Thursday, January 23, 2014

Some confused musings about the legitimate use of violence by the state

In the recent weeks I have been struggling with very unpleasant thoughts which I want to share with you in the hope that you will help me make sense of the doubts and dilemmas I am dealing with.  To explain what I am referring to, I will use a few of the examples which elicited these thoughts in me:

Readers of this blog might remember that when the first demonstrations against Assad in Syria began I was supportive of them.  My reasons were basic and, frankly, primitive:

1) I don't like Baathism, Baathists and Arab secularism generally.
2) I knew for a fact, from contacts with Syrians, that Hafez al-Assad rule was a brutal one: his Mukhabarat(s) was universally feared, his officials corrupt and I was aware of the fact that he had crushed an Islamist uprising in 1982 at a cost of anywhere between 10'000-40'000 deaths (depending on sources).
3) As for the son, Bashar al-Assad, my beef with him was that he had tortured CIA detainees for the USA and that he had allowed the Israelis to murder Imad Mughniyeh in a high-security neighborhood of Damascus.

I don't want to go into a polemic here over whether my reasons were valid or not.  For one thing, at this point in time, this is irrelevant.  I will just summarize my personal evolution by saying that while I did not like Assad or, while I actually disliked the Assad regime, and while I mistakenly assumed that the demonstrations were in support of democracy, human rights, free speech and political pluralism, I soon came to realize that I was completely mistaken.  What was taking place was not an expression of popular demands, but a CIA backed, KSA financed and Wahabi executed attempt at regime change and that Syria was at the edge of becoming a hybrid of the so-called "Islamic state of the Caucasus Emirate", Somalia and Afghanistan.  I also understood that for better or for worse, but the person of Bashar al-Assad, the Baathist regime, the Syrian state and the Syrian nation were, de-facto, one and the same and in the context of a foreign intervention it was simply unreal to defend one without defending the other.  Yes, at a future date, I would love to see these categories become separate again.  But at this moment in time they are one and the same, they are "Syria".

But my topic today is not Syria, but the most disturbing thoughts I have been struggling with ever since the war on Syria (not in Syria, but on Syria) began.  By various estimates, the war on Syria has already caused something in the range of 100'000-150'000 deaths.  For a total population in the range of 22 million, that is very big.  But what really hit me is this thought:

Was Hafez al-Assad wrong to crush the Islamic uprising in 1982 at the cost of up to 10'000-40'000 deaths and within one month or was he wise?  On one hand 10-000-40'000 deaths in one month and on the other 100'000-150'000 deaths in over two years.

Of course, one could say that the 1982 "Hama massacre" eventually resulted in today's civil war.  But what if that 1982 massacre gave the Syrians 20+ years of relative peace instead and what if Bashar al-Hassad had crushed the current uprising as rapidly and brutally as his father did in early 2011?

In hindsight - if I had a time travel machine and if I could travel back to 1982 and speak with Hafez al-Assad about the Islamic uprising taking place, would I really advise him to refrain from the use of force, or would I tell him "go ahead and crush this monster before it fully materializes!"?

The Ukraine:

I am looking at the footage coming out of Kiev and I can't help wonder what I would recommend to Yanukovich if I was his advisor.  Something interesting happened two days ago: the regime told the riot cops to push back the demonstrators by a few hundred yards and to tear down the catapult they had build.  Well, the riot cops did that very easily, even without using any kind of lethal weapons, they pushed back the "elite" combat teams of the so-called "Right Sector" (Ukie neo-Nazis) in minutes.  Everybody was amazed at how easily the riot cops tore through what appeared to be well prepared defenses and how rapidly the order to clear a section of the Grushevsky street was executed.  I mention that because this probably indicates that the riot police could probably clear up all of central Kiev overnight if given the order.  Yes, such an operation would almost certainly result in fatalities, but there is no reason to suspect that their numbers would be large.

So, should the regime use violent force and simply clean up central Kiev?

From Maidan to Tiananmen to Moscow:

Maidan square brings back memories of another square, Tiananmen square in China.

