Chomsky on Ukraine

6 03 2022

I have great admiration for Noam Chomsky’s intelligence and for his perseverance in presenting a detailed and informed counterpoint to extant media narratives on international affairs. But that perseverance can become bullishness when it insists upon a version of history that is one-sided and out of dialogue with so many other scholars and historians who study these things.

Chomsky’s recent analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. It repeats things that are considered myths or at least half-truths by many who study Ukraine — such as the “Nato expansion” trope, which ignores the reasons why post-Soviet and East European states wanted the protection of NATO, and which in the case of Ukraine become painfully obvious. This becomes a debate over the tail wagging the dog: did Russia invade because NATO expanded? Or did NATO expand because of the fear of Russia invading? And even if the first, is NATO’s expansion really a threat to Russia, or just to Putin’s regime, which fears it (and Ukraine’s capacity for democracy) because it fears democracy?

These arguments should be made with more than just a quick nod to those experiencing the current situation on the ground. One of Chomsky’s Ukrainian translators, author and novelist Artem Chapeye, has penned a brief and somewhat angry response to Chomsky here; Taras Bilous’s piece that I shared recently is another response to this line of thought.

Aside from the fact that Chomsky’s analysis feels a million miles away from the reality that Ukrainians (and those who know them and support them) are feeling, there is something deeper in his writing that I would like to address here. This is that Chomsky writes as if we were still stuck in a (just barely) post Cold War world where the US and its allies are globally hegemonic, and in which they are ultimately responsible for all global ills — which they elicit either through their own acts (e.g., Vietnam, the Iraq War, and countless other misguided episodes) or as “blowback” via the agents that arise in response to them (from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and Isis). This is an “anti-imperialism” that recognizes only one empire across the entirety of the last 150 years or so (and it’s not even Hardt and Negri’s globalized “Empire,” which marked an important advance on this kind of thinking).  

The problem is that the world has moved on. The US is no longer the world’s uncontested global hegemon. It may try to be, but it is not likely to recover that status, especially in the wake of Trump and the social divisions that brought the country close to the point of civil war. Its economic superiority has declined, and with global geopolitics being what they are in the late fossil fuel (becoming early green-energy) era, the economic world is clearly more scrambled and multipolar.

Militarily, the US is still the world’s strongest nation, but it relies for its strength on its allies, who are not as reliable as they used to be. China’s and India’s militaries are larger by personnel, and Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal.

The US’s cultural “superiority” — which, as Gramsci showed, is essential to hegemony — has also declined: Hollywood (with its selling of the “American dream”) is hardly all-powerful, popular music comes from everywhere today, and US-led cultural liberalism finds itself entangled in struggles against variations of a cultural conservatism that are arguably, if somewhat inchoately, finding common cause across “civilizational” boundaries. Russia’s information warfare on this front has indeed been powerful in many countries.

Where the US does still maintain a clear edge is with its tech giants — Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, et al. — but these are less American than they are global, and they compete within a global mix in which Chinese (Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, et al), Russian (Yandex, VK), and other companies carve out large swaths of territory, just as China’s Belt and Road Initiative is doing that for infrastructure.

Chomsky and others writing in the classic “anti-imperialist” mode are aware of these things, but they tend to relegate them to the sidelines. This means that they miss the ways in which new alliances, and potential new hegemonies, are emerging. The fact that the populations of China and India alone account for nearly 3 of the world’s 8 billion people, that their economies now make up nearly one quarter of the world’s, and that their relationship to the US-led world order is somewhat uncertain, tells us that things are shifting. The Global South is no longer a pawn and a battlefield for the superpowers of the North. Europe’s role in all of this is also complex and becoming more autonomous from the US’s.

And if the bigger picture is more complicated than Chomsky’s view suggests, the view from the ground is all the more so. Chapeye writes:

“I beg you to listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves.”

Analyzing geopolitics is essential to understanding the world, but it is also a tricky game if it becomes disconnected from the ethics of real-world events. Chomsky follows the political-economic realist’s playbook: What are the material and strategic interests of the powers that be? How have they come to be this way? But that misses the possibilities of the moment and ignores the agency and desire of everyday people, whose actions can reshape the possibilities for tomorrow’s world.

