The name of Wagner is usually associated with tragedy, but Yevgeny Prigozhin’s purported attempted coup in Russia gave it a flavour of comic operetta. The late Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, is gone now, or so it’s believed. Two months after trying to mount an armed challenge to the Putin government, he is dead, his private plane exploded, most likely by a missile. The only reason to give any credence to beliefs that he is still alive is stark disbelief that anyone would be so stupid as to travel in a private plane in the region after challenging Vladimir Putin’s government. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is visiting Putin this week, travelling there in an armoured train.
Armoured trains, marches on Moscow… they all have a flavour of a past we have regressed to. At the centre of this is what one might call the ‘great regression’: Russia’s war against Ukraine. Three years after COVID gave the world a first reminder as to just how many, and how blithe, assumptions our current global arrangements were based on, the eruption of an old-fashioned land war in the middle of what geopoliticians used to call, after Halford Mackinder, the ‘heartland of the world island’ appears almost unseemly in a high-tech era.
From the Ukraine war much now flows. Disruption of Ukraine’s grain exports has exposed how dependent the world food system has become on this single large patch of highly productive black soil for a significant amount of its grain, and hence its carbohydrate supplies. The price of oil has gone up, which has not only buttressed the Russian economy but slowed the transition to renewables, and made oil a valuable proposition again. The strain on the global system has added to, and prolonged, the inflation sparked at the end of the decade of ‘quantitative easing’ designed to prevent the world economy from sliding back into full stagnation.
But it goes further than those most visible effects. Russia’s willingness to spend money on influencing Western politics has assisted the Trump movement in colonising the Republican party, and helped build the European hard Right, much of it nationalist and anti-EU. Finally, a new biography of Elon Musk has revealed that he personally interfered in Ukraine’s use of the Starlink network to deny the country the chance to use it in an attack on Russian naval vessels.
This last move has a dystopian, futuristic air about it— a touch of Bladerunner, with global corporations running the planet. But in fact it suggests the reverse. Musk didn’t trumpet his private interference in global state relations at the time, and for good reason. The US government has always been willing to assist US corporations in their expansion of markets, but all the United Fruit Company produced was bananas. The US government would not indefinitely tolerate a private citizen running their own global, military-capable communications hardware network—and the exposure of Musk’s move in 2022 reveals that the question of hard, rather than soft, control in the West will come sooner rather than later.
These shiftings of global power are steadily ushering us into a period with somewhat different political settings. The multipolarity oft spoken of in the post-Cold War decades is coming to pass. The US remains the dominant world economy, and the super-dominant military nation, but its domestic social contract has been badly worn away by underinvestment, debt for consumer spending and the undermining of its domestic productive capacity. Its renewed focus on encircling and limiting China’s power is substantially about limiting China’s economic growth and reach. Despite a chorus of Western op-eds talking of China’s collapse, its GDP growth currently stands at 4.5 per cent, which is low only by its standards of 10 per cent a few years ago. The West dreams of 4.5 per cent growth.
But if anyone imagined that multipolarisation would be unambiguously progressive in form, they were naive, and are now disappointed. Of the BRICS nations, Russia, China and India pursue an old-fashioned national realpolitik, with only Brazil having a touch of the old Bandung third-worldism in its push for global deals on reforestation, development banking at friendly rates and the like. And that may change as Lula is succeeded, in his second time around, not by a clown strongman such as Bolsonaro but by an efficient reactionary on the model of Narendra Modi.
It has been noted by several commentators that the new G7 vs BRICS conflict is asymmetrical, since BRICS—especially now that it has expanded to include six new nations, three of which are OPEC members—have internal competing interests, while the G7 is essentially the old Western imperial powers and Japan working to extend their dominance, of capital markets, international organisations and markets, for as many decades as possible. But such unity may come under strain as the US seeks to reboot its domestic economy, with a new industrial policy headed by the infrastructure-investment program, the Inflation Reduction Act. This return to national economic priorities is already having effects on European export markets. Any attempt by either the US, the UK or western continental Europe to rebuild its domestic capacity will inevitably result in contradictions between its G7 allies that are ranged against the demands of the Global South.
But this is also occurring after three decades in which the world has undergone a revolution in the integration of production, trade, the deliberate running down of national ‘plant’, and an unprecedented degree of instant person-to-person connection across the globe. The sheer process of technical advance outstripped any possibility that policy could be decided one way or the other in the West. This hollowed out Western nations as communities, with some degree of a social contract between the classes obtaining. The US had always solved its domestic issues by projecting power outwards; western Europe and Australia have had to manage some form of social contract based on protection, local ‘plant’ and solid wage power. Post Cold-War globalisation, and the technological changes that supercharged it, swept that away, and in doing so created a cultural digital divide that has replaced economic class politics. This has sent large sections of the working class to the political Right, as the new group of knowledge creators wields its ever-increased social power, both critically-positively in the advancement of real questions of climate change, race and other matters, and ideologically and power-directed in the enforcement of a borderless cosmopolitanism as, purportedly, the only possible cultural and moral framework.
