During the last few days I have read many opinions, comments, columns and essays on the war in the Ukraine, and have noticed that there are two large groups: a majority which condemns Putin for being a vile aggressor and a minority which condemns the US and NATO alliance for pushing their sphere of interest too far. While it is the people who lose their homes and livelihoods who need our empathy and support, it is important to highlight that neither Putin nor Biden are to blame. Writing from Central Europe, it is paramount to realize that the enemy is right among us.
The only root cause for this conflict is to be found in the decay of Western democracy through an informal alliance of the superrich, who undermine the spheres of trust which have been built in Western democracies after WWII through welfare systems and a fairer distribution of wealth. These spheres of trust have been undermined starting with job outsourcing and cutbacks in welfare systems in the 1980s. These spheres of trust have been corrupted by financial globalization ever since.
Democracies are sick to the bone because they have been deprived by a global elite from what is the sometimes easily overlooked essence of a democracy: economic distribution and fairness. We are made believe that democracy is about casting a vote, but that is only the institutional expression of a system which aims for respect, choice and transparency. The true essence of democracy is not political but economic participation. With the increase of populations, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the automation of blue and white color labor, democracy has been seriously weakened.
Putin may be a regressive bully, but like in every classroom, it is a system without checks and balances which gives bullies the opportunity to oppress others. The strength of a society lies in its social capital; and the social capital of Western democracies has been depleted by excessive capitalism. What we have seen in the past with the rise of Donald Trump – another regressive bully - is the expression of this general cultural decay which we tend to overlook because it happens gradually. The striking rise of homicide rates in the US is another indicator which is the direct result of this democratic decay which put approx. 20 mio. Americans at the beginning of Covid-19 within days out of their jobs.
It is capitalist greed which has destroyed the working middle class has prevented an earlier transition away from fossil fuel and Russian gas dependency. It is capitalist greed which has deprived Europe from a sound manufacturing infrastructure by moving entire industries including their supply chains to China. Those who now proclaim sanctions don’t realize in which fragile situation we are and what consequences we need to put up with when global trade will come to an abrupt stop. We create transformation by chaos not by design.
If we want to stop further escalation, we are well advised to focus our energies at fixing what is broken at home:
- tax the rich and shut down tax exemption heavens – not only for Russians, but everywhere and for everybody
- stop blaming Putin for the apathy, ignorance and greed which has led to his strength
- invest in sustainable energy infrastructure
- reward jobs which create added value in societies
- shrink inflated bureaucracies to a sound size
- use this opportunity to drive a truly post-national organization
If we want to drive escalation, then we are advised to do continue doing what has been done so far:
- threaten loudly with sanctions
- shift to nuclear power
- invest in a futile arms race
- give more financial and political power to Brussels where too many people sit idly not doing what they are supposed to
It is now important to practice peace with every breath, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes. It is vital to think about what we can fix in our own small sphere of influence, before we arrogantly tell others what they should be doing. I am telling this also myself and ponder on what I can improve. But as films like the Economics of Happiness or A Quest for Meaning have shown clearly, an individual cannot change the institutions which run our societies like huge flywheels.
Being a European citizen, I must deplore the missed opportunities of the past 30 years which would have offered themselves to us. Security does always start with energy not with weapons and EU bureaucracy and politicians have blatantly failed in what would have been so obvious: investing into non-fossil and non-nuclear infrastructure instead of deepening the dependency on Russian imports. I still remember a photovoltaics project in Maghreb Africa which would have been largely financed by a Munich based insurance giant. It would have created stability in the region and cohesion around the Mediterranean Sea. A peaceful enlargement of a post-national and post-religious Europe that shares energy security interests and cooperates for the survival of the next generation.
If the rich are responsible for the decay of democracy, then politicians and governments around the world are guilty of being accomplices in this crime against humanity. Neither Putin’s attack on the Ukraine nor Trump’s attack on the Capitol would have been possible in a sane society where democracy is so strong that it defies agitators, dictators and bullies. Governments which are ripe with corruption and lobbyism are the systemic hotbed in which democracy dissolves, until we end up with tyranny and despotism like in ancient Rome.
Azeem is a member of the global financial elite which operates from locations like London always lightyears ahead of a normal person, riding an exhilarating wave of technological progress. He declares the German no to nuclear power to be an anti-scientific decision and puts himself thereby in the camp of conservatives which do not understand that the greed for infinite power supply is in direct contradiction with an ecological transition that is based on finite resources and an economy of moderation. He makes a pact with Macron and others who don’t agree that energy security is the foremost area which has to be thought if not global then at least transnational. It is not a coincidence that the foundation of the EU was a treaty which forced France and Germany to cooperate on steel and coal. This treaty needs to be renewed in Europe and bordering nations on photovoltaics and related industries.
Every penny which is now invested in arms is invested wrongly. Every soldier which is sent into battle is sacrificed for a war which cannot be won: nobody ever wins in a war but the generals and kings who don’t fight the battle but move human resources over a battlefield and deliberate in the officers’ casino which battalion they can spare or which not. The peace which we have enjoyed since WWII did rest on nuclear proliferation and strong democracies. It did not rest on tanks, artillery or large standing armies. So, please do not fall for calls of hotheaded European politicians or London venture capitalist who think that military investment and intervention will help us out of this crisis in the long run.
There is this saying that the cold war was won by blue jeans. While the consumer culture has in the era of climate change a rather negative connotation, we need to remember that it was the promise of a society with a rather meritocratic access to the economy and the freedom to choose certain consumer products which eventually dismantled the former soviet block. It was not open war, but better values and opportunities to genuinely improve one’s lot which made people give up upon communist dictators.
If we want to win this new war against authoritarian regimes mushrooming across the globe, it is our foremost duty to strengthen democracy by taxing the rich and making our version of the human story more attractive than the one unfolding in other places of this world. In doing so, we shall not forget that we must overcome nationalism and must strive in the era of the Anthropocene for a new understanding of what it means to be human.
Addendum: a friend of mine posted a couple of really interesting maps on Ukraine which made me recall [> recommended read from 2016] how the artificial boarders of Europe which were created over the centuries still do create natural fault lines which spark conflict. The Ukrainian distribution of ethnic groups is quite similarly diverse to the one in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, where the historians defined the shooting of an unimportant Hapsburg prince as the start of WWI. While a sense of nationalism can spark wars without doubt, we need to look beyond the ethnic and political tensions and ask ourselves if war would be possible if we were to create the economic frame conditions which allow for peaceful cooperation between different cultural backgrounds. Thomas Piketty has shown in his longitudinal study that the root cause for WWI was a peak in unfair wealth distribution. The same is true for much of the political upheaval of the recent years, including the Ukrainian conflict. The silver lining around this dark cloud is the hope that mankind manages to move into a truly post-national form of organization which rests on a social contract that distributes wealth fairly around the globe and thus eliminates archaic battlefield thinking. As long as we fight one another we fight ourselves.