To quote Homer Simpson: Wake up, everybody! It’s World War Three!
So here we are, in Interesting Times. Western civilisation has been pushed to the brink, existential collapse beckoning as Putin’s tanks roll forward. After premature comeback announcements re: The War On Terror, North Korea, Syria, China, Donald Trump etc., history has finally returned to us, the struggle of all against all resumed thanks to none of the above but to a Neo-Stalinist™ madman who at a turn is senile, criminally insane, anti-Semitic and more, whose blitzkrieg has – should, the Americans cry – wake a Europe fallen into 1938-style slumber that war is back, baby! Awoo. And it’s good (bad) again.
I mean, ahem. I can admit I didn’t think Vlad the implier was gonna go this far and put into text what had always been subtext, that Ukraine was fucking annoying him and he really, really wanted it to stop. I don’t think many of us did, to be fair. It would be crazy! Madness! Really dumb! The Americans after all are always watching, and they’ve got the biggest stick in town. Even for someone like me, writing endlessly on how America’s day as master of the known world is close to done, deep down I don’t really believe it. Or I didn’t in my heart of hearts until this explosive last week.
The causes of this current war aren’t what I’m talking about here today, by the way, as is the question of picking a side and hoping they win. I feel the chief cause of it – regardless of Putin’s psychological profile, sudden concern of everyone who wants a spot in the opinion pages of any big newspaper – is the hubris that led to Russia’s mistreatment post-USSR when the US ‘helped’ it fight off the threat of communist resurgence but didn’t help it, you know, feel comfortable about its wobbly borders or cushion the self-aimed blows at its own people inflicted by Gaidar, Yeltsin and the other corrupt thugs in charge of 1990s shock therapy economics. But I also am the kind of big softy who doesn’t like to see people get bombed (not a big war fan in general really). I don’t think there should be a war happening right now. What I’m interested in why this war in particular is important, for the world and for us.
It’s important in a human sense, obviously. And who wins of course has some meaning in the Paradox Interactive sense of borders moving and numbers shifting, but for me the most significant moment of the Ukraine-Russia conflict might have already passed – this being of course when the invasion itself began. What happened here has shaken the entire vast blob of Anglosphere establishment ideology because by and large it’s the kind of thing that we do. Amidst all the suffering the Ukrainian people will undergo as tanks and missiles and men march over their land, we have to remember this. There was far less outrage over even Trump’s wars, to say nothing of Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama’s, because invading a sovereign territory without formally declaring war in pursuit of your own national interests is fine as long as it’s being done for Freedom (by us) and not for Things That Are Not Freedom (by other assholes).
Of course as well the racial aspect of the situation – the Ukrainians aren’t black or brown and are, as several pundits have insensitively pointed out, ‘just like us’ rather than silly Muslims or Africans whose names we can’t pronounce – can’t be entirely ignored. But even that pales in comparison to the main point: after all, the last European war, in ex-Yugoslavia, also was aimed against white Europeans and conducted by white Europeans, and didn’t meet with as much fuss as Ukraine is now facing either. The dividing line, to say it again, is who is doing it and why, not so much what they’re doing or who they’re doing it to. The shock over Ukraine has seen a wall of outrage that reminds me of the good ole’ days after 9/11 – yesterday’s immensely racist SNL skits about Bin Laden and freedom fries are today’s ‘stand with Ukraine’ hashtags, endless op-eds and weird social media stunts like The Simpsons waving Ukrainian flags on their official Twitter page. Although in fact there’s a closer parallel, and it’s what I can’t stop thinking of as we’re asked to devote all of our mental energy to watching a war unfold that for reasons that can’t quite be explained adequately is more important than all those other wars that have been going on invisibly around the globe for the last decade. To return to a tired theme on this blog – it’s Hong Kong.
