Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On violence..and futility

I am reviving something I was writing in Latvian for a closed reading list. It started with looking at the government and ruling elite as an unknown creature from which we try to elicit some kind of response. First we make sounds at the creature. Nothing happens. Then we flash colored lights at the creature (this is getting to be like the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Finally, (and this is not to be tried lightly with a real alien or unknown beastie), we poke the thing (a minor act of violence) and it finally responds.
It seems to have been the same with the Latvian government. Peaceful public protests were dismissed as “yapping” by angry little dogs by the government of Aigars Kalvītis. The protests involved both audible (chanted slogans) and visual (signs and placards) cues. There was no response. On January 13, 2009, a mob “poked” the creature of government by stoning the parliament (Saeima) and other buildings, trashing some storefronts, fighting the police and overturning some of their vehicles.
Boy did that get a response! Ivars Godmanis, prime minister at the time, appeared on national television the next morning, stone-faced and speaking in a voice almost from beyond the grave. “We have awoken in another Latvia”, he intoned. Well, good fucking morning, as if this shit hadn't happened in other countries, in some, like Greece, just weeks before!. Right after that, then president Valdis Zatlers also gave the Saeima an ultimatum – to pass amendments to the Latvian constitution allowing popular initiatives to dismiss the Saeima, to change the election laws to prevent powerful candidates or “locomotives” from running in more than one electoral district as well as other measures by March 31 of the year. Some of what Zatlers requested actually got done and he never acted on that ultimatum.
The quick and simple, maybe oversimplified conclusion is – a bit of violence is the only communication that elicits a response from the ruling elite in Latvia. Paving stones and smashed glass are “heard”, words and protests, ignored.
But that is about the end of it. There was needless and senseless collateral damage from January 13, such as the stoning of a library building near the Saeima, the ransacking of a liquor store and serious injuries to a teenager hit in the eye by a rubber bullet. It also became clear that the “political” stone throwers were joined by a rabble out for the thrill of destruction and looting.
Even the political stone throwers represented no one beyond themselves and their personal anger with politics and politicians. Even their violence was “senseless” because it had no agenda and no organizational back-up in society. In other words, these guys were not the vanguard or fighting unit of a well-organized and defined revolutionary movement.
I started writing this before the rioting in the UK, which puts a different angle on things. Those events gave an entirely new meaning to the idea of politically (and economically)senseless violence. One may be able to better examine things once data are collected on the more than 1600 persons arrested in the wake of the UK disorders, but it now looks like what happened was an outbreak of theft, violence and destruction by the British equivalent of what are called urlas in Latvia. These are uneducated, unemployed (though not always) purposeless, substance-abusing, petty criminal rabble. They are apolitical except to the extent that some commentators on events try to interpret the formation of the UK lumpenproletariat in political terms. It is likely that the Brit-urlas have no political agenda and little or no political consciousness.
Before anyone starts drawing conclusions from what I have written so far, I am not building up to advocating terrorism in Latvia. Suffice it to say that in earlier times, somewhat better organized Latvians did turn to anarchism and/or revolutionary violence, such as in the uprising in 1905. Terrorism is merely the other side of extremely poor and often oppressive governance, it is a reaction to the action or inaction of the state – at least in simple terms, discounting the terrorist movements based on shared misperceptions of reality and bizarre ideologies.
One can safely say that there is little basis for domestic terrorism in Latvia, mainly because those dissatisfied with the state of affairs have taken the much easier step of emigrating and see no sense in staying behind to fight a political battle. Latvia's citizens have seen all to often that when “political battles” (elections) are won, the spoils are divided among some of the winners at the expense of taxpayers, or, at best, literally despoiled and wasted in attempts at governance by incompetent fools. Electing a few “good people” merely thickens the brake linings on some wheels of a what has been a runaway train of corruption, incompetence, cluelessness and folly that has characterized much of Latvian politics over the past 20 years. That is what the reform movements of recent years have accomplished, thickened the brake linings without stopping and just slightly slowing the train. I refer to the Jaunais Laiks (New Era) experiment, the re-try of the same formula with Vienotība, the work of “good people” (no irony intended) such as Valdis Dombrovskis, the “new kids in the Saeima” or the former exile Latvians and some of their allies.
