Oscar Wilde wrote: “A map of the world in which Utopia is not marked is not worth looking at, for it undercuts the shore on which mankind will eternally land.” He goes on to say, “Disobedience, for anyone versed in history, is man’s true virtue. Through disobedience came progress, through disobedience and insubordination.” (Wilde 2014)
The window of opportunity is closing
The Russian regime and its war of aggression on Ukraine can only be understood against the background of the economic-ecological pincer crisis. This makes it all the more important to stand up for a sustainability revolution.
By Klaus Dörre
[This article published in April 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Das Zeitfenster schließt sich.]
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves no doubt. About half of humanity is already suffering the consequences of anthropogenic climate change (IPCC 2022). UN Secretary General Guterres recognizes this as a criminal failure in climate protection. Although the window of opportunity for effective countermeasures is closing, it is already clear that the hurdles to a sustainability revolution will become even higher in the future. The main reason is war. On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation launched an attack on Ukraine in violation of international law. Cities under missile fire, millions of refugees, battles at nuclear power plants, destruction of infrastructure vital to survival, and thousands of dead and injured, including among civilians – that is the horror balance of the first weeks of the war.
Since the attack, security of supply has once again taken precedence over climate protection in the West. A rapid phase-out of coal-fired power generation has become questionable, and even extended operating times for nuclear power plants are once again an option. Armament now takes precedence over a peaceful, inclusive society (SDG 16) in Germany as well. According to the German government, NATO’s two-percent target for arms spending is to be exceeded and an additional special fund of 100 billion euros is to be made available to the military. Chancellor Scholz has decreed this decision from above. Nevertheless, rearmament as a response to the aggression of the Putin regime seems to be accepted by the majority and to be politically without alternative. Meanwhile, the line between war and peace is becoming blurred. In Germany, too, the principle of not supplying weapons to crisis areas has been suspended. It is basically the aggressor who decides when the threshold is crossed at which arms-supplying states become a party to the war and the case of alliance arises. The international community of states could almost sleepwalk into a third world war, or even into a nuclear conflict. In view of such threats, does it still make sense to talk about a “utopia of socialism”? “So now there is war again in Europe. But this only makes the search for social alternatives even more important,” Pascal Zwicky, coordinator of the Swiss think tank Denknetz, wrote to me on the occasion of a video about my book on socialism. Despite his agreement, I would like to suggest what needs to be rethought in the future and what needs to be more precisely defined analytically.
Russia in the economic-ecological pincer crisis
My first consideration concerns the economic-ecological pincer crisis and imperial rivalries that led to the Ukraine war. Efforts to get inside Putin’s head mostly overlook a central cause of the escalation. The Russian Federation is an entity of states with only semiperipheral status. The “fortress socialism” ( Derlugian 2014) of the Soviet Union was followed, after a transitional stage with openness to different paths of development, by an oligarchic fortress capitalism whose economic performance is based mainly on the export of fossil fuels. Russia owes up to 43 percent of its revenues to oil and natural gas. This dependence on its natural resources implies that without radical economic structural change, the Russian Federation would inevitably be among the losers of a sustainability turnaround in the consumer states. The faster the shift away from fossil energy succeeds there, the more worthless Russian oil and gas deposits will become. This is probably one of the main reasons why the future scenarios of the circle of power with which the autocrat Putin surrounds himself are extremely gloomy. The particular aggressiveness of this regime has one of its main causes here, because the window of opportunity to overcome Russia’s semi-peripheral status is also closing. The military and the willingness to wage a brutal war of aggression are the remaining resources of power, but they can only be used halfway successfully as long as the opponent is dependent on Russian gas and oil.
The “stranglehold” effect
With its aggression against Ukraine, the Putin regime is therefore secondly forcing a development that I called the “chokehold effect” in the book following James Galbraith. In uncertain times, high fixed costs for gas and oil make the particular vulnerability of an economy based on increasing resource consumption. Like the choke collar on a dog, economic and political instability does not necessarily prevent all economic growth, but prices rise rapidly and profitability falls, business investment drops precipitously, and distributional struggles gain intensity. Putinism is pursuing an aggressive high-risk strategy to take advantage of this effect, ultimately harming itself. After all, the EU is Russia’s most important trading partner. Forced by sanctions, war and rising prices will rebound with destructive force on the economy of the Russian Federation as well. This could gradually drain mass loyalty from Putin’s expansionism, but the West will also suffer. China’s nominal communists, with their own power ambitions, want to be the laughing third party, acting as brokers between their own people and foreign capital interests.
Putin’s exterminist authoritarianism
Third, this raises the question of how to classify the Putin regime analytically. To put it more pointedly: The reasons for the war of aggression practiced can neither be reduced to economic causes nor found solely in NATO’s undoubtedly highly problematic eastward expansion. The expansive character of Putinism is based on a will to accumulate political power, to which neither a democratic civil society nor the political system currently sets limits. This distinguishes Putinism from Trumpism, which has been defeated – at least for the time being – in a democratic election. Putinism unfolds free of such possibilities for political self-correction. As shown in the book with reference to Hannah Arendt, the imperial striving for expansion of one’s own sphere of domination can take on a life of its own vis-à-vis economic interests or even precede these interests. However, the Putin regime is by no means a classic imperialism and certainly not a renaissance of Soviet communism. Putin personifies an exterminist authoritarianism that is reacting to the decline of the former superpower Soviet Union under the conditions of the pincer crisis. Exterminism, a neologism of the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, refers to those mechanisms of economies, political orders, and ideologies that “act as a thrust in a direction whose result must be the extermination of large masses of people” (Albrecht 1997). Putin’s exterminism mixes set pieces of tsarist great power aspirations with pan-Slavic nationalism, Soviet nostalgia, and a worldview that corresponds to the friend-foe schema of a Carl Schmitt. This concocted ideology is supposed to legitimize expansionist intentions, but it has nothing attractive about it and no social blueprint that could radiate positively. Its mass appeal is based on repression combined with leader worship, allegiance qua ignorance and widespread suffering among the population. What remains as the naked core of Putinism is his striving for expansion of spheres of influence, coupled with the desire for totalization of political power. It is this striving that Madeleine Albright, as quoted in the book, calls the main characteristic of a new fascism. A fascism that, it should be added, always includes the readiness for its own demise as an option in its power-political calculations.