Hall, Bilous: responding to one-sided leftism

28 02 2022

When the world’s pre-eminent Marxist economic geographer, David Harvey, chimes in on an important current topic, many listen. (Some estimate Harvey to be the world’s pre-eminent living geographer, period.) His work from the 1970s to the 1990s was deeply insightful and is still considered required reading, even as it elicited rounds of critique (from feminists, postcolonialists, humanistic geographers, and others) that are still read alongside it.

To his critics, Harvey has always overemphasized the “relations of production” at the expense of cultural questions, and his “Remarks on Recent Events in the [sic] Ukraine” from a few days ago should surprise no one. Its assessment of post cold war geopolitics is partially accurate but one-sided, and a little oblivious to the multipolar disorder of the twenty-first century world. For any scholar familiar with Ukraine or (actual) Ukrainians, Harvey’s “view from space” (the kind of “god’s-eye view” that Donna Haraway had critiqued many years ago) appears somewhat clueless on the ground.

Political economist Derek Hall has written an astute rebuttal titled “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Response to David Harvey.” I recommend it to anyone struggling to reconcile an analysis of capitalist geopolitics with the current situation.

Among the pieces Hall cites is Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous’s “A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv,” which trenchantly critiques the “campism” of many western leftists, whose hyperfocus on “NATO expansion” not only blinds them to the reasons why so many post-Soviet and East European countries clamored for NATO accession after the fall of the USSR, but is generally inadequate to understanding the entangled complexities of today’s world.

The invasion of Ukraine and Ukrainians’ resistance to it presents about as clear a struggle between evil — in the form of a neo-imperialist and in many ways fascist Russian state — and the kind of spirited humanity that political activists of any stripe should recognize as worthy and admirable, or in other words, good. And its human costs are tragic.

Bojcun: Peering through the fog of war

29 08 2014

in “Peering Through the Fog of War,” Observer Ukraine’s Marco Bojcun provides another solid analysis of the current situation of unannounced war between Russia and Ukraine.

An excerpt:

“If on the one side we heard the apologists of the Kremlin insisting all this is just a Ukrainian civil war without Russian state intervention, from the other side we have had yet another kind of illusory and hopeful thinking: that the Ukrainian government can win the war in the east militarily, that with just a little more firepower the separatists can be defeated. And Russia would have to accept that fact and back off. The illusion in this line of thinking is twofold: first, that for Russia the goals of the war are limited to the subordination of Ukraine; and second, that the outcome of this war will be decided by the balance of brute force on the front.”

The entire article is worth reading.

The Nation, sanctions, & following the money

25 07 2014

Readers of The Nation and listeners of Democracy Now — two of the leading U.S. venues for left-wing thought — have been subjected to a somewhat incessant drumbeat of views sympathetic to the official Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As I’ve written here before, both Stephen Cohen and, more recently, his wife (and Nation editor/publisher) Katrina Vanden Heuvel have argued that the entire conflict should be blamed on the West — the U.S., its European and NATO allies, and pro-western and ostensibly right-wing Ukrainians.

In “Putin’s Pal,Slate‘s Cathy Young summarizes the case against Cohen’s (and Vanden Heuvel’s) views, while astutely contextualizing it within Cohen’s history of scholarship and commentary on the Soviet Union and Russia. While some of Cohen’s and Vanden Heuvel’s worries cannot be brushed away — war has its casualties and some of these will be civilians, on both sides or on no side — their narrative of U.S. and Ukrainian responsibility and Russian victimhood is unfair and their assessment of western media coverage also inaccurate.

And there’s little point in casting that conflict as merely a Ukrainian civil war, as Vanden Heuvel does. Any analyst of Russian (and Ukrainian) media ought to see that it is clearly a war — something between a cold war and a hot one — between Russia and Ukraine.

While The Nation itself continues its one-sided coverage, Nation Institute fellow Lee Fang writes, in “How Putin’s American Fixers Keep America’s Sanctions Toothless,” about how US-Russian economic ties create an effective lobby against sanctions, rather like the Israel lobby does the same with US relations with that country and its neighbor, Palestine.

