Social Change

Students are Leading the Fight Against Genocide

In the early evening of Friday, May 17th, 2024, I visited the Student Encampment for Palestine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. As a faculty member at Mohawk College and Vice President of the Mohawk faculty union, OPSEU Local 240, I wanted to show my solidarity with the students and my support for their demands.

I arrived at the extensive, well-organized student camp just as a Shabbat dinner service was being conducted by local rabbi David Mivasair. There was a tightly-packed group of people present, including a large contingent of Jewish students and community members. Despite the crowd, the camp was peaceful and orderly. In stark contrast to the hotbed of antisemitic hatred that some Israeli defenders have described, the camp was a living, breathing example of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others coming together to affirm peace, justice, and human rights. My visit was an incredibly inspiring experience, and one that gave me hope that a peaceful future for Palestine was possible.

On Saturday, June 1st, I visited the Student Encampment for Palestine at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. This was a much larger camp, but just as well-organized as the McMaster encampment. As I walked through the camp, I saw children playing soccer and flying kites, while students, faculty, and community members strolled and conversed throughout. I had an excellent chat with a U of T faculty member (in a neat coincidence an anthropologist, like me), and heard of the growing number of professors who are rallying to the students’ support. On the day before, U of T faculty had hosted a press conference in front of the camp, warning the University administration that “if they come for the students, they’ll have to go through us first”.  Just a few days earlier, leaders from some of Ontario’s largest public sector unions – CUPE and OPSEU – had announced the same thing. Workers would act as “human shields” should an attempt be made to clear the students through force.

The Worst of All Possible Crimes

The student encampments for Palestine have emerged in response to a humanitarian crisis of nightmarish proportions. Since October 7, 2023  the world watched in horror as any kind of proportional response to the Hamas Al Aqsa Flood attacks instead gave way to a coordinated campaign to completely crush the 2.3 million civilians living in Gaza. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Israeli politicians were clear in several statements – the Palestinians in Gaza needed to be annihilated – either blown to pieces, starved to death, or ethnically cleansed into the Egyptian Sinai.

As of my writing this article, the IDF have been assaulting the refugee population in Rafah already made homeless by the complete destruction of Gaza City. According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, 36,050 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, 2023, and 81,026 have been injured. An incredible 192 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) workers have also been killed by Israel, and 179 UNWRA facilities have been attacked.

The Role of the West

With the military and financial backing of the United States, Israel has been fully unleashed on the population of Gaza. To date the U.S. has blocked every attempt to negotiate a ceasefire at the United Nations, while simultaneously feeding Israel billions of dollars in armaments to aid in the mass murder of Palestinians. Finally, in late December of 2023, South Africa filed a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – accusing the Israelis of doing what the great majority of the world’s population already understood – committing genocide against the Palestinians.

Few understand the colonial origins of the Zionist project or the over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed at Israel’s founding. Few understand the illegal and brutal military occupation under which Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have lived ever since.

In the United States, Canada, and a handful of other Western European countries, governments, corporate media and most societal institutions have done their utmost to block the inhuman reality of Israel’s assault on Gaza. They have worked overtime to smear and discredit Palestinians and their supporters and to convince everyone that criticism of the apartheid, genocidal Israeli state is, in fact, just antisemitism. The West has denied the unfolding genocide, undermined the ICJ, and attacked the Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian, and Yemeni militias attempting to resist the IDF militarily. Western governments have also cracked down on pro-Palestinian resistance at home, with countries like the U.K., France, and Germany enacting draconian laws that criminalized protest and free speech.

In the West, this work of whitewashing Israeli crimes and demonizing Israeli critics has for decades suppressed understanding and action concerning the conflict in Palestine. Few understand the colonial origins of the Zionist project or the over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed at Israel’s founding. Few understand the illegal and brutal military occupation under which Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have lived ever since.  Few understand the relentless Israeli project of turning Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison, of stealing Palestinian land, and of making Palestinian lives all but unlivable.

Resistance in Canada

In Canada, despite legal suppression and relentless media demonization, resistance to genocide sprang up after October 7 in cities country wide. Massive marches kept the conflict on the news and in debates on the floor of Parliament. A large and growing number of Jews have participated in this resistance, giving lie to the idea that supporting Palestinian human rights or criticizing Israel makes one an anti-Semite. However, as the conflict dragged on for months, as the Palestinian death toll rose, and as Israel crossed every moral and legal red line with impunity, it became clear that more substantive resistance was needed.

The Palestinian genocide has revealed that support for the Israeli apartheid regime is baked into the very institutional fabric of North America. The Zionist lobby has a powerful impact on electoral politics in Canada and the United States. Pro-Israel sentiments are also enshrined in our media corporations and our educational institutions. The suppression of critical discourse concerning Israel-Palestine has been particularly effective in Canadian post-secondary institutions. At colleges and universities country-wide, pro-Palestinian student groups have been suppressed and pro-Palestinian faculty have been targeted with false accusations of antisemitism and coordinated campaigns to discipline or fire them. Academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of dissent have all been seriously undermined by these Zionist attacks.

Ending the Genocide

Halting the Palestinian genocide and envisioning a just resolution to their decades-long oppression will require dismantling the institutional support for Zionism that keeps Canadians either silent or complicit. This involves several tasks.

First, the movement for Palestinian human rights must fully and finally refute the notion that criticizing the government of Israel is synonymous with hating that state’s population or, more absurdly, about hating Jewish people everywhere. People of good faith and good conscience must continue to speak out and to fight back against attempts at censorship and intimidation. At the same time, we must continue to condemn the real instances of antisemitism in our country and to fight the far-right organizations that fuel them.

the social, economic, and political ties between Canadian institutions and the state of Israel must be severed. Just as it was with the South African apartheid regime, a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel is critical.

Second, the origins and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to become widely known, and Canadians need to understand the horrendous historic crime that has been committed against the Palestinian people. This requires more demonstrations, more teach-ins, and more mainstream and independent media coverage. We must fight to create spaces in which open, honest, and critical dialogue about Israel and Palestine can take place.

Finally, the social, economic, and political ties between Canadian institutions and the state of Israel must be severed. Just as it was with the South African apartheid regime, a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel is critical. This includes pressing Canada for an arms embargo against Israel and pressuring other key institutions to cut ties.

These are difficult goals to achieve. However, the student encampments that have sprung up across colleges and universities in the United States and Canada are helping to accomplish all of them. The wide participation of Jewish students and community members is the best antidote to false accusations of antisemitism. The encampments are spaces in which education and discussion about the conflict is continuously present, and in which community members can learn about the history of Palestine. Finally, the core demands of the encampments are that Canadian post-secondary institutions divest from economic ties to Israel and boycott academic ties.

The importance of the student encampments is not lost on Zionist defenders of genocide. This is why the camps have been attacked by counter-protestors, infiltrated by disruptors, and demonized by administrators and by the media. However, despite these assaults, the students, faculty, and community supporters of the camps remain committed.  Their perserverence is a vital and inspiring example of resistance against the Palestinian genocide, and an affirmation of values that should be at the very core of our society – human rights, international law, freedom of speech, and freedom of dissent. For this reason, all Canadians should join the U of T faculty and the public sector unions when they say – “if they come for the students, they’ll have to come through us first!”

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Image from Crescent International Newsmagazine
Social Change

Flirting With Annihilation: Russia, NATO, and the Ukraine War

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading these past few months, trying to understand the devastating conflict unfolding in Ukraine.  War is the most destructive force human beings can unleash, and whenever and wherever it erupts it is always a tragedy.

If we are opposed to war (and I think we should be), then there are two important questions, above all others, that we have to ask when one breaks out: how did it start, and how can it end?  With these questions in mind, it has been bewildering to see the coverage provided by Western state and corporate media and spreading out through countless Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube accounts. If we want to understand the conflict in Ukraine, then facts and unbiased analysis are of utmost importance. When surveying the Western media landscape it’s sad to say that, right now, these things are in short supply.

In North America and much of Europe we’re being offered a very simple narrative about the war in Ukraine: evil Russians invaded Ukraine for no legitimate reason. For those needing some kind of rationale, we’re offered the choice between:

  1. Putin is a madman, or
  2. Putin is a psychopath

Beyond a deranged proclivity for armed aggression, you can also believe that Putin is a frustrated Stalin fan-boy, incensed at the Soviet Union’s dissolution and eager to restore the old Empire to its former glory. Days after the February 24th “special military operation” started, a chorus of public commentators were saying “he won’t stop at Ukraine!” In a post on my own Facebook page an otherwise intelligent friend mused that, because Russia didn’t send enough troops to occupy the entire country, Putin must be planning the genocide of millions of Ukrainians in order to sufficiently thin out the population (he said this with all seriousness). It is the proverbial End Times we are told… the worst war in Europe since WWII… the rise of a New Hitler.

In the face of this monstrous existential threat to all that is right and good, our task is equally clear. Volodomr Zelensky is a “hero”, the Ukrainian soliders are noble defenders of their motherland, and the entire world needs to side with them in cursing the Russians, flooding the country with advanced weapons systems, and shouting “Slava Ukraini!” (…but just don’t ask where this phrase comes from).

At the same time it is also clear that the entire “free world” needs to isolate Russia, sanction its people, crush its economy, break its military, and even overthrow its government. No stone should be left unturned to counter Russia’s villainy. Russian artists have to be blackmailed into publicly reciting purity oaths, or else fired. Russian athletes need to be hounded from international sports teams and events. Russian students have to be punished and expelled from our schools.  All of this is needed, none of it is enough. The entire country, the entire people, have to pay.

Russophobia: Framing the Narrative

As a professor who teaches media studies, I know that we’ve already been primed for the kind of anti-Russian sentiment we’re now seeing, that in truth it comes to us as naturally as breathing. From a young age North Americans are taught to hate and fear Russians. As a child the cartoon villains I watched were named Boris and Natasha. The equally cartoonish villains in the wrestling shows I loved were also Russian. In nearly every detective show and Hollywood action film I saw, the villains were Russian. Russian mobsters. Russian oligarchs. Highly-deadly, emotionless Russian assassins.

From countless examples in popular culture I learned that Russians were brutish and inhuman. When I was growing up I also learned that Russians were Godless Commies – foot-soldiers in the spread of an Evil Empire that wanted to swallow up the free world and make us all drive small, boxy cars and wait in long lines for poorly-made consumer goods. Since 2016 I’ve been hearing that Russians have rigged elections, subverted democracy, and lurked behind nearly every instance of hacking and even internet trolling. With all of this practice, is it any wonder how quickly we’ve fallen in line with the dominant narrative on Ukraine?

In this environment of anti-Russian hysteria, statements that deviate from the mainstream Western position on the war are being met with charges of “Putin propaganda”. Attempts to point to the complex history leading up to the conflict or the prominent role played by the United States, NATO, and the Ukrainian far-right, are similarly dismissed as Russian propaganda. Instead, we are told to take as gospel truth the direct communications of American and European politicians, the corporate media, the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon… all paragons of truth and transparency, of course. (you’ll forgive me a bit of sarcasm there).

