Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Small-scale work"

We seem to be in an anti-liberal moment both at home and abroad. Although the advice on a course of action below was written for Russian liberals, it applies reasonably well to what we need to do in the US.

Russian liberalism is not just in crisis, politically speaking. It has ceased to exist. It is not represented in the parliament, it has disappeared as a focus of public debates, even among intellectuals, and its claims to be a credible and politically attractive ideology now seem vain if not preposterous. I use the term "Russian liberalism" as an umbrella concept embracing the political practices and mechanisms, both the neoliberal and social liberal types, which identified the Russian "exit from communism" with the establishment of the rule of law, political and ideological pluralism, the market economy and an openness to the West.
The same liberals today castigate the regime, and with good reason. The absence of an independent judiciary, severe limitations of the freedom of the mass media, rampant corruption in all branches of bureaucracy and the systematic harassment of nearly all opposition are genuine ills. It is one thing, though, to articulate all these grievances and quite another to set out an attractive and politically mobilizing ideology. Russia's liberals have to send forth a message that resonates with the broader public, and this resonance can't just be some sort of rehearsal of people's "superstitions." It means coming up with a compelling alternative.
If the opposition liberals want to escape from their confinement to the political salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg, they must come to grips with the country's new political and economic realities. They must disclose the present system's inherent tensions, and they must address actual grievances by proposing feasible and popular political courses of action. It is not enough to recycle the mantra of human rights violations because grassroots actions are required. Russia's liberals might find it worthwhile to begin with what former Czech President Vaclav Havel dubbed "small-scale work" when discussing how communism in the Soviet bloc could be resisted. It was a strategy of very concrete small deeds which although seemingly unambitious politically enhanced an alternative public morality, promoted independent networks of cooperation and steeped the reform movement's would-be leaders in a realistic and nonelitist democratic culture.

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