Power Untethered: The Push For Control Beyond Limits
Our current crisis is predicated on a desperate need to eliminate all checks and all balances
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For days it had been rumored that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin would give the address. Ukraine counteroffensives had sent the Russian army scurrying for safety and all but erased the gains of their invasion. It was a defeat that deeply embarrassed Putin and, considering his regime exists solely based on his ability to inspire fear and fealty, gravely endangered his two decades of power and, by extension, his very life.
Putin announced a “partial mobilization” in calling up over 300,000 reservists while threatening “the West” with “total war.” In doing so, he gestured at the ace up his sleeve: Russia’s nearly six thousand nuclear weapons. “I am not bluffing,” he promised his enemies.
At every point in this crisis Putin has followed an observable and predictable script. In carrying out a criminal invasion of Ukraine, he has blamed the victim for his actions and claimed his only motivation is defensive. In selling the war to his people, he has cast the United States and other powers as part of a sinister conspiracy to destroy not only Russia but “traditional values” and the lives of the people, all of it amounting to a New World Order-style conspiracy that only Putin himself can defeat. And, in every case, in every new theater and development, Putin has reminded those powers that should they cross whatever line he has drawn it will result in nuclear holocaust.
Despite assurances by institutionalists that Western solidarity in the face of this aggression would either prevent the war altogether or cripple Russia almost immediately, the issue remains. In part, this is because our markets and economies are so flooded with Russia’s blood money that it is almost impossible to scrub it out without massive and necessary reform. It is also because Russia has helped spearhead an authoritarian alliance with other illiberal and totalitarian regimes, including China, Iran, and Hungary, an alliance which is currently working tirelessly to support antidemocratic elements in the United States, including the Republican Party, in eliminating liberal democracy itself from the face of the Earth.
Though Ukraine’s counteroffensive has emboldened hearts around the world and deserves celebrating, it needs understood that this conflict is far from over and that Putin’s entire power-base relies on his ability to maintain control and stature. There is no losing this war and surviving it from his perspective. He is cornered and desperate and for a homocidal maniac like Putin that ace up his sleeve is always in play. The apparatuses of power constructed in the 20th century that would supposedly make the world ready for peace have, once more, led it to the precipice of destruction.
There is much to learn from this terrible, terrible situation. In it, we can see a twisted future where authoritarian impulses deliver us into a new Putinesque era. And, in reckoning with that possibility, we can begin to see how the systems we trust at this moment make all of it all the more possible.
THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF POWER, PARANOIA, AND THE COMING CRISIS is available for preorder now. This is the story of how these systems were created, who they were created to serve, and the ugly path they are leading us down. Reserve your copy to learn this history and how we might find a better future
One of the defining struggles in human history is the battle over power and its related questions.
How much power is too much power?
Who should wield power?
How are those people chosen?
And who makes those decisions?
The pivot point that decided this question for our modern times was the 20th century rise of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. These ideologies threatened the capitalist structure of the world, creating economic rivals and military threats that could undermine the prevalent system. In Communism, the total overthrow of the economic order was advocated. Fascism and Nazism grew out of nationalist urges to amend the order while overturning the balance of power, redistributing resources, and creating around those urges religious cults that worshiped white supremacy and death itself.
In the aftermath of World War II, when the latter pair of ideologies had seemingly been defeated and the Soviet Union loomed as a potential rival in a bipolar world, a deep distrust of the people set the stage for a new way. Economists who watched that crisis play out were shook by the dangers of mass politics and movements. The very nature of liberalism, particularly its emphasis on liberty and freedom as being predicated on the protection of property, was endangered as long as individuals could form larger movements to sway and control power.
Liberal democracy, they believed, was an existential threat that endangered the protection of property and economic “freedom.”
Around the apparatuses of power grew unaccountable organizations and structures. These structures ranged from governmental bodies like the Central Intelligence Agency to international organizations like the World Economic Forum that were populated by the wealthiest individuals, corporations, and their attending populations. Through varying means, these groups seek to eliminate threats to the prevailing order, sway politics and economics, and, ultimately, according to their own goals, make the world “safer” by forwarding interconnected trade and globalization.
It goes without saying that neither you nor I can vote on these matters.
Because democracy can interrupt these ongoing projects, it has been largely quarantined. Political parties function as public relations fronts for an overarching consensus obsessed with perpetual, sustained growth and a largely unregulated market. Their operations are often relegated to expressing competing notions of how those goals should be achieved. Currently, the Republican Party in the United States is an expression of “necessary” cruelty through austerity and the protection of property through weaponized paranoia. The Democratic Party protects the remaining institutions while advocating for kinder, gentler means of perpetuating the status quo.
Now, it is necessary for a disclaimer. Much of what I detail above is fodder for the very type of conspiracy theories Vladimir Putin and grifters like Alex Jones peddle for profit and power. This is because Right Wing conspiracy theories are aimed at attacking neoliberal institutions for populist support while intentionally obfuscating the role of capitalism. Instead of operating out of greed and in pursuit of material aims, these operations are being carried out by “sinister” and “evil” groups with satanic motivations (I discuss this in more detail on the most recent episode of The Muckrake Podcast). Largely, the bureaucrats and technocrats carrying out these operations are doing so based on their own noble intentions as the narrative that dominates their lives and careers frames this as both necessary and, strangely enough, heroic.
As these non-electable organizations have carried out their operations - including literal coups, loans and assistance in exchange for prescribed economic changes, and a whole host of maneuvers it would take years to detail - the balance of power has been effectively shifted completely in the direction of the wealthy, who operate within these spheres and benefit from their actions. Eventually, so much wealth has been redistributed that the only thing left to do is to leverage that wealth in taking over the representative governments at the heart of the whole thing.
And, as this process rolls on, the wealthy move more toward overt antidemocratic authoritarianism, minoritarian institutions like our Senate and Supreme Court work in tandem to carry out those trends, and, over time, flirtations with illiberalism turn into full and flourishing relationships with fascists and “strongmen” like Putin and Viktor Orbán.
This, unfortunately, has been consistent across the board and encapsulates our current moment. The question has always been to what extent the openness of the illiberalism manifests. Does the society appear to be free? Do elections appear to be fair? In Russia, Putin played within the realm of “respectability” until critics and supporters alike came to understand that elections were rigged, the economy was captive, and day-to-day reality had become a weapon in his hands.
What Putin represents is the end-goal of all of this, the realization of power unchained from democratic consequences in totality and the overall victory of corruption and oligarchical interests.
In this way, Putin’s reign is kept completely isolated from mass politics. At his disposal, he enjoys one of the world’s most impressive nuclear arsenals. He has successfully held the world ransom using these weapons and has taken advantage of the very global system that was supposed to prevent monsters like him from taking power. With democratic pressures removed, the only means of his losing control is either his own natural mortality or a loss of authority that makes possible his assassination or overthrow.
To put it another way, it is the reestablishment of monarchical power in a modern environment that is supposed to make such a thing impossible. And now, like it or not, we are all held hostage again and at the whims of a man with nothing to lose. If our current trajectory continues, and if that balance of power is not addressed in a serious and sweeping way, Putin will become less an outlier than the norm. And unchecked, undemocratic power when combined with weapons capable of stopping the world in its tracks due to the threat of literal species-level extinction, is a far-cry from the past order where kings settled matters on the battlefield with swords and shields.
These developments are beyond troubling, but to see this play out in this way is merely a glimpse into a potential nightmare future that we can still avoid. And while it is still avoidable, considering the stakes, we have no choice but to do whatever we can to dodge this possible disaster in the making.