Bruce Springsteen, from, Born in the USA
Leafing through Forbes or Fortune Magazine is like reading the operating manual of some strangely sanctimonious pirate ship.
I have reached the conclusion – late, but better late than never, they say – that there is no pleasing the west where its ideological foes are concerned. If they do bad things, they are evil. If they do halfway-decent things, they are only pretending to be good so they can get close enough to whip out the evil. If their economy is tanking, they are incompetent. If their economy is doing well despite efforts to ruin it, they are manipulative and deceitful, and not ever to be trusted. If they break the law, they are reckless criminals – if they hew to the law and nevertheless achieve their objective, they are exploiting loopholes to bring about the downfall of all that’s good. It was kind of the latter I wanted to talk about today. Because if there’s anything that makes the west hot under the collar, it is being put in a position where it looks hypocritical and childish, and cannot avail itself of its customary lofty sanctimony. The moral high ground is sometimes hard to hold, but it’s harder if you are full of shit.
First on deck is the Hungarian Vampire suckling at the Helpless White Throat of Democracy, Victor Orban. Mr. Orban long since turned into a bad smell on the wind for western leaders, owing to some pro-Russian positions and his resistance to western portrayals of Ukraine as The Crucible Of Good Decisions – he is invariably portrayed in western accounts as a ‘strongman’ who just makes up new laws as soon as he comes up against one which inconveniences his ruthless plundering of the state. Keep that ‘strongman’ cliche in mind for a moment, because we’re going to come back to it fairly soon.
Readers will have to be satisfied with a stub as a reference, because it’s from The Economist, which wants you to subscribe – yes, I know, and for money! – to read the whole thing. I would be as likely to do that as I would be to punch the next person who asks me what time it is in the face, because its analysis is typically little better than what you might find in the National Enquirer, and accurately foretells world developments about as often as chicken soup gives you an upset stomach.
“Take Hungary, where Fidesz, the ruling party, has used its parliamentary majority to capture regulators, dominate business, control the courts, buy the media and manipulate the rules for elections. As our briefing explains, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, does not have to break the law, because he can get parliament to change it instead. He does not need secret police to take his enemies away in the night. They can be cut down to size without violence, by the tame press or the taxman. In form, Hungary is a thriving democracy; in spirit, it is a one-party state.”
The thrust of the article is that populism is strangling democracy. Let’s take a quick look at a definition of ‘populism’ – perhaps it really is bad. Hmmmm…. according to the dictionary, it’s ” A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.”
Well, the nerve! The people should be glad to have jobs, never mind voting, and perhaps subverting the wishes of their betters, since it’s no fun being a corrupt elite if they are the majority and common as muck. ‘The people’ – generally held to be the poor and the middle clases – greatly outnumber the elites, because being a member of the elite is exclusive, like having a special badge or unlimited free ice cream. All right, let’s take a look at what The Economist is complaining about.
Oh, dear; the party headed by Orban won 133 of 199 seats in the 2018 election – a supermajority, and what is usually described as a ‘landslide’. He was helped – the snake! – by a strong economy. Which became so under his leadership, if that isn’t too inconvenient. Fidesz won 49% of the popular vote, against the 44% it captured in the 2014 election. Which, to most who can work simple numbers, suggests the party became more popular rather than less. Its victory, and Orban’s, was ‘helped by deep divisions among opposition parties’. In a one-party state, if you take my meaning. Are you adding two and two and getting three? Me, too. Was the election monitored? Sure was. In what was termed a ‘damning report’, the monitoring body complained of ‘intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing”. Say – did you hear that in the campaign that’s going on right now in America to determine the Democratic nominee, CNN’s ‘analyst’ Bakari Sellers claimed there was ‘no question’ that military veteran and serving National Guard Major Tulsi Gabbard, democratic presidential candidate, is an agent of the Russian government? How’s that for intimidating rhetoric? Did he inform the intelligence services of his suspicions? Why, no; he didn’t. Because he has no evidence whatsoever, and is basing his ridiculous allegations on dislike of Gabbard’s campaign thus far, which is not sufficiently my-country-right-or-wrong to suit him. Quite a bit like the ‘investigation’ of the Hungarian election conducted by ‘Unhack Democracy Europe’, that determined widespread vote-buying and other dirty tricks based on evidence which…it released exclusively to Open Democracy. Sure; I’ll buy that. Everyone knows it’s an international law-enforcement agency. What? It isn’t? So evidence proving vote-rigging was given to…a deep-pockets think-tank?
