“Three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines, the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination, that have the futility, often the charm, and sometimes the deep hidden truthfulness, of works of art.”– Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, chapter 29
“We must drag the chain and ball of our personality to the end. This is the price one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought; so in this life it is only the chosen who are convicts—a glorious band which understands and groans but which treads the earth amidst a multitude of phantoms with maniacal gestures and idiotic grimaces. Which would you rather be: idiot or convict?”– Joseph Conrad, circa 1900, cited in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life (Camden House, 2007)
Belle-époquisme: This is not a word, but we suggest it should be. The Belle Époque refers to the period in Europe between 1871 and 1914 when there was a combination of artistic flourishing, economic expansion, lasting peace, and rapid technological change (electricity, photography, motion pictures, the telephone, the automobile, ocean liners, the airplane, rubber tires, anesthesia, aseptic technique, sanitation, plumbing). The comforts and entertainments enjoyed by a growing bourgeoisie gave the illusion that Europe’s history of war, famine and plagues was being solved and that humanity was in an age of true progress. Radical revolution and counter-revolution had finally settled into the moderate ideal of liberal multi-party democracy. The term belle-époquisme that we propose here refers to this process of being aware of living in a beautiful epoch but also of the traumatic disillusionment and derangement that comes when a crisis strikes and misery begins to touch the previously un-afflicted. First, there is the inability to even fathom the possibility that this golden kingdom on its trajectory towards utopia could ever falter in the slightest, followed by the ensuing collective derealization and increasingly desperate forms of escapism when the cracks finally do emerge.
Nonetheless, this process cannot be disentangled from its mediated framing and reproduction. Belle-époquisme must therefore be considered to refer to both the ideological reproduction and harnessing of the cultural characteristics of the phenomenon as well as the actual psychology of living in the period and reacting to its demise.
The Belle Époque holds a special place in the modern imagination perhaps because a new Belle Époque occurred in Western Europe and North America exactly a century later in the 1970-2014 period, an era also characterized by faith in new technologies and a supposed “end of history.” This was probably most marked in the late 1980s and 1990s when triumphant Western capitalism could plausibly declare victory over the “Evil Empire”, and there was potential for further economic growth. Significantly, the mid 2010s are also characterized by the emergence of a strong cultural current of nostalgia, especially in connection to the aforementioned period.
But there’s also a clear affinity for the former iteration of our recent “beautiful era,” probably through similar psychological mechanisms.
There is a long list of recent historical, fictional, and biographical films set in the original Belle Époque (overlapping with the Edwardian era in Britain, 1901-1914), or film adaptations of the novels written by the subjects of these biopics: Colette, Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Joseph Conrad, Anatole France, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodore Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Nikola Tesla, Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust*,* numerous films about the lives of painters (Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Gaugin), Moulin Rouge, The Greatest Showman (based loosely on P.T. Barnum), Titanic, La Vie en Rose (about Edith Piaf), Gigi, Cheri (fiction set in the Belle Époque), 1900, numerous films about the Dreyfus Affair, and an HBO drama series entitled The Gilded Age (the American term for the Belle Époque coined by Mark Twain). The Age of Innocence was another film (and novel) with a title of interest because innocence may be a key to understanding the modern fascination with this era. In spite of the tragedies and social criticism depicted in these stories, they took place in an age of optimism, a long peace in which no one could imagine what was yet to happen in the trenches of The Great War or later in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. We have a certain amount of envy for this innocence, as long as we don’t imagine ourselves working in it as impoverished servants. It is a nostalgia for a time when the world made sense, when the basic guiding narratives of progress and a collective civilizational destiny were not only plausible, but seemingly also rewarded with new and unexpected fruits for every passing year.
This list of films could be much longer, and it raises other questions about why this era is such a profitable theme for the film industry. There are relatively fewer films about the period just before the Belle Époque — for example, when the US Civil War occurred and Europe was in constant upheaval as monarchies died a slow death and proletarian revolution roiled Germany and France (Les Misérables is an exception). There was plenty of drama in that era, too, but we seem to not want to go there. The stories of the Belle Époque are notable for being stories for and about the bourgeoisie. The spectators may not have the same social rank or rare beauty and talents as the protagonists, but they are close enough to find the stories inspirational and aspirational. Class struggle, international tensions and the horrors of colonialism are there, but they form the backgrounds of stories that are primarily biographies centered around art, literature, celebrity, love, marriage, and family. These are also fabulous stories in the eyes of a contemporary culture that is concerned with identity politics because the Belle Époque was the first time when intellectuals and writers started to write about sexuality and gender roles. Colette and Oscar Wilde receive well-deserved attention as pioneers who broke social taboos, but it is telling that Hollywood has never made a biopic about Vladimir Lenin — which is not to say that we are eager to see how it would portray his life story.
