by Alan Bickley
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
In 2003, most opposition to the Iraq War was confined to the argument that intervention there would do no good to the people of Iraq or in the intervening countries. This soon turned out to be a true argument, and those of us who made it then feel justified in making it now in the war between Russia and the Ukraine. Some of us, however, take the further step of hoping for a Russian victory. Since this is widely seen as a step into some kind of moral abyss, those of us who take that step have an obligation to explain ourselves.
I will begin with the bare argument against intervention, and I will begin that with a large acceptance. Western intellectuals have, since the middle of the eighteenth century, competed at misunderstanding Russia. First, various French liberals fell for the claim that, under Catherine the Great, Russia was an enlightened despotism, somewhat more advanced in its progress towards modernity than France. Then, European conservatives decided it was a paradise of tradition and anti-Jacobinism. After that, three generations of leftists saw it as the Worker’s State. Since then, it is back to paradise of traditionalism and Christian opposition to the modern world. All throughout, Russia has been a horrible place, where a ruling class, arrogant and avaricious and paranoid, has tyrannised over the mass of ordinary people. All that ever changes is the faces of the tyrants and their legitimising ideology. The peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, who believe that the Russians are about to reconquer them, deserve at least our understanding.
This being said, there is no good case for intervening on the side of the Ukrainians. We are told that the Ukraine is a sovereign, independent state, with every right to join the European Union or NATO, or to welcome American military bases onto its territory. These are nonsensical claims. Relations between states are based on nothing but self-interest and relative strength. Suppose a system in which small states are all subject to a larger and all-powerful hegemon – as the Greek city-states were in the Roman Empire, or as the Indian princedoms were under the Raj. Then you will have a semblance of the legalistic relationships you see between individuals. Take away that all-powerful hegemon, and you have a system in which, to paraphrase Thucydides, the strong take what they will and the weak give what they must. This may not be what ought to be, but it is what is. Russia is strong. Russia believes its own territory is indefensible unless it has at least a negative control over the Ukraine. Russia felt threatened. Russia gave warnings in advance. These warnings were ignored or laughed at. Russia invaded. No one has been able to stop the Russians from invading, and no one will without at least considerable self-harm. Any talk of right and wrong is irrelevant. You no more blame the Russians for acting as they did than you blame a swarm of wasps when you poke a stick into their nest.
We can oppose intervention in the Ukraine because of the self-harm involved. There is no legitimate British interest in who rules the Ukraine, or how big the country is. If the Russians were invading Belgium and proposing to use Antwerp as a naval base, it might be different. But they are not invading Belgium, and there is no chance that the Russians will move into anywhere that is conceivably in our sphere of interest. If the Poles or the Estonians feel threatened, that is their problem. We owe them nothing beyond our good wishes. Though I am not an American, the same view applies to America.
This is a cold view of foreign relations. It offers nothing to people who enjoy painting their faces in the colours of other countries and waving candles outside embassies. It is, however, a view that, if generally accepted, would reduce the number of wars and of civilian deaths. When states move in something like the predictable orbits of the planets, there is less room for collision than if they behave like drunks shambling at random round a crowded town square.
Of course, before 1991, Moscow was not merely the capital of a state with predictable interests, but also the headquarters of a conspiracy to spread a most bloody ideology to every part of the world. That may have justified a more collective approach to any Russian advance. But that was a long time ago; and, if there are Russians who miss their government’s dual status, Russia now has a normal state with predictable interests that everyone else would do well to take into account. And this brings me to the fuller argument against intervention. I do not think it likely that British and American support for the Ukraine is a mistaken pursuit of national interest, or a strange reversion to the containment policy of the Cold War, or that it is intended in any meaningful way to help the people of the Ukraine. I think instead it is a desperate action by men who do not wish well for the British or American people, and who see the Russians as the weakest link in a chain of opposition they did not until recently believe existed. If there is now another conspiracy against the world, its headquarters are not in Moscow, but in Washington and London. And its ideology is no less dangerous to the wellbeing of mankind. There is a case for opposing intervention in the Ukraine with annoyed commentaries on Thucydides. But there is also a case for hoping that the Russians will win.
