After a year of the brinksmen using Ukraine as their venue for global hegemony, some reflections.
With each new dramatic chapter in the unfolding saga of Disaster Capitalist rule in the USA, there are those who drink the Kool-Aid. The Kool-Aid of Disaster Capitalism's horribly distorted vision of history and reality that has people of all walks of life finding they once again seem to have something in common with the billionaires who rule us. Those who are apt to find a way to understand the world that allows for the existence of the exception to the rule -- "but this time it's different, we're the good guys."
I'll just note here that the term, Disaster Capitalism, comes from Naomi Klein's book, the Shock Doctrine, which will never go out of date, because it's basically a history of the twentieth century and the early part of this one. Everyone should read it, in order to understand the nature of the stage of capitalist development the US is in these days, which is the most cynical possible form of capitalism, where disasters are manufactured, just as the corporate media manufactures the consent to go along with them, that says we must form some kind of a united front with the billionaires in order to deal with this manufactured disaster. (And disasters that aren't manufactured can still be used opportunistically to serve the same functions.)
The Disaster Capitalist Kool-Aid is not only being imbibed by folks across the USA, but throughout Europe as well (the parts of the world that the western press likes to call "the international community," since they decided "the civilized world" didn't have as nice a ring to it anymore). Along with so many other fissures in society in recent years, where people stand on the war in Ukraine has become a big one. A number of friends and comrades of mine from the US and Europe have reluctantly concluded that they must now support NATO's position in the conflict. Some of the people who have come to my concerts in Sweden in recent visits support Sweden's entry into NATO. They're not bots on Twitter, though they've inevitably been influenced by such entities, as have we all. They're real people.
To add to the realness of it all, they're real people with real Ukrainians in their lives. If they didn't know many Ukrainians before, they do now, especially in Europe to the west of Ukraine, where the millions of Ukrainian refugees mostly live now. It's very easy for many people to find real live Ukrainians who vehemently support the fight against Russian aggression, and it's easy to imagine feeling the same way.
The people I know who support the war effort against the Russian military would not say they've reached their conclusions because of emotions, though. They would tend to have a more sensible rationale for what I'm sure for them is a principled position. It's a very flawed position, however, I would argue, for so many reasons, if your goal is something other than the end of life as we know it. I don't know what good it might do for me to make this case and by doing so perhaps convince a couple folks to reconsider their positions, but I have to try.
My main problems with trying to even start making my case are twofold. On the one hand, the people I want to argue with are some of the smartest folks I know, and they're already familiar with the same history and political realities that I am. What facts can I present that will change their minds? And secondly, what camp am I hoping to draw them into? I have no immediate solutions for a problem of this massive historic magnitude, other than "when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging."
There are lots of people dying, a country lies in ruins, and the idea of peace or justice under such circumstances are clearly farcical, but things like justice and victory are what the supporters of the Ukrainian government are calling for. At what cost? Talk about cost is seen as heretical. Only complete dedication to justice and victory seems to be acceptable. It is, after all, the right and moral outcome to this conflict.
This is an age of moral outrage if ever there was one. A good, moral argument seems to be more persuasive than ever, these days. But what about when reality and morality conflict, as they so often do? And what if this conflict means the very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation?
I don't want to set up a straw man here, but I know the response. If Russia is allowed to get its way just because it is able to threaten the possibility of nuclear retaliation when attacked, then Russia can get away with anything. This is, indeed, what the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has long been meant to deal with -- that if Russia launches a nuclear weapon, the US will completely destroy Russia as a response, while Russia completely destroys the US as a response to that.
And what about countries that aren't part of NATO's mutual defense treaty or another such treaty with the US? Those countries aren't covered by this MAD insurance program. That's why those countries get to be the battlegrounds for conflicts between the Great Powers of the world, unequally arrayed as they are and have long been.
The supporters of US military aid to Ukraine among those who come to my shows in Scandinavia or California are not people who need any history lessons from me about the nature of the US capitalist empire, or the intentions of the US ruling class currently or historically. They know the US invaded Russia after the Russian Revolution. They know the US carpet-bombed Japan, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, destroying civilian infrastructure indiscriminately while sucking the oxygen out of entire cities, killing tens and hundreds of thousands of people at a time, ultimately slaughtering millions of innocent civilians in all of these countries, and many others. They know this.
