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Down with Putin’s modern czarism! A response to Yanis Varoufakis

OPINION: Russia was threatened by Ukraine’s emergent democracy. Here’s what that means for the path to peace

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 November 2022, 2.48pm

A rally in London in support of Ukraine, a month after the Russian invasion


Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

It is hardly news to say that we are living in an ultra-capitalist world: one initiated and then overseen by Washington, when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave it victory in the Cold War and a unique primacy after 1992. It has built a global system and crushed the 20th-century left.

Today, however, and largely thanks to US recklessness, it is a system in ‘polycrisis’. Its failures have been spectacular: military, in Iraq and Afghanistan; financial, with the great crash of 2008; economic, in terms of the well-being of the US working and middle classes; environmental, as the planet burns, and ideological, with the ruin of its neoliberal claim that ‘the market knows best’.

Added to this are two failures of the US’s post 1992 global strategy. One is the greatest human achievement of the period – the transformation of China out of poverty, which created an economic and strategic competitor that was not subordinate to Wall Street. The second is the way the US colluded with the oligarchs generated by the failures of Communism, to loot and bankrupt Russia rather than create an ally.

The human costs of US policy for Russia have just been brought to life by Adam Curtis. The political humiliation led to Vladimir Putin, who has become a monstrous expression of oligarch capitalism.

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Donald Trump’s politics can be seen as an effort to pre-empt the threat of a domestic revolt against America’s military and economic failure by tapping into growing disillusionment and discontent, while replacing the complacency of its globalist elite with a nationalist mobilisation, above all against China. It is also part of an international shift to a mafia-style world with strongmen in China, India, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.

This poses a question: why hasn’t the far-right simply swept the board? Given its strategic coherence, deep funding, well-organised populism, evangelical endorsement, the lure of false ideas about racial or religious supremacy, the feebleness of the liberal centre, the marginalisation of socialism, and the fatalism generated by decades of ‘capitalist realism’ telling people voting can’t change things – how come the far-right is not triumphant everywhere?

Instead, its success is on a knife-edge. The recent elections in Brazil are a clear example, with Lula winning the presidency by less than 2% even as Bolsonaro allies are victorious across the regions, including São Paolo. The results of the US midterms are another, and express a process I covered in a short openDemocracy documentary earlier this year.

My explanation for the extraordinary balance of forces is that, below the massive, continuous and incoming tide of marketisation, counter-currents were energised, including feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism and egalitarian notions of human rights. These are generating a new form of humanisation, reinforced in ways I set out briefly in my book Taking Control! by medical science, bodily awareness of health, and digital interconnectedness, which are altering how we think of our bodies and ourselves as a species and the way we relate to our planet. Together they have led to a multifaceted and argumentative resistance to extreme capitalism – but not yet a political alternative.

The forces of resistance, which are often but not always left-wing, have not been brought into existence by socialist movements or Marxist analysis. They lack the organisational heft of the class struggle, but they ensure that younger generations have a totalising, ecological awareness rather than a sectional, self-interested one.

I began to develop this argument during the pandemic lockdown and was invited by Yanis Varoufakis to join him and the late, much-missed Rosemary Bechler on DiEM25 TV to discuss it. Varoufakis was taken aback that someone who helped the launch of DiEM25 did not see ‘socialism’ as the source for democracy, and thought at first that I was “teasing” him.

One thing none of us expected was that any such analysis would soon be put to the test of war. Is it right to say that the enormous wave of solidarity with Ukraine expresses the strength of the new humanisation? Or that Putin’s brutal deployment expresses the determination of Trump-style contempt for humanity as well as legality?

On a knife edge

Ukraine is a harsh confirmation of the ‘knife edge’ nature of the post-Covid world. But it is far from a simple clash between progress and reaction. US, EU and UK support for Ukraine is accompanied by a desire to incorporate its riches and ensure its democratic spirit is tamed.

The paradox is captured by Adam Tooze’s account of the Centre for Economic Policy Research’s recent report on Ukraine. The CEPR supports the successful national patriotic mobilisation of Zelenskyi’s government, yet advocates using the wartime emergency to impose ultra-neoliberal policies to remove state regulation of the economy and even welfare. This is already partially under way in the elimination of labour laws that openDemocracy’s Tom Rowley and Serhiy Guz have been documenting.

Tooze writes: “To conduct this kind of reconstruction under wartime conditions when the scope for public debate, strikes and opposition is limited, short-circuits democracy. Since defending democracy is part of Ukraine’s appeal this is bitterly ironic. It is also a gamble. It risks driving wedges into the national solidarity that is, if history is any guide, necessary to sustain the war.”

The challenge for the governing institutions of the West, often referred to as ‘the centre’, is that to pursue a long war they need to directly govern capitalism and abandon the nostrums of neoliberalism – as economist Joe Stiglitz has argued more than once. The challenge for all of us who want to extend our solidarity and support to Ukraine is that its battle depends on US military support, which rightly generates a tremendous ambivalence.

Related story

OPINION: Anthony Barnett is wrong – Russia’s invasion does not make America into a defender of democracy

Disagreement with Varoufakis

As I wrestled with these issues, a request to sign a change.org petition for peace popped into my inbox. Addressed ‘To All Who Care About Humanity’s and the Planet’s Future’, it was endorsed by Varoufakis, among others. I was keen to read it.

