American protest songs, lyrically at least, showcase that as an expression of national consciousness, Americans lost their understanding of what freedom means somewhere in the early 1970’s. Sentiment against dictatorships and enslavement of populations gave way to more America-centric problems, dominated by the war in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, national race relations and the problems associated with getting a job. In latter decades the media honed its skills at what has become known as the politics of division, and became adept at turning whole segments of the population against one another, always dangling the illusory concept of freedom just out of reach.
What is freedom, really? Is it the liberty to make mistakes while pursuing greater goals, knowing that you still must bear responsibility for the consequences – unintentional and potential – of those mistakes? Or is it simply the removal of all restraints on one’s personal behavior, as Jen suggests here?
This and other issues is discussed here in a provocative guest post by the inimitable Aussie contributor, Jenifer Hor, in her analysis of Putin’s speech to the attendants of the final plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club at Sochi, last month. For me, it reaffirms that Vladimir Putin remains committed to a united global problem-solving approach which emphasizes frank and open discussion of world problems, while the west remains mired in creation of wedge issues for its own benefit and discrediting all sources which do not correspond to its worldview. Permit me to offer my accolades in advance for a solid and perceptive first-line analysis. Take it away, Jen!
Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XIII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 27 October 2016)
As is his usual custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the final session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club’s 13th meeting, held this year in Sochi, before an audience that included the President of Finland Tarja Halonen and former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. The theme for the 2016 meeting and its discussion forums was “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” which as Putin noted was very topical and relevant to current developments and trends in global politics, economic and social affairs.
Putin noted that the previous year’s Valdai Club discussions centred on global problems and crises, in particular the ongoing wars in the Middle East; this fact gave him the opportunity to summarise global political developments over the past half-century, beginning with the United States’ presumption of having won the Cold War and subsequently reshaping the international political, economic and social order to conform to its expectations based on neoliberal capitalist assumptions. To that end, the US and its allies across western Europe, North America and the western Pacific have co-operated in pressing economic and political restructuring including regime change in many parts of the world: in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in western Asia (particularly Afghanistan and Iraq) and in northern Africa (Libya). In achieving these goals, the West has either ignored at best or at worst exploited international political, military and economic structures, agencies and alliances to the detriment of these institutions’ reputations and credibility around the world. The West also has not hesitated to dredge and drum up imaginary threats to the security of the world, most notably the threat of Russian aggression and desire to recreate the Soviet Union on former Soviet territories and beyond, the supposed Russian meddling in the US Presidential elections, and apparent Russian hacking and leaking of emails related to failed US Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s conduct as US Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012.
After his observation of current world trends as they have developed since 1991, Putin queries what kind of future we face if political elites in Washington and elsewhere focus on non-existent problems and threats, or on problems of their own making, and ignore the very real issues and problems affecting ordinary people everywhere: issues of stability, security and sustainable economic development. The US alone has problems of police violence against minority groups, high levels of public and private debt measured in trillions of dollars, failing transport infrastructure across most states, massive unemployment that either goes undocumented or is deliberately under-reported, high prison incarceration rates and other problems and issues indicative of a highly dysfunctional society. In societies that are ostensibly liberal democracies where the public enjoys political freedoms, there is an ever-growing and vast gap between what people perceive as major problems needing solutions and the political establishment’s perceptions of what the problems are, and all too often the public view and the elite view are at polar opposites. The result is that when referenda and elections are held, predictions and assurances of victory one way or another are smashed by actual results showing public preference for the other way, and polling organisations, corporate media with their self-styled “pundits” and “analysts” and governments are caught scrambling to make sense of what just happened.
Putin points out that the only way forward is for all countries to acknowledge and work together on the problems that challenge all humans today, the resolution of which should make the world more stable, more secure and more sustaining of human existence. Globalisation should not just benefit a small plutocratic elite but should be demonstrated in concrete ways to benefit all. Only by adhering to international law and legal arrangements, through the charter of the United Nations and its agencies, can all countries hope to achieve security and stability and achieve a better future for their peoples.
To this end, the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen should be respected and the wars in those countries should be brought to an end, replaced by long-term plans and programs of economic and social reconstruction and development. Global economic development and progress that will reduce disparities between First World and Third World countries, eliminate notions of “winning” and “losing”, and end grinding poverty and the problems that go with it should be a major priority. Economic co-operation should be mutually beneficial for all parties that engage in it.
Putin also briefly mentioned in passing the development of human potential and creativity, environmental protection and climate change, and global healthcare as important goals that all countries should strive for.
While there’s not much in Putin’s speech that he hasn’t said before, what he says is typical of his worldview, the breadth and depth of his understanding of current world events (which very, very few Western politicians can match), and his preferred approach of nations working together on common problems and coming to solutions that benefit all and which don’t advantage one party’s interests to the detriment of others and their needs. Putin’s approach is a typically pragmatic and cautious one, neutral with regards to political or economic ideology, but one focused on goals and results, and the best way and methods to achieve those goals.
One interesting aspect of Putin’s speech comes near the end where he says that only a world with opportunities for everyone, with access to knowledge to all and many ways to realise creative potential, can be considered truly free. Putin’s understanding of freedom would appear to be very different from what the West (and Americans in particular) understand to be “freedom”, that is, being free of restraints on one’s behaviour. Putin’s understanding of freedom would be closer to what 20th-century Russian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin would consider to be “positive freedom”, the freedom that comes with self-mastery, being able to think and behave freely and being able to choose the government of the society in which one lives.
The most outstanding point in Putin’s speech, which unfortunately he does not elaborate on further, given the context of the venue, is the disconnect between the political establishment and the public in most developed countries, the role of the mass media industry in reducing or widening it, and the dangers that this disconnect poses to societies if it continues. If elites continue to pursue their own fantasies and lies, and neglect the needs of the public on whom they rely for support (yet abuse by diminishing their security through offshoring jobs, weakening and eliminating worker protection, privatising education, health and energy, and encouraging housing and other debt bubbles), the invisible bonds of society – what might collectively be called “the social contract” between the ruler and the ruled – will disintegrate and people may turn to violence or other extreme activities to get what they want.
An English-language transcript of the speech can be found at this link.