Here, though, I will make another large acceptance. The web of supranational institutions and associated interests that can be summarised as the New World Order emerged just over a century ago, at the end of the Great War. The July Crisis had been one of those times when keeping states in their own predictable orbits was not enough to prevent a collision. There was need of half a dozen concerted swerves. Instead, though, of making a few telephone calls and a arranging a congress in somewhere like Stockholm, men of bovine stupidity had pressed down on their national accelerators and taken Europe into four years of industrial killing. Once this was over, little wonder if there were demands for an institutional check to its repetition. Some were modest enough to hope for something to mediate between the rivalries of the great powers and to provide common services across the world. Others hoped for an evolution towards a rational and technocratic world government. Seen as a whole, these institutions varied between the mildly beneficial and a scandalous waste of money. But none was actively or successfully malevolent – certainly, not in the way that most national governments managed to be.
This stage of development ended together with the Cold War. The international institutions were no longer marginalised by competing blocs of military and ideological alliances. They could now be reshaped and extended by the ruling classes of the main Western powers. By now, these ruling classes had themselves been reshaped. Until the 1980s, Britain and America had been ruled by men who largely identified their own interests with those of their people. They had generally fought in the Second World War. The British ruling class was at least partly composed of the old landed nobility, and the ruling class as a whole had absorbed many of its cultural values from the landed nobility. The American ruling class was largely composed of old-stock Americans. Neither ruling class acted entirely in the interests of their people, but both felt obliged to believe that they did. When they did not, it was usually because they were mistaken about Economics – their belief, for example, in the false theories of Keynesian demand management.
After 1991, Britain and America passed under the control of a younger generation who, unconstrained by fears of Russia or of Soviet Communism, found they had more in common with other ruling classes than with their own peoples. They found the international institutions congenial instruments for governing their own countries and for exercising power over weaker, non-Western countries. One of their favourite tricks was to discuss a law among themselves, to make it into an international treaty, and then to get this enacted into national law as something required under the rules of other treaties already agreed. It saved the trouble and possible embarrassment of having to explain laws to elected bodies that might still have some accountability to the voters.
They were joined by the owners of the newer business interests. Many businesses had long since expanded beyond their national markets. By the 1990s, there was growing talk of “globalisation,” where the larger businesses would operate in a unified world market, unattached even in the formal sense to the countries where they had originally grown. This would need an end to all trading barriers and the agreement across borders to a common set of standards. At first, this was conceived in terms of manufacturing. It should be possible, for example, for a car to be designed in Oxford, for the steel to be made in South Korea, and the electronics in Taiwan, and the car to be assembled in Poland, and then sold without local adaptations in every part of the world where people had money to spend. This is what happened, but the most visible entrants to an increasingly global ruling class were the owners of the information technology giants – men like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg – plus the usual type of men, like George Soros, who had made their money by pure financial speculation. The result was a merger at the top of society of the rich and those who had won elections, but who were accountable only in the formal sense to their electors.
There was nothing inherently sinister about these developments. The rich have always tended to be powerful, and the powerful to become rich. Power is to be judged less by its origins than by how it is used. Free trade is good. Given reasonable subsidiarity, there is nothing bad about some degree of supranational government. The problem is that the people at the top have turned out to be rather trashy individuals, or outright monsters, all happy to treat the rest of us like worms and to regard our interests as in conflict to their own.
Their first achievement – and I speak chiefly here of England, which I know best – was to humble the working classes. These had cultural and moral values autonomous of, or somewhat behind, those of the ruling class. Their ability to combine and strike allowed them to corner incomes and other resources that might have been spent on white collar clients of the ruling class. Much of the industry exported after the 1980s might have gone anyway because of genuine shifts in comparative advantage. But the speed and completeness of deindustrialisation is suspicious. The victory was completed by an open encouragement of mass-immigration. So far as they were looking for work, the new arrivals added downward pressure to working class living standards. In any event, they could be given preferential access to education and public employment. They could be made an excuse for denouncing the history and culture of the country as shameful. They justified new laws to control speech and association and new agencies of control and propaganda – these staffed by the white collar clients. In short, mass-immigration broke up the solidarity of the poor, and solidarity with the poor. England today is a very different sort of country from the one in which I grew up. The trend towards social and economic equality that began in the nineteenth century has been reversed, and we are back to a class of masters and of those who know their place, or who can be taught their place. The difference between now and the nineteenth century is that the masters feel little identity with those below them: there is none of the noblesse oblige that makes class domination acceptable, or of the public spirit that often justifies it in the abstract.
