It has become clear to all those who are not blinded by bias, denial or propaganda that in Ukraine there have been serious and sustained ‘crimes against humanity’ perpetrated by the military forces of Russia. What is less recognised or admitted, is the fact that these acts and many more, are the product of all modern armed forces of which ever side we care to inspect. When NATO forces fought and bombed in Vietnam and Korea, unarmed citizens died from air force munitions and army atrocities as they did in the two World Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45. In Ukraine in 2022, what is occurring again at the elite ‘official’ level (as occurred previously in Afghanistan and Syria) is yet another proxy war between two rival pro-capitalist powers contesting for regional domination. In this case (again) the West dominated by the US and Europe elites and the East dominated by the Russian elites.
Meanwhile, in the day to day fighting in Ukraine, two sets of mainly ordinary working class citizens, (conscripts or volunteers) are tragically killing each other. One set of mainly working class soldiers, under the nominal control of Putin et al, have been ordered to conquer Ukraine territory; the other set of mainly working class soldiers, under the nominal control of Zelensky et al, are doing their amazing best to prevent them. In this war the winners so far are the three sets of political and military elites, their joint economic system, their preferred arms manufacturers and investors – all of whom are safe at home or in military bunkers.
Meanwhile the losers – as in every war – are the working classes on all sides and not one of whom have anything to gain from killing each other to maintain an indigenous elite and a system, which even in peace time exploits them all mercilessly. Moreover, when at war, workers with guns and tanks – on both sides – are losing their lives and health. Their families, on both sides, are losing their husbands, sons and fathers.
Furthermore, the working class non-combatants in Ukraine, men, women and children who cannot get out of the way are also losing their homes, their health and their lives, whilst workers elsewhere are being taxed to pay for the munitions used for all this death and destruction. For working people war is always a case of lose, lose, lose.
Historically, what is happening in Ukraine is a repeating pattern of the invade and conquer model of community interactions instigated by the elites of all hierarchical mass societies. It has been so since the dawn of so – called ‘civilisation‘ in ancient Egypt and the middle east. So yet again at the instigation of a resource and power-hungry elite male, basic humanity has taken a back seat to elitist ideas of Nationalist superiority and its attendant power structures, profits and Jingoism. And not for the first time.
It is a matter of historical record that the more modern mass societies of the 18th and 19th century European colonial period witnessed its own litany of elite inspired outrages and inhuman treatment in Africa, Asia, North and South America and Oceania. Furthermore, the various 20th and 21st century invasions and proxy wars have their own high-tech versions of atrocities, torturers and crimes against humanity. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centre along with Extra-ordinary Rendition and the secrecy around them all indicate these modern examples are far from humane, non-profit making enterprises. The evidence suggests that mass societies from ancient to modern, have an inbuilt tendency to bring out the worst kind of inhumanity and destructive attitudes and actions – particularly among the elites within them – and this tendency reveals itself particularly during periods of war, but also in periods of peace.
However, this has not always been the case. The material basis for a negative cultural and psychological change within some sections of humanity seems to have been triggered by the transition from egalitarian based co-operative modes of production to settled agricultural – and now industrial modes of production. Once researched, the difference between the basic humanity of hunter-gatherer communities, (both ancient and modern) compared to that of settled, class-ruled, competitive, hierarchical, economic structures, is quite startling.
A nomadic, hunter-gatherer group, living by a day to day subsistence gathering and hunting life-style has nothing worth pillaging that couldn’t be obtained by less effort and personal risk, in hunting and gathering than by violence. This is why recorded hunter-gatherer violence (before Colonial intervention) was relatively rare and where it did exist, it was/is small scale, overwhelmingly the result of personal revenge arising from individual physical or emotional harm or damage done. Moreover, there is no suggestion anywhere, that hunter-gatherer groups, prior to the colonial period, tried to egularly wipe each other out, by killing men, women and children in large numbers. Genocide only begins when mass societies become established and when elites have gained sufficient control of them to create an obedient force of armed men. Indeed, there is much recorded evidence that any surplus resources derived from gathering and hunting was/is given away rather than allowing it to rot or attract vermin. In fact successful hunter-gatherer locations globally prompted a culture of routine egalitarian sharing not hierarchical accumulation and grasping.
Nevertheless, it would also seem from the historical record, that wherever and whenever hierarchical mass societies come into existence, there is an undeniable inevitability that their elites, sooner or later, will wish to expand their territorial control of natural mineral, vegetable, animal and human resources. If the desired territory already has a system of exploitation, oppression and abundant wealth in existence, like Ukraine, then this makes it an even more desirable target for invasion and resource acquisition. Furthermore, it becomes clear after a detailed study of hierarchical mass societies that the inevitability of this territorial and expansion for resources is also irrespective of any difference in elite ideology, individual personality traits or particular modes of production.
For example in the ancient agricultural based world, numerous Pagan, Despot, Oligarch, or Democrat controllers of mass societies (in Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia, Greece and Rome) have all used armed force to invade and conquer territory and people and their resources. In the early to middle ages, European agricultural and commercial based mass societies, led by Judaic, Christian and Islamic elites have simply replicated – on a higher technological basis – the previous Pagan-led forms of aggressive military expansion.
In the modern industrialised capitalist world Liberal, Reactionary, Democratic, Fascist and Communist-led mass societies have done exactly the same. It would seem therefore, that this trait of aggressive acquisition by elites is inevitable not because humanity is naturally genocidal, violent and aggressive, but because aggressive acquisitiveness flows from a logic which emanates from the socio-economic structure of mass societies when these are dominated by those various types of elites.
Furthermore, in mass societies, as far as I am aware, there is no recorded example from ancient times to modern times of wars of aggression for territorial acquisition and enslavement being initiated by the mass of ordinary citizens. Wars are clearly not started on the basis of citizen referendums to agree to invade, kill and steal. All aggressive wars past and present, have been initiated by elites who have prevented – by various authoritarian means – their own and other ordinary citizens from effectively opposing them – as Putin and most other national elites have done.
In the modern era elites have also given themselves the power to forcibly conscript their citizens to fight in wars which they initiate. In the First and Second World Wars conscripted soldiers on all sides who refused to fight were punished severely including on occasion being shot in the 1st by firing squads. Therefore, the opinion expressed by many people that war and mass killing is inevitable and that this propensity is a character flaw exhibited by the human species – in general – have not arrived at that opinion by reference to detailed historical or contemporary evidence.
Indeed, practically every human community in history and modernity has the humanist principle embodied in law or community moral codes that human beings should not kill other human beings and indeed the vast majority of human beings do not kill other human beings. Since not killing each other is a universal human principle arising from the natural essence of normal humanity stretching over millions of years of our species evolution, mass killing over a few thousand years begs an explanation. There must be exceptional circumstances arising within mass societies for elites of any religious or secular persuasion, to be able to override this general principle among themselves. Thus allowing them to use their powers of control (and influence) to promote wars in full knowledge that such military invasions require or demand the mass killing of members of their own community and others of their own species.
If humanity manages to avoid destroying the planet and its life sustaining ecological balance, over the next century it will obviously desire to continue to live in various forms of socio-economic groupings. However, it would be wise of them (and us when we can) to also permanently remove the hierarchical structures and elite control over individual and collective humanity. That is if humanity is to avoid many more repetitions of the tragic events spread over the last several thousand years. Sadly, such inhumane actions and events are tragically being repeated not only ad nauseum in Ukraine, but routinely all over the planet.
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2022)