The United Kingdom is rightly proud of its National Health Service. When London hosted the Olympics in 2012, the opening ceremony included a little tableaux about the NHS, which was presented as one of the finest achievements of the host nation.
However for over 40 years, whenever some public figure says “NHS” the next word is “reform”. Politicians are constantly saying there is something wrong with the NHS, and it needs reforming, though they differ widely on what its problems are, and what should be done about them.
The slogan “NHS reform” has been so successful that few have realised its use is a very clever tactic. Whenever anyone raises an issue with something in the NHS, they are told they are talking about reform. Invariably this means structural reform – either more along the same lines, or reversing an existing reform.
In most cases, the people who complain about the NHS aren’t talking about structural reform at all. They don’t like the behaviour of certain staff, or the waiting times, or the refusal to apologise for obvious misconduct.
But the responses to these complaints are always about what sort of reform has taken place, or should, rather than the issue itself. So no one will ever discuss these serious issues, or admit that they exist. The only issue is reform – and of course this protects all those who might be misbehaving, or at least so they think.
Does this sound familiar to residents of countries, who have had no experience of the NHS? It should. We’ve all heard so much about “reform” that the term long ceased to have any positive meaning, for exactly the same reason.
It’s the same with “democracy” and “human rights” – the things we expect civilized societies to have. Few of those who espouse these things really want to see them in place. These words are used to protect this or that interest group from any consequences – and when we know who, we see exactly who our friends are.
Cars without engines
Take “economic reform”, which was imposed upon all the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states after they freed themselves of their oppressive and corrupt systems. No longer would everything be run by an ultimately unaccountable state. The principles of capitalism, which had served rich countries well, would transform these newly-liberated states into progressive and prosperous members of the family of free nations.
Have they? It’s been thirty years now. Still the former Soviet states are second-tier nations – what would be called the Rust Belt if part of a Western country. Reforming their economies hasn’t produced the dividends the same economic systems have produced in the countries which impose those systems upon them.
Nor was economic reform the inevitable consequence of political change, the tool fit for the new national purpose. When the virulently anti-Communist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, an admirer of Ronald Reagan, declared Georgia independent he continued with a policy of Soviet-style state capitalism, because it had worked better in Georgia than in most places, and there was no point is dismantling everything over night when independence had already removed all the public services/goods previously provided by the Soviet Union.
This gave Western countries a choice: stick with their political fellow traveller who followed a different economic path, or bring in a more compliant government which would. Strangely enough, this resulted in the former Communist leader Eduard Shevardnadze being installed after a coup conducted by criminal gangs, everything the West doesn’t agree with in theory, in order to get the economic reform which has left Georgia so poor that scavenging dogs have more prospects than the people.
The only thing that mattered was economic reform. Why? Because in its name you could do anything. As the Saakashvili years proved, you have complete immunity both domestically and internationally if you say everything is being driven by economic reform and encouraged by the West.
Economic reform means somebody else tells you what to do, and is given a blank cheque to do it. There is no instance in which countries which seek to reform their economies are allowed to do so themselves, as every IMF an World Bank rescue package, which involves more foreign influence and investment rather than less, demonstrates. Economic reform is like globalisation, it has so many meanings, it is devoid of any meaning.
Economic reform is never conducted by locals who have advocated such policies for years. It is the province of foreign advisors, top down, who work under foreign rules, invented by those the advisors have to satisfy rather than the advisors themselves. Seldom is it need driven and based on principles of participatory development.
Who is protected by this? Look at what the plum diplomatic postings are. Everyone wants to work in the developed countries, which don’t think they need economic reform. The countries which others say need help are where no one wants to go – so who is sent there?
If you do something wrong, or are not up to the job, you are suddenly an economic reformer. It is often remarked that the EU is a dumping ground for politicians who have failed, even if once successful, in their home countries. Economically reforming countries get those too dubious for the EU.
If people in developing countries complain they can’t live on their earnings, they are told that they are talking about economic reform. A lot of people in rich Western countries can also no longer live on their earnings, and no longer have much social safety net either. But if they complain, they are never told that they are talking about economic reform, only prospering more in the existing system.
Who is protected by this? Mostly amongst those who are failures at home, but [suddenly] become experts, visiting firemen, as soon as they get off the plane in the reforming countries. They are those who want to make the shadiest deals with the shadiest people, on the grounds that this is “reform”.
Ultimately, it is those who can be blackmailed as well as kept out of the way – who can be used to introduce the drugs that didn’t pass inspection, the high tar cigarettes banned where they are made, the labour exploitation outlawed at home and the network of public facilities sustained by arms and drug smuggling, all in the name of economic reform, when that is not the solution to the problems being presented.
