We are not even living in a hopeless world, but a fatal one
Tarik Cyril Amar (@TarikCyrilAmar) is a historian from Germany, currently at Koç University, Istanbul, expert on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe, and the author of “The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists.”
Cross-posted from Tarik Cyril Amar’s substack
As a historian, I am well aware that humans strongly disagree about history, that is, the human past as far as we know it. And I find historians who have it all figured out disconcerting: They give me that feeling you have when encountering the odd guy at the bar who tells you he has invented Post-its. And yet, we can all agree on one simple fact: History is change.
The speed of that change can be anything between extremely slow, even perhaps non-perceptible, or very fast, as it has been for the last 300 years or so. But real stasis is impossible. History abhors a stand-still. The idea that human societies or even all of humanity could exist without any change is a fantasy with its own history of, of course, change: from mythical and religious imaginations of “golden ages” to the Orientalist mind trick that assigns immobility to the targets of imperialism (China, India, or the Arabic and Persian worlds, for instance). Famously, even Marx fell for that one, ending up in an almost Walterian (as in the “Big Lebowski,” not French Enlightenment) place: “Say what you will about capitalism, but at least it’s an ethos forcing change on the obstinately unchanging.” Contemporary Liberalism has had its own, flatfootedly self-congratulatory vision of entering a change-less utopia. That’s what Francis Fukuyama’s book-length reverie about the “End of History” was all about.
The Left – that is, my kind of people – has sometimes been accused of pessimism or even catastrophism: That endless going-on about exploitation, injustice, and, most of all, crisis this and crisis that. Let’s set aside that that’s a rather unfair reproach, because all those things are real and frequent: There simply is a lot to go on about. What’s more important is the fact that the Left has been, if anything, too optimistic.
It has tended to believe – like Marx, for instance – that the very imperfect world of the present can be replaced by a (much) better one. Indeed, for Marx (and Engels), one distinguishing feature of their proudly “scientific” variant of socialism was the claim to prove that such a change was inevitable: Capitalism and bourgeois society were doomed to bring about not only their own downfall but replacement by a socialist and then Communist order (yet another “end of history,” of course).
The basic assumption behind that kind of thinking is, actually, hopeful. Well aware of the devastation wrought by capitalism in their time, the two founding fathers of the Marxist variant of socialism still assumed that it was preparing humanity for the next great historic change, and that that change would be for the far better. Let’s disregard for now, their biases and blind spots (the Eurocentrism, for instance). Let’s focus on something else: If we pare down their optimism to its bare minimum, then the least they expected the world they lived in to do was to not disrupt or even end the fundamental process of change for the better (call it progress, if you wish).
There is a larger point here. Whether you are on the Left or not, you would probably agree that the very least every political and social order must do is keep open the possibility of being superseded by something better. Or, put differently, since genuine stasis is not an option in real human history, change is inevitable. Therefore, an order that bars the path to positive change is worse than “conservative.” It will, inevitably, facilitate change for the worse.
For Marx and Engels, capitalism was catastrophe-prone. But its cumulative catastrophes would, at least, in the end, be redemptive, not only destroying the old order but ushering in a new one. Their capitalist world was strictly hopeless, in that it could not solve its problems without disappearing. But it was not hopeless, in that its disappearance was certain – and also certain, so they believed, to be followed by a better society.
In that sense, there is good reason to believe that we live in a world now that is worse than hopeless. Our world is better described by the term fatal, in that our iteration of global dis-order, founded on capitalism as never before, is also catastrophe-prone but has acquired the additional capacity to do so much damage that it is vitiating any possibility of a better future.
Let’s take three examples that illustrated this trend in the last year, one about the world as a whole, one about one place in it, and the last one about a single individual. All of them, as will become clear, have global significance.
The shameful failure of COP28, the last United Nations Climate Change Conference, stands for the inability of our political and economic institutions – and the “elites” running them – to do the barest minimum to preserve the most minimal basis of human history, our unique, irreplaceable biosphere. Quite literally, the world.
Held in Dubai, a petrol state whose leadership combined the conference with oil industry lobbying on a massive scale, the meeting produced mere PR, fossil-fuel PR, that is. The language adopted was transparently designed to evade any real commitments to giving up on the latter. The daft businessese (“global stocktake”), reading as if taken from an especially naïve marketing intern’s PowerPoint, and the silly diplomatese (“transition away from” instead of (even) “phase-out”; “beginning of the end” instead of “end”) were insults added to injury. How dumb do they think we are? (Rhetorical question. I know the answer.)
