The Enlightenment did not propose only a “rationalization” and a “critique” of the authorities of the old regimes and the received knowledge, but also the stubborn orientation towards a common truth. Contrary to the bullet-points summaries provided by the new modern authorities and by the philosophers of the reified ego, it is not Truth and Reason, but the orientation towards common truth that has been the guiding force of those progresses which constitute the more positive part of modernity.
That which makes this orientation concrete is persevering work, and not a predefined finality. Today, in a new period of accumulating crises and destruction, of illusions and social disorientation, when reason is too easily regimented and criticism is getting lost in negativity, the work at reorientation is needed at all levels: social, cultural, economical, geopolitical. What is the common truth in each of these spheres?
Sadly, navel-gazing and non-realism have now increasingly taken over minds and politics. While ordinary people have shown at the borders unconditional solidarity and realism, because empathy and an ethical common sense have not prevented them from having critical opinions, the states and the large institutions have drifted into a one-directional tailspin. The ruling elites have fallen into absolutist and sacrificial politics. Absolutist by reducing politics to their own camp and by totally eliminating the rivals from their emotional and rational spheres, and sacrificial by abandoning the realism of compromise, preferring instead to sacrifice lives every day in the name of some distant finalities. In the face of the multiple challenges of the historical moment – social, economical, ecological – instead of a critical mobilization, what has proliferated instead are the non-realism, militarism and façade-dressing: the superficial coopting of social needs, at the level of image – which does more harm than good.
In 2021 I repeatedly warned about the danger of war, about the normalisation of existential indifference (Der letzte große Komet), about the unbridled ambitions of some and the irresponsible desire of others to test their powers (Rückkehr der Raketen), about the danger that had become visibly more acute when the first priority and “return to normality” after the pandemic was the reorganization of NATO’s and Russia’s military games. In January I observed the militarization of the Romanian public sphere and the limitation of the freedom of expression, almost without any critical or rational opposition, against the background of the increasingly limited expressions of the local and international leaders and media. If the number of experts on military strategy and geopolitics has mushroomed in recent years in the public spheres like a radioactive rain, the number of those interested in peace seems to be small and getting smaller. And now the war is raging and neither of these trends seems to have changed. The narrowing of the minds, the stiffening of behaviors, and the accumulation of losses are the name of this day.
What has been the general tendency of the institutions of the freedom of expression during the “fog of war”, in a situation of general confusion: the multiplication of one’s sources of information, or on contrary the thickening of the artificially manufactured consensus?
One would assume that maximizing the chances of getting closer to the truth would be the reasonable course of action in such a situation of multi-directional bias. However, to the extent that the behavior and the choices made and seen in the cultural industries are relevant, the visible commentariat seems to have fled to the voices and platforms that offered them affective comfort. The jumpy reactions have multiplied and there is less and less patience for truth-telling or bridge-building.
The same trend seems to have been adopted by audiences and producers: many people who have become politicized in the context of war have invested emotionally very quickly and intensely in one camp. Some have become as dependent on particular voices and sources as on their own smartphone. Among the producers, many have decided to propagate militant ‘talking points’, even at the cost of spreading lies in the public spheres, either from an altered understanding of solidarity or by explicitly justifying the lie with the greater good of winning the ‘information war’. In this sense, the cultural industries have proven to be all too effective: they showed an impeccable functionality in serving political interests. The lapses into non-realism and propaganda have been thus rapidly institutionalized by all sides of the conflict, and this will have unpredictable consequences, since such practices inevitably produce disappointment and social distrust. When cultural workers lose their sense of autonomy or confidence in their own cultural industries and become cynical, the general audience approaches a crisis of legitimacy, and when the state workers are doing their duty out of inertia and some imported rationale, a crisis of authority looms.
In retrospect, it is clear to any pedestrian that both Russia and Ukraine have prepared for war.
But the Russian administration should assume the first degree responsibility for the war, for the invasion launched on February 24, for the actual violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (even in the case of eventual territorial agreements signed by both sides), and for losses caused by the war.
This simple ethical stance should not, however, be used to argue against the common-sense truth that this conflict is rooted in wider processes, nor to absolve other actors from responsibility. One does not exclude the other, and in real life two wrongs do not make one right. Recent history shows that we have entered a period of proliferation of the wars of invasion and a return of the ‘dirty war’. The non-democratic reality of the international space has not been ameliorated in the past decades, and now is accumulating more injustices. In this sense, a simple ethical standpoint would oppose all of these injustices.
3. The analysis of the behavior of the US, UK and NATO administrations in the key events leading to February 24 highlights another simple truth: they did not help Ukraine avoid the war.
From an East European perspective (there are others), the West has preferred to make ambiguous speeches and half-hearted promises to the Ukrainian administration, egging it on, while giving it crumbs or things on the sly. The behavior of the Western administrations until February can be likened to that of bad friends. It does not matter whether this behavior was intentional, whether it was due to weakness, incompetence or cynicism; the fact remains that the administrations of the US, the UK and the rest of the allied West did not show that they cared at all about the people of Ukraine until February.
These political administrations have committed a historical failure: they did not avoid war in Europe under their watch; more precisely, they did not use their diplomatic means and considerable soft power for this purpose. Regardless of their intentions and circumstances, these administrations bear the second-degree responsibility for the diplomatic and political failure. The “crazy Putin” caricature is just an excuse for this failure of historical proportions: there have been multiple opportunities to turn this whole process on a different path. Therefore, as the disaster deepens and no one is able to admit mistakes or just the simple responsibility, an entire generation of political leaders is likely to be considered one of the worst in the history of their own states.
From an East European perspective, both degrees of responsibility should be taken into account, with due regard to proportions. As a semi-periphery that has become a conflict zone for an indefinite period (regardless of the fate of the war), and has been harmed from both directions, the region of Eastern Europe has a direct and immediate interest in reaffirming its non-aligned position: ‘neither the West, nor Russia’.
The West has not cared about the people of the region nor about the local circumstances, pushing the region through historical losses, and is currently investing in war and in its own fantasies of righteousness; Russia is investing in its own conservative imperialization and is grinding down everything opposed it; meanwhile, the region is caught in the middle.
