a Splinter In the Eye
Principles for understanding war, any war
If we are willing to understand war, any war, there are a few principles to keep in mind.
The first is that by definition, war is a barbarous event that causes enormous human suffering. The stream of close to four million refugees, the loss of Ukrainian and Russian lives, and the destruction of cities as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine constitute the latest example of atrocities caused by armed conflict.
The second principle comes in the form of Clausewitz’s aphorism that war is the continuation of politics by other (i.e. violent) means.
The third principle lies with the ability to articulate an accurate characterization of the social forces and interests involved in the confrontation.
Finally, since not all wars are created equal, we must study each war separately in order to avoid abstract pacifist thinking and dovish proclamations that seek shelter from reality in moralism. History confirms that there have been wars that, in spite of the suffering, benefitted humanity at large, and stopped the advancement of forces antagonistic to social justice and human wellbeing.
The war in Ukraine
That is not the case in Ukraine. The war in central eastern Europe has its theater of operations in Ukraine but its directors, screen writers, ideological propagandists and entrepreneurs of death, are to be found in the age-old expansionist addictions of the two main beneficiaries and puppeteers of this tragic spectacle.
On one side, the original members of NATO, which included Canada and thirteen western European nations led by the US. On the other side, contemporary Russia, as a mutated survivor of the now defunct Warsaw Pact (WP), which included the Soviet Union and seven nations in central and eastern Europe.
Both sides possess a long history of “war readiness” mentality, and a permanent state of mind of “preparation of new possible war scenarios” around the world. Each means to undermine and destabilize the other, while at the same time characterizing the adversary as the possessor of indelible criminal intentions.
A decade of dancing
In the past decades, particularly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its republics (including Ukraine), the world witnessed a proliferation of political zig-zags, military confrontations, anemic peace treaties, commercial accords, short-lived agreements, diplomatic dancing, subtle and not so subtle threats, and alluring promises of prosperity.
All these histrionics ended in the current geopolitical expansion of NATO, now grown to 30 members. Some of them are ex-participants of the WP, and some are the result of the creation of new national states such as Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia.
Nonetheless, a redistribution of the European world means just that—a new distribution. It does not signify a change in the bellicose natures of the main protagonists, or of the economic imperatives of their societies.
Within this context, the war in Ukraine is possible not because of the megalomania, resentment, or frail vanity of a given leader, but as the outcome of long-lasting policies embedded in the core functioning of the economy and culture of the societies in question.
These policies, within the confines of their own spheres of influence, generate arms, armies, and ideologies that are imposed upon their own population and those of their less powerful client-states or territories. So Ukraine, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Járkov find themselves reduced to impotence or trapped in what historian E. P. Thompson called “the absolute antagonism of a polarized world.”
The culprits in question
Let’s start with an uncomfortable reminder to some people on the left, who disappointingly, have opted to rationalize Russian actions as a justified response to encircling by the west. Both sides of the war equation are capitalist societies, and at the core of their military dispute are the interests of big corporations and oligarchs and not the wellbeing of their people.
The main protagonists are not just innocuous forces of capitalism. Russia, the US, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, incarnate a type of capitalism defined by strong state formations that have gained increasing power and control not just over labor, but over most aspects of their population’s lives and ways of thinking.
The economic imperatives of these societies are not conditioned solely by the traditional logic of capital accumulation and expansion. These societies inhabit a particular mode of capitalist production constrained by a military-industrial complex.
This is no longer a single component of the broad economic model of society as it existed until the mid ‘50s or ‘60s. It has become the economic model that articulates practically the whole economy of most of these nations. It determines their social priorities and delineates the paths of their economic growth and national culture.
Adapting our beliefs to evidence
In spite of their search for ethical grounding in lies spread through their respective national media and intelligence agencies, these nations have not organized their societies according to principles of international peace and disarmament. Just the opposite: they operate under a cold war mentality and an insatiable appetite for profit. How else can we explain the following summary data?
