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In the first part of my series comparing Russia, Britain and the US, I am going to look at their levels of social freedoms. While political scientists go on about to what extent a country has “democracy” or “rule of law”, this ignores that these arcane concepts have practically zero relevance to the everyday lives of ordinary people. They are, however, much more concerned about issues such as their right to get a fair wage, travel to different countries, and smoke weed in peace. Who gets what ratings from Freedom House is a matter of indifference.

Employment & Social Welfare

Real wages for the majority of both American and British workers have stagnated since the 1970′s, while inequality has soared. The American Dream, with its promise of social mobility, has largely faded. In recent years, academic studies have shown that social mobility – as measured by your children’s chances of switching socio-economic classes – is now lower in the US than in practically all developed countries except Britain. This is a very worrying development, since social mobility has traditionally been an antidote to America’s high levels of inequality; without it, it begins to resemble the socially stratified and politically unstable Latin American countries.

That said, I believe the US remains by far the best deal for two kinds of people: the rich, and the entrepreneurial. Income taxes are low by UK (and European) standards, and property is far more secure than in Russia. Furthermore, as a rich, technologically advanced country covering half a continent with more than 300 million souls, the US offers unparalleled opportunities for all kinds of leisure activities and hobbies: flying planes; sailing; skiing; rock climbing; surfing; horse riding; gourmet dining; white water rafting; etc. Unskilled workers have less rights and more insecurity than in most of Europe, but for the upper middle class America is truly an oyster.

The US is an extremely attractive place for business development. The bureaucracy is minimal and registration of a Limited Liability Company (LLC) – the optimal structure for most S&M businesses, especially online-based ones – can be done over the Internet for about $200 (the best places for setting up an LLC are Nevada and Delaware, which are referred to as “onshore offshore” among some circles). The US consumer market is gargantuan, and for most categories of products, around five to ten times larger than the UK’s or Russia’s. The weirdest stuff, like bounce shoes, or medieval catapult replicas, or kombucha tea, finds its niche in the US.

Bureaucratic hurdles and a much smaller consumer market make the creation of small businesses more difficult in Russia. In fact, the country comes 123rd in the world in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, in comparison to the 4th position of the UK and the 5th position of the US. The best opportunities in Russia now tend to be in the state sector. In contrast to the impoverished 1990′s, state coffers are now flush with money and salaries for managers in state companies, academia, the bureaucracy, etc., are increasing fast. Though relative to developed countries, salaries remain low – about $700 per month, or $1000 in Moscow, is typical – their impact is multiplied by cheaper staples (e.g. potatoes, meat, etc. cost 1.5-2x less than in the US or the UK), very cheap utilities (gas, water, electricity) and cheap transport. Since the mid-2000′s, Russia’s “brain drain” to the West (primarily Germany, the US, and Israel) has abated, while economic migrants have poured in at an accelerating rate.

Most "everyday" products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Most “everyday” products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Russian consumers are now relatively well-off by global standards. The GDP per capita, taking into account international price differences, is estimated at $19,000 by the World Bank for 2009. This compares to about $36,000 in the UK and $46,000 in the USA. Obviously Russia still has a lot of catching up to do, but it is no longer a struggling, collapsed superpower where the poor struggle to even feed themselves, as in the 1990′s, but an upper-middle income country not that far from Portugal ($25,000), Korea ($27,000), or even Italy ($32,000). The material accouterments of development, such as cell phones and Internet access, are now widely in evidence.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

One consequence of high oil prices and economic growth has been a rise in prices relative to international levels. Back in the early 2000′s, it was possible to do cool stuff for a pittance, e.g. $25 for an hour of flying time. Now they are little different from prices in the US, and you’re better off doing your “geoarbitrage” – exploiting differences in international prices to have the most fun for the least money – in places like Argentina or China.

Though state sector jobs have usually been comfortable in both the UK and the US, their prospects have dimmed considerably due to their fiscal crises. Britain has decided to radically trim down the share of public workers in the labor force, but it’s unlikely that the private sector will be able to reabsorb most of them (thus, I expect many years of heightened unemployment, falling house prices, and depressed consumer activity). The budget cuts in the US are more symbolic, but some states are cutting down ferociously; thus, while federal employees are largely secure for now, the prospects of workers in local government are more uncertain.

One thing that all three countries have in common is that few of their citizens save any of their money. In fact, given Anglo-Saxon habits of treating their houses as a piggy bank, net household debt is on the order of 100% of GDP and quite a lot of Americans and Brits are now underwater. This figure is much lower in Russia, but only because its private lending sector is far less developed than in the West; credit-based purchases were just beginning to take off in 2007-2008, until the economic crisis short-circuited them.

Labor Rights

Americans are by far the most overworked (c.2000 hours / year). Holidays are few and far between, bosses are very powerful. (Combined with easy access to guns, this creates a few “going postal” incidents every year, in which angry employees gun down their bosses and coworkers). Testing employees for drugs is commonplace, which would be considered pretty absurd by most of Europe. Russians and British also work a lot (c.1700 hours / year), though not as much as Americans. (By comparison, central Europeans are real slackers, clocking in just c.1300-1500 hours / year). The workplace atmosphere in the UK and Russia tends to be more relaxed and easygoing than in the US. A Russian company of 10 people usually has 30 office birthday parties a year.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

In the private sector, dismissals are quick and easy in all three countries. Unions are very weak; the prospect of them grinding the country to a halt, as regularly happens in France, is unthinkable. Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and rely for health insurance on their employer. Unemployment benefits are small and run out after 26 weeks; credit cards may fill the gap in the meantime. Russian labor laws are likewise ungenerous, and benefits are meager to the extent that most unemployed persons don’t even bother registering . In the UK, one could get very modest unemployment benefits (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) for a year before the state forces you into a make-work job; however, IIRC, this has recently been shortened to 3 months.

The Homeless

There are far more beggars on the streets of US cities, though they are very noticeable in Russia and the UK too. The reason for the big rates of US homelessness is partly to do with the unstable nature of economic life, especially the dangerous dependence on debt for education, medical procedures, etc; another reason is that by law, it is much more difficult to institutionalize the mentally ill in the US (this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the procedure can be abused by unscrupulous family members).

Most of Russia’s homeless have become so through alcohol or drug addiction (though some became homeless because they were ethnically cleansed from parts of the former USSR in the anarchic 1990′s; others lost their homes to “black realtors”, the bands of thugs who use violence and trickery to steal housing; finally, many didn’t get just compensation for having their old apartments knocked down to make way for more elite developments).

The same major causes – drug addiction and alcoholism – appear to have been at play in the US too, at least until 2008, but since then the homelessness has exploded; in Berkeley, where I now live, I’d estimate their numbers have doubled or tripled. Their social composition also changed. Before 2008, probably 75%+ were African-American males; now, there are a lot of whites and women, too. I think this development is largely linked to the flood of foreclosures sweeping the US in the wake of the housing bubble collapse (foreclosure fraud has also become disturbingly prevalent). The economic situation in Britain is pretty similar to that in the US, so I wouldn’t be surprised if homelessness there has also increased in the past few years.


The US and Russia, in this order, are global leaders in incarceration rates. Russian prisons are the toughest, as they involve forces labor, brutal criminal hierarchies, and rampant diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. However, sentences are much shorter than in the US. The typical sentence for murder is 6 to 15 years, while only terrorists and serial killers get life sentences. Many Russian prisons are located in Siberia, where the main obstacles to escape aren’t guards or walls, but the remote, inhospitable location. The system’s most famous prisoner is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man until 2003 when he was arrested for tax evasion. About 0.58% of the Russian population is imprisoned.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Even relatively minor felonies in the US can get you very long jail sentences. For instance, California’s “three strikes law” means that someone convicted of three felonies (e.g. burglaries, car thefts) may well never see freedom again. God help you if end up in a supermax. Prisoners are organized around race-based gangs (white Aryans, Hispaniacs, blacks), which maintain hierarchies and war with each other.

There is forced labor in US prisons. Many prisons are privately owned, and thus have an incentive to band together and lobby for harsher sentences; critics even point to the emergence of a “prison-industrial complex“. The prison population has quintupled in the past 30 years, so that now 0.75% of the US population is behind bars.

Though British prisons are no song either, at least by Scandinavian standards, they are far preferable to both Russian and American ones. The rate of imprisonment has risen in the past decade and overtaken most European countries, but at 0.15% of the population, the situation is still a lot better than in Russia or the US.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

Why is this? Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to view crime not as an inevitable phenomenon borne of adverse socio-economic conditions (e.g. inequality, community breakdown), but as individual transgressions by bad men and women. This religious-tinted perspective, based on clear conceptions of what is good and what is evil, perhaps, also explains the relative harshness of US punishments. You have a higher chance of dying in a Russian prison, but you’ll stay much longer in a US one.

