Fog of war

Of the many things I find unsettling about modern life, one of the more perplexing is the fact that, despite having a multitude of news sources literally at my fingertips, I often find myself unsure that I have anything other than a superficial appreciation of what is actually going on in the world, let alone why it is happening, or what I should think about it. I don’t know if things really have become more complicated in the last 20 years or so, or if it merely seems that way because of the cacophony of instant opinion that assails us at all hours these days; it certainly doesn’t help that my critical faculties are not what they once were. Whatever the cause, I have largely resigned myself to being in a more or less constant state of disconcertion, which, I tell myself, is really a manifestation of Socratic Wisdom.

This is all very well when it relates to matters that are fairly insignificant, like ephemeral cultural trends, but occasionally something comes along that is obviously more consequential, and that I feel sure my younger self would have had a strong and settled opinion about. In such cases it seems dishonourable to avoid clearly speaking one’s mind, though I can’t shake the feeling that the more critical the issue, the more important it is to acknowledge the extent of one’s ignorance.

So, what are we to make of the war in Ukraine, as the conflict enters its fourth week? Some things at least are clear; the war is an unmitigated and completely avoidable tragedy, the responsibility for which lies entirely with the Russian government, and the only reasonable demand that can be made is for a return to the status quo ante bellum. It gets murkier however, when one tries to understand how such a disaster came about, or what might happen next.

First, the causes. The Russian narrative – that the war is a defensive operation, provoked by fascist aggression against the inhabitants of the Donbas – is so obviously preposterous that it can only be construed as a signal that Moscow sees Ukraine as so far inside its sphere of influence that there is no need to offer even a semi-plausible explanation for the action. However the tone of the dominant western narrative, which implies that Vladimir Putin has simply lost his mind and launched the invasion on a whim, seems equally unsatisfactory. I think that Putin has a clear motivation – to re-establish Russia’s status as an undisputed Great Power – and a rational strategy to achieve this, by demonstrating that his forces can operate freely within the former Soviet borders, while withstanding the economic response of the West. Whether this strategy will succeed is another question of course, but it can’t be dismissed as madness.

As to what will happen next, well that’s where the uncertainty really kicks in. Without knowing exactly what Putin’s immediate goals are, it’s hard to see where he might be willing to compromise. Western media analysis has been rather dismissive of Russian performance on the battlefield, but it seems likely that, unless there is increased NATO involvement, the Russians will eventually wear the defenders down. I think they will avoid a direct assault on Kyiv, and focus on an effective blockade of the southern ports. The Ukrainian army may be able to slow this down, but does not seem to have the capacity for the sort of offensive that would be needed to expel the invaders. Putin may be calculating that, if the war drags on, the willingness of European governments to bear the direct and indirect costs of the conflict, and the associated sanctions, will begin to fray, and the Ukrainians will be compelled to agree an armistice on Russian terms.

That outcome, which would involve months more of death and destruction, is actually the optimistic scenario, as it assumes that the war does not escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine. The Kyiv government has been talking of the conflict as a clash between European liberal civilisation and totalitarian despotism, which I think is an overstatement, as Putin’s actions are in line with a long tradition of Great Power politics, albeit elevated to an extreme degree of ruthlessness. Kyiv’s position is understandable in the circumstances, but, equally understandably, European leaders have merely paid lip-service to the idea, while ruling out a direct confrontation with Russia. The temptation to whip up anti-Russian sentiment as a distraction from domestic problems may prove irresistible to some though, especially in this country, and since there is always the chance of misunderstanding when such rhetoric is flying around, the situation could become very dangerous, very quickly.

So that’s my brief analysis, for what it’s worth. I feel a little calmer for having thought about it, and better able to focus on doing what I can, which is to contribute to the relief effort. There is nothing good about war, but if the events in Ukraine remind us even a little of our common humanity, then perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing.

Ukrainian tensions

Two issues have been dominating the news in this neck of the woods recently; the first, of little interest beyond these shores, is the continued unravelling of the Johnson government, the second, rather more globally important, is the prospect of a general continental war breaking out as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.

It had been looking like both of these stories were petering out over the last week or so, as Johnson moved to shore up his position with a somewhat reckless scaling down of pandemic-related restrictions, while President Putin’s military posturing appeared to have produced diplomatic results sufficiently impressive to allow him to avoid the risks of a hot conflict.

