The Road to Unfreedom

The Road to Unfreedom, written by Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University in the United States,  is a persuasive, revealing but disturbing book that links the present political problems in Europe, Russia and the United States.

The central idea in the book is two ways of living in time, two ways of translating facts into stories.  Both notions are false and lead us towards authoritarianism, hence the title “road to unfreedom”.  The two stories are the Politics of Inevitability and the Politics of Eternity.

In the politics of inevitability, there is one fixed future without alternatives in which life will be better for everyone.  It is the “end of history” discourse.  History is moving towards a clear end. The problem is that it blinds societies for the inevitable unattractive alternatives.  For example, if you believe that the internet only brings enlightenment, you don’t see the negative influence the internet has on democracy and inequality.

In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.  Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia.

Accepting that the future is fixed is to deny individual responsibility for making change.  The main problem of the politics of inevitability is that it opens the door to something worse. Financial or economic shocks may shift countries from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity.

In the politics of eternity, there is no future, only a nostalgic loop back to a glorious past.  Time is not a line but a circle.

The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility.

Russia has reached the stage of eternity first.  It went through the politics of inevitability during the 1990s to reach the politics of eternity with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.  Hydrocarbons, oligarchy and a lack of succession mechanisms drove this fast evolution towards eternity.

Europe and the USA are in a politics of inevitability and risk moving to a politics of eternity. Russia actively intervenes in European and American politics to realize this move to eternity, but there are also internal factors both within Europe and the United States: inequality, mythical representations of the past, oligarchy, a reliance on hydrocarbons and the demise of an independent and critical press, the weakening of institutions and the disregard for facts and experts.

The West is vulnerable as it believes in the notion of a glorious nation state past, whereas, in fact, European countries moved to European integration after their empires collapsed.

The politics of eternity is attractive for despots as it offers a solution to the challenges of succession and the inequality of wealth.  In a politics of eternity, elections are just a ritual and the leader comes from outside the system.  By removing the succession question, the immediate future is taken away and replaced by an endless loop of outside leaders.  Secondly, each person has its fixed place within the society, like cells in a body.  Therefore, there is no space for personal advancement which is convenient for the extreme rich, in Russia or other regions with high inequality.

Rather than discuss reforms, eternity politicians designate external threats. Rather than presenting a future with possibilities and hopes, they offer an eternal present with defined enemies and artificial crises. For this to work, citizens have to meet eternity politicians halfway. Demoralized by their inability to change their life, they must accept that the meaning of politics lies not in institutional reform but in daily emotion. They must stop thinking about a better and prefer the constant invocation of a proud past.

In the politics of eternity, facts don’t matter.  Everything is a lie and in such a world, your lies are as much worth as someone else’s lies.  To end factuality is to begin eternity. If citizens doubt everything, they cannot see alternative models beyond the country’s borders, cannot have sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organize political change.  Putin’s direct assault on factuality is called implausible deniability. By denying things that are obviously true, he moves the focus from reporting the facts to a reality show about the men in power. Russian media create a climate in which news is entertainment.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. For Russia in 2012, the fictional problem became the designs of the European Union and the United States to destroy Russia.  It was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses.  Russia’s real geopolitical problem was China. The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.

The EU was presented as an existential threat to Russia, because it enforced law and generated prosperity. Russia has been trying to define success in this war not in terms of prosperity and freedom but in terms of sexuality and culture, and that the European Union (and the United States) be defined as threats not because of anything they did but because of the values they supposedly represent.

The essence of Russia’s foreign policy is a strategic relativism: Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.  Russia sees international politics as a negative-sum game, where a skillful player can win by losing less than everyone else. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia.

In 2013, Russia began to influence its European neighbors into abandoning their own institutions and histories. It did so by supporting the extreme Right within EU member states.  It stimulates a discourse that harks back to a glorious, but fictional past of a wise and prosperous nation state. They do this through cyberwarfare, supporting extremist organizations and foreign policy.

Useful idiots like Farage and Le Pen propose a return to a nonexistent past, when Europeans lived in nation-states without immigrants. They are eternity politicians. Both Great Britain and France had been maritime empires that, as their colonies won independence, joined a European integration project. The European Union was a necessity for crumbling empires that lost colonial wars. Because they had no modern history as nation-states, an exit from the European Union would be a step into the unknown rather than the homecoming promised by nationalism.

Cyberwarfare is the preferred instrument, using cyber-attacks and controlling the online conversation by armies of bots.  The same bots were used in Ukraine, Brexit, US elections and various European elections. Twitter accounts that posted on Brexit were linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency—later, every single one of them would also post on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  About a third of the discussion of Brexit on Twitter was generated by bots—and more than 90% of the bots tweeting political material were not located in the United Kingdom.