After extensive use in the Soviet period, Russia implemented a moratorium on the death penalty from the mid-1990′s. Though 65% of Russians supported capital punishment in 2005 (down from 79% in 2002), it’s not coming back any time soon due to its agreements with the Council of Europe. The death penalty was abolished in the UK in the 1960′s, and likewise its reintroduction is extremely unlikely (despite a slight majority of the British population being in favor).

The US had a moratorium from 1967 to 1977, but the death penalty is applicable in most states outside the North-East nowadays. While there is opposition to the death penalty in liberal pockets of the US, by and large it enjoys a lot of popular support, and is unlikely to make an exit any time soon. One recent improvement is that underage offenders can no longer be executed. Most executions are by lethal injections, and each one attracts a mass of anti-death penalty activists.

Freedom & Regulations

The TSA has courted controversy with its "naked body" scanners.

The TSA has courted controversy with its “naked body” scanners.

There is a lot of rhetoric in the US on freedom as an unalienable right. But things aren’t that straightforward. Many security-for-freedom compromises have been made under the rubric of the “war on terror”, and at least for practicing Muslims, or for those passing through an American port of entry, the Homeland now differs little from an authoritarian regime.

Speaking of airports… American ones have prying, time-consuming and ineffective anti-terrorist measures (some find them humiliating, I find them annoying). They can demand your fingerprints, and take away your notebook and other electronic belongings, without explanation. Russian and UK airports aren’t pleasant either in this respect, but somewhat better than American ones.

But in most cases, the US still far better on the free speech thing than our other two alternatives. Britain’s libel laws are (in)famous for being exploited by corporations and rich individuals all over the world for silencing those who publish unsavory or incriminating information on them; frequently, the threat of exorbitant legal fees is enough to force removal of the material. They can also obtain gag orders to prevent publication of such documents in the first place. The mere act of owning literature like the Anarchist Cookbook or “justifying” terrorism gives you a small chance of landing a hefty jail sentence.

In Russia, libel lawsuits have emerged as one of the most powerful defenses of corrupt politicians against valid criticism. It is the worst country of the three for “leakers”, whistleblowers and investigative journalists. Before you can air the elite’s dirty laundry you must get some kind of political cover, as Navalny almost certainly did when exposing corruption in state pipeline operator Transneft. But if a lowly police officer tries to expose his superiors’ corruption, the likelier outcome is that he’d be fired, and may even go to prison for “corruption” himself.

The situation in the US is far better. It has been widely criticized for its extralegal campaign against Wikileaks, but in a way, the very fact that the Department of Justice is finding it so hard to charge Julian Assange with anything is a testament to the robustness of its institutional safeguards.

On the positive side, Russia's police have excellent fashion sense.

On the positive side, Russia’s police have excellent fashion sense.

The police in big Russian cities, especially in the Metros, are omnipresent and provoke a sense of foreboding rather than security. They have the right to stop you at will and demand to see your documents (i.e. an internal passport); if you don’t have them, and a bribe doesn’t suffice, then it’s off to the police station to confirm your identity. But in practice, as long as you don’t have Central Asian or Caucasian features (i.e. a potential illegal alien or terrorist) or a young Slavic man (i.e. a potential draft evader) then you’re very unlikely to get stopped. (By the way, the recent immigration bill in Arizona effectively gives its police the same powers as those “enjoyed” by their Russian counterparts).

Most Russians dislike their police, which is unsurprising given their penchant for corruption and brutality. Americans and especially Britons regard their police much more positively, mostly seeing them as honest upholders of the laws. (Of course, certain groups such as African-Americans in the US, don’t share these views).

Russia has an onerous system of registration. To access social services, you have to be officially registered as living in the area of their provision. This shows up in your internal passport. There is no such system in the UK or the US.

That said, in one very real sense, Russians are far freer than Westerners. That is in the laxness of regulations or their non-enforcement. One advantage of life being more chaotic and improvised is that Russians don’t have to worry nearly as much as Americans or Britons about offending some local ordnance, getting a parking ticket, etc.

Gun Rights

The freedom to get armed and dangerous is one of America’s most cherished rights, to the extent that some states like Texas even allow concealed carry onto campuses. The most liberal firearms policy is supported by most of the US population, with the sole exception of some urban liberals.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

You can go buy a gun after a quick background check (and you don’t even have to undergo that if you talk to the right people at one of the many gun fairs going on year round). Hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols (the Glock 17 is my favorite; costs about $400), semi-automatics (like the cool FS2000, costs about $3,300) are all good for the taking. There is a ban on the manufacture for civilian use of fully-automatics after 1986, resulting in soaring prices due to competition for the remaining stocks; an AR-15 of this type will cost around $15,000-20,000.

Citizens have the right of “concealed carry” in most of the conservative states; recently, Texas even allowed students to carry them onto campus. Except for a few limp-wristed liberals in degenerate areas such as the Bay Area, the vast majority of the American public supports gun rights.

As mentioned above, private gun ownership is very restricted in the UK. The main exceptions are low-capacity shotguns; single-shot rifles (e.g. bolt-action); low-caliber semi-automatics; and air guns. All kinds of handguns and fullbore semi-automatics are banned. This stance is supported by the vast majority of the population. There are rifle ranges where enthusiasts can practice rifle shooting (I did it at my school for free, though it was atypical in its close relations with the military), but ordinary Britons are far less into guns than Americans.

Russian laws are in between the two Anglo-Saxon countries. Acquiring licenses for shotguns and hunting rifles is easy. Getting one for a pistol is far harder; from what I heard, one common ploy is to register yourself as an employee of a security company (the authorities rarely bother checking up on it). Most Russians concerned with self-defense just get an air pistol instead. IIRC, its possible to get a license for a fullbore semi-automatic, but it requires a good reason and 5 years of possessing a license for other guns without incident. In practice, there are a lot of unregistered guns floating around in Russia, especially in the unstable North Caucasus region.

Many Brits and Russians smugly criticize the Americans for the “recklessness” of their gun laws, arguing that it leads to higher crime, etc. But they aren’t borne out by the facts. The homicide rate in Russia is 15/100,000; granted, it’s down from 30+/100,000 in the 1990′s and early 2000′s, but it’s still more than twice as high as in the US. The reason for this has nothing to do with guns. The average Russian murder, statistically speaking, is from stabbings or blows during a drunken argument between two middle-aged guys at an apartment. So these Russian critics are pretty hypocritical.

Britain is far safer, with a homicide rate of about 1.5/100,000 compared to America’s 6/100,000; perhaps a better argument for gun control? But then again, gun ownership in the US is concentrated in affluent suburbia, which are just as safe if not safer than their British equivalents. The rates of petty crimes such as burglaries and car thefts are certainly far lower. Homicide rates only truly go out of control in the inner city areas of places like Washington DC or Atlanta, rising to as high as 70/100,000; but these are caused not by (legally registered) guns, but by turf wars between drug gangs using unregistered guns. Due to the “war on drugs”, prices are high and so as profits, and people will kill for money no matter what. The solution to this problem is drugs legalization, not gun criminalization.

Alcohol Rights

The equivalent sacrosanct liberty in Russia is the right to be drunk. Gorbachev’s attempts at partial prohibition were unpopular and may have even contributed to disillusionment with the Soviet system. In public, on park benches or underneath them, or trundling in for the work day, nowhere will you see as many drunk people as on the streets of any Russian city.

The legal drinking age is eighteen, but I’ve never seen anyone being checked, including visibly underage buyers. It’s common to see people milling around beer stalls in public parks or tourist attractions, including teenagers. Beer is considered more as a soft drink than an alcoholic beverage.

In contrast, I’m always asked for an ID when shopping for booze in the US (unless I wear my camo pants and black wife-beater, in which case they ask no questions). This isn’t to say that there aren’t any shops or bars willing to sell alcohol to people under 21, but generally speaking they’re either in isolated rural areas or you have to really look for them. The situation is easier in the UK, because the legal age is 18; furthermore, even 16-17 year olds don’t face unsurmountable problems in getting served. The going rate for fake ID’s seems to be about $200 in both countries (there are cheaper alternatives but they tend to be unreliable).