We are now at the point where this class-culture divide, produced by these global and epochal technical movements, is starting to have domestic political effects that are determining global events. However, what millions are rebelling against has less to do with cultural and communications globalisation—everyone wants the net, and Netflix—than with the policy that was enforced by states, using the cultural settings of this globalisation as a moral enforcer: that of high, continued immigration and its double effect, of the wearing-away of industrial power around labour shortages, and the sense of cultural alienation and ‘unhoming’ of social classes whose mode of life generates a value-system preferring the settled, known and (in a neutral sense) parochial life, than the allegedly exciting world of ceaseless change.
Because of this, western Europe is going rightwards, with the renewed success of National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the success of Giorgia Meloni and the Fratelli in Italy, and similar movements elsewhere. The United Kingdom’s electoral system has held off similar developments, but only because the Conservative Party has incorporated much of it into its program, and because the key event of Brexit has already occurred. In the United States, the strength of this culture-class rebellion is so strong that Donald Trump, this wheezing, dying, indicted, discredited former President, is in contention to return to the White House. In Australia, the ‘Voice’ referendum has become a focus for the expression of this discontent, in a country where a relative prosperity has been maintained and the political temperature kept low.
This renewal of the Right also historically resituates the meaning of the left-socialist surge that occurred in the 2010s. The latest rise of the Right has hollowed out what remained of left forces unified across the class-culture divide. The success of AfD in Germany has come as Die Linke, the left party, has all but collapsed, a victim of the contradictions between its two wings—knowledge ‘formation’ radical leftists, and older East Germans (many now dead) who wanted features of the old DDR’s state-socialist social contract renewed. National Rally is gaining sections of the working class that supported Melenchon’s France Insoumise movement as the latter becomes more and more eccentric and captured by cosmopolitan policy obsessions. This repeats the National Front’s surge three decades ago, when it gained a voting bloc from the collapse of the Communist Party.
In the United Kingdom, the working-class voters who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour —in an election in which it affirmed its support for Brexit as the will of the people—formed the ‘red wall’ of Tory voters in the following election, when Labour tried to appease its progressivist southern voters with a muddled ‘new referendum’ policy. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is now going right culturally and politically to keep them, and he may do so and fight Labour to a draw, no matter how morally discredited the Tory Party is. In the United States, the success of Bernie Sanders’s second presidential outing was dimmed by his softening of his anti-NAFTA stance on borders and against high immigration levels. Gaining progressive support, he lost much of the working-class support he had. The Democratic Socialists of America, who had become the command party of this political revolt after the Occupy movement, have now suffered a precipitous decline in numbers, having never really gained an industrial/service/retail working-class phalanx of any size.
How far will this renewed cultural-right push go? Can right-wing parties reconform themselves from laissez-faire economics and the representation of corporate interests to positions which affirm national development economics and a new social contract between workers and capital, excluding the cultural obsessions of the progressive groups—and, more damagingly, turning their backs on climate change action and other universal causes that progressives take the lead on?
There are numerous reasons why there might be limits to the rise of this political wave. The working and middle classes who would most identify with this push are atomised, disempowered and scattered in a society which has lost many of its class-specific mediating institutions, from actual workplaces to unions and the ‘brotherhoods’ and fellowships which once dominated social life. This is the reason for much of the inchoate anger that characterises such politics: the lack of forms into which it might be expressed.
The Left hopes that this process will be a familiar one: after right-wing populism is discredited, such classes will rush leftwards again. They are likely to be disappointed. In past movements of this right-left two-step, the Left’s program was still resolutely centred on working-class political and economic demands, with the cultural progressivism of the leadership minimised or even disguised. Now this is very much less likely, because the knowledge social ‘formation’—not a class, but with numerous class features—is of sufficient size and power to insist that its universalist, cosmopolitan cultural values not be minimised; indeed, that they become something to which everyone must subscribe. These contradictory cultural frameworks are now so important to the life of these two contending groups that neither has the capacity to surrender them, or let them take second place to political-economic demands.
That said, there is no program on offer that coherently represents those who feel excluded by the settings of the world as it is, and its centring on progressive and abstract practices, since much of such prosperity as exists, for specific sections of these classes, is dependent on the flow of cheap global product, including global labour for the unappealing service jobs we now find essential. A genuine transition to the sort of nation that many supporters of these parties say they want would involve a far more radical rethinking of what a nation is, how it might organise itself, and how it relates to forms of community that are not co-extensive with a state. That would involve a greater visibility of the fact that many of the conditions of contemporary life—globalised material and informational flows, consumerist prosperity of a certain type, labour allocation to ‘everyday luxury’ services (such as hospitality)—are contingent occurrences now assumed to exist by right, and occluding the possibility of thinking about any other way of life or the values and priorities it might live by. And what role the politics of the nation might play in that.
It is a measure of how fragile these assumed arrangements are that one comparatively low-level war far away can shake the world to such a degree. But it is also a measure of how smoothly these arrangements reproduce themselves and their contradictory self-legitimisation, that the shockwaves running through the global system are insufficient to bump those resistant elements out of political fantasies with a heavy element of nostalgia for a pre-globalised world (in globalisaton’s current form). What would? A more serious pandemic than COVID? A bigger war than the Russia-Ukraine one? Both, and more at the same time? Well, this is not one opera, but a cycle. And the ride of the Valkyries is yet to begin.