The Haunted Mansion of Modern Freedom
Ukraine and the Failed Pax Capitalis
This essay is also published at ABEAUTIFULRESISTANCE.ORG.
The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History
During the previous three decades, a particularly new and ahistorical view of the world has arisen in the modern, “civilised,” capitalist West. Famously elaborated by an advisor to Ronald Reagan and later repeated by both liberal and conservative politicians, theorists, and academics, and also iterated constantly through mass news and entertainment media, we have come to believe that our particular political, social, and economic arrangements are advanced—and superior—modes of being.
In other words, we have arrived at the “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama described it. Or as liberal and neo-liberal politicians would have it, we have “progressed” to an enlightened stage of society, of culture, and of being. Of course, according to these beliefs, there’s still work to do: more rights to be granted minorities, more equality to be doled out to those who have not yet been able to join us in this future-present, and more economic prosperity to be spread to the farthest reaches of the world where the gospel of progress has not yet converted those who live in darkness.
One of the most popular early evangelists of this new social order, Thomas Friedman, wrote famously that we had entered a time of unparalleled peace due to the widespread adoption of American urban capitalist forms. Nations with a strong middle class who were able to fully embrace all the benefits of modern capitalism became places of great cultural and political freedom, with increased participation in democratic political forms and strong movements towards gender and racial equality. Most importantly, Friedman argued that such nations no longer have interest or desire for war against each other, a theory he called “the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”:
“No two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's.”
While absolutely not true and repeatedly proven false (for instance, NATO’s invasion of Yugoslavia the year after Friedman published these words proved it false, as does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), the idea still persists unquestioned in many minds—and in both leftist and rightist tendencies—as a foundational truth. This is because Friedman merely iterated an already-believed dogma that capitalism—or rather a specific, urban type of capitalism—is a uniting force.
In fact, this dogma was first identified by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, in which they posit the bourgeoisie as a singular class who “revolutionises” older cultural forms of relating into a singular economic logic. Bourgeoisie, we must remember, means literally “town dweller,” and bourgeois moral and ethical frameworks are primarily urban frameworks.
The fact that there is a McDonald’s in Paris, London, Boise, Kiev, and Moscow can be seen as the beginning of evidence to this truth, but there is something larger to be noticed. The city centers of each such city—as well as all the major cities of the world—remarkably resemble each other. I live now in Luxembourg, whose capitol city is the oldest standing fortress city in Europe. The city itself looks like a fairy-tale, stone towers and ancient river gates surrounding palaces out of whose windows one might imagine princesses gazing wistfully. Yet its center looks a lot like parts of downtown Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington—albeit with fewer homeless encampments.
Go to any major city in Europe and you’ll find the same repeated theme, ancient local architecture emblazoned with corporate logos and filled with global retailers. Each city in this way has become a mere outpost of a much larger, global city, a worldwide “urban archipelago” in a vast sea of cultural difference and poverty. There is something more, however: regardless of which of these urban islands you visit and which languages they speak, the people themselves share the same values and behaviors.
This similarity is the “promise” of globalization in the previous decades, manifested in the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media. The enlightened city dweller of Aleppo and Madrid, of London and Nairobi, of Amsterdam and Tokyo adopts everywhere the same hand held accessory to their daily dress, the same mindless thumb-scrolling gestures regardless their local histories and cultures.
We’re all “connected,” we are told. And we tell ourselves this, and adopt pseudo-religious beliefs about how that this has saved us from the terror of our “primitive” pasts. We can laugh along at the TikTok videos of people just like us anywhere in the world, instantly express virtual solidarity and outrage through likes and retweets for any injustice across the globe, and shake our collective heads in sorrow when we hear about those who are still trapped in the past in each nation. Be it in the United States and Canada, or in Syria and Brazil, holdouts of the brutality and ignorance of older times still threaten the global urban enlightenment, yet we remain firm in our beliefs that others will eventually evolve like we did.
It’s this peculiar aspect of the modern capitalist mindset which made Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine seem so incomprehensible and has made it so resistant to our attempts at explanation. The easy answer of course is that Putin is a “fascist” or tyrant who has somehow survived the long people’s march towards global democracy. This idea is supported by more than six years of political agitprop in the US, ascribing to Putin all manners of manipulative powers and designs. According to all this, Trump was Putin’s puppet, and the Russians interfered with democracy and elections in the US. He is the new Great Satan behind every turn from human rights and progress into the darkness of reactionary sin.
It’s such an appealing narrative precisely because it offers an explanation for what so many of the global urban class saw as an interruption to the progress towards history’s end. Everything was going “so well” in the US, and then suddenly Trump tried to take everyone back into the dark ages of nationalistic fervor, inequality, and economic isolationism. How was such a thing possible, when the future end of history had already occurred?
They should all have been at brunch by now. Someone must have been at fault, and that someone’s name was Vladimir Putin.
To even suggest that maybe something else has been happening has by now angered some of my readers here, because there’s already a prescribed response to any such complication. “He is defending Putin,” perhaps you are saying, or “he’s a reactionary, or worse” you mutter to yourself. You are of course welcome to these thoughts, but I’d suggest maybe they are not really your own.
What Putin is doing to Ukraine is morally indefensible, but what he has done to the fantasy of historical progress, urban civic religion, and the Pax Capitalis is the unspoken crime against which most people are unconsciously reacting now. Kiev is a city like London or San Francisco, full of professional managerial class sorts with LinkedIn profiles and TikTok accounts. They drink lattes on their way to their IT jobs, they “Netflix and Chill” American sitcoms, they walk their dogs in city off-leash parks, and they post photos of their daily lives on Instagram as influencers or just regular users.
