In times of crisis, when certain politicians lead countries into folly, into the valley of death, it is understandable that we reach for psychological explanations. The very human need for a personal story, for a simple narrative that we all understand, lead us to look to the character of the man to explain his behaviour. This would be myopic.

It is understandable but it only partly explains things. The missing element are the things we can’t see. At this point I would normally discuss social theory and perhaps point folk in the direction of Critical Realism and C Wright Mills’ ‘The Sociological Imagination’. But for now, I wish to think about Putin and why I think the current crisis is not just the outcome of his actions alone. He is the proximal cause and he cannot escape moral responsibility. But to stop there lets many others off the hook and erases the social and political mechanisms at play. Namely that the global dynamics of capital accumulation within nation states plays out always into periodic crises. Capitalism never solves its crises, it just moves them around the world.

Leading the way is the United States military-industrial complex, the global corporate class executive and their political power elites in Europe, Russia and of course China. locked in Imperial competition that cannot address existential crises. There are other forces at play of course, lets not ignore the fundamentalist fields of US Evangelical Christianity, of Zionism and of forms of Islam, nor of White supremacy based on the warped idea of the ‘Great Replacement’.

What can we not see at the individual level? I tend to agree with the Graham Scambler’s theory of agency. The individual is a creation of the society in which they were born, but in action they recreate and change that society. We are products of simultaneous biological, psychological and social mechanisms operating ‘behind our backs’, that are highly structured by our societies but are not determined by these structures. We retain our agency. The argument can be seen in far more detail in the works of sociologists and philosophers Margaret Archer and Roy Bhaskar.

What social mechanisms have generated the current crisis? Go beyond the man, Putin, and look for geopolitical posturing by capitalist elites who fund their political power elites in each bloc. Look back in history, look to the post 1989 world order and who had the power to fashion it in its own image? What happened in Ukraine over the past 22 years?

Individuals and Society

I have always found that Marx described the relationship between the individual and society rather well, and in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859 we find a telling passage:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.

Marx here is simply pointing out what should be obvious. We all need to feed, clothe and house ourselves. To do so means coming together in a society that exists before the individual and which the individual has to adapt to in the first instance. We come together to work and to produce (the relations of production). Putin was born into a pre existing ‘relations of production’ (Soviet capitalism and US capitalism).

The next sentence is key:

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

‘The totality of these relations’ is currently the global structure of various forms of Capitalism (Industrial, Post Industrial, Financial, Rentier) championed by various geopolitical blocs of the United States and its allies, The European Union, China and Russia. The anomaly in that group is Russia because of its relative economic weakness made up for by its nuclear capability. Note here Marx introduces ‘social consciousness’ which arise within these various forms of capitalism, and they shape our consciousness, how we think about world. Young Americans imbibe their versions of capitalist democracy, Putin will have imbibed his own.

The mode of production of material life (e.g. United States Capitalism, Russian Capitalism) conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This should be clear enough. Putin’s consciousness has been shaped by his experience of Russian Capitalism in the Soviet Union and later of understanding and competition with the United States’ own form of it. We all grow up with the values, assumptions and attitudes of the various forms of capitalism we live in. However, we do not blindly reproduce the forms we know. We are capable of critique and of exercising our agency. But for reasons I’ll not detail here, many of us do not do this. We tacitly accept our own society’s dominant narratives about our social, economic and political ideas, often also rooted in national myth and history.

Putin is exercising agency and moral responsibilty but he is doing so within a much larger socio-political structure that pre existed him and will continue after him, notwithstanding nuclear annihilation and climate extinction. We have all seen these social forces in action without always understanding what is underpinning social dynamics. Our daily working lives contitute these social forces and war is an expression of them in extreme form.