Travel Rights (Passports)

If you like to travel, the UK passport is the best there is. Thanks to its “special relationship” with the US, and links to the British Commonwealth and the EU, a British national can visit some 166 countries without a visa. The US passport is almost as good with 159 visa free countries (though Cuba is banned outright unless you have an approved reason for it). The Russian passport is far behind with just 95 countries. Good for traveling through Central Asia and the Middle East, you’ll need a visa to visit the developed world bar Israel.

Good for getting out of town.

Good for getting out of town.

Though many Britons complain about the difficulties of getting a Russian visa, they pale besides the troubles Russians experience with visiting the UK. They have to fill in multiple forms with confidential financial and personal information, and can be – and frequently are, after the Litvinenko Affair – refused entry for no discernible reason.

Russia operates on the principle of “visa free travel must be reciprocal between states”, which IMO is a respectable stance; hence, if the British (or Europeans, Americans) want to visit Russia without hassle, they should pressure their own governments to simplify or remove visa procedures for Russians.

You might not get what you want from them, but British Embassies are by far the most pleasant of the lot. Russian ones are staffed by rude people and rather anarchic; there was something close to a riot the last time I was in the SF Russian Consulate. American embassies are protected by intimidating layers of armed men, and their staff tend to be the most arrogant of the lot.


Are an anti-freedom specific to the UK? The ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) is a restraint order that allows for your activities – even if they’re legal – to be restricted by court order on the “balance of evidence” (i.e. not even proof of guilt). They can be imposed based on anonymous denunciations. Violating their terms can result in a prison term. Usually used against troublesome teenagers.

Gambling Rights

Now that's what I call dedication to the cause!

Now that’s what I call dedication to the cause!

Gambling is without doubt the most liberalized in the US. The main centers of the gambling industry are in Las Vegas, Atlanta City, and Reno. The latter is particularly suitable for North Californians, especially if they also like skiing (Tahoe is just an hour’s drive away from Reno). The glitzy mega-casinos of Las Vegas used to be the global gambling mecca, but in the recent years it has been decisively overtaken by Macao.

Any one of dozens of casinos in Vegas dwarf the biggest casino in Britain, where they are much more restricted (recently there were plans to allow the construction of a few “super-casinos” in the UK, but IIRC they’ve fallen through).

All casinos in Russia were banned in 2009, except in four remote regions without any existing facilities; idiotically, poker was amongst the “gambling” games banned, and as such Russian players typically go to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or further abroad to Europe. As such, most remaining casinos in Russia are necessarily underground operations, that pay for police and/or political protection (the Prosecutor General’s son was implicated in a casino racketeering scandal a week ago). Being more risk-averse and less capitalistic than Americans, the conservative stance of the UK and Russia on gambling is broadly supported by the population.

EDIT 4/16/2011: The era of permissive US attitudes towards gambling may be waning, in the wake of the shutdown of the three largest online poker sites and arrest warrants for their CEO’s. Formally, what they were doing has been (arguably) illegal since 2006, but for whatever reason the Feds have only decided to move now. Online poker remains legal in the UK, (even) Russia, China, and most of Europe.

Violence & Nudity Rights

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

It’s cliché that American culture is violent, while Europeans are oversexed. I find this generally accurate. A German once told me about a video game in which some enemy characters were topless green fairies. When it came out in the stores, the Americans censored out the nipples; the Germans censored out the blood splatter. Nudity is far more prevalent on TV in Europe, even prime time, which would be unthinkable in the US with its more puritanical instincts. On the other hand, many aspects of American culture invoke the righteousness of controlled violence: Western shootouts; the Second Amendment; Grand Theft Auto; the entire zombie genre; grindhouse flicks (e.g.Texas Chainsaw Massacre); etc.

The UK has the worst – or the best – of both worlds. Violent imagery is not condoned as in the America and its gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the world (suffice to say that their Olympics pistol shooting team has to practice in France). And the general attitude towards nudity is still best exemplified by “No sex please, we’re British.” The placidness of British life is interrupted in sudden jolts by Friday night binges, in which they try to make up for days of rain-filled monotony with paroxysms of drunken licentiousness that is the stuff of legends throughout civilized Europe.

Female toplessness, let alone full nudity for men or women, is illegal in public for all three countries (if you want more liberality, then Germany, Scandinavia and Canada is where it’s at). On the other hand, it is not uncommon for young Russian women to wear see-through vests during summer. Their American counterparts like to wear opaque tights, while British girls have a penchant for short skirts.

The Americans and British favor swimming shorts for men and two-piece bikinis for women on the beach. Topless or clothing-free areas are atypical. Nowadays, Russia is drawing closer to the European mainstream in which female toplessness is more prevalent on the beaches. Russian men tend to wear swimming briefs, which are decidedly uncool in Britain and the US. Thongs have become popular in all three countries, but most remain too shy for string bikinis at the beach.

TV & Video Games

Russians are all round extremists. Back in the 1990′s, even prime-time TV was filled with images of the most blood-drenched inanity – what the eXile referred to as “death porn” – as well as real, hardcore pornography. Some sense of sobriety has since been restored to the TV stations and such scenes are now limited to late hours as in normal countries. The old atmosphere continues to reign on the Internet. It’s common to see photos of partial nudity on the more tabloid newspapers, which is unheard of on American ones and rare on British papers (to the extent that “Page 3″ is known by everyone to refer to The Sun‘s photos of topless models on, erm, the third page).

Not in Britain, please.

Not in Britain, please.

The British have by far the strictest ratings system for video games, with some like Manhunt 2 being banned outright. Almost nothing is banned in the US thanks to the First Amendment, though the age classifications system is pretty authoritarian. If there exists a video games classification agency in Russia, no one I know has ever heard of it; besides, it would be totally redundant since all video games are pirated there anyway.

One positive thing to say about Britain is that it has by far the most tolerable advertising on TV. It is shorter and not as in-your-face buy-my-product in style. The length of commercials makes watching TV in the US or Russia rather excruciating. One telling thing I’ve noticed is that about 25% of commercials in the US and Russia reflect their respective healthcare crises of obesity and alcoholism: high-carbohydrate, high-saturated fat foods in the US; beer in Russia. When watching Russian TV, you can tell when it strikes 10pm without consulting a clock, as the commercials become infested with beer promotions. One day about seven years ago I was watching a documentary on Russia TV that bewailed the nation’s economic and social crises and the government’s indifference – yes, contrary to what the Western media says, Russian TV does criticize the government – and one segment ended with some demographer citing the numbers of alcoholics in the country as evidence of social decline. This was immediately followed by a commercial for Baltika beer, as if determined to prove him right!

Abortion Rights

All three countries have abortion rights. The US since Roe vs. Wade in the 1970′s; the UK also since that period; Russia since Stalin’s death (and during 1920-1936). In the UK, a woman can get an abortion up until 26 weeks. IIRC, there are similar laws in the US; though conservative states put up a great deal of bureaucratic obstacles to women getting abortion. Some abortion doctors were even assassinated by religious fundamentalists.

In Russia, abortion is legal on request to 12 weeks, and for social reasons to 22 weeks. The country has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest abortion rates. There were 2-2.5 abortions for every live birth in the post-Stalinist USSR, where it was used as a major component of birth control; though this indicator began to fall consistently from 1993, it was not until 2007 that live births exceeded abortions.

Driving Rights

In the UK, you can take a driving test at the age of 17. They are far more rigorous than in Russia or the US. Many people fail multiple times. In the US, it depends by state: IIRC, the California driving age is 16, and it’s as low as 14 in some of the more rural states inland.

Russians can take driving tests from the age of 18, IIRC. They seem to be about as hard as US tests, but the passing criteria can be lowered depending on the size of your bribe to the instructor.

In all three countries, there is a written (computerized) and a driving component to the test. The written material is hardest in the UK, and one section actually involves watching videos and making split second decisions on what to do in dangerous situations. The written tests in all three countries involve answering fairly simple multiple-choice questions from a booklet that you study beforehand.

As a rule of thumb, it is legal to drink one pint of beer, or a glass of wine, but NOT two, when driving in Britain and the US. It is very unusual to see drunk people behind the wheel in both countries. There are a lot of drunkards on Russian roads, however the problem has decreased markedly since the mid-2000′s when a no tolerance policy towards driving and drinking was introduced (having the slightest traces of alcohol in your body leads to a suspension of your license).

You drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK, but on the right hand side in Russia and the US.

Drugs Rights

The cool states are colored green.

The cool states are colored green.

