The Risks of Omnicide Escalate as War Intensifies in Ukraine

Many observers of the war in Ukraine sincerely believe that they have a clear and convincing answer to why the war is being fought, what accounts for its dominant ontology of violence, and who is benefiting from the ensuing conflagration that entails grave socio-political, ethical, and environmental consequences devasting for the entire world. This war represents a foundational existential crisis of the first magnitude. It calls to question who we are as human beings and what principles guide us in our search for a more human world where we can pursue our ontological vocation of becoming more fully human, as Paulo Freire might put it. Is this war founded on some onto-metaphysical paradigm of a crazed philosophical Rasputin who administers intellectually to Putin, or is it guided by a logical and rational imperative – to defend against the imperial aggression of a Western superpower?

Some of my comrades have asked me why the struggle for democracy is so important in understanding the war in Ukraine, Lady Liberty’s vulnerability so harrowingly symbolized in the US by the recent Republican coup that resulted in the violent takeover of the Capitol building on January 6, 2020. I would answer that it is because state capitalism’s consolidation on the part of the transnational capitalist class has led to the rise of neo-fascist regimes, including India, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, India as well as the Putin wing of the Republican Party populated by neo-fascist Trumpists in the US. Let’s not forget that Trump both incited the January 6 coup and justified the carnage left in its wake. Putin, like Trump, is fearful of democracy. He grew alarmed by the scale of the protests both inside and outside of what he considers his rightful sphere of influence. He feared that pro-democracy protests might swell in numbers, enough to bring down his own government.

One of Putin’s advisors is the contemporary philosopher, Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin (a Russian academic who commands significant influence over Putin), a.k.a. ‘Putin’s Rasputin.’ Dugin is a fanatical ideologue and professor at Moscow State University and one of the world’s most dangerous Christo-nationalists. Dugin has advocated the murder of Ukrainians and the wholesale banning of chemistry and physics, two ‘demonic’ modernist sciences, and he would also like to trash the internet if it were in his power. Dugin reveals a quaint reverence for Ivan the Terrible and Stalinist and Tzarist Russia and maintains that Orthodox Russians have the capacity to be truer fascists than Mussolini’s Italian fascists and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Dugin looks at history from the perspective of maritime nations versus land-based nations. He prophesizes the demise of secular liberalism that he believes supports a move towards a world government run by corporate elites, and he looks to a fourth geopolitical alternative grounded in Heideggerian Dasein, located in a multipower political arrangement with Russia recapturing its lost empire as head of what Dugin calls the Eurasian Union.

Dugin’s current opponent is Atlanticism, the cooperation between the group of maritime liberal nations of Europe, the US and Canada, which value individuality and market forces. Eurasia, by telling contrast, represents the conservative philosophy of hierarchical structure, law and order, traditionalism and religion. He compares modernity to ‘Satanism and degeneration’ and wishes to return to a medieval world ruled free from ‘science, values, philosophy art, modes, patterns, ‘truths,’ understanding of Being, time and space.’ He supports disinformation campaigns against the US and encourages a politics of extreme American isolationism. Dugin sees modernity and the Enlightenment tradition and the United States as essentially the product of a rootless and materialist society fallen from grace and seeks its remedy in a mishmash of esoteric teachings. One can imagine him pining for the vast power of the lost Soviet empire and longing for the creation of a Russian Orthodox state (there have been several unsuccessful attempts to fuse images of Stalin and Putin with those of Orthodox Christianity. And we shouldn’t forget, contrary to the established Catholic apologetic narrative, that the Catholic Church refused to denounce Hitler and the Nazis during WW2. Clearly, the silence of Pope Pius XII on the fate of the millions of Jews killed during the Holocaust has cast shame on the role of the Church).

Dugin is convinced that ‘the Roman Empire and its medieval European successor are the best models for combating liberal modernity. His view of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe exalts the triumphs of monolithic white, Christian nationalism.’ He desires to return to ‘a time when there was a unified Christianity under an all-encompassing church.’ Steve Bannon is the US counterpart to Dugin, an American Svengali, a Rasputin figure of the ‘America First’ nationalist cause whose apocalyptic ideas will unite with the Great American Spirit of agrarian and industrial workers to crush the pawns of the transnational financial elite and usher in the new dawn for rural and inner-city America.

