Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Ukraine: do material features shape history or do ideas as well?

That's a question to ask. The response of many people on the Left to the crisis in the Ukraine is to look at it purely through the lens of covert economic motivations, which must, must be the cause of the conflict. It has to be a secret gas pipeline deal, or NATO expansion that no doubt will lead to an extension of European influence in the Ukraine. While I'm no fan of NATO, what these explanations don't take into account is the possibility that ideas, particularly the idea of self determination, believed in by the people at large, could be a motivating factor in the protests.

The tendency to reflexively always look for a material cause for whatever conflict is going on is not borne out by history, and the complexity of the interrelationship between material causes and ideal ones poses a big threat to the orthodox historical materialist worldview that implicitly motivates much of the thought of those on the left and progressive side of things. A great example of it not being borne out in reality is the American Civil War.

A sizable number of people on the Left firmly believe that the Civil War was fought not about slavery, but about the north maintaining supplies of cotton that it needed for its textile mills. The idea is that the north was completely industrial, the south was completely agrarian, and the north had no other option in powering its textile mills than to keep control of the South...which would increase the price of cotton if it seceded.

Slavery and moral objections to slavery, the entire abolitionist movement, Abraham Lincoln's opposition to slavery and the triggering of secession largely by his election as President, doesn't enter into this history at all. It's like the decade or so of pro and anti-slavery argument, as well as any moral factor that might have motivated people, simply doesn't exist.

 No doubt it's much easier to live in a world like that, because it doesn't require as much critical thought as taking on the real complexities of history. Whatever's going on, just look for a potential economic explanation and voila--you don't have to trouble yourself over looking into the issue any further. Interestingly enough, the argument of the Civil War being fought over economic causes is enthusiastically embraced by Neo-Confederates in the South itself.

One of the sources for this idea is Charles Beard, a historian who published several influential volumes in the first decades of the 20th century. His "Economic Origins of the Constitution" is cited repeatedly by progressive historians, however if you actually read it and look at the evidence he presents that the writers of the Constitution were motivated by having bonds they'd bought not default, the evidence is really flimsy. This is not to deny that there were economic interests at work---they're right there in the Federalist Papers, where the authors specifically cite the potential for the rich to be threatened as one of the reasons why a central government over the states is necessary. But obviously that is not enough.

All of this relates back to the Ukraine in that if reflexively appealing to material motivations no longer works, the position that many progressives have carefully cultivated falls like a house of cards. They've put so much faith in this that they haven't really done the work to create a counter-argument.

Yeah, watching the head of NATO condemning the invasion of the Crimea was almost like seeing someone gloating about what a great opportunity was being handed to them, but what sort of person trusts their ideology and ignores the actual people on the ground? Isn't that, in itself, a much more Ideal position, not really material at all, while the opposite is in fact more in touch with concrete reality?

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