italiaeilmondo.com began putting these four questions to Aurélien, and continues to put them, in the same way, to various Italian and foreign friends, analysts and researchers.
Today it’s Jacques Sapir’s turn to answer, and we’d like to thank him sincerely for his kindness and generosity.
Q & A WITH JACQUES SAPIR – WESTERN ELITES AND REALITY
1) What are the main reasons for the serious errors of judgment made by Western political-military decision makers in the war in Ukraine?
These errors are of various kinds. First, there are errors of a ‘technical’ nature linked to a misunderstanding of the data, or of the nature of the data. For example, the oft-repeated assertion that Russia’s GDP was more or less equal to that of Italy or Spain stemmed from a lack of understanding – common among politicians and journalists alike – of statistics and how to use them. When you compare two economies, it’s important to use GDP calculated in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, because other methods are highly biased. This has led to an underestimation of Russia’s GDP (which is actually higher than Germany’s today) and therefore to a major error of judgement about Russia’s ability to cope with both the war and Western sanctions. Similarly, “technical” errors were also made regarding the capacity of Russian industry to produce large numbers of weapons and munitions. These errors are based on a lack of knowledge of Russia or on the fact that decision-makers (and journalists) have not listened to those with a real knowledge of Russia. This first level of error stems from a desire not to know, whether it concerns the subject (the war in Ukraine, Russia, Ukraine, etc.) or the way in which the data is collected. This is therefore an important error, because it reveals a form of intellectual ‘laziness’ on the part of decision-makers, a ‘laziness’ that can have many causes (from genuine laziness to forms of cognitive capacity saturation, particularly in the case of information presented in ‘technical’ forms).
Then we have errors that stem from the ideological filter that is present in the behaviour of all actors and decision-makers. This is an important point. No one can completely extricate themselves from their own ideological representations. To believe that we can arrive at a non-ideologised representation is a mistake (and an impossibility from the point of view of cognitive analysis). But you can know that your own representations are potentially biased, and listen to (or consult) other representations that carry a different ideology. Not that these ‘other representations’ are necessarily more ‘correct’ than one’s own. Nevertheless, the confrontation between different representations can be a warning signal as to the validity and operational relevance of one’s own representations.
The diplomatic and political discourse of the Russians since the early 2000s (since the Kosovo crisis) should have been listened to. After all, this discourse has varied remarkably little over time and shows strong discursive continuities. This does not, of course, imply that it is totally accurate, but it does suggest that it is based on real facts, on “docks of stability”, the representation of which does not change, and which should therefore be taken into account.
Proceeding in this way would undoubtedly have given a more accurate idea of the intentions of the Russian leaders and of the points which, for them, constituted “red lines”, the crossing of which would necessarily imply a large-scale response. If this was not done, the reasons may also be varied. It may be that Western decision-makers have locked themselves into a debate that is far too closed to representations other than their own. There are a number of reasons for this, including the way in which decision-makers do not accept ideological pluralism among their advisers, the pre-eminence of ideological representations which are no longer “debatable”, and finally, a “communication culture” which leads decision-makers to become increasingly dependent on “communicators” who themselves come from closed circles, favouring ideological conformity (both in training and in professional practice). The profound endogamy that exists in many countries between the world of political decision-makers and the world of journalists has exacerbated this phenomenon.
The fundamental causes of these errors can be summed up as a lack of curiosity, but also as a closed institutional system. What is interesting here is that in February-March 2022, this type of dysfunction was attributed to the Russian leaders, without Western decision-makers questioning the possibility that they themselves were victims of the same type of malfunction.
Finally, a third type of error can be attributed to a political and psychological resistance to considering that the world had profoundly changed between the 1990s and 2022. At the end of the 1990s, the dominance of the United States was accepted and, overall, Western countries exercised a form of supremacy, whether political, economic or military. But the world has changed profoundly in the last twenty years.
International economic relations have been marked by the emergence of China, which has supplanted the United States from an industrial and commercial point of view, but also by the global emergence of Asia, which has gradually supplanted Europe. At the same time, areas that were thought to be permanently sidelined by the United States and Europe, such as Latin America and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent Africa, have begun to emancipate themselves. The BRICS summit in Johannesburg at the end of August 2023 was a striking illustration of this.
This change is fundamental, because it brings to an end a period of domination over the world exercised by what can be called the “North Atlantic” zone that has lasted at least since the beginning of the 19th century. For Western decision-makers, it presents a twofold challenge: political (how to think about one’s country’s place in the international balance of power) and psychological (how to think about oneself when moving from a position of centrality to one of peripherality). Overall, however, decision-makers in Western countries were poorly prepared for this dual challenge. In some cases, they were relatively young people with limited experience. In other cases, the conditions of their training, whether this training is understood in the university sense of the term or in the political sense, had not prepared them to face a challenge of this importance. Faced, then, with major changes that are far beyond their control and which create situations of cognitive dissonance, these decision-makers opt either for strategies of denial (these changes do not exist, or are only temporary…) or for the reproduction of past behaviour. Thus, at best, they are prepared to engage in a “Cold War 2.0”, reproducing the behaviour of their predecessors from 1948 to 1952, but in a situation that is now radically different.
