I’m sure that in the dying days of 2022 there were hundreds if not thousands of assessments of what is happening in Ukraine and why. I’ve selected three, each reflecting a worldview sharply distinguishable from the other two, and each the subject of a post this week.
Today I start with the most simplistic yet most widely held understanding. 1 Because it can’t be aired too often, given its graphic refutation of the lie that Russia launched an unprovoked attack – and because repeat postings of an image don’t eat up my bandwidth – I’m for the umpteenth time showing this:
I should stress that I regard Richard Murphy – the tax specialising, modern monetary theorising Quaker I often cite with guarded approval (here for instance) – as a man of integrity. Moreover, his assessments – not only of twelve years of Tory government in the UK, but of Labour refusal to challenge the homely but specious likening of a sovereign economy with a fiat currency to a household or business on its uppers 2 – have been witheringly on target.
On America’s proxy war on Russia in Ukraine, however, Professor Murphy’s ignorance of highly salient facts is as telling as the shallowness of his grasp of realpolitik. Like others who do one thing very well, he should either stick to his home turf or extend his new year’s reading list.
Here’s what he wrote on December 28:
Few, myself included, really thought Putin would invade Ukraine. Those that did had little doubt that Ukraine would crumble in the face of the onslaught and before any assistance might be provided to it.
But, Putin did the unimaginable and launched a war of aggression in Europe. In the process, he showed that he, like almost everyone else, got all his calculations wrong. His army was much weaker than he thought. Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than he expected. The demands of the war on Russia were much bigger than he anticipated. As I write the war continues. No one wins from that. Almost universally the demand is that Russia withdraw.
Three comments on that second paragraph. First and most obviously, it is childishly empiricist to say Putin launched a war of aggression in Europe. 3 Many have argued, backed by a plethora of evidence including but by no means confined to the above map, that Washington and junior partners did all they could – lies, broken promises, insults and provocations America would not for a second tolerate in its own back yard – both to provoke this war, and to prevent its being averted through diplomacy.
Second, though not a Quaker, my lack of military knowledge has made me wary of pronouncing on the war’s progress. That seems not to trouble Professor Murphy, possibly because the one thing I am sure about – that, as with the war’s causes, it is naive to suppose corporate media capable of being truthful on who is winning – is beyond his ken. But these things aside, a child of ten can see that if “Putin” underestimated anything it was not “Ukrainian resistance” but the ease with which planet earth’s most militarised economy could pump tens of billions of dollars in armaments to the corrupt regime in Kiev, and thereby not only fight Russia down to the last Ukrainian but make a tidy profit along the way.
Third, in saying that “almost universally the demand is that Russia withdraw …” the prof again reveals sharp limits to his competence. His words echo those of Western corporate media in their invoking of an “international community” depicted on this map of the, ahem, world:
Neither of Asia’s superpowers, India and China – 36% of the world’s population – is making any such demand. And it is far from self evident that the peoples of the global south, as opposed to comprador ruling classes in cahoots with the West’s exploitation of their natural resources and cheap labour, want to see Russia defeated. 4 As I wrote in a footnote to a December post:
A renascent Russia, and China’s Belt & Road, open up the possibility (for now I’ll put it no more forcefully) of a prosperity denied the global south for centuries under colonial rule, and for decades under the debt-trap controls of modern imperialism. IMF conditionality makes development loans (to bring recipient states into the global value chain as semi-colonies) subject to ‘market reforms’ which open up nationalised sectors to the investors of Frankfurt, London and New York. And should such financial discipline not suffice? Or, in the oil rich Ba’athist economies of the Middle East, be inapplicable? Then other means may be called for: infanticidal sanctions and, ultimately, the casus belli by which armed intervention is given a veneer of ‘humanitarian’ or ‘self defence’ legitimacy. But the rise of a multipolar world, led for now by a China whose approach to prosperity rests on a very different model to that of Wall Street – see Why read Michael Hudson? – offers a ray of hope to the global south even as it threatens to call time on the West’s larceny.