From an East European standpoint it is also interesting to note that this is the third Democratic US administration that has gotten involved in wars in Eastern Europe in the last three decades. It is up to each one to ask the question: if the infamous “enemies” from our songs of the 1990s have shown their faces, how has the relationship with our bad friends changed in the meantime? Where is this relationship heading? What are the limits of each party in this relationship? Who is reorienting themselves and how?
4. The war was started by Russia, but the peace talks in Turkey, as much as they were, were interrupted in April by the Western intervention (publicly the US and UK administrations). Since then, the West has become increasingly more involved in the conflict. Over time, as the West gets more involved (and more directly), the nature of the conflict itself changes. It seems to become less about Ukraine, and more about the West itself and about defending its position in the world, even though it is still Ukraine that suffers most.
In order to fight in what is becoming, mind-bogglingly, the “war on Russia” (i.e. Russia itself, apart from the invasion of Ukraine), the West had already allocated $84 billion in assistance to Ukraine by August, predominantly in military resources, which has already surpassed the $83 billion invested by the US in allied armed forces in Afghanistan between 2002-2021; for its part alone, the US administration has allocated $65 billion in military resources; of course, some of this is spent within the local military industrial complex, but it is a colossal effort anyway, which is invested in the military complex, i.e. for the actual or potential war effort. That is to say: these resources are not mobilized for peace, and neither for reconstruction. The resources invested for the latter are meager, if at all. Such a massive and sudden infusion of capital fundamentally alters any state, with unforeseen consequences. Russia’s war and the expression of solidarity with Ukraine predominantly through the act of weaponizing have thus already triggered a new international arms race, to the delight of the arms dealers and speculators who, after the loss of the market in Afghanistan, were already salivating at the thought of Ukraine in January 2022. This militaristic turn of the neoliberal state indicates the possible end of a historical cycle – if not a spiral into the abyss.
– The sanctions against Russia are the economic part of this war, but they are affecting the whole world. So far, the economic sanctions have failed economically, just like the 2014 sanctions. But now it’s worse: this time around the sanctions have managed to hit the hardest Western Europe itself.
The available evidence shows that European competitive advantage was based to a decisive extent on the access to cheap Russian gas.
And the lack of access to Russian gas may lead, as Germany’s Vice-Chancellor has warned, to a structural decline in competitiveness; the bills falling into the mail of citizens and businesses have increased up to 10 (ten) fold, and the production prices have increased with more than 45%, which has been causing unprecedented losses in the recent history of Western societies, announcing major discontent. Meanwhile, the Euro has fallen below the US dollar and the global transactions in Euro have fallen sharply in favor of the dollar. The British pound has plummeted to a historic low against the dollar after the introduction of another batch of neoliberal measures by the new Conservative government (tax cuts to “revive” the economy).
And while Europe seems to have learned nothing from its experience in 2014, Russia seems to have prepared itself. Not only that the ruble has not collapsed, but it has become according to Bloomberg the “year’s best performing currency“, while Russia’s central bank reported a $183 billion surplus in the balance of payments from January to August 2022, three times higher than the same period in 2021, mainly due to the rising gas prices. One result was that, by September 2022, the cynical Western financial investment vultures like JP Morgan and Bank of America have swallowed their “pride” and simply started trading Russian bonds again, without much ado and despite the sanctions. Regardless of one’s position and of the latest generation of speculations – such as the one claiming that the role of the sanctions will in fact be activated sometime in the future – so far the reality is simple: the sanctions have produced exactly the opposite of what they set out to do. Europe has taken losses and has been diminished both in relation to its adversary and to its allies. In other words, the historical failure of the Western diplomacy has been followed up by the miscalculations of the European economists and politicians.
– And yet, maybe the biggest failure of the Western policy of sanctions has been the attempt to isolate Russia internationally. The Kremlin administration has made preparatory visits to Delhi and Beijing in December and January, and the heads of state of Hungary, Argentina, Brazil and Pakistan had visited the Kremlin in turn in February; after the start of the war, Russia seemed to simply go on with the same foreign policy, in fact expanding and intensifying its foreign relations with China, Turkey, Iran, India, Brazil. In the domain of international relations, which should not be as affected by the “fog of war”, the way in which the Western media has reported on the ongoing events – and after it the Romanian press, by copying obediently – has been substandard to say the least.
Despite the proliferation of “experts”, especially those in “geopolitics”, the quality of journalism and of the analyses published by the major global media institutions has become so low that many purportedly “serious” materials could be mistaken for a parody. On the surface of the media ocean have plopped pundits who no longer even bother to analyze Kremlin’s foreign policy, seemingly content to explain after each blow, through bizarre contortions of logic, that these moves do not matter. However, beyond the collective will to see in everything the “humiliation” of Russia, the international reality looks much more complex. The treaties and partnerships established by the Russian administration before the war remain in place, and Russia’s foreign relations with its partners do not appear to have regressed significantly. The failure of Russia’s isolation has been in fact evident even at the United Nations, in the tailored speech of many delegates, but can be observed more plainly in Russia’s increased role in the OPEC+ group, in the Samarkand conference in September 2022 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO – which has become perhaps the most dynamic international body), in the Tehran troika or in directly comparative events, such as the contrast between the Russian Foreign Minister’s tour of Africa and the humiliation of the subsequent US mission, when the US Secretary of State was told in public and to his face, in a historical premiere, that the African countries would no longer listen to the US foreign policy of bullying and making threats – a message that was certainly heard throughout the Global South.
Despite such reactions, the Western way of engaging in foreign relations by making threats continues unabated, demonstrating the deafness that has become typical of this generation of diplomats, and which is reproduced internally by the European Union itself; for its part, the EU’s foreign relations have become almost null and have abandoned in recent history its first basic principle: to preserve peace. The West seems oblivious both to Kremlin’s foreign policy and to the fact that the intent to isolate Russia and the attempt to divide again the world into camps is not only at odds with Kremlin’s agenda, whatever that is, but also with the experience, projects and desire for non-alignment of the Global South, as well as with other longer-lasting processes which are external to the war. The semi-peripheral states of Eastern Europe who have turned exclusively towards the West, in mimicry and obedience to the Washington Consensus, abandoning not only their own histories of alliances and solidarity with the Global South, but also the development of more complex visions of their own, are currently adding a third layer of ignorance to this double blindness of the Western world: they appear to be stuck in the headlights of the great movers and pushers, either overreaching with strident gestures, or waiting in silence for the decisions taken above; even if the diplomacy of the latter attitude is to be appreciated in a difficult context, the public evidence suggests that the semi-periphery is ill-prepared to cope with the newly emerging differences, and cannot even enter into autonomous conversations with the emerging voices of the world; the impression left is that they are blown in the wind, waiting for a “return to normality” after the war – just as they had been waiting for a “return to normality” after two years of pandemic.