The causes of the mistakes made by “Western” leaders are probably as numerous as the mistakes themselves. They all add up to a major crisis of decision-making.
2) Are they errors of a ruling class or are they errors of an entire culture?
These errors are, of course, primarily the errors of the ruling class. But their scale, their diversity and their systematic nature are indeed striking. A modern Hamlet would no doubt exclaim: “something is rotten in Western countries“.
After that, there are many problems. The first is the tendency of the ruling elites to self-replicate. This is not entirely new. The ruling classes have always tended to operate in a vacuum. But from the 1950s to the 1990s, they became more open to the entry of people with no prior ties to these classes. Since the 2000s, they have tended to close in on themselves and, naturally, to produce a specific culture. This is true in France, the UK and Germany, but probably less so in the Scandinavian countries. We can now speak of a culture (or more precisely a sub-culture) of the elite that is largely distinct from the culture (or sub-cultures) of the working classes in terms of representations and behaviour, but not necessarily in terms of relationships with institutions.
This ‘elite’ subculture has certainly been one of the foundations of the mistakes made, in that it is characterised by a self-satisfied arrogance, by a contempt for anything that is not expressed in its own particular language, by a difficulty or even an impossibility of standing back and questioning its ‘values’, and finally by a fairly systematic form of hypocrisy. This elite subculture has facilitated the reproduction and perpetuation of the structures that we have mentioned and that have been at the root of these errors, such as the belief in simplified discourse, the absence of any criticism of one’s own representations (supposed to be “the best”), and forms of intellectual routine that have not prepared these ruling elites for the challenges of the period. From this point of view, it is not wrong to speak of the many errors committed by the Western ruling classes as being both practically and intellectually bankrupt.
But does this mean that ‘popular’ subcultures have been entirely preserved from the faults and defects of the elite subculture? Here, it would undoubtedly be necessary to specify the diagnosis country by country. If we take the case of the United States, American exceptionalism, its lack of interest in anything external, has undoubtedly played an important role in the non-contestation of certain statements of the elite subculture, and this has facilitated for a time the harmful work of neo-conservative circles in the ruling classes.
For European countries, on the other hand, this is much more difficult to demonstrate. Indeed, the need to maintain fairly crude propaganda about Ukraine in the mainstream media clearly shows that popular subcultures have remained relatively resistant to the discourse of the ruling classes. Here again, we need to refine our findings. The image of the “evil Russian” or the presence of a threatening “Russian imperialism” is certainly more present in the populations of Northern European countries, or certain former Warsaw Pact countries. It should be noted, however, that part of the Hungarian ruling class has a rather different discourse, which can be described as “realistic” (in the sense that this term has in international politics), and that this discourse seems largely in tune with the ideas conveyed among the population. The same thing seems to be happening in Austria. In France, Germany and Italy, despite the diversity of cultures, we can nevertheless observe a certain resistance of popular subcultures to the elite subculture. France is a case in point. Popular subculture has been profoundly affected by the American Holywood representation machine. Thus, the vision of the Soviet (and therefore Russian) contribution, which was extremely positive at the end of the forties and in the fifties and sixties, was gradually reversed. Nevertheless, the French popular subculture is not spontaneously convinced by the stereotypes of the “evil Russian” or the “Russian aggressor”. Various opinion polls show that there is still a “pro-Russian” base in the population. They also show that, spontaneously, the working classes have a more realistic, if necessarily sketchy, view of current geopolitical developments.
This inability of the elite subculture to fully influence and shape the popular subcultures is reflected today in the fact that the intermediate strata between the top of the ruling classes and the popular classes, those we might call the ‘petty-bourgeoisie culture’, have become a strategic target in the ‘cultural war’ being waged by the ruling classes. These classes, knowing that the “cultural petty-bourgeoisie” is particularly dependent on the media (whether traditional print or broadcast media or social networks), have undertaken a ferocious struggle to exclude from these media any opinion that is divergent on these points. But the sheer ferocity of this fight has led to the traditional press being discredited. The “cultural petty-bourgeoisie” now tends to seek information, and therefore representations, increasingly on social networks. Hence a shift in the struggle. The ruling classes are now seeking to muzzle these social networks, to legitimise the introduction of indirect or direct forms of censorship.
3) The war in Ukraine manifests a crisis of the West. Is it reversible? If so, how? If not, why?
It is indeed clear that the war in Ukraine manifests a crisis in the “collective West”, as the Russians call it. This “collective West” is proving incapable of allowing Ukraine to “win” and, beyond that, incapable of halting the transformations of a world that is increasingly beyond its control.
This process seems irreversible. We do not know whether Russia will have a “small” victory (maintaining the gains made since 2014) or a “big” victory (extending the gains and satisfying its main demands). But there seems to be little doubt about a Russian “victory”. More generally, it is hard to see how the “collective West” could return to the position it was in in 2010, or even before. So the real question is not whether these developments are reversible, but whether the “collective West” will continue to lose ground, economically, politically, militarily and, of course, culturally, or whether it will be able to stabilise its position over the next five to ten years.
