What’s Capitalism Got to Do with It?
What’s Capitalism Got to Do with It?*
Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Notre Dame
What is the war in Ukraine all about?
The dominant narrative (in the United States and elsewhere, to judge by the American and international press I regularly read) is that Vladimir Putin, the power-hungry leader of Russia, is hellbent on expanding his control into and over a former-Soviet republic—and he is turn being undermined by a combination of his own isolation and ineptness and the resistance of the democratic president and patriotic citizenry of Ukraine. It’s a story that is repeated on a daily basis, replete with and reinforced by gory photos of dead citizens and soldiers, seemingly in a concerted attempt to tell a simple story of villains and victims. It is a throwback to the black and white hats of classic American westerns.1
And it works. The fact that the radical centrist or mainstream media has been telling that same story, day after day, since the beginning of the invasion six months ago, means that’s what most people think and believe about the war. There’s barely any letup in the mainstream story or any space for dissenting views to be seen or heard. So much for freedom of the press, which has come to mean the owners of the capitalist-owned media are free to formulate and disseminate whatever story they choose—but not that we, as readers, viewers, and listeners, are free to receive a wide range of analyses of what might be going on.
That’s one problem. A second is that, notwithstanding the Cold War insinuations and resonances of many versions of the prevailing story, it fails to recognize that Putin himself could not be more anti-communist, a vociferous critic of anything and everything that had to do with the Soviet Union. In fact, on the eve of the invasion, Putin (Fisher, 2022) notoriously blamed “Bolshevik, Communist Russia” for creating Ukraine, in a process that began “practically right after the 1917 revolution.”
A third problem with the predominant story is that it essentializes particular motives or behaviors on behalf of the belligerents—as if things could not be otherwise, and such that they remain distant from “our” own beliefs and actions.2 That’s exactly the point Branko Milanovic (2022) raises with respect to attempts to explain Russian aggression in terms of an “age-old national culture”:
I don’t like such explanations in economics and I don’t like them in political science. They are always wrong because they are basically a distillation of whatever is commonplace at a given time. Thus, they always seem correct at a given point in time, but they are always wrong when you look at them ex post. . .
People also like to offer such explanations because they are profitable. You get your book published, and when people read it, precisely because such stories are a compilation of commonplaces, they say, “Wow, this really is phenomenal; it fits beautifully with what I thought.” But it fits beautifully because it gives the slice of today interpreted as a somehow inevitable outcome. But things change. Then you take another slice of history, and claim another essentialist explanation really matters.
That’s where capitalism comes in. It serves to challenge essentialist explanations of the war, since it locates what is going on in an ever-changing historical and social context.3 It also calls into question the narrow terms of the mainstream story, precisely because it forces us to ask questions about the economic and social causes of the war within both of the warring countries as well as the existing global system. Finally, it forces us to reconsider the idea that Putin wants to restore some previous Soviet (or even pre-Soviet) glory, if for no other reason than that the Russian Federation today is as capitalist a country as Ukraine; as are, for that matter, the members of the alliance that are attempting to stop Putin’s aggression but are only succeeding in prolonging the war.4
Now, to be clear, I don’t think introducing capitalism into the analysis serves—in any way, shape, or form—to absolve Putin and his regime for the monstrous invasion of Ukraine or for the atrocities they’ve committed during the course of the war. Nor does it undermine the idea that, as the members of a sovereign nation, Ukrainians have every right to defend their territory and to call upon other nations and peoples for assistance. But the goal has to be to put an end to the war and to establish a lasting and just peace. If we don’t consider the role of capitalism, we’re left in a situation where, as Mike Small (2022) describes it,
It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless, indeed the system is dependent on us feeling this way, but the system. . .is more fragile and exposed than we might imagine.
So, where does capitalism figure into the analysis of the current war in Ukraine? Fortunately, there have been a variety of attempts to introduce capitalism into the analysis outside mainstream media outlets. These are contributions others can build on as the war continues to be extended, with escalating damage and soaring numbers of victims on both sides of the conflict.
As Slavoj Žižek (2022) sees it, capitalist markets have served both to fuel the Russian war machine and limited Western (especially Western European) solidarity with Ukraine, a point that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Sullivan 2022) has clearly understood: providing oil (along with fertilizers and food) to the West is more important than saving Ukrainian lives. And in both Russia and the West, the goal is to protect those markets—to finance the war (and offer in return “cheap patriotic pride”) and to avoid any serious attempt to restructure the existing energy system (not to mention solving the global food crisis, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world).5
Richard Wolff (2022) approaches the issue from a different angle. His view is that the history of capitalism leads, more or less inevitably, to wars—since capitalist enterprises expand globally and pit nations against each other, thus creating (for nations just as with enterprises) both winners and losers. The resulting empires (British, German, U.S., etc.) are then challenged, both within and from outside, leading to smaller and larger wars. In the case of Ukraine, Wolff argues, the United States expanded its empire into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall but was then challenged by other capitalist powers, especially the alliance between a resurgent Russia and a fast-growing People’s Republic of China. The result was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
In Ukraine, on one side is an effort led by nationalists who would bring another nation further back into the U.S.-led global capitalist empire. On the other side is Russia and its allies determined to challenge the U.S. empire’s growth project in Ukraine and pursue their own competitive agenda for part or all of Ukraine. China stays with Russia because its leaders see the world and history in much the same way: They both share a common competitor in the United States.