Marxist humanist Peter Hudis makes an important point about the necessity of the ongoing struggle for political democracy when he provides us with an astute example of the history of racial justice in the various domains of political, liberal, and bourgeois democracy. The Black freedom struggles in the US were a central part of this struggle and still are. Hudis writes:

The struggle against slavery forced US capitalism to agree to the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution that abolished slavery and extended citizenship to African Americans. Both are integral to the democratic liberties we enjoy today (let’s not forget that birthright citizenship as well as same-sex marriage obtained legal sanction through the application of the 14th amendment). The abolition movement and anti-slavery revolts also led to the 15th amendment, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race; while a reactionary Supreme Court stood in the way of its application for a century, it served as the basis of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts – which millions of Americans devoted their lives to achieving during the Civil Rights Movement.

Expanding the prerogative of democracy has been inextricably bound up with the liberation of people of colour. (Let’s not forget that Marx supported the North in the US Civil War).

Hudis reminds us of the need to fight state functions (like the suppression of voting rights now happening in numerous state initiatives in the US) in order to overcome the repressive structures of the capitalist state. We can support sovereignty for Ukraine without siding with either NATO or Russia. Hudis underscores a fundamental point when he asserts that

National self-determination is an integral principle of revolutionary Marxism and Marxist-Humanism: we oppose all state powers and political tendencies that stand in its way. That does not mean that movements for national liberation are ends-in-themselves or free of contradictions: there has never been a nationalist movement, either in this country or in any other one, that has not contained bourgeois and regressive tendencies – and, in some instances, imposed discriminatory practices against other groupings or nationalities within its borders (stating that fact is, of course, no excuse for them). But those contradictions can only be faced, fought out, and resolved through open and ongoing democratic discussion and debate – which Putin, along with a slew of other rulers around the world and the Republican Party in the US, is seeking to destroy.

Noam Chomsky (2022) underscores Putin’s stupidity in his decision to invade Ukraine, which Chomsky describes as a state-sponsored act of aggression comparable to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, as well as the 1939 invasion of Poland by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, in that it amounted to a geopolitical gift to the United States, who now can call the shots in Europe. Hudis expands on this point, noting that

the EU countries are now increasing their military spending well beyond the 2% of GDP the US has been fruitlessly urging them to do for years – something that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. And public opinion in Europe has swung solidly behind Ukraine, with rallies of up to 500,000 in Berlin and elsewhere. If you support NATO and wish for its expansion – which I certainly do not – then you have no one to blame more for its impending consolidation and empowerment than Putin himself.

Europe’s role as an independent force in international affairs has been diminished. The US and its Atlanticist program have prevailed. Note to our subordinates: Arm yourselves to the teeth with US weaponry and follow our lead in defending the world from those hydra-headed beasts, China and Russia. And the arms dealers are laughing all the way to the bank.

Chomsky questions the appropriate kind of military aid the West should give Ukrainians to defend themselves. And, as usual, he offers some lucid advice. He maintains that the military aid should be ‘enough to defend themselves, but not to lead to an escalation that will just simply lead to massive destruction.’ In other words, enough to deter the aggressor but not bring in military hardware that could escalate the conflict into a nuclear catastrophe. This makes sense, especially considering the current state of nuclear war planning. Western democracies can send weapons to Ukraine for the purpose of self-defence but not the kind of weaponry that would tempt the US to implement its Dr Strangeloveish ‘counterforce option.’ The US has shifted from the idea that a nuclear war would lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD) of hundreds of thousands of people from the populations of both warring factions to that of ‘counterforce’ – the idea that with the modernization of its nuclear arsenal, the US now has the capability of taking out all of Russia’s nuclear strike capabilities in a first strike, and thus can evade the consequences of MAD.

However, a first strike would lead to nuclear winter where the entire population of the planet would be destroyed. John Bellamy Foster writes that

the idea of a first strike is that the attacker – and only the United States has anything near this capability – strikes the land-based missiles, whether in hardened silos or mobile, and by tracking the submarines is in a position to eliminate them as well. The role of anti-ballistic missile systems is then to pick off whatever retaliatory strike remains. Naturally, the other side, namely Russia and China among the great nuclear powers, know all of this, so they do everything they can to protect their nuclear deterrent or retaliatory strike capability.

Foster notes that Russia and China have developed hypersonic missiles that move so quickly they cannot be stopped by anti-ballistic missile systems. This allows these countries to protect their retaliatory capabilities and counter the overwhelming military advantage of US/NATO dominance in the use of satellites to target their enemies. That’s why the Russian and Chinese militaries have been focusing on anti-satellite weapons in order to take this advantage away from the US/NATO. Foster writes that military establishments are ignoring the role of firestorms in nuclear warfare. Firestorms caused by nuclear strikes on 100 cities would effectively block 70% of the solar energy reaching the earth. Few people could survive the mass destruction of vegetative life that would follow such strikes, amounting to what Foster calls ‘planetary omnicide.’