One man, one problem
Ilham Aliev is fond saying that everyone has their own definition of democracy, so Azerbaijan must be a democracy because his definition is as good as anyone else’s. No leader of a mature democracy would publicly support such a position. The problem is, they know he is right, and they know they themselves have made it that way.
In the name of democracy, elected leaders are removed because people who couldn’t vote for them think they aren’t democratic enough. Salvador Allende was a famous example, even though he did not dismantle Chile’s democracy by orienting the country towards the Marxist world, and General Pinochet and his pro-Western dictatorship did.
But if people in developing countries complain about their governments not doing what they want, they are told they are crying for democracy. Like the demonstrators in Maidan Square in 2014 who wanted the Yanukovych government to grant them their legal rights, their problems and voices are hijacked for purposes they never intended, by actors they never wanted to side with.
Every developed democracy has defects. In some countries the electoral system is so crude that governments are elected with a small minority of the votes, the United Kingdom and Canada being examples of this. In others there may be electoral equity but no accountability – the choice is so meaningless that the same political class stays in power and ignores the public, which has no levers to influence them, as the Marc Dutroux child abuse scandal in Belgium laid bare to a horrified world.
Nevertheless, most people want democracy, and to say they live in one. So in its name, anything can be done by those who are introducing, improving or guaranteeing that democracy, even when those things have nothing to do with democracy itself.
“Democracy” is taken to mean greater alignment with the Western world, rather than rule by the people through their freely and fairly elected representatives. Whatever the problem, that is the solution, and as long as the label “democracy” is attached to something, it can be part of that solution.
Democratic reform means accepting development from some sources, considered democratic, over others. China is no democracy, but as long as democratic countries encourage its state companies to invest in the democratically developing country, it can take over all that country’s resources. If Russian tries the same, it is forbidden on the grounds that Russia is not democratic, though its system ticks far more boxes of the definition than China’s—and even by Western standards.
Democracy means getting the right result and at the right time. If the people vote for the wrong person, as when they initially re-elected the Communists in Bulgaria, the democratic process must have been subverted by anti-democratic forces. If the right person subsequently takes power, even if through a coup or other non-democratic means, this is a triumph of democracy and an expression of the popular will, meaning foreigners who can’t vote there can introduce more changes to bolster, or rather enslave the right person.
Shooting an elephant
People are told they want democracy by those who want those people to have as little say as possible in the form and direction of their country. Who does this protect? But are those who don’t want their actions subject to any public scrutiny?
Everything must be alright if it is done by a democracy in the name of democracy, and often out of an sense of obligation, to show who is in control. Go to any state which was once the colony of a greater power, and ask what was done there in the name of democracy, and you will see how little any elector could do about the crimes which scar those countries’ collective psyches to this day.
Supposedly The Boer War was fought between Transvaal and the British Empire over the rights of the uitlanders, foreign workers who were treated as second class citizens, or worse, by the Transvaal government. In order to safeguard the human rights of these workers, the British herded non-combatant South African civilians into concentration camps, the institutions for which the phrase “methods of barbarism” was coined. However, it was really about gold, as we know even from Nazi propaganda movies, such as Uncle Kruger.
It’s the same everywhere. Human rights only apply to your own side. War crimes trials only involve losers. Genocide is only committed by those you don’t like, as Armenians are fond of saying about the global response to the events of 1917, and the Kurds say about all their neighbours, to be met with total indifference even when the world is complaining about the regimes of those same neighbours.
Franklin D. Roosevelt often drew the distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from”, his thesis being that you can’t have one without the other – you can’t give people freedom to own property if they don’t have freedom from poverty and exploitation. But when people complain they are victims of social and economic discrimination, they are not necessarily calling for human rights but relief from their problems.
Why are people being told that they are calling for human rights? Because these rights have to be guaranteed by particular people, and more often than not the same ones who are denying them. Who is protected by saying everything is about human rights? Those who place ideology above all – who want to put their ideas above criticism, rather than the interests, and ideas, of those they claim to be advocating for.
Soviet citizens remember when every man had the right to a job – so the state could do whatever it liked to them, and suppress their own views, justifying this by ideology. Israel can violate the rights of Palestinians with impunity so the ideology of Zionism can supersede human need, universal human rights, including the needs of Israelis.
Human rights don’t protect the human but the inhuman. The one human right no activist will grant is the right of those they claim to be protecting to have different views and wants. When states intervene to guarantee human rights, it is only the rights of those who want to tear down the values of their own state which they are protecting, to get them out of the way.
Reform, democracy and human rights are real. People really want them. But when people are talking about something else, but then told they are asking for these things, alarm bells should start ringing.
That doesn’t happen because those in power have silenced the bells. Why? So if their scams are found out, they will be replaced by the only option their behaviour has left available – another generation of reformers, democracy promoters and selective human rights activists.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.