The US has a reputation for maintaining a hard line against marijuana, but the situation is more nuanced in practice. In someplace like Tennessee, you could go to jail for mere possession. In Berkeley, California, you can light up a joint at any public park. Policing marijuana possession here was put on the very lowest priority, below jaywalking, so obviously no-one cares. You can extend weed coverage to the rest of the California by telling the doctor that you “suffer” from some kind of “disease”, e.g. “migraine headaches” that can only be “alleviated” by smoking marijuana. The doctor will give you the medical certificate for a small fee and you can go hit the bong.

Drugs off all kinds are far easier to acquire in the US than in the UK according to, erm, acquaintances. I don’t know about the situation in Russia.

Piracy rights

In theory, Russia has copyright law; in practice, 90% of software in Russia is pirated and the chances off getting in trouble for it are virtually non-existent. Fire sharing is all prevalent. In the US it is an extremely serious offense, about on par with rape, thanks to the political power of the record companies. But fortunately for its tens of millions of illegal file downloaders, the individual’s chances of being detected and prosecuted are very low. Piracy is illegal and prosecuted in Britain, though the rare convictions that happen don’t tend to result in absurdly huge fines like in the US.


Both the US and Britain have professional armies. The last time the US had conscription was during the Vietnam War, and though it is extremely unlikely to be used again, men have to register with the Selective Service System upon turning 18 in case of a future mobilization. They can theoretically be called up until the age of 25. Britons had a system of National Service from World War 2 until the early 1960′s.

Conscription remains a major institution in Russian life. The bulk of its military is made up of conscripts, though the numbers of contract soldiers are rising. Conscription is slated to last until at least 2020. In the recent past, the length of service has recently been shortened from two years to one year. This was accompanied by a narrowing down of deferments, and greater efforts to crack down on draft evasion. There are biannual drafts in the spring and autumn.

In a typical scenario, the future conscript receives a letter from the local Military Commissariat (voenkomat) upon turning eighteen, informing him of his obligation to appear at their office. Unless one has a valid deferment (e.g. a place in a university) or resides overseas, failing to do so is a fairly serious offence. Then he has to go for a medical checkup with military doctors to ascertain suitability for service; they will, of course, try to prove that he’s healthy and fit to serve. This is followed by travel to the marshaling ground, where he is assigned and transported to his unit in another corner of the Russian Federation. Alternate service lasts longer and is very unprestigious, involving dirty work like cleaning sewers, so few opt for it.

Many wealthy and well-connected families can find ways for their sons to evade conscription or to get assigned to elite units where there’s little hazing. The most common method is to get a “white ticket”, certifying an illness that makes one unsuitable for service. Sometimes the illness is real, but more often it is imagined and paid for; the going rate amongst doctors for signing the appropriate papers is $2,000-$5,000. However, this “white ticket” (its real color is red) often results in future job discrimination; furthermore, it is unreliable because the Military Commissariat may insist on its own medical tests if they have suspicions about the existence of the illness (the correct response is to deny them this request in writing; legally, they cannot force those medical tests on someone).

Therefore, other methods of draft evasion are preferable, e.g., a direct bribe to the officers of the Military Commissariat. Not everyone can afford this; even a few years ago, the typical payment was around $5,000-10,000 (the amount depends on the Military Commissariat: some are cheaper, some are expensive, others actually don’t accept bribes). Since then, there has been a fall in the numbers of eligible conscripts (due to the collapse in birth rates during the 1990′s), a halving of the length of service, and an increasingly serious anti-corruption campaign. This means that a rising proportion of each year’s male cohort has to be called up to maintain the Armed Forces at one million soldiers. As a result, successful draft evasions have fallen, while typical bribe sizes have soared well above $10,000.

Though training and conditions of service are better than in the cash-strapped years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are still very substandard and extensively criticized by human rights groups. In particular, hazing – called dedovschina (lit. “rule of the grandfathers”, i.e. of soldiers nearing the end of their service) – is prevalent in many units and directly results in the deaths of a few dozen soldiers every year. (In total, about 200-300 commit suicide in total out of the one million-strong armed forces; some would have done so anyway, but others are surely caused by hazing).

It was hoped that the reduction in length of service would reduce incidents of hazing, because it would (by definition) eliminate the “grandfathers”, but it actually may have had the opposite effect. When administered through the grandfathers, the system had a certain framework of rules and traditions to it; today, the hierarchy is no longer set by length of service, but by the rule of the jungle. With no tradition of a strong NCO corps, checking this chaos will be a major challenge in the coming years.

All that said, I stress that far from everyone regards the Armed Forces with fear and loathing. Of those I know who served in the Russian Army, most describe it as an exercise in pointlessness and boredom; what bullying they experienced happened to other people in other units. A few even look back in fondness. According to opinion polls, Russians are evenly split on whether to continue conscription. Some say it helps build character and discipline; others regard the Army as a dangerous prison, or at best a waste of time.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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I’ve remembered about the article What We Believe I wrote two years back, in the early days when I was still writing anonymously (as “stalker”) and was pretending to be a team. Had fun rereading it, almost like a time machine. My views on Russia have remained mostly unchanged. I’ve grown to become somewhat more positive about the legacy of the Soviet Union; like most Russians, I retain the same ambiguous attitude towards Stalin, whom I have described as “the despotic Messiah who led and ruled [Russians] like the God of the Old Testament”; and I am as convinced as ever of the hypocritical and double standards-laced coverage of subjects like Putin, Chechnya, and Russia’s human rights record in the Western media.

Furthermore, I’ve become much more skeptical about the universalism of liberalism and HR. Two years back I believed the West should be actively involved in cultivating social progress in regards to women’s rights, LGBT rights, etc, in backward areas of the Muslim world; not any more, though I remain a social progressive. It’s just that I’ve recognized that these concepts – liberalism, HR, etc – are but manifestations of a specific Romano-Germanic (Western) culture, and do not necessarily have much resonance with the cultural traditions of other civilizations. In some cases the cultural clash between the two leaves produced nothing but destruction. Other civilizations should be left free to forge their own path into the iron cage of modernity, or not.

Far more interesting was reading my own “General Values” from two years ago, back when the world was so different and global neoliberalism appeared to be at high noon – whereas in reality it is near sunset, in large part due to the imminence of peak oil and the creeping insolvency of Pax Americana. I too have changed a lot. Reading about myself from back then is almost like listening to a highly familiar, but nonetheless different, person. From economic centrism, of the Krugmanite variety, to Green Communism. From atheism to pantheism. Lots more postmodernist claptrap. Etc. Let me outline my beliefs two years on.

Political Compass

Da Russophile is economically centrist, extremely liberal socially and supportive of liberal democracy, albeit with an authoritarian streak. We are Economic Left/Right: -1.25, Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.59 on the Political Compass test.

Make that economically leftist, extremely liberal socially, and with an interpretation of political power that is much freer from forced categorization. Who is more democratic, the deaf “liberal” ideologue with a 5% approval rating or the post-ideological pragmatist / semi-authoritarian uniter with an 80% approval rating?* The post-historical “liberal democratic” country ran by socialist oligarchs or an unelected “deliberative dictatorship” that acts on opinion polls and executes corrupt officials using mobile execution buses? For what it’s worth, I am now Economic Left/Right: -9.50, Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.28 on the Political Compass. Quite a shift leftward if there ever was one.


We are atheists and have a secular worldview. We do not think religion is useful for anything other than some of its aesthetic aspects (like choral music and icons)…

I no longer agree with this at all. All worldviews are valid from within their own frames of reference. The Christianity of the Middle Ages – as reflected in the sublimity of their holy rites, the dark Gothic splendor of the cathedrals rising above the plains, etc – had at least as much meaning and validity to the West European peasant mind, as does the science-rationalism of the Machine to the modern Faustian mind. I have come to appreciate this, in a postmodern way, and have now embraced pantheism; all religions have validity, they are all slivers of one indivisible, unbounded whole, the Void. In particular, I appreciate Orthodox Christianity for its aesthetics, and the great Eastern philosophical religions – Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism. I think there is great potential in synthesizing traditional belief with secular mythologies such as Marxism, achieving a sublation that reconciles social and cultural progress with eternal transcendental values and ideals such as the sobornost (the just social contract) and natural balance (ecological homeostasis, in the scientific jargon).

Death Penalty

Our position on the death penalty is that it is wrong out of a) humanitarian concerns (that is, death row syndrome) and b) the impossibility of making 100% sure that innocents are never executed. Nonetheless, we recognize that there is a (one) valid justification for the death penalty – deterrance. This applies particularly to those countries where violent crime is at very high levels (South Africa, Columbia, etc). We also accept its use as a deterrant against corruption, as is the case in China and Vietnam – this is because corruption also kills people, if indirectly. Since our goal is deterrance (rather than ‘moral’ reasons of ‘eye for an eye’ retribution), we see this as merely being consistent.