Income inequality. Russia’s 500 super-rich are wealthier than the poorest 99.8% of the population. In the US 10% of the richest people own 70+ % of the wealth. In Germany, the same proportion owns 66% of the wealth. In France, it’s 55%. It’s worth mentioning that this concentration of wealth has tendentially increased over the last thirty years.
Military spending. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) The US spends more on its military than the other top 10 highest-spending countries combined. For 2022, the US military budget was $778 billion—the highest in human history. Rank of other nations in military spending is: #4 Russia $61.7B, #5 UK $59.2B, #7 Germany $52.8B, #8 France #8 $52.7, #2 China $252B, #3 India $72.9B, #6 Saudi Arabia $57.5B, #9 Japan $49.1B, #10 South Korea $45.7B. The US spends $64.4 billion more than the other nations as a whole.
Military personnel—active, reserve, and paramilitary. For the same group of nations: Russia leads with 5,896,987; followed by the United States 5,137.860; India 5,121,950; South Korea 4,599.000; China 4,045,000; France 378,400; Japan 361,890; South Arabia 251,500; UK 232,900; Germany 207,000.
Arms exports. For the period 2016-2020 the world’s five largest arms exporters were the US, Russia, France, Germany and China. Together they accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms.
A look at the data suggests that what these nations are producing—both in terms of their internal economies, and in their military and ideological exports—are the means of war, not the means of peace.
The surge in wars during the 21st Century should not be surprising. These include the Second Congo War (ended in 2003), as well as wars in Syria, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Yemen—and the current war in Ukraine. Hard as it may be, we must adapt our beliefs to evidence given by history. Consequently, ignore the summonings of those who want to assign moral superiority to their involvement in the war when history shows that the war resulted from their own doing in the immediate or recent past.
The Doomsday Clock and true Internationalism. The two most threatening factors to human life on the planet are the possibility of nuclear annihilation and the effects of climate change. The possibility of a nuclear confrontation lingers ominously behind the war in Ukraine. All the nations mentioned above are long-distance runners in the race for nuclear missile expansion.
And as a consequence of the perverse logic of capital, we find the US and Russia on the list of the five countries that produce the most carbon dioxide (CO2) on the planet. Because of these two factors the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists this January moved the hands of the metaphoric doomsday clock to 100 seconds to midnight —the point of no return.
Those who see the Russian attack on Ukraine only as an attack on a single country (my country, if you are Ukrainian; or a neighbor if you are western European) would do better to remember that:
the character of any war (the fact that it is revolutionary or reactionary), does not depend on who was attacked or the territory where the “enemy” is, but on the class that sustains the specific war. (Lenin, The Ruling Class Sustains War).
The current war is the result of long contradictions between the geopolitical and economic interests of two world-wide capitalist groups. Their ruling classes sustain the war and are the main beneficiaries of the conflict. True internationalism, in this sense, demands the unequivocal identification and rejection of the ideology and practices of capitalism worldwide, independently of national flags. True internationalism, at a practical level, provides non-discriminatory humanitarian support to all innocent victims of war independent of their race (in itself a questionable category), ethnicity or national origin. It allows us to avoid the double standard and inconsistencies in the treatment of Ukrainian versus African and Middle-Eastern refugees in Europe and the US.
The sooner the better. Today, when the survival of the planet is threatened by global capitalism, we must confront this type of social organization with the broadest possible popular alliance in each country and around the world.
The political authority of global capitalism must be permanently questioned and met with the removal of its representatives at all levels: national, state, regional, and municipal. We must challenge their ideologues and their presumptions to truth, unveil their inconsistencies, and support all progressive forces in order to open up spaces for equity, peace, and social justice for humanity as a whole. The sooner the better.
Enrique Quintero is a member of the publishing committee of Works In Progress. “A Splinter in the Eye” is a new column from Enrique that will appear in future issues of Works in Progress.