I think Boris has done enough to see him through the immediate storm, though the looming cost of living crisis may yet sink him as the year goes on, but the Ukrainian situation has taken an unexpectedly alarming turn, as western governments, led by the US, have ramped up talk of an imminent invasion, making it harder for Putin to back off without at least some sort of offensive action.

I’m hoping that this latest development is a finely-calibrated move by the Biden administration to limit Russian diplomatic gains, rather than an attempt to goad Putin into a military adventure in the expectation that it will be as disastrous for Russia as the invasion of Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union back in the 80s. That conflict, kindled by the CIA, may have achieved its Cold War aim in hastening the fall of the USSR, but it was an unmitigated catastrophe for the Afghan people, who, along with the rest of the world, are still living with its consequences 40 years on. A repeat, this time in the heart of Europe, doesn’t bear thinking about.

It is hard to believe that even the most belligerent elements on either side would be willing to roll the dice on such a scale, but, then again, history is littered with examples of comparable misjudgements, and events rarely follow the plan once the shooting starts. I guess we’ll just have to hold our breath, and hope that we’re soon back to a time where a clown in Downing Street is the biggest thing we have to worry about.

Autumnal musings

In our last post I identified my earliest political memory as being of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, but that isn’t entirely accurate, since I also have a somewhat hazy recollection of the months leading up to the poll, subsequently known as the Winter of Discontent.

It’s a period mythologised by the Tories as a dark age of socialism from which the blessed Maggie delivered us, so it’s difficult to know which of my memories relate to actual experience, and which are just apocryphal tales that I’ve absorbed from the media; I would swear that during that freezing winter I played with my friends on streets cast into darkness by city-wide power cuts, but I can’t find any documentary evidence to back that up. Economic uncertainty and labour unrest were certainly at levels rarely seen since though, and, however Prime Minister Jim Callaghan may have been misquoted, it all added up to a crisis. As is often true of times of political realignment, the exact details are perhaps less important than the sense throughout society that the present arrangements are unsustainable, and that something has to change.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all this because there seems to be a general feeling around at the moment that the winter ahead is going to be a difficult one, what with the economy still hobbled by the twin shocks of Brexit and the pandemic, the health service in no shape to cope with any new wave of coronavirus, and surging food and fuel prices threatening a return to 70s-style inflation. On top of that we also have to worry about climate change, with no sign that the COP26 talks starting this week will produce any sort of plan to mitigate the looming environmental apocalypse.

Back in 1978 there was at least a powerful labour movement to give some protection to workers, and the political class of that time, though unequal to the challenge they faced, were far more serious and competent than the current administration. A decade of austerity has left millions balanced precariously on the edge of poverty, and the latest developments could push them over, with unpredictable consequences for the social fabric of the nation; “discontent” may turn out to be somewhat of an understatement.

History, man

I’ve been around long enough to have lived through a good number of events that seem likely to be viewed by posterity as historically significant. The earliest of these that I was really conscious of was Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK General Election of 1979; I remember hearing the results coming in and, even with a child’s limited experience, feeling that a lot of what I understood about how the world worked was about to change. So it proved; Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan in the US, and ideological allies elsewhere, went on to unravel the Keynesian settlement of the post-war years, and usher in the neoliberal decades that were to follow.

All this coincided with my early adult life, during which I received my formative political education, so it’s not surprising that I tend to think of the 1980s, bookended by the Thatcher/Reagan revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the key period in recent history, but of course to anyone under about the age of 40 subsequent developments probably loom larger.

Foremost among these might be the events of September 11th 2001, which are once again prominent in the public consciousness, due to the 20th anniversary, but also because of the recent ignominious conclusion of the western imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden has come under intense criticism for his handling of the US departure, mainly from those, like Tony Blair, who were responsible for expanding the “War on Terror” from a defensive strike against the likes of Al-Qaeda into a mission to forcibly reshape the world into the image of bourgeois liberal democracy, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, but his decision to honour the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor was a pragmatic recognition that the task was impossible.