That leaves the country Russia invaded. According to John Lough, Ukraine is based on a system of crony capitalism—systema, known more commonly in Ukraine as oligarkhiya—which includes the absence of a strong state, and a close relationship between big business and the country’s political class “that puts their own interests before those of society.” Systema was in fact created after the privatization of state enterprises and through a process that can best be described as a primitive or original accumulation of capital. The oligarchs-in-the-making created diversified, highly concentrated financial-industrial groups that are vertically integrated across many economic sectors (including banking, energy production and transmission, media, mining and steel, with agriculture being the one notable exception) and reach deep inside the state (through a variety of means, from paid support for members of parliament to ownership of the main outlets that provide a platform for certain politicians). Expanding on that, Yuliya Yurchenko (Smith 2022) has explained that it was the growing division between oligarchic groups that led to the emergence of the battle between far-right Ukrainians and Russian separatists, who in turn made things out to be a civilizational choice between the West and Russia. Zelenskyy himself was backed by a particular fraction of pro-Western oligarchs but, once elected, oversaw ongoing corruption and continued plunder—and, as the head of a poorly equipped and disorganized state, Zelenskyy proved to be incompetent at actually ruling. His approval ratings went down as people’s standards of living plummeted. Unfortunately, the growing movement to dismantle systema and to chart a different path of development for Ukraine has been stopped, at least for now, by the invasion.
Much more of course needs to be done to analyze the role of capitalism in creating the conditions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conduct of the war itself, and the obstacles to finding a solution to the protracted conflict. Not to mention the economic and political contradictions that will accompany the efforts at reconstruction if and, hopefully, when the war is brought to an end.
But for now we can at least conclude that, as Harold Meyerson (2022) has argued, the myth that capitalist globalization will deter wars can finally be put to rest.
Bailout Watch. 2022. “Big Oil’s Wartime Bonus: How Big Oil Turns Profits into Wealth.” Bailout Watch, 5 April (https://bailoutwatch.org/analysis/big-oils-wartime-bonus).
DeGhett, Torie Rose. 2014. “The War Photo No One Would Publish.” The Atlantic, 8 August (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-war-photo-no-one-would-publish/375762/).
Fisher, Max. 2022. “Word by Word and Between the Lines: A Close Look at Putin’s Speech,” The New York Times, 23 February (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/putin-speech-russia-ukraine.html).
Lough, John. 2021. “Ukraine’s System of Crony Capitalism.” Chatham House, 1 July (https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/07/ukraines-system-crony-capitalism).
Mearsheimer, John. 2022. “John Mearsheimer on Why the West is Principally Responsible for the Ukrainian Crisis,” The Economist, 19 March (https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis).
Meyerson, Harold. 2022. “Old Lesson Learned Anew: Cross-Border Capitalism Doesn’t Deter Wars.” The American Prospect, 8 March (https://prospect.org/blogs-and-newsletters/tap/old-lesson-learned-anew-cross-border-capitalism-doesnt-deter-war/).
Milanovic, Branko. 2022. “Russia’s War Shows the Chaos in the World Order: An Interview with Branko Milanovic.” Jacobin, 21 March (https://jacobin.com/2022/03/russia-war-ukraine-sanctions-world-order-global-economy).
Small, Mike. 2022. “Current Crises Are Caused by One Thing—Capitalism.” The National, 13 March (https://www.thenational.scot/politics/19989046.mike-small-current-crises-caused-one-thing—capitalism/).
Smith, Ashley. 2022. Fighting for Ukrainian Self-Determination: Interview with Yuliya Yurchenko.” Spectre, 11 April (https://spectrejournal.com/fighting-for-ukrainian-self-determination/).
Sullivan, Rory. “Western Nations More Concerned about Their Economies than Civilian Deaths in Ukraine, Says Zelensky.” Independent, 7 April (https://news.yahoo.com/zelensky-says-sanctions-against-russia-121032441.html?guccounter=1).
Wolff, Richard. “The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine.” Counterpunch, 14 April (https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/04/14/the-role-of-capitalism-in-the-war-in-ukraine/).
Žižek, Slavoj. 2022. “War in a World that Stands for Nothing.” Project Syndicate, 18 April (https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/russia-ukraine-war-highlights-truths-about-global-capitalism-by-slavoj-zizek-2022-04?barrier=accesspaylog).
*An earlier version of this article was published on my blog, Occasional Links & Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society, about two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began (https://anticap.wordpress.com/2022/04/22/whats-capitalism-got-to-do-with-it-2/).
- The most significant counter-narrative—which is mainstream within foreign policy circles but has received relatively little attention within major media channels—is the realist perspective offered by John Mearsheimer. For many years, he has argued that the United States, in pushing to expand NATO eastward (to eventually include Ukraine) laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine. Thus, in March of this year, Mearsheimer (2022) wrote, “The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis which began in February 2014. It has now turned into a war that not only threatens to destroy Ukraine, but also has the potential to escalate into a nuclear war between Russia and NATO.”
- Such essentialisms operate without any regard for history, of course, such as the determined attempt not to publish photos of dead bodies in the same extremist mainstream media in the United States during the Gulf War (DeGhett, 2014)
- I understand, capitalism itself can be utilized as an essentialist explanation in its own right. Clearly, that’s something we have to be on the lookout for, and to avoid whenever possible. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that capitalism is one—but only one—of the conditions leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- They are as capitalist but certainly not the same capitalism—and, for that matter, a capitalism combined with and conditioned by all the various forms of noncapitalism that exist within and across the countries that are currently participating in the conflict.
- It also avoids curbing or taxing the wartime profits of Big Oil, which according to a recent report by Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen and BailoutWatch (2022) have been used to reward stockholders (including corporate executives), by repurchasing shares and increasing dividends.
From: pp.16-18 of WEA Commentaries 12(2), August 2022