Reflections on the Performative Dimensions of the War in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is damningly situated between two imperialist forces – the US and Russia. And, of course, we must be suspicious of either country’s claims about what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. To me, as a critic of US foreign policy for decades, it is clear that the conflict in Ukraine is a US proxy war designed to bleed Russia, to embroil Russia in what we could consider as a ‘new Afghanistan.’ At the same time, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is unequivocally an abhorrently imperialist criminal act. Ukraine is not a perfect democracy, but neither is it a neo-fascist state on the order of Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been a steady feature of the US news media, especially as it has been carried by CNN. The familiar faces of journalists and news commentators that Americans have, for the most part, learned to trust over many years of viewership have carried stories of daily atrocities carried out by Russian forces in Bucha, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities. I, along with many on the left, have been outraged by such brutality. Some of my students and comrades have understandably asked me: are countervailing claims that attempt to debunk these Russian atrocities really hypertrophic examples of Russian propaganda? I tell them that I don’t know for sure. Yet we watch in horror Russian war protestors sentenced to years in prison for peacefully speaking out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We read about Russian war crimes. We make the assumption that these crimes are true – as I have in some recent articles without knowing for sure if these have been provable claims because I have come to trust certain journalists. These crimes certainly could be true. But on the other hand, we also read about events that we assume are backed by credible sources (we’ve come to trust these journalists, too) that claim some of the alleged crimes are false flag operations created by Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Regiment. My friends and students are confused. What are they to believe? They have read that the Azov Regiment has been trained and armed by the CIA. It’s possible, I tell them. Check your sources against other sources. What sources do you consider trustworthy, and why? What are the primary and secondary sources of your information? Who has fact-checked them? Have secondary sources confirmed your information? But let’s keep in perspective that only 2.5% of Ukrainians voted for far-right or neo-fascist parties in the last national elections.

Many concerned citizens on the right and the left who are struggling to understand the war are not quite sure what is fact and what has been deceptively fictionalized, prompting questions such as: How do we judge the highly politicized events that occur in the theatre of war? Are the reports from Kyiv fake? Was the shelling of a hospital in Volnovakha, in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a ‘false flag’ operation carried out by the Azov Regiment? I remind my students that they must be wary of the daunting power of Russian propaganda. Look at how the Russians interfered with the election of Trump, I tell them. The US has waged propaganda wars against other countries during elections, too, we all agree. And, of course, my students already know the power of US media, having read the works of Noam Chomsky. The answers to these questions may never be definitively known until years, perhaps even decades, after the conflict has officially ended. In the meantime, questions continue to be raised by students, friends, family members and even relative strangers: What was the involvement of the US in the Euromaidan uprising and the ensuing 2014 coup? Do the Russians think that they did not invade Ukraine because, in Putin’s terms, Ukraine doesn’t exist? Are Western political actors using neo-Nazis to destabilise Ukraine? Is Putin trying to regain the lost glory of the USSR? Do some members of the left who support Russian claims about the invasion (what the Russians refer to as a ‘special military operation’, not an invasion) really look nostalgically to the former USSR as an anti-imperialist alternative? Some do, I reply, judging by their association with particular journals. I certainly do not. Are asking such countervailing questions justified as a healthy epistemic scepticism that we come to expect as part and parcel of critical inquiry, or are they to be regarded as mere callous cynicism? Have we been denying the observations of Eastern Ukrainian eye-witnesses? Do we in the West have some cultural blind spots when it comes to understanding the war in Ukraine? Did Biden try to announce the war into existence, or did he attempt to stop it? Did the Ukrainian government prohibit the Russian language in the Donbas region? Why haven’t we been taught more about the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations? Are these questions posed by left Western critics simply a casualty of hopelessness, of being jaded from so many years of investigating US crimes against humanity? Surely we can no longer deny the imperialist crimes of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, to name just a few invasions by a country that poses the greatest threat to the survival of the human species, according to Noam Chomsky. Can we trust the propaganda of a virulently imperialist country that is framing the entire coverage of the war in Ukraine along with Big Tech and corporate power? By the same token, can we trust Russian propaganda? Can we trust a leader who despises democracy as much as Putin? I certainly find it difficult to erase the murderous history of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, director of the Soviet secret police, so do I need to ‘bracket’ this information in order to make me more clear-headed on the Russian invasion led by a former KGB officer? I am also a fan of Pussy Riot. Does that exclude me from evaluating the current events in Ukraine? The truth is, we are all populated by other people’s opinions. It’s difficult to escape the ideological bedrock of our viewpoints built up from associations we have made throughout our lives. As Marx observed, our human nature is rooted in sensuous life, and the essence of being human is no abstraction inherent in each individual but rather an ensemble of the social relations that constitute our subjectivity. Ideological formation is a natural consequence of our lived experiences, forged in the deep undercurrents of what I have called the macrostructural unconscious. Understanding how ideologies are constitutive of our everyday lives enables us to reflect upon why we acquiesce to the root-and-branch deceptions of the corporate media, who possess all the latest technologies for manufacturing our loyalty to them and the capitalist class which they serve.

History has given us a right to be suspicious. We have a right to challenge mainstream media claims about what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. But that does not mean that Russian war crimes have not occurred simply because we learn about them from the corporate media. They well could have occurred. In certain instances, we need to rely on proper investigations – some of which will no doubt amount to forensic evaluations – before we jump to judgement either way. But what to do in the meantime?

