The framing of the war in Ukraine by liberals as all about them and their identification with the vulnerable is an important driving force of war fever in the West. However, Peter Ramsay argues that conservatives engage in a comparable cultural narcissism. A recent talk by Frank Furedi in which he linked NATO intervention in Ukraine to moral rearmament in the West, only to backtrack subsequently, exemplifies the limitations of conservative cultural critique for those in search of a new democratic politics.
In a recent article on Spiked, the conservative thinker Frank Furedi called out Western liberals for their grotesque exploitation of the war in Ukraine as an opportunity for them to parade their own vulnerability and emotional needs. And he noted the more ominous tendency for political commentators to see the war as an opportunity to revitalise a flagging Western liberalism. Furedi concludes that ‘Ukraine for many is now a medium for the moral rehabilitation of the West’; that ‘this “all about me” approach to the war do[es] a disservice to the people of Ukraine’; and that ‘policymaking that is informed by narcissism tends to be incoherent, unstable and unreliable’. Democrats can have no argument with any of that. Yet it is a striking change of position from Furedi, who just days earlier had been arguing something close to the opposite. At a debate in London, he suggested that the war was in part a consequence of the West’s abandonment of its traditional values; that ‘a more robust’ response including military options was needed to deter Russia and others from taking advantage of the West’s cultural weakness; and connected this response with the need for ‘an intellectual and moral revolution’ to reverse the West’s ‘moral disarmament’.
Analysing Furedi’s (hopefully brief) dalliance with militarism matters politically for several reasons. First, he is the intellectual leader of the enterprising network centred on Spiked that has robustly defended democracy, national sovereignty and freedom of expression in recent years, particularly through the vital struggles over Brexit and the opposition to Covid lockdown and vaccine passes. The energy and consistency of this network is in no small part due to the originality of Furedi’s perspective. Among his several historic contributions to our understanding of contemporary society, Furedi was the first critic fully to grasp that the transformation of political subjectivity at the end of the twentieth century had led to the rise of the ‘vulnerable citizen’ to cultural dominance. And he has certainly been the most vocal critic of the narcissistic liberal ideology of vulnerability through which Western society has been ruled for many years, the very ideology that has led the new laptop bombadiers to seek their moral redemption in somebody else’s war. Yet, despite his pioneering efforts, his own argument for greater military intervention itself relied on vulnerability as a motivation for military action. This paradoxical turn exposes the political limitations of understanding the problem of narcissistic vulnerability as primarily a problem of culture, as Furedi has from the beginning, rather than one of politics and political ideology.
Furedi phrased his support for NATO military action in Ukraine more cautiously than many hawkish liberal cosmopolitans, introducing the idea by saying:
we do need to think about lending Ukraine far greater military support than merely providing them with anti-tank weapons and various missiles that they have received….I have come to the conclusion that we can no longer say in black-and-white terms that we are not going to have, that we are not going to seek to establish a no-fly zone.
But later, he added that he was ‘horrified when the Americans prevented the Polish people from sending their airplanes to Ukraine’, that he also thinks that ‘it’s a legitimate aspiration to set up a limited no-fly zone that protects the humanitarian corridors’, and that ‘we need to have a [policy] of deterrence that is far more robust than the one we have at the moment’. In concluding he claimed that ‘Our job at the moment is to support Ukraine in whatever form we possibly can’. It’s not completely clear exactly who the ‘we’ are supposed to be, but it appears to include those with the capacity to set up no-fly zones and international forms of military deterrence.
His support may have been carefully phrased but he must have known as he said it that imposing no-fly zones would amount to a very significant escalation in the conflict. As another panellist pointed out, enforcing one would require NATO to attack Russian territory in order to disable their anti-aircraft capability. Establishing a no-fly zone directly entails war with Russia, as more cautious liberal commentators have noted.
In making the case for a stronger military response, Furedi wove together two separate arguments: the first was one about geopolitics and national interest, the second about Western values and cultural decline. However, the geopolitical argument is a non sequitur in its own terms, and he only ends up invoking the cultural vulnerability of the West to justify intervention.