The scale is vastly different to be sure. In 2019 the Hong Kong protesters were a motley crew of young people riding a wave of popular contempt for the useless government to engage in a beautiful, fruitless street war against the unflinching HKPF, the running dogs of distant Beijing. Ukraine is a country with an army, and it doesn’t face the relatively subtle, restrained hand of the Communist Party, acting through Hong Kong proxies and to the best of its ability avoiding open violence – it faces another country with an army, which is invading it with an array of troops, vehicles and weapons in proper open warfare beyond the imaginings of anything the protesters of 2019 faced even in their most morbid dreams of ‘Tiananmen 2.0’. But what links both is the hopelessness of their position. To be sure, Ukraine is far, far from over, and I was wrong about it starting and I’m probably going to be wrong about how it ends. There’s a million ways Russia could not get what it wants in the scenario unfolding even as I write this. But can Ukraine get what it wants either? Beyond the basic goal of “please stop with the missiles”, I’m not so sure.
I maintain that in Hong Kong in 2019 Beijing’s ideal scenario was not the one that we eventually reached: as well as the National Security Law and the end of the democracy movement, it also was saddled with massive (ineffective but no doubt annoying) international backlash, an exodus of radicalised young people to join the ranks of the Trump-Falun-Gong-Taiwan axis that keeps nipping at its heels, general public disillusionment with politics and plummeting trust in the government, and in the aftermath having to commit its own energies to keep afloat a ruling class that it had once assumed – this being the whole deal of ‘one country, two systems’ – could keep its shit together by itself. The costs of 2019 to the mainland position in Hong Kong were substantial, even if there were also gains – it’s also true though that the cost of that year to the protest movement were about ten times as high. Even if Putin’s war aims aren’t met, will Ukraine be able to return to its ideal status quo, where it is shielded from Russian meddling by NATO, securely purged of corruption and liberal-democratic, and with its perceived Soviet hangover now gotten over in favour of a bright end of history future of unified national liberation? It seems doubtful. This is a war that Ukraine can’t win, and not just because Russia has fucking nukes and it doesn’t.
What could win the war – and what could maybe have swung Hong Kong – would be wholehearted all-in bombs and guns and economic warfare Anglo-European support. We all remember ‘Stand with Hong Kong’ – the ‘Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act’, the public visits by sitting American politicians, all of that fuss that amounted to nothing as the whole world basically just sort of let it happen. The West was outraged by China’s presumption that a city-state formally part of it and attached directly to its backside could be seen as falling under its own rightful sphere of influence, but not really outraged enough to do anything. With Ukraine we’ll surely do more – sanctions, words, more guns. The consequences of this enormous event will also be enormous. But not enough. Because to China Hong Kong was a vital area of concern, as Ukraine is to Russia. These things took all their attention to manage. To America, captain of the good ship S.S. Western Civilisation, all of these various areas of concern are a crowd it must pick one at a time to focus upon at any given moment. “Pick me, pick me!” the democrats and freedom-lovers of the world cry, trying to occupy US attention for long enough to get some help. This is all in vain, because these days there can be no decisive American response to anything.
America could solve any problem it wanted to in the world if it could focus on one at a time, but if it could focus then it would be admitting it could not solve any problem, having to choose to prioritize. So it does nothing except exhort, form world-spanning and wholly forgettable new alliances, pushing apparent friends in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ or in the European Union to face the threat for it, and then slam the sanctions button as hard as it can – and all of this hides its inherent weakness, which Putin in his bravado/stupidity has exposed by daring it to act as his forces sweep across Ukraine, that prospective example of Rumsfield’s ‘New Europe’ built around ex-Soviet states now converted to American allies. This New Europe is an artifact of the last stand of Western virility, the War On Terror and the New American Century Neoconservatism that presupposed that the US really could solve all of the remaining problems in the post-Soviet world through righteous force. After the failure of unilateral power projection America is confronted by problems it can’t solve all at once. It still has force, overwhelming force, but that force it knows can’t sustain anything, and anyway has too many targets and too many cascading aftereffects of its own motion to consider to really be deployed to the sufficient level to topple anything tougher than the Iraqi dictatorship of 2003. And the peoples of places like Ukraine and Hong Kong, who in the main are only ordinary people and not fascists, CIA stooges etc., are unfortunate enough to be in the position of still trying to get into the club Pax Americana when America can no longer hold the door open for them.