Richard Murphy goes on to speak of:
… Putin’s rediscovery of economic warfare. He might have underestimated the power of the human spirit when faced with tanks, but he did appreciate the dependence of the west on Russian oil. The result has been economic chaos.
Having confused ‘the human spirit’ with Ukraine becoming a lucrative arms dump, the professor does the same with cause and effect. It was not the Kremlin which elected to bring chaos to the German and other European economies. 5
See last month’s post on the EU oil price cap.
The professor continues:
After Covid and the lessons it imparted, Russia’s behaviour has provided a stark reminder of three things. One is that dependence on those who are not political allies is dangerous. The second is that extended supply chains are easy to disrupt. The third is just-in-time capitalism is deeply vulnerable to deliberate disruption. Chaos resulted from the realisation of these essential truths. That in turn suggests that globalisation has decided limits.
To the three statements in that paragraph I have three off the cuff responses:
“Dependence on those who are not political allies is dangerous”
Professor Murphy takes as read who is and who is not an ‘ally’. The more comprehensive and sophisticated assessments of Michael Hudson (also a professor, also an economist 6 and to a degree also an MMT sympathiser) shows clearly that the interests of Europeans as opposed to their leaders not only diverge sharply from Washington’s. They also point to the advantages of economic co-operation with Russia and through that with China.
“Extended supply chains are easy to disrupt”
True, yet he has nothing to say about European reliance – much to the advantage of US exporters, and much to the loss of Europe’s shivering citizens and plummeting business competitiveness (again, see my post on the EU oil price cap) – on LNG from across the Atlantic. Should this war broaden (a terrifying possibility I blame entirely on Washington and its puppet governments across the West) that ocean has a history of becoming a war zone with merchant shipping the prime target.
“Just-in-time capitalism is deeply vulnerable to deliberate disruption”
Agreed. Actually, vulnerable to any disruption. But if Professor Murphy were to apply his sharp economic mind to this, he would see that just-in-time capitalism is no accident but the product of a globalised economy run by and for the rentiers who captured Western governments forty years ago. He would further see that those rentiers – the latest in a 500 year line of supremacists whose greatest fear has always been the rise of a united Eurasia – are determined to crush Russia and ultimately China for one reason alone: the threat those two powers pose to their licence to exploit the ‘developing world’ 7 even as they ponder ever more extreme solutions to the ‘problem’ of domestic populations now surplus to the requirements of profit.
This war will end. I hope it does soon. I hope Russia is forced to withdraw. Re-creating sustainable supply chains with resilience built in will take a lot longer. Economic chaos is not over yet.
Ukraine take 2 will be out soon, and will feature a more sophisticated but still flawed analysis.
* * *
- For why “the most simplistic” – in fact the most evidence-defiant – understanding of the Ukraine War should also be the one “most widely held” see my April post, Ukraine in La La Land.
- Decrying that likening of a sovereign currency issuer to a household or business with a finite budget is not confined to modern monetary theorists. Mainstream Keynesians like Paul Krugman would agree that so specious an analogy conflates fiscal and monetary with economic realms. But be it right or wrong, an untested MMT has informed trenchant criticisms of years of ‘austerity’ which have (a) further shifted wealth from the many to the few, (b) expedited the already existing hyper-financialising – from industrial to rentier capitalisms – of the West and (c) overseen the running down of welfare services in the name of Living Within Our Means while preparing the ground for further privatisation.
- “It is childishly empiricist to say Putin launched a war of aggression in Europe”. Caitlin Johnstone – herself a survivor of domestic abuse – has more than once likened Uncle Sam to an abuser. To see Putin as the villain in all this is akin to blaming the wife who, after years of being beaten to within an inch of her life, finally turns on her man with a carving knife. (This, by the way, exemplifies what I mean when I say corporate media’s greatest lies are not of commission but of omission.)