Now please consider this: I was brought up in a rabidly anti-Communist family and I had been deeply involved in what the Soviets used to called "anti-Soviet activities" for many years.  In 1989 I was still more or less believing all the crap which I had been fed in my youth and I was studying in Washington DC towards a MA in Strategic Studies where most of my teaches were either from the White House, or the Pentagon, or the CIA or some branch of the US military.  Worst of all,  I was still under the delusion that you could get information from the mass media.  All this is to say that when the Tiananmen demonstrations began I was jubilant - to me this was yet again an example of "the people" overthrowing "Communism".  Sure, when the Chinese students put their ridiculous "Goddess of Democracy" even I got a little suspicious.  Something just did not look right.  But then the crackdown happened and the iconic picture of that historical moment, Tank Man, really blew my mind in its political perfection, or so I thought at the time: one simply man stops a column of tanks with his unprotected body.  What can be more noble, more inspiring, more touching than this amazing symbol of humanity?

Three years alter, in 1991, the Soviet Union "was collapsed" (let's not go into "who really did it" and "how" right now) and I rushed to my first trip to Russia ever.  I landed in Moscow and immediately went to the center of the city were the barricades were still standing.  My lifelong dream of seeing the Bolsheviks bite the dust had finally happened, and I was standing in the capital of a new, free Russia.  Or so I thought.  I spent a lot of time in Moscow between 1991 and 1993, and I saw it all: the complete collapse of the economy, the astronomic rise in crime, the ugly way in which ex-CPSU re-branded themselves as "democrats" only to steal away the wealth of the nation, the total breakdown in public services and the criminalization of the economy.  By 1992 my imbecilic enthusiasm had already been very much toned down and my outlook on things was beginning to get more sober, more cynical and more disillusioned.  The process of disillusionment reached its peak with in 1993 I witnessed with my own eyes the bloody orgy of violence unleashed by the Eltsin regime in Moscow.  Just before it all began I had spent many hours with all the parties involved in a struggle and I knew one thing for sure: both sides were ex-Communists, both sides were accusing the other of Fascism, and both sides were claiming to act in defense of democracy.  In fact - both sides were extremely similar and I was disgusted by all of them.  Eventually, the USA backed ex-Commies turned "democrats" won by using tanks to shoot at the Parliament building and Russia sank even deeper into another 7 years of "democratic nightmare".

Now playing the "what if" game - I wondered what if Gorbatchev had done in 1991 what the Chinese had done in 1989?  What was worse - the Tiananmen square "massacre" or 9 years of "democracy" in Russia?

I think that any sane and rational person who would compare the fantastic economic boom China saw in the 1990s compared to the complete collapse of Russia over the same time period has to admit that Deng Xiaoping was a much wiser statesman than Gorbachev.  Keep in mind that Deng Xiaoping himself once said that the Tiananmen crackdown had prevented a civil war in China.

Looking back in time:

By 1993 I had very few illusions left, my career had not taken the fatal plunge yet (that would happen by 1997), but my eyes were slowly opening to a far more complex reality than I had assumed.  Still, the fate of Russia was still very much on my mind and I was avidly reading all the books I could get my hand on about the Bolshevik revolution and the reign of Czar Nicholas II.  The mountain of lies written about these two topics must be something of a historical "Mount Everest" mainly because almost all the parties involved had a stake in spreading and maintaining the same pack of lies.  It goes something like this:

Under Nicholas II Russia was a poor authoritarian country ruled by a weak and incompetent Czar, who was eventually overthrown in 1917 in a popular uprising which brought the Communist to power.

In that sentence above literally every word is a lie.  Now, I don't want to write an analysis of the causes, mechanism and nature of the so-called "October Revolution", but I have to share with you some of what had found out:

1) 1917 Russia was wealthy and the economy was booming
2) 1917 Russia was economically socialist and politically pluralist
3) Nicholas II was neither weak nor incompetent
4) The real regime change happened in February of 1917
5) All the Bolsheviks did is to boot the liberals out of power after 8 months of utter chaos

I know that many of you will disagree, but I ask you to ignore my reasons and just look at my conclusion as it is the only thing pertinent to my current dilemma:

There is no doubt in my mind that Czar Nicholas II could have *easily* crushed the February 1917 Revolution had he wanted to.  His reasons for not doing so are complex (he was a complex person), but the bottom line was this: he did not want to maintain himself in power by violence.   On a human level, I understand him completely.  On a religious level (Nicholas II was very deeply religious) I also can understand him.  My question is this:

But for the future of Russia, was his decision the correct one?

