Capitalism, Michael Sandel and Michael Moore

Doha diary, part 1

I didn't arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei's wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair's film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically -- the drinking and the smoking surprised me -- and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)

I awoke this morning to discover that I'm staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.

Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion -- it's the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women's tennis event, and in a couple of weeks' time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it's bidding to host the 2022 World Cup -- as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.

And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir's daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile -- that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 -- exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)

The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I've often thought that Moore's work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful -- on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls "bailout outrage".

That's it for now. I'm off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled "on the order of the authorities". Mysterious. I'll try to find out why.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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