On recent developments in Ukraine

Image: Eva Elijas


What happens in Ukraine is, in many ways, the result of the various processes involved in the dissolution of so-called “real communism” and the Soviet regime.

The outbreak of all-out war following the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a dramatic turning point in the world order. And as such, it should not be ignored by the geographers gathered together today (still, unfortunately, via Zoom) at our annual meeting. Therefore, I propose the following non-expert observations as a basis for discussion.

There is a myth that peace reigns in the world since 1945 and that the world order that emerged from US hegemony served, to a large extent, to contain the warlike impulses between the capitalist States that historically competed with each other. It is understood that the competition between the European states that caused the two world wars was generally contained and that West Germany and Japan were peacefully re-incorporated into the capitalist world system, in part also to combat the threat of Soviet communism.

Thus, in order to mitigate competition, collaborative institutions such as the common market, the European Union, NATO and the euro were created in Europe. We do know, however, that since 1945 there have been multiple "hot" wars, both civil and interstate, starting with the Korean and Vietnam wars and continuing with the conflicts in Yugoslavia and NATO's bombing of Serbia, the two wars against Iraq (one of which was justified by the United States' blatant lies about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction), or the wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

Until 1991, the world order was more or less constantly set against the backdrop of the Cold War. It was a structure that US companies often exploited to their advantage, constituting what Eisenhower defined at the time as the “military industrial complex”. The cultivation of fear, both fictional and real, of the Soviets and Communism was a key element of this policy.

And its economic consequences have been recurrent waves of technological and organizational innovation in terms of armaments and military infrastructure. It is true that these technologies were, to a large extent, also beneficial for the civil sphere, as in the case of aviation, the development of the Internet or nuclear energy, and contributed much to sustain an endless accumulation of capital and the centralization of capitalist power in in relation to an increasingly captive market.

Furthermore, in times of economic hardship, resorting to “military Keynesianism” has become a recurrent deviation from the neoliberal orthodoxy that since the 1970s has begun to be administered to populations, even in advanced capitalist countries. Ronald Reagan turned to military Keynesianism to orchestrate a new arms race against the Soviet Union in the 80s that helped end the Cold War while distorting both countries' economies.

Before Reagan, the top tax rate in the US was never below 70%, whereas after Reagan the rate never went above 40%, limiting itself to the persistent claim that high taxes stifle economic growth. The increasing militarization of the US economy after 1945 was accompanied by greater economic inequality and the formation of a ruling oligarchy both in the US and elsewhere, including Russia.

The difficulty faced by Western political elites in situations such as the current one in Ukraine is that urgent crises and short-term problems cannot be resolved in a way that accentuates the very underlying roots of conflicts. It's true that even though we know that insecure people often react with violence, we can't confront someone who comes with a knife simply by using calming words to soothe their insecurities.

Even so, it is preferable to try to disarm the attacker without, in turn, fostering these insecurities. Our objective today must therefore be to lay the foundations for a peaceful, collaborative and demilitarized world order, while urgently limiting the terror, destruction and irresponsible loss of life that this invasion will bring.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine is, in many ways, the result of the various processes involved in the dissolution of so-called “real communism” and the Soviet regime. With the end of the Cold War came promises to the Russian people of a bright future in which the benefits of capitalist dynamism and a liberalized economy would spill over to all sectors of society. The reality, however, was different. Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky said at the end of the Cold War that Russians thought they were boarding a plane for Paris, but mid-flight they were told, "Welcome to Burkina Faso."

After 1991, unlike Japan and West Germany in 1945, there was no attempt to bring the Russian people and economy into the global system. Following the guidance of the IMF and leading Western economists (such as Jeffrey Sachs), the neoliberal shock doctrine was adopted as the magic formula for transition. And when this failed miserably, Western elites resorted to the old neoliberal discourse of blaming the victims, blaming the Russian people for failing to adequately develop their human capital and dismantling the many endemic impediments to individual entrepreneurship (tacitly blaming Russia itself for the rapid rise of the oligarchs). Domestically, the results in Russia were disastrous.

GDP plummeted, the ruble ceased to be a viable currency (money was even measured in bottles of vodka), life expectancy plummeted, the social position of women deteriorated, government institutions and the Soviet welfare state collapsed. It also consolidated a mafia policy led by the new oligarchic power whose signature was the 1998 debt crisis, from which, it was said, the only way out was to beg crumbs from the table of the rich and submit to the economic dictatorship of the IMF. With the exception of the oligarchs, the economic humiliation of the Russian people was total. To limit all of this, the Soviet Union broke up into independent republics constituted from the top down, without much popular involvement.

Within two or three years, Russia suffered a dramatic reduction in population and economy, as well as a destruction of its industrial base that, proportionately, was even greater than that suffered in the old industrial regions of the United States during the forty years. previous years. We are well aware of the social, political and economic consequences of the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania, Ohio and the American Midwest, from the current opioid epidemic to the emergence of reactionary political waves, such as support for white supremacy or the Donald Trump phenomenon. But whereas the West relied on an alleged “end of history” imposed by capitalists, the impact of shock therapy on Russian political, cultural and economic life was much more dramatic.

Then there is the question of NATO. Originally conceived in terms of defense and interstate collaboration, it soon became a pro-war organization dedicated to containing the spread of communism and preventing competition between Western European states from entering the military realm. In general, it is true that it helped to mitigate internal competition in Europe, although Greece and Turkey were never able to resolve their differences over Cyprus. But in practice, the European Union was much more useful than NATO, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main purpose faded.

The prospect of the American population benefiting from a “peace dividend” resulting from deep cuts in defense spending has emerged as a real threat to the military industrial complex. Perhaps for this reason, NATO interventionism (which was always present) became more evident during the Clinton years, largely breaking verbal promises made to Gorbachev in the early days of perestroika. A clear example of this was the US-led NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, where even the Chinese embassy was hit (although intentionally or accidentally remains unclear).

Both the bombing of Serbia and other interventions in which the US violated the sovereignty of weaker nation-states are invoked by Putin as precedents for his actions. The expansion of NATO to Russia's borders, at a time when there was no military threat, was even discussed by Donald Trump, who went so far as to question the very existence of the Atlantic organization. Even conservative commentator Thomas Friedman went so far as to blame the US in a recent column in the New York Times for the latest developments, given the aggressive and provocative approach towards Russia.

During the 1990s, it appeared that NATO was a military alliance in search of an enemy. Now Putin has indulged that desire after being sufficiently provoked, and his resentment is rooted in part in the West's economic humiliations and disdainful arrogance towards Russia and its place in the world order. American and Western political elites should have realized that humiliation is a disastrous tool when it comes to foreign policy, whose effects are often long-lasting and catastrophic.

Germany's humiliation at Versailles played a crucial role in the escalation that preceded World War II. Political elites avoided repeating the same mistake with West Germany and Japan after 1945 through the Marshall Plan, but returned to the catastrophic strategy of humiliating Russia (both explicitly and implicitly) after the end of the Cold War. Russia needed and deserved a Marshall Plan, but it received the paternalist lessons from the goodness of neoliberalism that characterized the 1990s.

Also China's century and a half of Western imperialist humiliation, which can be traced back to the Japanese occupations of the 30s and the infamous Nanjing Massacre, is playing a central role in contemporary geopolitics. The lesson is simple: if you want to humiliate, do it at your own risk, because the humiliated can revolt and, why not, bite back.

None of this justifies the actions of Vladimir Putin, more than forty years of deindustrialization and neoliberal punishment of workers does not justify the actions or positions of Donald Trump. But Putin's attack on Ukraine does not justify the resurrection of warmonger institutions like NATO, which did so much to create the problem. Just as competition between European states had to be demilitarized after 1945, today we must seek to curb arms races between blocs and foster strong institutions of collaboration and cooperation. Submitting to the coercive laws of competition, both among capitalist firms and among geopolitical power blocs, is a recipe for further disaster, even as big capital continues to see this escalation, unfortunately, as a new avenue for endless capital accumulation. in the future.

The danger at a time like this is that the slightest error in judgment on either side could easily escalate into a major nuclear power showdown, in which Russia manages to counter the overwhelming US military superiority. The unipolar world in which American elites lived during the 1990s has already been replaced by a bipolar world, but much more is still changing.

On February 15, 2003, millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest against the threat of war, in which even the The New York Times recognized as a striking expression of world public opinion. Sadly, the protests failed and what followed was two decades of destructive and ruinous wars in many parts of the world. It is clear that the people of Ukraine do not want war, nor do the Russians and Europeans want war, nor do the peoples of North America want another war. The popular movement for peace needs to be revived and reaffirmed. The peoples of the world must assert their right to participate in the creation of a new world order based on peace, cooperation and collaboration rather than competition, coercion, conflict and resentment.

Address at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, February 27, 2022.

*David Harvey is a professor at the City University of New York. Author, among other books, of The New Imperialism (Loyola).

Originally published on Focaalblog.


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