So once again it feels like the tectonic plates of global politics are moving into a new orientation, and we are left to try to make sense of what is happening, and anticipate what may develop. When I was taking my first political steps back in the days of Thatcher, I was taught to take a long view, and look for the antecedents that could explain the trajectory of events. I think this is the right approach, though my experience on the left over the years has been that we tend to use our analytical tools less to fashion victories, and more to understand defeats. I worry sometimes that the current generation of activists lacks this historical perspective; we seem to live in an era where the only thing that can capture people’s attention is what is happening directly to them, right now. But that’s probably just the old man in me grousing that the youngsters don’t pay us veterans enough respect, and envying their opportunity to succeed where we failed. I’ll be history myself soon enough, and while I may be a little irked that I’m unlikely to see the promised land, I’m sure we’ll get there before too long.

Viral déjà vu

I guess that one of the advantages of an infrequent posting schedule is that it gives one the opportunity to consider events a little more carefully before venturing an opinion, reducing the risk of later looking back on a hot take that proved laughably inaccurate. The downside is that one is always tempted to wait for the conclusive data point that will confirm or refute an analysis, until one finds that the moment has passed, and no one is interested anymore. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between being an activist, engaged in events as they develop, and a historian, drawing lessons from matters that are settled.

Back in May, in the wake of the local elections, I was thinking that Boris Johnson might have hit upon just the right blend of social conservatism and and economic liberalism to convince a large enough section of the electorate to overlook the venality and incompetence of his administration to keep him in power. Of course this arrangement would be inherently unstable; a Conservative administration would be unable and/or unwilling to deliver the material benefits promised to working-class voters in the north, necessitating ever more reactionary rhetoric aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and whoever else Johnson chose to blame for his government’s failures. Still, I thought he might be able to keep the show on the road for a year or two at least, given Labour’s inability to provide any coherent opposition.

However recent by-election results suggest that Johnson’s scheme may be unraveling at a slightly faster rate. The supposedly safe seat of Chesham was lost to the Liberals, as affluent Tory voters balked at the prospect of subsiding spending in poorer constituencies, while Labour were able to hang on to Batley, amid signs that the electorate was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Johnson administration’s relentless grifting.

That said, Johnson is still in a strong position, though these events seem to have shaken him, and prompted a characteristically populist response; his determination to go ahead with the relaxation of practically all pandemic-related restrictions, despite warnings that, as was the case last year, this is somewhat premature.

So perhaps it’s not necessary to wait to see how history plays out in the fullness of time; rather, one can confidently predict that what unfolds will be a depressingly familiar rehash of old mistakes.

Still looking at the stars

We already commemorated Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight on the half centennial back in 2011, so we’ll just mark the 60th anniversary by linking to that post, and noting sadly that, despite our hopes a decade ago, capitalism is still going strong, and inequality is worse than ever. Perhaps we’ll have better news to report in 2031…

A bit longer to reign over us

Sombre music has been playing on the radio today, as the nation, or at least that part of it that takes an interest in such things, mourns the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, given that he was 99, and had been in poor health recently, the BBC and the serious newspapers had detailed obituaries ready to roll out. Philip certainly had an eventful early life; fleeing with his family when the Greeks decided they had no further need of monarchs, wandering penniless around Europe in the 30s, smartly choosing the right side to fight on in the war, then striking lucky by marrying into the only royal family on the continent that still had some staying power. Much has been made of his sacrifice in accepting a supporting role to his spouse when she ascended to the throne, and it is true that his life after 1952 was weighed down by the call of desperately dull duty, though I imagine that the limitless wealth and privilege provided some compensation.

The Duke’s passing is of course merely a dress-rehearsal for the main event; the day when Elizabeth II herself exits this mortal realm. No doubt in the weeks to come we will hear a lot about how the institution of monarchy provides the country with a reassuring stability, and I expect that when a succession eventually occurs there will be little in the way of serious protest. Despite the regal facade the country is already a de facto bourgeois republic, so the ruling class have no motivation to upset the current order, while the proletariat have more pressing struggles to address. In any case the Queen’s longevity means that no one under the age of 90 has had to think much about the issue, and the easy option will be to just let the show roll on. I’m sure we’ll get around to abolishing the monarchy eventually, but it may be some time before all the Windsors are obliged to actually earn a living.

Incomplete deliverance

Back in 2016 I identified the story of Donald Trump’s run for President as a narrative of national redemption; the US, having peered into the abyss of fascism, would reject such Old World extremism, and confidently carry on down the road of enlightenment and democracy.