Understanding War and Geopolitics

In addition to teaching, for over 20 years I’ve been an anti-war activist and student of international relations. My introduction to this field came in the early 90’s as an undergraduate journalist in University. I was assigned to cover a Timorese student leader speaking out about the genocide perpetrated against his people by the Indonesian military. For me his presentation was a crash-course in the brutal realities of geopolitics and the ways in which media become complicit in international crimes against humanity.

The American and Canadian governments were supporting Indonesia’s brutal war against East Timor, providing weapons and diplomatic cover. Not surprisingly, you wouldn’t read anything about this in mainstream media sources – a fact well illustrated by Noam Chomsky in the documentary Manufacturing Consent.  Through East Timor I found out that the West is very often the “bad guy” in international conflicts. I learned that the United States is in fact an aggressive military power that routinely flaunts international law. I learned that Canada and other NATO allies are usually supportive lackeys in these imperial adventures, and that corporate and state media in North America work overtime to conceal these damning truths.

Since Timor, we’ve witnessed the devastating effects of U.S. imperialism time and again – in the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the 2002 U.S. – backed coup in Venezuela, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the 2004 Canadian and American – backed coup in Haiti, the 2009 American-backed coup in Honduras, the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s government by NATO, the 2011 U.S. – backed attempt to overthrow the Syrian government, the 2019 U.S. – backed coup in Bolivia, and another U.S-backed coup attempt in Venezuela in 2020. Apart from overt military intervention, the U.S. and its allies also regularly intervene in the politics of other countries – using an array of deadly tools to get “uncooperative” foreign governments to fall in line with U.S. interests. In his book Killing Hope, American professor William Blum details over 70 instances of the United States overthrowing foreign governments since World War II.

American intervention is often more subtle than full-scale military invasion. In his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman, former engineering consultant John Perkins describes how U.S. corporations, in partnership with the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and World Bank, collude in getting poor countries to accept massive amounts of debt to fund the business and development projects of Western corporations. The ultimate goal is to saddle poor countries with crippling debt, thus making them politically compliant to the wishes of the U.S. and its allies.

When business professionals like Perkins are unsuccessful at bending the will of non-compliant regimes, the tactics are escalated and other operatives are sent in. First are the jackals – covert operatives who work to destabilize governments through violence, assassination, and fomenting social unrest. If these threats are insufficient, then military coups or outright invasion are used. The result, writes Perkins, is like a global criminal racket, a “death economy — one based on wars or the threat of war, debt, and the rape of the earth’s resources.”

The foundation of American Empire rests on this “death economy” – using economic and military power to pillage and extort less powerful nations, to coerce “allies” into arrangements favourable to the Empire, and to weaken and destroy potential competitors. Competitors are any countries that refuse to acquiesce to American dominance and that dare to chart a sovereign political course. The weaker of these intransigent competitor nations are generally dealt with through force – taking their place among the victims of U.S. military intervention listed above. However, if a country is both defiant and somehow strong enough to resist the coercive economic and military power of U.S. Empire, then it attains the status of hated enemy.  In the present day, Russia and China most fit this role, with Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela being lesser villains.

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman note that hatred of national enemies comprises a powerful “filter” through which political and media discourse in the United States passes. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Communist China were vilified as both competitor states and as ideological threats to the capitalist world order. This led to deeply biased news reporting and consistently negative representations in art and entertainment.

After the Cold War ended, and Russia and China emerged as independent post-Communist nations and participants in the global capitalist economy, anti-Communist rhetoric has been replaced with an intensified Russophobia and Sinophobia. As discussed above, Russia is particularly singled out for this cultural hatchet-job, due to the threat of its greater ties to Europe, and its willingness to use military power to counter U.S. imperial objectives, such as in Syria. Because of the hostile filter that all information about Russia and China passes through in North America, the news we get is deeply biased. Knowing this, it is important to not take it at face value, and to question everything.

Full Spectrum Dominance

To students of geopolitics and of the American Empire, everything I’ve said so far is uncontroversial and commonly known. The problem is that most North Americans haven’t studied these things, don’t know the history, and only have state and corporate information sources to rely on. Because of this, they remain plugged into a deceptive Matrix and ignorant of the “world of the real”. In this real world, the United States is locked in a global power struggle with Russia and China, and is using political, economic, cultural, and military resources to destroy these competitors. Similarly, Russia and China are also powerful states, and project this power beyond their borders and into the affairs of nearby states.

It is important to note that none of these powerful countries are pure moral actors. Russia and China are not above scrutiny, criticism, and even, in some cases, condemnation. The Communist Party of China, and the Han Chinese majority it represents, have been brutal in their suppression of Tibetan and Uyghur communities. From the 18th century to the Soviet era, Russia was an Empire.  To think that all of the former USSR and Warsaw Pact members were willing recipients of Russian political domination is pure fantasy, and the history of Russian imperialism toward Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic explains the acute Russophobia expressed by nationalists in these countries.

However, while it is true that the U.S., Russia and China are all powerful states with extra-territorial interests and influence, it is equally true that there is a massive difference in the projection of this influence. In this regard, the United States’ footprint in international affairs is orders of magnitude greater than that of either Russia or China. In 2021 the U.S. spent $801 billion on its military, while China spent $293 billion and Russia spent only $65.9 billion. The U.S. maintains over 750 military bases in at least 80 countries, and has approximately 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. In contrast, Russia has 21 military bases outside of its borders, while China has only one, in Djibouti. It is a simple fact that neither Russia nor China comes remotely close to the United States in using military and economic force to overthrow the governments of other sovereign nations. In addition, only the United States has publicly stated, and consistently enforced, its desire to exert control over the entire planet.

The pursuit of global dominance has driven U.S. foreign policy since at least the Second World War. In his book Full Spectrum Dominance: Totalitarian Democracy in the New World Order, military analyst William Engdahl reveals that before WWII even ended, Britain and the United States were planning a war for global supremacy against the Soviet Union. Shortly after the war ended, the pursuit of this supremacy became official government policy. In 1948, George F. Keenan wrote in a highly classified U.S. State Department memorandum:

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

Keenan’s memo describes a policy of American Exceptionalism, in which the United States acts ruthlessly to protect its national interests and to structure international relations in its favour. This realist politics continued through subsequent decades, influencing Henry Kissinger, National Security advisor to Richard Nixon, who oversaw the disastrous Vietnam War and famously stated “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security advisor to Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama, perpetuated the exceptionalist foreign policy, conceiving of Eurasia as a “grand chessboard” and luring the Soviet Union into a devastating 10 year war in Afghanistan. 

In 1998, the quest for global hegemony again surfaced in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) – a think-tank comprised of neoconservative intellectuals, many of whom would later occupy positions in the Bush-Cheney government. PNAC released a document, Rebuilding America’s Defences, that advocated for a policy of “full spectrum dominance” – American global supremacy in conventional, nuclear, cyberspace, and space warfare.  This political goal led to the illegal and disastrous U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – costing hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and trillions of dollars. The goal of full spectrum dominance continues to this day, and colours all of the information, representations, and analysis that Westerners receive on Russia and China.

The Current Crisis

The American policy of global dominance, and the branding of Russia as a hated enemy, have led to a steady drum-beat of censorship, misinformation, and over-simplification concerning the Ukraine war. It has almost been enough to mask the horrible truth of our current situation. Thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers are being killed in a needless conflict that could easily have been avoided. Battle lines are being drawn and entrenched between NATO and an emerging Russia/China geopolitical bloc. Economic chaos is being unleashed across the globe, as fuel and food prices soar. Finally, as billions of dollars of advanced weaponry flow into Ukraine from NATO member countries, it seems increasingly likely that this conflict will extend, expand, and bring the entire planet to the brink of nuclear annihilation. For those who understand international relations and Great Power politics – the stakes, and the risks, could not possibly be higher.

If we want to stop this war, and more importantly win the peace in Ukraine, then a critical first step is to understand the conflict’s roots. Given how powerful the Western narrative of the war is, and how resistant many people seem to be to alternative perspectives, it makes sense to go through each piece of the narrative separately and look for the evidence for or against. For the rest of the article I will examine, in turn, the history of the USSR and Ukraine, the role played by NATO expansion, the 2014 EuroMaidan uprising and coup, the seizure of Crimea, the post-coup government and its relation to neo-nazis and the far right, the battle against the Donbas Republics, and finally, the diplomatic and military events that immediately preceded Russia’s February 24th invasion.

Ukraine in the USSR

One of the arguments used to shout down challengers of the Western narrative on Ukraine is to point to the historic abuses that Ukrainians have suffered at the hands of Imperial and Soviet Russia. In particular, the Holodomor, a horrible famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, is used as an example of Russia’s genocidal intentions toward Ukrainians. The number of people who died in the famine is contested, with early estimates suggesting up to 15 or 20 million, and more recent estimates arguing for approximately 4 million. What is undisputed is that a widespread famine gripped Ukraine in the years of the Holodomor, that a significant portion of the population starved to death, and that the entire tragedy was covered up by the Soviet government of the day.

Although causes of the famine are also hotly contested, nearly every scholar includes Soviet policies that forced collectivization of independent farms and dealt harsh penalties for disobeying food quotas. It is also acknowledged that drought affected the harvest in those years. Ukraine and 15 other countries now consider the Holodomor to be an act of genocide – deliberately conducted by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalists. However, this characterization is controversial and hotly debated, with many scholars considering the event a crime against humanity, but one that stemmed largely from poorly devised, authoritarian Soviet policies, not from a desire to murder Ukrainians en masse.

Despite the ongoing scholarly debate, the Holodomor and associated incidents of Stalinist repression in Ukraine remain historical facts. This is important to acknowledge, as the suffering experienced by Eastern Europeans under Soviet rule understandably contributes to a suspicion of Russian motives. For some, this history has been used to fuel hatred for all ethnic Russians.

To Eastern Europeans who experienced Russian Imperialism and resisted Soviet rule, Russia is the devil they know, whereas the Imperialism of the United States and NATO can be an abstract thing. Because of this, it is not unusual to be challenged by Eastern European nationalists when suggesting a different narrative for the 2022 invasion. These attacks tend to go into gruesome and minute detail concerning Stalinist atrocities, and then to equate modern day Russia with the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin with Stalin. Completely missing from these attacks is any mention of the U.S. or NATO as Imperialist forces with their own strategic objectives in the region.

While it is important to acknowledge the past crimes committed by Soviet Russia against Ukraine, it is equally important to accept the fact that the Soviet Union has not existed for over 30 years and Russia has not been a Communist country for about as long. Ukraine emerged an independent country after the collapse of the USSR. At this time Ukraine declared itself a neutral state, having good relations with both Russia and NATO.

