Arbitrary and Unlimited Power, Thrown Away

The monarch’s job is to continue arbitrary and unlimited power, and hand most of it over to government. In 2003, Blair used this to declare war on Iraq without prior parliamentary approval, in 1992, John Major used this power to cover up Britain’s arms trade with Iraq, and in 1984, Thatcher used it to prevent civil servants from joining/forming trade unions.

English: H.M. King George VI and Queen Elizabe...

H.M. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Senate Chamber giving Royal Assent to Bills, Ottawa, Canada.

The Queen has formal powers too, such as the power to dissolve/dismiss government, withhold royal assent on certain bills, and to appoint Prime Ministers. Even though they haven’t been used in Britain for a while, they were used against democracy (with great backlash) in Australia to dismiss the 1975 government, and in 2008 to prorogue the Canadian government (and undemocratically prevent a vote of no confidence) for several weeks.

It is true that Elizabeth isn’t exactly controversial, but monarchism ends up choosing people by chance, and there’s a danger people like Charles could abuse it. Additionally, her being above the fray of politics is pointless, when she ends up being the government’s puppet. This is where the equality of opportunity argument comes in (and yes you can think it baseless in comparison to the white millionaires club), it’s not good enough for me to just say that the current head of state gives birth to the next one; I think such a position should be earnt.


How we see Russia

Daniel Treisman, an ‘area studies’ scholar on Russia, wrote of two methods that people use to write about Russia.

The first approach is to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity. … From sixteenth century European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onevin, chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.” Much journalism and historical writing shares this preoccupation with the country’s dismal side.

… Most of the sinister features that upset the critics are, sadly, typical of countries at similar levels of economic development. Russia is unique, but in the way that Belgium, Argentina, and Malaysia are unique – no more, no less.

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled “Russia takes a step backwards”

The second approach is:

to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic. Russia, it is said, is unique and unknowable. It hides its secrets from social scientists and statisticians. … Its roads are Möbius strips; its parallel lines cross many times. Such talk usually progresses to speculation about the Russian soul, itself conceived as a jumble of contradictions. Russians, wrote the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev,a re Dionysian yet ascetic, violent yet gentle, ritualistic yet hungry for truth: “In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia.” In short, an easy place to get lost.

Whilst mystification and vilification are no way to study a country, Treisman goes on to say:

a generation of work by social scientists from both Russia and the West has shown that the country’s economic and politics are perfectly susceptible to careful observation, measurement, and reasoned interpretation. The apparently chaotic surfaces of political and economic life often turn out to conceal quite intelligible patterns that are in many ways similar to those found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are patterns of foreign policy that are reasonably unique to Russia. The obsession with the ‘near abroad’ (bordering countries that were former parts of the Soviet Union/Russian empire) and ‘great power’ status, as well as Russia’s independence from foreign powers are obvious, and there have been attempts within the field to explain them as political narratives/myths unique to a country’s identity.


Orientalism in the Polish Borderlands Culture

The “Borderlands” are a region to the East of Poland with a longstanding mythology in Polish discourse. Being at different points in history part of the Polish state, they are a central place of political confrontation and national identity. The very term hints that they are part of Poland, albeit not in the centre. Speaking vaguely, they can form a part of ‘Greater’ Poland, constituting the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which I have written about already.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Looking further into the word, it symbolises an ‘Otherness’ of the area’s inhabitants, who are defined only in their peripheral location from the Polish centre, which lowers their position in Poland. They are also ‘orientalised’, made exotic and uncommon to the Polish norm.

In 1996, at the ‘Borderlands Conference’ in Warsaw, Ryszard Kiersnowski slammed the then Polish Pope for talking about Lithuanians of Polish origin, but not about repressed Poles. Using the word “Borderlands”, Kiernowski isolated these Poles from Lithuania as their homeland. Kiernowski’s views are not an anomaly, and according to many who talk about the “Borderlands”, they are to be exclusively Polish. At around the same time as the conference in Warsaw, the Catholics of Przemyśl (a multi faith city), closed the doors of one of their churches, when their highest Earthly superior within their belief, attempted to hand the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics for the sake of good relations.

