The alt-right’s dark twisted fantasy

During the Cold War, the far left would sometimes claim that the problem was caused by the West, which somehow provoked Stalin into his aggressive actions. Today the left has mostly risen above all that nonsense, but a similar fantasy is increasing peddled by the far right.  In this view, the US provoked Putin by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe.  Here’s what actually happened:

When Mr Putin became president in 2000, he showed no overt hostility towards America or the West, despite a recent NATO bombing raid on Belgrade without a UN resolution that had triggered a shrill anti-American response. In his first interview with Britain’s BBC, Mr Putin said: “I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe, so it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy.” Russia, he said, might become a member of NATO if it were treated as an equal partner. Even when the three Baltic states joined NATO in spring 2004, Mr Putin insisted that relations with the defence organisation were “developing positively” and he had “no concerns about the expansion of NATO”.

The breaking-point in Mr Putin’s relationship with the West came towards the end of that year when several seemingly unrelated events coincided. The first was a terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, in the north Causasus, in which 1,200 people, mostly children, were taken hostage. After Russia’s special forces stormed the school, leaving 333 people dead, Mr Putin accused the West of trying to undermine Russia. He cancelled regional elections and handed more powers to the security services.

The press in America focuses on Putin’s murderous foreign policies, or the lies about shooting down a Malaysian airliner.  But these policies reflect a deeper problem in Russia, a lack of liberalism, aka utilitarianism.  This happened today:

Russia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to decriminalise domestic violence, a move the Kremlin claims will help support families but critics say will only worsen the problem.

Members of the lower house of parliament voted 380-3 in favour of the bill’s third reading after senior officials spoke in favour of the measure. The bill is expected to be approved by the rubber-stamp upper house before President Vladimir Putin signs it.

Vyacheslav Volodin, who became parliament speaker last year after five years running the Kremlin’s domestic policy, said earlier this week that the measure would strengthen the conservative social values promoted by the government.

The same sort of pattern occurs in the Russian drug war:

In most of the world the threat of HIV/AIDS has receded. The exceptions are eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Russia, which accounts for more than 80% of new infections in the region, 51,000 people were diagnosed in the first five months of this year. In January registered HIV cases there topped one million. Vadim Pokrovsky of Russia’s Federal AIDS Centre reckons the true figure may be 1.4m-1.5m, about 1% of the population; he warns there could be 3m by 2020. In some African countries prevalence can reach 19%, but the epidemic is slowing. In Russia, the infection rate is “getting worse, and at a very fast pace”, says Vinay Saldanha, UNAIDS’ director for eastern Europe and Central Asia. .  .  .

Harsh anti-drug laws keep users in the shadows. Methadone and other forms of non-injected opioid substitution therapy (OST) are illegal; in other post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, they are legal. (After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, 800 patients found themselves cut off. The UN believes some 10% have died, “mostly of overdose or suicide”.) The World Health Organisation calls methadone “the most promising method of reducing drug dependence”, and HIV-positive addicts who receive OST are 54% more likely to get the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs they need to stay healthy, according to studies.

Russia’s foreign minister has derided OST as a “narcoliberal” idea. . . .

Drug users fear criminal repercussions if they seek help. And Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” laws make it harder for gay-friendly charities to operate.

Virulent prejudice

Independent NGOs, many staffed by HIV-positive people, play a crucial role in reaching vulnerable groups. But Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation, which places bureaucratic restrictions around groups that accept foreign money, has made funding difficult. Several HIV and drug-policy advocacy groups have been labelled foreign agents this year, including the Andrey Ryklov Foundation, the only group offering free needle exchanges in Moscow. . . .

Russia’s economic crisis has slashed health-care budgets, and more money for AIDS seems unlikely. Even this year’s promised extra federal funds have yet to materialise, says Mr Pokrovsky. Officials, he adds, must abandon the old saying that “what’s good for the German is death for the Russian.” Germany’s population is a bit over half the size of Russia’s, and it has one 25th the number of new HIV cases. “Narcoliberal” ideas save lives.

Unlike utilitarian liberals, populist/nationalist/alt-right types don’t really care about the welfare of people, they focus on narrower values like patriarchy and nationalism and xenophobia.  America’s alt-right likes Putin’s Russia because it secretly shares many of those values.  Because America is more liberal than Russia, they are reluctant to say these things out loud, but you see it all over the internet, where alt-right views can be expressed anonymously.  (Or when caught on tape talking with Billy Bush.)

You don’t want to be a small (or midsize) country on the southern border of one of these populist/nationalistic powers, because the strong bullying the weak is a part of their core ideology.  It’s a sort of high school bully mentality, if not middle school.  Thus it’s not just the women and HIV victims in Russia that suffer, but also people in neighboring countries.  Put simply, the rejection of utilitarian values leads to bad domestic polices and bad foreign policies.  That’s why the problems in Russia matter for the entire world.

If an alt-right leader takes over your country, pray that he’s as weak and clueless as a small child, and must rely on experts.