Tax resistance?
Maybe I am misinterpreting some socio-economic phenomena too optimistically or politically, but some parts of the population have reacted to this pattern of failure of governance by simply withdrawing from economic engagement with the state. That is another way of saying – not paying taxes. Again, at the risk of overpoliticizing what is happening and projecting a consciousness into this behavior that isn't there, I would argue that this form of effective “secession from the state” is, at least, a minimally effective form of resistance.
Undeniably, the lack of tax revenues is (and we have heard this song before) deprives pensioners, the health system, the police, the schools, the roads etc. of funding that would have made these government services better. But it also says, from the de-facto tax-refusers' point of view – that I am also depriving one of the world's most expensive bridges of my money. I am not paying for borderline-poor medical services so that characters like Mr. Golden Hands (New Era's first Minister of Health Āris Auders), the surgeon, can take my money that was earmarked for his treatment of patients, and then hit these patients again for a hefty envelope payment.
In what may be an idealistic fantasy, I think that at least a few Latvian businesses are paying in envelopes not to enrich the boss at the expense of depriving the state of tax revenues, but simply because envelope payments instead of withholding social tax are actually a form of direct-action social welfare. An example I often use is that if a small business has monthly labor costs of say, LVL 10 000, the owner takes some LVL 3000 or whatever the social tax rate is, and pays it to the state. Month after month, those LVL 3000 have no visible impact on the miserable looking pensioners, the beggars (at least those who are not professionals), the local hospital about to close with its “fat-years” MRI unit that gets used twice a month, etc. etc.
Now take those LVL 3000 and pad the envelopes of employees that one knows personally – Jānis, who looks after his infirm mother, Anna, who is paying for her daughter's university, Sergejs, who can now afford a private day-care center for his son and needs elective surgery himself. The extra money, taken away from the rathole of paying the state with a negative return on taxation now becomes a tangible, here and now (or in the foreseeable future) benefit for a small circle of people who need it and use it wisely.
It is, of course, pure political science fiction to imagine that, having experienced a degree of state failure for 20 years (minus the attributes of real failed states, gunmen in the streets, three hours of electricity, the whole Somalia scene), Latvian society would self-organize into communities of resistance as it did, to some extent, when forming the Peoples' Front (Tautas Fronte) in the late 1980s. Having exhausted the possibilities of getting a response from the present political system, such communities of resistance could at least improvise local solutions to problems the state is unable to solve.
Electronic civil disobedience?
For example – shutting down a hospital to cut costs (after deranged, shambolic spending on health during the “fat years”)? The community simply occupies it, organizes that some work is done voluntarily in exchange for care, local business puts in some funds to benefit the town's citizens, the MRI units services are offered, on the internet, to patients across the country (or even from abroad).
Elsewhere, people can take non-violent, disciplined direct action against the state –occupying ministries or government buildings, at least for a short, symbolic period, or organizing electronic political actions, including the limited “hacking” (a note on a home page – this agency is run by thieving or wastrel fools). Such actions would involve technically illegal behavior and would require backing by legal defense and public relations teams, to do everything to hinder (by legal means) the prosecution of persons involved in resistance activities, and to explain to society and the media (with social media, everyone is media) the reason that activists were being made, in effect, political prisoners.
Back to Gewalt gegen Sachen?
At some point, there would have to be symbolic violence against the state, targeted trashing of state property, but if this was done against the background of a mass civil resistance and direct-action movement, it would be a small price to pay for finally breaking the grip of a political ruling elite that has, by the “experiment” described above, shown that violence is the only language that it hears.
Having said that, I have to emphasize that this is an impossible scenario and there are no signs that anyone is trying to execute it. The human capital needed for something like that has been dispersed abroad by the consequences of 20 years of the political elite's behavior. Those who remain are too disorganized, drawn to crackpot ideologies, übermother political movements or simply given up on the whole mess, often based on a rational assessment of the situation. I think I can count myself among the latter.
