Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

The downfall of Russian libertarians

It’s sad to witness a slow decline of the Russian libertarian party and a gradual deterioration of its intellectual faculties – all observed in the past months. In the past, libertarians exhibited a pretty high standard of intellectual rhetoric for the Russian politics: of course, their deliberations were mainly theoretical, but at least logically sound, well-researched and thought-through. That ceased to be the case during the pandemic.

In Russia, libertarians are mainly represented and personified by Mikhail Svetov, the main spokesman and ideologist of the party. In the past months, the media output of Mr. Svetov has become a stream of impudent propaganda, borderline conspiracies, and plainly bad argumentation.

Therefore, below are some symptomatic examples of intellectual decline, as well as an illustrative instruction on how NOT to organize your political rhetoric.

1) Oversimplification of the world

Government is the natural arch-enemy of all libertarians – that’s the ideological axiom. By assigning all existing malevolent features to the government, libertarians create an image of an ultimate evil, the only purpose of which is to grab power. Fair enough – Russia is a country where such assumptions are justified. Unfortunately, libertarians then tend to extrapolate same malevolent features to a long list of other agencies: such as media, science, and healthcare. Not only on Russian scale, but pretty much world-wide.

So what annoys me the most about Russian libertarians is the attitude ‘They told us’. The typical statements are: ‘They told us face masks are supposed to protect you – they were lying and misinforming you!’; ‘They told us vaccines require only one shot – doctors were lying to you from the beginning!’, etc.

The rhetoric ‘They told us’ implies existence of one centralized decision-making body that controls actions of a vast array of individual agents: such as scientists and journalists. Which is an overly naive assumption. If you’ve ever seen work of an editorial office of a magazine, you know that it’s chaotic, unmanageable and is more prone to publishing opinions of poorly-educated journalists rather than evil articles reinforcing agenda orchestrated by the secret government.

Of course, I’m not denying that there’s a certain involvement of government in each of these spheres. But unlike governments, neither science nor media are centralized, as they’re being dominated by numerous agents, each acting according to his own judgement. It’s an overly simplistic world-view to think that each entity has one evil master-plan.

The truth is that there’s no ‘They’. The world is largely chaotic. And there’re many better self-organising ways of managing this chaos than authoritarian control. What exists for sure and works best is a consensus among scientists and doctors. This consensus is 1) not shared by everyone, but a majority (take for instance medical research, which has to be tested, published and reviewed by peers just to gain a status of being scientific); 2) based on a set of data available at the moment, therefore it’s subject for revisions as long as the new data is collected (more about it later).

Moreover, the attitude ‘They told us’ is demeaning to the audience. It implies that 1) a person doesn’t have an ambition to figure out anything himself and relies solely on external judgement; 2) doesn’t have own agency and cannot exercise responsibility for taking risk or making a decision.

2) Naive definition of science

Libertarians assume that science has to be infallible. Every mistake on the side of science and media is interpreted as a conspiracy – clearly, the doctors were lying to you all the way since the beginning of 2020. In the world of libertarians, science doesn’t have a right to be mistaken – the hypotheses cannot be revised, even when the new evidence is collected.

Unfortunately, this is not how scientific method works. According to Karl Popper, what makes a scientific theory scientific is a defined set of conditions under which it can be falsified. Newtonian physics was scientific precisely because it allowed future scientists (such as Albert Einstein) to falsify it in light of the new evidence (the theory of relativity). If something cannot be falsified, it’s not science. Take for instance astrology (‘yes, my horoscope didn’t go as planned, but only because Venus interfered in the trajectory of Mars’) – that’s a truly infallible system of knowledge!

With such a largely stochastic and unpredictable environment as the one studied by epidemiology, it’s overly naive to believe that science could have predicted the spread of pandemic right from the beginning. Moreover, in absence of empirical data about behavior of massive world-scale pandemics from the past 100 years, there could be no sound theoretical model of epidemic spread devised in advance. We should therefore be grateful that healthcare forecasts are frequently revised – as this at least ensures that they’re based on the latest collected evidence, not an abstract theory decoupled from reality.