And yet the US is still looking at a counterforce option, seemingly ignoring the role of the firestorms that would follow. Biden has missed a historic opportunity to alter the first-strike policy of the US, which is virtually indistinguishable from that of Russia. As it stands, both countries are allowed to engage in a first strike if they face an existential threat or if they conceive their vital interests to be threatened. This, and the fact that the Biden administration has decided to deploy the ‘low-yield’ W76-2 warhead on nuclear submarines, not only gives Russia more of an excuse to deploy low yield nuclear weapons against Ukraine, but it has cost Biden the opportunity to build a more robust international coalition against nuclear war, reports Sara Sirota. But it certainly benefits the defence industry.

Chomsky argues correctly that the priority right now is to save Ukraine from complete destruction through a negotiated settlement that would ensure autonomy for Ukraine, but, like the case of Mexico and the US, would not allow Ukraine to work with foreign governments hostile to Russia. Chomsky puts it this way:

Demilitarization doesn’t mean getting rid of all your arms. It means getting rid of heavy weapons connected to the interaction with NATO aimed at Russia. What his terms meant basically was to turn Ukraine into something like Mexico. So Mexico is a sovereign state that can choose its own way in the world, no limitations, but it can’t join a Chinese-run military alliance in placing advanced weapons, Chinese weapons, on the US border, carrying out joint military operations with the People’s Liberation Army, getting training and advanced weapons from Chinese instructors and so on.

This sounds eminently reasonable.

And Chomsky wisely recommends a referendum on the Donbas region, one that would be internationally supervised in order to understand what the people of the region desire. Chomsky laments the failure to capitalize on solutions that were available for the Donbas region during the Minsk II agreements, which was a provision for some form of autonomy in the region within a broader Ukrainian Federation along the lines of Switzerland or Belgium.

We don’t have to accept Russian national imperialist domination or the Atlanticist imperial vision of the US, which wishes to preserve a unipolar world with the US nuclear fist-pumping at the helm. We can acknowledge that the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep was one of the great crimes of the twentieth century. We can condemn both sides of this intra-imperialist conflict. But, at the same time, we can stand in solidarity with the victims of Ukraine, as we should.

We must continually ask ourselves: How do we develop a society that creates conditions for breaking down alienated social relations? How do we fight against the suppression of democracy? How do we avoid the problems of previous revolutions that turned into their opposite? How do we develop theoretical work and concomitant organizations that provide a cogent and committed intersectional understanding of and appreciation for race, class and gender relations – relations that arc toward a new humanism nested in a society in which there exists social ownership of the means of production, democratic control, and workers’ self-management of enterprises, where social welfare is pursued over profit, where our social universe is not grounded in the production of value or the accumulation of monetized wealth?

At a time in which the recalcitrant realities of our existential existence include ecocide and species extinction, the possible nuclear annihilation of the human race, or other tribulations besetting our social universe, how do we create this new humanism based upon open and creative inquiry and an understanding of alternate forms of social reproduction without smuggling our conclusions into our premises and thereby foreclose dialogue with others? How do we replace alienated social relations with openness, self-responsibility and solidarity? In our entanglement with worldly affairs, how do we build life-affirming relations committed to human worth and dignity, empathy, and compassion, so that we act with the purpose of minimizing harm to others? In a world saturated with violence, how can we inspire a society populated by a mutually-affirming citizenry, by collective subjectivities able to challenge cynicism and despair?

These questions cannot merely be pushed aside in our struggle to replace capitalism with a socialist alternative or remain unremitting in a socialist triumphalism or defence of a raw exertion of power such that we disinherit accomplishments of the past or take refuge in hyperbolic rhetoric or transcendent explanations under cover of some proletariat purity. We can be guided by a visionary realism, a concrete utopia rooted in everyday life rather than abstract utopian socialism, one that will prevent us from prefiguring an abstractly unrealizable future that will sink us into the quicksand of despair before we get our socialist hands deep into the praxis demanded of all real struggles. This stipulates that we take up the challenge of what Freire calls ‘untested feasibility’ and start our journey down the long and winding path to justice, making the road while walking, but in an educated gait and in a mindful rather than purely contingent direction. Utilizing alternative geographies of knowledge as our compass, we may find ourselves in ancient footsteps of paths well-trodden or in paths that lead to nowhere. But it is a risk we must necessarily take. Too much is at stake.

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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.