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The End of Ideology
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a world with fewer illusions.
In the early 1990s, as the world marched out of the Cold War with Capitalism triumphant, a quasi-religious faith took hold of a certain corner of academia. Economists declared “the end of history,” and the dawn of an age of peace and prosperity. The twentieth century had been a long, bloody struggle between three hostile ideologies, but now, both Fascism and Communism were defeated. The world would be remade in the victors’ image. The new order would be built upon an idealized, almost mystical foundation: a global, self-regulating free market system.
For decades, the dominant version of Capitalism had been a compromised one. In order to compete for hearts and minds against the socialist threat, Cold War Western governments established welfare states, put vital services like education and sanitation in the hands of the government, not the market, and made peace with trade unions. The United States was no exception, passing the Wagner Act and instituting the New Deal and the Great Society. But as Europe and Japan recovered from World War 2 and poor countries threw off their colonial shackles and industrialized independently, global trade competition stiffened. Western governments began embracing austerity and deregulation to compete with their upstart foreign rivals.
Then, the Wall fell, and with it the need to continue appeasing workers to forestall any troublesome revolutionary thoughts. Deregulation and industrial offshoring went into overdrive, and the transition to the “new,” “post-industrial,” “knowledge economy” began. Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats joined the Republicans as the junior party of Wall Street (a process that had in fact begun under Jimmy Carter). NAFTA passed. Welfare was effectively dismantled. The World Trade Organization was formed.
The Chicago School economists painted a beautiful picture of what these changes would bring. They insisted that the jobs offshored to countries like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Honduras would make those poor populations richer (and to varying extents, they did), while the loss of the U.S.’ industrial base would be more than made up for by all the newly created, high-paying service and information economy jobs (decades later, in large swathes of the U.S., this promise has yet to materialize). Meanwhile, “shock therapy”-style rapid economic liberalization would convert the former Soviet empire into a massive engine of wealth creation, as nationalized industries went private, and a vast laboratory for entrepreneurial innovation. China’s entry into the global trade system would end in market forces wearing away at the Communist Party’s political hegemony, bringing a peaceful democratic revolution to the biggest country in the world. Tied together by trade, war between nations would become a thing of the past. In fact, the nation-state itself would likely fade into second order significance, replaced by the new great actors on the world stage: corporations, new technologies, and globalized communications networks.
The reality turned out much differently, as the political left had long known it would. Instead of a thousand rural and post-industrial Silicon Valleys, in the regions that lost their manufacturing industries, we got unemployment and an epidemic of meth and opioid addiction. Instead of a Russian economic dynamo, we got mobbed-up oligarchs and Vladimir Putin. Instead of an Asian Jeffersonian democracy, we got a brand new form of Chinese authoritarian Capitalism. Even the very notion of economic expansion as a boon to humanity was turned on its head, as the threat of uncontrolled carbon emissions turned Capitalism into a catalyst of doom instead of prosperity. The Market Fundamentalists had assumed that trade would breed innovation which would free us from the material constraints of nature. The climate crisis showed that we can’t, in fact, transcend the basic physical reality of the Earth.
Revolutionary Marxism-Leninism had failed, but its old philosophical rival, Classical liberalism — now refashioned as Neoliberalism — had failed, too. Both ideologies were born of the Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment tradition, they each told a teleological fable that began with primitive Man in a State of Nature and climaxed with his freedom under a perfected social order. For the Marxists, that apotheosis was Communism; for the acolytes of John Locke and Milton Friedman, it was the self-regulating global free market.
The political left rejected this particular utopia, but not Enlightenment Utopianism itself. It’s true that environmentalists have long flirted with Malthusian fatalism, which is really just Enlightenment Utopianism through the other end of the telescope — the Fall of Man instead of his Redemption. But ultimately the environmental movement returned to the left’s conventional Enlightenment heritage, fusing old-school Marxist materialism with ecocentrism in the Green New Deal.
Though sketchier in its details and antagonistic in its political orientation, in its broad form, the Green New Deal wasn’t all that different from the Market Fundamentalist dogma it sought to replace. It too, was a fairy tale of the End of History, when humanity would achieve its final liberation. The inherent contradictions of Capitalism would be resolved, peacefully, into some form of Democratic Socialism. We would eliminate poverty. We would achieve global peace. And we would bring our consumption into balance with nature. And like Neoliberalism, it, too, required nothing short of a wholesale transformation of the way our economies and governments are structured and the ways we live our daily lives. Under the Neoliberal order, the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programs shredded social safety nets, minted billionaires while throwing millions of people out of work, put unprecedented limits on state sovereignty, and disrupted traditional cultural norms in countries all over the world. The Green New Deal would have required different, but no less radical upheavals. Both were projects, essentially, of elite-driven, utopian top-down revolution.
In 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world financial meltdown began, Neoliberalism died. In one fell stroke, the assumptions it rested on were proven spectacularly wrong: The free market was not self-regulating. Deregulation had not made markets more functional. The state was still needed — now more desperately than ever. The plain facts of the world we live in could no longer sustain the fantasies of the Chicago School economists.
Likewise, when the Russian army rolled into Ukraine, the Green New Deal died. Suddenly we live in a new reality — or rather, we inhabit the same reality but can no longer fail to recognize it for what it is.
Sanctions on Russia have exposed how dependent upon fossil fuels we really are. Germany, one of the world’s leaders in green energy, continues to resist calls to ban Russian oil and gas. Those “dirty” imports were supposed to serve merely as a bridge to carry the country between the shuttering of its nuclear power plants and its replacement of that energy with wind and solar. But in reality they undergird Germany’s entire base load.
Germany buys a third of its oil and a third of its natural gas from Russia, as well as more than half of its coal. Those energy sources won’t be replaced by renewables any time soon, and maybe never. Battery storage technology for renewables is prohibitively expensive and there’s no reason for confidence that those costs will come down. In the meantime, wind-generated energy is only available for as long as the wind is blowing, and solar only as long as the sun is shining. In order to prevent brownouts on windless and cloudy days, wind and solar farms have to be backstopped by energy from traditional fossil fuels plants. In other words, at the current level of technology, the sustainability of renewable energy depends entirely on the availability of fossil fuels. This is simply a fact of life, but one that most of us are only now beginning to acknowledge.
With Russian barrels of oil off the world market, gas prices are soaring. That doesn’t just make it more expensive to drive our cars and to buy products that are brought to us from afar; it could also make it prohibitively expensive for farmers eking out tiny profit margins to continue to operate their machinery. Fallow fields mean less food and surging food prices. At the same time, numerous other variables are also driving food costs up. Russia produces 15 percent of the world’s fertilizer and is a major source of key ingredients of fertilizer wherever it’s produced: nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Because of the war and the sanctions, costs of fertilizer have gone vertical. Ammonia is also a critical ingredient for fertilizer. Ammonia is a byproduct of natural gas, whose cost is surging worldwide both because of the sanctions on Russia and also because of Western countries’ replacement over the years of natural gas with renewables. If farmers can’t afford gas and they can’t afford fertilizer, then they can’t afford to farm. Throw into the mix a megadrought in the western United States, and we’re looking at the likelihood of a mass global famine of hundreds of millions of people.
The energy crisis that’s already wreaking havoc on the world is thus likely soon to be joined by a food production crisis. This is precisely the scenario that climate change prognosticators have warned of if we don’t take radical measures to stem carbon emissions: an old-fashioned international competition for scarce resources, but with the destructive capacity of today’s military technologies. But it didn’t even take catastrophic climate change to get here. All it took was a conventional, regional land invasion involving a country with a lot of fossil fuels. That was enough to upend our entire globalized world economy, which is still ultimately built atop oil and gas, and will probably remain so for generations.
You may have noticed, as I have, that old school geopolitics have become fashionable again. The discourse around the Russian invasion sounds a bit like what I remember from history classes about the twentieth century world wars: a lot of talk about balances of power, buffer zones, and access to raw materials. It’s all very spatial and physical, like a game of Risk or Axis and Allies. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it’s indicative of the world we now live in. In the near and medium terms, our international conflicts will be shaped not by ideologies, but by stuff. And by “stuff,” I mean things like fuel and food.
The Neoliberals were wrong: the interdependence of the nations of the world does not bring world peace. It brings exposure to cascading risk on a worldwide scale. We live in a physical world, which is divided by terrestrial, political, cultural and linguistic boundaries. We are not one people, we are many, and our interests are arrayed against one another. That’s not what I want it to be, it’s just what it is. Pretending it’s otherwise has not brought us peace; it’s brought us only catastrophic war. The age of ideology is over, and good riddance. We should stop pursuing these illusions and do the hard and complicated work of struggling to peacefully co-exist in a world with conflicting interests and no simple, romantic solutions. World history does not point us inevitably toward some common telos of human salvation. The best we can do is muddle through it.