But just because America is no longer willing or able to demolish a whole country from the air with all of its might to sustain its empire doesn’t mean it’s doing nothing at all. What remains is what was mentioned above, the intense focus on this conflict and this intense outpouring of support for the Ukrainian position, drowning out en masse the Russian point of view – however legitimate or illegitimate you take that point of view to be – in favour of a unified Western narrative of the special, epoch-defining danger of the Putin threat and the unique horror of the Russian invasion. This again is similar to Hong Kong, and it is manifesting in much the same way. The hopelessness of the basic Ukrainian cause and Western determination to broadcast it have collided with the mutating material of social media to create the same mess, the resorting to attention politics. What we are seeing, then, is a war that is remarkable for how much we are exposed to it given how little it has gone on for as of right now – war as event, as has been going on since Vietnam, has met war as user-generated interactive experience, and the result is a thing that is occurring so much it doesn’t seem to be occurring at all.
The vast scale of junk data unleashed by Putin’s attack and the extreme amount of attention already lavished upon it, from memes to human interest stories to jokes to cartoons to angry op-eds to Twitter debates to YouTube videos to urban myths, is deafening. The real war goes on somewhere beneath all this, in which Ukrainians and Russians both are experiencing the genuine life-shattering effects of conflict. Floating ghostlike above it is our war, the myth of the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’, ace MIG-29 pilot who has apparently shot down six Russian planes, or the legend of the Ukrainian soldiers defending an island outpost who replied “Russian warship go fuck yourselves” to a surrender offer and may or may not have died heroically, or two Russian II-76 transport aircraft that maybe were shot down near Kiev, or videos of air strikes or dead bodies which variously are Russian or Ukrainian until they turn out to be from Gaza six years ago, or the viral video of an old Ukrainian woman telling off a Russian soldier by offering him sunflower seeds so when he dies, sunflowers (Ukraine’s national flowers) will sprout from the soil. We’re raising funds for the Ukrainian army on crowdfunding apps and giving advice to the civilians being handed assault weapons about how to disable tanks, sharing weird homophobic pictures of Putin as a gay icon and spamming Russian government posts. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has made the decision to stay and fight rather than flee like most would-be leaders who go all in for American foreign policy, and now is being deified by us as “badass”, “a true leader”, etc. etc., alongside his people, whose resistance to authoritarianism we are told is unparalleled in the modern world. After all, so it goes, who could be next?
The hopelessness of the struggle – the cruel but stark truth that with Putin roused and his country however uncertain about it for now able to follow him, there can be no return to even a world where the Euromaidan cause is possible, let alone manifest – and the impotency of the West to assist in it create this moment. With all other possibilities removed, we’re told only to stand with Ukraine – which in a phrase means only to draw attention to it. Long ago there was the Gulf War, which viewed through the added layer of the mass-scale mainstream media coverage was separated into event and facsimile. Today the social media coverage of Ukraine creates a sort of democratic facsimile of the real conflict, a Minecraft world replica, in which we’re all invited to partake in the Chad Zelensky standing against the Virgin Putin, the plucky Ukrainians in their tragedy and sacrifice facing Asiatic bootheels, a scenario where Ukraine and Russia are locked in a black and white struggle in which even when it perishes Ukraine will, by being paid attention to, in some sense have won.
I’m reminded of a surreal sight I once viewed on 4chan’s /pol/ board circa the 2016 US election, where users who wanted Trump to win were spamming the board with threads to ‘give him energy’ in this or that battleground state, mimicking the anime Dragonball Z’s Spirit Bomb – an attack powered by human beings giving energy to hero Goku – by endlessly posting about this in order to help him to win. This was the 4chan moment, the ironic-but-not wishcasting for a real world outcome to come about via shitposting. The unironic version of this, as ever passing from 4chan’s asshole straight to Reddit’s open mouth, was the 2019 calls to “Stand With Hong Kong” on Reddit and in international media, and the outpouring of content that resulted; all to impact the real-world politics of the protest struggle only by creating the impression that those who were being stood with might have had a fighting chance, drowning out all attempts at considering compromise. One battle for Ukraine is happening and it involves the arranged forces of Twitter, Reddit, 4chan etc., and all the array of newspaper writers and pundits and even me – the other battle is happening in the real country, where none of these things mean anything.
