Out of the Imperial Order: Chaos

Against the Current, No. 218, May/June 2022

The Editors

Moscow antiwar protests, Pushkin Square. Emin Dzhafarov/Kommersant

THE DESTRUCTION OF cities, civilian deaths and mass refugee flights in Ukraine under the murderous, unjustifiable and rapidly spreading Russian invasion — fueled by Vladimir Putin’s intention to eliminate Ukraine’s independent existence — has not yet touched the full depths of its terrorist barbarism. Bucha’s massacre is only a curtain-raiser. The success of Ukraine’s defensive struggle for self-determination and survival is an urgent necessity today, not only in Europe but in the world.

(The National Committee of Solidarity, the socialist organization that sponsors Against the Current, has issued a position. As the crisis develops, further analyses and updates are posted on that website and at the ATC website. Also see the “Internationalist Manifesto Against the War.”)

Without overlooking the centrality of Ukraine’s struggle, however, this statement will focus on a wider crisis and its roots. Even amidst the present death and displacement in what’s called “the heart of Europe” — which was supposedly exempt from such things — it’s essential to grasp the broader chaos in which it’s occurring. That will include cutting through pretensions from Washington and western capitals about defending “values” and “democracy against autocracy.”

Ukrainian president Zelensky remarked bitterly that the pledge in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, “Never Again,” has turned out to be “a lie.” Actually, it always has been: the fate of Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia, the Rohingya people of Myanmar, and others has come to Ukraine.

That’s not to “relativize” or normalize any of these tragedies against each other. But in the global context of wars and ethnic cleansings, floods and droughts, and other disasters of the “rules-based international order” have brought the estimated numbers of refugees and displaced close to 90 million.

The full menace of Vladimir Putin’s — lies that Ukraine “is not a real country” and its population must be “de-nazified” — has become all too clear. There are other lies afoot too. That “rules-based order” touted by U.S. ideologies and government agencies has always meant, “we make the rules and we give the orders.” When Joe Biden in Poland went off-script bellowing “for God’s sake, this man can’t remain in power,” did he mean “our” strategic ally, the murderous crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia? Does that say something about the “values” of the “rules-based” order?

Global Consequences

We’ve said previously, in crises like the Afghan and Iraq tragedies, that imperialism creates problems that it can’t solve. The spinoffs from the Ukraine war are grimly illustrative.

It would be a silver lining in the Ukraine war if global warming had voluntarily suspended itself for the war’s duration — oops, not. First among other consequences, the cutoff of wheat as well as fertilizers from Ukraine and Russia magnify the worsening impact of climate-driven droughts and floods on many agricultural nations.

Especially in the global South, dangerous food shortages already loom. That doesn’t even count 95% of the population of Afghanistan suffering hunger — not from food shortages in that country, but because they don’t have jobs or money after the United States has frozen $14 billion Afghan reserve funds held in U.S. banks.

Whatever the military-political outcome of the Ukraine tragedy, for this discussion we’ll assume that it won’t escalate to the ultimate worst case of an all-Europe or world war with nuclear potential. But apart from such an apocalyptic scenario, this war is accelerating a second global consequence, a new phase of inter-imperialist rivalries.

The United States defends its king-of-the-hill number-one superpower status against the challenge of number-two China, with Russia poised to fall from third-and-a-half to fifth-rate status under Western economic sanctions in the wake of Putin’s murderous blunder.

The manufacturers and merchants of the Permanent War Economy are grinning from ear to ear, along with their blood brothers of the fossil-fuel extraction industry.

Before the war there was hopeful, if somewhat naïve, talk of the neutrality or “Finlandization” of Ukraine. Instead we’ll now witness the “NATO-ization” of Finland, and Sweden too — whether as formal members or closer NATO partners.

After years of wobbly unity, the United States and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance are emerging with reinvigorated purpose and enhanced military budgets. Gone are the days when German trainees might be filmed marching with broomsticks for lack of rifles, or Canada relying on 1970s-era warplanes for its Arctic defense.

None of this is a good thing. Indeed it plants the seeds of future disasters, even if one can surely understand the desire of European populations close to Russia’s border for a collective sense of “security.” NATO’s triumphal and destabilizing expansion after 1991 has greatly contributed to its now being seen as essential for “stability,” however illusory that might ultimately be.

Third, consider the spectacle of Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, among other “statesmen,” rushing to appeal to Saudi Arabia, of all petrostates, to ramp up oil production in place of Russian exports. Hold up a mirror to the rules-based global order, along with a checklist, and behold the visage of MBS alongside Vladimir Putin.

Mass murder and destruction of a neighboring country? Check. The main difference is that Saudi Arabia is destroying Yemen with U.S.-supplied weaponry. Brutal repression of independent media voices? Murder of dissenters and critics, both at home and internationally? Check and check — the latter difference, such as it is, being Saudi Arabia’s practice of wholesale executions.

The post-World War II “peace and prosperity” of Europe was purchased at the expense of war and misery in the global South. Now we can see how the disasters feed back into each other, despite the general indifference of imperial capitals and cultures to non-white, non-European suffering.

