Our complicity with Vladimir Putin

See update for March 19, 2022, at end of post.

I have been infuriated by much of what I have seen on Twitter about Russia’s increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine.[1] A common formulation claims not to excuse Vladimir Putin or Russia but to somehow show that the U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Organization are at fault; I have already refuted this,[2] and have been blocking people who post such garbage and unfollowing people who retweet it, with the result that my Twitter feed is increasingly dominated by cat pictures with very little remaining of the sort of comment I once found interesting.

There has, nonetheless, been bias. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop has pointed to discrepancies in journalistic coverage between 1) that of refugees fleeing the onslaught in Ukraine and that of refugees from non-European places; and 2) that of war in Europe and that of war in non-European places.[3] To put this more viscerally, there are, in this story, discrepancies between 1) how we are viewing white and darker-skinned people, and 2) how we are viewing the places in which white and darker-skinned people live and migrate from.

We can take this further: What Putin has done to Ukraine is not functionally distinguishable from what George W. Bush and his successors did in Iraq, what the U.S. has done throughout its history in Latin America, including invading and forcibly annexing a significant chunk of Mexico, now the southwestern U.S., in the Mexican-American War. The genocide alleged in Ukraine[4] is not functionally distinguishable from that of what we now call the “West” against indigenous peoples. The examples go on but I am as harsh against those who point to these as some sort of justification for Putin’s invasion.

It is smarter to say that none of it is excusable, but still not smart enough. For the truth is that Putin’s brutality is far from exceptional. It is in fact intrinsic to our system of social organization, in which the state retains a monopoly on so-called “legitimate violence,”[5] but seeks the acquiescence of the ruled as preferable to endless violence to preserve the subjugation of an entire population,[6] and in which war can generally be reduced to a contest among rulers over which of them will control which territories and the people and resources within those territories.[7] What separates so-called “democracies,” really constitutional oligarchies,[8] from authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s in Russia is simply a matter of the degree of a pretense to “listen” to “the people,” to gain their consent.

Similarly, having deprived the poor of an equal share of the earth’s resources,[9] capitalism requires the poor to, in effect, enslave themselves to the rich in order to eat, in order to have shelter, in order to survive.[10] Some, as we have seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, call this “freedom,”[11] but it is in fact one form of structural violence.[12] The distinction here is between that of the strong physically brutalizing the weak and the rich withholding the necessities of life from the poor that are in fact a common inheritance of all human beings.[13]

Certainly, it is ludicrous to call Russia weak against Ukraine or NATO the aggressor against Russia. But in our criticism of Putin, and in our acquiescence to our present system of social organization, we should not forget our own complicity with, foundationally, the same violence that Putin now wages.

Update, March 19, 2022: I have added two citations to the original text, both to my earlier writings.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?” Not Housebroken, March 18, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/04/where-does-vladimir-putin-stop/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Poor Ukraine, so far from God and so close to Russia,” Not Housebroken, January 1, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/01/poor-ukraine-so-far-from-god-and-so-close-to-russia/; David Benfell, “The desperate attempt to blame anybody else for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Not Housebroken, March 3, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/03/the-desperate-attempt-to-blame-anybody-else-for-vladimir-putins-invasion-of-ukraine/
  3. [3]Jon Allsop, “The biases in coverage of the war in Ukraine,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 15, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/media_bias_ukraine_war.php
  4. [4]Rick Noack, “U.N. court orders Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, in a largely symbolic ruling,” Washington Post, March 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/16/icj-ukraine-russia-genocide/
  5. [5]Max Weber, “What is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114-116.
  6. [6]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, July 3, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/22/a-constitutional-oligarchy-deconstructing-federalist-no-10/
  9. [9]Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? trans. and ed. Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2007).
  10. [10]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  11. [11]David Benfell, “When confusion starts killing people, it is long past time to recognize it for what it is,” Not Housebroken, April 21, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/21/when-confusion-starts-killing-people-it-is-long-past-time-to-recognize-it-for-what-it-is/
  12. [12]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).
  13. [13]Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? trans. and ed. Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2007).

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