Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers
The biggest difficulty for most authors is not finding inspiration but finding time. Most of us have “real” jobs that take absolute priority. Writing Empires Apart has taken me an age and there have been many months when I haven’t had time to write a single word.
In the age of the Blackberry work is always just a click away and I am one of those sad people who can’t go to bed at night without clearing my office inbox. On the other hand if inspiration does strike I can now quickly jot a note on the Blackberry and file it away for when I have time to remember that there is life beyond work. (I keep trying to remind myself that nobody ever lay on their death bed thinking “I wish I had spent more time in the office”.)
Thus this morning I was on the train looking forward to tumbling into the madding crowd at Waterloo station (sad) and thumbing through last week’s Finance Week (very, very sad) when I came across an article that dragged my thoughts away from business and made me reach for my Blackberry.
Oleg Mukhamedshin, director of capital markets at United Company RUSAL, was extolling the benefits of the economic, legal and fiscal reforms in Russia in the last decade. They had, he assured readers of Finance Week, fundamentally improved the prospects for foreign investors and allowed many “first and second tier” Russian companies to gain access to a “variety of financing products” involving debt capital and loan syndication.
The article triggered off all sorts of thoughts. Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the end of the Cold War had marked the end of history. For him America represented the highest form of society and there was nowhere further for history to go. That declaration was of course absurd but if Mukhamedshin is right Russia does seem to be turning into an American-style corporatist democracy. But of course Mukhamedshin, like Fukuyama, is not right.
In Empires Apart I argue that American democracy has been transformed by the advent of corporate power. Abstract legal entities – corporations – are deemed to have human rights like the right to free speech. Corporate executives are allowed to spend millions of dollars of their corporations’ money to promote the corporations’ political agenda (by which of course is meant the corporate executives’ private agenda) As US President Rutherford B. Hayes famously recorded in his diary in 1888 “This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, for corporations”.
At first sight Russia seems to be going the same way. Its “tier one” companies are now enormous. UC Rusal is the world’s largest aluminium producer employing more than a 100,000 people on five continents. No wonder Russian corporations like UC Rusal are such important players in the global financial markets, and no wonder they occupy such powerful positions in contemporary Russia.
But Russia is not turning into an American style corporatist democracy.
The Founding Fathers created a democratic edifice in the United States which remains largely untouched – corporations didn’t change the edifice, merely its occupants. Corporate bosses moved into the corridors of power and evicted the common man (common woman had never dwelt there).
In Russia there has never been a democratic edifice nor any human rights for corporations to usurp. Russia is becoming not a corporatist democracy but a corporatist autocracy. Far from corporations bending the forms of democracy to suit their own interests in Russia the autocrat Putin is bending the corporate form to suit his policy objectives. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Putin’s use of Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth. Gas supplies to neighbouring countries are turned off and on and prices ratcheted up or down for reasons that everything to politics and nothing to economics. One of Putin’s objectives is clearly to start to re-establish the Russian Empire lost by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and one of his tools in doing this is corporate power. In a way Russia is now fighting America with America’s own weapon. And that fight seems to be hotting up – or looked at another way cooling down.
Just last week President Medvedev declared that “Russia is ready for a new Cold War”.
“We don’t want a Cold War”, chorused western leaders in reply, “but if you start one ……”
I didn’t notice anyone in the media comment that there is something profoundly odd about the idea of a new Cold War. The last one was supposed to have been a battle of ideologies – Communists proclaiming universal brotherhood and solidarity with the world’s oppressed battling Anti-communists extolling free expression and free markets. Now all that claptrap has vanished. We suddenly have two empires facing each other – as in fact we always did. True Putin may be proclaiming solidarity with the poor oppressed South Ossetians and Bush may laud the plucky freedom-loving Georgians but hardly anyone imagines we are in the middle of a gigantic ideological struggle for minds and hearts. This is imperial conflict at its crudest. Fukuyama may have thought that history had ended but the empires are striking back.