Once the hamburgers are gone, can a government hold on?

October 10, 2014


It’s often said that Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, owe their popularity and the relative stability of their nations to their success in giving their people not so much bread and circuses but McDonald’s hamburgers and satellite TV. If the burgers and entertainment dry up, the foundations of the two regimes are supposed to tremble.

There are two things wrong with this view. First, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are contained in a shopping trolley. And second, insofar as it implies that rulers who preside over a democracy need have no such tremors, it’s too smug.

In April, Putin gave one of his semi-philosophical interviews, in which he spoke of the Russian capacity for personal sacrifice for the sake of national defense, or national victory. He referred to a Russian saying – “for peace, death is fine” – and went on – “What does ‘for peace’ mean? It means death for the sake of others of your own people, for the fatherland. These are the deep roots of our patriotism. From that comes our massive heroism.” By contrast, he said, for people in the West, the measure is only private, individual success, money, status.

Consciously or unconsciously, the president was preparing his listeners for a time when they would no longer be able –- as they have been for most of the 14 years he has dominated politics -– to measure their success by “Western” criteria. He was reminding them that they were Russians, and Russians have  a higher calling, a spiritual fusion with their nation, a transcendent mission to cherish and protect their fatherland.

Xi Jinping, the increasingly powerful ruler of China, doesn’t have the economic problems his friend Putin has, but he does face a slowing of growth. In addition, in the student pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, he may have glimpsed a ghost of Tiananmen Square past and the fear that the youthful idealism, with its serene faith in democracy, might spark protests across the mainland. Already, even without the help of the Hong Kong youth, mainland Chinese are increasingly angered by political corruption, by a polluted environment and by arrogant Communist cadres.

Xi has made the goal of the first years of his rule the development of  “the Chinese Dream.” His dream is not a route to personal advancement open to all (like the American Dream) but a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

It’s a collective, unifying, patriotic dream.

The third of the rulers of the east, India’s Narendra Modi, is also a man of patriotism and of the nation. He may achieve better economic growth than his hapless predecessors in the Congress-dominated government — and insists that is his main aim. But he has another string to his bow – one that troubles Indian liberals and leftists because it is utterly divisive: the politics of ethnic division.

Modi was a senior organizer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or Organization of National Volunteers, that espouses the values of Hindutva (Hindu-ness), often aggressively.  RSS members have been appointed to high positions in his administration, and in cultural life: If growth doesn’t materialize, the organization can be counted on to shore Modi up – at a price.

But Westerners can’t be smug. They have repeatedly sought to avoid “living without growth” by pumping more credit into their economies – and making these economies more and more indebted. This results in unsustainable booms that, as the economics commentator Martin Wolf writes,  do not “come out of nowhere. They are the outcome of the policies adopted to sustain demand as previous bubbles collapsed.”

Western states caught in the economic crises of the past six years are told by their politicians and corporate leaders that, with prudence, patience and resignation to (“temporary”) high unemployment, growth will resume, and so will rising living standards. But, as Yascha Mounk writes, most Western states report stagnant incomes, while in the United States, real median income was lower in 2012 than in 1989. Worse, “this loss of income has been compounded by a concurrent loss of security … [citizens] are growing increasingly convinced that the political establishment has failed them.”

In Europe, populist parties have benefitted greatly, now making up around one-third of the membership of the European Parliament. They are poised to make deep inroads into national parliaments when elections come round.

Two parliamentary by-elections in Britain on thursday this week showed the populist UK Independence Party win one former Conservative seat by a high margin, and nearly win a ‘safe’ Labour seat.

The established center-left or -right parties, who espouse generally liberal politics and market economics, don’t have much of an answer. They distrust enthusiastic patriotic nationalism; the best they can come up with is an idealistic European nationalism, a “European Dream,” that sees liberal and pacific values spreading out from Europe. Within the European Union, they imagine development of a multilevel democracy stretching from town councils to the European Commission and parliament. It’s beguiling – the German finance minister gave it a turn recently in a speech in Prague — but it isn’t popular enough now to carry much weight.

Isn’t democracy popular? After all, it’s what Ukrainians rioted about, what Hong Kong students demonstrated for. Trouble is, while those who have too little of it yearn for it, those who are accustomed to it blame it for its failure to sustain the good life. The politicians and officials who are blamed and cursed for their failings have tried to “solve” the problem by booms, which go bust. We’ll need faith and trust in something stronger to sustain us in leaner times.


PHOTO: A huge banner depicting U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a T-shirt wishing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin a happy birthday, hangs on a bridge in Moscow, October 7, 2014. REUTERS/News Agency Ridus


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Can you post the link to the Putin`s speech in april mentioned above, please?

Posted by Dr.Sorge | Report as abusive

There is nothing wrong with the ideals of democracy in the West.

The implementation of those ideals in the West might be an issue though.

Big corporations (and their politicians) have jeopardized the economic and ideological ‘Dream’ in the West by using their power and influence to bypass social and economic protections which Western workers fought for in the 20th century.