Meanwhile, in Palestine under Israeli occupation, we have learned that another bare minimum will not hold up. Since the beginning of the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in early October, at least 22,000 Palestinian victims have been killed and 57,700 injured, the preponderant majority civilians, especially women and children. 1.9 million (85%) of Gaza’s inhabitants have been displaced. In the West Bank, where Israel is conducting a parallel assault by slightly different means, more than 500 Palestinians have been killed during 2023, with over half of these killings taking place after early October.
Israeli leaders have made it crystal clear, again and again, that their preferred solution is to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians, once again. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, minister of national security Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of finance Bezalel Smotrich, and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter have all openly admitted – really boasted of – that aim. And, of course, the sample of such admissions from politicians as well as the Israeli public and media could be expanded. Easily.
The means to this end is genocide. As South Africa has now argued in its complaint to the International Court of Justice, “acts and omissions by Israel … are genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite specific intent … to destroy Palestinians in Gaza.” Indeed, it is hard to find a case of genocide in which the perpetrators have made it so easy to prove their intentions.
From president Isaac Herzog, prime minister Netanyahu, and minister of defense Yoav Galant downward Israeli leaders have led a bloodthirsty mob of lawmakers and other “elite” members in using genocidal rhetoric. They have dehumanized the Palestinian victims, obfuscated the distinction between fighters and civilians, and called for comprehensive extermination, as in Netanyahu’s infamous “Amalek” reference.
And the West, led by the USA, has chosen to be complicit (as also proscribed explicitly by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention), not only by not preventing the ongoing genocide (as is the unambiguous duty of every state under the Convention), but by pro-actively supporting the Israeli perpetrators with arms and ammunitions and diplomatic cover as well as running the risk of a regional or global conflagration just so as to deter other states from intervening to stop Israel and protect its Palestinian victims. Call it “Operation Genocide Guardian,” if you wish.
We live in a world where it has been left to the de facto government of Yemen under the Ansar Allah movement (“Houthis”) as well as Iran and various militia forces supported by it to do what humanity, elementary ethics, and humanity require: militarily assist the Palestinians in their resistance against Israel’s genocide. This resistance and those helping it stand now for what is best in humanity. (And if you don’t like their politics, complain to all those liberals and Centrists who have left it to them alone to do what is necessary.) But the fact remains, for now at least, that the West still stands for what is strongest.
The upshot is that we all are receiving a global lesson. We are being trained into accepting that if the West sides with it – or commits it, of course – genocide, too, is not “only” sneakily okay. It can even be carried out in broad daylight, in real time, and on live TV and social media. And the “elites” – in politics, media, “think” tanks, you name it – of the most powerful as well as most arrogant part of the world will be complicit. There is a reason why the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Gabor Mate finds that this is “the worst thing” he has seen in his whole life. Not as a matter of scale, but because this genocide is so “publicly committed” and so “condoned.”
What the Israeli-Western co-genocide of the Palestinians shows us is that there is, literally, no crime that our “elites” will not commit, even openly commit, and seek to justify, including the crime of deliberately destroying a part of humanity. If they don’t stop there, where will they?
Finally, there is the single individual. We could focus on all too many, of course, well-known and not, but Julian Assange’s case retains a special relevance. This last year has been yet another one in which the single most important political prisoner in the world has been kept incarcerated by the West. There is no doubt that he is not the only one suffering severe abuse. Indeed, others suffer even worse. But he stands like no other for our “elites’” brazen attempt to teach us all yet another lesson: It is not the criminals who let our planet burn and Gaza be slaughtered, for instance, who have to fear punishment but those who dare confront them. If Assange is an embodiment of heroic perseverance, honesty, and courage, his treatment is our rulers’ most prominent way of making an example: No amount of truth-telling will stop them, make them reconsider their actions, or – perish the thought – repent and reverse course.
There are more catastrophes to choose from. But the essence of our situation should be clear enough: Our “elites” seem, quite literally, hell-bent on devastating our life as a species to such an extent that they may do irreparable damage. Or at least enough to throw humanity into a dark age of suffering bereft of hope for a long time. Maybe all that will be left to us is the resolution of despair.