A new Crimean War?
It is a truism that the first casualty of war is the truth. There are already good reasons for asserting that this exists in the current war of words between the Anglo-Saxon coalition of Capitalist governments and those emanating from the former Soviet Union. Indeed, the current spat between the two power bases of east and west provides the most vivid examples of pre-scripted narratives and full-blooded confirmation bias. Participants and commentators alike in this – as yet – war of words, seek, shape and promote evidence which supports their chosen position and ignore or dismiss any evidence (ie disconfirmation bias) which contradicts it.
Also on display by both sides are swelling tides of hypocrisy concerning the sanctity of national territory – as if all large nation-states have not and do not routinely impose their forces on land, sea and air upon less strong peoples. All this outright bias and sickening hypocrisy is to be expected from politicians and officials of either side. It is their well established norm and they have much to gain or much to lose from the outcome to which they are committed if it succeeds or fails. So of course both sides wish people to accept their sanitised or demonised versions and suspend any independent critical abilities. But faced with the introduction of extreme forms of nationalism into the struggle, backing one politically contrived narrative or the other also seems to have rubbed off on many of the commentators on the left.
This may also be because events have moved at such a pace, across such a spectrum, with such intensity and with such polarised views, that it has been difficult to make sense of the turmoil – especially from distance. However, in such circumstances it is wise not to jump on any particular band-wagon and to do the following. 1 attempt to understand the background, 2 peer through the rhetoric, 3 consider the distortions and 4 reject the biased narratives emanating from either sources. In short it is generally wise to adopt a thoroughly sceptical attitude to the conflicting reports we are currently being offered. For they are promoted by those who have a cherished position to sell. The events in the Ukraine are no exception to exercising such caution.
For it is a fact that propaganda and counter-propaganda is now being energetically churned out by well-paid sycophants and regurgitated by naive and eager reporters on either side of this great and ever widening divide. Important as they are, being persuaded to focus on the high profile role of neo-fascists, or on which savage sniper elements shot the 80 plus demonstrators, is to be deflected into merely judging symptoms. And symptoms are not necessarily the best starting points to orient oneself in any struggle – including this. For example; both the earlier Ukraine Government and those far-right elements around the Maidan were sufficiently equipped, eminently capable, consistently devious and certainly motivated enough to do so either separately or concurrently in escalation or retaliation. Totalitarianism, of course, comes in more than one form. Anti-Fascism can even take on fascist-like totalitarian forms as it did under Stalin.
For in addition to the lives already lost, an additional, perhaps larger tragedy in the Ukraine and Crimea has quickly emerged. It is possible to clearly discern the following fact, whilst downplaying its significance: There are currently only two dominant alternatives for ordinary working people to identify with. In the current global economic crisis of the capitalist mode of production, ordinary working class citizens of Ukraine, were and are only being offered an illusory salvation from two competing sources – eastern or western neo-liberal variants of capitalism. Despite the deaths and rapid changes taking place at the time of writing, these two pro-capitalist alternatives still dominate the internal and external discourse.
Working people in the Ukraine and Crimea are being told to choose either a future of being exploited and oppressed by a European-leaning form of neo-liberal capitalism or an oligarchic form of essentially the same profit-led, finance-dominated economic system under the leadership of Russia. This is a choice which for many citizens may already be based upon deciding which is the lesser of two evils. And to enforce this catch 22 type choice they are being pressured to choose a side quickly and prepare for a possible civil-war – or worse. And if the situation does get worse workers in uniform or out will be encouraged to fight and possibly kill each other to resolve the issue. Not of course to resolve it for their own advantage but a resolution satisfactory to one pro-capitalist elite or the other.
The underlying economic crisis.
It is well to understand the developments in the Ukraine in its broader context, for there are lessons to be learned from this latest outbreak of civil unrest. Ukraine is just another example of one of the crippling effects of the current multilayered crisis of the capitalist system. This state is simply another weak link in the rusting Global capitalist economic chain which is steadily disintegrating in one country after another. The critical social fracture in this particular case also came courtesy of Ukraine’s sovereign debt crisis. Faced with a unsolvable pattern of state debt, the governing elite of the Ukraine were offered financial bailouts from both Europe and Russia. The initial European package came with the usual IMF loan strings and had negative implications for the existing high degree of economic dependency upon Russia.