To stabilise its position, the “collective West” needs to do two things: stabilise its economic situation and put a stop to the process of de-industrialisation that it has been undergoing for nearly forty years now, and change its attitude towards the rest of the world, to show that it is aware of its loss of hegemony and that it is, at last, ready to discuss things on an equal footing, without always wanting to set itself up as a teacher. But these two objectives will raise contradictions within the “collective West” itself.
On the subject of de-industrialisation, there is an internal conflict between the United States and the countries of the European Union. The United States is convinced that its own re-industrialisation must take place at the expense of Europe, in other words that it must cannibalise European industry. It is in the process of doing so, having forced the countries of the European Union to imitate it in a near-break-up with Russia over energy issues. Access to the low-cost energy Russia was selling was of particular importance to the economic and industrial development of the European Union. This is a zero-sum game between the United States and the EU. However, the current US strategy is contradictory to the economic stabilisation of the “collective West”. Whatever the US may gain from this strategy will be more than offset by the losses in Europe. True, the United States will become the undisputed leader of the “Western camp”, but the latter will continue to weaken and the United States will be the master of a group that will continue to decline and lose economic importance. Note that this strategy is the opposite of that pursued by the United States from 1948 to 1960, at the start of the “first” Cold War. At that time, the United States agreed to cede part of its growth to Western Europe, which was in the process of reconstruction. If we look at the two “major” crises of Cold War 1.0, the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the “Western world”, as it was called at the time, was much stronger in 1962 than it was in 1950. The current American strategy therefore contradicts the objective of long-term economic stabilisation of the “collective West”.
On the second point, the problem is more ideological. Agreeing to treat the rest of the world as equals, and to stop constantly trying to teach lessons, means coming to terms with our former hegemony, but also with vulgar universalism. As far as the former hegemony is concerned, everyone will understand. As for what I call vulgar universalism, and this may come as a surprise from someone who claims to be a universalist, it concerns the belief, which I consider to be false, that there is only one way to achieve the universals enshrined in the Rights of Man (and therefore Woman’s) and Citizen, development for all, or more rational management of resources leading to carbon neutrality. The reality is that there are several different approaches, several possible trajectories, that can lead to these results. We cannot draw from the historical experience of our particular trajectories the conclusion that these are the only possible trajectories. We must therefore let other nations, other peoples, experiment, discover through historical processes of trial and error, which trajectories are appropriate to their cultures. True universalism is a universalism of objectives, not of trajectories. We can only demand respect for our own culture by respecting the culture of others, even if we may consider, and sometimes rightly so, that it is oppressive, backward and sometimes absolutely cruel. We must remember that all attempts to bring about progress and advance towards the universals set out above, by means of cannon, bombs or napalm, have been bloody failures and have actually caused societies to regress.
We can, however, measure what the simple objective of stabilising the position of the “collective West”, which is the only realistic objective, implies in terms of cultural and political revolution in the ruling elites. This is why I believe that this objective will not be achieved and that, as a “bloc”, this “collective West” no longer has a future.
4) China and Russia, the two emerging powers challenging U.S. and Western unipolar domination, have since the collapse of communism reconnected with their pre-modern cultural traditions: Confucianism for China, Orthodox Christianity for Russia. Why? Can the backward, literally “reactionary” return take root in a modern industrial society?
The return of China and Russia to their “traditional values” is more a part of the current discourse than a reality. In reality, Soviet and Chinese communism remained steeped in these “values”. The rhetoric of the Bolshevik and Chinese communist leaders should not be taken at face value when they claim to have made a radical break with their past. In these two revolutions, the elements of continuity are at least as important as the elements of rupture. Stalinist society remained largely within the framework of Orthodox values, even when the church was persecuted: reverence for a discourse conceived as a religion, the role of portraits of leaders in the image of ancient icons, social puritanism, etc, etc. Bolshevism was the form that modernising ideology adopted in Russia. This explains why a large part of the technical intelligentsia rallied to the new regime in 1918-1920. Similarly, the essence of Confucianism was always present in People’s China, even when Confucianism was officially opposed (the short-lived “Pi Lin, Pi Kong” campaign).
The end of the “Soviet” framework in Russia, and the gradual evolution of the system in People’s China, have led to a gradual rehabilitation of the classic forms of these “traditional values”. But these countries still look back on their recent past with some sympathy, whether it be the role of Stalin in Russia or that of Mao in China. In fact, it is more accurate to speak of evolutions in the synthesis between traditional values and the particular form taken by modernity for these countries than to speak of a return to ancient cultural traditions. The Chinese and Russian populations have evolved profoundly over the last century, in their relationship with children, in the role of women, in the balance between collective and individual values, and they will continue to evolve. But this evolution will not be (and has not been) an imitation of Western societies. It is the ideal example of what I have called different trajectories but a search for a common ultimate goal.