I flipped out. I believed the petition exploited the alarming dangers of the battle for Ukraine, and the added twist of a China-US standoff over Taiwan, to propose a lazy, formulaic demand for peace that lays the blame for both conflicts on the US.

I dashed off a denunciation: ‘A betrayal of Ukraine and the Left: Have socialists like Yanis Varoufakis and Jeremy Corbyn got their history wrong?’ Varoufakis responded immediately – and in a generous fashion. At the end of his piece, he upbraided me for the clickbait nature of my article’s headline, saying we should “take a lead in demonstrating that it is possible to disagree vociferously without speaking of ‘betrayal’”.

On this, I’m happy to apologise to him personally. He points out that, since the moment Putin invaded Ukraine, we have had a duty to unconditionally support the invaded. Varoufakis also insists on the right of Ukraine to join the EU; that no call for peace should deny Ukraine its agency; and that the people of Crimea and Donbas should decide their future status for themselves. However, this spirit of combative solidarity with Ukraine is not found in the petition, which blames the war on a US refusal to accept “a multi-centric, multi-civilisational world”.

Varoufakis suggests that our disagreement is over my perceiving the US as “a fading imperialist superpower”. But I do not make such a claim; Trump replacing Obama was hardly a fade. Whether or not we disagree on the nature of US power, the heart of the problem is posed when Varoufakis writes, “more war, even if it is just, is not the answer”.

If a just war is not “the answer” for Ukrainians, should they accept an unjust peace?

And here’s the rub. Any outcome that recognises Ukraine’s integrity and independence will be a clear defeat for Putin.

At the beginning of October, Putin appointed Sergey Surovikin as overall commander of his so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. On 8 October, Surovikin gave a television interview and reconfirmed the Russian president’s war aims: “We are one people with the Ukrainians. And we want only one thing – that Ukraine should be independent from the West and NATO, and a friendly state for Russia.”

The “only one thing” that Surovikin proposes is a vassal status for Ukraine. Peace demands this aim be abandoned. Ukrainians and Russians are not “one people”. If Ukrainians wish to be part of the West, it is their choice. Russia has the right to insist Ukraine is not part of NATO, but it cannot impose “friendship” by force.

There is a ‘war party’ in the West that wants the conflict to continue and urges Ukraine to conquer Crimea – it must be opposed. But such warmongers are not responsible for the actual conflict as it exists. A suggestion they are was reproduced by Oliver Eagleton, who wrote that Boris Johnson had single-handedly stopped Zelenskyi from agreeing to a peace treaty.

His claim was demolished, patiently and at length, by Volodymyr Artiukh and Taras Fedirko. Anyone interested in a detailed analysis of Putin’s responsibility for the war should read their piece, or simply listen to voices from Poland and Russia such as Boris Kagarlitsky.

How to secure peace in Ukraine

The best way to seek peace is threefold. First, to support Ukrainian resistance in every way possible. Second, to support Ukrainian civil society to help prepare for peace when Ukraine wins, however great the costs or however long it takes. Third, to actively support Russian and Belarussian democrats opposing the dictatorships of Putin and Lukashenko, to try to ensure they are replaced by governments that recognise Ukraine’s right to self-determination and can negotiate with it in good faith.

My view is that we need to see Putin as the most extreme leader of what can be called Trumpism

We need to universalise the principles Ukraine is fighting for. As Slavoj Žižek wrote, Ukraine’s battle is “the front in the global struggle against the new nationalist fundamentalism that is gaining strength everywhere, including in the United States, India, and China”.

Perhaps this helps to identify the underlying difference between me and, if not Varoufakis, the peace petitioners of ‘All Who Care…’. They see Ukraine as a dangerous conflict between two existing systems, civilisations even, that have an equal right to coexist, with the war feeding the worst military ambitions of each. To insist on peace now, from their point of view, is to limit and even frustrate the wickedness on both sides.

My view is that we need to see Putin as the most extreme leader of what can be called Trumpism. His regime is, to quote the Russian writer and analyst Kirill Kobrin (now living in Riga), a “special kind of police capitalism… concocted from neoliberal cynicism, KGB sadism and Western managerial logic”. Putin and his coterie also sought to restore the international influence the Kremlin once exercised in the days of the USSR. They were happy to be an ally in Trump’s world.

But Biden challenged them. Not militarily: they saw the US as weak as it withdrew from Afghanistan, NATO as divided, Germany as a dependent and the UK as irrelevant. The Russian invasion force was so small because no serious military opposition was expected.

Strategically, however, US backing for the young, modern and energetic government in Kyiv, which (however flawed) had been elected by over 70% majorities across Ukraine, endangered their benighted authority. Its example threatened the legitimacy of their authoritarian regime and their grip on Belarus and meant that Ukraine would become part of the EU, ending any hope of Kremlin hegemony over it.

The conflict is not between two ‘civilisations’ that have the right to exist free from the domination of the other. It is between the imperfect supporters of a world of liberty and humanity, and the global threat of arbitrary populist authoritarianism, of which Putin is an extreme representative. He has become a mad czar and must be opposed with resolve. Anything less is a way of saying that we too should accept a world of violence and subjugation that will lead to our own serfdom.

Anthony Barnett’s Taking Control!: Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic (2022) address the larger issues he writes about here.

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