The spectacle’s preoccupation with this type of era reveals some key characteristics of modern integration propaganda narratives in general. Integration propaganda serves to reinforce our identification with the social order and strengthen our roles in it, so it plays on fundamental themes in the dominant meta-narratives of a society.1
Belle-époquisme as media phenomenon (distinct from the cultural characteristics of such an era) is best regarded as a certain sub-category of our legacy of triumphalist and progressivist narratives in general, such as those exemplified by US President Johnson’s Great Society (during the war against Vietnam), the Swedish post-war Folkhemmet, or the Jackson-era Manifest Destiny (during the genocide of indigenous people).
The belle-époquisme type of narrative differs from these more general examples of Western triumphalism in that it responds to a destabilization of the more general ideological framework. It serves to reaffirm the ostensibly hopeful trajectory at the roots of our society’s self-understanding in a situation where its ideological stability is threatened. The significant tinge of nostalgia in the recent iteration of this romantic supra-nationalism is an important indicator of values being perceived as under threat.
The exact same phenomenon was present in Nazi ideology invoking the loss of a past Aryan perfection towards establishing an aspirational outline of the future, and the connections to the recent revival of “traditionalism” in the West are many.
Somehow, violence is just below the surface of this set of stories, ostensibly reflecting our beautiful past.
And accordingly, the tragedy of the original Belle Époque was that the long peace contained many simmering conflicts and resentments that were leading to the catastrophe of 1914, yet few had wanted to pay attention to them. Much of the wealth of Europe was generated by the colonization of Africa that was formally established at the Berlin Conference in 1884. The pretext was, now that Europe had abolished slavery, that Europe was obliged to abolish Arab-Muslim slavery in Africa and bring civilization and free and fair trade to Africans.
Signs of trouble were clear to anyone who was paying attention to the efforts the European powers were making to avoid diplomatic isolation. These were largely too unpalatable for voters to be concerned with. The French military, diplomatic, and security establishment had an agenda it wanted to follow outside the watch of democratic institutions. It was still resentful over the loss to Germany in 1871 and thus carried out its own “cold war” planning for future conflict with Germany. Germany, Russia, France, and Britain were all looking for ways to avoid diplomatic isolation and to also undo the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in order to gain access to oil in the Middle East—the new gold of the 20th century.
Russia was the outcast that no one wanted to form an alliance with because it was still an autocracy too brutal for the refined sensibilities of “European democracy”, but it was too large to be ignored. France had strained relations with Russia for decades because of Napoleon I and later in the 1860s with Napoleon III after France, the Ottoman Empire, and Britain had defeated Russia in the in the Crimean War. (Note the echo of all this in Europe in 2023.) Nonetheless, to counter Germany, France made great efforts in the 1890s to renew economic and diplomatic ties with Russia. France also engaged in the famous secret diplomacy with Britain, which set the stage for The Great War of 1914-18 (No one called it WWI until WWII).
Now as then, Russia (and increasingly, China) plays the role of the foil in the story of Western supremacy and threatened utopian trajectory. It’s portrayed as a significant threat to “democracy” and Western values. Russia is painted as a significant threat to the transition to renewables, an obstacle to LGBTQ+ rights, and is even considered a significant source of a proliferation of racism, anti-Islamic sentiment, and antisemitism in Western societies. Similar sources of conflict pertaining to values and ethnicities were present in the run-up to WWI.
The fault lines of this period became clear during the Dreyfus Affair in France, a minor espionage scandal that grew into a major political scandal, lasting for twelve years from 1894 to 1906. Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling secrets about French artillery to Germany. After his first hasty trial, it became clear that the military trial had prosecuted the wrong man, but those responsible for the prosecution could not admit to the error. The scandal and the cover-up exposed racial, religious, and political divides that polite society had assumed no longer existed in this enlightened era. A virulent antisemitism came to the surface, as did the Republican-Monarchist (conservative-progressive, religious-secular) divides of a century before during the Revolution of the 1790s. The rapid changes of industrialization had also created winners and losers, and those left behind in this golden age reacted by directing their resentment and anger toward the “Jewish traitor.” Dreyfus was exonerated, but the real perpetrator was never pursued and those guilty of the cover-up also escaped prosecution. The crisis revealed that all was not well in the Belle Époque. It was a key moment when friendships and families started to split irreparably over differences in political opinion. It was no longer so easy to enjoy a carefree evening with friends at the Folies Bergère.2
In Britain, similar contradictions were revealed by the ferocious activism of Edmund Morel against Belgian King Leopold’s private colony in Congo. Several missionaries and journalists had begun this work before Morel, but Morel transformed the movement against Leopold into a force that moved the British government to act in its relations with Belgium. The campaign also spread to the United States and other nations in Europe. It was riven with its own contradictions because all the nations protesting King Leopold’s enterprise were committing their own atrocities against indigenous people in various parts of the globe. This was an era when racial supremacy was taken for granted and discussed explicitly, without shame, as was the need to confront the “yellow peril” (a term coined in 1897) and preserve the supremacy of the white race.