This is not to say that after the USSR collapsed Russia stopped trying to influence Ukraine and its other neighbours and to meddle in their political affairs. Russia has certainly done both, and this is a legitimate grievance of nationalist and West-leaning Ukrainians. Having said this though, there is no credible evidence that post-USSR Russia, or more recently Putin, have been seeking to militarily dominate Ukraine or the countries surrounding them or to incorporate them into a revived Empire. In fact, as we’ll see below, evidence suggests that for the past 15 years Putin has been doing everything he can to avoid a war in Eastern Europe. For this reason, the argument of historical grievances and historical equivalences is unconvincing, and we have to look elsewhere for explanations for the 2022 Russian invasion.

The Role of NATO Expansion and Nuclear War

Another assertion made by defenders of the mainstream Western narrative on Ukraine is that NATO expansion has absolutely nothing to do with the conflict. A statement often made is that “any country should have the right to join whatever international association they want to”. Couched this way, Russia’s resistance to Ukraine joining NATO is just another instance of meddling in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs.  It reinforces the historical grievance narrative, and suggests that Putin’s problem with NATO is aggressive, and all about control.  In order to evaluate this perspective and to understand NATO’s real role in the current conflict, we’ll have to examine the Cold War relationship between NATO and the USSR and the critical moments when the Soviet Empire was crumbling and Ukraine was gaining its independence.

The roots of the conflict today trace back to World War II, when, as mentioned above, the United States was already planning a military showdown with the Soviet Union. In August of 1945, the U.S. used nuclear weapons to obliterate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was a move designed to end the war in the south pacific, but also to send an intimidating message to the USSR – the United States was militarily dominant and willing to use nuclear weapons to destroy civilian populations.

Later in 1945, General Eisenhower drafted a plan for an immediate nuclear assault on Russia. Code-named Plan Totality, it was designed to completely destroy 20 major cities. President Truman immediately used this military leverage, threatening a nuclear strike if Russia did not retreat from Iran in 48 hours. In the years following WWII, American generals repeatedly advocated using nuclear weapons on Russia, China, Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. It is a miracle that, at each point, cooler heads were able to prevail and to prevent a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thus, immediately following World War II, the Americans had already signalled their intentions toward global dominance and positioned themselves as an existential threat to the Soviet Union. The Soviet’s successful testing of a nuclear weapon in 1949 arguably saved them from an American nuclear first strike. As Russia developed ballistic missile capabilities in 1957, the ideas of American nuclear dominance, and of a first-strike capability, temporarily receded. The Cold War then became an arms race, with the USSR and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed in 1949 as a military alliance to opposed the Soviet Union, spending massive amounts to develop and deploy increasingly advanced nuclear weapons.

The era of “mutually assured destruction”, or what some called “the balance of terror” began. The U.S. strategy at this time shifted toward seeking a defence against nuclear attack – Reagan’s infamous Star Wars program. Despite the defensive nature of Star Wars, the goal of U.S. nuclear arms development was always to reclaim the first-strike advantage by being able to neutralize a Russian counter-strike.

During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Russian and American leaders started trying to limit the scope of each country’s nuclear arsenal. This was an acknowledgement that the “balance of terror” between the two super-powers, while not ideal, was a stable international situation and that a proliferation of anti-ballistic missile technology could upset that balance and make a first-strike option seem feasible. In 1972 the SALT I talks led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which limited defensive and offensive missiles. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was significant in outlawing an entire class of medium-range weapons. By 1991, the START I treaty again limited the arsenals of both sides.

The Cold War arms race eventually bankrupted the USSR, causing Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev to first attempt to save, and then reluctantly disband, the union. In 1990 talks with the U.S. and NATO about the reunification of East and West Germany, Gorbachev was assured by U.S. officials that NATO would not expand east of Germany. After dissolution of the USSR, Russian president Boris Yeltsin continued to negotiate with the U.S. and NATO, seeking to transition away from the Cold War and toward a new era of peace and stability in Europe. At the time it was hoped that, with dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, NATO would also disband. There was hopeful talk of a “peace dividend” as Cold War military alliances were dismantled and military budgets reduced.

Unfortunately, in 1991 the U.S. had very different plans. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, instead of pursuing peace with Russia, the U.S and NATO pursued a policy intended to completely destroy Russia. The goal was to dismantle the country and its military power and to remove it once and for all as a competitor to U.S. dominance in Eurasia. To this end, the U.S. first used the International Monetary Fund to enforce harsh neoliberal reforms on the Russian economy. These included a brutal austerity that had devastating effects on the health of the Russian population, and also a fire-sale of state assets to American banks and Russian oligarchs.

Next, first in 1995 and later in 1999, NATO intervened militarily in Yugoslavia, demonstrating the alliance’s willingness to advance its European interests on the battlefield. Finally, the U.S. moved to integrate as many post-Soviet republics into NATO as it could, a plan it had been formulating since the 1980s. In the late 1990s this plan was given extra impetus by the PNAC neoconservatives, who were also pushing for a renewed commitment to nuclear dominance. With the election of George W. Bush, PNAC gained a grip on the White House and Pentagon. By 2001, the United States had unilaterally withdrawn from the ABM Treaty with Russia. In Full Spectrum Dominance, Engdhal notes that: “By 2004 Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were all in NATO, with the Republic of Georgia being groomed to join.”

The eastward expansion of NATO was a highly controversial strategy among foreign affairs experts, and during the 1990s, several high-ranking U.S. politicians and government staff, including staunch conservatives and Cold Warriors, expressed deep concerns. Eugene Puryear writes:

In 1998 George Kenan, the chief architect of the Cold War, stated that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe was a “tragic mistake,” that “no one was threatening anyone else,” and that “of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.

Despite this kind of criticism, the expansion occurred, leading to increasingly candid concerns being expressed by Vladimir Putin, who in 2007 called NATO’s spread “a serious provocation”. Putin wondered at the broken promises that had been made to Russia by Washington, and warned that the U.S.’s intention to place advanced missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic was a dangerous destabilization of the nuclear balance that existed between the two countries.

Putin’s warnings fell on deaf ears, and by 2008, George W. Bush publicly announced that Ukraine and Georgia would also become NATO members. Putin’s response to this statement was unequivocal, calling NATO’s expansion to the Russian border a “direct threat”. In addition, 2008 saw the U.S. back a war in the Baltics, right on Russia’s doorstep, as Georgia invaded its neighbour South Ossetia. Since 2003, the U.S. had been funding and arming the Georgian military and pro-Western political parties. Millions in U.S. cash and the work of several American NGOs led to the 2003 “Rose Revolution” that installed the pro-Western, pro-NATO government of Mikheil Saakashvili.

The other massive event that has structured the geopolitical landscape since 2000 is the “War on Terror” – a sweeping use of unilateral military power by the United States and its NATO allies. In a little over a decade, Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and occupied, Libya was bombed and its government overthrown, the U.S. backed out of an armaments treaty with Iran, and the government of Syria was the target of a Washington-backed regime-change war. These conflicts were launched in flagrant violation of international law, instead justified by the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive war. It is no surprise that, in the face of this Western military onslaught, Putin made the following remarks at the Munich Conference on Security in 2007:

Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

During the same speech Putin also explicitly mentioned the threat of new NATO missile systems being installed in Eastern Europe, stating: “Plans to expand certain elements of the anti-missile defence system to Europe cannot help but disturb us. Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race?”

When considering the history detailed above, what can we make of Western assertions that NATO expansion has no role to play in the current Ukraine conflict? Given the United States’ official (if unstated) policy of dismantling or destroying the Russian state, their unilateral re-kindling of the nuclear arms race, their goal of pursuing a nuclear first-strike capability against Moscow, and the repeated use of unlawful military force by the U.S and NATO, it is hard to see how NATO’s steady eastward expansion could not be perceived as an existential threat by Russia. This has been explicitly and consistently stated by Russia for over 30 years. It is also acknowledged by numerous U.S. government and military officials, some of whom have spoken out publicly at the dangerous and tragic nature of the expansionist policy. A number of these American critics have also explicitly stated that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would lead to war. Given these facts, the Western narrative on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is absurd in it’s assertion that NATO has nothing to do with the conflict. We may agree or disagree with the U.S. and NATO’s geopolitical goals, but to deny their critical role in the present day conflict is simply not a serious way of looking at the world. The United States and NATO are key instigators of the war in Ukraine.

The 2014 EuroMaidan

Apart from expanding the NATO military alliance toward Russia’s borders, intensifying the nuclear arms race, and strengthening its first-strike capability, the United States has also been using more covert means to achieve its geopolitical objectives in Europe. After fomenting pro-Western revolutions in Serbia in 2001 and Georgia in 2003, in 2004, the U.S. saw an opportunity to establish a political beachhead in Ukraine by backing the presidential bid of Victor Yushchenko. Yushchenko lost a hotly-contested election, but U.S.-backed groups successfully protested in the streets and petitioned for another election, which Yushchenko narrowly won.

The entire campaign was orchestrated by American PR firms and funded by the usual U.S. NGOs that support regime-change operations, to the tune of over $20 million. This “Orange Revolution” (so-named because of the colour of Yuschenko’s campaign materials) was just the start of intensive U.S. intervention in the political affairs of Ukraine. In 2013, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, bragged that the U.S. had put over $5 billion into Ukraine since 1991, with the goal of installing a regime friendly to Washington.

U.S. involvement in Ukraine reached a fever pitch in the 2013/2014 EuroMaidan protests. In the mainstream Western narrative, these protests were a popular uprising against a corrupt government and a unified expression of Ukraine’s desire for greater Western integration. However, upon examination this characterization is highly suspect, and a more complex picture emerges. In an excellent article in Jacobin, Branko Marcetic details how in 2013/2014 the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovych, was actually overthrown in a coup conducted by the Ukrainian far right and orchestrated by the United States.

Marcetic notes that, contrary to Western media portrayals of a united and homogeneous Ukraine, the country is split between a pro-Europe, Ukrainian-speaking West and a pro-Russia, Russian-speaking East. Approximately 1/3 of Ukrainians have Russian as their first language, and close to 2/3 speak it regularly. Given this demographic reality, and the reality of their position between the duelling powers of Russia and Europe, politics in Ukraine have a seesaw quality, with pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates rising and falling, and more savvy politicians needing to play a delicate balancing act between these two poles. Ukrainian politics was also notoriously corrupt, with foreign money (from Europe, the U.S., and Russia) and oligarchs influencing much of the rise and fall of various political fortunes.

As president, Victor Yanukovytch was an example of the savvy, yet corrupt brand of Ukrainian politics. Elected in 2010 in a process generally accepted to be fair, he was immediately confronted by the need to balance Russian and European priorities. Yanukovytch rejected the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine and made Russian one of the country’s official languages. However, he also refused several political and economic demands from the Kremlin and continued to pursue EU membership. An issue of particular importance was whether to accept the IMF loan and drastic structural adjustments demanded as a precursor to EU membership, or to accept a more favourable loan from Russia.

Despite being committed to the EU, Yanokovytch ended up choosing the Russian deal. This led to outrage and a popular uprising among pro-West Ukrainians who feared the deal would strengthen Russian control over Ukrainian politics. In 2013 they occupied the Maidan square in Kyiv and demanded the deal be rescinded. However, the political demands of a small, but highly organized group of protestors went much further.

