‘The deeper we go into war, the more Putin stands to lose’

April 27, 2022

An Open Letter to my Brazilian friends and colleagues about the invasion of Ukraine, by FRANÇOIS CHESNAIS 

Download this letter as a PDF

In this letter I would like to explain to Brazilian friends and colleagues my position on the war in Ukraine, namely that it is a unilateral aggression by Russia. I received a message from a friend in which I detected the idea that the war can be understood as a legitimate response to a situation created by NATO. This “campist” position is encouraged by the fact that four Latin American countries that are at the forefront of the fight against the United States – Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and El Salvador – abstained in the vote in the UN General Assembly resolution condemning “aggression against Ukraine”. A dozen formerly colonial African countries did the same. The pro-Russia stance taken by the Monthly Review may also encourage the “anti-imperialist/anti-US camp” position.

Members of the independent miners union at the front, 12 April. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions

A deep hostility towards US imperialism (nurtured by more than a century of history dating back to the invasion of Cuba under President McKinley in 1898), which is shared with many militants of the South American left, risks making some of my friends and colleagues agnostic about, or even tolerant of, the invasion; unclear about its aims; and indifferent to the methods of warfare directed against civilian populations that are employed by the Russian military. Named a “special operation” by Vladimir Putin and his ministers, it is an aggression on the part of Russia with the aim of ousting the Volodymyr Zelensky government from power; perpetuating the separation of the Donbas regions in the east of the country; vassalising the central and western part of the country; and bringing the whole population to heel.

I recognise that my position is shaped by the fact that Russia falls within my geopolitical framework of thought as a European. The Stalinisation of the Comintern at the turn of the 1930s, and the international influence of Stalinism through the vassalisation of the countries of Eastern Europe, meant that revolutionaries in France, as in Italy and Spain, had to deal with powerful Communist Parties bound by the foreign policy of the USSR.

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Solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance. Six questions

April 19, 2022

People & Nature today publishes a discussion article about the Ukrainian resistance and international solidarity with it, here. It is structured around these six questions. Please read and share.

1. What does the “national question” mean, if anything, in the 21st century, and specifically with respect to the “Maidan revolution”?

2. What is the character of Russian imperialism, and of the Russian political elite around Putin?

3. What has been the character of the Russian wars of the 21st century, and of the forces against which Russia has fought? What is the character of Ukraine’s defensive war now?

4. What is the place of this war in the crisis of capital internationally?

5. How do we understand the danger of a wider war, arising e.g. from the western powers’ involvement in the conflict?

6. What to do?

To read more, go here.

London, 26 February. Photo by Steve Eason

Is this monstrous war of aggression really between two equal sides?

March 21, 2022

An open letter in response to the Manifesto Against War

Dear comrades,

I write in anger and sorrow about your Manifesto Against War, to which I turned in the hope of learning from you about how we can situate the anti-war movement in the wider struggle against capital.

Enumerating the causes of military conflict, you refer, first, to “the growing rivalry between the greatest imperialist powers”. Third is “Islamic fundamentalism”. But before that, second, comes that “the US government has positioned its military alliance system, NATO, against the Russian Federation to prevent the integration of the defunct Soviet empire’s successor into an enlarged, stable and peaceful European order with mutual security guarantees”.

Demonstrations in Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian armed forces are part of a people’s war

You don’t explain why you think that, in this age of the deep crisis of the capitalist system – which in your words “unleashes ever more violent struggles for geostrategic zones of influence” – such a “peaceful European order” could ever have been possible.

That hope, embraced by Mikhail Gorbachev and many social democrats in the 1990s, was surely dashed as the economic crises of neoliberalism (1997-98, 2008-09, etc) multiplied, as the Russian bourgeoisie emerged in its 21st-century form on one hand, and the alliance of western powers pursued their murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere on the other.

Download this letter as a pdf.

You don’t explain why you name the US government and NATO, and Islamic fundamentalism, as causes of the current war … but not the Russian elite, which actually started it.

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Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war

March 21, 2022

More than three weeks into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the dangers of a long-drawn-out conflict, or of a wider war, or both, hang in the air.

To gauge these dangers correctly and to build an effective ant-war movement, it is important to understand the war’s character.

Ukraine’s defensive war is both a war by the state and a “people’s war”, in my view; Russia’s war is an imperialist one, increasingly aimed at the population. I’ve commented on these things elsewhere (e.g. here, here, here). Here I focus on the western powers and their relations with Russia and Ukraine, and the deep crisis of capital that underlies these.