The atrocities in the Congo surpassed all others committed by imperial powers. Thus, King Leopold’s crimes gave the other colonizers a sense of superiority. In these contradictions a cause of the Great War is clear. Each colonial power wished to see itself as more righteous than the others — an obvious psychological defense mechanism that was necessary to avoid admission of their own brutality. This eventually led the European powers to turn on each other. The logic of racial hierarchy implied that if Europeans were superior to Africans, then the British were superior to the Germans, or vice versa. Pankaj Mishra summarized the situation in 1914 in an essay published for Remembrance Day in 2017:
The first world war, in fact, marked the moment when the violent legacies of imperialism in Asia and Africa returned home, exploding into self-destructive carnage in Europe … we should recall what Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism … that it was Europeans who initially reordered “humanity into master and slave races” during their conquest and exploitation of much of Asia, Africa and America… the extreme, lawless and often gratuitous violence of modern imperialism eventually boomeranged on its originators … The Indian writer Aurobindo Ghose was one among many anticolonial thinkers who predicted, even before the outbreak of war, that “vaunting, aggressive, dominant Europe” was already under “a sentence of death,” awaiting “annihilation” — much as Liang Qichao could see, in 1918, that the war would prove to be a bridge connecting Europe’s past of imperial violence to its future of merciless fratricide.3
By 1909, Belgium had taken Congo away from Leopold and put it under legislative control. Congo became a regular European colony, with just the usual level of injustices, but at least now Congolese children didn’t have their hands chopped off for the crime of not gathering their quota of rubber.
One of the limitations of the activists’ campaign for Africans was that they took literally the promise of colonialism that Africans would be enlightened while being allowed to engage in free trade. This meant, ideally, that they would be allowed to sell rubber and cocoa if they chose to and if the price made the effort worthwhile for them — if it was worth giving up their traditional way of life. It was a naïve conception that couldn’t be realized in Congo or anywhere else in Africa. The noble intentions were countered in an 1899 poem by Wilfred Scawen Blunt in which the devil tells God, “The white man’s burden, Lord, is the burden of his cash.”
In a sense, this shows us how deeply the penetration of the progressivist meta-narrative has reached, and how even criticism of imperialism’s excesses is tinged with a belief in the fundamental integrity of the Enlightenment ideals. The reformers’ efforts are effectively circumscribed by the tacit assumption that we really only need to clear the path for progress and democracy to unfold on their own.
By this framing of the situation, an effective structural critique gets undermined, and potentially subversive forces become sanitized, reduced to indirect supporters of the system. More radical and straightforward approaches get cordoned off and portrayed as too excessive.
While the Dreyfus Affair exposed the tensions boiling over in France, Morel’s activities in Britain did the same. With his supporters and his high profile in the media, he was a force that elected politicians and the foreign ministry had to reckon with, and he criticized them relentlessly. Before the war and after it started, he was a critic of the secret diplomacy between France and Britain (the Entente Cordiale) that led to war, and afterwards he saw that the reparations imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty would lead to a future catastrophe. During the war, respect and admiration for him had vanished as the country was swept up in pro-war fever. He was soon imprisoned for the minor treason of having sent “anti-war” literature to neutral nations. Nonetheless, he became a prominent member of parliament for the Labour Party after the war. Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold’s Ghost, describes the shift in Morel’s fortunes when he became a critic of the war:
Morel was among the handful of people on either side in Europe who said openly that the war was madness. Through a series of treaties kept secret from the public and Parliament, he argued, Britain had become caught up in a needless cataclysm. He was not a pacifist; he said he would fight if Britain were attacked, but it had not been. He was asked to resign his position as Parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party. With a small, beleaguered group of like-minded men and women, Morel formed the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), which quickly became the main voice of antiwar dissent in England. UDC activists found that their mail was being opened by Scotland Yard and their telephone calls tapped. Mobs broke up their meetings … Before long, no one in London would rent the UDC a meeting hall. On all sides, former admirers deserted Morel. When one old journal friend, now in uniform, deigned to greet him in the street, Morel was so moved that he wept, saying, “I did not think anyone would speak to me now.” … Of one of the works Morel managed to get published while enduring all this, Ten Years of Secret Diplomacy, the historian A.P. Taylor writes, “All the later studies of ‘war-origins’ stem from [it] … the interwar historians were … cut from his cloak … Morel caused more than a change of method; he caused a change of outlook.” Today we see so clearly that the more than 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded of World War I were a needless, avoidable tragedy that we forget how few people had the courage to call it that at the time.4
Hochschild also quotes Bertrand Russell’s assessment of Morel at this time:
