Editorial: What Rough Beast?: Geopolitical reorderings and Western sentiment

Despite some reversals in the Ukraine war, it is possible—outside of the frightening prospect of nuclear escalation—that the conflict will continue over the northern hemisphere winter, possibly for much longer. While many continue to cheer it on, the question of how to end the conflict and resolve the multiple crises that are a result of it (energy and food shortages, inflation, immigration) will become more pressing, even to those who view it in Manichean terms. At this point one could ask, what would an end to the war, let alone some sort of ‘victory’, actually look like? And what reconfigurations of power will emerge out of this multifaceted crisis? It’s clear that Europe will be substantially changed, and that the positions of NATO, the EU and dominant countries such as Germany and France will be altered at the same time as far-right alliances are coming to the fore in Italy and Sweden, joining Hungary in spoiling the technocratic dream of much of Euro-democracy. And what implication does all this have for possible future wars? What rough beast will emerge from the chaos?

Before getting to this, it is worth registering the degree to which support for the Ukraine conflict has taken hold in the West, and how this indicates a shift in politics and culture. It is perhaps no surprise that the Western media has been so pliant, but what is notable is the degree to which sections of left-progressive politics have aligned with neoconservative hawks in escalating the war in Ukraine, and how this marks a reversal of the long-held positions of the New Left that arose in the 1960s. The traditional critiques of the US military-industrial complex that were commonplace for decades have in large part dropped away, to be replaced by an at best naïve faith in the United States waging a proxy war against a nuclear state. If much of this support is marked by an idealistic morality that has no truck with realist accounts (whether from the Right—John Mearsheimer—or the Left via Noam Chomsky or Jurgen Habermas), it also reveals how progressive/left politics has fused with state and corporate power rather than opposing it.

Along these lines we have seen the rehabilitation of many of the architects of the ‘War on Terror’, with key figures of the Bush administration, CIA strategists and the like appearing unchallenged in the media despite their involvement in catastrophes in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The growth in domestic policing and surveillance that arose out of 9/11 is now normalised as progressives adopt a different relationship to power. Witness the manner in which progressive commentators (for instance in The Washington Post) have recently downgraded Edward Snowden’s 2013 exposure of the global surveillance system that spied on citizens from an indictment of excessive state power to little more than an ‘intelligence leak’. What used to be standard left and progressive politics—opposition to government surveillance, resisting threats to free speech and expression (seen as a means of challenging power)—has been swapped by many left-progressives for a demand to control information, with many willing to hand over to the state, and corporations such as Google and Facebook, wide-ranging censorious powers. The traditional enemies of progressive politics—state power and corporate dominance—have become allies in this new arrangement.

This alignment of progressive politics with institutional power may have created support for an idealised Ukraine, but there is likely to be a reckoning. If defending Ukraine against Putin’s aggression is often seen as part of a larger anti-fascist project—against Putin’s political fascism, often relying on some extremely tenuous parallels with the Second World War in combating territorial expansion, or the cultural fascism of a Russian state that oppresses minorities—it’s also clear that within this proliferation of ‘fascisms’ some are more visible than others. Of course there is the convenient forgetting of historical and current fascist elements in Ukraine itself—the rebranding of the Azov forces, for example, as well as the extremist politics that inevitably result from a country noted for its vast levels of corruption. But it is likely that the larger instability created by the war will provide the means for far-right and quasi-fascist elements to gain traction elsewhere. If already existing reactionary forces in Europe have been able to seize upon immigration and the loss of economic power—the consequences of globalised markets—the exacerbation of the current conflict provides new material for a different variant of reactionary politics.

Whether by design or otherwise, the war has weakened the EU and elevated the power of the United States via NATO. The dominant members of the EU have been wrong-footed by bad decision-making—ignoring warnings about over-reliance on Russian energy and having delusions of strategic importance in the early stages of the war—while inflation and energy costs have led to the risk of Europe becoming ‘de-industrialised’, with Germany cutting industrial production in the wake of high gas prices and thus losing economic as well as political heft. Whatever the cause of the damage to the Nord Stream pipeline, it’s clear that the United States will exploit the situation, with US-friendly nations like Poland gaining influence though the new Baltic pipeline. Outside of this realignment of influence, Europe, not the United States, will be left to deal with the costs of the war in economic and human terms (reconstruction, immigration) while America offers the possibility of increased ‘protection’ through an expanded NATO, likely to be used in any conflict with China.

On the surface at least, the emerging far-right or neofascist alliances in Sweden and Italy combine a robust nationalism with support for global capitalism and NATO. The reactionary politics of these new leaders is overwhelmingly cultural, based on limits to immigration, conservative family values, and appeals to tradition, religion and the like. Most of the time these new right-wing leaders seem content to remain within the dominant structures of global finance and politics. Prime Minister Meloni might praise Mussolini, but she quickly indicated her ongoing support for NATO and for Ukraine against Russia. Similarly, in Sweden, NATO membership remains a priority for the new government.

Given this, there are dangers in simply denouncing these newly elected politicians and parties as far-right and neofascist, or even as simply insufficiently democratic, without understanding what they are. The new leaders and right-wing parties in Italy and Sweden are economically conservative, willing to accommodate markets and multinational capital. Meloni will in one breath denounce global corporatism and in the next propose lower taxes on corporate profits. This is a cynical politics that marks one of many differences from historical fascism (another is the use of state violence, which is absent in these cases). Meloni seems more Trump-like than an active devotee of Mussolini, able to exploit the crises of inflation, energy supply, unemployment and immigration when the situation demands it, manipulating chaos via a moving circus of populist triggers while remaining committed to the very mechanisms that caused the originating crisis. By way of response, much progressive, ‘anti-fascist’ politics seems focused on denouncing these new far-right governments while underplaying the role of NATO and globalised capital. Yes, the anti-immigration, homophobic and reactionary culture of the new Right needs to be challenged, but this is unlikely to get very far without similarly contesting the larger relationships that are cultivated behind far-right governments’ anti-woke peacocking.