For a sustainability compass
Faced with the destructive forces of exterminist authoritarianism, the debate about a sustainability compass becomes all the more urgent. I am therefore pleased that my book has contributed to what only seems to be an untimely debate on socialism. As might be expected, this discussion is extremely controversial.1 Since it is impossible here to appreciate the numerous comments, criticisms, and further suggestions, I will leave it at a concluding remark. No matter how war and confrontation develop, they will hasten the end of market radicalism. Not even rearmament and war economy can be pursued without planning. British war capitalism, which outlasted World War II, provides a historical foil for what is likely to come in terms of state interventionism within the EU as well. It is at this state interventionism that democratic counterforces can, indeed must, begin. One example: Despite Russian aggression, there is no reason for gigantic rearmament programs. The arms budgets of the NATO states already exceed the corresponding budget of the Russian Federation many times over.2 Weapons systems that have yet to be developed will hardly be of any use to Ukraine in its fight for survival. Armed forces with strictly defensive tasks, but strong enough to stand up to exterminist regimes, could be well financed even with reduced defense budgets. But why are there no special funds for sustainable climate protection? Posing the question in this way leads to starting points for sustainable infrastructure socialism (cf. Dörre 2021), which can become immediately practical with investments in the economy of everyday life and services of general interest. Of course, there is no guarantee that appropriate course-setting will actually succeed. History is open, it knows no goal; there is no determinism that leads to socialism. Nevertheless, a conditioned voluntarism is allowed. Apparently, the profit-centered basic rule of capitalist systems is so undercomplex that it is less and less able to meet the stability requirements of differentiated societies. The Ukraine war also shows that the high energy prices traded on international stock exchanges as a result of the conflict are simply unaffordable for private consumption. If the inflationary trend continues for longer, it will dramatically reduce residual incomes – money that remains after deducting taxes, social security contributions and fixed costs for rent, heating, etc. -. Once again, it will become clear that capitalist ownership as an expansive dynamic principle forces the evolution of ever more elaborate protective mechanisms. Sustainability ultimately means overriding this principle of ownership – through collective forms of ownership that strengthen self-responsibility, with democracy extended to the economy, as well as through solidarity-based redistribution of jointly generated wealth, participatory planning, and a transition to sustainable modes of production and living. Such alternatives are now being seriously discussed in the climate movements, trade unions, environmental associations, political parties and the scientific community. This signals the utility value of concrete utopias, about which Oscar Wilde wrote: “A map of the world in which Utopia is not marked is not worth looking at, for it undercuts the shore on which mankind will eternally land.” It goes on to say, “Disobedience, for anyone versed in history, is man’s true virtue. Through disobedience came progress, through disobedience and insubordination.” (Wilde 2014)
Klaus Dörre, Jena, March 8, 2022
We publish here the epilogue to the second edition of “The Utopia of Socialism”, soon to be published by Matthes&Seitz.
1 For an overview of reviews, podcasts, radio broadcasts, and new texts on “The Utopia of Socialism,” see Klaus Dörre’s homepage: https://www.klausdoerre.de/.
2 Cf. the Sipri database: https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex. With $778 billion, the U.S. in 2020
by far the largest defense budget, accounting for about 39 percent of global military spending. China followed in second place with 252 billion and 13 percent of global military spending. Russia increased its military spending to $61.7 billion, but spent 6.6 percent less than planned in the defense budget. Germany followed in seventh place with $52.8 billion, showing the strongest growth (5.2 percent increase over the previous year) among the top ten countries. According to Sipri, Germany’s military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.4 percent in 2020.
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.
Derlugian, Georgi, 2014: What was Communism?, in Wallerstein, Immanuel/Collins, Randall/Mann, Michael/Derlugian, Georgi/ Calhoun, Craig (eds.): Is Capitalism Dying? Five scenarios for the 21st century. Frankfurt a. M., pp. 123-161, here: S. 131.
Albrecht, Ulrich 1997: Exterminismus, in Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 3, pp. 1188-1192, here: S. 1190.
Dörre, Klaus, 2021: Land in Sight! Sustainable Infrastructure Socialism as a Way Out of the Pincer Crisis, in: Kurswechsel 4/2021, ed. by Oliver Prausmüller, pp. 83-94.
Wilde, Oscar, 2004: Die Seele des Menschen unter dem Sozialismus, in: ders, Essays. Volume 3 of the Neue Zürcher Ausgabe. Frankfurt a. M. I owe the reference to Konstantin Wecker’s album “Utopia” and the song “Willy 2021” contained therein.
Klaus Dörre is a sociologist and has been a professor of sociology of labor, industry and economics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena since 2005.