- Professor Murphy’s error, product of total media denial and shared by all liberals, is his failure to spy the elephant in the room: viz, that imperialism is a thing.
- Circumstantial evidence for the US or a proxy (SAS/SBS?) having sabotaged Nordstream is compelling. “Circumstantial evidence”, a judge once said, “is not inferior evidence. It just needs to be scrutinised with especial care.” Attacks on those who see Washington’s dabs all over this as “conspiracy theorists” tend with breathtaking lack of awareness to substitute their own conspiracy theory that Russia did it. Why, for crying out loud? She had no motive when she could punish Europe simply by turning off the tap. Washington by contrast had motive, means (direct or by proxy) and – since the neck of the Baltic, just off the Danish Coast, is a NATO boating lake – opportunity. To which we can add Biden’s dark promise to “stop Nordstream”. Not that America’s covert war on Europe is confined to hits on pipelines. Again see my posts on this subject. Start with EU oil price cap and follow the links.
- There are those who dismiss Richard Murphy as ‘not a real economist but an accountant’. I’m not one of them. I see Murphy’s analyses, within the limits spelt out in this post, as strengthened by his tax and accountancy background.
- To say that Eurasia rising threatens Western exploitation of the global south need not imply the former’s moral superiority. (I believe it has this but that’s one for another day.) It’s amusing how often it needs to be spelt out – to those who (selectively) defend what it pleases them to call market forces – that the mere possibility of alternative funding, like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, gives that global south needed leverage in the face of IMF and World Bank loan conditionality.
On a macro level Murphy is a (self inflicted) victim of the Gell-Mann effect:
…..implies a question which needs to be made explicit.
Which is that the evidence based scientific approach and process which Murphy (along with a majority of what passes for, if one will be excused the use of an obvious oxymoron*, the ‘Western Intelligentsia’) applies to his own discipline is strictly limited to that discipline alone.
The question which needs to be made explicit and analysed is, therefore:
Why is this so?
An evidence based approach built upon the scientific methodology is not limited to any single discipline. It is applicable across all disciplines.
Yet too many among those who profess to be our cognitive and social betters, Murphy being a typical case, fail miserably and abjectly in being consistent in the application of an approach – which is universal across disciplines – outside of their own discipline.
To be fair this problem is endemic at every level. I observe the same issue in normally sensible people I know who, like myself, have decades of engineering experience, who fail to apply the same logic, principles and values they apply to engineering to a range of social, political, economic and other aspects of daily existence.
Evidence which does not match individual prejudice – learned and absorbed through decades of the application of Berney’s discipline – is rejected and ignored. Validating the observation of Groucho Marx – “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” – by opting for the spoon fed propaganda rather than the evidence.
*Murphy is far from alone in representing a typical case of what Andrei Martyanov describes as the dumbed-down Western expert and the appalling level of Western education and training.
A problem which again exists at every level. Murphy’s failure to recognise the supply chain problems which have arisen are a direct result of blowback on Europe/UK from sanctions imposed by Europe/UK have their equivalent in examples from; the numpty level decision to de-industrialise the West which has resulted in an inability to compete in industrial level warfare Duh! its logistics that win it, stupid; right down to the example that genuine Corgi trained gas fitters failed for years to recognise that the heating problems in a community building not five minutes walk from where I’m sitting were because the pump had been fitted horizontally rather than vertically.
Which says a great deal about the quality and standard of training and education at that level over the past 30-40 years or more.
And what is even more tragic is that in failing to be consistent in applying the evidence based approach outside their own discipline those like Murphy do themselves and what they are seeking to achieve no favours. In fact this failure actually undermines what they are trying to achieve.
The recent Caitlin Johnson article, highlighted on this blog earlier, makes a very obvious call for consistency in the application of stated values. The same case can be made for consistency in the application of an evidence based approach across disciplines rather than just limiting it, as in Murphy’s case, to the specialist discipline of tax and fiscal policy.
Unfortunately, and sadly in Murphy’s case, the observed evidence is that Murphy does not react well to any criticism. In fact he gets downright mardy with even the mildest of challenges. Effectively cancelling anyone who disputes his opinion on such matters in much the same way as what Stuart Campbell (at Wings over Scotland) refers to as the woke ‘Twitler Youth.’
No one, Murphy included, who takes such an approach is going to get anywhere with others in terms of advancing whatever their project happens to be. Its an approach which simply turns people off. They stop listening and engaging as a result of the inconsistency and the insistence that just because someone is correct on a specific matter they are right about everything else.
Mike Judge and Etan Cohen clearly did not realise (at least not at the time) that they were producing a documentary:
What’s that you say Richard? ‘The Russians are coming!’
They can’t get here soon enough for some us mate.
The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect highlights a widespread inability to generalise and join the dots. As I said in my own post on the GMAE, to whose existence you had alerted me:
Why does it occur? I don’t offer this as a full answer but, as a retired academic, I spent my last years as a generalist in the arena of pedagogy. A hot topic ten to twenty years ago was ‘how to impart critical thinking skills’ to undergraduates. I grew disaffected with the premise that ‘critical thinking’ had to do with any ‘skill set’. In the main, I concluded, our inability to reason effectively is (a) selective, (b) emotionally rather than intellectually driven and (c) self serving. Hence the frequency with which first rate thinkers fail, on the face of it perversely, to follow through on their own logic.
One potential line of inquiry can be found here* …..
….. both in the article and a number of insightful BTL early comments.
Whilst it is not made as explicit as I would prefer the bottom line is that in systemic terms people at every level within the West are taught from a very early age to think in this way. Thus, vis a vis the well known historical quote attributed to the Jesuits, it becomes second nature – with formal indoctrination being supported, reinforced and enhanced via informal daily methods such as peer and other similar pressure.
The miners example mentioned is but one of many available. For example; sub cultures which are, on the surface, castigated within the bounds of the allowed Overton Window discourse for their anti-social vilence, are tolerated because they also enhance the systemic indoctrination via informal channels.
Look at the ‘violent’ sub-cultures like the Ted’s or the Skin’s who, on more detailed inspection, embody the favoured ‘qualities’ of being loyal to, in terms of being in favour of, the (still Feudal) monarchy with the acquired racist violence against ‘lesser’ mortals from other parts of The Empire.
Which is one of the many reasons why it seems reasonable to conclude that the necessary change will not and cannot be generated internally but can only occur as a result of outside forces.
*There’s a cracking cartoon in this which I’ll forward on via email.
Showing your age a bit, there, Dave. Teds? As in Teddy Boys? My dear old mam told me to cross the road at first sighting of youths in leather jackets and ice blue drainpipe jeans, topped with bryl-creamed Elvis quiffs.
What next? Varlets?
I knew what teds meant, remember them from when I was very young, but I had to look up varlets. Never heard that word before.
A man or boy acting as an attendant or servant, or as I think you mean, a dishonest or unprincipled man. Lots of varlets in politics. If I started listing them I’d be here all day. Wonder what’s the word for a female varlet? Mrs May comes to mind first. She lied easily while spouting “Christian” values.
Mrs May was a knave surrounded by cads, bounders and poltroons
The Gell-Mann effect came to mind with me when I read your piece on Richard Murphy’s take on Ukraine, so I was pleased to see that Dave had raised it in his response.
I think you’re correct about people’s inability to think critically; selective, emotional and self serving. Definitely explains why many otherwise first rate thinkers fail.
One other factor though is surely herd mentality and not wanting to stand apart the crowd. Peer pressure also. The way people like Owen Jones and our friend George Monbiot write bollocks in the Guardian on foreign affairs, wars and the like, while getting other issues so right. Might sound harsh but I also think intelligent people who fall for such blatant propaganda and lies show a lack of strength of character.
Looking forward to the next instalment.