Yanukovytch reacted to the demonstrations with an authoritarian crackdown and a ban on further protest. This only stoked the crowds, which grew in number. Despite this, the Maidan protests did not have majority support, with the eastern, Russian-speaking population being generally opposed. As the protests continued, the far-right Svoboda party and Right Sector, a collection of neo-nazi organizations, took commanding roles. Images of WWII Ukrainian fascist and nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera became ubiquitous, and organized violence began breaking out at the demonstrations.

Multiple sources indicate that organized far-right groups were heavily armed during the protests and led numerous attacks on police. There is also credible evidence that shootings of several protestors blamed on Ukrainian police were in fact carried out by far-right militants. In early 2014 Svoboda and Right Sector began taking over buildings and neighbourhoods, declaring zones of independence, and calling for the overthrow of the Yanukovytch government. By February 22, the Ukrainian parliament voted to strip power from Yanukovytch. On February 27, pro-Western opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk was made prime minister of an interim government.

Washington’s fingerprints were all over the Euromaidan coup. The NED and USAID offices, located right in the US embassy in Ukraine, were active in supporting anti-Yanukovych forces. Both agencies provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to New Citizen – an organization that played a key role in organizing the Maidan protests. After the unrest broke out in December of 2013, Senator’s John McCain and Chris Murphy visited with Svoboda’s fascist leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, to express their support. In February of 2014, Victoria Nuland was caught on tape talking about who should emerge as leader after the coup (not surprisingly, she picked Yatsenyuk), and her attempts to line up U.S. support for it, including getting then Vice President Joe Biden to weigh in. In the call, Nuland also explicitly says that Tyahnybrok, Svoboda, and the Ukrainian neo-nazis should be an integral part of the interim government that would emerge after the coup.

Given the available information, what can we make of the Western narrative that Maidain was simply a patriotic popular uprising against government corruption, and has nothing to do with the present conflict? When looking at Maidan through a critical lens, it is difficult to sustain a black and white reading of the event as either purely a popular uprising against corruption, or purely a foreign-orchestrated coup. What is clear is that both the U.S. and Russia were deeply involved in Ukrainian politics, but that the U.S. efforts to install a Washington-friendly regime were significantly greater in duration, extent, and intensity. In addition, it is clear that the U.S. were prepared to work with Ukraine’s far-right to orchestrate a coup. Evidence also supports the fact that the far-right Svoboda party and neo-nazi militias played a key role in transforming a popular uprising into an armed overthrow of the elected government. The prominent role of the far-right in Ukraine has only intensified since Maidan, and their influence in government, in the streets, and in the military has been pivotal.

The Seizure of Crimea and the Post-Coup Government

Immediately after the Maidan coup, the Crimean peninsula declared independence and then voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. This has been called a violation of international law by Western nations, who consider Crimea to be illegally annexed by Russia. However, the illegality of Crimea’s transition is contested. First, there is the fact that the people of Crimea (over 95% of the 83% of eligible voters that participated) voted in a referendum to first become an independent republic, and then to join Russia.

The declaration of independence by a region within a state is not in itself a violation of international law, and the Ukrainian constitution recognizes the right of people’s to self-determination via referendum. In addition, Crimea had already been declared an Autonomous Republic in 1991, with a special legal status within Ukraine that acknowledged its unique history and close Russian ties. Crimea had been a part of Russia from 1783, until it was transferred to the Ukraine Socialist Republic by Khrushchev in 1954.

Today few apart from Ukrainian ultra-nationalists would consider the people of Crimea to be “conquered” or “occupied” by Russia. It is true that Russia sent troops into Crimea during the Maidan coup, with the stated objective of protecting their military base against the outbreak of civil war. However, this troop movement was legal under the currently existing agreements between Russia and Ukraine, and there is no evidence that Russian forces had any involvement in the referendum that took place.

A 2015 Forbes article referenced two independent polls conducted by prominent Western companies. One poll showed 82% of Crimean respondents approving of the union with Russia, while the other showed 83% support. The author concluded “… it seems without question that the vast majority of Crimeans do not feel they were duped into voting for annexation, and that life with Russia will be better for them and their families than life with Ukraine.” Despite this consistent majority support, Western critics and Ukrainian nationalists continue to question the validity of the Crimean independence and reunification referendum, and to make the status of the peninsula an enduring source of conflict with Russia.

Apart from the secession of Crimea from Ukraine, the other major challenge that emerged post-Maidan was the character of the new government and the increased status of the far-right and paramilitary forces that had staged the coup. While it is inaccurate to say that the post-coup government in Ukraine was a “nazi regime”, it is true that it was heavily influenced by anti-Russian ultra-nationalists. Svoboda members were given one quarter of cabinet positions, with party co-founder Andriy Parubiy given the position of Secretary of the Security and National Defense Committee. Parubiy’s deputy was Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the neo-nazi Right Sector.

Although subsequent Ukrainian elections saw limited support for far-right parties and candidates, these organizations continued to play an important role through their growing paramilitary wing. The first post-coup elections brought Petro Porochenko to power – one of the richest men in Ukraine. Porochenko’s government was hostile to the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine – revoking the status of Russian as an official language and staging a public campaign to rehabilitate Bandera and other nazi collaborators and to celebrate them as national heroes.

In addition to their expanded presence in government, the Ukrainian far-right greatly increased its paramilitary organization after Maidan. The street fighters of Right Sector who were instrumental in overthrowing Yanukovytch were mostly comprised of white supremacist soccer hooligans. However, with U.S cash and weapons, and the patronage of Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, Azov became a well-organized fighting force, along with the Dnipro 1, Dnipro 2, Aidar, and Donbas battalions. These militias prominently espoused nazi ideology and used nazi symbology, such as the swastika and the Azov Wolfsangel – a symbol of the German SS. These right-wing militias immediately began violently attacking their enemies –leftists, liberals, human rights activists, LGBTQ activists, and pro-Russian Ukrainians. In addition, Azov became one of the largest international recruiters and trainers of violent white supremacists in the world. Western corporate media covered all of these developments from 2014 through 2021 – warning of the growing power of the far-right in Ukrainian politics and of the political violence being carried out by Azov and other neo-nazi groups.

The ultra-nationalist, anti-Russian character of the post-coup government and the increasingly unchecked street violence of the neo-nazi militias led to unease among the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as the Donbas. Immediately after the patriotic uprising of Maidan, Ukrainians were deeply split on the issue of NATO membership. A March, 2014 Gallup poll of Ukrainians showed that 29% of respondents felt joining NATO was a threat to Ukraine, while only 17% thought it was a source of protection. Opinion was sharply divided between East and West Ukraine, with 46% of respondents in the East considering NATO a threat, and only 8% in the West. Conversely, 39% of Western Ukrainians considered NATO a source of protection, while only 3% of Eastern Ukrainians felt this way.

In early March, 2014, Eastern Ukrainian unease with the coup government led to the creation of two breakaway regions in the Donbas. In the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, separatists held referendums on independence, claiming 89% support in Donetsk and 96% support in Luhansk. The results were condemned by Western governments and media sources, and by the government of Ukraine.

The change in status of Crimea and the Donbas republics is an obvious point of contention within Ukraine and between Russia and NATO. Depending on one’s affiliation, it is easy to call the referendums illegitimate and the secessions illegal. However, it is also important to remember that the right to self-determination is protected for “all peoples” under the United Nations Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Ukrainian state is bound by these laws, and is thus required to respect claims for self-determination of people within its legal boundaries.

Ukraine and the West may question the validity of the formal mechanisms used to claim self-determination in Crimea and the Donbas; however, it must be remembered that these mechanisms were utilized by populations under threat and without the resources that a government normally has to conduct secure state-wide votes. In addition, there is little to suggest that Ukraine would have ever agreed to the independence of its former territories. Indeed, the eight year war that has raged in the Donbas since 2014 shows the unwillingness of Ukraine to respect the autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. This is itself a violation of international law that needs to be weighed against the violation caused by Russia’s February 24th invasion.

The Battle Against the Donbas Republics

After the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were formed, the Ukrainian military, along with far-right and neo-nazi militias, began an assault on the Donbas Republics. This war in the east of Ukraine has continued for eight years, and according to the UN has killed in excess of 14,000 Ukrainians, over 3,000 of whom are civilians. 81% of these casualties came from the rebel held territories, showing that the conflict’s burden has fallen most heavily on the breakaway Republics. During this conflict Russia has been supporting the Donbas Republic rebels with military equipment, while the U.S. has been supporting Ukraine and the far-right and nazi militias. In September 2014, the Minsk I agreement was signed to end the conflict in the Donbas. This agreement provided for an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of all armed forces, disarming of all illegal paramilitary groups, and special status for Donetsk and Luhansk within Ukraine.

Despite a brief ceasefire upon signing the Minsk agreement, fighting in the Donbas quickly resumed. This led to a new ceasefire and new Minsk II agreement in February of 2015, although attacks from both sides again resumed shortly after. Several other short ceasefire agreements were made after Minsk II, but a consistent barrier to peace was the refusal of neo-nazi militants to stop fighting. In 2019 the Azov and other paramilitary battalions refused direct orders from Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelensky to withdraw from the Donbas. Instead, the far-right began to issue death threats to the President, indicating that they would never retreat from the front.

The Western narrative casts the war in the Donbas as inconsequential to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also suggests that the declarations of independence in Luhansk and Donetsk were orchestrated by Russia, and that the Donbas war started when Russian troops covertly invaded the area.  All of these points are easily refuted. First, although the founders of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics were clearly pro-Russian, Russia flatly refused to annex the territories and instead tried to work on a political resolution with Ukraine. It is also clear from the Minsk I and II agreements that both Republics were willing to remain within Ukraine, provided they received the autonomous status that would enable them to protect their populations.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) never found evidence of Russian units in Ukraine during the Donbas war. Instead, this conflict was fought by Russian speaking Ukrainian separatists, with support from Russia and with a small number of Russians participating. In 2015, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said that they had documented 56 Russian soldiers involved since the conflict broke out in 2014. This is a remarkably small number, cited by a source who had every incentive to inflate it. Clearly the conflict in the Donbas was a civil war, in which Ukrainians were killing other Ukrainians who felt threatened by the ultra-nationalist government in Kyiv.

Finally, it is critical to stress that this was an eight year war right on Russia’s doorstep. It presented an ever-present threat of further escalation and was openly fuelled by the U.S. and NATO via arms sales and military training. Many of the Ukrainian fighters most involved in the Donbas were the neo-nazi battalions, and this was associated with numerous horror stories of human rights abuses being carried out against Ukrainian separatists, Russian-speaking civilians, and pro-Russian / anti-war politicians.