23 Responses to “The alt-right’s dark twisted fantasy”

  1. Gravatar of Lawrence D’Anna Lawrence D'Anna
    27. January 2017 at 15:03

    “liberalism, aka utilitarianism”

    Liberalism and utilitarianism are not the same thing at all. Utilitarians say “go ahead, punch the nazi, maybe it will do some good”. Liberals say “just because he’s a thug doesn’t mean we’re going to be thugs”. Liberalism is a deontological commitment to respect the rights of individuals, even in the face of hysterical utilitarian arguments that the ends justify the means, that *these* individuals are too dangerous/disgusting/horrible/deplorable to deserve rights.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. January 2017 at 15:13

    Lawrence, I do not agree. There are many forms of liberalism (classical, social democrat, neo, etc.), and utilitarianism is what unifies the various strands.

  3. Gravatar of James Cox James Cox
    27. January 2017 at 16:18

    Utilitarianism typically means acting to maximize happiness, pleasure, or some other measure of well-being. By contrast, liberalism typically implies a commitment to individual rights that is justified by something stronger than utilitarian considerations. In liberalism, the scope of individual rights can vary, ranging from classical liberalism to social democracy, but the idea is always that these rights have to be taken seriously, meaning they can’t be overridden merely because it would maximize utility. You can add complexity to this picture, of course: John Stuart Mill justified liberal rights using a utilitarian framework, but the real differences between these to concepts are still pretty clear.

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    27. January 2017 at 17:26

    Let’s make things easy: Everything that has been going wrong is because of the alt-right. And everything that has been going well is because of liberals.

  5. Gravatar of B Cole B Cole
    27. January 2017 at 17:29

    Putin, Xi, Duterte, Kim, military men in civvies running a SE Asian nation….

    You have pattycake politics in America. Be glad.

  6. Gravatar of bill bill
    27. January 2017 at 18:26

    This bullying of Mexico is shameful.

  7. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. January 2017 at 19:32

    I like this conspiracy theory regarding President Trump: He is a Russian agent, and may start a nuclear war with Russia.

  8. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    27. January 2017 at 19:47

    Like I told you many times, Sumner, Russia has zero interest in the Baltics. Not just fewer than the lyin’ press says, but zero.

    Ben, excellent. These Russophobes are not only ignorant as heck, but lack basic reasoning skills.

    “Russia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to decriminalise domestic violence,”

    -You know as well as I do that’s an extremely misleading statement.

    “The press in America focuses on Putin’s murderous foreign policies,”

    -Yes, Sumner, Russia is the only country engaged in wars outside its borders.

    “Unlike utilitarian liberals, populist/nationalist/alt-right types don’t really care about the welfare of people,”

    -Look at your home state of Massachusetts, Sumner. The anti-pot-legalization vote was far better correlated with Romney’s share of the vote than with Trump’s. That is the precise opposite of your little tale.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. January 2017 at 20:21

    James, I have numerous posts on the link between utilitarianism and liberalism. Or you can google my paper “The Great Danes”.

  10. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    27. January 2017 at 21:27


    Excellent comments. I agree completely.

  11. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    27. January 2017 at 21:37

    “Democracy is the best system, period. It is the best way of deciding what to do, and it is the best way of insuring that the government actually does those things. Just as the median guess of a group of average people is often better than a guess by an expert, the median view of voters is usually better than the policy view of “experts.” This seems to defy common sense, which is why I included it in my list of economistic views. Indeed it is so difficult for intellectuals to forgo their strong prior belief that they know best, that even economists who believe that financial markets aggregate economic data efficiently, and can forecast better than experts, are often reluctant to extend that hypothesis to political markets.”

    “If an alt-right leader takes over your country, pray that he’s as weak and clueless as a small child, and must rely on experts.”

    “And is Russia’s access to the Crimea also “not going to be allowed”? These people are truly evil—their worldview boils down to “Russia good, China bad”.”

    -Who do I trust, Scott Sumner, the Crimean people, Scott Sumner, or Scott Sumner?

  12. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    27. January 2017 at 21:38

    In any case, I’m going with the Crimean people and ignoring any opinion Scott Sumner enunciates.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. January 2017 at 21:46

    Okay, Trump is a Celebrity President. We know that.

    Serious question (well, as serious as the topic allows):

    Will Trump make mistakes on the level of a Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan (smallish), or more on the level of a LBJ or W? (yuuuge, see Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan).

    W and LBJ set taxpayers back $10 trillion, let alone human suffering immeasurable, and political opportunity costs.

    If Trump avoids foreign entanglements….

  14. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    28. January 2017 at 00:51

    The problem is surely not nationalism specifically, but any ideological commitment that overrides or ignores human experience or contradicting facts. It is very possible to find much worse examples from Russia’s Soviet past.

    Also not sure the entirety of the “left” is as sane about foreign policy as you suggest: for example on matters Islamic or Palestinian/Israeli or neoliberalism.