Margaret it was only through the exercise of heroic restraint that I held back from mentioning George in the sentence:
Yeah but I couldn’t resist mentioning him because he’s so pertinent to the discussion!
Have you read Caitlin’s piece today on people who never mature as adults because they never shake off the beliefs and views implanted in their brains from early childhood, by not only parents and other authority figures, but later on by the powerful along with their cheerleaders in the media? It’s very good.
I started to mature and think critically in about my early 40s. Think I’ve been maturing ever since.
Isn’t this the premise of Bernays’ whole propaganda method?
I’m reminded here of Kipling’s poem ‘Gods of the Copybook Headings.’*
Simply because, as Andrei Martyanov keeps banging on about, the problem of Berney’s model is that those pushing it have not only convinced the vast majority of their subservient populations that the moon is made of green cheese, or whatever bullshit they are pushing, they have also convinced themselves.
And, as Martyanov keeps reminding us, this has consequences – inasmuch that more and more things, from basic technology to systems level, increasingly do not work as a direct result of believing our own bullshit.
Which is where Kipling hit the nail on the head.
Part of our normal, albeit disjointed, Friday walk (with two ex-work colleagues) conversations last week took in recent media highlighted problems relating to Electric Vehicles (EV’s) in terms of (a) reduction in range arising from use of other electric powered facilities in the vehicles such as headlights, air conditioning and stereo; and (b) long waiting times, for people who have forked out a small fortune to buy the toys of Mr Musk, to charge these vehicles arising from limited availability of charging stations (don’t you just love the free market).
And here is Martyanov again……..
….reminding us of Kipling’s basic message:
Using the EV issue as an example of poorly thought out energy policy in Europe he takes aim not simply at Jospeh Borrell – who apparently has some kind of technical degree from a Western University – but ultimately at the fact that the much lauded Western Educational and training system is as dysfunctional as the Western Economic and Political systems:
” I am sure that Josep Borrell, who comes across as a complete imbecile, should thank his Alma Mater–Technical University of Madrid–which failed him in teaching fundamentals of physics and engineering as related to energy and the fraud of electric vehicles, especially for Europe which is being eaten alive by the US and is energy basket case…..
…..I saw one Tesla at some drab used cars lot a few days ago, selling for… $71,000. The sucker is born every minute. How can you explain to the graduate of the sociology department what energy industry is and how electricity is produced and distributed, if the guy with aeronautical engineering degree, Borrell that is, writes an utter BS as a declaration of his, that is views of an ignorant cabal from Brussels, views. Not only Borrell sucks as an engineer (so does Klaus Schwab with his Ph.D thesis on Loans for Mechanical Engineering, LOL) with professional integrity, he has none, but as a “diplomat” he is a non-entity. In fact, he is a negative value.
It is the same as explaining to Star Wars-“educated” geek how difficult it is to design and build a workable spaceship which reliably takes cosmonauts to the orbit and returns them back safely. For consumers of iPhones, Teslas and SpaceX, the issue of life support systems is secondary at best, as long as pseudo-scientific gimmicks keep coming and stocks (and capitalization), whatever the current engineering fraud, grow. And Borrell’s (or his staff) incoherent writing is a perfect example of a house of cards which modern West’s economy is.”
And not just the economy but education, politics, health, and everything which derives from that – from logistics breakdown** to the inability to apply basic evidence based reasoning beyond an extremely limited focus (which has already been covered using the example of Richard Murphy).
Sure, its not as pithy as Kipling’s version but it amounts to the same stark consequences.
*Some analyst’s of this Kipling poem reinforce Martyavov’s point (as well as Caitlin Johnson’s point about not growing up) by claiming it is a ‘conservative poem. Ignoring centuries of conservative market ideology doctrine which Kipling neatly eviscerates.
**Somewhere on file I have a number of articles on the supply chain logistics problems. Some from pre-pandemic; the most recent from about sixteen months back. They are well worth reading and I will attempt to find them and put them in some context in BTL comment at some stage.