Since the February 24th Russian invasion, Western media reports are trying to suggest that citizens in the Donbas are terrified of Russia’s advance. However, as more cities fall under Russian control, there is a growing number of videos emerging showing grateful Russian-speaking Ukrainians who talk about living in fear under a violent, criminal occupation by Azov and related groups. With three major peace efforts thwarted by Ukrainian neo-nazi extremists, and a stated commitment from Kyiv to crush the Donbas separatists, there is every reason to see this conflict as a cause of Russia’s invasion.

Military and Diplomatic Events Leading up to February 24, 2022

As a final consideration, there are a number of events directly before the Russian invasion that are important precursors to the conflict. Despite being elected on a promise to end the war in the Donbas and bring peace to Ukraine, in early 2021 Zelensky began a crackdown on his political opposition, and particularly on any politicians considered “pro-Russia”. After this, NATO conducted one of its largest military exercises in decades, including approximately 30,000 troops from various countries that maneuvered near the Donbas Republics. In response to this, Russia began building up troops along its border. As tension at the border mounted, Zelensky then made a statement in March of 2021 that “we are taking back Crimea”. This was followed by a further build-up of troops in the southeast of Ukraine. In September of 2021, the United States and Ukraine issued a joint communique supporting Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and affirming its current status as an important NATO partner.

These provocations received an increasingly grim response from the Kremlin, and in December of 2021 Putin sent Washington a list of security guarantees that Russia needed from NATO. These included barring Ukraine from NATO membership and securing its neutrality, and also removing NATO advanced weapons systems from the Eastern European countries they had been placed in. Putin was unequivocal about the perceived threat and provocation by NATO, and of Russia’s precarious situation, stating:

What the United States is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep. And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Under US protection, they are arming and urging on extremists from a neighbouring country at Russia. Against Crimea, for instance. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?

By February of 2022, the Ukrainian military had built up thousands of troops in the southeast, and greatly increased the shelling of Russian speaking Ukrainian rebels in the Donbas. The U.S. ignored Putin’s calls for security guarantees and binding treaties, and later that month, Russia formally acknowledged the Donbas Republics and launched what it calls its “special military operation” intended to protect the Republics and to “de-nazify and demilitarize” Ukraine. Immediately after the invasion began and continuing to this day, the United States and NATO have done everything in their power to flood Ukraine with weapons and to prevent a negotiated peace. They have declared openly that they are engaging in a proxy war with Russia and are trying to drag the conflict out as long as possible in order to “bleed” Russia.

Ending the War

The Western narrative about the conflict in Ukraine would have us believe that an aggressive, war-mongering dictator – Vladimir Putin – invaded Ukraine to occupy and plunder it or to completely destroy it. The motive is either genocidal, or else the kind of cynical “smash-and-grab” capitalism that the United States has made a career of. However, a sober analysis of the facts shows this narrative to be pure speculative fiction. In reality this war is best understood as a geopolitical power struggle between Russia and the United States and it’s NATO allies. The encirclement and constant provocation of the Kremlin by NATO is clear, well-documented, and consistent with the American Empire’s project to destroy Russia, China, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and any other country that dares chart its own geopolitical course.

The neocons and neoliberal imperialists in Washington have been planning this war and setting its stage for over two decades. In 2014 they used the time-worn strategy of arming and financially supporting extremist elements in order to overthrow an unfriendly government and install a regime compliant with U.S. interests. The tragic victims of this cynical manipulation are the majority of Ukrainians who desire peaceful co-existence among their country’s various ethnicities and between Ukraine and its powerful neighbours. Instead, this dream of peaceful sovereignty has been shattered by a nightmare of war, and while soldiers and innocent civilians die, American arms sellers are ecstatic at the destruction and want to prolong it as long as they can… to fight, as Noam Chomsky has said “to the last Ukrainian”.

As with all times of war, spin, lies, and misinformation are rampant. It is the most elementary of facts that governments, all governments, lie during wartime. However, due to the unique role played by corporate media in North America and Europe, in which otherwise “free” media corporations act as tireless cheerleaders for war, the constant deceit escapes many of us. This is also related to the fact that war is big business, arguably the biggest business, in America today. Again, this elementary truth is rarely mentioned in the mainstream narrative, even though President Eisenhower (himself no dove), warned back in 1956 about the corrupting, democracy-killing power of the “military-industrial complex”. Today 10% of the entire federal budget of the United States, and close to 50% of discretionary spending, flows into the coffers of military contractors – hundreds of billions each year, guaranteed, as long as the war machine remains relevant and the battles continue.

The relationship between war and business interests – in arms sales, but also in securing energy resources and opening foreign markets to corporate control – is an old one. From American history, we should heed the words of General Smedley Butler, once a decorated officer in the U.S. Marines, who wrote an expose on his career called War is a Racket. Butler writes:

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

Butler recalled acting as a “gangster for capitalism”, as he led marine invasions in the Philippines, China, and Central America, usually in support of corporate interests. Over a hundred years later, the same is now true in Ukraine. Former Senator and retired Colonel Richard Black notes that the present conflict is a boon for American military contractors like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grummond and Raytheon. These corporations are the direct beneficiaries of the $40 billion in new military spending that was announced by President Biden in late May. Colonel Black also argues that the profit motive of industry and the strategic motive to weaken Russia are keeping the war from ending, warning:

I don’t think Ukraine has anything to do about the decision for peace or war. I think the decision for peace or war is made in Washington D.C.. As long as we want this war to continue we will continue fighting it with Ukrainian proxies and we will continue it to the last Ukrainian death.

Confronting the real forces driving this war is critical if we are ever to have peace. With this in mind, the purpose of this article has not been to “pick a side” in the current conflict. It has not been to convince anyone that Vladimir Putin is a liberal humanitarian (he’s not), that the current government of Ukraine is a nazi regime (it isn’t), or that every popular uprising around the world is always an act of U.S. imperialism (they aren’t). The purpose has simply been to understand how this particular war started and in so doing, to understand how we can end it.

An end to the war means an immediate halt to the bloodshed. It means a lasting peace in Eastern Europe and a global system that is not carved into hostile, endlessly-warring geopolitical blocs. The single greatest force working against these things is the military-industrial complex of the United States and the politicians it has bought. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we may be able to end the pointless slaughter in Ukraine and the insane courting of nuclear Armageddon.

Citizens of NATO member states like Canada, the U.K. and the United States have an important role to play in working for peace. We need to pressure our governments for a ceasefire in Ukraine and the immediate end of all arms sales to the country. We need a UN-brokered deal that guarantees peace, sovereignty and stability for Ukraine, but also for the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and for Crimea. The right to self-determination of the people in these regions needs to be respected and protected. Despite their voices being completely erased from mainstream media, courageous peace activists in Ukraine are also calling for an end to the conflict and a negotiated peace.

A negotiated peace requires a guarantee of neutrality for Ukraine and the removal of advanced weapons systems from the Eastern European countries that have been gobbled up by NATO since 1997. It also requires an end to the sanctions that have been levelled against Russia and that have largely served to devastate Western economies. Finally, there will need to be new, binding treaties between Russia and NATO that limit offensive and defensive nuclear weapons systems and that once more work toward the elimination of nuclear arsenals. These things are needed first and foremost to move us back from the nuclear brink, to bring some measure of stability back to Europe, and to keep the global economy from spiralling further into inflation and food shortages.

Beyond these immediate goals, we have to undertake the more ambitious and challenging work of dismantling the global war system and redirecting our governments and economies toward humanitarian and ecological ends. This requires building a broad-based, progressive political movement in the West strong enough to force the Pentagon to abandon its insane pursuit of nuclear dominance, and to force the U.S. elite to finally relinquish their failed dreams of global hegemony. We need to divest from the war machine and invest in human rights, health, equality, and dignity. We need to abolish NATO and form a new international architecture that is multi-polar and that allows for global cooperation to solve the existential threats of climate change and ecological collapse. We need the people of Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and China to force our governments to the negotiating table and to wrest our collective future back from the hands of oligarchs and generals alike.

A viable human future on this earth demands that we make these changes – that we dismantle a global system of death and replace it with a system of life. This won’t be an easy task, but we simply cannot afford to fail.

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Social Change

“It’s Just Business…”
An excerpt from Chapter 3 of A New Ecological Politics - the upcoming book by Kevin MacKay

Direct political messaging by elites is an effective means to influence the worldview and behaviour of subordinate groups, but other aspects of the dominant culture are effective precisely because they are not associated with any one political interest or party. Instead they form part of the cultural background, appearing as merely “common sense”, while in fact having aspects that are profoundly ideological.

A specific example in North America is the saying “it’s just business”. This statement is usually uttered when some kind of economic relationship encounters a conflict – whether between the material interests of various parties, or between one’s material interests and a limiting social sanction or regulation. When one party to the relationship abandons social norms of reciprocity, cooperation and fairness in order to assert their economic interests and “win” the confrontation, this cut-throat behaviour is justified by saying “it’s just business”. A large corporation uses high-powered accounting firms to dodge paying taxes? Just business. Another corporation uses high-priced lawyers to skirt environmental regulations? Just business. A residential tenant becomes ill and is no longer able to afford rent? When the landlord cuts off communication and instead files eviction papers, throwing a desperate person out of their home, the action is once again justified as “just business”.

“Just business” is a statement that contains an entire host of cultural assumptions that fundamentally support the oligarchic structure of industrial capitalism, but which are not explicitly articulated or linked to any one political actor. Rather, these assumptions structure the very cultural terrain on which identifiable political and economic interests contest. It points to a “common sense” understanding shared by Republicans and Democrats alike – that the laws of the marketplace, the protection of one’s material interest over another’s, and the pursuit of private profit over public good, are all justifiable under capitalism. The statement suggests a contradiction between the values of social solidarity that normally govern human behaviour, and the value-neutral, or even hostile, nature of profit-seeking economic activity. If “business” implies a particularly mercenary morality, there clearly exists a world of “not business”, in which such behaviour is condemned. However, “just business” resolves this contradiction by asserting which value set is more fundamental (the marketplace wins out over social solidarity), and by basically replying “what are you going to do?” to those who might cry foul at the amoral business decisions that routinely result.

The ideological power of “just business” is to reconcile value contradictions both externally, in terms of how actors are perceived by others, but also internally, in terms of how individuals understand their own behaviour. This reconciliation is effective regardless of the personal motives involved. Returning to the example of the landlord evicting the sick tenant, the landlord may be a normally compassionate, and even politically progressive person. However, when faced with a situation of receiving no rental income, a direct threat to their own economic interests, and in the case of small landlords a possible threat to their economic viability, “just business” enables them to reconcile the dissonance created by an objectively amoral action – throwing a sick, poor person into the street. The landlord feels bad, they would prefer not to have to do it, but in their mind they are ultimately forced to because of the basic economic and moral structure of private rental housing markets. The moral responsibility for the landlord’s behaviour is thus outsourced or externalized (the economy / capitalism made me do it), while the entire situation is simultaneously cast as a discrete, unfortunate event, and not as an instance of structural violence.

“It’s just business” offers an explanation for oppression and injustice that personalizes these conditions and directs attention away from a system that produces oppression and injustice on a massive scale. We are not encouraged to question the lack of affordable housing, the lack of adequate economic support for individuals too sick to work, the lack of free healthcare, or the lack of support for small businesspeople (including landlords) who encounter economic hardship.

If you enjoyed reading this excerpt and want to be kept abreast of future book excerpts, news, and events, please follow Kevin at the Radical Transformation page on Facebook.

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Social Change

Love and Courage to my American Friends – You’re in for the Fight of Your Lives

Commenting on the political process of another country is a perilous thing. However, as Canada is profoundly impacted by our largest neighbour and trading partner, I can’t help but be interested in U.S. politics. Indeed, most Canadians are.

However, it’s not mere interest that prompts me to write this, but the fact that I’m captivated, even riveted, by the drama unfolding south of the border. Amidst the bleak sea of “politics as usual” and status quo-ism that normally defines North American elections, there is something unlikely, even magical, on the horizon – the prospect of real progressive change.

The vehicle for this change is the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders, a political movement championing the most progressive social reforms since the New Deal: healthcare for all, tuition-free college education, a Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, improved trade union rights, bringing troops home from needless foreign wars, and ending oligarchic control over the media and economy. While there are other solid candidates in the race, none of them can come close to the scope of Bernie’s progressive vision or to the power of his movement base.

That Bernie is a genuine progressive is rare enough, but the fact that he has a real shot at gaining the Democratic nomination, and then the presidency, is incredibly exciting. Despite well-documented media blackouts and anti-Bernie bias, Sanders has begun to surge in state and nation-wide polls. He now either beats establishment candidate Joe Biden, or else is runner-up. In addition, poll after poll shows that Bernie would wipe the floor with Trump. Bernie has also been racking up important endorsements from progressive luminaries like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilan Omar, and Michael Moore, and from organizations like the Centre for Popular Democracy Action and the National Nurses’ Federation.

It seems like the long-awaited progressive revolution has finally arrived on American shores. However, if this all sounds a bit too easy, it’s because it likely is.

Cue the Reaction

In November, conversations with Barack Obama finally revealed his opinions on the Democratic nomination race. No candidate received a coveted Obama blessing, with the resulting popularity bump that would entail. Rather, the past president made a not-so-veiled threat to wade into the race in order to prevent a candidate from winning. And the candidate dangerous enough to incur Obama’s wrath?

Bernie Sanders, of course.

Admittedly, this opposition to Sanders is not surprising given Obama’s eight-year record as President. In two terms he presided over a $16 trillion bank bailout that represents the single largest transfer of wealth from working people to private corporations and executives in American history. He also continued to militarily occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, to pursue regime-change in Honduras and Libya, and to expand a drone program that made the U.S. government the largest perpetrator of extra-judicial assassinations in the world. While statesmanlike and not nearly as radical an oligarch as Trump, Obama was always, at the core, a company man.

Despite his dismal policy record, Obama’s name still carries significant weight. The fact that he would throw this against Sanders and the other progressives in the Democratic Party is perplexing. What about party loyalty? What about the need to take down Trump at all costs? In an excellent episode of The Hill, journalist Krystal Ball unpacked the implications of Obama’s threat against Bernie, noting “not just Obama, but many of the elite preservers of the status-quo in the Democratic Party, would rather see Trump reelected than Bernie as president.”

With that usually unspeakable truth uttered, Ball then laid out the real stakes of a Sanders presidency in a monologue refreshing for it’s on-the-chin honesty:

“Do you really see all the Bush-era neocons and Clinton acolytes and national security blog mouthpieces that fill out the ranks of the “liberal” networks these days standing by while Sanders claims the nomination? Instead, be ready for every form of dirty trick, smear, and cheating to be used… Bernie Sanders is an existential threat to business as usual, and both parties’ ability to cash in as perpetual winners in the oligarchy. And they’ll use every means, fair and unfair, to protect their position. So, to those of you dedicated to upending business as usual, in case you had any illusions, Obama’s comments prove that you better be prepared for the fight of your lives.”

It is rare indeed that a journalist clearly strips away one of the cherished myths of American democracy – that their are fundamental differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. There are differences, to be sure, but these tend to be a matter of degree, not of actual policy. What doesn’t differ between the two parties is their commitment to unfettered neoliberal capitalism, to an imperialist foreign policy, and to a political status-quo that effectively disenfranchises the great majority of citizens. This “bipartisan consensus” is what really drives U.S. politics, and as Ball astutely notes, the oligarchic class it serves will defend it at all costs.

A Crisis of Oligarchy

The bipartisan attack on Sanders reveals another uncomfortable truth about American democracy (and Canadian democracy for that matter): that it isn’t really democratic at all. In practice, the U.S. functions more as an oligarchy. There is the pageant of elections, the de jure existence of checks and balances (executive, congress, senate, judiciary), yet all of these institutions succumb to de facto control by wealthy elites. Big money buys the politicians that create the laws and appoint the judiciary.

I’ve previously studied how oligarchies emerge and the effect they have on societies. Typically, the oligarchic class that runs political and economic institutions is internally competitive, with various factions vying for control. In this struggle oligarchs differentiate themselves on small matters of public policy, while never daring to threaten their fundamental position of exploitation and domination in relation to those they rule. While the facade of “politics as usual” plays out, oligarchs are content to battle for control of the machinery of power. However, when actually threatened by a challenge to this system, the oligarchic class will close ranks and unite against the threat, doing everything in their means to destroy it.

Another characteristic of oligarchic societies is that the intensifying demands of predatory elites lead to constant crises – social, political, economic, and ecological. Income inequality, climate change, endless wars, and ecosystem collapse are today’s oligarchic crises, and their intensification is leading to a broader crisis of legitimacy in the oligarchic system itself. In America and world-wide, people are waking up to their exploitation and to the destruction of the biosphere, and they are mobilizing to confront the oligarchs.

When faced with upheaval from the exploited citizenry, elites tend to either back politicians who are “reformers” such as the Clintons or Obama, or else those who are authoritarian. Reformers ameliorate some of the elite class’ worst excesses and lull the populace into a state of complacency. Authoritarians instead crush popular uprisings, using surveillance, police violence, incarceration, and punitive legislation. Trump may be a pale, buffoonish version of this latter tendency, but history provides us more devastating examples – Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet.

This political shell-game can stretch on for centuries, with oligarchs able to manage social and ecological crises through cosmetic reforms, repression, and divide and rule politics. However, eventually the crises mount to where society itself either collapses, or a political revolution breaks out. In the rare latter moments, the underclass are able to mount a serious challenge to oligarchic power, and threaten to overturn the entire order. All signs point to the U.S. presidential race being such a moment.

Sanders as Existential Threat

In her monologue, Krystal Ball called Sanders an “existential threat” to the American oligarchic class, even though his policy recommendations are far from radical when compared to similar countries like Canada, Eurozone members, Australia, or Japan. Despite campaigning under the label of “democratic socialism”, Sanders’ policies are really an American version of old-fashioned social democracy – the politics of FDR updated for the new millennium.

From another perspective though, one could argue that in today’s America, social democratic reforms are genuinely radical. Although falling short of socialism, they would decisively shift the country’s trajectory from it’s current neoliberal, ecocidal dead-end, and toward a progressive, sustainable future. In this sense, Bernie represents a near-perfect marriage of popular movement and progressive leadership, akin to when King, Kennedy, Mandela, Lula, Chavez, and similar figures have been able to translate the will of marginalized groups (in Bernie’s case the diverse American working class) into political change. The real threat of Bernie’s candidacy is that it reveals the class struggle at the heart of America’s political crisis, and affirms that only an organized and militant working class movement has a chance of winning decisive victory against the oligarchs.

Sanders knows that it is movements that make sweeping progressive change, not individual leaders. His call for a “political revolution” is evidence of this crucial insight, and is something that sets him fundamentally apart from other Democratic candidates, Like Gabbard, Warren and Yang, that have real progressive potential. Only Bernie knows that a mass movement can get him elected president. Only Bernie knows that this same movement will become even more important when he tries to enact any of the policies he is running on.

The U.S. oligarchy will do everything in its power to keep Sanders from winning the Democratic Party nomination and, if he is successful, from winning the presidency. This is a certainty. However, if Sanders is elected, and this is a real possibility, then the attacks, undermining and sabotage will only intensify. It is at this moment when the American people, led by the movement for democratic socialism, will have to rise up in defense of democracy. This will be a battle for no less than the future viability of the country, and it cannot be lost.

Seizing the Moment

As a leader, Sanders is not immune to critique. His foreign policy is tepid, and doesn’t come close to the level of truth-telling that Tulsi Gabbard routinely demonstrates in this area. He is not a perfect candidate. And yet it is also true that there are no such things as perfect candidates, perfect movements, or perfect moments to realize fundamental change.

What there is with Sanders is a unique historical moment. The movement that has coalesced around his candidacy is the child of numerous other grassroots struggles: the Anti-Globalization Movement, the Anti-Iraq war protests, the Occupy Movement, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, $15 and Fairness, the Justice Democrats, a resurgent trade union movement, and the Climate Justice Movement. It is born of mass frustration from the housing crisis, the bank bailouts, and the precipitous and steadily increasing wealth gap. It is fueled by an unprecedented crisis in the legitimacy of traditional politicians and corporate media, and a proliferation of alternative media sources and grassroots candidates, like AOC, that are challenging the culture of “politics as usual.” Finally, this diverse and unprecedented movement has been met with an equally unique individual who’s nearly 40 year political career has been consistently steeped in genuine Left politics.

One could wait centuries for such a confluence of forces.

To argue for the unique importance of this moment is not to be uncritical. Nor is it a call for support at all costs. What it is is a fervent hope that Americans will realize what time it is, and recognize that uniting to win this victory will help each of the many movements that gave rise to it. In addition, while the social democratic reforms Sanders is proposing are important in and of themselves, they can also move the country closer to what real democratic socialism would look like. This would be a government that rules – justly and democratically – for the diverse working class. It would be a society that exists in harmony with the biosphere, and that preserves the natural environment for future generations.

A Sanders victory wouldn’t just transform domestic politics. As the world’s largest Imperial power, The U.S. military has repeatedly functioned as a murderous “anti-democracy machine” that has overthrown popularly-elected governments world-wide. If the Imperial boot were to be lifted from the neck of the rest of the world’s countries even a little, then popular movements would experience a global surge that would dwarf that of the 60’s student uprisings, the Occupy Movement, or the Arab Spring.

On a more selfish note, the ripple-effect of President Bernie would also be a shot in the arm for progressive movements in my own country of Canada. In the 1920s and 30’s we saw a democratic socialist movement emerge from among the farmers, industrial workers and progressive Christians of the Canadian mid-west. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) transformed our country, forming the first socialist government in North America and bringing public healthcare, trade union protection, and social security to all.