– After seven months of war and with the specter of winter on the horizon, despite the constant rhetoric about ‘our victories’ and the ‘humiliation’ of the others, we have plunged into the historical time of the accumulation of losses on all sides.
The front has expanded, and the violent operations have spread into civilian spaces. None of the parties involved considers today’s peace to be better than “tomorrow’s” victory.
Beyond the changes in military tactics, all sides maintain the same logic they have followed so far, hoping that their opponents will give in first. All the forces involved in the conflict continue to escalate, looking only to intensify the fighting. The mindless attack on the underwater gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, the possibility of which had been announced some time ago, cannot be the ‘work’ of private entities, which means that it is a violent act ordered by a state against a piece of international civil infrastructure; whomever ordered it, this is another sign of the sinister spread of violence in the civil space and of the rapid dissolution of the internal boundaries of the current world system.
– The most asymmetrical opposition is not between the Ukraine-West camp and the Russia camp, but between those who want to settle things through war, and everyone else.
People from all social classes are opposed to the war. Yet for all those in the pacifist camp, the access to policy makers and even to the public space has been radically reduced.
Censorship has reached critical levels, including in the West. The slide into non-realism has become widespread, and the absolutist and sacrificial politics define the sense of politics. The winter of 2022 and the spring of 2023 are shaping up to be increasingly cold, painful and dangerous. The dissociation from all the forces pushing the logic of war should be the democratic response – but who cares anymore about democracy now?
5. The war connects into a number of longue-durée processes and will certainly have consequences upon them (besides reactivating the danger of the nuclear catastrophe, and in more than one way), but it has not initiated the following longue-durée curves:
– the global race for the finite resources which are the basis the extractive industry of the consumerist civilization;
– the protracted regional crisis that began in the former Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc in the 1970s (and even the 1960s), linked to the search for a successor to the economic paradigm of intensive growth; the unresolved economical crisis became the political ‘crisis of succession’ of the system itself (as pointed out by V. Ishchenko). It is worth noting that while in the 1980s the crisis started to boil when a new privileged class had crystallized and managed to cut itself off from the masses (nomenclatura, managers, administrators, etc.), the current crisis of succession, three decades after another paradigmatic shift, coincides with the formation of a new class that has cut itself off from society: the “winners of the transition”, the new capitalist oligarchs and the elites around them, who are isolated from the large society but are dominating the economies of each state of the former socialist bloc;
– the repeated failures of the global economic system after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.
The global system has failed both the middle classes of the developed countries, whose incomes and possibilities have been in regress, and has also failed in the attempt to reduce and eliminate the poverty and hunger of the lower classes around the world.
In the first place, let’s recall that the historical crisis which exploded at the very peaks and centers of accumulation of capitalism was not resolved, but was temporarily patched through the intervention of the state (the Obama administration), who decided to bail out the banks and the financial and industrial oligarchies first, and then gradually transfer the costs to the population. Furthermore, the current economic system has also been unable to make significant progress in the struggle to combat the degradation of the environment, despite many promises and noisy commitments. At the other end, these multidimensional failures of the global regime of the ‘free market’ have been accompanied by the visible monopolization of the most high-value industries of global capitalism, by the structural linking of economic growth to the activity of these monopolies, and by the historical enrichment of the elites at the top of these monopolies and consequent exacerbation of inequalities; the wealth of the world’s billionaires has increased by almost 70% during the pandemic alone, and in the UK top corporate executives now earn on average more than 100 times than the average worker (before the pandemic they earned on average only 70 times more). The crises have only empowered the neoliberal tradition which accelerates the separation of the oligarchic elites from the rest of the population (including the middle class). Recent times have confirmed yet again what has long been known: that in its real history, capitalism has never been synonymous with democracy, as the imaginary of frenzied anti-communists has claimed, but rather with the whip and the gun; also that both in its recent history and in the long-durée, capitalism has predominantly produced the impoverishment and the deterioration of the wellbeing of the majority of the populations of the world. Maintaining this failing economic system with armed forces and at the expense of the population is not a sustainable solution.
– The worsening state of the rotten heart of the international financial system: the neoliberal “liberalization” of the financial market of the 1980s-1990s has led directly to the 2008-2009 crisis, but also to the endless series of global scandals related to capital flight and financial havens, from the Panama Papers in 2016 to the Pandora Papers in 2021 to the Credit Suisse funds in 2022 – which, quite amazingly, seems to have already been forgotten. All this mounting evidence of the rise of financial crime has not been accompanied, it seems, by appropriate systemic measures. Meanwhile, the neoliberal correlation between consumerism and economic growth has produced the indebtedness of the “developed societies” beyond their payment capacity; thus, even though the Western countries are the most indebted in the world in absolute numbers from the perspective of their own citizens, they simply have the power to refuse to pay their debt, unlike less militarized and less powerful countries.
Whereas the “poor always pay”, the Western elites externalize their debt, either by transferring it to their own population through inflation (dosed so as not to cause a scandal), or by transferring it to poorer countries through debt financialisation – i.e. by issuing bonds for their debt; these bonds are then bought by other countries, including poorer countries, with a little persuasion of their elites, who are thus investing directly in the growth of Western economies, which in turn respond to this structurally adjusted “desire” by inflating their own services and the value of their top companies, for which they negotiate privileges and exceptions to the otherwise sacrosanct rules of the market, both in the domestic economy (“tax cuts”) and in the poorer countries (“strategic investors”). It’s a vicious cycle: in order to develop, poorer countries demand investment from Western capital, on which they become dependent, then they pay off their accumulated debt with blood, sacrifice and the cheap sale of their own resources; the resulting bags of non-Western money end up with the financial speculators of Wall Street or the City of London (the plutocratic enclave of the British financial sector), whose arbitrary numbers games decide destinies, and whose periodic crashes are paid for by everyone else through indebtedness and devaluation.