Then, we have the upward pressure to costs and prices caused by the new energy policies. The energy market is so distorted by subsidies and taxes and regulations that it is impossible to say for sure, but it is probable that coal is still the cheapest fuel for generating electricity, and coal is effectively banned as a fuel for anything. Again, the Russians are blamed for raising the price of oil. But oil is no more expensive than it was ten years ago, and petrol is nearly twice what it was then. There are growing bans on the use of fertilisers, and land is forcibly taken out of agricultural use. We are being readied for big increases in the price of food by the promotion of veganism or semi-official encouragement to eat bugs.
None of this is because of critical race theory, or political correctness, or claims about global warming. It is not that morally indifferent rulers are behaving badly because of bad ideas. These bad ideas are not causes, but excuses. They are taken up and promoted simply because they are convenient legitimising ideologies for what is already wanted. If they were to lose effect, they would be replaced. In the same way, we do not have mass-surveillance of schoolchildren because they might otherwise become terrorists. We have the probable fabrication of terrorism to justify mass-surveillance of schoolchildren and everyone else. Cash is not being abolished because criminals use it, but because we still use enough of it to avoid the inspection and control possible with electronic transfers. The new ruling class has already taken us half into a world where we shall be cold and malnourished and immobile, where we are constantly spied on and denied the legal rights our grandparents took for granted, where we are drenched in a continual wash of lying propaganda in the news and in popular entertainment, and in education and in the workplace, where we can be punished by employers and landlords and banks and perhaps supermarkets for speaking out of turn. I am not sure about the claims that this ruling class would like to reduce the population to where it was before about 1750. Looking at what else has been done already, it would not surprise me if it were true.
The immediate and hysterical response to the Russian invasion is easy to explain. So too the censorship of Russian news sources and a discouragement of internal dissent our rulers did not think seemly when they destroyed Iraq and Libya. They had messed up. Though evil, our rulers are more cunning than intelligent. They really thought they had won at the end of the Cold War. Britain and America would become trading platforms and playgrounds for the rich. China would become a sweatshop, Russia a supplier of raw materials. The rest of the world would fall into line, their own ruling classes co-opted or beaten down. But the Russians and Chinese took the money and investment and went their own way. I have given my thoughts on Russia. China is less than a paradise. But they both have ruling classes who show some patriotism, and who feel the need to keep their peoples happy with rising living standards. They even understood what our own masters appear collectively to have forgotten – that, in a modern economy, the rich are safely rich because the poor are not kept destitute. They looked at the new order of things in the West. They found what they saw repellent. They remembered how their nations had been repeatedly humbled before the West was ruined. They saw their chance. They drew together, partly for their mutual defence, partly to construct their own order of things that, if no less authoritarian than ours, was less obviously wicked. This alternative order grew rapidly. When the rulers of the West would meet in the 1990s, they controlled something like two thirds of global output. Nowadays, they may control a third; and they have discovered that the supply chains of what is still produced in the West have their beginnings in Russia or China.
The obvious response was a pre-emptive strike. For years before last February, Kiev had been crawling with American agents. It should and could join the European Union, they said. It could and should join NATO. It would be protected. The Russians were demonised and provoked. They were threatened. Their strategic and historical paranoia was carefully fed. At last, when every diplomatic approach had been thrown back at them, they invaded. The plan was then to use the full weight of Western power to destroy them – with economic sanctions against Russia and with arms shipments to the Ukraine. The idea was not to drive them out of the Ukraine, but to trap them there until they were worn down enough for a revolution to be staged in Moscow, and for a new government in the Western pay to put an end to Russian independence, and perhaps an end to Russia as a single country. The result would be NATO bases along the northern border of China, and boastful warnings to the Chinese that they should remember their allotted place in the New World Order.
I do not understand the military facts of this war. On the one hand, the unlimited shipments of Western arms seem to have prevented a swift Russian victory – assuming, that is, the Russians wanted a swift victory. On the other hand, the Russians seem to have steadily gained territory since their invasion. But I do understand the economic and diplomatic facts of the war. In a world broadly at peace, using the dollar and working through institutions set up when the West really was supreme do make sense for everyone else. But telling people to get their money counted elsewhere, and stealing what cannot be taken elsewhere, is not an effective way of destroying an enemy. So far as I can tell, Russia has been unaffected by the sanctions. Instead, they have caused a large supply shock to a West already awash with imaginary money. The Chinese have not been detached from their alliance with Russia, and many other ruling classes are either sympathetic to the Russians or waiting on events to see which side they should support.
