Before we get started on the final chapter of this series, I want to take a minute to thank Carlo for sharing his thinking – and writing – about The Resumption of History with us. These posts have led to some great and interesting conversations in the comments. So, Carlo, thank you again!
If another post appears shortly after this one goes up, don’t be alarmed if this post disappears for awhile; it will be back up later.
The Resumption of History: Part 5 — Awakenings
by Carlo Graziani
Part 4, The Sources of American Soft Power ended like this:
I’ve had some conversations with twenty-somethings lately that have left me very concerned, because of the latent bothsidist/whataboutist attitudes underlying such phrases as “to my generation” that precede some observations of near-complete detachment and cynicism. Well, honestly. Who can blame them? We transmitted to them an image of our values based on the neo-liberalism that we learned from Reagan and Thatcher. I’d be cynical too.
On the other hand, perhaps we may now live in a time when it is possible to refocus on what matters.
Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.
In London, there was such a man.
William Manchester, from the Preamble of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. Visions of Glory 1874–1932
That was a very long digression from the narrative, I’m afraid, but I really feel that we need clarity of purpose now, of all times. Because events have called us to that purpose.
When Putin launched his war on Ukraine on 24 February, I was surprised, but I knew other people who were not. There was a wide spectrum of expectations with respect to the outcomes of the war. Some people expected a rapid Russian victory, others did not. There were expectations of disarray in NATO, of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, of rapid Ukrainian territorial concessions. Above all, the most logical, depressing expectation was that of another tawdry, made-for-the-24-hour-news-cycle war, narrated as blood sport in an arena the size of Texas, that would eventually move another post-Soviet border, by a bit.
I don’t know anyone whose expectation was an electrifying moment such as “I need ammunition, not a ride!”
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the ex-comic ascended to the Presidency of Ukraine, not particularly popular in his country on the eve of the invasion, would not have been anyone’s favorite choice for “war leader”. He certainly stepped into the role with aplomb, though. It would have been a perfectly easy, even rationally justifiable choice—although probably fatal to the Ukrainian cause—to move his government to the relative safety of Lviv, or even accept a bugout. Instead he chose defiance, and Ukrainians, irrespective of their pre-war views about him, instantly rallied to him with a unanimity that gave the nation hope, resilience—and the strength to counter-punch far, far above its weight class. By this simple act of moral courage, Zelenskyy reminded the West, in one terrible clarifying moment, what freedom really means, what it’s worth, and what it costs.
In that cathartic moment, it was as if the scales fell from the eyes of people all over the world. As if we all woke up simultaneously from the same narcotized dream. Suddenly, NATO is a military alliance with a purpose again. Germany will actually make real, painful economic sacrifices to wean itself from Russian energy sources, and actually rebuild its military, both political impossibilities before Zelenskyy’s Teachable Moment. Finland and Sweden are done with neutrality. So are Swiss bankers. In the US, suddenly, everybody remembers that Ukraine is in fact fighting the same Russia that attempted to subvert our own democracy, and Russia’s agents of influence in the media are finally losing their outsized traction. Even right-wing radio callers want to know how to send money to help Ukraine.
The What, And The Why
We aren’t out of the woods, and we can’t be sure we will catch all the breaks—for example one can still be justifiably worried about the final outcome of the French Presidential election this Sunday, and the possibility of a rump Le Pen-Orban axis inside Europe—but I believe that the clarity of this moment is an irreversible achievement. In this moment, it is finally possible to speak sensibly about who we are, and about why it is necessary that the Putins, the Orbans, the Modis, and so on should be pushed back: We want to live securely in a democratic world of laws.
This is a Power issue, not a Justice issue. “Free enterprise” is nice to have, but is a secondary, negotiable Justice issue, subject to endless modification, as the many nations that govern themselves by means of various perfectly viable forms of social democracy demonstrate. That’s not what we’re talking about. This issue has nothing whatever to do with capitalism. The primary—Power—issue here is that our democratic institutions are to be protected from threats of corruption. Some of those threats are clearly external. Russia is a serial bad actor that has demonstrated time and again its willingness to undermine democratic institutions, in many countries, including our own, because it views them as exploitable weaknesses, and because it frames its own interests in zero-summation with those of the West. Here is the general rule that I believe we should use to think of Ukraine: when a nation chooses to organize itself democratically, another nation acting to subvert that democracy makes war on all of us. How we respond must vary from case to case, but we can never fail to respond. This we cannot compromise on, ever again. That is who we are.
And now, with that recovered memory of our real identity, we can finally understand what happened to us. During the Cold War, the ideological contest between the West and the Soviet Union was also, in a sense, a war for the priority between Power and Justice, between Madison, Jay, and Hamilton on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other. And despite the fact that the West “won” the Cold War, Marx cleaned those guys’ clocks—no contest, a straight-up ass-kicking. We agreed with the Soviets that the contest was about the superiority or inferiority of capitalism over communism—rather than about the superiority of constitutionalist-style law-limited Power and transparent democratic institutions over the alternatives. We rejoiced when we thought that we had beat them because of our “free” enterprise, and then we set about getting rich.
Think of the irony: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher allowed Marx to set the terms of the debate when they forged the neo-liberal consensus—what mattered was Justice, rather than Power. Which was the wrong result: remember, the problems of Power are prior to those of Justice, and must be addressed first if Justice is to be addressed durably at all. But by picking the grounds on which the war of ideas was to be fought, Marx could just walk away and win anyway. Wherever he is, he must have gotten a chuckle out of that one. With that one slick move, he faked us out of our own most valuable political inheritance.
Well, no more. It’s past time that we focused on living up to the core ideals that make us the West. And on teaching those ideals to our kids. And on transmitting them to the rest of the world, free of the commercial hypocrisy of neo-liberalism. The world needs those ideals, a lot more than it ever needed capitalism.
So, anyway, Volodymyr? Thanks.
All 5 parts, once published, can be found here: The Resumption of History