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Stephen Cohen rides again

11 07 2014

I am blogging less here these days, and I expect that will continue through the summer (unless some radical change occurs in Ukraine and its relations with Russia).

One thing I shouldn’t let go without mention, however, is Stephen Cohen’s recent article in The Nation, “The Silence of American Hawks About Kiev’s Atrocities.” I’m one of the many Ukraine-watchers who disagree with Cohen’s analyses of Ukraine, who find them overfocused on geopolitics, oversympathetic to Putin and his nationalist/neo-imperialist regime, and almost completely lacking in on-the-ground knowledge of Ukraine itself.

The letters responding to Cohen’s article are worth reading; they can be found here. My own — third from the bottom on that page — is harsher than is my typical style, but as a long-time reader of The Nation, I can’t help feeling betrayed by it on this issue. I’m generally in agreement with the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer’s more detailed response.

Other Ukraine scholars tend to be less generous with Cohen (see, for instance, Alexander Motyl’s “Contradictions Define Kremlin Apologists“). But he is influential on the left and his defenses of Putin’s Russia deserve a hearing (however misguided they may be). My disagreement is less with Cohen’s right to speak his mind than it is with The Nation‘s unwillingness to look more deeply into the issues he writes about. Since Cohen is married to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, that may not be surprising; but readers should still press for better from the leading newsweekly on the U.S. left.

Western leftist conspiracy narratives: or, the devil in the details

23 06 2014

An article is circulating in the western left that alleges that Ukraine’s new president Poroshenko has been a “mole” for the U.S. State Department since 2006. The article is just one example of the kind of narrative I’ve seen circulating widely in the western anti-American left that overstates the U.S.’s role in Ukrainian affairs. Notably, the writers of these narratives tend to eagerly swallow up the “information” being spread by an authoritarian, right-wing state — Russia — in order to prop up their theories.

Here are some comments in response.

(For the record, plenty of articles circulate that have propaganda value but little factual value. I have previously shared, on this blog, some of those produced by Russian propaganda sources. One that seems to be produced by Ukrainian propaganda sources, or at least that seems to be spreading among anti-Russian bloggers, claims that the recent UN human rights report alleges that Russian security services, or Russian special forces, were behind the Odessa deaths of June 2. The UN report says no such thing.)

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More views from the left

2 06 2014

In “Eastern Ukraine: Popular Uprising, Conspiracy, or Civil War?” leftish cultural-political magazine n+1  presents a very interesting and diverse collection of interviews with left-wing activists in Ukraine and Russia on the events of the last few months.

And Observer Ukraine presents an interview with Left Opposition activist and lawyer Vitaliy Dudin.

An earlier interview with Zakhar Popovych (also included in the n+1 article) has been translated here.

Bojcun: Poroshenko’s sticky wicket

27 05 2014

In “The Chocolate King Walks Onto a Sticky Wicket,” left-wing Ukraine analyst Marko Bojcun provides an excellent overview of the prospects facing post-presidential election Ukraine: deteriorating socio-economic conditions, a fragile state, chaos in the eastern provinces, and so on.

The article is well worth reading.




Žižek: What Europe should learn from Ukraine

2 04 2014

In “What Europe Should Learn from Ukraine,” leftist cultural theorist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that the “Europe” Ukraine’s Euromaidan activists were aiming for was not an illusion, so much as it was a Europe that (EU member) Europeans themselves should be aiming to create.

Žižek writes:

“Predictably, many Leftists reacted to the news about the massive protests with their usual racist patronizing of the poor Ukrainians: how deluded they are, still idealizing Europe, not being able to see that Europe is in decline, and that joining European Union will just made Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe sooner or later pushed into the position of Greece… What these Leftists ignore is that Ukrainians were far from blind about the reality of the European Union: they were fully aware of its troubles and disparities, their message was simply that their own situation is much worse. [. . .]

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Crimethinc: Revolution & reaction togetherw

21 03 2014

In “The Ukrainian Revolution and the Future of Social Movements,” U.S.-based collective Crimethinc provides a relatively nuanced anarchist perspective on the Ukrainian revolution.

They write:

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