At the same time, the low and trashy nature of the British and American ruling classes has been laid bare. Here is Karl Marx, on the fate of the Chinese Empire as it emerged from the first Opium War:
Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.
There is a conspiracy against the people of the West, but it is not, I repeat, a conspiracy of the supremely intelligent who meet in secret to discuss their next move. It operates through the public structures of our countries, and is directed by those formally in charge. America is presently ruled by a senile and incontinent old man. Because of his evident incapacity, his powers have been farmed out among a committee of the unintelligent, who seem incapable of coordination or agreement. In London, Boris Johnson, a fool at the best of times, has been pulled down, and will be replaced either by a sleazy billionaire or by a stupid and possibly mad woman. There may, among the mob of screaming underlings who are left to direct this war, be men of intelligence and vision. But they are nowhere close to being in charge.
At the same time, there is no effective resolution among the ruled. We are repeatedly told that we are back in 1938, when we must take firm action against the monster who is Mr Putin, or face another world war. Whether Mr Putin is another Hitler I see no point in discussing. But 2022 is not 1938. In 1938, Britain was a nation under the agreed rule of the able, and it had a first class industrial base. Counting other people’s money does not give many ploughshares for beating into swords. As for the general state of the nation, I will say nothing definite, because doing so might get me into trouble. But the idea of leading the shambolic wreck that is modern Britain into a war against other than a third world slagheap is not something anyone with half a brain would wish to test. The same is true of America.
In this war, then, a defeat for Russia is a defeat for us, the ruled. It will not inevitably doom our children to living in rented cubicles and eating bugs, while the masters are driven about in armoured black limousines. There is too much else that can go wrong for the masters. But it does move us closer than we should wish. A Russian victory in the Ukraine, followed by an assertion of Chinese supremacy in their home waters, will be a defeat for our masters. It will accelerate the flight from the dollar as a means of international payment and account, and the disuse of any payments system under the inspection and control of the Western ruling classes. Financial power will drift towards the western shores of the pacific, where the balance of industrial power already lies. Because it was our ancestors who fought and died in the wars, or slaved in the factories, to establish the Western domination our masters now direct, it is difficult to see a defeat for the West as not a defeat for us. But the power that our ancestors helped establish has now been turned against us. Those working to pull it down may not have our interests in mind, but are, even so, objectively on our side.
There is a chance that the growth and rising prestige of an alternative world order will force the New World Order to more reasonable behaviour. Its rulers may need to start persuading everyone else that the West is the Free World. Or the shock of discovery that conflicts are not won by cutting an enemy off from Netflix and a few replaceable financial services may force a more general reconsideration of internal policies. The Russian and Chinese ruling classes do not presently conceive their interests as high and rising energy costs and pauperising and demonising their own peoples. The result is that they have generally supportive populations and our ruling classes do not. The New World Order can only work as a freakish despotism when it has no competition. Let it face a confident alternative, and it may have no choice but to agree to some degree of reliberalisation. That will be good in itself; and, as De Toqueville said,
experience teaches that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform – L’Ancien régime (1856), iii,4
Now, anyone who is against the present order of things has some duty to say what he wants in its place. For me, this is easy. My perfect England is a place of small farmers and craftsmen, mostly working for themselves and mostly freeholders. With these there will be voluntary collectives of scientists and other scholars. These may receive part of their funding from the churches, which, purified of their leftist heresies, will handle most welfare and education. Since this may not be on offer, I will settle for a place of noble land-owners and black-coated industrialists, and rivetters and weavers and railway engineers, and shopkeepers, and pubs that never close. Or everyone has his own idea of the Good Society, all more or less likely than mine. But I really will take anything that has no room for the present ruling class of trash and monsters, and their army of white collar clients, all spying on us and robbing us and self-righteously sadistic in their ordering us how to live.
I do not suppose a Russian victory will bring on any of this. But it will give us a better chance than we have now. Therefore, I hope the Russians will win.
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