TIME IS RUNNING OUT TO BUILD A NEW WORLD
As Putin's war on Ukraine intensifies and the establishment tries to pretend everything is under control, precious time is slipping away
President Joe Biden’s address on Tuesday night was a typical State of the Union. There were scores of policy proposals, centrist appeals, a few individuals mentioned as humanizing examples of larger issues, and an expected claim that the union, despite all obvious appearances, is strong. Compared to Donald Trump’s rambling and disturbing performances, it’s being graded on a curve, but it’s undeniable that something was missing.
The affair began predictably with a mention of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Biden praised the Ukrainian people for their courage and described a growing international alliance to counter dictator Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Russia, Biden said, is “more isolated from the world now than it has ever been.” Which, to be frank, is utter nonsense. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, America, Britain, France, Italy, and virtually every other member of the Allies swarmed into Russia to intervene in the growing civil war and crush the growth of communism. That, and the resulting tensions, is pretty damn isolated.
But nonetheless. Of course he said it. Biden is helming a coordinated effort by the Western powers to squeeze Putin, his oligarchs, and Russian society with a swarm of sanctions meant to make the invasion of Ukraine an untenable quagmire. Predictably, the moment these sanctions were announced and landmarks around the world began displaying the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, institutionalists flooded the nation’s publications and airwaves with claims that Putin had already failed and the neoliberal world order had proven itself resilient and impervious. Just the simple act of agreeing on these measures was proof positive the system worked and that it would, eventually, win out. It was, in a word, performative.
What was missing from Biden’s speech, and what these near-sighted pundits and politicians continue to ignore, is that the world has already changed. The neoliberal order, by virtue of one of its members carrying out this attack, has been proven faulty, vulnerable, and, ultimately, doomed. By allowing Putin and his oligarch’s poisonous blood money and corruption into the system, the damage was done. Authoritarianism has spread throughout the world, infecting the United States and all of its allies. And, as we watch the cruelty in Ukraine grow by the hour, and the powers stand by, terrified to set off a war as defined by their own rules and their own systems, the status quo which has been built and promised as guaranteeing peace and stability has been exposed in irrevocable ways.
Biden had an opportunity last night to draw a line in the sand and lead America and the world into a new era before this one expires. And that was more than a lost opportunity. It was a small tragedy. Because this world is on fire, and we had better get to the long, hard work of building the next one before it’s reduced to ash.
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The war in Ukraine is beyond our control. Putin has surveyed the world order, recognized its limitations, and is currently attempting to hopscotch between the lines. That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed or that, in the long-term, this will have been anything approaching a savvy move. But his even attempting it is terrifying. The West is forced to watch from a distance, trying sanctions that might or might not work depending on whether the corruption is so driven underground that it might continue unabated, wringing its hands as the hope remains the system will bend and not break.
This powerlessness is awful. It leads us to social media to doomscroll clips from the frontlines that are completely out of the context but helpfully framed into a narrative by people we like or trust or need to believe. The symbolism of monuments lit up like the Ukrainian flag, the rhetoric from our politicians, even the virality of hashtags and articles designed to bolster our confidence, are matters of faith and superstition. Like saying the rosary or tossing salt over our shoulder.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it isn’t enough. The neoliberal world order has been trending toward something disastrous for a long while now. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, including Putin, who some say might secretly be the wealthiest man in the world, naturally breeds corruption and antidemocratic trends. With this system of redistribution from the bottom to the top, it was only a matter of time until this authoritarian movement took shape and fundamentally threatened liberal democracy.
That threat is not only real, it’s pressing. This moment, with all of its hyperbole and ready-made narratives, is not just about Russia, Ukraine, or the response by the West. It’s about a fleeting instance where the full scope of the problem should be readily recognizable. We have a choice to make, and that choice is whether we continue sleepwalking into the future pretending that everything will be okay or we stop, assess where we are and where we have been, and begin attempting to solve the existential questions we’ve been avoiding for so very long.
And, unfortunately, the former is what we’re best at.
I desperately want to be wrong. Weeks, months, even years from now, I hope and pray that I’ll look back on what I’m about to write and feel so much relief that I missed the mark so badly. But I can’t help but feel this nagging suspicion.
The West, with its emphasis on narratives and breaking news and consumerist luxuries, is remarkably bad at maintaining its attention. In 2020, we got yet another crash course in this as the Black Lives Matter protest grew into a nationwide movement that raged and fought for months, but coverage on our televisions, online, and in our publications closed up shop after a little under a week. There were sporadic reports and stories, mostly when some Right Wing lunatic would shoot someone or threaten a crowd, but one of the defining moments of this generation, replete with dramatic, made-for-TV moments and showdowns between Right and Wrong, simply didn’t stand up to the desires of cable news programmers.
We saw, or rather didn’t see, the same thing with Iraq and Afghanistan. The initial invasions by U.S. troops dominated national discourse and the headlines until they didn’t. The Forever Wars ground on for twenty years and became something like a low and annoying buzz in the background of national discourse. Until…they just ended.
Right now, hyperfocus is being dedicated to Ukraine and the courage and brutality. It’s a manic fever as we try to digest everything we can as it happens. But that war has only been raging a few days. Already our leaders, including Biden, are signaling there’s life beyond the conflict. The sanctions are there and there’s not much else to do. Meanwhile, Russian troops are encircling Ukraine’s major cities.
This could be a long process. Russia might very well take the major population centers and engage in increasingly disturbing human rights violations. There’s a chance, like what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Syria, that sometimes reports of those violations will bubble up to the surface. And the West…will shrug.
Putin has made a bet, and I pray he’ll be thrown out of power by either dissatisfied oligarchs, the military, or, in the best case scenario, his people desperate for democracy. But what he has seen, from his past aggression, is that he can get away with most anything because the attention span is short and Western corruption is one of the strongest forces in the known world. As the body count grows in Ukraine and time wears on, we might look up in a year or two and suddenly see articles praising the neoliberal global order for welcoming Putin back into its fold. We’ll be promised that this time he’ll behave, that the status quo has won out, that the world has once again been made safe and war averted forever. Until the next time.
I want to be wrong. I am desperate to be wrong. But I also recognize that so much time is being wasted not identifying the problem and its very obvious solutions. This worldwide regime of austerity and inequality and exploitation and corruption must be addressed before the infection kills the body. I’m not seeing that. Instead, I’m hearing whistling past a graveyard.