The invasion of Ukraine is, we could say, in some respects ‘mad’. It certainly looks now to be fusing together some miscalculated bluff and double-bluff manoeuvres, and some serious mistakes. If anyone in the Russian leadership thought this would be a quick strike and that the Ukrainians would rise up to welcome their conquerors, they have been shown wrong.
Demoralisation among Russian troops now firing on their neighbours, who most likely will also speak Russian, and deaths of young conscripts whose families at home will get the news despite the media clampdown, and brave open opposition to the war by a number of left organisations, show Putin has misestimated the balance for forces and the mood for war.
This is not Prague 1968, where forces from across the Warsaw Pact who did not speak Czech, and whose troops were lied to about what was happening, were sent in. It is, instead, shaping up into something more like the Afghanistan occupation that, among other things, corroded support for the Soviet state.
We need a careful nuanced analysis of what led up to this invasion rather than knee-jerk caricatures that reduce politics to the whims of this or that tyrant, or this or that great leader. The balance of forces is much more complicated than that, and we should avoid the danger of sliding into gross ideological accounts of what is happening.
Ideological caricature, and not only in the tabloid press, too simplistically relies on monster and hero narratives. The monster narrative is so often combined with an attempt to grasp what seems incomprehensible, which is when ‘madness’ is invoked. This is sometimes insulting, as in the insensitive reactionary comments that millions died in the Holocaust because Hitler ‘went mad’, but always stupid.
This is as stupid as the idea that things turned out well during the Second World War because we had great leaders like Churchill, himself a brute and crook. It also, by the way, drums home the idea that some individuals are ‘mad’, an idea that leads into psychiatric rabbit holes instead of an understanding of what kind of rationality is at work in this self-destructive miserable world, a world that does make people distressed, sometimes drives us mad.
This is the kind of narrative that leads ex-leftist commentators into a really bad place, as in the claim that strong Putin was tempted to take advantage of the West currently led by a ‘woke elite’. What has been going on inside Putin’s head is rather beside the point here, tempting though it is as a shorthand account. We get a better picture of the nationalist logic that drives Putin from his own words, his recent speech as a case in point.
We need, instead, as part of our specific analysis of each event, to understand what it is about the ostensibly ‘democratic’ regimes we might live under, and the more obviously totalitarian police states, that is really ‘mad’. There is, in cases like this one, a kind of rigorous logic to the calculations that are made by ‘leaders’, an instrumental rationality that then flips into irrationality, madness, when it encounters the real world.
Those calculations reveal something about the nature of the system that enables characters like Putin to rise to the top. In this specific case, we also know that Putin, fearful of COVID, understandably so, has been able, because of his position, been able to take extreme measures to shut out others. This is yet another case where the pandemic intensifies ‘rational’ responses and turns them into irrational attempts at frantic control. Putin’s fear of COVID then also bleeds into the popular ‘mad’ explanation for the invasion in the tabloid press.
At the heart of this kind of madness is a logic of enclosure, a process that was necessary to enable capitalism itself to take root. Enclosure of the land which drives people off their resources once held in common is supplemented by enclosure of property and of capital, control which restricts access. And that restriction of access, not surprisingly, entails restriction of information, and fatally impedes democratic functioning.
It is this crazy logic, and the enclosure of resources that breeds figures like Putin, now isolated at the head of a military apparatus and surrounded by obedient apparatchiks fearful for their lives or, in one or two cases, hoping that their chance to be the top dog might be next. Miscalculations aplenty will undo Putin, and calculations about how to exercise power will likely have just as destructive effects, unless we mobilise to put in place authentically democratic systems of decision-making, those that will work for all of us and not for the few.
Leaders like Putin, separated from the rest of their own population, enclosed and subject to misinformation, view the world from a certain kind of standpoint, from above. And that is very different from our analysis, which is always from the standpoint of the exploited and oppressed, from below.
Yes, ok, we don’t know whether Putin, or any of the other leaders of the ‘democracies’ are mad or not. But slapping on a quasi-psychiatric label on those we oppose is misleading, distracting, a trap, and our political analysis and response needs to be based on something much better than that.
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