Let’s not forget that Orban is a ‘strongman’. If he doesn’t like the law, he just gets Parliament to rewrite it so he does like it.
Say – anyone remember Francois Hollande? You know; serious glasses, a fivehead, spent $10,000.00 a month of the taxpayers’ money on hair styling and still managed to look like he’d just been dragged through a hedge backwards? Nobody who does remember him would describe him as a ‘strongman’, and in fact he looked like he could not tear a cocktail napkin crossways unless it was spritzed with Evian to weaken it. But Francois Hollande, in a “Fuck les voters” gesture breathtaking in its undemocracy, rammed through a labour reform package that nobody wanted – except the all-the-way-across-town-from-populist elite – which made it easier for employers to fire workers without due cause without even running it past parliament. The western governments declined to pay it much attention, and nobody called for the strongman’s head on a platter or a pike.
Let’s get something straight – the liberals despise Orban because of his immigration policies, which are that you should not accept waves of immigrants for whom you have no jobs, under the rubric of human rights. Show me a European country that is happy with its immigrant population taken in when Mutti Merkel threw the gates wide to refugees. Germany? Nein. France? Mais non. The Netherlands? Nee.
The above notwithstanding, let’s go back for a moment, and look at the litany of complaints. Fidesz – and by extension, Victor Orban – used its parliamentary majority. How did it get that? In a democratic vote which was plainly the will of the people, despite squawking about xenophobia and hate speech. So, it used its parliamentary majority, we’re told, to ‘capture regulators, dominate business, control the courts, buy the media and manipulate the rules for elections’. Behaved like a government, in other words. The regulators work for the government. If the government does not like the way the regulators regulate, it changes the way they operate, through parliament. If the people, in turn, do not like the changes the government made, they toss it out on its ear in the next election. I believe we already mentioned Fidesz increased its take of the vote and has a solid parliamentary majority. What government would have a majority and not use it? Well, okay, Obama. But what sensible government? What is the reason for pursuing power, if not to exercise it?
Does anyone remember the previous US Republican practice of using recess appointments to stack the courts with controversial judges? Yes, some people – notably the Democrats, who had previously blocked these appointments – complained. But is it legal? Sure is, or the decision would have been forcibly rescinded. Oh, but that was in a free democracy, so it’s allowed. Is it relatively common practice among British MP’s to use their staffing allowance to hire their wives for positions like research assistant, at salaries upwards of £40,000 a year? Why, yes; yes, it is. Buying the media? Well, that’s not strictly necessary in the UK – the BBC is a state organ. Although the government does not directly underwrite it, the BBC is entirely funded by a fee levied against every British household with a television. Who controls the disbursement of public funds? The government. US government control of the media is a well-established fact. From the premise that if it is against the law it would be abolished, all these practices must be legal. When carried out in The Democracy Klub, there seems to be little resistance to them. When carried out in more or less exactly the same fashion in governments which are in popular disfavour, such policies are thuggish and unethical. Set Sheep Filter to ‘On’.
Orban has been head of the Fidesz Party, and Prime Minister of Hungary, since 2010. Let’s take a look at how the country has performed economically during that time. When he took over, GDP growth was a record low of -7.9%. Global financial crash; you can’t really blame it on his predecessor. But by the end of 2012 it was at about 2.3%, and currently stands at 4.9% (measured quarterly, first quarter of 2019, figures lag a bit in all economic readings). Remember the part about not admitting floods of immigrants for whom you have no jobs? Hungary’s unemployment rate is 3.4% (August 2019, most recent figures). By way of unpleasant contrast, the unemployment rate in France is almost triple that at 8.5%, Italy 9.5%, Poland 5.2%, and even economic powerhouse Germany is at 3.1%. The overall economic picture of a nation is of course quite complicated, but I don’t see any of the disastrous performance that could be attributed to an out-of-control dictator.