3) Slippery slope fallacy

A common logical flaw in the arguments of libertarians is a slippery-slope fallacy. ‘The government will introduce vaccination passports, THEREFORE we’ll soon have a social rating system too’. Slippery slope implies no middle ground, and skips essential logical steps between the statements.

Let’s unwrap this chain of logical inference. For instance, if we claim that, say, German government will decide to keep vaccination passports and turn them into social rating instruments, the following assumptions should also hold true. 1) The vaccination passports will stay even after the pandemic. 2) They will include not only name and date of vaccination, but other personal data. 3) The politicians enforcing the passports will be consistently supported by electorate in subsequent elections. 4) Citizens will agree that passports should include such details as: home address, place of employment, latest transactions on the bank account, script of past phone calls, browser history, etc. 5) There will be circumstances under which such measures would be supported.

The low likelihood of each individual scenario in the chain from above clearly indicates that it’s rather unlikely that all assumptions needed for converting vaccination passports into a social rating system will hold true in a democratic country such as Germany. Therefore, introduction of social rating system essentially depends on the absence of democratic institutions – how vaccination passports can undermine the democratic system on their own is something to wonder.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to imagine Russia adopting a system of social rating, for instance – like the one in Uyghur provinces of China. In fact, Russia already looks pretty similar to Xinjiang (I’m judging by the footage of Leonid Pashkowski). However, vaccination passports with QR codes aren’t likely to play any role in what’s already widely present: political arrests, monitoring of personal communications, surveillance cameras with facial recognition, public spaces with ever-present guards and all-encompassing fences, etc.

4) Spread of propaganda and dishonest political methods

One classic method of governmental manipulation and propaganda is invention of new terms and catch words, the Orwellian Newspeak. That’s why the Soviet bureau of propaganda managed to invent a whole new Soviet vocabulary to signify the upcoming New World Order. Propagation of new words leads to introduction of new concepts and categories of thought into the public discourse.

This is the exact trick that Russian libertarians are now using. Libertarians in the face of Mr. Svetov are utilizing a whole list of weirdly specific words that no one else is using, such as: карантинобесие (‘karantinobesie’, quarantine frenzy), китайский коронавирус (‘Chinese coronavirus’ with a necessary emphasis on its origin), номенклатура (‘nomenclature’, political establishment). It’s easy to identify the source of such narrative just by tracking origins of the words.

To be fair, same propaganda technique is also used by Russian government through the Internet bots. Those are also employing a weirdly peculiar set of terms (many borrowed from the prison terminology): шмурдяк (‘shmurdyak’, untrustworthy substance – used for referring to vaccines), чинуши (‘chinushi’ – government clerks), демшиза (‘demshiza’, democratic schizophrenia).

How to determine if something you see on the screen is propaganda? If you don’t know any real person in your social circle who uses such terms in real life, there’s a high probability they’ve been made up for the sake of political manipulation.

In general, it’s hard to believe that such an educated man as Mr. Svetov genuinely believes in all the questionable theories and bad arguments that he propagates. Most likely he’s spreading propaganda deliberately – misinterpreting facts just in order to fit them into his political narrative. Which is unfortunate, since the honesty to its audience was always the self-proclaimed distinctive sign of libertarian discourse in Russia.

On a good note, not all Russian libertarians have lost touch with reality yet. The best example is Mikhail Pozharsky. Here’s my favorite video of him about the history of social movements seeking to escape from progress. It’s mostly about the mountainous region of Zomia in Southeast Asia, that has historically served as a refuge for people who didn’t want to be integrated into the state, and as a consequence – neither into civilization. While seeking to be stateless and independent from oppression, these groups sacrificed all benefits of civilization: from having healthcare and education to using a writing script. Apparently that’s a life strategy popular not only in the mountains of Southeast Asia in the 10th century, but also among the majority of Russian libertarians in 2021.

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