I have to admit I tend to oscillate in my support for the death penalty. At some moments I feel all humane and sentimental. At other points I follow the logic above, and support it for: murder, serial rape, child rape, human trafficking, treason, and gross corruption & sabotage (on the scale of >10mn $, say). After all, is it not an affirmation of a higher and noble form of love for one’s people, the love inherent in self-sacrifice, to vouch for the death penalty (which is an objective form of deterrent), despite one’s moral scruples?

Another idea I’ve had on this topic is to determine guilt by the standard jury method, but let the people decide the punishment. So the bad guy / gal gets to make an impassioned televised plea to the nation electronically voting on the punishment. If (s)he is convincing and / or pitiable enough, the sentence gets adjusted from the death penalty to community service, psychiatric treatment, flogging, deportation to the Canadian gulags, and reality TV gladiator death games like in the dystopian movies (maybe not). And it’s all very democratic. BTW, another thing – the current prison system should be eliminated or at least massively downsized.

Anyhow, reality supersedes individual beliefs. The social rifts that will be inevitably opened up by the shocks of peak oil and its consequences will probably lead to the reintroduction of the death penalty throughout Europe, and the expansion of its use elsewhere (e.g. for corruption and sabotage, which become far more serious issues in a world of scarcity and limits to growth).


We are in favor of full abortion rights, since it is our opinion that a) women should have full sovereignty over their own bodies and b) that a clump of human cells with no self-awareness should not be considered a person with rights. We view restrictions on abortion as violations of human rights.

I will take this opportunity to expound on an old idea of mine for a new ethics for the Information Age (though I can’t say I fully subscribe to it).

This is a values system based on patterns. Every human individual is an extraordinarily complex and interesting pattern. A pattern, formally defined, is a set of rules which can be used to generate things – the pattern is said to exhibit itself if the things created have enough in common for the underlying rules to be inferred. Hence, we can treat a specifically adult human pattern as a soul (with its capacity of around 10^26 calculations per second and specific software or neural makeup), and the set of all patterns in our universe as the Pattern; the values system will be based on patterns and their particular relationship, in complexity, interest and ‘meaningfulness’, to a soul; over time, of course, the latter two concepts will evolve with the whole Pattern. This opens up a Pandora’s box of possible repercussions, but they are all containable and can be used to justify a range of propositions.

For instance, abortion is permissible because the pattern of a human foetus is negligibly small compared with the soul of the mother-to-be; it is directly comparable to that of lower animals, depending on the state of its development. Outright banning abortion will inflict much greater net sin because of the psychological damage to the soul, and its possible total termination due to unsafe backstreet abortions. Furthermore, it can save souls by lowering the murder rate, as maintained by Steven Levitt… Nonetheless, such an ethics system does not make killing a human baby equivalent to killing, say, a parrot with the intelligence of a five year old, so long as the aforementioned baby has souls heavily devoted to it; by terminating it, one removes the neural connections stimulated or used to communicate with the baby, so one in fact destroys a significant part of several souls through such a deed.

This new ethics can be summarized with a rather freehanded conversion of Asimov’s original Three Laws of Robotics – these will be the Three Laws of the New Ethics.

  1. Preserve existing patterns.
  2. Expand patterns in scope and complexity unless it conflicts with the First Law.
  3. Future patterns also have value, but their sum converges to a limit.

The inevitable question – doesn’t this apply to the death penalty? Not really. While the death penalty destroys a soul (Law 1), the deterrent effect preserves a lot more further down the road (Law 3)


Da Russophile supports a gradual decriminalization of all drugs. We consider ‘wars on drugs’, like ‘wars on terrors’, to be a cover for infringements on human rights and state corruption. Licensing them will take money away from criminal organizations and bolster government funds, which can be directed towards healthcare (including treating drug addicts). Marijuana, LSD and ecstasy are fun things and as such little different in essence from alcohol and tobacco, which are legal out of the force of tradition. We would also tax the fat, salts and sugar content in foods so as to cut heart disease and cancer rates and create incentives to move to healthier diets.

Yes, bring on the fat tax and libertarian drug laws.

Economic Philosophy

We would best be described as economic centrists, though in general we like to steer clear of labels, preferring to judge policies on their own merits. We support liberal ‘ease of doing business’ laws (e.g. on unemployment, starting up companies, etc) and private participation in the social sphere, e.g. healthcare, education, etc. In general, we oppose government subsidies to failing industries, preferring instead that they invest money into retraining workers. However, we support an extensive welfare state that would shield everyone and anyone in case of crisis – our role model is mostly Scandinavian.

Global capitalism, however thickly sugar-coated with socialism / welfarism, is incapable of resolving its fundamental contradiction – that economic growth is its essence, and thus ecological overshoot and collapse are inevitable barring a technological silver bullet, i.e., a deux ex machine. Read my post on Green Communism.

Trade & Protectionism

We support free trade so as to achieve the optimal division of labor and hence prosperity in the world.

Free trade is only good if it’s really free, which it is not. So I retract this. And let’s not even go into the energy and ecological costs of the freighter fleets and air transports fueling the global consumerist orgy.


We support the goals of the feminist movement and consider that gender equality has not yet been achieved anywhere. Men are still more valued as bread-winners and women-more as home-makers, and changing these social perceptions is one of our goals.

Some musings I wrote on this, again quite a while back – a Hegelian interpretation of herstory.

Consider the dialogue of power between the sexes. In prehistoric societies, women held a rough balance of power, apparently independently procreating, augmenting the sustenance base through forage and practising medicine from the derived knowledge of plant properties. However, men’s focus on animal domestication – derived from their previous hunting specialization – drew their attention to the link between animal copulation and reproduction. Women came to be seen as mere vessels, defined as unwilling and unable to participate in battles for pure prestige and hence entirely subhuman. Furthermore, harsher tribal societies based on herding tended to subjugate agricultural societies and so embed their values upon their submissive populations. By the times of the Old Testament women were little more than chattel in the most advanced cradle of civilization, the Near East.

However, after thousands of years, Christianity (and Islam) came to be widely adopted: both proclaimed theoretical spiritual equality between everyone. In time the image of women was transformed into the ‘Lady’ of courtly love, an object of admiration and worthy of respect that was to continue on into the industrial era as the Victorian ‘angel of the house’, moral agent of cleanliness and sobriety. Yet the social agitation of the industrial ‘wage-slaves’ resulted in a clamour for extension of the democratic franchise, a wing of which included the suffragettes. The first part of the twentieth century saw the franchise extended to women in much of the advanced world, with a few local exceptions like Switzerland; the second part witnessed the active promotion of social equality between the sexes, enabled above all by the Pill (a facet of technology) that allowed the liberated feminist to reassert her own sexuality.

Hence we observe that the major step changes in feminist history – vessel, lady and woman – coincide with both social (slavery, feudalism and capitalism) and economic (agriculture, basic mechanization, industrialism) paradigm shifts, even though social transformations tends to be both blurred and lag behind economic changes. ‘Herstory’ is the collective history of the female thymos – the combined desire of women to achieve recognition as human beings and to reject their epithet as the ‘second sex’. That is the world-historical mission of the feminist movement, which has always existed even if it only recognized itself for what it was just two hundred years ago with the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other visionaries.

Things are now returning back to the future, which is a cyber-primitivist one, the circle returns to the original point but higher up (or lower down) on the spiral of history. Perhaps the circle will be broken entirely by the development of an artificial womb (more research and experiments should be done on this).

Limits to Growth

It is obvious that global warming is both real and anthropic. Furthermore, the latest research implies that it is catastrophic, threatning to go out of control once it passes certain tipping points – which may well have been passed already. Hence, man-made emissions, by raising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and thus causing global warming, can trigger other mechanisms that will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – frozen methane clathrates under the world’s seas, methane in the Siberian permafrost and Indonesian peat bogs, and the vast amount of carbon locked into the world’s tropical forests. …

Yes, but even more so; I know support a global policy of “sustainable retreat” from industrialism in search of Green Communism. Furthermore, unlike 2 years back when I was a relative optimist on the energy front, I am now a full-blown “peaker” on oil and resource issues. It shows.

Other Issues

Unfortunately, LGBT rights are weak…


We support testing on animals.