It’s taken four years longer than I expected, but, with today’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, our transatlantic cousins do seem to be bringing the tale to a happy ending. Even the most optimistic liberal would have to recognise that it’s not that simple though. One can hardly say that the country unequivocally rejected Trump, when he won nearly 75 million votes, more than he received in 2016. He would almost certainly have been re-elected were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, and, even if the man himself is forced to retire from politics by his various legal entanglements, there are plenty of would-be successors ready to take up his mantle.

I would argue that Trump was not the antithesis of the American experiment, but rather its inevitable conclusion. The divisions that he exploited were there from the start, and while Joe Biden may be able to calm things for a while with an injection of administrative competence, in the long run more radical solutions will surely be required. Perhaps future generations will look back on the Trump era, not exactly with gratitude, but at least as the time when the need for change became inarguably obvious.

Premature insurrection

Events in Washington this week have, understandably enough, provoked a fair bit of pearl-clutching among both liberals and conservatives, the latter especially declaring themselves shocked – shocked! – that an unstable narcissist, whose every whim they had hitherto indulged, should stoop so low as to defile the sacred grove of democracy that is the US Capitol.

One does not wish to make light of an incident that cost five people their lives, but I think history will see this episode not as a thwarted rebellion, but rather a case of the deluded experiencing a hard collision with reality. Trump and his followers may yearn for a fascist coup, but there is no sign that the bulk of the US ruling class is ready to contemplate that level of disruption. Why would they? There is no significant anti-capitalist threat from the left – such movements that exist, particularly BLM, are asking the right questions, but the situation is nothing like Germany in the 30s, when there was a mass Communist Party, and the recent example of a successful proletarian revolution in Russia. US capital has time to give Joe Biden a chance to calm things down, and has no need to turn to Hitler figure just yet.

That’s not to say there won’t be more mayhem from the extreme right in the months to come, but the important thing to remember is that violence is not synonymous with a threat to state power, and, conversely, non-violence can be the strongest agent for change. This explains why the peaceful marches for racial equality over the summer were met with massed ranks of National Guardsmen, while Trump’s goons were allowed more or less free rein to run riot in the halls of Congress, at least until the spectacle became too embarrassing. The State knows which group presents a real danger to its existence, and which can be allowed to blow off a bit of steam.

My worry is not that the fascists will seize control of the government, but that their foot-soldiers will be co-opted by the government as a tool against the left. Countering this will require organisation and education, to win the disaffected away from the right, and into the struggle for progressive change.

Premature relaxation

The events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day last weekend may have been scaled back a bit, but they still provided an opportunity for the country to remember past glories, and reflect on the quietly heroic nature of the national character, which, we like to think, ensures we can overcome any challenge.

Our current leaders seem to have less confidence in the resolve of the population however; while our forebears endured six years of war and hardship in the fight to destroy the Nazi menace, Boris Johnson evidently doubts that we can put up with much more than six weeks of lockdown, and is proceeding to loosen the restrictions with reckless haste. Underlying his rush to return to pre-crisis “normality” is of course a concern that the financial consequences of the current regulations will undermine his government’s reputation for economic competence.

I don’t want to understate the calamitous effects that the economic freeze has had on the more marginal sections of the community, deprived of work and largely excluded from the government’s patchy relief efforts, but it is these same people who stand to suffer most if the epidemic, which is just about contained at the moment, is allowed to run free, as they are forced back to their low-paid jobs with no regard to the risks that might entail.

The UK has, to some extent, rediscovered its collective identity over the last few weeks. A competent administration would build on that, by increasing support for the most vulnerable, while exhorting the rest of us to stick together in the face of a common enemy. Alas, as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years it has become clearer that our political class, epitomised by the Prime Minister, lacks the capacity to deal with any situation that requires actual leadership.

So it looks like our best hope of avoiding a second wave of infection might indeed lie in the fabled national solidarity, as ordinary people follow the advice that will keep their fellow citizens safe, instead of listening to those politicians who care more about the lost profits of big business.

Perhaps, when all this is over, and we are able to assess the legacy of this troubled time, we will see that, like the war, it gave us a chance to rethink what sort of country we want to live in.

%d bloggers like this: