January 23, 2023
It is becoming increasingly clear that the capitalist catastrophe is looming. The left should fight for an emancipatory outcome.
Even before all the ideology, megalomania, and opportunism emerged, many left-wing contributions to the debate on Ukraine suffered from a fundamental logical misconception. Much has been written that assumes an easy way out of this catastrophe. Depending on the political or ideological standpoint, a heroic political party or geopolitical constellation is imagined that, by virtue of itself alone, will defuse the conflict and possibly even promote progress. In ever new variations, either the support of Ukraine and NATO is demanded in order to uphold the victory of bourgeois democracy in its struggle against Eurasian despotism, or it is the defeat of Western imperialism that is invoked instead, to be replaced by a multipolar world order. The left – according to a megalomania common throughout – must seize this mantle of history, must rally behind the forces of the pure, good and true, or else lose a titanic and historical struggle that will shape future decades. And in the background still lingering is the Hegelian Weltgeist with its “cunning of reason,” which needs only its correct interpretation.
But what if there is no progressive or even “neutral” way out of this catastrophe that can restore the pre-war status quo? What if the common assumptions sketched out above are wrong? The following contribution to the debate, drawing on the theoretical basis of the critique of value, describes the war over Ukraine as a qualitative tipping and turning point in an irreversible crisis process of the capitalist world system. It does this to then take a position in the debate within the left. The Ukraine conflict will inevitably shape the coming decades. The war will encourage brutalization and barbarization – it doesn’t matter whether Russia or the West emerges victorious from this imperialist slaughter. We will be lucky – and this is an appropriate generalization – for the war to end without a nuclear exchange of blows, without a breakdown of civilization. Although the reified public discourse on crises loves to neatly separate the individual moments of the crisis process from one another, the reality of the crisis dynamics does not adhere to these conventions, and further economic, geopolitical or ecological distortions could each interact with the war in Ukraine, driving it to a global escalation.
Without the development of an adequate concept of crisis, war simply cannot be understood. That is why the pathetic search for the “rational interests” of the imperialists, in which Germany’s “anti-imperialists” of all shades from red to brown so perfectly disgraced themselves, is always doomed to failure from the start. And that is why it was possible for the critique of value to predict the Russian invasion. The fetishized crisis dynamic is the irrational force driving the rulers of the imperialist powers into conflict. This is obvious in the case of Russia, which faced the erosion of its imperial sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.
The social disruption within this economically isolated region, wherein former nomenklatura clans have established authoritarian oligarchies and kleptocracies, has created social chaos wherever raw materials and fossil fuels cannot be exported in sufficient quantities to keep enough of the population satisfied. These instabilities provide ample opportunities for Western interests in the region. The Russian war of aggression was preceded not only by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, but above all by the uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Here Western interests did not have to intervene at scale, because things were fueled by internal social struggles.
It was the fear of further “revolutions” in its imperial backyard that drove the Kremlin, incapable of modernization, to war. Social tensions in the post-Soviet space – where Russia’s hegemony was rapidly eroding before the outbreak of the Ukraine war – gave rise to a dynamic of protest, insurrection, and external intervention that threatened the balance of power. If Moscow was to remain the capital of an empire, then the West had to be pushed back in Ukraine by force of arms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is thus a sign of its weakness: all its other means of holding down this key component of its sphere of influence have failed. The invasion is sheer crisis imperialism acting from the defensive, seeking to bridge internal tensions through external expansion. Precisely because of its military and economic inferiority, it acts with its particular brutality.
But the same can be said in the case of the West. It was not only the Kremlin that felt compelled to take an enormous gamble in its invasion of Ukraine. The unwillingness of the West, both the US and the EU, to compromise in the run-up to the invasion reflects a similar dynamic of internal crisis and external expansion – in this case expansion into the post-Soviet space. NATO flatly refused to provide neutrality guarantees for Ukraine, which was of course part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Nonetheless, NATO worked all the while on the modernization of Ukraine’s armed forces, complete with its Nazi elements, and provided the Kremlin with at least a casus belli. Would Russia have attacked Ukraine even in the event of binding neutrality guarantees? We will never know. The only question is whether the West grossly miscalculated or deliberately provoked the invasion in order to bleed Russia dry in the Ukrainian war morass.
The EU’s interest in sabotaging geopolitical competition with a German-dominated Europe was what drove the Western intervention in 2014, when the Yanukovych government was toppled. Berlin and Brussels tolerated no alternative to the over-indebted Eurozone. But the NATO expansion strategy in Russia’s “backyard” is motivated above all by Washington’s efforts to halt US imperial disintegration, to preserve its hegemony and the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Without the greenback as the measure of value of all commodities, the United States would degenerate into a gigantic, weapons-grade Greece. Rising inflation suggests that the Fed’s money printing is now reaching its limits. While the EU and FRG wanted to prevent the formation of the “Eurasian Union” propagated by Putin, Washington was additionally concerned with driving a wedge between Berlin and Moscow in order to strengthen the eroding Atlantic alliance system. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has anchored the EU more firmly in the Atlantic Alliance, made a German-Russian rapprochement impossible in the medium term, and led to the expansion of NATO in Scandinavia.
It is not only the internal barrier of the capitalist world system, choking on its hyper-productivity, that makes war and external expansion appear to the over-indebted, socially broken state behemoths as the last way out; the crisis presents the stark reality of monetary devaluation and deflation. The external barrier of capital, which in its drive to valorize deprives humanity of the ecological foundations of life, manifests itself concretely in the food crisis escalating through the war over Ukraine, especially in Africa. Control over food is becoming a geopolitical lever of power in the emerging climate crisis, just as it is with fossil fuels.
Not only is the cause of the war rooted in the escalating contradictions of capitalist crisis, the war is itself a crisis accelerator. War intensifies the already existing processes of capitalist disintegration, shifting the entire world system into a new quality of crisis: deglobalization with political isolation and campist political formations, conflict over resources, shortages and supply chain bottlenecks, militarization and the permanent threat of large-scale war, the reciprocal emergence of authoritarian political actors and simultaneously the ongoing erosions of existing social as well as state structures. This tipping point in the crisis process is irreversible, there is no going back to the time before the war. As such, the current era of crisis imperialism is defined by an intensifying dialectical relation between state actors and capital, where states are striving for dominance and the crisis process of capital is following its own market-mediated, fetishistic momentum fueled its internal and external contradictions. Capital has produced a social formation today that simply does not have this blindly running dynamic under control, and will be driven by it ever further into social and ecological collapse.
The objective crisis process of capital as a system is enacted through the crisis-imperialist confrontations of the corresponding state subjects. This, the concrete execution of crisis dynamics through economic, geopolitical, intelligence or military power struggles, is the objective core of the crisis-imperialist practice. The Kremlin is waging its war in Ukraine to maintain Russia’s status as an imperial power. The US provoked the war to remain a hegemonic power. Thus, the crisis drives the late capitalist state behemoths into confrontation, with both economic and ecological consequences. Since the systemic socio-ecological crisis cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist world system, crisis imperialism has its vanishing point in a large-scale war. The possible consequences of which, due to the capacity for destruction accumulated in late capitalism, are unfathomable. Without emancipatory systemic transformation, the collapse of civilization is now threatened both by climate catastrophe and by nuclear war.
In the absence of an adequately radical concept of crisis, a large portion of what saw itself as part of the left in Germany has, since the beginning of the Ukraine war, diminished itself to nothing more than squabbling over sides. The war has only accelerated the collapse of these crisis-blind, politically opportunistic aspects of the German left who claim themselves to be the front lines. On the one hand, there are the Putin apologists around Wagenknecht and the [conspiracy theorist] Querfront media such as Telepolis or Nachdenkseiten, who shamelessly excuse Putin despite paying lip service to anti-imperialism. And on the other hand, there are supporters of NATO and hollow Western values who peddle the stale bourgeois-liberal ideology one last time before the Western states sink into barbarism.
While even Bandera finds praise in the left-liberal environment of the Greens, Germany’s anti-imps of all shades act as alternative imperialists, propagating nothing more than the imperial interest of Russia or China. The whole thing culminates in megalomaniacal appeals, always formulated from a safe distance, for Ukrainians to either bravely hold out as cannon fodder for freedom and democracy, or to surrender to Russian imperialism because the gas prices are skyrocketing in Germany.