They know, as well, about the few brief years in the 1940's during which the US and the Soviet Union were on the same side of the bloodiest war in the history of humanity, what has become known as World War 2. They know that this war, like World War 1, was largely a war between empires vying for world domination on the global colonial landscape, to which Germany, Italy, and Japan were latecomers.
I believe I'd be right in summing up that for the elements of the left that support ongoing military aid to Ukraine, the historical juncture that they most strongly embrace is that brief period during which the US and the USSR were on the same side of the war against the Nazis. They know that this was a war between empires with very bad intentions, for the most part, whoever might win. They know the US was a segregated country steeped in a recent history of slavery and genocide, with a future before it full of carpet-bombing one Asian country after another, from the invasion of Korea to so many others that followed. They know the US always took the side of the dictators and coup-plotters, never the democratic socialists like Arbenz, Allende, or Aristide, three of so many other elected governments overthrown by ours. They know all this -- some of them have written books about these things.
The reason why 1939-45 or so is the historical moment of greatest significance to a lot of folks in this camp, in my understanding, is this is the period of the United Front. The period when the global forces of capitalist empire and the countries that had overthrown capitalism or feudalism and replaced it with some form of socialism united in an epic battle against the forces of fascism, and defeated them. It's this spirit of the United Front that those supporting military aid to Ukraine are trying to evoke, and it's this spirit that they are embracing as well. It is certainly a spirit being embraced broadly in what the establishment press refers to in the US as "bipartisan." Across Europe, as well, support for military aid to Ukraine is a matter of degree, among the ruling parties, not one of whether to engage in this path in the first place.
But what is the goal of this united front, what is it hoping to achieve? These questions are never answered, because the ultimate possible answers are too terrible to even think about. The willingness to engage in the very idea of military aid to Ukraine is a willingness to consider the possibility of global annihilation, because taking this risk is the right thing to do, even if the circumstances involved may be complex.
There also seems to be a widespread willingness to confuse the concepts of "justification" and "provocation" with each other. This, I would argue, is a symptom of the age of moral outrage in which we find ourselves, which goes along seamlessly with the identity politics and corporate social media algorithms that increasingly strangle global discourse.
To justify something is to make a moral argument. Provocation, on the other hand, is more a practical thing than a moral one. If you punch me, that's a provocative action that tends to be seen as justifying a response. If you're punching me because I punched you first, however, my response to your punch, while perhaps justified, is also now becoming a cycle of violence. It may end with victory of one of us over the other, though in the process we may both break each other's teeth and sustain other long-term injuries, and afterwards we may both wish we had found another route aside from physical violence. We may start to resent the people around us who were egging both of us on to throw the next punch.
For most people, it's extremely hard to even imagine at what point we might feel sufficiently provoked where we feel like it's justifiable to do something like to start launching deadly missiles at a neighboring country, or any other country -- let alone getting to the point where we actually give the orders for the bombing to begin. The vast majority of us aren't in a position to make any such decisions, never have been, and never will be.
But the question of provocation is extremely relevant, setting aside strategic and moral decisions about what types of provocations justify different responses to them. Relevant because provocations are the actions that lead to justifying responses to them. And as to whether the Russian government has been provoked by US and NATO policies since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there is no doubt whatsoever, unless you are in the business of disinformation or revising history. The very existence of NATO as an organization after the Warsaw Pact dissolved is a provocation, as was the vast expansion of NATO that has taken place over the past three decades.
A long time ago, both sides in this conflict -- which has been manufactured in large part by the military-industrial complex (as Donald Trump just pointed out in a speech on February 21st that has been seen by millions) -- learned, in the course of narrowly averting global nuclear annihilation, that it was in everyone's interest to avoid direct conflict. Many former war hawks at that point, six decades ago, learned the importance of finding a way to coexist with the other nuclear powers in the world (though many proxy wars around the world continued, and continue today).
Any student of the Cuban Missile Crisis knows that Khruschev very publicly broadcast -- in a speech from the floor of the UN that was televised around the world -- that a US Naval blockade of the island of Cuba would be considered an act of war by the Soviets, and any actions taken by US ships to impede the movement of Soviet ships would be met with retaliation. Everyone involved knew what that meant -- launching nuclear missiles, under the doctrine of "there is no such thing as a Second Strike." That's why, under the operative doctrine at the time, of Mutually Assured Destruction, First Strike was the only strike, for all sides involved. Which is why the only conceivable option was No Strike.
