Friday, November 24, 2006

Russia: A "Lord of the Flies" interpretation of Capitalist Democracy

Amongst the green fields of Gloucestershire, near to the Stroud Valley nestles a school where I spent a couple of years around the age of 13. Part of that time I spent as a relatively unhappy boarder dreading the daily rugby matches and counting down the days to the next holiday. However in those rural days, I learnt quite a lot and one of the memories that is strongest is of reading the novel "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding.

I seem to remember that our school copies had white covers with a sketched drawing of a pig's head skewered on a stick. I found this faintly horrific and the story in the book while enthralling was also unsettling due to the familiarity of the characters and the brutality they descended to.

While I have not read the book since I was the thirteen,I remember the basic story is about a group of school boys whose plane is shot down in the war and they crash land on a deserted island. The pilot, crew and teachers are all killed in the crash leaving the surviving boys to fend for themselves. In a way, it is like a WWII child version of "Lost".

The principal characters are the older boys who are all around twelve. When the boys realise their situation they agree to band together under the leadership of Ralph, one of the older boys who has many positive qualities. Another boy, Jack who was in the school choir takes his fellow choir boys to lead hunting expeditions.

Gradually splits develop in the groups. Jack's hunters form their own rituals and Ralph and Jack argue about the direction of the group. A fat asthmatic boy, Piggy, tries to act as a peacemaker in the group. Another boy, Simon, is the most positive and caring of the group and encourages the others never to give up hope of being rescued. Gradually barbarity emerges within the group and Simon is killed in a ritual savage dance. Eventually Piggy, the peacemaker and most intellectual boy, is himself killed by a bolder to the head.

The story ends when, after many months, rescue comes to the boys on the island. It is not clear what happens after that but the assumption is that the boys return to relative normality. The savagery and brutality of some is presumably once again suppressed. The book's key theme is that without the influence of society, order and democracy everyone has the potential to descend to savagery.

I found the book both enthralling and quite believable. I was reading about boys not dissimilar in their characteristics and variety to those at my own school.

When the heart of Alexander Litvinenko stopped beating in a London hospital last evening (,,13509-2469917,00.html),,13509-2469176,00.html, another Russian Simon was killed by the savagery that has marked that country's experiment with freedom, capitalism and democracy.

The cause of his death is unclear. Doctors no longer say he was poisoned by Thallium and the Kremlin looks unlikely to have directly sponsored the death of a relatively small time dissident. More probable is the involvement of some rogue element in the security services or an underworld associate.

Whatever the cause, it seems certain to be foul play and marks the end of an unpleasant and tortured three week struggle for life by one man's body.

My observation of Russia has been at two levels. Firstly as distant observer through the media, as one who was caught up in the general enthusiasm following the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet communism. At that level, this seemed a most positive development to spread freedom to other parts of Europe and reduce the risk of conflict to the rest of the world.

Then more recently my observation of Russia has been at a more personal level. My wife comes from Russia and although I met her when already established in London, I have had several visits and a chance to understand a little more about Russia and its people. While the Russian people (and their famous soul) are generally very warm, welcoming and caring, it is clear that the Russian nation has not moved from communist society to capitalist democracy as successfully and painlessly as some of its smaller satellites.

To my foreign eyes there have been three distinct phases in Russian post-soviet history:

1) Freedom: The Party- for the great majority this was a positive time when freedom was to be celebrated. The past was another country and there was suddenly a myriad of opportunities to be taken and experienced. Small businesses could be started, travel was open and available and there was a sense of hope.

2) Capitalism: The Looting. In this phase a few entrepreneurs became very rich while the great majority of people stayed where they were or in many cases went down.
State Enterprises were sold off for knock-down prices. The strong, clever and scheming picked up vast wealth for very little work. Billions of dollars were made in a short space of time. As the most extreme Las Vegas form of capitalism became established, real estate pirates used thugs to force innocent people from their family communal apartments and millions were made in dubious property deals.
Disillusionment at new system grew amongst the masses. The pirates flaunted their wealth in vulgar opulence normally limited to Essex millionaires or Las Vegas casinos. It is probably no accident that there are so many casinos in the new Russia.

3) Democracy: The Illusion. A jovial alcoholic leader was replaced by a sober tough guy who appealed to the masses telling them what they wanted to hear about those who had won (or stolen) the billions in state assets or property.
However some of the pirates aligned themselves to freedom, meaning that the tough guy had to attack freedom in order to get the pirates.

Right now freedom is suffering for certain. The party is but a distant memory. There is a struggle between wealthy pirates and the powerful tough guys. The reason for the start of the struggle is largely forgotten but the struggle continues between rival factions. Ralph and Jack are fighting and everyone else is suffering.

Unlike Lord of the Flies, the arrival of a rescue boat for Russia is not going to happen. The solution has to come from within the island.

The solution is not obvious but will start when it is realised and acknowledged that capitalism and democracy are both imperfect but also the "least worst systems" available.

Capitalism was initially interpreted in quite a peculiar extreme way in Russia, hence "Capitalism: The Looting". However, to understand capitalism it is necessary to see its limitations as well as it's strengths. Adam Smith, the Scottish father of free-market capitalism states that "self interest" is the motivation of people that makes capitalism a success. However "self interest" is to be distinguished from "selfishness" which Smith saw as inappropriate, if not immoral. In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", Smith expands on his views from "Wealth of Nations" and concludes that the self interest of any one person includes the interest of the rest of society.

It is this refinement that was missing, in the "Capitalism: The Looting" phase. Las Vegas may be great for those who enjoy gambling but should not be viewed as the business model for a large country that includes many poor.

Russia's capitalism was and is a crude imitation of the more mature versions in Britain and even America. This has lead to resentment of the masses against the few pirates. This resentment has, in turn, been exploited by the strong men. Russia will be rescued from itself when it learns that the answers come neither from Marx nor Las Vegas. No more Simons will die on the day when a Mercedes is no longer mistaken for good character, Louis Vuitton no longer mistaken for sincerity and Armani no longer mistaken for decency.

Capitalism at its most basic and crude has brought a moral cancer to the Russian soul. Now the treatment being administered is killing more than it is curing.

Russians are a great and caring people. I hope this is one day again reflected in the character of their nation.


cw-patriot said...

An excellent essay!

The parallel you draw between post-Cold War Russia and 'Lord of the Flies' is superb, and I especially wanted to shake your hand upon reading:

Russia will be rescued from itself when it learns that the answers come neither from Marx nor Las Vegas. No more Simons will die on the day when a Mercedes is no longer mistaken for good character, Louis Vuitton no longer mistaken for sincerity and Armani no longer mistaken for decency.

A somewhat related aside: I was very disturbed upon hearing today that Russia has just begun the delivery of Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, and that the Iranian soldiers who will operate the systems were trained in Russia.

The claim that the missiles are 'defensive' doesn't dull the sting of this deal. Iran is a rogue state headed by a bloodthirsty madman who has made no secret of the fact that he intends to continue to develop nuclear weapons, that he intends to 'annihilate' Israel, and that he also intends to eventually place America in his nuclear-warhead-tipped crosshairs.

Leaders of any nation that supports such goals, whether with offensive or defensive weaponry, or training, are enemies of freedom the world over.

Your 'Russians are a great and caring people ... I hope this is one day again reflected in the character of their nation' brought a lump to my throat. I second your description of the Russian people, and your desire to see their greatness one day reflected in their leaders.

~ joanie

Luis said...

Many thanks Joanie.

I agree with you about selling weapons to Iran. The last thing that region needs is a return to superpowers (or former superpowers) sponsoring different factions.

Arming Iran further will only lead to more instability in that area.