For this reason, and as yet possibly undisclosed others, the European offer was rejected by the then ruling elite and an alternative one from Russia accepted. It became clear from this that one set of elites in Ukraine was relatively content with continuing to lean economically and politically on Russia whilst another set wanted closer ties with the European economic community and its political elite. This basic bifurcation was the economic and financial origin of the socio-political fracture which now zig-zags across the Ukraine and Crimea. The population of both these territories are being actively recruited to one side or another as pawns in an existential struggle between pro-capitalist elites for economic, financial and political domination.
Yet neither of the two alternatives offer a fundamental solution to the needs of the working class in Ukraine or Crimea. Loan guarantees or aid from either the European or Russian side will need re-paying by workers, (the ultimate source of all human created wealth) and loan guarantees from either source will not create jobs. At best these will be used to pay off debts already racked up by earlier elites. Either way the financiers, bankers and politicians will continue to cream off their salaries, fees and profits from any loans or aid from any source.
The current crisis of capitalism means that huge negative alterations to the lives of working people are the fate awaiting the working class – globally. In every state of the world workers are facing unemployment, low pay, reduced pensions, benefits and services and these will occur in Ukraine with a European connection or with a Russian connection. Under capitalism a competitive race to the bottom faces all workers as wages and conditions are lowered. The situation in Greece or Spain offers one mirror to a future for workers under the present system, Egypt, Syria and Libya another.
Of course certain elites will benefit hugely from one quasi-imperialist connection or the other, but not the ordinary citizens of the Ukraine. In Europe, large-capital has squeezed out the small businesses, and large-capital has reduced employment by automation and computerisation. Public-sector employment is reducing everywhere as tax revenues shrink and as state-debts escalate toward default levels.
The modern Russian sphere of influence is part and parcel of this global capitalist downturn and crisis. In a crisis, both eastern and western economic powers desperately need territory, resources and markets just as much – as they did prior to the first and second world wars. It is the capitalist mode of production and the elites of both geo-political alternatives in this stand-off which are the real enemy of the workers in Ukraine and Crimea – not each other or the ethnic groups among them.
As previous articles suggested [‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘The importance of Theory’] there is as yet no acceptable and viable alternative to the capitalist mode of production. Because of this lack it will seem to masses of workers that there is no serious alternative but to choose one or other of the offers of bailout from Russia or Europe. Sadly, at the moment this is undoubtedly the case, but I suggest because of this lack, the radical and revolutionary left should not be drawn into collusion with propaganda and illusions promoted by the elites of either side.
The lessons for the anti-capitalist left.
From this and other examples, I suggest it is clear that there is a need to struggle against nationalism, ultra-nationalism (ie neo-fascism) and religious fundamentalism, but not by endorsing one version of neo-liberal capitalism against another. The crisis nature of capitalism and case for going beyond it still needs to be made amid the most confusing and polarised circumstances, particularly when the ultra-right (secular or religious) is active within them. Additionally, the reasons why the previous failed attempts to go beyond capital went so disastrously wrong also need explaining whenever a chance arises.
In such difficult and complex situations it is not surprising that reports emerge which indicate that much of the anti-capitalist left have been dismayed at the events in the Ukraine, particularly after the deployment of Russian troops outside their bases in Crimea. One report indicated that some class and political differences were abandoned and; “Wide layers were seized by nationalism, Ukrainian or Russian.” And further that;
“Among socialists and anarchists there is a very pessimistic mood. Twenty five years of socialist propaganda from a wide range of left groups and ideas seems to have gone nowhere, disappeared like a puff of smoke.”