Of course, the enlightened urbanites of Moscow all do the same, which is why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is such a terrifying interruption to our collective delusion. How could one nation under social media invade another nation under social media? They share the same faith, the same beliefs, the same daily rituals: how could they not see they are one people?
After the fall of Rome, Christianity replaced political imperialism as a binding cultural narrative that “united” the vastly diverse peoples of the European continent together. This new social imperialism was called Catholic because it was meant to be universal (the meaning of the word “catholic”), a singular, unifying social order under which all people derived their common cultural and moral frameworks. In practice, of course, this unity was only possible to accomplish through forced conversions, by the sword, the felling of sacred trees, and the annihilation of any people who clung more tightly to their past than to this glorious new future.
Europe was never actually united, and the wars continued. However, this belief in a universal, uniting moral framework continued on throughout the middle ages and into the Protestant Reformation and its subsequent “Enlightenment.” A singular god had failed to convince everyone they were part of the same communion, but in place of the churches came the factories and in place of the faithful came the bourgeoisie, devout believers in their elect status as harbingers of a new economic freedom. Their religion, capitalism, succeeded no better than its predecessor, yet you wouldn’t know it from the editorial pages of the New York Times or the national narratives about the defeat of communism and the democratization of the whole world.
To this still-dominant mythic framework, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine should never have been able to happen. More so, it is seen as self-evident that Putin will eventually fail, since the people who elected him will inevitably—like all other modern people—conquer the past in favor of our collectively inevitable future...even if the McDonald’s in Kiev falls.
What this narrative has always failed to include is that global capitalist enlightenment can never be equally applied, otherwise capitalism itself will fall. Worse, though digital technology gives us a sense that the material world has been conquered by the virtual, this end of history has a terrifyingly real physical foundation that is crumbling under us.
The technological wonders of the digital age all require slave- and near-slave labor for their construction. Our smartphones, our computers, our data centers, and the very wires and transmitters which carry our cute cat pictures to each other are manufactured and powered through fossil fuels and low-wage and no-wage human labor. Our global connectivity is predicted to consume 20% of all the world’s energy output in 2025, doubling from 10% in 2017, and all that energy has to come from somewhere.
In his work, “The Climate of History,” post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty pointed to the connection between our advanced enlightened societies and its material linchpin this way:
The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.
International distribution of manufactured goods requires fossil fuels. So does the internet. So, too, does all the international air travel which brings the world closer together, putting Lisbon at the doorstep of São Paulo and Washington D.C. just next door to Moscow. We have become liberated from growing our own food, because fossil fuels can power the ships and trucks which convey them from thousands of miles away to the shelves of our grocery stores. We are free from tending fires in our hearths and lighting candles against the dark, because coal and gas will cook our food and illuminate our homes for us. No longer must we learn to get along with our neighbors or families like our primitive ancestors had to, because we can now get in a car to escape them in favor of visiting those we prefer.
None of these things are bad nor good, and that is the problem. We cannot apply morality to these social shifts, nor can we claim we have progressed or regressed. Regardless, we tell ourselves this is all better than it was or could have been, and that this “mansion” in which we believe ourselves to live comes with no cost.
Thus we return to Putin’s great crime, not just an aggression against a neighboring people but an assault on our religious delusions. Russia’s invasion is a slap to the face of all our smiling oblivion and denial of the material reality of our enlightenment, seen best in the much-criticized refusal of several European countries to issue the harshest economic sanction possible against Russia.
Germany and Italy have both so far declined to cut off Russia from the SWIFT banking system. To explain to American readers who have never encountered it, SWIFT is part of the daily life of many Europeans. It is a financial arrangement by which anyone can transfer money directly into the bank account of another. It’s how most Europeans pay their rent and utility bills, as opposed to paying with bank cards or checks. SWIFT is also how corporate and national transactions are accomplished, including particularly the purchase of gas, coal, and oil shipments.
Ejecting Russia from the SWIFT banking arrangement would make it very difficult for them to sell their oil, and cutting off these sales would wreck the Russian economy. Of course, this would also wreck the economies of all nations who rely on Russian fossil fuels, including especially those of the two nations which vetoed this.
Perhaps to an American mind this may seem a selfish move, sacrificing the lives of innocent Ukrainians just to maintain cheap energy. Such a view is only possible because the United States doesn’t rely as heavily on Russia for their oil import needs, but rather primarily on Canada. Russian oil imports are below that of imports from Mexico, equal to those from Saudi Arabia, and a little higher than those from Columbia.
Other nations with much smaller militaries and less imperial clout rely on Russian imports to fuel their enlightenment, whether they would prefer to or not. Thus, any sanctions on Russia threaten not just the economies but the political stability of such nations, and one needs very little historical education to guess why Germany and Italy would be concerned about the effects of an internal economic collapse.
To frame the global problem this way likely feels brutal or callous to the suffering of people in Ukraine. However, it’s precisely because Ukrainians are currently fearing for their lives that we need to look at this underlying material reality, rather than falling back on moral positions.
The Pax Capitalis—the faith that universal capitalism could unify all people in peace—has shattered. Putin didn’t shatter it, though—he merely tapped on the already-cracked looking glass which previously showed to us only what we wished to see. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, American bombings in Somalia and Syria, and all the many other recent military conflicts previously looked to us as unfortunate blemishes on an otherwise perfect vision of the future. Now, however, all but the most delusional must admit what those blemishes really were.
We are in the terminal stage of capitalism, its host body wracked by pain that the opiates of social media and civic religions can no longer assuage. The cosmetic applied over the necrotic skin of our enlightened order no longer cover the black viscous ooze running through our veins, and that putrid ichor is finally seeping through the walls of our mansion of modern freedoms.