I am personally convinced that if Nicholas II had ordered the arrest of no more than 50 key personalities and if he had also ordered a few trustworthy generals to clear the streets of Saint Petersburg from the rampaging mobs (by shooting on sight if needed) there would have been no February Revolution, no October Revolution, no Civil War and, possibly no World War II or even no Cold War.  I know, "shoulda, coulda, woulda" and to-rewrite history is always easy.  But still, think of it: the lives of, say, a few hundred of the worst scum of Russia in 1917 or the lives of many tens of millions of innocent people?

The counter-example: Argentina 1976

In 1976 I was still a 13 year old kid, but I had two cousins in the Argentinian military and I was spending all my winter holidays in Buenos-Aires.  I remember the daily bombings and terrorist attacks of 1975-1976 when the country was torn up by rampaging guerrillas from the Montoneros and the even more frightening ERP on one hand, and a totally clueless and corrupt police on the other.  Bombings, kidnappings, shootings everywhere, every day.  Police barricades all over the city.  Regular riots and demonstrations by students, unions, political parties.  Semi-official rightwing death squads - called AAA - lead by, I kid you not, the "Minister of Social Welfare" - Jose Lopez Rega - also known as "the sorcerer" because he was deeply involved in black magic.  And to top it all off, an entire province of central Argentina - Tucuman - totally under the control of the ERP guerrillas who simply executed all the government officials and basically declared their own state.  Scary stuff, I can tell you, not only for a 13 year old boy.

So when the Argentinian military lead by General Jorge Rafael Videla took power, I promise you that most Argentinians were extremely relieved and had high hopes for the restoration of law and order.  Well, we all know what happened, from then on it was all downhill and the military dictatorship's rule of incompetence and violence ended in the absolutely stupid and mis-managed invasion of the Malvinas (yes, I do consider that these islands should belong to Argentina, but no, I don't think that invading them made sense).  Looking back at the rule of the military in Argentina it was a disaster.

I recently spoke to my old cousin, who retired from the Argentine military with the rank of Lt-Colonel, and he told me: "you know, we did win the military war, but we lost the ideological one".  I think that he is right.  They did crush the guerrillas, rather fast really, but they did so at the cost of alienating the vast majority of the Argentinian people.  Which brings me full circle to my original dilemma.

The legitimate use of violence by the state

Clearly, and by definition, there is a general consensus amongst most people that the state can, and should, use violence in defense of its people.  This is, at least in theory, why we have a police and a military.  In theory, the police is supposed to use violence when needed inside the country, while the military is supposed to deal with foreign threats.

Now, since I know that I have a lot of readers in the USA, and since I know that amongst them there will be those who define themselves as anarchists or libertarians, let me immediately deal with their objections to the above.

Anarcho-libertarians are basically opposed to the very existence of the state.  At best, they want the least possible amount of state, at worst, they want no state at all.  It is not my purpose today to debunk one by one all the fundamentally mistaken assumptions (political, historical, sociological or economic) which anarcho-libertarians make, but I will just say that the ideal anarcho-libertarian society is even more impossible than the ideal Communist society of Marx.  I know, that will not convince anybody who believes in the state-less myth, but I would ask them to set aside their own preferences and accept, for argument's sake, the following three postulates:

1) If the function of a state is to maintain law and order, its purpose is to defend the weak.  Why?  Because the powerful do not need a state to defend themselves.  A rich man does not need the police - he can hire his own bodyguards, investigators or enforcers.  A rich man does not need universal heath care - he can pay for his medical costs.  A rich man does not need regulated highways - he will chase the poor off the roads no problem.  And if the rich man every needs a military, its only because he does not have enough hired guns for himself, because he is comparatively weak alone.

2) Only a state can uphold the rule of law.  All non-state entities are regulated by the rule of the ruler, not the rule of law.  Remove the state and, by definition, you will have lawlessness.

3) History is replete with examples of very, very bad states.  History is also replete with examples of very, very bad medecine.  Yet we do not want to live without medicine.  To reject the state on principle is "throwing the baby out with the water". The solution to "bad state" is "good state", not "no state".