Speaking of dictators, the second tyrant in the crosshairs is that perennial favourite, Vladimir Putin. Well, the Russian state, actually, but Putin has been synonymous with Russia for so long that the two are – for western media purposes – inseparable.
Ashland, Kentucky, USA. 6.2% unemployment, well above the average of a struggling state and nearly double the national average. But all that was about to change. There was a plan to build the biggest aluminum mill the United States had seen in 40 years, an outfit that would provide 600 full-time jobs at twice the region’s average wage, and 18,000 associated jobs in the state. The company with the big ideas, Braidy Industries, planned to partner with Rusal, the Russian aluminum giant.
And then there was a problem. A problem named Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska, billionaire owner of Rusal, was under investigation by Robert Mueller in the stupid vanity project the Clintons kicked off to assuage Hillary’s hurt feelings over losing to Trump – for reasons only a brave psychiatrist could explain, it was necessary for Americans to accept that the 2016 election was derailed by Russian hackers working for Putin, who was determined to put Donald Trump in the White House.
I leave it to ‘veteran diplomat’ (another way of saying ‘slow learner who does not want to work for a living’) Daniel Fried to sum up western thinking on taking dirty money from the Russians – “That’s just what the Russians do. They insert themselves into a foreign economy and then start to influence its politics from the inside.”
This is yet another example of a moment when the next thing that should have happened would be a surprised look crossing Daniel Fried’s face, and a puff of smoke from his lips, followed by his blazing tongue being ejected from his mouth. It’s what we in the business call an Incendiary Hypocrisy Event. If ever there was a country more characterized by inserting itself into foreign economies, and then trying to leverage that economic interest as investors to influence national politics than the United States of America, I’ve never heard of it and frankly cannot imagine it. The Bush presidency even formalized the imperative of encouraging the flow of American investments to Iraq as a Presidential signing statement.
Have you ever seen a more loyal lapdog to American policy than Australia? Yes, okay, except for Canada. All four of Australia’s biggest banks are majority-owned by American investors. The nation’s biggest company – the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, is 60% owned by American investors. The United States and its investors use Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses to formalize rights for US investors that citizens of the country in which the investments are held cannot exercise; an American investor can sue the Australian government for compensation in an international tribunal if that government makes any change in law or policy that “harms” an investment. I think you can sort of see how that might translate to political influence.
Anyway, back to Ashland, Kentucky. Deripaska and Rusal used a variety of legal stratagems to get around the sanctions. ‘Legal’ being the key word – everything meets the letter of the law. Which brings a wail from Heather Conley, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush; “They use our laws, our rules, our banks, our lawyers, our lobbyists—it’s a strategy from within.”
America’s hearty, good ole boy business credo has always been, “The U.S. benefits from economic ties to foreign powers as long as everyone plays by our rules”. Or it used to be. Now it has apparently become, “Foreign investment is dandy so long as we get to say who is playing by the rules, even when everyone is playing by the rules”. The complaint, if you can believe it, is that a firm like Rusal uses American laws, rules, banks, lawyers and lobbyists…and still somehow has not been excluded. Therefore, it must be excluded under the Discomfort Clause, more commonly known as ‘National Security’. Playing by the rules and acting in accordance with American law are no longer enough. All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
Let’s encapsulate what ethics and business in America have become, under the current climate of Russophobia and situation-driven fearmongering, in a personal example – Braidy Industries’ CEO, Craig Bouchard. He’s the one trying to get this whole deal rolling, to save Ashland, the region it’s in and maybe even the cash-strapped state. In 2008, Bouchard and his younger brother sold their steel mill to a Russian oligarch, Alexey Mordashov, for more than $750 million. Bouchard became rich.
And then made a few bucks more, from a book he co-authored; “America For Sale”, which warned that foreign investors pose a threat to America’s economic and national security. “If Putin harbors a nasty wish to throw a wrench into the works of the U.S. economy, then he now has acquired the means to do so,” Bouchard wrote. When it comes to industries vital to defense, like steel and aluminum, “the bottom line is that we believe it is risky business to trust Russian oligarchs,” the book concluded.
Ask yourself if a country that fucked up deserves to succeed. Or be anyone’s business partner.