What is not in question is that Russia is an enemy of democracy. And so is much of the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Of course, there is a dirty involvement of the US and NATO in Ukraine. And, of course, Russia has its own imperialist agenda, and not all of its concerns are legitimate, by any means. Was the attack on the town of Klimovo that Moscow blamed on Ukrainian forces really carried out by Russian forces? Quite possibly. In an earlier conflict, did Russian operatives blow up apartments in Moscow, claiming Chechen terrorists were responsible? I’m certainly willing to consider that possibility. Do we remember the Russian bombing of Aleppo? If so, how much did we in the West try to prosecute that atrocity as a war crime? And how much did we help the victims? Not as much as for those who fled the war in Ukraine. Perhaps because these victims were not blonde and blue-eyed?

What remains clear, and indisputable, is that the Russians have invaded Ukraine, and its citizens are suffering and dying. Millions of Ukrainians and soldiers from both sides of the war have become casualties of war, a war that need not have happened. And we need to bring about an end to the bloodshed. Clearly, a first step is to demand that Russia leave Ukraine immediately. Putin has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. We are facing an existential crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. What will be the consequences if Sweden and Finland join NATO? We need rational diplomatic decisions here. Impulsive, emotional reactions could lead to World War 3. We need to take a principled stand against fascism, and while we can be critical of the Azov regiment, it is clear that Russia’s neo-fascist regime poses a much greater threat to democracy. We need to win the battle for democracy. And that means recognizing that the survival of political democracy today is at stake and depends on our efforts in creating anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-gender equality movements, which are essential precursors to a socialist alternative to capitalism.

What we as educators can do is try to understand more critically the means and mechanisms that enable us to differentiate between politicized speculation and cognizable justification for the use of military force. And have as our central objective the bringing about of peace.

So, where should those of us who seek a critical perspective on such matters stand? The study of polemology, or war studies, involves examining the history of war, its geopolitical foundations, the history of the successes and failures of diplomacy, its relationship to transformations within capitalism, its external and internal contingencies, conflict theory, theories of propaganda and the sociology of conflict, the study of religious wars, just war theory, deterrence theory, the economics and ethics of war, international relations, and so on. But, in each of these fields of study, ideology will necessarily play a significant role. Understanding that role will require a fundamental grasp of how opinions, ideas, arguments and judgements are implicated in our own everyday formation as human beings – how consent is manufactured within the political economy of the mass media, to echo the brilliant work by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Understanding the history of capitalism (for example, the role that state capitalism played in the history of the Soviet Union and that corporate capitalism played in US history) is an important step. And of vital importance is exploring how international socialism could prove to be a viable means to end all wars that could lead to mutually assured destruction.

We can’t always sit in seminar rooms to engage in these debates while people are being blown apart, which is why we need to do all we can to end this criminal invasion now. Of course, we need to engage in a range of perspectives on the war. What did Baudrillard mean when he argued that the Gulf War was not really a war but rather an iniquity which masquerades as a war? Is the mass media merely manipulating our perception of the war in Ukraine as hyperreal, as a simulacrum of its own existence? How do we understand the effects of a war whose very phenomenology and ontology are being altered by the mass media, serving as a trompe l’oeil generating station that transforms the reality of war into a phantom of its own appearance? War as a US media spectacle transverses the distinction between fact and fiction, illuminating with no small touch of irony the many ways in which Western society is at war with itself.

We have long understood that television shows are really the filler for the commercials and not the other way around. In what sense, then, is the war in Ukraine an advertisement to sell high-tech weaponry to countries wishing to build up their arsenals? Wow, look at the size of that crater! Which armament did this? Let me order a thousand of those. Out of stock? Damn!

Have we foreclosed the possibility of ending the new Cold War, commanded by our resignation to the idea that the US and Russia represent a clash of civilizations with Russian truth facing off against Western truth in an endless return of the same?

Peace is no longer the opposite of war in a time of total war. There is no opposite to war. In an age in which Covid conspiracies have merged with staged, fact-free appearances of the war in Ukraine, what can we expect from our leaders who have politically aligned themselves with such conspiracies? Are space aliens now preparing to intervene in Ukraine? War is a concept that is now holding humanity hostage, in permanent disorientation. The transmogrification of war into conflict without end has effaced its historical distinction from the condition we call peace, as war becomes a choice between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ conflicts. We now talk about war as the only path to peace in a lawless world. War has become a permanent feature of our capitalist world – it is an extension of the violence that is spawned by mimetic desire at the root of religious sacrifice. War is, thus, our sacrifice to the god of capital. Were we not warned by those Biblical prophets who spoke of the eschaton? And what is to be sacrificed in wars that can never be won? Everything! War is a prodigal son to our macrostructural unconscious. It returns, again and again, in triumph only to reaffirm the logic of its conditions of possibility that guarantees its return. And that condition is known as capitalism (that in theological terms translates into the worship of money), which is less than a logic and more a set of social and economic relations that now permeate our social universe of value production.

We can increase our resilience to the far-reaching effects of war by our efforts at peacebuilding, as military engagements are not the solution to a lasting peace. Peacebuilding requires we understand not only the causes of war but the performative dimensions of how war is manufactured in and through the media that too many of us rely upon to interpret today’s world-historical events. And, here, there is much to be done. But, as socialists and revolutionaries, we err if we think we can forget about the importance of the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy does not mean we stop at the defence of bourgeois democracy – we transcend bourgeois democracy since we know that true democracy can only be developed out of the seedbed of socialism. And, for the time being, this means expanding political democracy at the level of the state before we can celebrate its demise.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Reflections on the Performative Dimensions of the War in Ukraine. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.