“Women in black”, an action inspired by Feminist Antiwar Resistance at the weekend. Participants in cities across Russia carried white flowers to remember victims of the conflict in Ukraine

Those western powers have levied massive, unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. Their leaders have stated repeatedly that, while they will supply Ukraine with weapons, they fear an escalation of the conflict and will not introduce a no-fly zone – for which they have been repeatedly denounced by president Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been equally insistent that NATO threatens Russia; his declared war aims include “demilitarisation” of Ukraine and the end of “NATO expansion”.

In the western anti-war movement, the issue of NATO expansion comes up in two ways.

On one hand, politically: post- or proto-Stalinist tendencies, and some others, taking their cue from the Kremlin, not only accept (without much explanation) that NATO expansion is a major threat, but also argue that NATO bears more responsibility than Russia for causing the war (yes, you read that correctly), and is at least as significant a political target as the Kremlin. I have written about these corrupt, damaging arguments elsewhere, and Ukrainian socialists have answered them (e.g. here, here and here).

On the other hand, there is genuine fear that the war could escalate beyond Ukraine, and that the western powers could become involved militarily, producing a disaster even greater than that now enveloping millions of Ukrainians.

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Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

January 5, 2022

Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.

(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)

One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.

1. How do we define “energy”?

When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.

Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.

Protestors from the Canada Real shanty town in Madrid, saying “light is not a luxury, it’s a right”

It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.

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Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

January 5, 2022

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

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And if energy itself is unjust?

December 17, 2021

A response by Larry Lohmann to the article How Energy was Commodified, and How it Could be Decommodified

The way that industrial capitalism and 19th-century thermodynamic energy – the energy we talk about today – have constituted each other, and what this means for political movements, is something that colleagues and I been struggling to understand, off and on, for many years. So Simon Pirani’s paper How Energy was Commodified, and How it could be Decommodified, was extremely stimulating for me.

I share Simon’s view that understanding energy as commodity and as commons is crucial for the struggles ahead. But his paper also reawakened a certain uneasiness about the way issues of “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are typically framed by the left, especially in the global North.

In August 1842, during a strike in Lancashire, in the UK, against wage cuts by cotton mill owners, workers pulled the boiler plugs from the steam engines. Their action became known as the “plug plot riots”. Photo from Underground Histories

Usually I abbreviate this unease by saying that the issue cannot be only that the distribution of energy is unjust or undemocratic (which it is). Or that structures of extraction, production, distribution, access, governance, planning and use of energy are unjust and undemocratic (which they are). There has to be a lot more. And that without taking account of this “more”, the best-intentioned efforts to address these distributional/administrative/governance/cultural types of issue are eventually going to come to grief (or already have).

Simon’s work helps pin down what some of this “more” is – namely that energy, when treated as a commodity, is always going to have these issues, and that the further step of searching out and linking together existing and potential moves toward energy-as-commons ought to be more integrated into popular strategy.

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Ukraine 1917: socialism and nationalism in a world turned upside down

November 1, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918, by Marko Bojcun (Brill, 2021, 413 pages)

October 1917: the climax of the revolution we have always called “Russian”, but was so much more. In Petrograd, the old empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Tsentral’na Rada (central council) that had since the summer pressed for Ukrainian autonomy within the Russian state.

The Rada, like all the parliamentary institutions emerging in the empire’s ruins, sat atop a furious movement – in the army and the countryside as much as the towns – that was beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government, but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.

In the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Marko Bojcun writes,

there grew a powerful tendency, cutting across party lines, to support the formation of a government of Ukraine as long as it was based on the councils locally and nationally, and on the condition it maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government. It was not a question of simply adapting the Russian experience, but of attempting to build with indigenous social forces on the basis of the institutions of popular representation that the revolution in Ukraine had so far created (page 206).

The councils had recognised the Rada – but on condition that it “recognised them as the local governments and agreed to its own re-election by them” (page 201). Such a reorganisation had been proposed in the Rada itself in June, at an all-Ukrainian congress of workers’ councils in July and a soldiers’ congress in October.

The left wings of the populist Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had urged remaking the Rada as a soviet body during the summer. Then Ukrainian Bolsheviks – and organisations of mostly Russian-speaking workers dominated by them – joined the call: the council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Kharkiv in September, and in Kyiv, Katerynoslav, Kremenchuk, Kherson and Odessa in November.

Ukrainian soldiers demonstrating in support of national autonomy, March 1917, St Petersburg

The Mykolaiv council resolved to “enter into constructive relations” with the Rada, the Luhansk council to support it on condition it upheld the decisions of the October soviet congress in Petrograd that had declared soviet power. By Bojcun’s count, “at least seven of the ten most populous cities of Ukraine” favoured sovietising the Rada – implying overwhelming support, since Russian and Jewish populations, who might have been more likely to question national autonomy, were concentrated in the larger cities.

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Social and ecological crisis: it’s about living differently

September 21, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Imperial Mode of Living: everyday life and the ecological crisis of capitalism (Verso, 2021), by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen

Download this book review as a PDF

Imagine, if you will, a British trade union branch that votes to oppose expansion of the local airport. After their meeting, some members head for the pub.

“That was a good decision. It’s not working class people flying in those planes”, says Tom.

“But working class people do fly”, says Richard. “My neighbour is a working class person. He goes to Portugal twice a year with his whole family. And he drives a BMW. We’ll never protect the environment if people like that don’t wake up.”

Harriet chips in. “Your neighbour is an exception. Most working class people will be lucky to get one holiday abroad during the year. And we’ll never win them to the cause of transition away from fossil fuels by asking them to make personal sacrifices. Why should they?”

For crying out loud, comrades. You haven’t even got the beer in yet, and you’re recycling stereotypes. You’re talking about individuals “waking up”, or about whether “we” (who?!) will ask them to sacrifice.  

Earth Day 1970: a student smells a magnolia through a gas mask in New York. Were the 1970s a missed opportunity?

At this point in the conversation – and believe me, I have sat through similar ones – I would be hoping for someone to remind us that it just isn’t that simple, to talk about the social and economic structures that underlie consumption … and to suggest that maybe it’s “our” thinking that needs to shift, towards better understanding these structures and the way they shape workers’ lives in rich countries.

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Defining the “imperial mode of living”

September 21, 2021

This excerpt is reproduced with thanks from The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. Translation by Zachary Murphy King. It goes with a People & Nature review, here.

Defining the concept

The core idea of the concept is that everyday life in the capitalist centres is essentially made possible by shaping social relations and society–nature relations elsewhere, i.e. by means of (in principle) unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks – ecosystems (such as rainforests and oceans in the case of CO2) that absorb more of a particular substance than they emit into their environment – on a global scale.[1]

The capitalist centres fundamentally depend on the the way in which societies elsewhere and their relation to nature are organised so that the transfer of the products of (often cheap) labour and elements of nature from the global South to the economies of the global North is guaranteed. Conversely, the imperial mode of living in the global North structures societies in other places in a decisively hierarchical way. We choose the vague expression “elsewhere” quite consciously. Many necessary everyday items are tied to a range of activities that are invisible during their purchase, consumption and use: the origin of raw materials used in household appliances, medical devices or transport; water and energy infrastructures; the working conditions under which these materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for these. “Cultural products”, such as print or digital media, are also part of this invisible economy.

The invisibility of the social and ecological conditions is precisely what enables us to experience the buying and use of these products as a natural given. “Food from nowhere” is what the agrarian sociologist Philip McMichael has called this strategy of obscuring the origins and production of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalised.[2] Examples include grapes from Chile offered in northern cafeterias in winter, tomatoes grown and picked by undocumented migrant workers in California for the North American market or by illegalised workers in Andalusia for the Northern European market, and shrimps for the global North that are farmed by destroying Thai or Ecuadorian mangrove forests. But it also includes the disastrous environmental conditions and cheap labour power of Romanian workers in German meat factories that ensure cheap meat in Germany and neighbouring countries.

Picking tomatoes in Mozambique. Photo by Bram Berkelmans / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the “imperial mode of living” points towards the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North.[3] And it works, increasingly, in the countries with “emerging economies” of the global South, as well. However, we mean not only material practices but also, and especially, the structural conditions and guiding social principles and discourses that make these practices possible. To put it pointedly: the standards of a “good” and “proper” life, which often consists of the imperial mode of living, are shaped by everyday life, even when they are a part of comprehensive societal relations, and especially of material and social infrastructures.[4]

In this respect, our concept of a “mode of living” stands in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci and regulation theory, as we assume that a contradictory social form such as capitalism can only reproduce itself if it is embedded in everyday practices and common sense, thereby becoming, so to speak, “natural”. With the adjective “imperial” we want to emphasise – now moving beyond Gramsci – the expanding global and ecological dimensions of this mode of living (again, also within the countries of the global North).

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