Timothy Snyder’s Red Herrings in “The Road to Unfreedom”

I have not read his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” but I have watched a few of his lectures on this book. I think I have picked up some of his leading ideas.

My overall judgement is that Timothy Snyder is involved in colossal Red Herrings. To call an argument a “red herring” is to say that it is focused on the wrong thing relative to some problem. By this I mean that he is diverting our attention from where the more important problems lie: it introduces peripheral, marginal matters. This is not to say that the diversion is wrong in what it claims, it is rather to say that what it focuses on is irrelevant or relatively so.

Since the title of his book is “The Road to Unfreedom,” it suggests, at least by associated titles, such works as Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Bertrand Russell’s “Proposed Roads to Freedom.” I mention these, but that is all.

Snyder begins with two implicit mythical views on the trajectories of history: an optimistic one, which he calls the “politics of inevitability,” and a pessimistic one, which he calls the “politics of eternity.” I don’t know why he chose these neologistic phrases, and I don’t know why the word “politics” is used. What these phrases describe is what Popper called “historicist” views — attempts to discern (mythical) patterns in history. And Snyder does recognize them as mythical.

The overtly optimistic one, which is akin to Fukuyama’s claim that we have reached the end of history, is the idea that capitalism and representative democracy have now — so to say — conquered the world. We are now on a unalterable progressive path into the future.

The pessimistic view is that we are — as always — surrounded by ever emergent enemies. History is a cyclical pattern of fighting with enemies. It is always “us” against “them.” It is a nationalistic view, and, according to Snyder, ultimately fascist.

Snyder, himself, views these two implicit beliefs as myths because, as he believes, the future is not determined and cannot be predicted, but it can be shaped through effort. He calls this political effort, the “politics of responsibility.” What he means by this, I think he expressed in his previous book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century.” On the Bill Maher show, on which he appeared just after publishing his book, he was asked to name the top three lessons. Here is what he said. The first is: “Don’t obey in advance” by which he means figure it out for yourself — be critical. The second: “Defend institutions.” I think he meant something like “defend the US Constitution.” The third: “Believe in truth.” I suppose this is a prescription against post-modernism.

Furthermore, he sees the “politics of inevitability” shaping the policies of the United States and Europe, and the “politics of eternity” shaping the policies of Russia.

Why are these Red Herrings?

Let me explain why all this is a red herring for me — a diversion. We have one general political problem in the world: we are ruled by single individuals. We used to have hereditary monarchies; now we have forced dictatorships or elected dictatorships with restricted powers.

Forced dictatorships, we understand; democratic dictatorships are the result of a widespread myths about inherent worth of both capitalism and democracy.

Snyder’s book is a red herring because it does not address the roots of our problems which is, from a Marxist perspective, capitalism, and from an anarchist perspective, “liberal” democracy. He bypasses these, that is why his discussion is for me a red herring.

I take it that an imperialistic country like the United States, with its “politics of inevitability,” fights its wars openly and aggressively. While Russia — a weaker power — resorts to a new form of clandestine, hybrid warfare and propaganda. Hybrid warfare, on the one hand, was introduced by Russia in Crimea by sending in Russian soldiers in green uniforms bearing no insignias. And both Putin and these soldiers denied being Russian soldiers, with a general denial of any Russian involvement. Hybrid propaganda, on the other hand, is the injection into cyberspace of a spectrum of fake “facts” resulting in a public confusion and anxiety. In this way, the enemy is defeated not from without, but from within.

All this is true. But what does it have to do with the fact that we have capitalism, and “democratic” governments which support capitalism?

On the Bill Maher show, Bill pointed out that President Donald Trump has done things which are reminiscent of such dictators as Hitler. This led to a reminder of two points. The first one was stressed by Maher that Hitler was democratically elected. But, instead of focusing on what is the nature of democracy to allow someone like Hitler to emerge and take power, Snyder immediately went to point out that Hitler used the Reichstag fire to blame a set of enemies and curtailed rights of citizens. Snyder’s point was that democracy can turn to dictatorship on the pretext of some national emergency. Yes, but under what kind of democracy is this possible? Is it possible, for example, under Swiss democracy? Again, instead of perhaps suggesting the need for a different type of democracy, Snyder, instead, advises us to mobilize and protest for our rights.

The situation in the world is this. Capitalism is almost completely universal. And in almost every country there is a leader — either elected democratically or not. If elected, he is either a president or a prime minister (some have both). If he is not elected, he is either a monarch or a dictator. And in every country there is a privileged class of government officials and oligarchs.

Snyder does not define “fascism.” But I would call any country that (1) has a leader and (2) restricts freedom of speech — fascist (though the term applies historically only to Mussolini’s Italy). I suppose I would use the term “totalitarian” where there is suppression of the freedom of speech (Popper’s “closed society”) regardless of the form of government.

Snyder disregards any criticism of the forms of government he is considering, which are all forms of one person rule. And when talking about democracy, he means “liberal democracy,” which is representative mass or macro democracy in which thousand and millions elect a leader. He does not consider other forms of democracy. Snyder ignores Switzerland which has a seven-member Federal Council, and he is oblivious to anarchism, which would be a bottom-up type of democratic government composed of nested councils. I suppose he disregards these alternatives as apparently unrealistic — but they are possible alternatives, nonetheless. In other words, he is not interested in a criticism of either capitalism or democracy — save for recommending his “politics of responsibility.”

Snyder introduces more red herrings with the following. He says that the political problems for any regime are two-fold: the problem of succession and the problem of inequality. (Although inequality brings discontent, I would say that the real problem is poverty — not having enough for subsistence.) And the root cause of this is preventing people from having a free access to subsistence land (which happens to be the necessary condition for capitalism) — but Snyder is totally oblivious to this.

As to political succession, the West deals with this problem democratically, while Russia, under Putin, has become fascist — with no clear principle of succession. On the other hand, the West deals with the problem of inequality by allowing a “theoretical” social mobility. While in Russia, there is the Platonic idea that justice requires knowing your place in society — hence, Snyder’s idea of “eternity” in contrast to mobility.

As he pursues these red herrings, he claims that in order to understand Russia, we must understand Putin, and to understand Putin, we must understand the philosophy of Ivan Ilyin. And from this perspective, Snyder views Ivan Ilyin as the most important (i.e., influential) philosopher of out time. Ilyin advocated a form of Christian fascism. His ideas: Democracy should be a ritual exercise (rigged). There should be no social advancement. Freedom is knowing what your place is. Factuality or truth does not matter if it serves a higher purpose. The end justifies the means. The world is defective; everyone lies. Nationalism is to prevail.

I am dubious about looking to sacred books to explain the deeds of dictators. I find it implausible to explain Stalin’s barbarity by way of Marx. As I find it implausible to explain Putin’s hybrid tactics by way of Ilyin. The better way to explain Stalin, Hitler, Putin, or any leader, is better served by reading Machiavelli. There is, however, more reason in explaining theocratic practices such as the Inquisition by the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible, and Sharia law by an appeal to the Koran. But when it comes to secular individuals, they have their own reasons and their own interpretations.

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