I hope that this takes care of any accusations of "statism" and other such naive accusations.  Anyway, back to the topic at hand:

In theory a state is entitled to use violence.  The problem with that is that a state which relies on violence to impose law and order becomes a violent state and that is, I think we can all agree, a very bad and most undesirable thing.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once developed a very interesting concept.  He said that regimes can all be placed on a conceptual continuum ranging from "regimes whose power is based on authority" to "regimes whose authority is based on power".  He is right.  And in an ideal world, all regimes would be enjoying the support of its people because the latter would feel well represented, heard, taken care of, etc.  In the real world, of course, this is rarely so, especially at a time when the capitalist nature of the international economy is running the entire planet into the ground and when the top 1% rule more and more overtly by violence only.  It is no wonder that the anarcho-libertarian ideas are so strong in the USA where most people have not seen an European-style state taking care of weak, sick, poor or needed and where the state is really fully an instrument in the hands of US corporations, special-interests groups and various lobbies.  And, to nobody's surprise, the US state is amazingly violent with 16+ intelligence agencies, cops everywhere and on all levels, uniformed hire-a-cops everywhere too, TSA goons, 2 million Americans in jail, daily police shootings, taserings, beating, etc, etc, etc.  You spend enough time in the US will will become anti-state too!

But what happens when a state which does have authority based on more than just power is challenged by a minority of very aggressive people who do not recognize any authority to the state and who actually want to use power to overthrow the state?  That is what we see in the Ukraine today, that is also what is taking place in Syria and that is what was happening in the streets of Saint-Petersburg in the first months on 1917.  What should the state do to defend the people?  Do like Nicholas II and refuse to stay in power by violence, or do like Hafez al-Assad who deliberately killed many thousand of Syrians thereby protecting many millions more?  What the "Tiananmen massacre" a way for the "Chinese commies to just stay in power and resist reforms" as the corporate media would have us think, or was the the only way to save democracy in China and avoid a civil war?  And what if Gorbachev had categorically ordered his forces to arrest Eltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich - would that have been better or much worse?

My doubts and fears

Frankly, I think that Yanukovich should send in the riot police to clear the street of the city of Kiev from the nationalist scum rioting there.  I would also arrest the top opposition leaders for sedition, armed insurrection, conspiracy to overthrow the government, treason, etc. etc. etc. - whatever the Ukrainian penal code offers.  Let them all join Iulia Timoshenko in jail or, better, let them replace her in jail as I really don't see at all what she deserves being put in jail for.

But then what?

Yanukovich clearly has little to no authority in Solzhenitsyn's terms.
I suppose that Hafez al-Assad did.
As for Videla, I think that he had it, but lost it pretty soon.
So if Yanukovich uses his cops, would he gain or lose authority for doing so?
I think that showing some spine and being a statesman is better than being a jellyfish.  But that's me.

Keep in mind that the famous Ukrainian "Berkut" is no Spetsnaz at all, even if the moronic media says so.  They are just riot cops, something like the French CRS or the Russian OMON.  Using them to clear the city center is not like "sending in the tanks".  Right now these poor guys are told to get burned, beat up, shot at and abused and just stand there and take it.  I really feel sorry for them.  And Yanikovich is a scumbag to denounce them every time he sends them in to do something.  I wish they could turn their batons on him and beat the crap of of his fat body, but that is not going to happen either, alas. But if he sends them in, they are probably going to delight in beating the ever-living shit of the neo-Nazi punks which have been abusing and assaulting them for weeks now.  To ask them to gently and kindly escort these armed nationalist thugs out of the city center is also unreal.  So if they go in to really clear not only Grushevski street but also Maidan square, there are going to be many casualties and even fatalities.  Right now, about 100 of these Berkut cops are already in hospitals with various injuries and more are sent there every day.  Finally, I strongly suspect that the combatants of the "Right Block" have stores of firearms hidden in Kiev and the surrounding areas and that they will use them should the government send in the cops to clear the city center.  At that point, the Berkut guys will have no other choice than to shoot back and which point even more blood will be shed, and the western Ziomedia will go in hyperdrive with indignation at the "gross human rights violations" of a "discredited regime" which has "turned against his own people" who "peacefully demonstrated" for "reforms and democracy".

So should Yanukovich sit tight and wait?

I honestly don't know but I have a strong feeling that a Tiananmen square like outcome (remember - they even had to use soldiers, armored assault vehicles and tanks!) is the best the Ukraine can hope for at this time.

What do you think?  Please let us know!

Kind regards and many thanks!

The Saker