In many post-Soviet countries, there has been an idealisation of the past. In Russia for example, the pomp and grandeur of the former Russian Empire, together with its emblems and the might of the Orthodox Church, has seen a strong revival. In Poland, however, a cult has been formed around the lost lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and ‘greater’ Poland in general.

Many of those within the “Borderlands” react strongly against the Polish discourse, and it can easily be seen as a Polish Orientalism. Polish views on the Borderlands, exclude those who do not identify as Polish but who live in the Borderlands, such as Ukrainians, Ashkenazis, Belarusians, Lithuanians, etc. In this respect:

Orientalism was more susceptible to the influences of the culture that had created it than to the supposed aims of its research, also created by the West; hence its history shows both cohesion and clear connections with the culture dominating in its surroundings. [Said 2003, 57, also see 56].

In summary, the concept of the Borderlands in Poland is harmful to outsiders, and bears many similarities to colonial discourse. The assumption of the Ukrainian borderlands as pastoral, idyllic, and backwards (implicitly inferior), creates many problems and prejudices (Beauvois 2005, 8-13), and is a barrier to better neighbourly relations. As Said says, “culture [is] regarded as politically and even historically innocent; in my opinion exactly the opposite is true …” [Said 2003, 63].


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Szlachcic na zagrodzie równy wojewodzie.

The noble on his estate is equal to the voivode.

This is a Polish proverb, part of the legacy that came with the Commonwealth, that basically means that no free man would think of himself as less superior than anyone else.

The Polish-Lithuanian was one of the early republics, and experienced a time of prominence in the mid-1600s. A huge state, (see this map) it had over 8 million residents. Germans, Armenians, Jews, Poles, etc. all lived together. However, whilst there was freedom of religion and many different faiths, Catholic was predominant under the constitution. The constitution, for that matter, was made up of all parliamentary legislation – ranging from the obligation of farmer tenants to wartime taxation.

Many would disagree that the Commonwealth was a republic, as there were still enserfed peasantry and privately controlled cities, and additionally, politics was limited to the szlachta (upper class). Those who held seats in the Senate could also only be Catholic, as was the case with the elected King of the Commonwealth.

Comparing the Commonwealth with its close neighbours, though, illustrates the importance of the progress it had made so early. Rights of self-determination to regional councils and a Parliament of the Commons made in the Commonwealth contrasted with the victory of absolute and central rule in Russia over Zemskii sobor (assembly of the people).

Furthermore, whilst in the Commonwealth, libertas and the rule of law was the guiding principle of the state, in Russia autocracy alone symbolised the principles of justice, salvation, and the state structure. Additionally, the Catholic King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was actively ‘monitored’ by the country’s politicians, who often blocked key decisions.

Overall, the Commonwealth is an interesting example of what some might class as a democracy, at a time where this was certainly not the norm. It would be worth looking more into this.


Postcolonialism – Key Terms

Since these terms can often be hard to pin down, I’m giving some quick definitions of words I may use every so often. Note that this is me writing from my phone, so I apologise for any mistakes made.

English: The World in 1897.

Alterity

The ‘alternate’, someone/or a group of peoples that are in a state of being different. This is usually in contrast with the West, or colonial powers; the ‘Other’ is defined by its outsider status.

Ambivalence

How the colonised, and coloniser view each other. The colonised is often seen as inferior yet exotic, and uncivilised (see noble/ignoble savage), ideas used to justify colonialism. The colonised often saw the coloniser as an invasive and destructive force.

Essentialism

The practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. Often used through race, culture, religion, or ethnicity. Differences are overlooked. Essentialism can also be used by the colonised, as a means of fighting coloniser discourse.

Hybridity

A contested term, it can often simply mean ‘cross-cultural exchange’. Some writers, such as Bhabha, highlight the interdependence between master and subject in colonial power relations, which is important in the development of hybridity.

Post colonialism 

The study of the effects of colonisation felt by cultures and societies. Post-colonial states are best seen as ‘post-independence’, from their colonial masters.


Mapping Eastern Europe, a Postcolonial Narrative?