Free trade without fair trade allows China, for example, to manufacture products with cheap labor, little or no pollution controls, and little or no social safety net, little or no worker safety, no unions etc. Of course goods are cheaper, since all these regulations affect the cost of the manufactured product. With no duties (free trade), China (big multinational corporations) ship the goods back to a discount addicted West earning even more profits, while Western workers lose their well-paying middle class jobs. (WalMart)

The West has been living without growth because they have been shipping jobs overseas and importing deflation.

In addition, the West has been ‘living without growth’ because massive debts incurred by greedy financial institutions are still being gradually unwound in order to prevent a catastrophic financial shock.

Finally, the West has lost its moral compass by doing business-as-usual with brutal, repressive, non-democratic regimes all in the name of profits.

The problem is not with the ideals of democracy–the problem is that these ideals have been bypassed because of greed.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

A similar sentiment was held by the Allies in WW2, viz, if you bomb German cities , the inhabitants will call for an end to hostilities. Aerial bombing of cities was shown to produce the opposite effect–no surrender.

This article is another example of wishful thinking in the West. It was not for nothing that the Russians called WW2, “The Great Patriotic War.”

Posted by expat75 | Report as abusive

I’m not super sure I get the message of this piece.

But if it’s in any way that Americans are less patriotic than traditional nations founded on racial, ethnic or religious identity (China, Russia, India, etc), it is flat out wrong. Walt Whitman expressed in his day, his enormous pride that, during the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans dropped their personal affairs to fight and die for the Union (or the Confederacy), and were ashamed to protect their lives when patriotic issues were at stake. WW1 and WW2 — same story.

It’s nonsense to suggest that the citizens of the United State of America are less willing to give their lives for the nation than other countries. The truth is the opposite. Compared to other countries founded on racial, ethnic or religious identity, the US is founded on the choice of the individual to join with others to create a nation. This is no mere economic commonwealth, but a deep commitment to the greatest of all possible values — the ideals of individual independence and the rule of the majority. Want to test our patriotism, just start a war.

BTW. When the Russian won their two big ones against Napoleon and Hitler, the winter had just a little to do with it. Not just the desperate “patriotism” of slaves — whom, as we now know, Stalin rewarded handsomely with the gulag. (After Napoleon, most of the surviving Russians soldiers simply returned to their former serfdom. The war must have been an exciting diversion from flogging by their masters.)

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

Mask of Zero’s comment was excellent. There’s little doubt in my mind that Congress has been bought by Big Business and Wall Street. Power corrupts,and it’s working to the benefit of that 1% which currently holds 40% of the nation’s wealth.
The playing field needs to be leveled and our choice of so-called “public servants” who enter politics with modest assets and become millionaires while holding their offices should be a source of concern to all voters.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive

[…] Putin releasedW*USA 9'Putin's tiger' swims to ChinaThe Daily StarKyiv Post -Reuters Blogs (blog)all 48 news […]

Posted by ‘Putin’s Tiger,’ in a Territory Grab All His Own, Swims to China – New York Times | Amazing News | Report as abusive

The Roman Empire lost their middle class. The middle class were the “agricola” (farmers) who were made-up the soldiers in the Roman army. The agricola were replaced by slave labor – like the cheap foreign labor in those countries to which America exports jobs.

Once the middle-class was gone, the Romans had to recruit barbarians as soldiers for the Roman army. And history tells us that the barbarians took over the Roman Empire, and that was the end of it.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

John Lloyd presents another propaganda piece. Why propaganda?
Well, there are several tests, the most straightforward one – “selective vision”. Mr. Lloyd sees excessive patriotism (whatever the meaning he puts in this word) in Russia, as well as China and India, and tells us to be concerned. However, there is very similar, or higher degree of patriotism here in the US – should we be concerned, too? Moreover, Mr Lloyd mentions Ukraine as an example of fight for democracy, completely misleading us, readers. Ukrainian revolution was largely fuelled by the nationalist, anti-Russian sentiments. The forceful overthrow of the democratically elected government was spearheaded by extreme nationalist elements. If there is country in Europe where “patriotic” – but indeed nationalist sentiments are worrisome – it is Ukraine. But Mr. Lloyd choses not to see that. I do not know whether Mr Lloyd have read beautiful essay on nationalism which George Orwell wrote in 1945. Perhaps, he did – but as propagandists do, “selective vision” is supplemented by “selective memory”.

Finally, I cannon avoid mentioning that while praising democracy and “fight for democracy” throughout the World, Mr. Lloyd fails to observe that in most cases that fight lead to a mob rule rather than democracy. In fact, Mr. Lloyd and his colleagues propagandists fail to observe that small but important distinction which differentiated democracy from the rule of mob. That little distinction is in honoring the rights of the minority. Allowing dissent. If a mob goes to destroy a monument – be it Buddha or Lenin – which a minority of their fellow citizens opposes, without any due legal process – this is not a democracy. This is the rule of mob. If a gang of “revolutionaries” executes a dictator, or a “dictator”, or whoever they believe is an “enemy of state”, or an “enemy of people”, this is not a democracy. This is a brutal rule of mob. And this is exactly what that “fight for democracy”, supported by propagandists like Mr. Lloyd, has brought to the nations around the globe. Iraq. Libya. Syria. Ukraine. Democracy? Look carefully, Mr. Lloyd. Torn off selective vision. Do you see the rule of mob? I do.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive