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Freedom in the World 2018 is out now: “Democracy in Crisis.”

Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.

This makes the deep state neocon goons who run that outfit very sad.

My prediction from 2017:

Freedom House lowers United States Freedom Rating [no longer think this will happen. But as promised, carried over as-is from last set of predictions; will know in early February]: 50%

Last minute misgivings aside, this has indeed happened.

While FH still thinks Civil Rights in the US are at 1/7 (where 1 is best and 7 is worst), while Political Rights have been downgraded to 2/7, making for a total score of 1.5/7.

Why? Well, partially thanks to the Russiagate conspiracy theory;

[Electoral Process] Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling.

Incidentally, I will note that – and my observations and analysis carry great weight, since I have been officially recognized as a human rights authority by Freedom House itself – that Russia now scores 6.5/7, down from 5.5/7 even just a few years earlier, a score I ridiculed in my 2013 article What I Learned From Freedom House.

Suffice to say that Freedom House now believes Russia is as unfree as the following polities: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burundi, Chad, China, Congo (Kinshasa), Cuba, Ethiopia, Laos, Libya, Russia, Swaziland, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

It is also apparently less free than Qatar, Iran (!), Belarus, Egypt, and a plethora of 1980s US-friendly Latin American and Asian juntas.

Crimea, which is treated as a sub territory – like Chechnya was until the late 2000s – scores 9/100 on the Aggregate Score, which puts it on a par with the Central African Republic and Libya. Apparently Freedom House believes Crimeans are as unfree as a country that is in perpetual civil war and hosts African slave markets years after the Americans were done with bombing them into freedom.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine scores a not entirely unrespectable 3.0/7, despite it hosting hundreds to thousands of political prisoners.

Finally, Turkey has declined from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” – it appears that being a record holder in numbers of imprisoned journalists started to matter more after they pivoted against US interests.

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This is the Karlin Freedom Index for 2012, a political classification system I formulated more than a year ago in response to systemic bias on the part of traditional “freedom indices” such as Freedom House and The Economist Democracy Index (hint: they give massive bonus points for neoliberalism and pro-Western foreign policy orientations).

The explanation: Reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993, or the US and Hungary around 2011). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful). Totalitarianism extends the political realm over all spheres of life, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

Liberal Democracy

  • Iceland – In the wake of its post-financial crisis constitutional reforms, this small country may claim to have the most direct democracy on Earth.
  • Netherlands
  • California (state government)
  • Germany
  • Finland
  • Sweden – Not as high as it might have been due to the politically-motivated prosecution of Assange.
  • Spain
  • Czech Republic

Semi-Liberal Democracy (tends to be corrupted by moneyed interests and/or other influential interest groups)

  • Canada – A good democracy, but a whiff of a downwards trend under Harper. ↓
  • Belgium
  • Italy – Not a personalistic regime once Berlusconi left, but not helped by the fact that an appointed technocrat now runs it.
  • Portugal
  • Australia
  • Brazil – Arbitrary power structures; extra-judicial murders.
  • France – Paternalistic; corporatist surveillance state; discrimination against minorities. ↓
  • Chile
  • Estonia – Has excellent Internet democracy ideas, but is hampered by discrimination against Russophone minorities.
  • Japan – Paternalistic; ultra-high conviction rates; no gun rights; but ceased being an (effectively) one-party state with recent election of DJP. ↑
  • Bulgaria
  • Mexico – Drug cartels challenge to the state may lead to curtailment of freedom. ↓
  • Switzerland – The last canton only gave women the right to vote in the early 1990′s, and the banning of minarets restricts religious freedom.
  • UK – Corporatist surveillance state; repressive libel & PC laws, regulations; no gun rights; strongly trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓
  • India – Strong tradition of debate & power diffusion, marred by caste inequalities, privilege, political cliquishness, bottom-up free speech restrictions.
  • South Korea – Paternalistic; surveillance state; restrictive regulations, freedom of speech restrictions.
  • Poland
  • Indonesia
  • Latvia
  • Colombia – Pursued illiberal policies vs. FARC, but transitioned to a Semi-Liberal Democracy with recent transfer of power. ↑
  • Romania ↓
  • Argentina – New sweeping media laws bring Argentina close to the bottom of the Semi-Liberal Democracy rankings. ↓
  • Ukraine – In “anarchic stasis” since independence; arbitrary power structures; recently trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓

Illiberal Democracy (tends to feature oligarchies and personalism)

  • USA – Highest prison population; corporatist surveillance state; runs transnational Gulag; increasingly arbitrary power structures; despite strong freedom of speech protections and surviving separation of powers, it can no longer be considered a Semi-Liberal Democracy after its formal legalization of indefinite detention under the NDAA 2012. ↓
  • Armenia
  • Israel – Severe national security-related civil liberties restrictions; growing influence of settler & fundamentalist agendas over the traditional Zionist foundation; severe new NGO laws, and discrimination against Palestinians makes Israel a downwards-trending Illiberal Democracy. ↓
  • Hungary – The recent Constitutional reforms in Hungary have effectively ended separation of powers, constrained the media, and established a basis for indefinite one-party dominance. It is now the only EU member to qualify as an Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓
  • Russia – Super-presidentialism with no real separation of powers; arbitrary power structures; surveillance state; and as recently shown, elections are subject to moderate fraud. However, new reforms (e.g. opening up of the political space), technical measures (e.g. web cameras at polling stations) and permits for opposition protests at the end of 2011 portend an upwards trend. ↑
  • Venezuela – Increasingly illiberal, especially as regards media laws. ↓
  • Thailand
  • Georgia – Arbitrary power structures; opposition protests broken up; main opposition candidate to Saakashvili stripped of Georgian citizenship.
  • Algeria
  • Turkey – Maintains severe restrictions on free speech (a country that has the world’s largest number of imprisoned journalists, many under bizarre conspiracy charges, can’t really be any kind of liberal democracy); ethnic discrimination; arbitrary power structures; paradoxically, both authoritarian & liberal principles strengthening under influence of Gulenists & AKP. ↓

Semi-Authoritarianism (tends to feature permanent states of emergency)

  • Egypt – Despite the revolutionary upheaval, the military retains wide influence and shoots at protesters in Cairo; this cannot be a democratic state of affairs. The future is uncertain. ?
  • Libya
  • Pakistan
  • Singapore – Overt political repression; repressive laws (esp. on libel); surveillance state.
  • Kazakhstan – Overt political repression; Nazarbayev is Caesar.
  • Azerbaijan – Overt political repression; Aliyev is Caesar.
  • Belarus – Elections completely falsified; overt political repression, and getting worse. ↓
  • Iraq – ↓
  • Iran – Overt political repression; though Velayat-e faqih has embedded democratic elements (under formal clerical “guardianship), in recent years, the system is strongly trending to Authoritarianism as the IRGC clan tries to wrestle the old clerics out of power. ↓


  • Vietnam
  • China – Overt political repression; no national elections (but exist at village level & in some municipalities); the Internet is restricted by the “Great Firewall”, but print & online getting freer to discuss issues unrelated to a few unacceptable topics (e.g. Communist Party hegemony, Tiananmen, etc); may implement new form of political model of “deliberative dictatorship”; trending towards Semi-Authoritarianism. ↑
  • Cuba – Overt political repression; pervasive Internet & media censorship.
  • Uzbekistan
  • Syria
  • Saudi Arabia – Overt political repression; pervasive censorship; very repressive laws; political Islam permeated everyday life, esp. in regard to women’s rights; one law for the Saud family, another for the rest.

Totalitarianism (the realm of metapolitics)

  • North Korea – Not much to say here.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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In the years since 9/11, the US has built a mosaic of national security powers that undermine its claim to be the “land of the free.” According to this useful summary by Jonathan Turley, these include: Assassination of its own citizens; warrantless searches; use of secret evidence and secret courts; the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state (more on that by Glenn Greenwald). This is in addition to hosting the world’s largest prison population (both in relative and absolute numbers), which includes what for all intents and purposes can be considered a transnational Gulag as part of its efforts in the endless-by-definition “war on terror.” At least for many Muslims and minorities, the US has already not been a liberal democracy for a long time.

But at what point can a country be considered to have definitively retreated from liberal democracy? After all, though much of the above are common to authoritarian states, they are sometimes present in liberal democracies too; and besides, the US does have some mitigating features (e.g. strong freedom of speech provisions that are relatively free from PC and libel laws, unlike in the UK and much of Europe).

The argument can be made that the US ceased being a liberal democracy on December 31, 2011 – the day the NDAA 2012 was signed into law by Obama. This legalizes the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military on the mere suspicion that the suspect is “associated with” terrorism or committed “belligerent acts” against the US or its allies. Bearing in mind the incredibly broad and flexible definition of what “terrorism” actually means, this could potentially encompass any number of anti-elite groups: Anonymous, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, etc.

AK Edit: Regrettably, all the old polls have gone.

Even if we are to (very generously) assume that this law will only be conscientiously wielded against genuine terrorists, there is room for doubt that indefinite detention is compatible with liberal democracy. After all, no other countries commonly considered to be liberal democracies – so far as I’m aware – have indefinite detention powers as sweeping as those contained in the NDAA. Even many countries considered to be illiberal democracies (or outright dictatorships), such as Russia, don’t have anything like it. And, of course, this assumption of good intentions is pollyannaish, given that the government has given no cause for trust whatsoever in this matter (what with the FBI setting up terrorist plots, the numerous cases of wrongful detention at Guantanamo, etc).

Of course, this is not to say that in a few years the US will come to resemble a tinpot dictatorship. Some historical perspective is necessary. Indefinite detention and imprisonment without trial aren’t unprecedented: See the 1950 McCarran Act, introduced at the height of the red scare, didn’t exactly lead to authoritarianism (though the US at the time was a great deal more illiberal that many care to admit). Furthermore, it’s also important to note that the NDAA legislation merely codifies powers that the executive has both claimed (through the AUMF) and exercised for the past decade, and besides it is only building on past efforts such as the flopped Enemy Belligerent Act of 2010; so one can argue that the change is not so abrupt as to constitute a crossing-the-Rubicon type of event.

Perhaps. Then again, there are caveats to that viewpoint too. The 1950′s-60′s were a period of fast growth and prosperity, so there was no real base for authoritarian regression. The prospects for the next decade don’t look anywhere near as good; in fact, they are downright dismal, and may well see some combination of high inflation and default. And democracy tends to wane in days of depression. Faced with challenges from the far left and the far right, the elites may find it necessary to consolidate a profoundly different social order, a post-constitutional Third Republic of sorts: One that is fiscally and socially conservative, and more authoritarian than the current one. To do this they will need to enlist the support of the billionaires; as far as this is concerned, the Wall Street bailouts, Citizens United and corporate citizenship, SOPA/PIPA, etc. may well be only harbingers of what is yet to come.

But this is all speculation. In the here and now, the fact of the matter is that the US now has national security laws on its books far more draconian than those of any other country considered to be a liberal democracy; indeed, I doubt you would find anything similar even in countries whose democracies are often criticized, such as Russia, Venezuela, or now Hungary. These laws apply to “terrorists”, a grouping every bit as ephemeral and ill-defined as “counter-revolutionaries” under Article 58 of the Stalinist lawcode. I have no choice but to lower the US from a “semi-liberal democracy” to an “illiberal democracy” in this year’s edition of the Karlin Freedom Index.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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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 been meaning to make an in-depth study of the 3 major “freedom indices” – Polity IV (the most objective one), the Economist Democracy Index (fairly arbitrary) & Freedom in the World (a purely ideological project) – for more than 2 years now, but have yet to come round to it. Though it remains on my long-term agenda, for now I’ll content myself with something that’s a lot more fun and easier to compile: my own “freedom index”. I mean since so many others are in on the game, why don’t I have a go?

In practice, truly reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two *. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful); the Totalitarian extends the political realm over all spheres of human activity, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

Liberal Democracy (Very Hard to Reconcile the Two)

  • Some local communities?
  • Iceland? Netherlands? Sweden? (not a “new totalitarian”*) – few significant issues; high social mobility.
  • Spain – few significant issues; may be tested by economic crisis.
  • Germany – few significant issues.

Semi-Liberal Democracy (Influential Oligarchy, Imperfect Democracy)

  • India – strong tradition of debate & power diffusion, marred by caste inequalities, privilege, political cliquishness.
  • Mexico – drug cartels challenge to the state may lead to curtailment of freedom. ↓
  • Brazil – arbitrary power structures; extra-judicial murders *
  • Baltic states – widespread ethnic discrimination; economic crisis may lead to freedom regression, esp. in Latvia. ↓
  • France – paternalistic; trending to surveillance state; discrimination against minorities. ↓
  • Italy – concentration of economic & media power under Berlusconi, trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓
  • Japan – paternalistic; ultra-high conviction rates; no gun rights; but ceased being an (effectively) one-party state with recent election of DJP. ↑
  • South Korea – paternalistic; surveillance state; restrictive regulations, freedom of speech restrictions.
  • Ukraine – in “anarchic stasis” since independence; arbitrary power structures; recently trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓
  • USA – highest prison population; corporatist surveillance state; runs transnational Gulag; increasingly arbitrary power structures, institutional groundwork being laid for Caesarism? (1, 2); but strong freedom of speech traditions relatively unmarred by PC & libel laws; strongly trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓
  • UK – corporatist surveillance state; repressive libel & PC laws, regulations; no gun rights; strongly trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓

Illiberal Democracy (Oligarchic Caesarism & Plebiscitary Regimes)

  • Colombia – pursued illiberal policies vs. FARC *; trending to Semi-Liberal Democracy with recent transfer of power. ↑
  • Israel – severe national security-related civil liberties restrictions; growing influence of settler & fundamentalist agendas over the traditional Zionist foundation is increasing the long-term possibility of a degeneration from today’s democracy to apartheid (1, 2). ↓
  • Turkey – maintains severe restrictions on speech; ethnic discrimination; arbitrary power structures; paradoxically, both authoritarian & liberal principles strengthening under influence of Gulenists & AKP. ↑↓
  • Russia – super-presidentialism; arbitrary power structures; surveillance state; paradoxically, both authoritarian & liberal principles strengthening under influence of Medvedev clan. ↑↓
  • Venezuela – increasingly illiberal; Chavez as “Caesar”? ↓
  • Georgia – arbitrary power structures; Saakashvili as “Caesar”? ↓
  • Athenian democracy, Veche democracy, etc – these were inevitably illiberal democracies dominated by oligarchies.

Semi-Authoritarianism (Permanent State of Emergency)

  • Belarus – overt political repression; Bat’ka is collective farm boss of a country.
  • Singapore – overt political repression; repressive laws (esp. on libel); surveillance state.
  • Kazakhstan – overt political repression; Nazarbayev is Caesar.
  • Azerbaijan – overt political repression; Aliyev is Caesar.
  • Egypt – overt political repression; severe cultural, religious restrictions; Mubarak is permanent President.
  • Iran – overt political repression; though Velayat-e faqih has embedded democratic elements (under formal clerical “guardianship), in recent years, the system is strongly trending to Authoritarianism as the IRGC clan tries to wrestle the old clerics out of power, clearing ground for a chiliastic Metapolitics *. ↓↓


  • China – overt political repression; no national elections (but exist at village level & in some municipalities); the Internet is restricted by the “Great Firewall”, but print & online getting freer to discuss issues unrelated to a few unacceptable topics (e.g. Communist Party hegemony, Tiananmen, etc); may implement new form of political model of “deliberative dictatorship”*; trending towards Semi-Authoritarianism. ↑
  • Khrushchev’s USSR (ottepel’) – overt political repression, but some allowance for diversity of voices within (post)-totalitarian frames of reference.
  • Cuba – overt political repression; pervasive Internet & media censorship.
  • Brezhnev’s USSR (zastoi) – overt political repression & “senescent totalitarianism” that was, however, but an imitation of real Totalitarianism, because by that period ideological purity was passé.
  • Saudi Arabia – overt political repression; pervasive censorship; very repressive laws; political Islam permeated everyday life, esp. in regard to women’s rights; one law for the Saud family, another for the rest. Somewhat like Fascist Italy, it is on the borderline between Authoritarianism & Totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism (The Realm of Metapolitics)

  • Nazi Germany – a fascinating history: a degeneration from early Weimar Semi-Liberal Democracy to Illiberal Democracy by 1929 & Semi-Authoritarian state of emergency by early 1930′s, & coalescing into heavy Authoritarianism by mid 1930′s; reached Totalitarianism during 1942-45.
  • Stalin’s USSR – degenerated from Authoritarianism in 1920′s-early 1930′s to Totalitarianism by mid-1930′s, where it remained until 1953 (broken only during 1942-1944?, when it was Authoritarian).
  • North Korea – welcome to the hermit kingdom!*
  • Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge – “totalitarianism at its unsurpassed purest”?*

PS. Yeah, I know indices are supposed to have numbers and stuff. I leave their random and arbitrary insertion – as per the best traditions of political science – as an exercise for the reader.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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4. Freedom from fear, the only real freedom.

Political scientists try to rank countries based on their levels of “freedom”, frequently arbitrarily defined and applied (Freedom House, Economist Democracy Index, Polity IV, etc). Yet despite the inconsistencies and difficulties with quantifying something as abstract and intangible as freedom across cultural and civilization borders, for all but the most committed postmodernists, it nonetheless seems safe to say that North Korea, say, is less “free” than the US – for example, in that in the former there is no prospect of me publicizing this text.

That said, this does not mean that the US is necessarily free either, or more specifically, that the majority of its citizens are free. Yes, it has many blowhard radio “pundits” and angry blogger people, but they mostly vent their feelings in favor of the status quo, the System (and those who don’t usually post anonymously anyway).

But there are plenty of examples of people who are too afraid of giving their 2 cents. Some people I know were paranoid about me even replying to a Facebook contact from the Bay Area National Anarchists* on the theory the FBI might be watching them. American journalists too afraid to report anything contrary to the bipartisan party line (though the culture war certainly gives a good illusion of diversity, albeit on ultimately inconsequential matters). Employees, especially unconnected foreigners, who are too afraid of the sack or consequences for their career to stand up to managerial tyranny, corruption, and incompetence – I know plenty of such cases.

But ultimately these fears are all false, a false consciousness foisted upon us by the System. As long as one remains free in the spirit, nothing that happens on the material plane – not even imprisonment in a North Korean gulag, let alone the termination of 80-hour / week office slavery and associated perks like alternating your living arrangements between a McMansion coffin (suburbia), a Machine coffin (the SUV), and a Mammon coffin (Wal-Mart) – really matters.

Because one’s freedom from fear is the only real freedom.

Our world, our Brave New World, a world in which sparkling baubles have become the highest value, is far more effective at concealing this truth than anything dreamt up by totalitarians or inventors of totalitarian dystopias. For when the flesh is imprisoned and beaten, spiritual freedom is most appreciated. Slavery really is freedom.

* The contact was unsolicited and I don’t agree with most of their platform.


5. The problem is not with the American Empire, but its self-denial

Empires existed throughout history and are a natural product of human social organization. As such even the most brutal and oppressive empires can be treated with respect.

The problem with American empire (and the late Soviet empire) lay in their denial of their own imperial power; they both cloaked their imperialism in the language of universalism (democracy, liberalism, socialism, etc). Thus their conquests were not only material; they were profoundly spiritual.

Arguably, the American empire is the most postmodern one to have ever existed (challenged only, perhaps, by the EU – but the EU is more of an “impire” than an empire).

I believe it is this spiritual assault on the global community is what is the root cause of the ressentiment towards the US today, rather than its empire per se. America should relinquish the language of universalism and rule the world with an iron fist; the peoples of the world will recognize their true master, and will kneel before it.

6. Socialism Now! – if you want to live

Limits to growth are reality. Business as usual will bury us under an avalanche of resource depletion (peak oil, plummeting EROEI, mineral shortages, etc) and pollution overload (global warming, topsoil erosion, fisheries depletion, desertification, inundation, etc), as we overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity and trigger a Malthusian dieoff. No technological silver bullet or free market voodoo is going to save us.

Coercive reduction of material throughput is now probably the only escape from industrial civilization’s predicament*.

Is having lots of glittering lights and increasing your CO2 emissions really the road to happiness?

Cuba is the world’s only sustainable society, qualifying as a developed nation in terms of its HDI (human development index) and possessing an ecological footprint per capita that, if extended to all 7bn humans, the Earth could, just about, accommodate.

Green Communism is the future.

* The pampered Greenpeace activists and “Earth Day” sheeple – most of whom no doubt have an ecological footprint well above the per capita level of sustainability – are so pathetic. The actions are purely symbolic and contribute next to zero in solving problems; just a way of assuaging their guilt by pretending to solve these problems.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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This is my first follow-up post to The Belief Matrix, in which I attempted to advance a universal model for civilizational responses to subsistence crises (The Malthusian Loop) and the Western challenge (The Sisyphean Loop). The first country I’ll apply this too is the US, because doing so will allow me to make several important points about the nature of the belief matrix – namely, that even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop.

This is because the Idea of the West, as previously defined, is a rationalist absolute, whereas all other human societies are not. Hence the US can never attain full union with it, but only try to. Instead, decade by decade and century by century, it redefines liberty. This is a mostly consensual social activity that rarely veers into large-scale violence, the Civil War being the most vivid exception (though even it was an extraordinarily civilized affair by the standards of the time). This process is so internalized that Americans, along with the British or the French, think of themselves, and define themselves, as “Westerners” with no apparent conflict between it and their national identities. To the contrary, they are complementary.

Through the accumulated circular momentum of liberal tradition, the structure of its political system which moderates sharp swings towards extremism in the population and of the media which muffles extremist voices, and most importantly its reconciliation of liberalism with popular democracy, America’s “liberty loops” manage to remain anchored firmly within the bottom-right quadrant, well away from the instability brought on by the disillusionment / rejection of tradition of the left, and the totalitarianism of the top. But what makes the US a spiritually much more satisfied nation is that the very organic nature of the integration of its sobornost and Westernism makes Americans unaware that they live in the Belief Matrix, just like everyone else.

Below is the belief matrix for the US during the past century.

At the beginning of the century, America was an open, self-confident, emerging Great Power, with a rapidly growing economy and population. Though after the end of the First World War there was widespread concern over Bolshevism, European entanglements, and immigration, this did not significantly lower its belief in itself.

This changed substantially in the 1920′s, which saw a significant retreat from tradition: a) female suffrage from 1920, b) the first great consumer revolution, including mass automobile production and chain stores, c) the rise of crime and homicide rates, linked in part to Prohibition. The US started drifting left.

This drift accelerated during the early 1930′s in the time of the Great Depression, when a) economic output collapsed by around 25%, causing mass unemployment, b) homicide rates peaked at over 9.0 / 100,000 during 1931-34, c) the American fertility rate fell to a nadir close to the replacement-level rate of 2.1 children per woman during the 1930′s, d) numerous incidents of labor unrest, and e) the federal government came to face significant challenges from the right and the left (e.g. Huey Long with his “Every Man a King” socialism) – though at no time was it really threatened, which testifies to the stability and dynamic inertia of its liberal democratic tradition.

From the late 1930′s, the economy began to recover and criminality declined. The US began to recover faith in itself and its mission after the uncertainties about the future of liberalism and capitalism prevalent in the 1930′s. This was reinforced by victory in World War Two and the massive economic, political and spiritual boost it imparted to the US, which emerged as a global hegemon, far stronger than the USSR.

Despite the McCarthy witch-hunts and the launching of the military-industrial complex as a permanent feature of American society, the 1950′s and 1960′s retain a reputation of being a Golden Age of US history. Morale was high due to visible US superiority – despite occasional shocks such as the Soviet testing of a nuclear bomb in 1949, the (false) fears of a “missile gap” in the mid-1950′s and the Sputnik shock of 1957. The period saw an unprecedentedly low level of income inequality and the massive economic growth that caused the post-war to 1973 period to become known as the “miracle years”.

Homicide rates remained at around 5.0 / 100,000 (a relative low by US historical standards) until the late 1960′s and a spirit of confident, middle-class domesticity contributed to a baby boom that resulted in US fertility rates lasting through to the early 1970′s, by which time it had begun to drop precipitously, along with the rest of the industrialized world.

Meanwhile, belief in the validity of the Idea of the West remained extremely firm – so firm, in fact, that anti-Communist feelings manifested themselves into overt persecution in contravention of the Idea of the West (with its emphasis on rule of law). This is the Law of Circularity in action (from the Belief Matrix) – at its extremes, ideologies converge (or flip); even as the Red Scare zealots shouted about the Communist threat to US liberties, their own actions forsook their principles – to the overwhelming approval of the American population, at least until they stumbled over into the realm of the absurd (i.e. the McCarthur-Army hearings).

Though the US moon landings of 1969 seemed to mark the apogee of the American Golden Age, in reality the country was already in fast moral decline. The oil crisis. Anti-war movements. Watergate. Vietnam. Hippies. Roe vs. Wade. Culture war. Drugs. Oil crises. Limits to growth. The waxing Soviet menace (they achieved nuclear parity and conventional superiority in Europe by the mid-1970′s). Rapid fertility decline. The rising economic challenge from Japan and Germany, and the beginning of deindustrialization in the Mid-West. During this period the country moved sharply left, away from tradition and belief in itself; yet as always, the socio-cultural liberalization of the 1970′s was the author of its own demise, spelled out in this case by the Reagan reaction – a peculiar mix of economic deregulation, hard-line foreign policy and social conservatism.

By the early 1990′s, there appeared an ostensible new dawn in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama began proselytizing his End of History thesis, proclaiming Western liberal democracy to be the final stage of history, following a long tradition stemming from Manichaeism through Marx. This became somewhat of a pillar of Western thought. China and Russia, the two erstwhile socialist giants, were beginning to acquire new dependencies with the West. The Asian model of development seemed increasingly discredited with the collapse of Japanese growth rates in the early 1990′s, and later “confirmed” by the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Europe was increasingly anemic and mired in social problems stemming from its aging populations and welfare states.

Meanwhile, the US flourished. Its economic growth rate remained relatively healthy at 3.1% in the 1990′s, virtually unchanged from the 1970′s or 1980′s. Fertility rates continued to climb upwards ever so slightly from their late-1970′s to mid-1980′s nadir (though much of the growth can probably be attributed to increasing numbers of younger Hispanic immigrants and the (non-repeatable) increasing age of mothers at average childbirth). Finally, homicide rates fell to lows unseen since the 1945-1973 “Golden Age”…

Yet much of this progress was illusory, and it began to unravel during the Bush years. Income inequality rose to levels unseen since the Great Depression. Though crime remained at a relatively low level of around 5.0-6.0 / 100,000, this was only accomplished by imprisoning an ever greater portion of the American population. Even as car production fell from 13.0mn units in 1999 to 8.7mn units in 2008, the financial industry metastasized. The 2000′s saw a “jobless recovery” from the .com bust while median incomes stagnated (or outright declined, if the people at ShadowStats have a point). The US is coming to resemble the late USSR across a disturbingly wide spectrum of social, economic, military and cultural indicators. It has been moving away from the state of sobornost, “a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes”, since the 1970′s, i.e. towards the left on the Belief Matrix.

9/11. Iraq. Extraordinary renditions. Guantanamo. The Katrina debacle. Housing bubble. Regulatory capture. Credit collapse. The fall of the investment banks. The rise of the “Rest” (led by China and Russia), who are hardly best friends with the “West”. The Great Recession. Deficits, debt, decline. As a result, the American population is now rapidly moving away from the firm belief in the West that characterized the 1990′s, and even further away sobornost. The election of Obama, perhaps the most liberal and outsiderish President in history, is just a reflection of these deeper trends. At an unconscious level Americans realize they have deep problems requiring radical solutions.

A detailed discussion of the waning superpower’s future prospects I leave for another post – suffice to say that whereas in the next decade its power will likely decline precipitously relative to China’s, its inherent geographic, economic and institutional strengths will allow it to remain a key pole of the emerging new world order, and we are likely to see a certain resurgence by the late 2010′s or early 2020′s, as soon as its current imbalances and contradictions are resolved or at least contained.

Based on the dynamics of the Belief Matrix, it is likely that the US will repeat the dynamics of the Great Depression not only in economic, but in social terms. Namely, there will be a partial collapse of legitimacy in the government; the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc); fertility will collapse from the current replacement-level rates, as welfare shrinks and the utility of having children for the very poor, currently the most fecund social group, drops; crime will increase, etc. Yet within a decade a new social order will gradually emerge, probably fiscally and socially conservative and more authoritarian than the current one, and with it a new equilibrium will slowly, painfully come into being.

However, due to the sheer circular momentum of America’s liberty cycles, and the sheer power of the historical force behind, the country is likely to remain, at least in most respects, a liberal democracy. The same cannot be said of Russia, Turkey, or even countries like Germany or Japan.

PS. A reply to Alex Knight’s comment on the original Belief Matrix post:

but let us never forget that US capitalism developed precisely by committing genocide against the millions of native people who inhabited this “abundant high-quality land”.

likewise in terms of labor, we can never erase the painful history of enslavement of millions of Africans, whose unpaid labor created much of these “surpluses.”

True… but the West is just that… rule of law, sanctity of contract, etc. Not humanism or kindness. Some 72,000 “vagrants” (mostly peasants driven off the land by new, dispossessing elites – and this is a massive number given that the size of the English population was only around 4mn then) were hanged in Henry VIII’s England… so can we really say that “barbarous Muscovy” under “Ivan the Terrible” was that much more “tyrannous” than his English contemporary?

The native peoples of North America practiced a form of primitive communism where land was held in common and the concept of private property did not exist. This was in direct contravention to Western civilization, and as such a heresy worthy only of extirpation. Similarly, at the time it made a great deal of rational, economic / capitalist sense to use Negro slaves imported from Africa to grow sugarcane and cotton in the West Indies and the American South…

But by its own standards, however, the US has always succeeded at maintaining a symbiotic relationship between its “folkish” elements and the Idea of the West… that is, amongst the people who matter. This might be – well, is – hypocrisy, but as the commentator Kolya pointed out, “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue”. [Did some quick Googling, this quote originally comes from someone called La Rochefoucauld - "Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend à la vertu"]. I suppose it is valid to argue that hypocrisy is better than being simple full of vice with no respect for virtue… at least hypocrisy offers the chance of a way out, or light at the end of a dark tunnel. Others would say instead that hypocrisy is the truest matrix, the most perfect totalitarianism…

(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.