It is abundantly clear from the struggle in the Ukraine and the Crimea (and from many other 21st century uprisings) that the anti-capitalist project as yet has been marginalised or dismissed outright by the masses of people currently engaged in various stages of their struggles. An important lesson to learn from this, I suggest, is the following. Without a revival of the legitimacy of a post-capitalist project, the left in general and the anti-capitalist left in particular, the divisive story of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and now Ukraine will be repeated.
That is to say without a substantial movement based upon a real solid anti-capitalist foundation, then religion, nationalism and sectarianism will continue to be the default ideologies able to attract people to a variety of dissident pro-capitalist elites – whenever the contradictions of capitalist mode of production reach a crisis point. So in order to create an alternative outcome a solid working-class anti-capitalist foundation certain things will be needed. Among other things there is a need for a clear, comprehensive and honest exposition and substantiation of the following.
1. That for the safety of the planet and the masses of people, it is historically necessary and possible to go beyond economic and social domination by capital. [See ‘Defending Public Services’ and; ‘Workers and others in the 21st century’.]
3. That religion and nationalism along with their extreme manifestations, – fundamentalism and fascism – offer no positive way forward. [See ‘Religion versus Women’s Rights’ and Religion is politics’.]
Well founded understandings such as those are necessary, because although the capitalist mode of production is internally crisis prone and subject to the most severe forms of multiple crises, it has always managed to survive them. It is not enough that the system collapses around many of our ears, because it will never collapse completely. For the creation of a post-capitalist society it is necessary that a class movement organises to ensure that when the opportunity arises and the systems supporters are divided and weakened, this movement will be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to play a key role in creating the transition.
It is obvious, I hope, that a strong non-sectarian anti-capitalist movement facilitating the evolution and acquisition of such knowledge and strength would be of considerable advantage to workers and others in any revolutionary developments. It should also be obvious that without a well informed and strong working-class, the bourgeois elements, nationalist and liberal-democratic will be able to divide and disrupt any oppositional movement and set one group of workers against another. This they have done in the past and are doing in the present. Furthermore, building upon and amplifying such divisions, they are eminently capable of solving their economic and political crises militarily by engaging in wars – as they did twice in the 20th century.
Yet another important lesson, related to the above point, has been demonstrated in the events of the Ukraine as it was in Egypt and the Maghreb. In this maturing crisis of the capitalist mode of production, it is not too difficult for large well organised citizen uprisings to eventually topple a government and even prevail against the most determined and brutal state elites with their armed bodies of men. However, whilst that is necessary, it is woefully insufficient to create any serious positive changes to the situation for most working people let alone any alterations to the mode of production. That much should have been made clear by the many uprisings in the 21st century.
Toppling a government is of little use if the huge numbers doing so have no real common purpose for their combined struggle – except opposition to the powers that be. Mere opposition is insufficient. In such circumstances, as soon as the governing elite is ousted divisions among the citizens open up (and are deliberately fomented), as in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and now Ukraine. From that crucial point on, if a positive programme of measures expressing and addressing the real socio-economic needs of the people is absent, a scramble for sectarian or partisan power takes place. In such ill-defined and unprepared circumstances, new elites are promoted and the whole mess of corruption and exploitation starts up again.
As argued in the two articles ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘The importance of Theory’ and again here, the challenge for anti-capitalists in the 21st century is not to succumb to pessimism nor to tail-end nationalist causes. Just because no one is really listening to us at the moment does not mean we no positive role to play. We need to explain to those in struggle, the meaning and logic of what they are struggling for, particularly when that logic is informed by nationalistic or liberal-democratic illusions. At the same time we need to prepare ourselves to be capable of substantiating and publicising the three crucial tasks noted above.
In undertaking these tasks we also need to provide a practical example of non-sectarian communication and conduct between ourselves and in our interventions in the present and future struggles. As I have written a number of times; ‘If the working class is to unite to overthrow capital it will have to challenge and overcome, national, religious, age, gender, cultural, handicap and sexual orientation prejudices. How stupid must we anti-capitalists seem to most workers if we keep suggesting this to them but cannot overcome our own – often petty – sectarian differences.’
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2014.)