At the start of the talk, Furedi castigates Western political elites for believing that when the old Cold War ended, history came to an end, and that liberal democracy would triumph everywhere. By becoming ‘detached’ from their past Western elites lost any ‘geopolitical sensibility’ and their ‘capacity to understand the national interest [became] considerably diminished’. In place of national interest, they promoted a new international order, in which humanitarianism and the US became ‘the world’s regime-changer’. One of the consequences of this loss of geopolitical sensibility ‘was that the west became unable to understand Russia’s security anxieties’. Furedi points out that having lost the Cold War, Russia is ‘fragile’ and ‘unstable’. But liberal elites lacked ‘the strategic empathy for a defeated power’ that would have allowed them ‘to alleviate the anxieties that [the Russians] might have had’. He is explicit in arguing that the instability in states around Russia arises from Russia’s own internal fragility.
But from this accurate, if summary, diagnosis of the underlying problem, he then goes on to propose greater NATO intervention in Ukraine—which, from a geopolitical view of the British national interest, is exactly the wrong conclusion. Furedi does not spell out what the West’s lack of ‘strategic empathy’ for Russia entailed. In practice, it saw NATO, the old Cold War Western alliance against the USSR, first convert itself after the Cold War into an anti-Russian alliance, rebuffing Russia’s aspiration to form a common security architecture with Western states; and then expand to include almost every country in the former Soviet bloc, including states that border Russian territory, and finally declaring in 2008 that the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine ‘will become members’, something that Russian leaders had repeatedly made clear was unacceptable. In other words, NATO relentlessly pressurised and provoked the ‘fragile’ and ‘unstable’ defeated power. How has this high-handed and complacent policy served Britain’s national or geopolitical interests? And if it hasn’t served those interests, how can licensing the very organisation that pursued that policy to interfere further in Eastern Europe possibly help Britain’s interests?
As soon as we apply any ‘geopolitical sensibility’, and ask what the outcome of more NATO intervention will be, there doesn’t seem to be anything that is in Britain’s national interest. Furedi recognises that Russia is ‘fragile’ and ‘unstable’ but fails to draw the obvious geopolitical conclusion. He might have done well to listen to John Mearsheimer, the American International Relations professor, who pointed out in his justly famous 2015 lecture on Ukraine: ‘if you really want to wreck Russia, what you should do is encourage it to try and conquer Ukraine.’ Prolonging the war with more Western anti-tank weapons, Polish airplanes, no-fly zones and all the rest is likely to create another ‘forever war’ that will destroy Ukraine, ruin Russia and drive it more fully into the arms of the Chinese Communist Party—currently the most powerful anti-democratic force in the world. Alternatively, it will help to achieve exactly what Furedi had earlier criticised American elites for pursuing: a more rapid collapse of the Russian war effort, leading to regime change. Only this time, the failed state that— if past experience is anything to go by—will likely arise from America’s efforts will contain the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Furedi castigates the elites for losing their geopolitical sensibility or capacity to understand the national interest but then shows none himself. Instead, he indulges what he decries in Western liberals – his own sense of the West’s vulnerability. The price of inaction is too high, he argues:
we have no choice but to defend Ukraine. And we have to defend Ukraine not just rhetorically and not just through providing material support…Ukraine is the only country in that part of the world that is large enough and substantial enough and that has got the military capability to at least slow down the invasion from Russia….If Ukraine goes, if Ukraine is occupied then the security of every country in the Baltic, the security of Poland and other Eastern European countries are all going to be put at risk.
Having decried the West’s loss of geopolitical nous and ‘strategic empathy’, Furedi now shows none of his own. The reason that the security of eastern Europe is going to be put at risk, apparently, is that ‘Russia is so unstable internally that anything can happen. You already saw what happened in Kazakhstan, you already saw what happened in Belarus, you already see that Russia is a disaster area waiting to happen.’ But it is one thing to say that Russia is a fragile, defeated power that under pressure is going to lash out; it is another entirely to turn that possibility into a domino theory of Russian domination. The geopolitical realist Mearsheimer seems closer to the mark. Russia has nothing close to the armed forces it would need to conquer and occupy Ukraine. If Russia were to try, it would be a self-inflicted disaster. Poland is way beyond its capacities. But Furedi warms to the theme of the West’s vulnerability:
unless we have a more robust form of deterrence then in a sense we become hostages to the fear of a nuclear attack by Russia. And once people know that throughout the world then it is only a matter of time before China goes into Taiwan and it’s only a matter of time before other predatory forces feel uninhibited…from doing bad things to other parts of the world.