A crucial difference between my two examples today is that the Hong Kong 2019 movement was largely composed of internet-savvy young people, who believed their own hype very easily and like I said made severe mistakes because of their attention-maximising strategy that rendered the mainland’s job much easier. Ukraine’s government is not in the main composed of doomer twenty-somethings and high school students. But we have seen an increasing amount of social media activity from the accounts of countries like Ukraine in the past few years, tweets using meme templates and employing the rapid-fire, dunk-focused style of social media discourse to poke fun of geopolitical enemies, make points, and – yes – draw attention to the country’s causes and aims. The real war over Ukraine began perhaps in 2014, and entered a deadly new phase last week, but this fake war for attention has been going for much longer, the new way to do geopolitics mastered first by the small states who have no other recourse but to get good at it. And now it has gone global.
I don’t believe the government of Ukraine will be misled by the fake war into losing the real one. This is a war, not a mere protest movement. But the possibility of 2019, that it will help to muddle the real situation for all of us – including people in in the middle of it, who after all are as blind to the larger picture as everyone is, fog of war and all that – is already taking place. This distortion substitutes itself for the real struggle, which is in the hands of the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and politicians engaged in this grim battle over the contradictions of post-1991 – not us. In a world where full-throated military force and economic pressure are unthinkable because the enemies are too much and too many, the interactive psychodrama of memetics takes the place of concrete action (as in in domestic politics, where it instead takes the place of political organisation rendered impossible by the malaise of western democracy). It’s the old story of propaganda disguising reality, except here the propaganda is interactive, universal and malleable, shaped by all of us who watch from the online sidelines, a democratic delusion meant to shield those who are afraid, unsettled and disturbed by the real conflict from its implications. The implication of Russia’s invasion – I say again, regardless of who ultimately wins on the battlefield – is an unpleasant one for those of us who’ve spent our whole lives believing instinctively, if not intellectually, that no matter what we could count on the liberal-democratic status quo forever asserting itself.
For us it’s much more comfortable to live in the world of hero-president Zelensky and the brave freedom-loving Ukrainian people, another set of icons much like those crumbled to dust under the boots of the Hong Kong police. Maybe there are heroes in Ukraine, and maybe Zelensky is one of them: but the paper-thin figures crowding our media, composed of hashtags and memes and borrowed ideas, are nothing but the paper they are. But the world is changing. The conceit of the 2004 satirical movie Team America: World Police, the literal world police whose reach stretches across the globe, would be lost on the generation growing up in the era of Putin’s Ukraine adventure, because the world police have in their most obvious and humiliating defeat yet failed to even lift a finger to stop the world criminals, except for shouting a warning from behind the desk they’re half jammed into. The authority of the policeman only survives as long as people respect it, and 2022 has so far tarnished it more than ever. China isn’t moving in on Taiwan just yet; Europe and Japan, if no one else, are still sort of clinging to liberalism’s tattered banner, as are some of those junior places of ‘New Europe’ and the old America-dominated Asia. But…
But if China did move on Taiwan, would the West really be able to defend it? With whatever happens in Putin’s Russia when the seismic shock of this war hits, with Iran and North Korea and Israel and India and the EU and the economy and the climate crisis and so on and so on and so on?
Or would we see again these two wars waged? The real – losing – and the false – winning – wars of real life and internet action. The further descent into memetic hyperreality. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry tweeting pictures Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh while Chinese troops storm the capital. Pepe the Frog on the uniforms of photogenic Taiwanese troops posting on Twitter that they’re just like us (and not, assuredly, like Them). American politicians demanding everything and doing nothing, comforting themselves with a phantom vision. Until a future, perhaps, all that remains of liberalism is that same paper-thin imagery that Ukraine is being reduced to today. When I wrote about Hong Kong two years ago I said that it would not be the last place to “lose itself entirely to the madness of online attention politics”. I don’t think Ukraine will go out this way: if it does lose, it will be to Russian tanks and rockets, because it and its enemy both exist for now in that nebulous place known as the real world. But if Hong Kong was the first then as for us, the children of the Anglosphere who can only see the changing winds blowing outside our citadel through a thick haze of memetic fog, I feel more than ever that we might end up being the last.