem from man’s fallen nature.” Although it may not be the technologies and economic trends themselves doing us in, it’s certainly true that we need to at least realize the issues they pose.
Separating economic activity and technology from morality is a mistake. No man is an island, and no society is happy or healthy just because it has jobs and cleans up some corruption. Ben-Ami’s conclusion that outer systemic improvement will improve so-called democracy and make it serve people is an incomplete formulation, because the closest he comes to a moral judgment is condemning “social inequality.” Following this rabbit hole to its destination reveals that the entire Lockean presupposition at the basis of the post-Enlightenment West is problematic, as it relegates God and the moral wellbeing of citizens to a secondary, wholly private sphere. It also lists material exchange and protecting property rights as the primary role of a state, when in fact the divine and moral sphere is the only way to ensure strong social bonds, healthy communities, and productive economies.
Western elites have failed their societies and are now trying to pass the buck to the corrupt kleptocrats of Russia—that’s all true. But the West’s supposed “universal values,” which are in fact highly subjective Lockean ideologies and “secular tolerance,” were rotten foundations to begin with. Instead of championing “democracy” and the principles of material improvement in and of themselves, we should be promoting a return to a virtuous society, in which economic health is linked to familial and religious health. Ben-Ami in effect takes the red-pill but only ingests a half dose.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. He covered the fledgling U.S. alt-right at a 2014 conference in Hungary as well as the 2015 New Hampshire primary, and also made a documentary about his time living in the Republic of Georgia in 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.