Occupy This!

An Occupy Wall Street leader highlights the global reach of his movement.

In his call for Occupiers to "stop whining," Charles Kenny ("We're All the 1 Percent," March/April 2012) mocks the victims of the recession, fails to comprehend global social movements, and feebly attempts to resurrect a reactionary, 19th-century narrative of nationalist class collaboration to discourage popular resentment about the economic crisis.

Out of either ignorance or malice, Kenny portrays the Occupy movement as exclusively concerned with domestic issues without realizing that Occupy groups exist on every continent. When we speak to activists from Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, or Serbia, they don't castigate our efforts because of American wealth; they ask, "What took you so long?" Organizers from the Global South have no misconceptions about American affluence, and for that very reason they emphasize the interconnectedness of our struggles against economic exploitation. When the Nigerian government eliminated fuel subsidies in January, the people didn't turn to policy institutes. They organized Occupy Nigeria.

If these activists aren't telling us to "stop whining" and let "the richest 1 percent … help the rest catch up," then why would Kenny? His argument recalls those of anti-union employers who told skilled workers to "stop whining" because they had it better than the unskilled. Kenny echoes imperial officials who told their citizens to "stop whining" because they had it better than the "natives." They exhorted working-class people to think in terms of their nation rather than their class and see themselves as part of an international ruling elite.

If Kenny were tens of thousands of dollars in debt from medical bills and struggling to find a job, would he consider himself "really, really rich"? Certainly such rhetoric will generate some high-fives around Kenny's think tanks, but the American people aren't taking the bait.

Occupy Wall Street press team
Ph.D. student in history, Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

Charles Kenny replies:

It is great to hear that the Occupy movement is concerned with global inequality, not just inequality within the United States. And it would be wonderful to see a global social protest that really did focus on the world's poorest. In that spirit, it might be worth clarifying two things.

First, it is wrong that anyone, anywhere, should get into tens of thousands of dollars of debt just to afford decent health care. But people in absolute poverty don't even have that option -- because nobody would ever lend them that much. The total lifetime income of someone on a dollar a day is likely to be around $20,000. They all too often die of conditions that can be cured for a few dollars' worth of antibiotics. And they don't usually own cars or generators either, so they benefit comparatively little from cheap fuel. General fuel subsidies in Nigeria paid out a lot more to the relatively rich than to the relatively poor.

Second, economist Branko Milanovic estimates that in the mid-19th century (the days of imperial officials telling people to stop whining), about half of global inequality could be accounted for by unequal incomes within countries and the other half by inequalities in average incomes across countries. Today, fully 80 percent of global inequality is due to differences in incomes across countries, which dwarf the gap between rich and poor within countries. So if there is a global class system, it is one where the upper class is made up of people in rich countries, and the working class of people in poor countries. Want to help the world's downtrodden? Tax the average American and send the money to the average Malawian.


Georgia on My Mind

The Georgian ambassador pushes back against Thomas de Waal's portrayal of his country.

Thomas de Waal's article ("How Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World," March/April 2012) is written with exceptionally fine metaphors and literary references. The comparison of modern Russia to that of Gogol's The Government Inspector is indeed sadly apt. But the piece would have been truly brilliant if it had only paid more attention to real-world details about my country, Georgia.

De Waal describes the Soviet Union as a "monolith" that became 15 stories instead of one only after it fragmented into 15 separate countries. But that is a mistakenly Moscow-centered view. My country, like other captive nations inside the Soviet empire, is a separate story and has been for close to three millennia. True, we had intervals of foreign domination -- most recently when the Bolsheviks invaded us in 1921. But we Georgians, like our fellow inmates the Armenians, Azeris, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and others, chose freedom at the first opportunity. One might describe the Soviet Union as a dungeon of nations or, in the case of the unlucky ones, a graveyard. But it was not a monolith.

That leads to the author's second mistake. In pursuit of his Dostoyevskian analogy, he claims that all 15 republics ("save Russia") were "patricides" that "killed their Russian father to gain their freedom." That sounds nice, but it is not true. It was Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus who killed the Soviet Union by signing the Belavezha Accords in December 1991. More broadly, the Soviet Union was killed by its own incompetence and contradictions, not by Georgians or any of the other "restive nationalities," as we were known so insultingly at the time.

De Waal then claims that Georgia's aristocracy, church, and communist leaders had forged strong ties with Russia, making the separation uniquely hard. This is, at best, only part of the story. In fact, other countries have, for different reasons, found it far harder than we have to establish durable statehood. Russia did make great efforts to keep us in its sphere (not least in the 2008 war, which aimed, according to President Dmitry Medvedev, to block our NATO membership). But that reflects Russia's wishes, not ours.

It is also wrong to state that Soviet or Russian history created a particularly close attachment with Georgia. For every Georgian aristocrat who flourished in tsarist times, 10 were repressed, including our entire royal family. The Russians abolished the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church-one of the oldest autocephalous churches in the world, which had survived Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, and Persian domination. For every Georgian communist who served in the Soviet hierarchy, tens of thousands perished in the Gulag.

The author also raises the hackneyed idea that Georgia has a "Stalin complex." Yes, the notorious Joseph Jugashvili was born in the Georgian small town of Gori. But he dedicated his adult life to the cause of Bolshevism, not Georgia. His treatment of nationalities (including Georgians) was harsh: He was determined to prove that he was a Great Russian (in several senses, including the chauvinist one) who had overcome his provincial origins. Stalin is far more popular today in Russia than in Georgia.

De Waal is entitled to disagree with Georgia's government policies, and I would be the first to agree that we are open to criticism on matters of substance and procedure. But he decries our internationally acclaimed reforms in defeating corruption and organized crime, as well as in
creating a world-class climate of business-friendly regulation and transparency, on the grounds that they were achieved without consensus and with too much conviction.

I can only point out that my government has enjoyed a democratic mandate throughout its time in office. I am not aware of any country that has introduced profound reforms based on the consensus of the entire society. My country's leaders are proud to stand alongside other
reformers such as Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan and face the judgment of history about the priorities we have followed.

I would stress that I found de Waal's article entertaining and, at times, informative. But facts must not be sacrificed for the elegance of a literary conceit.

Giorgi Badridze
Ambassador of Georgia
London, United Kingdom

Thomas de Waal replies:

The letter from Ambassador Giorgi Badridze, someone I have known and respected for years, throws me into a dilemma. My article was not a conventional piece of policy analysis, but an attempt to use literature to express some deeper truths about three post-Soviet societies. I could give a detailed analytical response by pointing out some of the less-than-stellar realities and perverse outcomes of the modern Georgian elite's reforms -- which, contrary to Badridze's assertions, I do give credit to, especially those targeted against corruption. But that would not be in the spirit of my original article.

Let me only repeat that the contradictions in the current Georgian elite's program between the pursuit of "reform" and the accompanying lack of democratic checks and balances -- in the name of making that reform "irreversible" -- are something that any 19th-century self-respecting Russian or Georgian radical would recognize and for which Fyodor Dostoyevsky is still an exemplary guide.

We will have a better idea of how this story progresses in Georgia in about a year's time, when the current electoral cycle is over. But, as I wrote, there are at least warning signs that democracy is being sacrificed in the pursuit of a utopian goal. To give one example, an implacable crackdown on criminality has filled Georgia's jails with many who should not be there. Last year, Georgia surpassed Russia to have the fourth-highest prison population per capita in the world. Here I would agree with Dostoyevsky that "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

Lettering by James Victore for FP

Skyline by Kexin Zheng