    As for utilitarianism, I am comfortable with your somewhat Humpty Dumpty usage (it means what you say it means).

    One way to look at the alt-Right is to see them as a reaction to conservatism that fails to conserve much and a progressivism that shows no sign of ever stopping and really does want to micromanage every aspect of people’s lives. The alt-Right look at how left-progressivism has marched through the institutions and basically said “we want to be like them but for our concerns”. Sets up a somewhat Hobbesian spiral.

    Meanwhile, in California, folk are attempting to both punish Kansas and other such places for saying student associations can have freedom to associate and talking about Calexit: thereby managing to replicate (in so far minor ways) the push by antebellum slave states to seek to block other states giving slaves sanctuary and taking their bat and ball and leaving when folk didn’t want to play their game.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. January 2017 at 07:56

    Harding, This is not complicated. Regions don’t have a right to succeed without the approval of the central government. Do you recall what happened in 1861-65?

    Oh wait, you were on the pro-slavery side.

    Lorenzo, Yes, there have been leftists who were far worse (in the sense of being even less utilitarian) such as Mao and Stalin, and there continues to be plenty of idiocy on the left, even today.

  16. Gravatar of Potato Potato
    28. January 2017 at 10:57

    The “referenda” were clearly not above board.

    That aside, do you really not believe in self determination? Did Vietnam have the right to “succeed” from France? What about Algeria? The US? Chechnya?

    In my ignorant view, the issue with the South seceding was that it was in defense of an inhuman and immoral system. Not that secession in and of itself is a priori wrong.

  17. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    28. January 2017 at 11:13


    Many liberals are simply ignorant idealists. Most of them know virtually nothing about foreign policy. They appear reasonable compared to neocons, for example, because they are, but you’ll notice there’s rarely an over-arching strategy in a liberal’s foreign policy views. They confuse tactics with strategy, etc.

    Many conservatives these days are even worse, believing Trump, May, or le Pen have a clue, but they’re much worse than the liberals.

    It’s the boring old centrists and establishment figures at places like the Council on Foreign Relations who actually understand foreign policy. Unfortunately, the noise on the left and right has been drowning out their influence among the public for many years now.

  18. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    28. January 2017 at 23:01

    “Do you recall what happened in 1861-65?”

    -Sure. I also recall what happened in 1776 and is happening in Yemen.

    Ultimately, it would be interesting to see how the independent Confederacy would have behaved itself. It was a highly politically distinct region in the U.S. down to the late 1920s.

    Had the South won, the North would likely have had much higher tariffs.

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. January 2017 at 08:38

    Harding, Crimeans did not fight a war for independence, there were conquered.

    Potato, I think it’s often wise to let areas secede that want to secede. (example Czechoslovakia.) But no, I don’t think they have that right. Think about a province where massive oil fields are discovered. Do they have the right to secede, and keep all the revenue for themselves?

    Colonies are different, for obvious reasons.

  20. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    29. January 2017 at 13:32

    “Yes, Sumner, Russia is the only country engaged in wars outside its borders.”

    S.S. has the good sense {from a career point of view} not to condemn the U.S. government for violating international law, although in every instance in which U.S. forces cross into another country’s sovereign territory without permission from that government or the United Nations Security Council, that is technically an act of illegal aggression.

    Of course I would think that he believed that Russia ‘invaded Crimea’?
    “The reason such evidence of an “invasion” was lacking is that Russian troops were already stationed in Crimea as part of a basing agreement for the port of Sevastopol. So, it was a very curious “invasion” indeed, since the Russian troops were on scene before the “invasion” and their involvement after the coup was peaceful in protecting the Crimean population from the depredations of the new regime’s neo-Nazis. The presence of a small number of Russian troops also allowed the Crimeans to vote on whether to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, which they did with a 96 percent majority.”

  21. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    29. January 2017 at 13:45

    “Crimeans did not fight a war for independence, there were conquered.”

    -You now an expert knowing what’s best for the Crimean people? Well over 80% voted to leave Ukraine. Stronger than any U.S. president’s mandate.

    “Colonies are different, for obvious reasons.”

    -I don’t see any reasons.

  22. Gravatar of Rob Rob
    29. January 2017 at 14:37

    I spent ~3 months working in Russia this year and I couldn’t agree with you more on this, Scott.

    It’s really shocking to meet so many well-educated well-traveled upper middle class people who are so fundamentally illiberal. The smirking pride with which people would tell me that drug offenders get locked up and the key thrown away, or that if there was a cologne incident they would just beat up all refugees; the constant jeering about black people and minorities, etc.

    Call me a Russophobe if you want, but it gets pretty noxious. I suppose maybe I was just meeting the wrong people though.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. January 2017 at 08:27

    Postkey, Well then why doesn’t the US just invade Japan? After all, US troops are “on the scene” in Japan right now.

    You said:

    “new regime’s neo-Nazis.”

    So both you and Harding get your information from RT? That explains a lot. The loony left and the loony right converge.

    Rob. That’s pretty depressing.

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