The Ukraine conflict has been framed in terms of the culture wars in the West as much as geopolitics, or more accurately, the two have fused. So the desire for ‘safety’, avoidance of ‘trauma’ and the like which now govern progressives’ framing of communicative and cultural exchanges also work to frame the Ukraine conflict. The United States and allies are defending an idealised Ukraine—a community of openness, tolerance, human rights, youthful democracy and so on—in a projection of progressive fantasies onto a territorial conflict. Even the language of the war has transformed into that of ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. None of this is to detract from the fact that Ukraine is being slowly destroyed by Russian forces, but rather to recognise that Western fantasies and idealisations are working to legitimise and perpetuate the war, and that the language of progressive politics underscores a desire to remake Ukraine into a liberalised ‘safe space’. If, as many believe, the war will continue for some time, these fantasies, which prop up a US proxy war, will contribute to the overwhelming destruction of the region they have mythologised.

Rather than championing NATO as the saviour of Ukraine, and by extension Europe, we need to recognise that Europe’s interests do not necessarily (if at all) lie with the United States. Given the tolerance the United States has shown repressive regimes in many parts of the world, and conversely the willingness of newly minted far-right regimes to merge a nationalist politics with support for NATO, we could end up with an expanded US-supported block of countries in Europe, many of which are in numerous ways possibly fascist—the worst of both worlds.

However, if the energy, economic and food-supply crises intensify, different possibilities may emerge. In this issue, Gerardo Papalia considers the possibility that a more assertive neofascist government in Italy could jettison commitments to the EU and NATO, ‘trigger[ing] the passage from the unipolar to a multipolar world’. Elsewhere Clinton Fernandes examines the consequences of the Ukraine war, the break-up of ‘Greater Germany’ and the exacerbation of supply-chain problems, suggesting the possibility of a different kind of international order arising via the Global South, one that rejects any imperial order coming from either the United States or a future China.

If such a break-up were to occur, the new relationships forged could be led either by right-wing nationalisms or a more co-operative arrangement of nations no longer willing to subject themselves to the coercive moralism of the West. However, America and its allies are unlikely to concede easily, especially when given the chance to extend power and use a weakened Europe as a means to project influence through an expanded NATO. This projection is likely to be ably assisted by the enthusiasm of left and progressive politics for state power.

Here we might return to the earlier question about why progressive politics has reversed many of the political positions of the New Left, instead wielding power via state and corporate institutions. Arguably, this has been made possible to a significant degree by the expansion in numbers of the intellectually trained, or knowledge workers—the knowledge class, if you will—who have come to occupy large sectors of the workforce, the sciences, the media, government and cultural institutions.

With the transition from manual to intellectual labour in Western countries has come a shift in how the world is apprehended and engaged. Here we find a certain similarity between the mode of understanding produced though knowledge work and the ideology of the political neocons, no matter what their other differences. Both assume that the world is something that can be reshaped by intellectual technique—technological power/information/economic flow—transcending any historical or material resistance or limit. Such disruption is typically celebrated by progressives as part of the undoing of prejudice or exploitative relations. Yet while there has been an undoubted emancipatory dimension in the changes made possible via media, information and technology, these have also created profound disruptions in work and life for many people, particularly because such forces operate within market settings. These are the groups that the Right are able to target, where fetishistic appeals to community, church and family prove a rallying point for those left behind by globalisation. Even more, the sense of a technocratic elite managing this process has shifted beyond a suspicion of ‘bureaucrats’ to a palpably felt experience at all levels of life.

The contemporary world of information/cultural/media flows is able to lift people out of traditional settings of work, place and sociality, and is assumed by progressives to now be the world—one where the self and social relations can be made and remade though information and commodity flows. Those not integrated into this new abstract world are regarded either as victims or as being mired in reaction and prejudice—as not sufficiently open to openness. Yet outside the very real question of the extent to which the world of global techno-capitalism (even if progressively inflected) is desirable or sustainable, it seems an error to concede so much ground to the Right, which cynically plays with the signifiers of local culture and tradition while remaining committed to the larger processes that are not merely exploitative economically but dis-embed whole ways of being.

Whatever one might think of the new left-progressive view of an open world shaped through the abstract flows of techno-capital and information, it is clear that many have no qualms about using state and corporate institutions to project this view outwards. Ukraine marks the point where the culture wars have opened out onto the geopolitical landscape, aligning progressives with neocons, humanitarians with warmongers. If such an alliance holds, the consequence is a greater commitment to the current ‘world order’—NATO and market-driven globalisation—creating the possibility for not just more culture wars but actual war on a larger scale. The enlarged membership of NATO and its active support for Ukraine will, at the expense of European economic and political power, set up more favourable conditions for a possible China conflict. Already we are seeing an increase in post-Ukraine warmongering punditry—even (especially) in so-called progressive outlets like The Guardian—with respect to China and Taiwan, with abuses of human rights serving as a mechanism for a re-legitimised United States projecting its power. That a commitment to NATO is enough to overlook inconvenient fascist or reactionary elements in Europe is one thing; the larger consequence of a left-progressive-backed ‘humanitarian’ war on a global scale is quite another.

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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