But with a lot more reservations and strict conditions than which I had in my days of tunnel-minded faith in the religion of science. We should recognize that pharmaceutical industries are bloated and corrupt; that in many cases traditional alternative approaches produce better results; and that in some sense (e.g. growing antibiotic resistance), industrial-era medicine is going down a dead alley. Quite literally.

We are against censorship.

At least in principle.

We are against gun control, since we think than an armed citizenry tends to reduce the crime rate. However, we insist on licensing and would stop short of allowing full-automatics to be sold.

Remove the full-automatics bit. One can never have too many guns.

For more on my beliefs, especially those related to Russia and being afflicted with a diasporic mentality, see my interview @ Siberian Light.

* E.g., Yushchenko and Putin, respectively.

Edit 2013: Needless to say I no longer agree with a lot of this.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Steyn, MarkAmerica Alone: The End of the World as we Know It (2006)
Category: Islam; Eurabia; humor; Rating: 3/5
Summary: The future belongs to Islam (M. Steyn)

It crept up on the West silently. Even as post-historical white Europeans were busy puffing on their weed, hugging trees and chanting Kumbaya in a happy circle, in the dark recesses of their post-industrial civilization – from Britain’s wrecked mill towns to the gray apartment blocks of Malmö, a dark force was bedding, breeding and brooding on history’s return to the mighty continent. They were the Muslims.

*ominous drumbeat*

Slow and surely, they used the lobbying methods of gay rights and feminist organizations to spread their baneful influence to the heights of political power. Sharia enforced at the point of a gun became the law of the land in the grim banlieues of Paris and the gray apartment blocks of Londonistan. They became centers of global jihadist networks that intertwined modern technology, ancient hatreds and Western moral relativism to strike severe blows at its quailing hosts, the apathetic, limp-wristed citizenries presided over by disconnected Eurocrats who were too terrified to do anything but appease. All heroic dissenters, like Mark Steyn, who tried to warn Europe of its mortal peril, were ungratefully cut off by political correctness laws – where the Islamists did not cut off their heads for real, that is.

Some Europeans realized what was happening. Some “reverted” to the Islamofascist wave of the future, making their peace with the new world. The enterprising and quick-witted emigrated to the US of A, one of the world’s few remaining citadels of freedom and prosperity. Most accepted their fate passively – aging, deprived of their pensions through state bankruptcies, forced to pay jizya to their new masters who cut their beards, took away their beer and covered up their women. Though a few bands of neo-Nazi “patriots” tried to stem the Islamic tide, they were outnumbered and crushed in the ensuing civil wars.


The world retreated into a new Dark Age of nuclear-armed tinpot dictatorships, transnational terrorists equipped with the latest technology, a totalitarian China, a re-primitivized Russia of nuclearized anarchy fought over by the Chinese Army, brutal Muslim warlords and the dispossessed remnants of its original denizens, and a civil war-torn Europe alternating between fascist black and Islamist green. The barbarian of chaos and destruction leaves only a single, tattered Stars and Stripes fluttering on the winds of time, for now America stands alone as the last bastion of enlightenment amidst the stifling darkness that threatens to engulf it too.

That is, more or less, the main thesis of Mark Steyn’s book and much of his other work. His major argument behind the Eurabia theory can be summed up by three points:

  • Loss of precious bodily fluidsEurope’s demographic decline. While Islam is confident and expanding, Europe is in a demographic death spiral. Most countries on the Mediterranean rim and central Europe have total fertility rates below 1.3 children per woman, the “lowest-low fertility from which no human society in history has ever recovered”. While Westerners worry about trees and overpopulation, Muslims are copulating, settling and opening up new fronts in the global jihad. Though it is true that Muslim fertility is also falling, demography is a game of last man standing: it will be of little consolation to dispossessed secular Europeans if fertility rates fall below replacement levels by 2100 in minaret-stacked Eurabia.
  • Stupid limp-wristed leftardsthe unsustainability of the social-democratic state. Though aging is not necessarily a death knell for a society (it increases savings, for instance), it is unworkable in a social-democratic society – “demography is an existential crisis for the developed world, because the twentieth-century social democratic state was built on a careless model that requires a constantly growing population to sustain it”. Hence, “Islam has youth and will, Europe has age and welfare”. This wil lead to fiscal bankruptcy and enervation. Even non-Muslim immigration is no solution because even discounting the morality of robbing the developing world of its doctors and engineers, why on Earth would young professionals in booming economies emigrate to graying, tax-burdened Europe when their own countries are becoming so much better?
  • Lolzcivilizational exhaustion. The last point is one in the style of “fall of the Roman Empire” / “decline of the West” / biological-spiritual / passionarity theories. As government annexes all the “responsibilities of adulthood” (health, childcare, elderly care), it has “effectively severed its citizens from humanity’s primal instincts, not least the survival instinct”. Meanwhile, the correlation of forces between the West and the rest is moving in unfavorable directions. Whereas once Europe exported people all over the world, it is now fast becoming a colony of Dar al-Islam. Terrorists talk by cell phone, plot murder on notebooks and travel by airplace. Starving countries have nukes. New enemies like al-Qarda are “transnational, globalized, locally franchised, extensively outsourced. He laments that though the US is a superpower, it is – and is perceived to be – too spiritually feeble to use its power – a benign hegemon, sugardaddy to limp-wristed European socialism and a global object of hatred despite its best efforts – be it for its moral decadence (Islamist complaint) or its consumerism and opposition to environmentalism (European complaint). Though the Islamists are far less advanced, in the words of Maulana Inyadulah, “Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death!” And Steyn believes such will will triumph over matter.

On the other hand, there are important caveats and rebuttals to add to each of these points, which Steyn either neglects or glosses over.

Is European Fertility doomed?

While south / central Europe’s demographic decline is real and will present a major challenge to the fiscal sustainability of its pension and social welfare systems in the decades to come (especially since the cheap energy that previously drove growth will be a thing of the past), it should be noted that in recent years there has been a generalized increase in fertility throughout Europe – compared to the figures he quotes to the latest data, there were increases in Canada (1.5 to 1.6), Europe (1.4 to 1.5), Russia (1.1 to 1.5), and the US remained at the same level (2.1); only Japan decreased (1.3 to 1.2). I doubt how we could claim that it is precisely 1.3 children that constitute the “lowest-low” level from which there is no recovery. Intuitively, society MUST recover because it is precisely the social milieu that has few children will become extinct; social conservatives will inherit the Earth (see the classic article The Return of Patriarchy).

Furthermore, smaller cohorts tend to have better employment prospects (fewer new people chasing jobs) and can therefore marry earlier and have more children and the recent spurt in European fertility may be a symptom of this. On the other hand, special circumstances – the a) soaring tax requirements of an aging population accustomed to social democracy and b) the cessation of growth due to increasing global competition for depleting energy resources may well mean that Europe never will pull out of its demographic death spiral. Maybe.

Steyn gets Russia totally wrong

“’The sick man of Europe’, with falling life expectancy, riddled with HIV and tuberculosis and heart disease, its infrastructure crumbling, its borders unenforceable, and its wily kleptocracy draining its wealth Westward”. The population is supposed to fall to 130mn in 2015 and 50-60mn by 2100, driven by a death spiral of abortion, AIDS (0.25mn-0.75mn deaths per year to soon materialize) – leading to Islamification, wars with loose nukes, its “empty resource rich eastern hinterland” taken over by China, etc.

As I’ve pointed out in many previous articles (see Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography), these are all either a) real factors, but whose significance is vastly overstated, or b) not significant at all.

Re-abortion. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the total fertility rate. Abortion was the predominant method of birth control in the Soviet Union and that didn’t prevent it from maintaining near-replacement level fertility levels. And in any case it is now falling in prevalence.

Re-population. Unrealistic. Linear extrapolation of current trends. Yadda yadda. See my predictions at Faces of the Future. Note that since as of 2009 the population was at 142mn, it will now have to drop by 12mn over the next 6 years to fulfill the 130mn people by 2015 forecast – patently risible considering that the population is now basically stable and that even during the worst years of the post-Soviet demographic crunch the decline never exceeded 1mn per year.

Re-AIDS apocalypse. Assumes the spread will follow a sexual, sub-Saharan pattern of transmission, whereas in reality a) it remains confined to the (small) injecting drug-user subpopulation and b) the number of pregnant HIV-positive women peaked in 2002 and has since plateaued. The multi-million death AIDS apocalypse has failed to materialize despite predictions it would be in full swing sometime by now.

Re-Islamification. Again unrealistic given that the two largest Muslim ethnic groups – the Tatars and Bashkirs – have TFR’s that are nearly equal to those of ethnic Russians, and even all the Caucasian Muslim population TFR’s have fallen below replacement levels (with the sole exception of Chechnya). The prospect of a Eurasian Caliphate remains a dream to Wahhabis and a nightmare to Steyn, nothing more or less.

Possibly his most stupid idea – proposing that Russia marries off its surplus women to China’s surplus men. Idiotic because Russia’s population imbalance only becomes statistically insignificant after 40! Speaking of which, he also prophesies China’s collapse because of the popular theory it will “get old before it gets rich”. China is quite capable of getting rich before getting old simply because of the sheer momentum of its economic convergence, as argued in this Goldman Sachs paper.

How many Muslim are there and how fast are they increasing?

Apart from positing low, continuing European fertility rates – which is entirely possible, but far from set in stone – the Eurabia Theory also relies on four other assumptions: a) there are hordes of Muslims in the EU, b) they have very high fertility rates, c) they will continue to have very high fertility rates and d) Europeans will not limit Muslim immigration.

First, there aren’t that many Muslims in the EU. Most estimates put them at around 15m-20mn of the EU’s 450mn+ population, including a maximum 6mn (10%) in France. So starting from such a low base you will need prodigious fertility rates AND immigration to make Europe morph into Eurabia any time soon. There is little evidence of either:

In Austria, for example, Muslim women had a total fertility rate… of 3.1 children per woman in 1981, well above the 1.7 average for the majority Roman Catholic women. By 2001, the rate for Catholics had fallen to 1.3, but the Muslim rate had fallen to 2.3—leaving a difference of just one child per woman between Muslims and non-Muslims.

…West Germany recruited a large number of workers from Turkey beginning in the 1960s, giving Germany one of Western Europe’s largest Muslim populations. In 1970, Turkish women living in West Germany had more than two more children than German women. By 1996, the difference between these two groups had fallen to one child.

Recent trends in the Netherlands tell a similar story [figure shows TFR for native Dutch women remaining at 1.5-1.7 during 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005; while falling substantially for Moroccon-born women (4.9, 3.4, 3.2, 2.9) and Turkish-born women (3.2, 2.5, 2.2, 1.9)].

Though Muslim birth rates are higher than indicated by their TFR because of their different age structure from indigenous populations (they are typically younger with more people in their reproductive ages), this will gradually wear off.

True, some Muslims may be uncounted. Steyn notes that in France “around 30% are said to be Muslim” amongst those under 20 years old [my emphasis - who says?], including 45% in the major cities. And it is certainly suspicious that amongst the continental West European nations it is those that have the densest Muslim concentrations also have particularly high fertility rates (e.g. France, the Netherlands). This is one of the more convincing point to be made in favor of Eurabia.

Are Muslims a monolithic bloc opposed to Western liberalism?

Steyn is not helpful by constantly expressing alarm how Mohammed is becoming the most popular name in several European cities: as the name of the Prophet, it is by far the most popular Muslim boy’s name, whereas there’s a thicker cluster of top names amongst Europeans. Which brings us to another point: Steyn’s proclivity towards Orientalizing the Muslims by treating them as a monolithic group opposed to the West. This is probably not justified:

Moreover, the myth of Eurabia implies the existence of a united Islam, a bloc capable of collective and potentially dangerous action. The truth is that there are no powerful Muslim political movements in Europe, either continentwide or at the national level, and the divisions that separate Muslims worldwide, most obviously between Sunnis and Shiites, are apparent in Europe as well. Each major nation in Europe has drawn Muslim immigrants from distinct regions of the Islamic world, often former colonies, with different traditions and outlooks. A British Muslim from Pakistan would struggle to communicate with a French Muslim from Algeria. A second-generation Muslim from Turkey living in Germany will have little in common with a newly arrived Moroccan across the border in Belgium. Sharp differences exist even within national frontiers. In Germany, more than one in 10 Muslims are Alawites, who aren’t even recognized as coreligionists by the more orthodox.

In areas of personal morality, attitudes vary markedly, too. One recent Gallup poll found that more than 30 percent of French Muslims were ready to accept homosexuality, compared with zero in Britain. Almost half of French Muslims believed sex between unmarried people was morally acceptable, compared with 27 percent of German Muslims. [The relatively liberality of French Muslims is encouraging, considering that France is destined to become the most "Islamized" country in Western Europe] And violent zealotry is for the tiny minority: polls repeatedly reaffirm that Muslims overwhelmingly disapprove of terrorism. In some countries, the mood is broadly secular. “The majority of Muslims in France are, in fact, decoupled from their religion. They just blend into an amorphous mass of brown or black people,” says Ali Allawi, the former Iraqi defense minister and author of the The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Jochen Hippler, a German political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, says he has had young Turks come up to him to ask what Islam is all about. “They have lost any connection with the religion of their parents and grandparents,” he says. A recent government survey showed that 40 percent of Iranians living in Germany identified themselves as having no religion, as did 23 percent of North Africans. In the Netherlands, the proportion of Muslims who regularly attend the mosque—27 percent—is lower than the proportion of Protestants who go to church.

This is a very important point, btw. First, no country that I know of hosts a major Islamist party in Western Europe. Their influence is limited to marginal movements like “Respect” in Britain, which is in any case officially hardline-socialist. Though Steyn evidently considers their (relative) lack of education and unemployment a source of strength, this concept eludes the more logical mind.

Second, though it is true Muslims identify to a much greater with their religion than, say, Anglicans, their levels of “patriotism” are usually no lower than, and sometimes higher, than those of their countrymen.

What explains European Muslim terrorists?

Why do so many terrorists come from Muslim Europe? See the text quoted above. Their ethnic ties with their home countries were severed. Their young feel rejected by their host countries, deprived of opportunities by the prevalence of employment discrimination.

Unemployment among people of French origin is 9.2%. Among those of foreign origin, the figure is 14% – even after adjusting for educational qualifications.

Understandably, some may turn to radical Islam as a palliative to their despair, an object of belief in an atomized society, and their dream of redemption. Steyn adamantly refuses to consider things from the viewpoint of 20-something Parisian Muslims (apart from the advantages / free time offered by social welfare, which he hates): ebbing ethnic ties to Algeria / Morocco / etc; social anomie; disillusionment with French society – he is better educated than his immigrant parents, but is denied opportunities by employment discrimination / the anti-small business attitudes of the French elites; living in a cramped apartment in a rough suburb; watching co-religionists get threatened and blown up by Western bombs in far-away corners of the world for standing up for their dignity (as they perceive it); reading too much Koran mixed with those fools like Nietzsche, Baudrillard, etc (many terrorists are surprisingly well-educated); etc. Note also that many Europeans have rather low opinions of Muslims (and don’t forget that Europe is a continent infected with political correctness, so the true figures for Britain, France, etc, will like be higher):

So is it really surprising that sizable portions of European Muslims would be willing to voice support for terrorism against their host nation (around 15% in the case of Britain)? And is it really surprising that of those, a small fraction will be willing to go through with it? In any case this combination of social, economic and psychological factors explains Islamic terrorism far better than Steyn’s facile attribution of it to their backwardness and hatred of the West in his attempts to justify Western imperialism.

A Caveat

That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a limp-wristed multiculti filled with idealistic admiration for the Muslim communities of Europe. Many of them are crime-ridden, the young are poorly-educated and don’t compensate with the discipline expected of them in traditional Muslim nations. And there are certainly (far too many) anecdotes of women getting terrorized and indigenous inhabitants getting roughed up in these neighborhoods. This is not as big a problem in the US, where a) there is no generous welfare system – so immigrants HAVE to assimilate, get a job, etc, and b) greater selectivity over whom to allow to emigrate to its shores. That said, there’s no need to replace the limp-wristed mutliculti leftard myths with bigoted ultra-right-wing myths.

What about the hordes of Muslim immigrants?

Furthermore, Muslim fertility is falling rapidly since many Islamic nations are currently undergoing a “demographic transition”. Here is a typical sample of TFR’s across the Islamic world: Indonesia (2.3), Pakistan (3.6), Bangladesh (2.8), Egypt (2.7), Iran (1.7), Turkey (2.2), Morocco (2.5), Algeria (1.8), Saudi Arabia (3.8), Tunisia (1.7). This is much reduced from prevailing rates two decades ago and not in fact much different from fertility rates in Europe during the 1950′s-1960′s miracle economy years. Indeed some countries in the Maghreb (the main source of immigrants to France) and Iran – that ultimate symbol of scary Islamist autocracy, already have below replacement level fertility.

This means that population pressure is gradually subsiding in the Muslim world – most importantly, in Turkey and North Africa – the closest regions to Europe. Their own economies, gradually shifting from the Malthusian / agricultural to the capital-accumulative / industrial, will be able to soak up increasing shares of indigenous labor. People only ever want to emigrate if their country is impoverished and unstable (as was Turkey, North Africa during the 1960′s – and when Europe needed labor for intensive industrial development); these conditions are fading away, and so are emigrants. Europe as a whole is moving in a conservative, anti-immigration direction.

Islam is weak and unsure

Contrary to Steyn’s assertions that Islam is a strong, expanding power, it is nothing of the sort. It is a set of cultural traditions that have been thrown into a profound existential crisis by contact with the West. Many Muslims are uneasy towards it; some managed to assimilate with it; a few have drawn on the wellspring of general ressentiment against the West, marrying one aspect of the West – its advanced technics, with an imagined Islamic past of unadulterated virtue and piety (e.g. bin Laden). Yet this is no panacea, as Iran perhaps proves. From Spengler’s Sex, Drugs and Islam (the Asia Times columnist Spengler, that is):

Until very recently, an oil-price windfall gave the Iranian state ample resources to pursue its agenda at home and abroad. How, then, should we explain an eruption of social pathologies in Iran such as drug addiction and prostitution, on a scale much worse than anything observed in the West? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that Islamic theocracy promotes rather than represses social decay.

Iran is dying. The collapse of Iran’s birth rate during the past 20 years is the fastest recorded in any country, ever. Demographers have sought in vain to explain Iran’s population implosion through family planning policies, or through social factors such as the rise of female literacy. But quantifiable factors do not explain the sudden collapse of fertility. It seems that a spiritual decay has overcome Iran, despite best efforts of a totalitarian theocracy. Popular morale has deteriorated much faster than in the “decadent” West against which the Khomeini revolution was directed.

PS. Rather off-topic, but there’s also support for my thesis that Iran is going to unleash a spurt of aggressive rhetoric – and perhaps more – against the West within the decade, culminating in some kind of revolution or dying down of fervor, and rebuilding of bridges.

Their efforts to isolate Iran from the cultural degradation of the American “great Satan” have produced social pathologies worse than those in any Western country. With oil at barely one-fifth of its 2008 peak price, they will run out of money some time in late 2009 or early 2010. Game theory would predict that Iran’s leaders will gamble on a strategic long shot. That is not a comforting thought for Iran’s neighbors. [This explains the power shifts underway since the mid-2000's - and accelerated in 2009 - from the clerical oligarchy to the forces of the IRCG represented by Ahmadinejad].

… As in the decline of communism, what follows on the breakdown of a state ideology is likely to be nihilism. Iran is a dying country, and it is very difficult to have a rational dialogue with a nation all of whose available choices terminate in oblivion.

Back on topic. He rather overdoes Iran’s problems, of course. Though a TFR of 1.7 is low, it is relatively high compared to Europe and may furthermore be a temporary factor due to a) fertility postponement or b) over-saturation of the job market and housing problems (well-known as political / election problems in Iran). That said, this does illustrate the point. Nor is it limited to Iran. From Ed Luttwak’s classical The Middle of Nowhere:

Yet even the most thinly qualified of middle east experts must know that Islam, as with any other civilisation, comprehends the sum total of human life, and that unlike some others it promises superiority in all things for its believers, so that the scientific and technological and cultural backwardness of the lands of Islam generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. That fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence…

… We devote far too much attention to the middle east, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts—excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the middle east is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa. The people of the middle east (only about five per cent of the world’s population) are remarkably unproductive, with a high proportion not in the labor force at all. Not many of us would care to work if we were citizens of Abu Dhabi, with lots of oil money for very few citizens. But Saudi Arabia’s 27m inhabitants also live largely off the oil revenues that trickle down to them, leaving most of the work to foreign technicians and laborers: even with high oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s annual per capita income, at $14,000, is only about half that of oil-free Israel.

Saudi Arabia has a good excuse, for it was a land of oasis hand-farmers and Bedouin pastoralists who cannot be expected to become captains of industry in a mere 50 years. Much more striking is the oil parasitism of once much more accomplished Iran. It exports only 2.5m barrels a day as compared to Saudi Arabia’s 8m, yet oil still accounts for 80 per cent of Iran’s exports because its agriculture and industry have become so unproductive.

The middle east was once the world’s most advanced region, but these days its biggest industries are extravagant consumption and the venting of resentment. According to the UN’s 2004 Arab human development report, the region boasts the second lowest adult literacy rate in the world (after sub-Saharan Africa) at just 63 per cent [another damning statistics from that report: more books are translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic - ever]. Its dependence on oil means that manufactured goods account for just 17 per cent of exports, compared to a global average of 78 per cent. Moreover, despite its oil wealth, the entire middle east generated under 4 per cent of global GDP in 2006—less than Germany.

So yeah. For all Ahmadinjad’s rather distasteful comments about Israel, etc, etc, neocons painting Iran as the next Nazi Germany are either very cynical or stark raving mad. And so is Steyn with his alarmism – in fact, he himself acknowledges this by quoting Mahathir Mohamad’s pessimistic remarks on Islam’s backwardness re-science and technology.

Why Muslims should fear Europeans

Europe is the original black continent. It may well become so again, and there’s little doubt who their first targets will be. Steyn criticizes Europeans for their limp-wristedness, but I doubt a generation or so of cheap energy-fueled prosperity and gay pride parades have extirpated their traditional “burn the neighboring village” proclivities. The fate of liberal democracy is uncertain in nations increasingly burdened by aging workforces, declining access to cheap energy, forced deindustrialization, etc – especially ones like Germany where it was imposed from outside.

And then there’s climate change. For all the mockery Steyn has for tree-hugging, he does not realize the central part the carrying capacity of the land – which depends on a myriad of factors like technology, energy availability, climate, sustainable practices, etc – has always played in human demography. Values are secondary. Antarctica will never support more people than the limp-wristed Netherlands, even if it’s exclusively populated by right-wing hardasses like Steyn himself. (Well, not unless it melts anyway, which Steyn is certainly indifferent to – so perhaps not the best example).

And unlike Europe, the Islamic world is very much beyond sustainability – which makes its population explosion a crippling burden, not a strength. Even today, the Middle East is the world’s only region that cannot provide for its own food subsistence; it imports billions of tons of “virtual water” from other countries to bridge the gap. Though countries like Saudi Arabia will manage to continue doing this thanks to their oil endowments, this is not the case for nations like Syria, Pakistan or Yemen (he latter is in a particularly bad bind – it has both rapidly falling water tables, plummeting agricultural production and population soaring even faster than in neighboring Saudi Arabia). Countries like these may sink into destitution, famine and extremism, spurring mass refugee movements. An increasingly conservative (or perhaps by then fascist) Europe may not let them in, or keep them in segregated ghettos. Though this will be an unjust (though no doubt justified by propaganda) arrangement, they will be powerless to do anything about it except isolated, futile acts of terrorism.

Quite simply I have a very pessimistic view of Muslim prospects for the next century. A religion that has been the least successful in reconciling itself to modernity. Polarized between spiritual anomie and sentimental rejection of the West. In perpetual conflict with all other civilizations. Some of its states have valuable resources, but not the modern weapons to defend them. Other states are well beyond the carrying capacity of their territories, and lack the resources to sustain this unsustainable state affairs far into a future of limits to growth. Most are ruled by cynical elites paying lip-service to the West, while crushing and buying off the extremist elements – who are themselves hopeless at changing anything for the better.

Concluding remarks

Despite my many disagreements with it, I ended up giving it a 3/5. First, it really is a very humorous and readable book – even if occasionally embarrassingly ignorant on certain matters. And his constant jokes re-France; social democracy; the virtues of asperity and manliness; etc, got tiring. I like guns and I do think many modern-day social systems are overgrown and that continental European countries throw up too many regulatory barriers for small businesses, but this does not mean that a robust system of preventative-focused public healthcare or time-limited unemployment benefits is a bad idea. He constantly quotes anecdotes about the ridiculous failings of the European welfare states, but you could easily find as many anecdotes about medical horror stories in the US (e.g. outrageous fines for minor procedures).

The other reason is that I agree with him that political correctness has gone too far in the West and ironically his book is a symptom of that – you can’t discuss “Eurabia” in a serious way at “respectable” venues, hence the proliferation of alarmist literature like this (yet which may contain kernels of truth) – which should be read with an open mind yet treated with a pinch of salt.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.