Canadians had to fight to expand these social goods to the entire country, and have had to fight to preserve them ever since in the face of tireless assaults by our oligarchic class. In many ways we have lost ground, and now need to remember the progressive, popular movement that first gave Canada its social democratic character. Currently, even our “labour” party is hesitant to speak political and economic truth to power, and to rally our country’s citizens behind the Left policies that they genuinely desire. We can learn a lot from the Sanders campaign and the many movements that are supporting it.

History teaches us that moments like this can’t be allowed to slip away. This is bigger than Bernie vs. Biden, or even Bernie vs. Trump. It’s more than just another election cycle in which the political deck-chairs are shuffled on a sinking ship of state. At stake is nothing less than the soul of America, the future of its diverse working class, and the environment that will be left to its children.

As a friend from the north watching this historic struggle unfold, I hope the American people know that the progressive community world-wide is watching. We are with you, and we send you courage for the fight. As the primary season starts, and the presidential contest unfolds, we’ll be here in solidarity, wishing with all our hearts that the American working class can wake up, rise up, and change the course of history.

Kevin MacKay is a Canadian social science professor, labour activist, director of a non-profit sustainable development organization, and author of Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization, published by Between the Lines Books. Kevin can be contacted at:

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Social Change

Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?

June 23 marked the 30th year anniversary of NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s presentation on global warming to the U.S. Congress. In his address Hansen argued that climate change – long predicted by scientists, was now here, and that it would get steadily worse.

Since Hansen’s testimony, study after study has proven that climate change has become an imminent threat to our biosphere – leading to accelerated loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice, rising water levels, and the toxic acidification of our oceans.

However, the sobering truth is that global warming is only one threat among many. Everywhere we look science is affirming that the ecosystems we depend on for survival are breaking down.  In the face of these mounting challenges, some scientists argue that the collapse of industrial society is not only possible, but even likely.

On the surface, the causes of ecological crisis may seem clear. Burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests increase greenhouse gas concentrations, which contributes to both atmospheric warming and ocean acidification.  Large-scale factory farming critically depletes fresh water and topsoil.  Overfishing is crashing the world’s fish stocks.

However, focusing on the immediate causes of global warming and other ecological challenges can obscure a more fundamental driver of industrial civilization’s crisis.   Upon closer examination, it is our society’s decision-making processes that are ultimately speeding us toward collapse. Unless we enact radical changes to these processes, no amount of awareness-raising, alterations to individual behaviour, or technological innovation will be enough to avert catastrophe.

Societies as Decision-Making Systems

In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or to Succeed, geographer Jared Diamond argued that many past civilizations have collapsed due to their inability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats. Diamond drew on the work of archaeologist Joseph Tainter, who in his 1998 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, argued that civilizations fail due to a constellation of factors.

To Tainter, the ultimate mistake failed civilizations make is to continually solve problems by adding social complexity, and as a result, increasing the society’s energy needs. Eventually, Tainter argued that civilizations encounter a “thermodynamic crisis” in which they are unable to sustain an energy-intensive level of complexity. The result is collapse – ecological devastation, political upheaval, and mass population die-off.

The tendency for societies to collapse under excessive energy demands is an important insight. However, what Tainter and Diamond failed to appreciate is how oligarchy – control over societal decision-making by a numerically small, self-interested elite – is an even more fundamental cause of civilization collapse.

Oligarchic control compromises a society’s ability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats. This explains a seeming paradox in which past civilizations have collapsed despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand the source of the threat or the way to avert it. The problem was that societal elites benefitted from the system’s dysfunctions, and prevented available solutions.

Global Warming: A Modern Existential Threat

Global warming is a perfect example of this ancient dynamic. The science behind climate change is not new, with the role of the atmosphere in maintaining global temperatures first proposed by French scientist Joseph Fourier in the 1820s. In 1889 Swedish scientist Svante Arenhuis coined what he termed the “greenhouse effect”, and argued that human-produced CO2 emissions acted to warm the global climate.

Thus, for nearly a half-century modern science has been aware of human-caused global warming and its potentially world-changing impact on sea levels. In this time, there have been countless technological advances that could quickly and reliably move us away from a fossil-fuel economy, and toward one powered on clean, renewable energy. Despite this, today we remain deeply mired in a carbon-intensive economy, and the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses continues its precipitous rise.

Why haven’t we been able to implement sustainable alternatives and to change our society’s course?

The Fossil Fuel Oligarchy

In the 1970s the United States was facing an energy crisis. Domestic production of crude oil had peaked, and an embargo by OPEC interrupted the supply of Middle-Eastern oil. In response to the crisis, the Carter administration launched a national strategy of conservation and renewable energy research and development. Had this concerted effort been sustained, we might already be living in a post-carbon world.

Tragically, what instead transpired is that oil and gas corporations, their wealthy investors, and the military-industrial complex, colluded to hijack U.S. foreign policy. Together, the cabal doubled-down on plans to control Middle-Eastern and Latin American oil resources through military force. This move was intended to ensure the United States’ energy security, and to prevent the “energy supremacy” of national competitors Russia and China.

With the oiligarchs in charge of national energy policy, incentives to develop renewable energy were quickly abandoned, and the North American economy became increasingly dependent on fossil fuels.

Since the 1980s, the controlling influence of oil oligarchs has become a consistent feature of American politics. Under their influence, Ronald Reagan rolled back renewable energy incentives enacted by Jimmy Carter. The presidencies of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush went even further, and saw the oil industry take full control of the Whitehouse. The result was two horrendously destructive wars against Iraq, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, covert war against oil-rich Venezuela, and escalating tensions with Iran.

With the Obama administration, not much changed. The elite control over national energy, security and financial policy adopted a more humane facade, but for all intents and purposes, it was business as usual. Under Obama, the Libyan government was destabilized and Muamar Ghadafi overthrown. The reformist government of Manuel Zelayas was also overthrown in Honduras – an operation overseen by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. An illegal and horrendously costly war was fomented against the sovereign state of Syria, and attempts to crush people’s government in Venezuela intensified.

The consistency of destructive government policy reveals that the recurring electoral contest between Democratic and Republican parties is largely empty theatre. While the Republicans have arguably been the more destructive in terms of domestic policy and civil rights, on questions of energy and foreign policy, the “bi-partisan consensus” prevails. Oligarchs quite effectively pull the strings of both parties, preventing the United States from embracing a growing global consensus on the need for a post-carbon economy.

Today, the Trump administration has succeeded in ramping up this disastrous political trend, as his billionaire-dominated cabinet seeks to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, to question climate science, and to pursue a policy of “American energy dominance” that will dramatically expand production of fossil fuels.

Apart from controlling foreign policy, U.S. energy companies are also having a profound impact on domestic energy policy by accelerating the development of hard-to-access fuel sources through hydraulic fracturing, deep-sea oil drilling, and mountain-top removal coal mining. At the same time, fossil fuel oligarchs are working overtime to dismantle green energy initiatives, such as the Koch brothers’ war on the solar industry in Florida, and in other cities across the continent.

As a final insurance policy, mountains of fossil fuel money are also being spent to combat legitimate climate science and discredit global warming. The report Dealing in Doubt, produced by GreenPeace USA, details the efforts of ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and a network of right wing think-tanks to attack and suppress climate science. This disinformation campaign has succeeded in greatly slowing the pace of climate change awareness and policy in the United States.

In Canada, often thought of as more progressive than its southern neighbor, the situation hasn’t been much different. Under prime minister Stephen Harper’s two terms, the Canadian state became an unapologetic cheerleader for extracting some of the world’s dirtiest oil –Tar Sands bitumen. Harper accelerated Tar Sands production, leading to the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of boreal forest, the diversion of millions of gallons of freshwater, and the creation of miles of toxic tailings ponds, filled with water contaminated by the extraction process.

Like the Trump administration, the Harper government silenced federal climate scientists. The government also targeted environmental charities and non-profits, using the funding cuts and the threat of audits to undermine climate advocacy.  When a movement of national outrage swept Harper from power in 2015, Canadians were hopeful that climate change would once more be taken seriously. However, the new government of Justin Trudeau, while embracing the international discourse on global warming, has shown his continued allegiance to the fossil-fuel oligarchy by committing over $7 billion in federal funds to purchase the failing Kinder-Morgan pipeline.

The ability of vested political and economic interests to control climate policy in the United States and Canada reveals an uncomfortable truth – that beneath the façade of North American democracy, there lies a decidedly oligarchic core. While many Americans and Canadians think of themselves as the very embodiment of a democratic society, the reality is that both states are largely controlled by the dictates of wealth and power. Few outside the wealthiest 1% have any impact on political decision-making, and while this situation holds, there is little hope of successfully confronting global climate change or any other of our planet’s looming ecological crises.

Confronting the Oligarchs

To create a sustainable future, we must first learn the lessons of the past, and what archaeological research shows is that throughout history, civilizations that have been captive to the interests of an oligarchic elite have all collapsed. Today’s industrial, capitalist civilization is trapped in this same deadly cycle.

As long as a self-interested elite controls decision-making in modern states, we will be far too late to avoid the effects of steadily contracting ecological limits. In addition, we will be unable to avert the downward spiral of economic crisis, conflict, and warfare that will result as oligarchs scramble to maintain their wealth and power in the face of dwindling resources and mounting crisis.

Breaking free from this destructive pattern will require us to take political and economic power back from the 1% and return it to the hands of citizens. This means that advocates for climate justice must move far beyond individual actions, lobbying, or reform of existing political and economic institutions. If we are to have a chance, we must confront, and eventually dismantle the system of oligarchic power.

To ensure that humane and sustainable alternatives are actually implemented, we will need to enable the voices of scientists, marginal communities, and activists to be clearly heard in the political arena. This means taking corporate money out of elections, enacting proportional voting, and creating directly democratic decision-making structures at the local level. It also means creating a de-militarized economy based on the principles of equity, inclusion, and zero-growth.

Toward a Sustainable Future

Radically transforming industrial, capitalist civilization won’t be easy. It will require movements for environmental sustainability, peace, social justice, and economic fairness to come together, and to realize their common interest in overthrowing the system of oligarchy and building a democratic, eco-socialist society. This “movement of movements” must put aside sectarian squabbles, and finally realize that the goals of economic justice, civil rights, and ecological sustainability are all intrinsically linked.

Successful transformation will also require committed resistance movements, like the inspiring Water Protectors of Standing Rock, to join forces with progressive movements for electoral change, like those that backed the Sanders campaign in the U.S., and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn. Grassroots resistance is an important catalyst for change, but without also transforming the state, the power of movements will remain limited.

A radical “movement of movements” will need to work on a number of fronts, both within existing institutions and outside of them, and none of its goals will be achieved overnight. However, the sooner we understand the task before us, the sooner we can start building the democratic power necessary to effect real change. With concerted effort, strategic action, and a little luck, we may yet re-direct the trajectory of our society from collapse to sustainability, and escape the fate of failed civilizations past.


Kevin MacKay is a Canadian social science professor, labour activist, director of a non-profit sustainable development organization, and author of Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization, published by Between the Lines Books.

Image Credit – Udo J. Keppler – Illustration in Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 September 7), centerfold

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Social Change

The Boat: a parable of the political left

Picture this…

There’s a life raft floating in an open sea. It’s crowded with a dozen wet, weary, hungry people – survivors of a shipwreck. On the horizon there’s the faint appearance of land, but it’s far away. Food supplies have run out, but much worse is the fact that the boat has sprung a leak and has slowly begun to sink. Everyone’s cell phone has long since died, and there’s no hope of rescue. Time is tight, the situation is quickly worsening, and the life of everyone onboard is at stake.

In desperation, the survivors begin debating among themselves – how should they confront their dilemma? One passenger starts by saying: “Look, nothing matters if this boat sinks. We should bail! Bail for all we’re worth!” He looks around, expectantly, the importance of his suggestion readily apparent. Another takes up his cry: “Yes! We should bail! Start bailing everybody!”

Before the other people can decide on this proposition, another calls out, saying “Wait a second! If we all just bail, then the boat will keep on sinking. We’ll eventually get tired, and we’ll end up drowning in the end. What we clearly need to do is patch the boat.” “Who’s with me?” the second speaker asks “who’ll help me patch the boat?” Immediately another survivor takes up the cry, shouting “Yes, we must patch! Patch or perish! Everyone start helping patch the boat!”

Confronted with this new suggestion, the rest of the passengers once more pause, while the bailers angrily retort “Whada’you mean, patch!? What if we can’t patch it? What if it takes too long and we sink before it’s fixed? No, no my friends, the only logical thing to do here is to bail…”

“Hold on a minute.” A third voice then declares. “I think you’re both dead wrong. There’s land off the starboard bow – I can see it. It’s a long way away, but if we all paddle as hard as we can, we can make it there before we sink or starve.” Upon hearing this new idea, another passenger takes up the cry “Yes, we must paddle! Land is survival! Everybody, stop what you’re doing and paddle for your lives!”

“Paddle!?” remark the bailers, incredulously. “Why I’ve never heard such an asinine idea…”

“Delusional!” cry the patchers – “You’ll be the death of us with your paddling nonsense…”

“Actually”, offers a fourth passenger, interrupting the incensed bailers and patchers and the indignant paddlers… “I think you’ve all gone batty.” The argument subsides as everybody turns to face the speaker. “Clearly our greatest challenge is that we’re starving to death. We’re too weak to patch, paddle or bail, and if we don’t get food soon, we’ll all perish from hunger. It ‘s obvious that first, we need to catch some fish.” At this statement, another passenger chimes in “Egad! She’s right! Hunger is death! Fish is life! Everyone, everyone, come help us catch fish!”

“Fish!?” cry the paddlers – “What a daft idea!”

“Preposterous” add the bailers…

“Ill-advised” add the patchers… “I mean, we clearly can’t patch and fish at the same time…”

In the middle of the boat, now filled noticeably with water, the four groups face each other warily while the remaining passengers look on – doubtful, unsure of what to do or of which way the argument will go.

“Alright then everyone”, a bailer says – slowly, deliberately – “Lets all get to the matter at hand here and bail out this boat. We’ll use these two cans, and everyone else use your hands. Don’t mind these others”, he directs dismissively at the scowling patchers, paddlers and fishers, “lets get to it”. He then grabs a can and starts bailing. However, not more than two scoops of water are thrown over the side of the boat when his arm is grabbed.

“Oh, how like a Bailer” sneers the patcher who’s now snatched at the bailer’s can. “We need this to patch the boat with, thank you very much. Come on everyone, get all the material you can and lets get patching.”

At the same time, a fisher grabs at one of the paddles, saying “Thanks, I’ll take that! We can break the paddles and use them as stakes to spear fish.”

“Over my dead body!” yells an incensed paddler, leaping to grab the paddle first.

In an instant, the boat erupts into a melee, with bailers, patchers, paddlers and fishers locked in a struggle over tin cans and paddles. As the water is even higher now, it’s harder to keep one’s footing, and the combatants lurch, stumble and fall across the boat…

“Give me that can, you bastard!”

“Help! Patchers, to me!”

“I’ll paddle YOU goddamnit!”

“Fish THIS you little…”

“Paddle I say! For God’s sake PADDLE!”

The boat begins rocking dangerously while the opposing groups continue to struggle. Water has now risen to just below everyone’s knees, and in desperation a voice suddenly calls out loudly:


Coming as it does from among the four passengers who until now had stayed out of the conflict, the new voice causes the battlers to briefly pause, disengage, and turn to the speaker. She clears her throat, and then she says…

“Listen, this is madness. If we spend our time fighting each other, we’re guaranteed to drown or starve to death. I think there’s merit in each proposed solution to our plight… would we not be smarter to split up and do them all, or to take turns doing each of them, as we need to?” The speaker looks imploringly at the other passengers, holding her hands out to her sides, entreating. She continues… “Bailing and patching deal with our immediate concern, which is to stop sinking. Fishing addresses our medium-term problem, which is keeping ourselves fed long enough to get to shore. Paddling is our ultimate, long-term goal, which is to get us back on dry land. Don’t you see? They all work together!”

A hopeful smile spreads across the speaker’s face, buoyed by the obvious logic of what she’s said. The other three uncommitted passengers nod their heads thoughtfully. The combatants stand, almost stunned, as the implications of the speaker’s words dawn on them.

Silence falls on the boat, apart from the lapping of water, now knee-high, against the gunwales. Above, a circling seagull lets out a thin, keening cry.

And then, the silence is broken…

“But… paddling is the ultimate goal. You said it yourself. We can’t be distracted by other tasks. We’ve ALL got to paddle!”

“Just one minute! Admitting that bailing is more important than fishing is to say that drowning is worse than starving. This is preposterous, and I simply will NOT believe it.”

“Wait, if we all start fishing, who’s to say the fishers will even let us get to the other tasks?”

“But… I’m ideologically opposed to patching!”

At this the groups begin to once more circle each other in the middle of the boat, with the lone speaker from the uncommitted passengers standing between them, attempting to keep the sides from once more having at it. As the sides close in, she looks imploringly at the last three passengers… “Please” she pleads… “Help”.

To her great relief, and just before the combat breaks out again, another of the three remaining passengers finally speaks up, saying “Wait…. Wait. I agree with her. This conflict is futile. It’s clear that none of these propositions is sufficient to save us. Each one has a weakness.” He pauses to look at the remaining two uncommitted passengers, and both nod their heads approvingly.

A look of great relief lightens the face of the woman in the midst of the melee. She knows that with four people agreeing, they will likely have enough sway to quell the in-fighting, to organize the passengers, to enact the various proposals cooperatively in pursuit of their goal. “Thank God” she thinks… “we’ll survive this yet…”

The speaker then continues… “Yes, we agree with the woman who just spoke. This entire conflict is pointless. If none of the propositions is good enough, then we’d only be deluding ourselves by backing one over the other. If it’s impossible to tell which is better, then we’d only be choosing the lesser of evils. And this, my friends, we shall not do.” Upon uttering this final point, the speaker pauses for effect, letting the gravity of his words sink into the others on the boat. Finally, he finishes…

“We won’t be caught up in a false contest of one flawed solution over another. For this reason, we three have decided… to boycott the process.“ With this, the speaker turns, walks over to the other two uncommitted passengers, and all move unsteadily to the bow of the boat. They make a solemn performance of sitting deliberately, now waist-high in water, arms folded.

The woman at the centre of the patchers, paddlers, bailers and fishers has just enough time for her expression to change from relief to incredulity. Her lips slowly move as she begins to mouth the words:

“What the serious fuu…?”

And then WHACK! A wildly swung paddle knocks her on the head as, with a collective snarl, the patchers, paddlers, fishers and bailers once more jump at each other. The woman careens across the boat, stumbles over the gunwale, and plunges into the sea.

Oblivious, the combatants lunge back and forth across the now dangerously waterlogged and listing boat. At the bow, the three abstainers begin a searching philosophical discussion of just what, given the circumstances, would constitute the perfect, fool-proof strategy to save them all. Amidst a rigorous interrogation of whether one can even meaningfully speak of “saving”, they excitedly develop an idea for a clever Facebook meme that mocks the patcher line.   All agree to post and Tweet it when they finally get to shore.

Amidst the shouts, grunts and groans, and the sounds of clanging tin cans and snapping paddles, the conversation of the abstainers continues. They break only when the water finally laps around their shoulders, and they find themselves, to their great surprise, no longer seated in the boat at all, but instead floating in the open water.

The last thing the abstainers see before they sink below the waves is a sputtering fisher, wild-eyed, gripping a broken paddle in his hand and laughing…

“Ha-HA! Take that you bloody paddler! Take that!”

These final words echo across the waves, then silence.

In minutes, the only evidence of the boat and its passengers is a floating tin can.

Overhead, the seagull once more circles, lets out a cry, then heads toward the shore.


Image Credit: Lost at Sea, by Michael Ross, 2007,

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A New Year’s Prayer

An old year has passed. A new year dawns.


May 2018 be the year we open ourselves fully to life’s magic and mystery.

May it be the year we treat ourselves and others with kindness, patience, and love.

May it be the year we begin to forgive, to listen, to trust.

May it be the year that we dance and create, that we laugh and sing.

May it be the year we direct pure intention toward our goals, that we strive toward their realization, and that we help others to realize their own goals and potential.

May it be the year we work humbly to better ourselves, our community, and this cherished planet we all share.

May it be the year we find the courage to change what must be changed, and to banish what shadows we may face.

May it be the year we realize we are not alone, that we are all connected, and that each breath we draw binds us together with the myriad, unfathomable web of life.

May it be the year that we stand in solidarity with all those who are oppressed, with all who seek justice, and with all who defend our Mother Earth.

May the light shine in each and every one of us. May it guide us forward in our journey of transformation. May it lead us, surely, steadily, toward the emancipation of all.

Blessed be!

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Social Change

An Authoritarian Management Model and a Precarious Workforce are Destroying College Education

On November 7th Mohawk College president Ron McKerlie published an op-ed in the Hamilton Spectator. In this article McKerlie commented on negotiations between OPSEU, the union representing 12,000 striking Ontario college faculty, and the College Employer Council – the private corporation that represents management at the province’s 24 colleges. While McKerlie is entitled to an opinion on the current faculty strike, it is unacceptable that the statements he made are misleading.

As a sociology professor at Mohawk College, member of the 2017 College Faculty Bargaining Team, and author of the 2014 Report on Education in Ontario Colleges, I feel a duty to challenge McKerlie’s inaccuracies.

McKerlie seems to suggest that it is faculty who are putting the semester in jeopardy for students, not the College Employer Council. However, the fact is that Council’s forced offer vote could have happened at any point after September 15th. That the Council chose to call the vote after three weeks of a strike, knowing that it would extend the strike by at least another two weeks, can only be seen as a calculated and cynical move to intensify student fears of a lost semester, and to weaken the resolve of striking faculty.

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