Russia bombed Syria to generate refugees, then encouraged Europeans to panic in order to weaken the German government and help the AfD.  Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists.  Russian-backed social media in Germany the Alternatif fur Deutschland (AfD) as the savior of Germany.

The American politics of inevitability gave way to a politics of eternity with the election of Trump. As in Europe, there are the vulnerabilities of the United States created by a politics of inevitability that are exploited by an aggressive Russian foreign policy.

It was in the places where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked.  Also, after the financial crisis of 2008, the American local press collapsed, leaving Americans to the internet for their information.  Few anticipated that the internet would be used against them.

Trump is a perfect politician of eternity. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great.   He creates a fantasy of the innocent us and the guilty then with the fictional idea of the wall.  The fictional creation “Donald Trump, successful businessman” fills the public space with untruth.  He never apologizes for lies, since doing so would be to recognize that such a thing as truth exists.  His claims to be the eternal victim are characteristics of a politics of eternity.

Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election was not just an attempt to get a certain person elected. It was also the application of pressure to the democratic structure by making the system slightly less representative, tilting the system towards authoritarianism. The victory of a Russian-backed candidate could be less important, in the long run, than the erosion of democracy.

Is there a way off the road to unfreedom?  There is, but Snyder is pessimistic.  The conclusion of this tale lies in the acknowledgment that Putin’s strategy has been very successful in shaking our faith in the sanctity of fact and expert knowledge.  The way to leave the road to unfreedom is through a politics of responsibility:

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity and exit the road to unfreedom. We begin a politics of responsibility.

What does it mean to be responsible?

The politics of inevitability takes responsibility for the future away. Responsibility means discussing political choices and possible futures, realizing that our individual choices matter. It means accepting that people have ideas that don’t fit our preconceptions and looking for compromise. It means realizing how important conventions and mutual respect are as a way of maintaining order and civility — and how easily and carelessly they can be smashed.

We must keep digging for the facts and exposing falsehoods.  We should mistrust one-sided accounts of the past or the present.

Learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.  Yuval Noah Harari, Homo deus

A politics of responsibility would have to be about the future, not about a non-existing past. It should be about an active production of facts, investigative journalism and promoting quality local media.  It is also about investing in high quality education and renewable energy and cherishing the institutions that make it possible for individuals to act responsibly.

Although the book is mainly about Russia, Europe and the United States, the ideas of the book are relevant for developing countries as well. Snyder also highlights the importance of a quality public education system to develop critical citizens.

The Smartest Kids in the World

book-photo-smartestThe premise of Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is the large gap in the 4-yearly PISA results between the USA and a number of Asian and European countries.  As the PISA tests focus on skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, the results are extremely worrying for the USA.  Ripley sets out to analyse education systems in 3 highly performing democracies, South Korea, Finland and Poland.  She does this by following 3 American exchange students as they study one year in those countries.

Education systems in those 3 countries are very different.  South Korea’s success is to a large extent based on a very competitive and hierarchical system in which good marks at the graduation exam determine access to universities, which in turn determine job prospects.  South Korean parents invest heavily in hagwons, private tutoring companies.

Interestingly, these three education systems share some elements as well:

  • high selectivity in the entrance to the teaching profession;
  • strong pre-service training, including long teaching practice;
  • standardized testing upon graduation
  • focus on learning in schools (vs. sports…)
  • strong focus on equity, including investing more in those who need it and late tracking
  • societal-wide focus on educational rigour
  • large autonomy for teachers and schools
  • high expectations for all learners.

Finland and Poland, and the turnaround they realized since the 1970s and 2000s respectively, get the most admiration.

“Interestingly, Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States.  That helped explain why the first phase of reforms in Finland were painful, top-down, accountability-based measures.  In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour.  National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum.  Central authorities approved textbooks.  Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions.

Also, the Finns rebooted their teacher-training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous.  The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers and train them rigorously.

A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on:

With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down mandates became unnecessary.  More than that, they became a burden, preventing teachers and schools from teaching a higher level of excellence.  So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture.”

On the focus on equity in Finnish education:

“Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets, it was a mindset.  Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too.  Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities.  By their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids has received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary schools, so that they did not fall further behind.”

Despite the top scores in the PISA assessment, Koreans have been seeking to reform their education system since decades:

“The lesson seemed to be that without equity, the system would be gamed and distorted,  Parental anxieties would lead to an education arms race.  The rewards for an education had gotten too great and too rare in Korea, based on metrics that were too rigid.”

As long as students’ graduation scores determine the universities they can access and the name of the university determines the jobs that are attainable, parents will do whatever it takes to ensure the best possible outcome for their children.

