A manifesto for the New Year: forget labels, and fix the problems

Alex Andreou's message for 2013.

It is that time of year again, when I sit down like Scrooge, doing the books. I am not counting money – precious little of that about. I am trying to reconcile the balances of my life. Trying to tally the columns of generosity, kindness and creativity with those of self-absorption, bitchiness and cruelty. I find myself in deficit again; maybe next year I'll break even.

2012 has been an angry year. And when I try to narrow down the "why", I find at the heart of my anger a frustration at the lack of discussion. A whole year of standing in front of a dark tunnel, shouting "anybody there?" and getting distorted echoes in return - or so it feels.

The need to widen discourse, to go beyond Labour or Tory or Pro-gun or Feminist or Eurosceptic, is pressing. Fundamental structures are crumbling around us and we're arguing about the decor. "We need to find a way of looking after each other," I said. "I take it that means you're statist," came back the obligatory, instantaneous Twitter response.

A lad in China sold one of his kidneys for an iPad. A young girl in Pakistan was shot for arguing she should be allowed an education. A classful of children in the US were murdered with an assault rifle. We gather around herbal tea and stick meaningless labels on each other, learned 20 years ago in a politics lesson, to which we were only half paying attention.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking.

We begin instead from cosmotheories, either discredited or superceded by clearer thinking in the last few decades. Do I define myself as a Socialist? Then I should stand against X. Do I subscribe to neoliberalism? I must never concede that the market may have screwed up. Am I a feminist? I will never admit to needing Y (no pun intended).

We have a paucity of black and white language attempting to describe a world gloriously full of colour. We start from the box in which we have chosen to live and define everything outwards. After all, The Apprentice, X Factor, Dragons' Den, Masterchef - I could go on - have taught us that people divide brightly into brilliant successes and hilarious failures. We choose to ignore our own, verifiable, personal experience which shows us that every day is full of small battles, bitter successes and failures packed with future wisdom.

The tabloids have become skillful illustrators of fear and suspicion. What's that? An unemployed man refused a job because he didn't want to get up at 8am? I knew it! My deep-seated fear now has a URL reference.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. We lack the language to discuss them. We lack the openness to find the answers. We choose to centre the debate on whether Conservatism with a dollop of compassion or Socialism with a fixation on low taxes is the answer. When we know - we fucking know - neither is.

On Christmas Eve thousands of people gathered in the centre of Athens. In the midst of the worst financial crisis to ever envelop the country, they donated generously - food, clothes, toys, appliances; many had been sitting in a storage room or a garage or a loft, unopened. Were they socialists, liberals, anarchists, statists, bigots, monetarists, part of The Left, The Right, The Centre? Who cares? They saw a problem and tried to fix it.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. Otherwise we are increasingly condemned to take to the streets in anger, shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT? We have no idea. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Hopefully some time in 2013."

Food and clothes are distributed in Athens. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times