To repeat, Ukraine’s war of national defense against Russia’s invasion is an absolutely legitimate and democratic struggle. That truth is in no way negated by the oligarch-driven and corrupt character of Ukraine’s factionalized politics since its emergence from the former Soviet Union, including the highly publicized presence of ultra-right nationalists in its state and military structures.

Crisis of Imperial Democracy

But while Ukraine, assuming it wins its struggle to survive, might emerge with enhanced national unity and an invigorated democratic political culture, the same can hardly be said of verbal champions of “defending democracy,” least of all the United States.

In addition to the U.S. filthy petro-dalliance with the Saudi crown prince, in a less-publicized gesture, Biden — for the very first time — extended official U.S. recognition to the Moroccan kingdom’s annexation of Western Sahara.

In its brutality and denial of self-determination of the Sahrawi people, Morocco’s 47-year occupation of this territory (which it seized when the former colonial power of Spain departed in 1975) matches every bit of Israel’s colonial-apartheid occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in Palestine.

Even while Ukraine fights for its freedom, democracy is a casualty elsewhere. Before the present war erupted, there was some European Union pressure on Poland’s right-wing government, which has seized control of the judiciary and criminalized abortion, with already fatal results. That criticism is deeply buried now.

The doctrines of “illiberal democracy” and presidential dictatorship are also promulgated respectively by the rulers of NATO members Hungary and Turkey.

But more than any other place, the crumbling of democracy seems true of the United States itself, where structures of representative democracy are dissolving before our very eyes in an acid bath of racism, reactionary court-packing, gerrymandering and yes, American-style oligarchy. In broad daylight, plans are being put in place by right-wing state legislatures to overturn the next presidential election if they can’t win it outright.

Disorderly Consequences

The crisis of representative institutions and legitimacy in the United States does have implications. We can surmise, for example, that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to subjugate Ukraine were encouraged by viewing the disarray of the U.S. administration’s domestic agenda, and the advance of white Christian nationalist politics which are openly quite compatible to his own.

Putin might also have been encouraged by the fulsome praise he was receiving from the highest-rated U.S. cable news personality, Tucker Carlson. (Perhaps he failed to understand that Fox News, quite like Stalinist parties of bygone times, is entirely capable of changing its line instantaneously.)

But the ability of the United States to dictate terms to the world never actually depended on the state of “our democracy,” such as it is. U.S. authority has rested on the twin pillars of military might and the power it wields with the dollar as the untouchable world reserve currency.

That power is how the United States is able to impose and enforce “crippling sanctions” of various kinds. Those include sadistic sanctions on Cuba — which don’t even serve a strategic purpose, but pander to right-wing voters in a few U.S. swing states — or on Nicaragua and Venezuela that do nothing to advance “democracy” or human rights in those tortured nations.

They include Trump’s enhanced sanctions on Iran canceling the 2015 nuclear deal — brilliantly bringing Iran closer than before to nuclear weapons capability — and on Iraq, in the 1990s, to soften it up to be conquered. The U.S. conquest of Iraq of course succeeded, with the delightful results we’ve basked in since 2003.

The sanctions imposed on Russia today are unprecedented in their scope, including the ban on critical technology transfer, the size of the targeted state, and the attempt to deploy U.S. financial power in an all-out drive to isolate Russia from world commerce and finance. How long and how far these measures ultimately reach are big open questions.

We don’t know (i) how much China will be prepared to do to assist Russia, (ii) how much pain the Russian regime is prepared to impose on its people for its imperial ambitions, and (iii) most importantly, what the full intentions of U.S. imperialism might be in regard to crippling Russia and the risks of overthrowing the Putin regime.

We do know already that parts of the global economy are being reconfigured, including just-in-time supply chains with weaknesses already revealed during the COVID pandemic, and potential tests of U.S. dollar supremacy.

The forced-pace drive to end European dependence on Russian gas and oil exports could entail a rapid transition to renewable energy. That’s the direction the world needs to go in any case. More likely, however, is enhanced North American ecocidal fossil fuel production, besides the appeal to the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to pump more oil.

These are emergent features of the new imperialist complex, with more to come.

Where then is the hope? We saw it in the antiwar demonstrations in Russia with thousands of people, most of whose names we don’t know, going into the streets in the face of police-state repression (with Putin now demanding “self-purification” of Russian society).

One name we do know is Marina Ovsyannikova, the TV producer who stormed the live TV news broadcast with her “no war” sign. Her bravery equals that of those two great living Americans, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, both examples of people who never intended to become heroes — but didn’t leave their morals at the door when they signed up for the intelligence and military services.

We know the brutality with which American “democracy” and “justice” treated Snowden and Manning. An antiwar movement worthy of the name will lift up and stand with all three of these heroes and what they represent.

The greatest immediate hope lies with the Ukrainian people and their communities abroad, performing miracles in mobilizing both humanitarian and military material aid.

That energy and purpose show what popular organization can accomplish— the kind of organization that on a global scale might win humanity’s existential struggles for equality, justice and environmental survival. If that seems a lot to hope for, there really is no other option.

May-June 2022, ATC 218

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