However, the Korean education system offers some lessons on how parents can effectively support their offspring:

During the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed. So, it was understandable that American parents dutifully sold cupcakes at the bake sales and helped coach the soccer teams.  They doled out praise and trophies at a rate unmatched in other countries.   They were their kids’ boosters, their number-one fans.  Korean parents, by contrast, were coaches. They spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home.   They saw education as one of their jobs.Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable.”

The one thing American schools have most is technology in the school.   Ripley links the idea that learning should be fun and effortless with the American credulity for educational gadgetry:

“That’s what gimmicks do: they promise to make learning easy for everyone. Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”However, that kind of relentless studying could not be sustained, and there was evidence that Korean kids’ famous drive dropped off dramatically once they got to college.”

She notes that Finland, Poland and South Korea all experienced moments of crisis—economic and existential—before they buckled down and changed their stories. America, she argues, may yet have to experience such a moment.
The idea of the book is simple. Ask exchange students how they perceived education in other countries.  However, Ms Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.  Its insights align well with the research of John Hattie, a New-Zealand researcher, and the writings of Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator.
The most interesting and relevant part for me was the description of the evolution from a prescriptive, top-down system to a decentralized and bottom-up system, as teachers and schools get stronger.  It’s a long term vision which we, in South Africa, also should envisage.  Starting with strengthening teacher training colleges stronger and making access to them more selective, and gradually giving them more autonomy. South Africa, as the US, and for various reasons, still seems to have the equation wrong:

“We were trying the reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis.  It made sense to reward, train and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved.  There was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality.”

In short, a well-written, truly fascinating book that I’d well recommend.

Pakistan, A Hard Country


Fruit seller in Multan, southern Punjab

Time in between OU modules allows catching up on some ‘non-edtech ‘ literature, such as Anatol Lieven’s book on Pakistan.   Lieven seems to have travelled all over Pakistan and talked to everyone from farmers and local Taleban leaders up to members from the Pakistani elite in Lahore and Islamabad. Despite its nearly 500 pages, the book is both extremely readable and well in-depth to nuance or dispel the –numerous – misunderstandings and negative connotations that surround the country.

Lieven describes how strong kinship alliances and systems of patronage both weaken the state (only 1% of the population pays income tax) and protect it against extremism and state collapse. Except for the army, the Pakistani state is very weak, be it its judicial system where customary law systems and the Islamist sharia system are more applied than state laws, or education and health, where charity systems from organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have filled the void left by the state.

The Punjab forms the heart of Pakistan, with more than half of the population and by far the most economic activity. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, lies in the otherwise rural Sindh province.  The ca. 20 million Pathans make up the majority in the low-density provinces of Balochistan and NWFP (North Western Frontier Province).  The FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) along the border with Afghanistan are formally administered by a Pakistani state agent, but are in practice largely independent.

Lieven usefully distinguishes clearly between the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban.  The former enjoy widespread support among all layers of Pakistani society, for fighting against a foreign invader in Afghanistan.  The latter enjoyed support as long as they focused on the struggle in Kashmir and helping the Afghani Taleban against American interests.  Their brutality and increasing threat to the stability of Pakistan have reduced their support among the population.

According to Lieven, Pakistan’s main threat are external.  First, a foreign invasion (by the US), instilled by increases in drone strikes or operations on Pakistani soil, could dramatically reduce the prestige of the Pakistani army as it would be seen as an American stooge, which would result in widespread mutiny.  Second, Pakistan is frighteningly dependent on the Indus and Himalayan melt waters for its water. Population growth and climate change threaten to reduce agricultural yields and make parts of the country uninhabitable.

Another complexity that is skillfully described by Lieven is Pakistan’s relation with India.  Mass migrations after independence have created groups such as the Mohajirs in Sindh who have (better) managed to break loose from kinship and patronage and are now some of the most dynamic population groups in the country.  The migrations have also caused a deep, irrational, but understandable distrust and fear from India. India is the ultimate benchmark for foreign policy and the army. Support for the Afghani Taleban stems from fear of a non-Pashtun government in Kabul becoming an Indian client state.

Pakistan is a fiendishly complex but therefore also fascinating country. Lieven’s scholarship and desire to understand it proves contagious. Summarizing the whole book is futile, but I share a concept map I made, based on the book  (Pakistan Lieven, links to pdf file), structured around Pakistan’s four provinces in an attempt to connect the main themes of the book. I end with a quote from a landowner-politician from Sindh explaining the book’s title.

“This is a hard country. You need family or tribal linksto protect you, so that there are peoplewho will stick with you and sacrifice for you whatever happens.  That way you will not be abandoned even when out of government. The tribal people gives even ordinary tribesmen some strengths and protection against attack, whether by dacoits, the police, the courts – your tribesmen will get you out of jail, lie for you to the court, avenge you if necessary. (p.18)

Pakistan Lieven

Concept Map on ‘A Hard Country’ (Anatol Lieven)

* the picture on top is from Steve Evans and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.