In the bigger picture – as far as it is apparent to a layman – the international financial system keeps on creating ‘gray areas’ between the legal and the illegal in which it thrives; on this often criminal basis, wealth continues to be accumulated in the same centers where the bags of money from the colonial plunder have been taken; the bags of money are still arriving: in 2020 alone, i.e. the first year of the pandemic, even though the economies collapsed everywhere, the poorer countries paid off debts of $194 billion! The system continues to be good for the very rich, the very powerful or the very thieving, for the owners of the money printing press and for the corrupt local elites. But it can get worse: in the last two years, the shipments of money bags have become insufficient to patch the gaping holes and have been supplemented through an unprecedented money printing frenzy, which is pumping lab-made blood into the veins of the system. According to the neoliberal logic, this hole too will be covered by the population; among some specialists, however, fears are growing that the next great financial crisis is imminent.
The failures of the global regime of the ‘free market’ have become so obvious that the conservative right has turned against its own system.
At least in the US where it is in opposition, nowadays is criticizing: the capitalist oligarchs (“the billionaire class”), Wall Street parasitism and market idolatry, the abandonment of the working class, and even the hegemonic wars pursued under the influence of the military industrial complex. The conservative right has reached this point amidst the live contradiction of the struggles of certain elites who are pushing hard against other rival elites, but this historical moment when conservatism is not taking up just the marginal but even the central themes of the socialist tradition, without being fully aware of what it is doing, suggests the end of a great cycle;
– The decline of liberalism: I’m referring here to the deceptive success of the liberal cooptation of the feminist, anti-racist and civil rights social movements; while the cooptation of these social movements has been a success for the “internal apparatus” of the liberal elites, it has also become a broad political failure in the wider society, with consequences yet to be fully played out.
From the 1980s, the real structural movement that has characterized Western liberalism (as well as its forms hosted in social-democratic parties) was the shift to a neoliberal ideology and the abandonment of the welfare state: liberalism moved thus to the side of the financial and big business elites and at the same time abandoned many of the traditional social foundations of liberalism (and of social democracy in Europe).
This abandonment was compensated for by repackaging the latest ‘trends’ of civic and popular movements and by co-opting some of their spokespeople.
Thus, popular movements which had risen up on their own social bases, on real issues, were divided, co-opted and channeled by the elites of Western liberalism along the lines of identity politics, representative quotas and, in particular, labeling. This politics of co-optation was immediately reproduced, cynically, by the capitalist cultural industry and the corporations: the tabloids became instruments of “moral” hunting, and the biggest arms dealers moved swiftly, installing five women at the top of the five biggest corporations; such absurdities arguably bring no gains for civil rights or for feminism: on the contrary, they are a triumph of reaction.
To these liberal perversions of the social causes one can add the repeated public cases of abuses, sexism, corruption, nepotism and hypocrisy of prominent liberal elites; among the consequences of these ongoing liberal failures are: the alienation of their own social base; the continued de-legitimization, locally and globally, of the ideology of Western liberalism, which has become toxic, spoiling whatever it touches; and the indirect disempowerment, by association, of the last cycle of popular movements. As a result of this mutation initiated in the 1980s, Western liberalism has ceased to be a political “centrism”, becoming instead structurally associated with oligarchic elites, losing touch with reality, locked in isolated echo chambers, listening to an apparatus of directly co-interested “experts”. Liberalism, which remains one of the three great modern political ideologies (alongside conservatism and socialism) has produced thus its own form of extremism, which has matured today, becoming a source of public danger; this unprecedented ideological turn of liberalism and its degeneration into liberal extremism also suggests the end of a great cycle;
– Problems at the top: the deepening social divides and internal political polarization of the United States, the apparent lack of a vision for the future, the decline of the US infrastructure and the slump of development; the fading global hegemony, both economically and militarily, especially after the defeat of the US forces in Afghanistan in 2021 and their rushed retreat, complete with abandonment of equipment and the escape from the roof or the embassy; the US military defeat has also brought back to visibility the issue of the crimes and destruction committed in the two decades of wars of invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reminded the public that these invasions were justified by lies told by US, British and allied officials in local and international public forums. The military defeat and the mess left behind by US forces has also re-emphasized the chaos caused by the Western military interventions in Libya and Syria and has made some observers shift their focus from the good purpose of “offering help” to reflections on what is left behind by the Western interventions. Even if a systemic change is in fact much further away than some might imagine, the reality is that the primacy of the global hegemon is indeed being challenged today, for the first time in recent history, from many different directions, both internally and externally; and on multiple levels: economically, militarily and ideologically;
The decline of the hard and soft powers of Western colonialism and coloniality, and the emergence of countercultures in the former colonies that won their freedom, in the current colonies, in the areas under Westernizing influence and within the West itself; all these countercultures are calling, in very different ways, for a new historical process of decolonization, after the one forcibly interrupted in the 1970s by assassinations, coups d’état and the imposition of a new global order.
To date, despite a few piecemeal changes, the evidence shows that in Western and Westernized areas, colonial Eurocentrism continues to dominate the institutions, bureaucracies, the education system, the cultural industry, in many cases the segregation of cities and, of course, the economic divides; yet the changes, despite still being on the scale of drops in the ocean, have been met with aggression, both by the right and by much of the Eurocentric left. The Western ego has not learned yet to tolerate the external difference and does not know how to come to terms with the loss of supremacy, which it immediately identifies with its existential annihilation tout court (which is extremely dangerous in the current conflict dynamics); when it does not react violently against the external difference, the West prefers to do things such as investing in endless productions of films about ‘superheroes’ and ‘the end of the world’. The Western ego does not know yet how to orient itself democratically in an intercultural world: as Fanon observed, the historical condition of this episode of enlightenment has not yet been satisfied. On the contrary: the Western and Westernized world is dominated at every turn by active attempts to deny and to forget its own colonial history and its perpetuation in coloniality. If this trend continues in the near future, a conservative wave of brutal rejections and hard-line responses to the liberal co-optation of these social demands is to be expected, all the more so since the conservative right, by opposing liberal elitism, seems to have shaken off its traditional fear of the “dangerous classes”.
