The Least Incompetent Empire

What does Vladimir Putin want? The question is the obsession of just about every reporter, pundit and politician in the west right now. Virtually none of their answers should be considered reliable. They are spun from the same stuff as the worst Cold War paranoia. And make no mistake, the invasion of Ukraine is the definitive shot across the bow, notifying the world that we have entered the New Cold War.

And yes, it is indeed a Cold War. To call it hot would be to woefully misread the bind of the Biden administration, as well as the European Union and much of the west. Biden has historically been among the most hawkish of the Democrats; he fit in well with the imperial ambitions of the Obama administration. But that simply doesn’t fly anymore. Between the prospects of American empire’s viability abroad – on a steady decline for the better part of two decades – and the hobbling of his domestic policy, he cannot risk a full-scale American counter-invasion. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, an abject defeat after almost two decades of what became America’s longest war, signals as much.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be wary of US or NATO meddling in the Ukraine. They already have and will continue to do so. Any socialist, radical, democratic-minded person, or just anyone with basic decency and half a brain can see that an invasion on the part of the west would be a disaster. The kind of soft power machinations and manipulations that the US has long engaged in frequently pave the way – accidentally or purposefully – for such an invasion. A declining imperial power the United States may be, but it is still the biggest one, clumsy and doddering.

The insufferability of Putin-centric media inquiry is a symptom of all this. Empires, particularly, declining ones, cannot stand any relevant question being asked. Russia is an opportunist state par excellence, able to sneak in through the cracks that American hubris creates. Those cracks have been getting bigger lately.

Chalk it up to Covid. The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy for just about every government around the world. All are now begrudgingly refraining that their populations will have to “learn to live” with coronavirus. And this is, of course, thanks to the pointed refusal and inability to formulate a global strategy suitable for a global catastrophe. The hesitancy and confusing messaging around lockdowns or other mitigation methods, the bungled and uneven vaccination rollouts, the fissure in confidence created by the insistence that things are “getting back to normal” to grieving and traumatized peoples; these are the kinds of actions that prove governments to be simultaneously incompetent and indifferent. They are the building blocks of this underlying unsolvable crisis. Forged by decades of neoliberalism, which has slowly but surely whittled away at some of the most basic elements of social coherence, they are the kind of thing that cannot be staved off for long. The temporary restabilization of the political center compared to the populist far-right – from Trump’s defeat to Modi’s setbacks to the now seemingly imminent defeat of Orban in Hungary – doesn’t change any of this.

Russia’s own track record against Covid reflects Putin’s own crisis of legitimacy. Though it was one the first to unveil a vaccine, its rollout has been just as laughably hapless as inept as elsewhere, if not more. Just about the only major power that seems to have fared well against the virus is China, and in that case it has been due to extreme social control. Russia and China are, of course, doing their best to present something of a united front against the US, even if Xi Jinping and the rest of the ruling Communist Party are less than thrilled about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. A question that comes to mind is whether these two regional imperial powers are vying to cunningly, and in their own way, combine against the global-but-ailing big kid on the block.

Much of that alliance’s viability has to do with how much domestic legitimacy the two states could create. China’s suppression of labor organization and democratic protest is longstanding. In more recent years it has been, admittedly, successful, but this isn’t guaranteed to always be the case. Its place as the world’s manufacturing workshop necessitates massive exploitation. The crackdown on Hong Kong’s formerly independent labor movement is, to many in the ruling clique, intended as the last word on insurgent political organization in the region. It won’t be, and ironically because of that exact kind of arrogance.

Back to Russia, Putin’s own common sense is that the invasion of Ukraine will bolster his flagging domestic support. It has worked before, both in Chechnya and Georgia. It is not such a guarantee this time, as the impressive protests in Moscow and elsewhere demonstrate.

All of which is to say that, if the “post-pandemic” world is one of multipolar military, economic, and political conflict, then it is one whose essential character is which empire can prove itself to be the least incompetent. Gone are the days when ordinary people would look to, say, the Habsburgs or Ottomans because they might provide something better, a bit more autonomy and stability. Now the post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-Great Recession, post-populist and “post-Covid” world is one in which the best any imperial order can hope for is to say “we won’t fuck up as badly as they do.”

How did it come to this? This cynical, vision-less systemic malaise? It is starting to become more well-known that Putin’s main criticism of the Soviet Union (an intriguing thing for any former KGB bureaucrat to have) is on profoundly chauvinistic and reactionary grounds. Lately he has taken to saying that it was a mistake for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to allow Ukraine any form of self-determination. According to his former advisor Gleb Pavlovksy, Putin believes the USSR’s most egregious error was to base its imperial ambitions on anything smacking of egalitarianism; it should have been more nakedly cutthroat in its machinations. He is on the record as saying “anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”

This is what those (primarily) western leftists whose kneejerk deferral to the narrative of the non-western powers fail to realize they are enabling. It is this same cynicism, this same manufactured inevitability in which someone is always bound to have someone else’s boot on their neck, regardless of the language the boot-wearer speaks, whether they were mindlessly reared on Mickey Mouse or Cheburashka. On the other side, there is no “there” there. No future, no vision of the world substantially different from its rivals. Whatever one might think of the Soviet bloc’s substantial shortcomings, there is no doubt that we must, however herculean the task may be, construct the believability of a world not just beyond empire but beyond the want that fuels empire.   

Right about now is where I would attempt to wrap things up with a reference to some old Russian folk tale, serving as parable for the futility of empires. I won’t. Mostly because I don’t know nearly enough about Russian folk mythology, but also because it seems hackneyed and trite, almost Orientalist in posture. The kind of thing some bright-eyed but cynical western journalist would do. “Look at me,” such a device says, “I can bite my thumb at our enemy using their own fables!” Fuck that.

But there’s also no denying that we need our own mythologies. By that I don’t mean that, in the face of an increasingly dangerous world, we should simply retreat into fictions. No, what I am attempting to do is point to the essence of mythologies, which don’t only point to flaws in seemingly flawless ruling logic but also their changeability. Monsters and spirits are never just monsters and spirits. For as much as we need facts and analysis on our side, we also need to be able to show facts and analysis at their most chimerical, as capable of morphing and twisting and reshaping themselves through the “magic” of popular power into something that can fill the vacuums of history.

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