The new quality of crisis that emerges with the war supersedes the era of neoliberal globalization. As such, it also marks the domestic limits of leftist practice within capitalism. Progressive, emancipatory “politics” can no longer be expressed without a radical concept of crisis, which makes the struggle for full-blown systemic transformation of capitalism the only option. It is the blindly running crisis process of capital that drives destructive dynamics of conflict on the geopolitical level, opening the door to large-scale war. This process itself must be the central pivot of any leftist praxis, not the opportunist parroting of imperialist propaganda or the imagining of any “objectively progressive” constellations of states each perpetuating their own crisis imperialism.
Ultimately, the German left would have to get comfortable with facing up to the evident and for decades stubbornly ignored fact (which also hardly plays a role in the current debate on Ukraine) that capital is in a systemic crisis. This would at least offer the theoretical chance for it to fight its way out of impotence and insignificance.
This would require a politics that could really tell people what’s what, instead of bothering them with anachronistic ideology. How far outdated the anti-imp icon Lenin is, for example, can be seen in the actions of his ever regressing fan club. In the context of the Ukraine debate in Konkret, they were able to spout reactionary rubbish superficially disguised as praise for Wagenknecht and the national minded socialists of the party Die Linke. Ironically, this Querfront darling of the Left, who assiduously advertises for the New Right, is not known to be opportunistic. Only to those whom the concept of an opportunist rebellion is unknown could think in such a way.
Germany’s alternative imperialists – these trivial anti-imps – can spread their anachronistic, reified rubbish, which has long since functioned as apologia for authoritarian capitalist crisis management in countries like Russia or China, in organs more or less open to Querfront tendencies like Telepolis, Nachdenkseiten, Freitag, Berliner Zeitung and Rubikon. It is no coincidence that these media are primarily financed by rich, old, white men from the German upper class, the petit bourgeoisie and the middle classes notoriously receptive to reactionary ideology. The same applies to their newspaper of choice, junge Welt.
Such anachronistic and reactionary ideology is simply not up to the task of confronting the reality of the crisis. People everywhere have long been feeling that the system itself is facing an irreversible crisis, that its transformation has already begun. Leftist political practice can now only be implemented as a partial moment in a wider movement to overcome the systemic capitalist catastrophe that is becoming ever more apparent. The catastrophic threat of large-scale war can only be countered within a struggle for systemic transformation, a struggle which must be formulated offensively. The process of transformation is inevitable, but in the face of the war in Ukraine, emancipatory praxis must aim to ensure that this change is not one that will end in barbarism or world war.
Instead of debating over the imperialist frontlines or parroting bullshit propaganda, leftists would have to anticipate the course of the crisis, name the crucial contradictions, and facilitate a transformation of the collapsing system into something post-capitalist that could salvage as many moments of the historical process of civilization as possible. Struggles against the threat of large-scale war, against crisis driven dictatorships, against chauvinism and reactionary agitation would have to be fought with the aim of creating favorable conditions for an emancipatory course of transformation. These struggles would necessarily unite with others, not least the struggle against climate change. The struggle for systemic transformation would form a common ground on which to bring together seemingly disparate protest movements.
At first, propagating systemic transformation as a necessity for survival might seem to guarantee the marginalization of any movement. But it is precisely the dynamics of the crisis that, with each new episode of crisis, demonstrate so clearly to people everywhere just how urgent it is to overcome capitalism. Clearly, the current Left is useless. But by consistent propagation of a radical and anti-capitalist crisis consciousness in concrete praxis, we could change this very quickly, and indeed preempt the fast approaching waves of oncoming crisis. This praxis would be, of course, an alternative to that of the “anti-imps,” who have withered away to the vanguard of imperialist barbarism, and have left their flank wide open to the far right. In the struggle for transformation, the capitalistically deformed scope of Western bourgeois democracy – so hated in these circles as a mendacious US import – must now be defended against barbarism precisely because it is within this framework that an emancipatory course yet remains open at all.
Originally published in konkret in 09/2022.