In the region of Eastern Europe, which has re-internalized colonial Eurocentrism in recent history, in the rare conditions of a paradigm shift, a double blindness has been socialized: both towards the colonial history of modernity and towards decolonial countercultures; the ‘anti-colonial’ rhetoric recently adopted by some East European elites, particularly in Hungary, has absolutely no historical nor principled connection with the anti-colonial or decolonization movements: it responds to a reality of recent East European history, but through the cynical voice of the formerly Eurocentric elites of the 1990s, who have accumulated in the meantime capital and power and are simply demanding the privatization of the European privilege on their turf: they want to be the white men of their own domain (“we are now the West”). Regardless of these internal reactions of the Western and Westernized world, the decolonial movement grows out of its own resources and follows its own logic and needs;
– China’s re-emergence as the world’s largest productive power and the largest economy, with the newest infrastructure and, crucially, an autonomous infrastructure industry, and as a state that wields its global power and uses its finances in ways parallel to but also distinct from the US and the West; China has come today to challenge the US hegemony economically, and after the failure of the tariffs war initiated by the Republican Trump administration, under the Democratic Biden administration the performance of the US diplomats has become so rigid and incapable of dialogue that the China-US relations have worsened to unprecedented levels, as China warned the US in late 2021 of its absolute limits; so far, the policy of weakening China seems to have produced the opposite of what it set out to do: strong opposition, military and ideological mobilization, and the active search for alternative alliances pursued through the newly-fanged “wolf diplomacy”; consequently, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, which begins on October 16, is shaping up to be a major event, to be followed in its own logic;
– The reappearance on the scene of international relations of state coalitions of the Global South, not only the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, founded in 2002), but also regional ones, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, 2008), MERCOSUR (1991) in Latin America, CELAC (2010) in the Caribbean, the Caspian Economic Forum (CEF), etc., supported by new institutions such as the BRICS Development Bank (NDB, 2014) or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB, 2016). As opposed to such contemporary attempts to strengthen sovereignties at the regional level and according to structural similarities, Eastern Europe has dissolved in the transition to capitalism: it has disappeared as a self-standing region in the sphere of international relations, where it is not represented by any institution. Eastern Europe is partly crammed into the EU’s Procrustean bed, and it is haunted here and there by the alternative temptation of regressive forms of nationalism. These new regional and international platforms of the South did not emerge ‘naturally’ like mushrooms after the rain, but were formed after learning some lessons that the Eurocentric elites of Eastern Europe have ignored: firstly, that the structural internationalism of economic problems can only be countered internationally; secondly, that entering into security arrangements with the great powers, such as the Baghdad pact and the Manila pact, did not offer protection from wars and violence to the non-Western nations, quite the contrary. This new generation of coalitions has also learned something from the repression and marginalization of the previous wave of coalitions of the Global South, through the series of coups against progressive governments and the imposition of the global authority of the G6 group starting from 1975 (through the Rambouillet Declaration), which then became G7 with the inclusion of Canada in 1976 (the Dorado Summit). Since then, the G7, which is a coalition of the main Western military and colonial powers, has become a non-democratic cartel-like authority of the global order, which is responsible to a significant extent for the globalization of neoliberalism over the last half of century. Furthermore, what is actively forgotten is that this neoliberal global order was imposed against the initiatives for the democratization of international relations proposed by the Non-Aligned Movement, and against the proposal for alternative development conceived at the time by the countries of the Global South in the New International Economic Order (NEIO) program; that alternative program, imperfect as it was, had been proposed by the representatives of the majority of our world, the Group of 77 (to which Romania belonged at the time, and from which Romania de facto withdrew when it joined the European Union).
The alternative NEIO program proposed by the G77 was even democratically adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, shortly before the G7 cartel autocratically changed course; at the time, the Romanian official journal Scînteia (The Spark) hailed the adoption of NEIO as a movement ‘in favor of democratizing the economic life of the world and of narrowing the gaps’, stressing ‘the right of peoples to choose their own economic and social system’, ‘the need to eradicate all forms of foreign domination, racial, colonialist, neo-colonialist discrimination’, and ‘the establishment of fair and equitable ratios between the prices of raw materials and other products exported by the developing countries and the prices of manufactured products imported by them from industrialized countries’. For the non-Western groups and coalitions that have learned what there is to learn from this history, the neoliberal globalization that has been imposed from the 1970s is the continuation of colonialism by other means, rather than the expansion of the ‘free world’: namely, a counter-revolution against the decolonization process of the 1950s and 1960s, which has ensured the continuation of the privileged access of the great Western powers to the vital resources and labor force of the Global South; the dozens of assassinations, coups d’état, military interventions and invasions in the Global South against post-colonial movements, as well as the decades of US support for the world’s most brutal and thuggish right-wing dictatorships, including Pinochet’s dictatorship, whose reign saw the introduction of the neoliberal methods, have been the flip side of the same globalist coin. Eastern Europe was “integrated” after 1989 precisely in the avalanche of this neoliberal counter-revolution.
Because of all this, and despite appearances such as the votes cast in international organizations which are still funded and dominated by the West, more Global South perspectives tend to see the war in Ukraine as a possible beginning of the end of this unfortunate period for the South in global history, whichever way that end may come, without considering the local roots of the conflict or the nature of the political project of the invading forces. However, the possible end of the ‘unipolar order’ would only be a part of the immense historical necessity of global decolonization and of the shift towards a pluriversal democratization of international relations; and here it must be said that, despite some rushed hopes expressed from the Global South, there is in fact no guarantee that ‘multipolarism’, in the forms currently emerging, would be any closer to pluriversal democratization than the unipolar order. In this regard, it must also be said that the current Russian administration has arrived at the arguments about “multipolarity” and the colonialism of the West much later than the thinkers and politicians of the Global South and by following an entirely different itinerary (not in the least without self-criticism); it is noteworthy that at the same historical time that Russian conservatism is trying to assert itself through arguments first developed in the traditions of the political left, the North American conservatism is also taking up themes from the socialist tradition: both conservatisms seem to be grasping in the dark in the search of a common truth that lies beyond their horizons. In any case, the political, economic and cultural tendencies of the coalitions of the Global South are distinct from the ideological underpinnings of the conflicting camps, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. In the period ahead, the non-Western coalitions will have the opportunity to exert more and more global influence, if not undermined by violent interventions; significantly, at the last session of the UN General Assembly, it was a coalition of 66 countries, mostly from the Global South, that came out in favor of peace, opposing the bellicose politics of all sides and calling for a de-escalation of hostilities and for immediate negotiations for peace, in a language markedly different from that of the West too. Ignoring all these processes and arguments because they might sound “Putinist” is only the internal problem of those ears that can only hear “Putin”, and not a problem of the world itself. Seen as a whole, this process of the re-emergence of the Global South offers to other areas a historical opportunity to broaden their options and to reunify the realist and the ethical positions.