The EURASIA PROJECT, formally unveiled two years ago by Vladimir Putin, can be described as ‘essentialist’ in postcolonial terms. Essentialism is the practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. In a previous post I spoke about the alterity assigned to those in the post-Soviet space by its outsiders:

The ‘terra incognita‘ of Eastern Europe … is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Eurasianism as a contemporary foreign policy concept has been around since at least Gorbachev’s “New Thinking”, speaking as an alternative for those who see Russia as having a special place in world politics. As Russia is not imbued in a disadvantaging colonial power relationship, it was able to create a ‘grand narrative’ surrounding itself and the near abroad. A grand narrative, or ‘metanarrative’, claims to be a truth concerning the way the world works, and creates a story that explains and merges local or native narratives.

English: Ethnic map of the European part of th...

Ethnic map of the European part of the Russian Empire

Whilst Eurasia can be a simple geographic term, it can also imply a lot of political meanings and ‘truths’, referring to the historical and ‘legitimate’ influence over the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet sucessor. The term encompasses widely different ethnicities and cultural groups, from Karelians and Chukchis to Moldovans, Chechnyans, and Tatars. The unifying narrative, enforced through colonial education of the ‘Slav’, the ‘Soviet’, or ‘Eurasian’, has only a Greater Russia as a common denominator.

The resurgence of these narratives can reflect hidden political threats and the new capabilities of certain groups. The alterity (state of being different) given by the pro and anti West that divides all these different ethnicities and countries domestically, unites them as a whole with an identity crisis. Eurasianism gives the new Russia historical legitimacy in its quest for regional influence, and discursively unites key actors within the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, it discursively neglects the pro-Europe within its near abroad, nurturing instead a pro-Russian elite.


The BBC sets the agenda on the Royal family (Republic)

Please note that I didn’t write this, but am reposting it from the campaign for a British Republic ( http://www.republic.org.uk/updates/?p=907 ). The headline is: ‘BBC accused of blocking embarrassing royal stories

The BBC has been accused of operating a deliberate policy of ignoring or underplaying news stories that could embarrass the monarchy, while giving significant coverage to pro-royal “puff pieces”.

In the last six months the BBC, which employs a “royal liaison officer” to ensure good relations with Buckingham Palace, has overlooked a number of potentially damaging stories about the monarchy – despite extensive coverage in other national media outlets. These include:

Duchy of Cornwall accused of tax avoidance
Covered by: The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, Financial Times, The Daily Express
BBC coverage: none

Royal finances to be investigated by public accounts committee
Covered by: The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Sunday Express
BBC coverage: none

Prince Charles uses intestate cash to fund own lobby groups and old public school
Covered by: The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express
BBC coverage: none

A number of other stories – including the public accounts committee’s demand for the government to justify Prince Charles’s tax exemptions, revelations about the “royal veto” and the Queen’s £6m pay rise – received only fleeting coverage, despite being given high prominence by other media outlets.

In that time, however, the activities of the royal family – and in particular Prince Charles – have been covered in considerable detail by the BBC. Headlines on the corporation’s website over the previous six months include:

  • Prince Charles visits community shop
  • Charles and Camilla take Tube ride
  • Prince Charles: ‘I’m feeling very old’
  • Royal baby prompts green concern for Prince Charles
  • Prince Charles calls for more compassion in NHS
  • Prince Charles revives horse logging on Balmoral estate
  • Prince Charles urges ‘harmony with nature’
  • Prince Charles ‘worried’ for rural communities
  • Prince Charles visits Northampton shoe factory
  • Prince Charles visits Middleport Pottery factory

The BBC has also just announced a “Coronation celebration season” which aims to “bring the nation together this summer by allowing everyone to join in with the Coronation celebrations”.

Republic’s chief executive Graham Smith said: “When you look at the royal stories that the BBC covers and the ones it ignores, it’s difficult not to conclude that the corporation is at pains not to embarrass the royals. It will often send more than one reporter to a staged PR event, yet manages to overlook some really important public interest stories that licence fee payers have a right to know about.”

“Many of the stories the BBC has covered have all the hallmarks of PR puff pieces orchestrated by the palace press office – which the corporation seems eager to cover without the slightest concern for journalistic integrity.”

“If the BBC has the time and resources to report that Prince Andrew uses an iPad, then it can report on controversies surrounding the royal finances or Prince Charles’s political meddling.”

“The BBC is supposed to be independent, impartial and honest, but it seems to have been entirely co-opted into the royal PR machine. That’s why we’ll be protesting at Broadcasting House on Saturday – and why we’ll keep putting pressure on the BBC to cover the monarchy objectively.”