Empire

I first was alerted to the existence of larger social forces at work in my own personal story and history after reading ‘The Sociological Imagination’ and ‘The Power Elite’ both by C Wright Mills and then followed by ‘Rise to Globalism‘ written by Stephen Ambrose who offered an overview of the evolution of American foreign policy from 1938 to the present. He focused on events as world War II, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the SALT treaties. Ambrose (with Brinkley in later editions) also closely examined such topics as the Iran-contra scandal, free elections in Nicaragua, the rise of international terrorism, the fall of Communism, the Gulf War, the crisis in Bosnia, and President Clinton’s international trade policy.

The key point is this: In light of the enormous global power of the United States, we need to understand how American economic aggressiveness, racism, and fear of Communism have shaped the country’s evolving foreign policy.The United States emerged as the global hegemon after 1945 and has ever since tried to establish its reach using economic power and military force as a modern Imperial Power.

This is the world Putin grew up in as he worked in the KGB, and since 1989 has faced further United States’ Imperial excursions in Iraq and Libya and the courting of certain politicians in Ukraine around 2014. He has watched the Eastward expansion of NATO.

The Order of War

Antonio Negri back in 2002 was I think quite prescient in his analysis of the United States as ‘Empire’. Below I borrow very heavily from his 2002 essay. I do so not just because I want to argue that the focus on the psychology of Putin is too narrow, but to make a wider and perhaps even more worrying suggestion. That we are in a state of permenant war as nation states react to the US as ‘Empire’.

Negri suggested that Iran, Iraq, North Korea were examples of a new world order in which roles and pecking orders were being redefined through conflict with these “rogues states”. The bigger game in town now is the relationship between the United States, China, Europe and Russia. He called this ‘The Imperial war’ of which Ukraine is yet another unfolding chapter. Ukraine has arguably become a rogue state to Putin just as Iraq et al were, and are, to the United States. American initiatives have been the driving force behind the Imperial war (Ambrose’s point) but yields little by little to the conditions set by other rulers of the earth.

War, as a global basis of legitimacy and as pre-eminent display of imperial rule, is manifesting itself in all its forms, and as it expands, so too does imperial power. Negri described ‘The new military doctrine’, made public by the American administration on September 20, 2002. The strategic design was: the achievement of superior military power by the United States. After September 11, 2001, the campaign in Afghanistan, which initiated on a global level the first phase of the war on terrorism, put together conventional and unconventional means of warfare, as well as high and low intensity police actions. Negri argued that in 2002 the new military doctrine was sold to the populace and to itself as ‘common sense’ and self-defense Empire’s right to intervene against potential enemies before such threats materialize. This was the theory of preventative war.

Preventative War

Preventative war was not only a military doctrine; it was a constituent strategy of Empire. The American administration’s document explicitly stated so: preventative war, they argued, was a just and necessary means to defend liberty, justice, democracy and economic growth against terrorists and tyrants. It added that preventative war should be applied to the “rogue states” of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Putin watched and learned from all of this, especially after the humiliation (from a Soviet perspective) after the fall of communism in 1989.

Now, American military power, which is absolutely one sided as the most powerful military machine ever to exist on earth, must also become intransitive; it must remain an absolute superpower not so much with respect to the the three countries just mentioned as ‘powers of evil’ but rather in respect to the other world powers of Europe, China and Russia. The Axis of evil was a metaphor for the great problems the power of the United States of America faced in three strategic areas at the end of the cold war: Europe, Russia and China.

Iraq was a further indication of the European problem and of the Japanese one, presented as a problem of securing energy supplies. Without securing them, the European economy cannot exist and whoever controls energy supplies has his hands on the whole range of functions of power in the old continent. On the other hand, Iran (the area around the Caspian sea) represents the soft underbelly of Russian development. North Korea is in the middle of the China Sea. How is the United states organized in these three fundamental zones? How is the military supremacy of US power over the new imperial order to be preventatively secured? In the United Kingdom, we have had laughable statements about our own ‘global power’ and vanity attempts to think about projecting power in the Far East, especially post Brexit.