But the US violated that mutual understanding in international waters near Cuba in 1962. If not for submarine commander, Vasili Arkhipov, disobeying Khruschev's orders, the southern half of the United States would have been completely destroyed, almost immediately. A secret deal was reached between the US and the USSR after that, to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba -- which were already in Cuba, contrary to US intelligence reports at the time.
Since then, there's been a policy of deconfliction when it comes to encounters between Soviet or Russian troops and US troops, ships, or planes. Since then, it's been proxy wars, with one side armed by the Russians and the other armed by the US. This was the format, from the millions who died in Angola during the "Cold War" to the Syrian Civil War today. But whereas there was at least a fig leaf of neutrality when it came to military aid to those seeking to overthrow the governments of Syria today, or Afghanistan in the 1980's, there is no fig leaf present with the massive direct military aid to Ukraine. The fig leaf is gone, the brink being approached by the brinksmen closer than ever.
The CIA, aided by Norwegian operatives, apparently are responsible for blowing up the Nordstream pipelines. This is an act of war -- and wasn't carried out by proxy forces, according to the impeccably-accurate journalism of Seymour Hersh, recently published.
When the US and the west backed the faction that took power from the previous government in 2014 (during which parts of Kyiv looked a lot like Washington, DC in January, 2021), thus threatening declared Ukrainian neutrality, intelligence documents make clear that the US knew this would be a provocation that would lead to the Russian government justifying the annexation of Crimea, which they did. Now it is becoming clear that the US intelligence community knew that Ukraine's bid to join NATO would be a red line that would, for the Russian government, justify a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, which is what then transpired.
The think tanks are full of smart folks who predict what's going to happen when something else happens, it's what they do. It wouldn't have taken much to predict what this war would do to global grain supplies, or what blowing up the Nordstream pipeline would do to European energy prices. Whether or not this was all part of the plan, the Disaster Capitalists knew it was coming and are profiting from the situation handsomely. Or is it just a very convenient coincidence that the US is one of the world's other biggest suppliers of grain, oil, and gas? Maybe. (Maybe just the speculation will result in accusations that I'm a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist or Putin supporter!)
Either way, they certainly knew what was going to happen in all the countries that have suffered from high inflation, high energy prices, high food prices, and so on -- social unrest and political turmoil. And focusing on certain countries where these things are happening -- specifically countries like Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela -- the western media and US politicians have been quick to blame political corruption and dictatorial incompetence on the situation in these countries, ignoring the US sanctions that have impoverished all of them, and largely ignoring the social unrest and political turmoil that can be found in most of the countries closely allied with the US.
With each of these aforementioned cases -- Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela -- you can find the same fissures within the western left. Those who blame all the unrest on western meddling, and those who blame it on local political misleadership. Within each of these camps you'll find those who think the western countries are trying to do good things in these particular cases, and those who have a more realistic understanding of western intentions. Within each of these camps can be found those who support the protest movements in these countries, those who see them largely as creations of western subterfuge, and those who see them as complex phenomena produced by complex societies with their own internal contradictions, along with the outside influences.
Without trying to break down the situation in terms of social movements in Iran or Nicaragua or wherever else, address their origins and internal contradictions, the extent to which western sanctions or intelligence agencies are involved, etc., my perennial hope is that sensible people in the US and everywhere else in the world can see that the long and well-documented history of US involvement in overthrowing democracies, supporting dictators and would-be dictators, and making foreign policy decisions clearly and consistently based on support for large western corporations exists, and can be presumed to be ongoing, given no indications to the contrary.
Given that reality, and the reality that where life in a given country was at some point defined by large amounts of US military support or US military engagement, things have not turned out well for them. Some of the most destitute places on Earth today are littered with the shells of American bombs or the legacy of US military involvement -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Haiti, are places where mass starvation is around the corner for many, where cities still lie in ruins, as they once did in Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Japan, and so many other places. In all of those countries, the US military daily committed crimes against humanity. We don't call them that because the victors of the Second World War made the rules. We also don't call them that because the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court (and neither are Russia or Ukraine), though you'd never know that from the news coverage of Merrick Garland announcing from Ukraine that he was going to prosecute Russian war criminals.
My hope is always that somehow, armed with this kind of knowledge, people can put two and two together, and conclude that if the answer is the US sending billions of dollars worth of deadly weaponry to an obviously western-backed government in a former Soviet republic that is fighting Russia, then we're clearly asking the wrong question, and should try that one again. But at times like these, when the propaganda machine is in full swing, my hopes are often dashed by a whole lot of Kool-Aid.