By the conclusion of his talk the national interest had vanished as he exhorted his audience ‘to take a stand against evil’ like any good liberal humanitarian interventionist. For all his talk of geopolitical sensibility and national interest, his call for more military intervention merely turned the West’s obsession with vulnerability into a vulnerability itself and fell into line behind the very Western elites that he decries for their historical amnesia and moral grandstanding.
What led him to this dead end? It is the second theme of his talk that seems to explain the contradiction in the argument. He thinks the West is vulnerable because in its historical amnesia it has lost sight not only of geopolitical sensibility but has also ‘recklessly sought to detach itself from its historical legacy and values, and the moral outlook that was associated with it’. He is explicit that ‘The West has morally disarmed itself’ and become ‘estranged from everything that made Western civilisation what it is; as it ‘lost sight of history’ so ‘the values of the past were seen as discredited’. Furedi spells out the values he is referring to: ‘duty’, ‘responsibility’, ‘service’ ‘loyalty’ and ‘patriotism’. These ideas are embarrassing to contemporary elites.
With the loss of these values another is eclipsed, a value that Furedi calls ‘the warrior ethos’: the idea that people ‘should be ready to fight to defend their communities as part and parcel of their responsibility’. As Furedi observes, ‘that ethos is seen today as far too masculine, far too heteronormative’. He criticises British army training which he summarises as ‘your job is to be a sensitive social worker rather than anything else’, and mocks a recent discussion about introducing ‘vegan uniforms’ because some soldiers might be vegan: ‘Just think about that, while people are fighting for their lives in Ukraine, soldiers here in Britain are being encouraged to think about such silly issues.’ For Furedi this example ‘captures the confusion and disorientation over what an army should look like, about what a foreign policy should look like, what a national interest should look like.’ His next sentence makes a direct connection between this cultural decay and the weakness he thinks the West has exhibited and that Putin is exploiting:
And I think that’s the context for what’s happening in the Ukraine because at a certain point Putin decided that given the fact that his security needs had not been met but at the same time the West had indicated that it wasn’t going to fight, when Biden more or less said “there is no such thing as a red line as far as we are concerned” he basically gave Putin a free pass, basically indicated that there is no risk to entering Ukraine because all you are going to risk is economic sanctions. And you don’t need a PhD in military history to know that economic sanctions do not stop tanks…
According to Furedi it is the West’s moral weakness that has led to Putin’s attack, and as noted above, now invites attack from other ‘predatory forces’ that will result if we do not pursue a more robust deterrent. The conclusion he draws is that:
We have to have an intellectual and a moral revolution in our country where…rather than allowing this process of moral disarmament to continue we have to rearm ourselves morally in the first instance. That’s the prelude to being effective in any decision that we might take in the future.
It appears therefore that NATO intervention in Ukraine is an aspect of this ‘moral revolution’ and that in this talk Furedi did exactly what he now accuses liberal elites of in his Spiked article: exploiting the conflict in Ukraine as an opportunity to remoralise Western society. The moral substance of his remoralisation may be different to theirs but the practical result is the same, a forever war in Ukraine or regime change in Russia. Although it’s not entirely clear whether the moral revolution should inspire the intervention or be inspired by it, the moral revolution is nevertheless strongly connected with it in Furedi’s presentation, for he precedes the call for it with these words:
Our job at the moment is to support Ukraine in whatever form we possibly can, but we also have another job, here domestically both here and in America we have to remind our elites of their responsibility to be leaders rather than passive voyeurs on what’s really happening.
It is in this passage that Furedi lets slip the deep political evasion to be found in all the conservative talk about values and moral rearmament.
Although it is the West’s leaders whom Furedi began by criticising—because they had lost touch with history, geopolitical sense and the West’s values—the task of those participating in his moral revolution is ‘to remind our elites of their responsibility to be leaders’. What good does he think reminding them of their responsibility is going to do? It is as if Furedi thinks that Western elites have made a mistake in promoting or tolerating the narcissistic ideology of vulnerability that has accompanied the loss of history, national interest and the old virtues. For Furedi, the West’s decay is a cultural wrong turn that can be corrected with a moral revolution to bring Western elites to their senses.