We will have yet another election, triggered by good intentions to throw the bastards out, but I suspect the result, at best will be another deceptively bright false dawn, and, more likely, a typically Latvian political bardaks where the sleazy but untainted-by-being-in-government Harmony Center (Saskaņas Centrs/SC) will be the biggest winner. Then, no one among the “good guys” will want to play with them. So they may end up with a “worser” if not worst case scenario of SC aligning with the Green and Farmers' Union (Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienībā/ZZS) to put one of the oligarchs (and a popular one among the large ignorant and populist-manipulated part of the electorate), Aivars Lembergs, in de-facto control of the state.
More nothing special..
So the coming election battle, triggered by the drama of dismissing the Saeima and the subsequent referendum, may yet again amount to nothing – nothing special. The referendum showed that almost 95% of the electorate rejecting the present political elite and the antics of the parliament up to now. One could almost say it was a reflexive vote against two decades of state underperformance, if not what I call state failure light. But that is it. There will be no second Awakening/Atmoda. There will be no powerful popular movement of resistance and direct action, no one is there to lead it, and the very few, probably too few good people able to change much of anything, are running again for what I call the Big Monkey House (disrespectful? Check those referendum results again).
Maybe, just maybe, the 2020s may be a time when the last hard-core homo postsovieticus retires from political life or dies off, and then the 1,6 or 1,8 million left in a marginal, stagnant little European country may, at last perk up and find that they can at least adequately govern themselves. But is there any point for someone like me, of advanced youth but with a few good years left (working and writing)to linger here and wait to see where the chips fall in ten or fifteen years?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

20 years of freedom – and?

OK, I will join the great chorus in saying how great it is that Latvia regained its independence in 1991 and nothing could have been worse that continuing to stagnate under the Soviets. The Soviet occupation was a truly horrible time, especially the beginning of it all, with deportations, war, deportations again and repression and fear that only eased very gradually toward the end of the 1980s. Add to that the bizarre economic deprivation, queues, shoddy products, blat-level corruption, dismal everyday life with little or nothing changed, no freedom to travel, etc. etc.
The occupation left indelible marks on the Latvian nation, and those are the reason that, at the end of the day, we are happy to have our freedom, we say we cherish our freedom (and we probably do), and we should never, never lose that freedom again. Of course!
But what have we made of that freedom? What did those of us who lived outside Latvia expect? We grew up as “refugee/emigres” wherever we were, a status that kept important, vital parts of our lives focussed on Latvia and on the impossible dream of Latvian independence. The dream came true, but we who grew up in freedom knew that freedom was the most important kind of opportunity, often the first step. Freedom is to be used, filled out with a vision, a path chosen together with other free citizens.
Yes, Latvia used its freedom. The country made its way into the European Union and NATO, two visions that it automatically adopted once free. But after that? There is no realistic, coherent vision for the future.
To be frank, Latvia achieved freedom from the Soviet Union, but is still far from free from being a nation of far too many homo post-sovieticus. It has lost up to 300 000 inhabitants to emigration, a good part of them, perhaps, for largely economic reasons, but also because what the political and economic elite of this country has done and failed to do has broken any trust they had in the government and any faith in the future.
I put myself among those who have lost this trust and faith – for reasons that I have argued many times over in this blog. Latvia could have done a lot better with its freedom over the last 20 years by making many choices not made. Many of these choice not taken involved actions and changes of behavior that would have cost very little money. It is not case of failing to do as old rich countries did with their wealth, but failing, with few exceptions, to behave as old rich countries did in order to become both rich and reasonably civilized.
Much of this I have described in earlier posts. There is really nothing new to say on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet coup and independence. I don't regret spending much of my life growing up in the US, living and working in Germany and Sweden, while always trying to “be Latvian” and do things for “the Latvian cause”, even as a journalist. I can say, too, that I have also “served my time” here in Latvia, for better or for worse. We have what we have. Been there, done that, yet again. But I've had enough, too, in one sense. I want to be somewhere else and do something else next, before going even further into “advanced youth” where my options will shrink.