– The emergence of new strategic thresholds of the global economy outside the control of the United States, especially along the routes developed and planned by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but also, significantly, by anchoring the German economy on the gas supplied by Russia, in particularly through the German Nord Stream 2 project. However, even before the closure of this latter project, the European Union had given the gas market to the speculators in the name of the free market. In other words, just when a few Central and Eastern European states had managed to integrate into the capitalist system, rising to the level of a semi-periphery with wealthy friends (first and foremost Germany), managing to produce relative growth and even a middle class of their own (at the cost of dependency, depopulation and historical inequalities), Germany is contracting, and the European Union itself is losing its political autonomy, falling into recession and beginning to adopt the behavior of a semi-periphery.
The world system is likely going through a great transition – with all the specific turbulences of a period of bifurcation – and this is producing a heightened state of confusion in the West itself.
Immanuel Wallerstein predicted a decade ago the possible negative influence of the three “imponderables” of climate change, major epidemics and nuclear war. The fate of this war and of related structural processes does not depend entirely, but it does depend to a significant extent on the reactions of the West – not just on its actions. Unlike the East Europeans, the Global South has long known that one cannot rely on Westerners who come bearing gifts; one would simply assume that the lies of the West were, together with the impeccable suit and the serious mine, a façade meant to dress up a well-calculated self-interest: a reason in full exercise of its faculties. Lately however, the West, or a large part of it, seems to be living in a fantasy. It seems that the West has started to believe in its own fables. One continues to “speak from a position of power” with states which in certain sectors are comparable or even ahead of it. One threatens its own allies. One simply refuses to believe that others might possess more advanced technologies. One collects labels without following up the social reality behind them. One uses a monarchical death to spend time in fantasies about how good the social hierarchy really is and how gentle the British empire really was (the event has also given rise to an aberrant nostalgia for colonialism even in a place like Romania – another sign of the detachment from reality). And out of an astonishingly poor understanding of ‘solidarity’ – if it’s not a sinister co-optation of it – highly influential Western politicians and media have ‘glossed over’ or have even aestheticized the presence of fascism; in this sense, the recent shift in image and vocabulary regarding the neo-Nazis contradicts the anti-fascist positions taken before the conflict and borders on negationism: something that cannot be excused circumstantially and will not be forgotten. The resurgence of fascism and of the extreme right has been a pan-European problem for some time.
– As time passes, more and more people are suffering, and the confusion only grows in the closed echo chambers of today’s political spheres: the liberals are blaming Russia for everything and are increasingly taking delusional refuge in the belief that the Truth, Reason and History are within them, hoping also that the all-powerful market will eventually save them; meanwhile, the conservatives are blaming the liberals and their “obsession with climate change”, forgetting to point out that it was precisely the market fundamentalists who actually promoted EU’s “green” plan in December 2019. At the time, Ursula von der Leyen triumphantly announced that Europe will become “the world’s first climate-neutral continent” (?!) – thus forgetting that Western Europe has already produced the world’s first man-made ecological disasters in modernity. The co-optation of the environmental agenda by the EU neoliberals also took place right at the end of the year when the new US liquefied gas market exploded on the global market. The new environmentalists-in-chief of EU were in fact the capitalist champions of neoliberalism, who opposed the practice of fixing the gas prices through long-term contracts, and sought ‘opportunity’; their opposition was not based on environmental principles but on their preference for ‘market mechanisms’, which in practice meant ‘the liberalization of the European market for natural gas’, ‘flexible prices on the LNG spot market ’, ‘the transition to flexible gas sources’, ‘moving towards a renewable energy future by not getting saddled with the obligation to buy Russian gas at a locked-in price’ – and many other such points and expressions which were then ventriloquised by the local colonizers of the new dominant ideologies in the Eurocentric area until they actually came to define the reality of the market. The same Western champions of neoliberalism have handed over this part of the European energy market to the speculators of the “SPOT market”, and when their dream became reality and it immediately ran into trouble, they suddenly switched to another register, from the projective talk about the “new future of energy”, the “renewable future”, “future energy independence”, to “defending democracy”, “necessary sacrifices” and “public heating stations” – all while blaming the Russians for everything. One can see here in plain view the neoliberal cynicism at work: after all, the neoliberals seem to be angry with the Russians mostly because the latter have made the prices go up too quickly and too high; the increases were expected and welcomed by the “market” people: the prices were already rising on this newly liberalized energy market before the invasion, and would have continued to rise; the only difference is that, according to the neoliberal calculations, the population would have been able to support those increases without much fuss. But now the Russians have barged in and messed things up, and people are making a fuss. Thus, the concrete problem here is not the energy transition, but the neoliberal co-optation of the energy transition.