Having begun by accusing Western elites of mocking and abandoning the values of duty and responsibility, by the end he hands the political responsibility back to the same elites that have presided over the end of history, the foolish liberal hegemony of regime change and the narcissistic culture of vulnerability. And he does so in the name of the vulnerability of the culture that he values. Furedi’s preferred values may be different to the left’s, but his argument replicates in conservative form exactly the logic of the contemporary left. To protect what it values from supposed threats, the left calls on the powers that be to act coercively. It is politically passive, as are all arguments from vulnerability.
This is the price of Furedi’s depoliticised analysis of the vulnerable subject of capitalist society as a cultural question, to be analysed in terms of moral values, cultural practices and intellectual history, rather than as a political question, to be understood as a legitimising ideology of rule. It becomes harder for him to see when he has fallen into the politically quiescent way of thinking relied on by the very elites he decries.
Furedi has emphasised the priority of culture over politics right from the beginning of his critique of the vulnerable subject. In 2005 he argued:
In our era of political exhaustion, the challenge that faces us is essentially pre-political. It makes little sense to develop an ambitious political philosophy when the sense of human subjectivity exists in a diminished form. Politics represents the negation of Fate and its existence depends on the prevalence of the belief that what people do can make a difference. That is why today the challenge facing those interested in the reconstitution of public life is not the discovery of a Big Idea or the invention of a new political doctrine or philosophy. In the absence of a more robust sense of human agency that can act on such ideas, such doctrine would have a formal and platitudinous character….
….Before politics can be reconstituted we need to foster an intellectual climate that directly challenges the prevailing paradigm of vulnerability. (Furedi, Politics of Fear, p.166)
Furedi was not wrong about the difficulties posed by the defeat of the mass politics of the twentieth century. But time has run out on pre-political tasks, which have become a dead end that leads only to contradiction and passivity. Today nobody who thinks about it, even for a moment, can kid themselves that history has ended. Moreover, Brexit and the resistance to Covid have demonstrated a stubborn determination among many ordinary citizens not to let their democratic rights be sacrificed to an elite of experts who thought they were too stupid to make good decisions about the life of their own nation-state. The number of citizens willing to act politically on that stubborn refusal may only be in the tens of thousands at present, but this is more than enough to begin to challenge our politically bankrupt elites for power. That can only happen, however, if we take on the responsibility to articulate a new political vision.
The political passivity of Furedi’s cultural perspective makes a complete mystery of how a moral revolution might revive another of his favoured values: patriotism. There could hardly be a more political concept. Patriotism is loyalty to the nation of which you are a citizen. Patriotism is not the same as nationalism, which is loyalty to the belief that one’s own nation-state is somehow superior to others. Real patriots are committed to national sovereignty and, therefore, to belief in the equality of nations. True patriots are more than willing to criticise their nation when they think it is doing the wrong thing. Indeed, it is their duty to do so.
How will patriotism be revived by reminding our current governing elites of their responsibility to lead the nation when most of them were and remain deeply hostile to Britain’s national sovereignty—as evidenced by their efforts to frustrate Brexit? How will patriotism be revived by Britain’s armed forces becoming involved in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, so prolonging that conflict, further destabilising the world’s largest country, with its huge nuclear arsenal, and strengthening the power of China, the world’s most authoritarian state? Loyalty to Britain can only be cultivated by those who take on the duty of explaining why these disasters of cosmopolitan liberalism are not in the national interest, and offering British citizens instead a more compelling vision of Britain’s national sovereignty. This is first and foremost a political task not a cultural one. We need to convince people that the nation to which they belong is indeed something worth fighting for. If we could begin to do that then we might inspire the moral revolution that Furedi desires, but he has put the cultural cart before the political horse.
It is a good thing if Furedi has belatedly realised that the campaign for military support for Ukraine is a key element in maintaining the very same decadent culture that he rightly objects to. But his recent Spiked article shows that he has still not got further than more cultural critique of the morally degraded character of Western liberalism. And we urgently need to build a political alternative to the current order. We need to be developing policy (Brexit from NATO, for example) as part of a wider political vision, so as to offer citizens the idea of a nation they might want to be loyal to and take responsibility for. The cosmopolitan elite class in Britain is already busy searching for ways to regain political ground that it lost in the Brexit years. The war in Ukraine is shaping up to be a key component in fashioning a new ‘woke’ nation which will try to weave together the themes of authoritarian liberalism with some elements of Britain’s warmongering past:
Brexit opened up a political battle over the British state, not a cultural one. Democrats need to keep up that political battle and not let our authoritarian liberal elites close it down with their new cold war.