Negri argued that the exercise of military power on its own is far from being sufficient to secure centrality and stability for the exercise of global power. Moreover, 9/11 illustrated that the United States was in no respects an island. The ensuing economic crisis – not only at the level of production but also and especially at the financial and monetary level – demonstrated that the United States Empire cannot survive unless it is in agreement with what Negri called ‘the global (capitalist) aristocracy’. Therefore, the war that’s always brewing contains within it a discussion of how the US is to secure itself vis a vis the powers of Europe, China and Russia. The major decisions the US was teking were not being made on the war on terrorism or on the conventional war against tyrants as they stated, but rather on the forms of hegemony and the relative degrees of power that American and/or European capitalist elites will have in the organization of the new world order. Preventative decisions are not simply to do with war but more with market predominance in the sub regions of the imperial organization. Which brings us to Ukraine.

Ukraine

There has been a logical, methodical plan of Putin’s that goes back a very long way, at least to 2007 when he put the world, and certainly Europe, on notice that Moscow would not accept the further expansion of NATO. Within a year, in 2008, NATO gave an open door to Georgia and Ukraine (Hill 2022).

In 2014 the unelected government in Kyiv declared itself unable to control the rebellion in the country’s east, while John Kerry brands Russia a rogue state. The US and the European Union stepped up sanctions against the Kremlin, accusing it of destabilising Ukraine. The White House it was suggested created  a new cold war policy with the aim of turning Russia into a “pariah state”. This is Negri’s point about ‘preventative war’ in order to secure itself as Empire.

It can be suggested that there has been two decades of eastward Nato expansion, this current crisis was triggered by the West’s attempt to pull Ukraine decisively into its orbit back and also its defence structure, via an explicitly anti-Moscow EU association agreement. The rejection of that association agreement led to the ‘Maidan’ protests and the installation of an anti-Russian administration – rejected by half the country – that went on to sign the EU and International Monetary Fund agreements regardless.

Putin was not about to acquiesce in such a threat from territory that he saw was at the heart of both Russia and the Soviet Union. Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine could be seen as defensive, and the red line now drawn: the east of Ukraine, at least for Putin was is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU. Back then did he see further westward expansion to take all of Ukraine? I don’t know. We know now of course.

The point is however, not what the individuals think or do per se. They are working to their own internal logics and within much larger capitalist dynamics characterised by geopolitical power blocs in a crumbling US led world order. Empire is losing its grip. Under Trump, Empire expliclity gave succour to Putin and undermined NATO. Putin for his part interfered in the 2016 election precisely to get Trump elected and also in the Brexit referendum to weaken the EU despite claims to the contrary.

Where could this lead?

“Yes he would”. Fiona Hill, a US based Russia expert argues (2022):

“Sadly, we are treading back through old historical patterns that we said that we would never permit to happen again,” Those old historical patterns, she says, include Western businesses who fail to see how they help build a tyrant’s war chest, admirers enamored of an autocrat’s “strength” and politicians’ tendency to point fingers inward for political gain instead of working together for their nation’s security. There’s lots of danger ahead, she warned and argued Putin is increasingly operating emotionally and likely to use all the weapons at his disposal, including nuclear ones. It’s important not to have any illusions — but equally important not to lose hope.


“Every time you think, ’No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,” 

Putin used Iraq and Afghanistan at the United Nations recently to justify his current invasion.

Putin might well have lost reason, and may well be willing to wage nuclear war. He bears moral responsibility. But Ambrose and Negri put forward a more complex explanation than simply defective psychology, a psychology that Marx (and many others since) argued cannot be understood at the level of the individual alone. We must conclude that even if Putin had a heart attack and died today, we cannot be certain that this war would immediately end. I suggest it might. However, this war is a chapter in a much bigger book. Putin’s demise would do little to undermime the geopolitical dynamics that have grown up over decades. Capitalist elites in the United States have for decades wished to project power to dominate markets, to secure resources, to spread their version of liberty and democracy. The United States continues to fight proxy culture, economic and military wars in competition with China. Until, such time as US military and political doctrine changes to accommodate new powers, we can predict new flashpoints. If China picks up the mantle of Empire, the whole sorry mess will continue, if we survive the climate crisis and nuclear war.