– And then it got worse: the disastrous policy of the neoliberal co-optation of the environmental problem has been aggravated then by the politics of sanctions. This was based, among many other elements, on a model of measuring the economy that was originally devised in the troubled times of the Second World War: counting all the money-based activities, including the negative ones, as if they are a homogeneous whole, to which they all add up. According to such calculations, Russia’s economy, which was deemed to be “relatively modest in size, with a GDP roughly comparable to that of South Korea“, was no match for EU’s far superior economy, and the ruble was to collapse as a result of the sanctions and of the seizure of Russia’s reserves held in Western banks. Russia’s GDP, neoliberal pundits have argued emphatically, would fall sharply if its access to the high-value “tech” products imported from the West was to be restricted. “The shortage of imported goods will likely cause a substantial acceleration in Russian inflation. Moreover, a weaker currency, by raising prices of imported goods, will lessen the real purchasing power of Russian consumers. That, in turn, will likely lead to a sharp decline in real GDP” (id.). In fact, as can be seen from this typical quote from an “independent expert”, the only certainty of the neoliberal experts was, as always, that the common people (the “consumers”) would suffer. But neoliberals are used to stepping over them. And as far as their science is concerned, as Jason Hickel and others have pointed out, GDP is used to produce nice statistics, such as the one showing that the “world” GDP per capita has risen by 65% since 1990, even though over the same period poverty has actually increased worldwide: the number of people living on less than $5 a day has risen by more than 370 million! Not only that the GDP indicator does not “see” the full reality and converts everything into a pretty penny, but it does not measure a host of real costs (social, environmental, the loss of finite resources, the costs of the non-monetary economy etc.) and lends itself to overvaluation. If banks raise the interest rates on loans, the GDP will increase. The measurement of economies by GDP alone and the political-economic measures taken on this basis are not based so much on some universal social science as on a specific genealogy of ideas and an unhealthy obsession with money. In fact, as a simple pedestrian I can understand that the real modern economy cannot be considered the homogeneous totality of all the moneyed transactions, like a sausage made out of the general equivalent, because the flows of economy are depending existentially on what it burns, on its access to energy resources, raw materials, labor force and industrial production capacities (yes or no, but also how much and what kind). The neoliberal model of the economy relies on “privatization”, “liberalization”, “efficiency”, “deregulation”, “flexibilization” and “market support”, which have meant in reality, based on the first-hand experience of Eastern Europe: plundering the public wealth, selling off the commons, mass redundancies, outsourcing the essential work, unbridled financial speculation, hyping up the value of some corporations, inflating the service sector, using media properties and state corruption to inflate the value of some groups and to attack others, guaranteeing access to cheap resources through inter-state agreements, and offering state subsidies for large private businesses that are “too big to fail” or “strategic”. Of course, the local purists of the faith in the free-market regime are still blaming all these evils on the “communists” and on the local uncivilized people – those who cannot understand the superior reasoning of the elites, for whom these policies are producing ambrosia.
Certain states and institutions have realized that dependency could be a double-edged sword: in the real economy, it is the West that depends on the non-Western world for energy, resources, labor and in certain cases even productive capacity.
However, the possibilities for action are limited in the current system, which is maintained by force – military force, but also inertial force, which is not insignificant in large tonnages. Yet such a system cannot be sustainable. Therefore, the way out of confusion is more likely to take place through a turn to other forms of value, other sources of capital and an alternative system of institutions, rather than through the reform of the current system. The vultures themselves have moved on to “investment diversification” and no one is asking them about ethical principles.
– The state of confusion or the lack of awareness is, of course, a “positive” interpretation of the general fall into non-realism; much more sinister is the possibility of lying – lies that have nothing to do with reality and have been used as a cover-up or preparation for reprehensible acts. In any case, even those who have made a career out of Eurocentrism have begun to admit that the current confusion of the West is not a model to follow.
– In this light, the re-orientation in a world system undergoing a great transition, leaving the Western confusion behind, is a common necessity of political economy and of cultural transformation. Yet the necessity as well as the possibilities of another “enlightenment” and of another political economy are just going over the heads of those committed to the obedient alignment with the ‘European policies’. Even the current opportunistic growth, brought about by the cynical circumstance of being in relatively safe proximity to the war, is also a charm that will end suddenly. Instead of passively waiting for an outcome decided elsewhere, it would be time to invest in the process of restoring collective life, and not in “economic growth” – on the basis of the real socio-economy: people-centered, with local characteristics, taking into account the internal and external differences.
7. In the region of Eastern Europe, such larger trends are received with the growing popular awareness of the darker side of the transition to capitalism of the former socialist bloc. The latter is arguably seen primarily in three phenomena, which cannot be compensated by the gains of the transition (as many as there are): the social and demographic catastrophe, the economic theft, and the erosion of security and independence; of course, the anti-communist ideology continues to ignore the first, to blame the second on “corrupt” bad apples and on “communists”, and to claim that we have never been safer and more independent than we are now. Yet the reality of one’s family and neighborhood histories, the certainty of the industrial plunder, and the truth of the public presence of crime, debt and war in the region, are producing a different kind of consensus. Besides these three major elements of a brewing negative social consensus, one can also point to many other elements of the widespread discontent expressed in the region, to a host of other common worries related to negative results of the transition to capitalism, even if they are not yet identified or named as such, and even if the still dominant anti-communism continues to blame everything and anything on the “communists”, even 33 years after the paradigm shift:
– “life like a leaf in the wind” and the impossibility of living a decent life on salary;
– the chaos induced in the education system, the resurgence of illiteracy and the fall into mediocrity;
– the limitation of social mobility to labor migration;
– the gaps between the urban centers, the provinces and the rural areas;
– the lack of trust in all the existing political forces; the corruption of local politics (the “money-king”), the lacking quality of the existing political classes, the arrogance of the Eurocentric and wealthy elites, and the lack of real choice in elections;
– the rapid enrichment of some and the monopolization of the valuable sectors of local economies;
– the inscrutable nature of the bureaucracy of EU-integrated countries;
– the untouchable privileges of Western corporations and capital;
– the impoverishment of the deep society and the ‘hardening of people’;
– the record indebtedness and the new situation of structural dependencies;
– the erosion of the ‘European dream’; the European dream, which was also based on the local feelings of inferiority which were strongly induced in the formative 1990s, has eroded after three decades of real political economy, but especially after observing, during the Covid crisis, the extent to which the West actually relies on the essential labor of East European migrants, as well as the ineptitude of Western leadership in recent times.
Such anecdotal grievances – far from being exhaustive – are accompanied by the slow rise of the “silent majority”, which has gained fresh experience in expressing political skepticism, due to the widespread disagreement and criticism – for very different reasons – of the way the pandemic has been administered. Of course, “rise” is an overstatement here, because the unending series of crises and the horrors of war are producing the chronic dissociation of people from reality and from other people, and the decomposition of the social body, germinating cynicism and even the loss of the joy of life. What has become clear to many, however, is that during the transition to capitalism, the local carriers of the dominant global ideologies, whether (neo)liberals or (neo)conservatives, have accumulated all that which they have accumulated for themselves, not for the society. The form of the social answer to this injustice is yet to be decided.
