One of the most obvious, yet least highlighted, aspects of the current international crisis is the lack of an ideological background. Politically and ideologically, there are no “parties” in the field, there are no clear and distinct oppositions of values. Alliances and positions are arising at a level of immediacy, they are concretely linked to interpretations of the material situation that is developing, but they are unable to acquire the dimension and depth of political color and ideology.
On the field we find power, weapons, bodies killed, bodies on the run, houses and roads destroyed, physical spaces occupied, to be occupied or liberated, physical and material resources to be contended for, to be bought, sold or embargoed (after it had appeared that the digital was going to dematerialize the physical world). But none of this is coalescing into a political representation that would make more than immediate and material sense of the conflict.
More than a century ago, Nietzsche presciently wrote that “in the age of nihilism, the will to power rules.” Here we are, having arrived at the naked will to power: that of those who want to acquire, maintain or expand their status of power, and that of those who want to avoid their decline as the only economic and military superpower in the world. Four decades of globalization and neoliberal financialization have brought us here, to the pure and value-free unleashing of the logic of power, in a field of physical rubble being piled on top of the cultural rubble produced in the previous decades.
There is a value dimension of the conflict being evoked in order to ethically legitimize material choices (such as increased military spending), but this evocation of values (“We represent freedom and democracy against autocracy”) seems tired, already applied to too many different contexts and in ways too asymmetrical and inconsistent to be able to assign meaning to events.
This is why we are caught up not only in war, but also in non-sense, in a cultural vacuum in which it is difficult to attribute a political connotation to the conflicting parties. Ukrainians call Russian policies fascist; Putin claims he must de-Nazify Ukraine. Fascists versus Nazis: this is the mutual representation among the two sides. Zelensky is a political leader of absolutely postmodern coinage: is he progressive? Is he conservative? Is he a friend of the Nazis that have taken root in the Azov battalion, or is he leading an anti-fascist resistance? Is he right-wing, is he left-wing? Putin is allied with the radical right-wingers from half the world, but the pacifist left is now being called “pro-Putin.” The map has become impossible to decipher.
The Western narrative, of freedom vs. autocracy, recalls the opposition between the “free world” and Cold War communism. But the Cold War was also a war between political blocs which structured the political struggle according to ideology, at all latitudes.
Today, this opposition isn’t there. It’s not there ideologically, as already mentioned. But not even politically. The opposition between democracy and “eastern despotism” today finds Western democracies that do not resemble the “mature democracies” of the 1960s and 1970s, when, with all their limitations, but featuring mass parties and ideological polarization, representative democracies reached their historical apex. Now we have democracies that are as substance-free as the ideological representations of the Cold War, and which also show an inability to handle pluralist debate.
There is no economic opposition either. The Cold War represented capitalism versus real socialism. Today, all the forces in play fall under the umbrella of “varieties of capitalism”: Russian capitalism is not U.S. capitalism, which is not Chinese capitalism, which is not German capitalism, but they are all capitalisms, all driven in some way by oligarchs and oligarchies.
Alongside the radical risks we are now encountering in military, economic and social terms, we are plunging into an ideological war without ideology, into a propaganda that disseminates obscure symbols that are impossible to trace back to a map that transcends violence and power.
It is precisely here that the work of those who are on the side of peace, negotiation, disarmament, and the complicated and lengthy construction of a multipolar and cooperative international order can begin. It should start here, from the concrete and already effective link between the “physical” risks that war forces on all of us, the economic and social risks that this implies for a large part of the populations, including Western ones (who is going to pay for the “fight for freedom”?), and the crisis of meaning, the lack of projects for societies and political-cultural constructions that would outline a vision of a just world in which we could live together. Everything is back in play – and the need for new “grand narratives” has returned as well.