8. The focus on the military operations distracts one’s attention from these living contradictions and only deepens the ignorance of the broader trajectories and of the reality that ‘in the long run, the long run prevails’. For example, instead of monitoring the conflict daily, it would be more useful to study the policies and measures taken by each of the parties to today’s conflict in the decade 2012-2022. There are many lessons to be learned from each side. But on a more general level, the global decline of democracy (more pronounced recently, but arguably in continuous global regress since the fall of the East European socialist bloc), the decline of the great political ideologies of modernity, the crisis and failures of the global economic system, the rise of militarism and the erosion of the European dream are all signs of the end of a great cycle. But the end does not mean automatically a new or a better beginning.
The capitalist cultural industries have shown a historical preference for chauvinism and for the standpoints of the elites. Against the backdrop of the chronic dissociation of the deep society, such practices are sedimenting resentment instead of critical consciousness. In a context of violence and with the tactics of “dirty war” increasingly normalized, resentment can lead to dangerous political outbursts. Yet the current cultural industry and educational system do not have the capacity to both acknowledge the existence of common worries and resentments and to reorient them into the exercise of critical consciousness. The cultural industry and the formal political spheres are content to incite and to consume the discontents and resentments, in an ever downward spiral. In this sense, the autonomies (where people without political options have taken refuge from the increasingly narrow formal political sphere), as well as the independent cultural scenes, as precarious and fragmented as they are, constitute resources of critical consciousness and potential democratization of the public space. The whole East European region is familiar with the phenomenon of the independent culture scenes which have cultivated an alternative education in critical thinking, social sensibility and local history, at the cost of their marginalization and precariousness. Until now, because of their non-compromising attitude towards the dominant ideologies, these scenes have been ignored or pushed to the corner. Their social usefulness was abandoned for the sake of ideological comfort. But the shift of the neoliberal state towards the military industrial complex, and the externalization of popular sovereignty to increasingly remote or inaccessible sources of decision-making can only be tempered by an autonomously politicized society, not by the newly empowered elites and the bureaucrats of the dominant ideologies. Furthermore, the current toxicity of liberalism should be countered in ways that are not hurting the social causes themselves.
The fact that certain inherited commitments are unbreakable should not limit the pluralist involvement in other sectors. If they are not preparing for the dynamic changes in the socio-economic reality, the semi-peripheral societies and states risk being dragged into processes beyond their control and which are affecting the majority of the population. If they continue to resort only to mimicry and laissez-faire, as they have done so far, they will actively limit their own capacities and options. The former and current tails of the imperial dogs may find themselves lost in the air, having wagged for lizards in disguise that have long since disappeared into the depths. Besides, alienating the “silent majority” is a bad idea in a context of accumulating social discontent and as the sovereignty of states is back on the table.
9. The end of the transition to capitalism, whichever way it has come, has also brought a process of expiration – if not yet saturation – of the dominant ideologies of transition. Currently, local politics are losing sense and we have entered the crisis of succession of the transition itself. The problem is that the end of the post-1989 transition also coincides with the end of somewhat larger cycles of the world system. Neither liberal nor conservative mimicry helps in the face of the looming great storms. Regressive forms of nationalism may even make them worse. And the rhetoric of “returning to normality” speaks of closing the door when the whole house is lifted up. But there are other options – the wheel does not have to be reinvented. Yet in order to stop swallowing the new miracle solutions that will be sold tomorrow by the same dealers, what is needed is work – the work of re-reorientation in our own society and in the larger world. Instead of passively waiting for the outcome to be decided elsewhere, perhaps it would be time to invest now in rebuilding the collective life, not in the “economy” and its elites: a re-socialisation of politics and economics. If the solidarity with the people of Ukraine was the most positive political lesson of this difficult period, then this lesson must be generalized in the conditions of realism, but not constrained by the return to the fairy tales of neoliberal ‘normality’.
How is this to be done? The answers should be given, as social beings, by all those who know their domain of work from the inside but do not fall prey to methodological nationalism.
And both the left and the right can and should respond to this challenge: whoever gains a new social base has more chances of survival and could come to the position of responding to the real needs – to a common truth.
And just as inside, so also outside: there is a need to re-socialise the politics and economics of international relations: a critical awareness of the semi-peripheral position is needed, making use of the regional similarities, working in the extended field of the different but distinctly East European standpoints, revitalizing the partnerships with the South and the common East and Southern European perspectives, and manifesting a clear opposition to the new division of the world into conflicting camps, a clear opposition to any sacrificial and absolutist politics (from all directions), while relying on the solidarity with the people, not with administrations: an ethical and realist reorientation centered on people, places and relationships. The dominant direction of the recent decades has been the alignment with the demands of the great Western powers and institutions, which has been adopted by both the right and by the nominal left, and has produced all the well-known sacrifices and results. Inevitably, a change of direction would not entail as much the isolation and the turn inwards, but the movement of non-alignment.
After a transition with so many sacrifices, mistakes, thefts, estrangement, crises, plagues and war – the main political priority should be to restore the morale and the condition of the people. As always, the struggle is between the forces that want to open the possibilities of the historical horizon and the forces that want to close them.
Ovidiu Țichindeleanu is a philosopher and cultural theorist, co-founder of the Romanian left-wing website CriticAtac, the Indymedia Romania platform and LeftEast. He was a member of the board of directors of the international NGO El Taller International. Țichindeleanu is one of the driving forces behind the Idea Publishing House in Cluj-Napoca and the Telciu Summer School. Țichindeleanu’s latest book is “Counterculture. Rudiments of Critical Philosophy”. He is the Romanian translator of books by Silvia Federici, Sylvia Marcos, Walter Mignolo, Arturo Escobar, Lewis Gordon, Immanuel Wallerstein, Ivan Illich, Gilles Deleuze, and Peter Sloterdijk.
Photo: Ovidiu Țichindeleanu (source: Vladimir Mitev)
This article was originally published at CriticAtac at 3 October 2022.