“The War of 1914-1918 changed everything for me …” writes Bertrand Russell, another man who boldly challenged the chauvinist fever. “I lost old friends and made new ones. I came to know some few people whom I could deeply admire, first among whom I should place E. D. Morel … With untiring energy and immense ability in the face of all the obstacles of propaganda and censorship, he did what he could to enlighten the British nation as to the true purposes for which the Government was driving the young men to the shambles. More than any other opponent of the War he was attacked by politicians and the press… In spite of all this his courage never failed.” Russell declared of Morel, “No other man known to me has had the same heroic simplicity in pursuing and proclaiming political truth.”5
An essay by Catherine Cline on Morel’s work in the pre-war period describes his criticism of foreign policy. It is remarkable in its timelessness. It could apply just as well to the US State Department and other agencies of the permanent security state in the 21st century:
The foreign office was an aristocratic preserve “closed to men of brains, education and intelligence” who were without wealth or the proper connections. This diplomatic “caste” had a narrow conception of the national interest. The mystique surrounding its functions allowed it to pursue its intrigues in secrecy. Its close ties with the newspapers enabled it to manipulate public opinion in times of crisis and then excuse its belligerent actions on the grounds of the public pressures which it had itself generated. This suspicion of professional diplomacy was by no means original, and Morel’s proposals for reform, which ranged from a more direct parliamentary control of foreign policy through a “democratization” of the foreign office to a strengthening of the consular, as opposed to the diplomatic, service were vague and perfunctory. His timing, however, was excellent. The outbreak of the war two years later seemed a vindication of the passionate warnings he had so recently voiced.6
In one of his final essays, Morel wrote in 1924:
The “Foreign Office” as the nation is content to tolerate it with the occultism and secrecy which surround it, its mysterious links with the Secret Service, the newspapers and “society,” and its uncontrolled disposal of Secret Service funds, is an increasing menace to Democratic Government, a permanent obstacle to the effective control of foreign policy.7
Catherine Cline notes in her essay that these criticisms of the foreign office had an impact. They led to legislators and ministers becoming more assertive in diplomacy, but she notes this approach also had its flaws because the elected officials were unprepared and acting on political pressures. She cites as an example Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous diplomacy with Germany in the 1930s.
The hardening of ideological fault lines and orthodoxies and the tendencies towards an exclusion of dissidents also implies a preclusion of potentially disruptive competence.
Inventive thinkers adept at addressing unbounded problems, which generally also hold unorthodox positions, are dissuaded from taking up positions in the power structure. This also deprives society of the quick-witted and resourceful managerial subgroup that’s invaluable in a crisis.
Society’s attachment to the fundamental progressivist mythology essentially functions as an ideological state apparatus at the macro-level. It affords us a more or less stable meta-narrative structure whose purpose is to facilitate the reproduction of the relations of production and the citizens’ roles in society. The story about progress is the main shared narrative about the general societal trajectory, its history and legitimate authority, and belle-époquisme is a special manifestation of this narrative, emerging in a context of structural challenges.
Indeed, the fragility and falsifiability of a meta-narrative predicated on the promise of a worldly utopia has the peculiar feature of creating a market for its own apologetics.
The fact that the meta-narrative is unstable brings with it a need for the constant renewal of supporting propaganda. This may well serve to bolster the mass media and entertainment apparatus since there is a consumer demand for confirming and reassuring stories. In synergy with other factors, such as the general loss of literacy and inventive critical thinking, such demand likely underwrites phenomena such as the black and white “Disney narratives” manifesting in a sort of exceptionalist “civilizational jingoism,” reaffirming Western supremacism, scientism, and the myth of progress.
But the downside of this narrative fragility is the inevitable cognitive dissonance arising from the sharp contrast between ideals and the actual reality of unfulfilled promises, particularly in a situation of significant structural challenges.
And it’s precisely within the space of such a cognitive dissonance that profound shifts in the collective consciousness may occur.
This dissonant feature of belle-époquisme is expressed effectively in Chris Hedges’ writing on Marcel Proust’s classic novel, In Search of Lost Time, and in an interview he conducted with a Proust scholar, Justin Smith, when the latter explained:
In the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, it’s the ravages of WWI that are recounted and that really make us understand what it means for the things we value to slip into the past and for our world to collapse … Throughout the previous six volumes, there are the gentler ravages of time with la Berma [former star of the stage] getting old and wrinkly and several little deaths of falling out of love with the people he had at least thought he was in love with … and the unsolicited memories that come back to us to make us realize what’s been lost. But nothing makes it clearer than his ghost-like stalking throughout Paris when there are curfews because of the air raids and his sense that everything is really in the past, and of course Proust, not the narrator, during WWI already had a sharp sense of his declining health and his own near-ghost status already … There is a very slow build-up where you only realize little by little the full depth or the full awesomeness of the themes he is exploring.8
These excerpts below from Hedges’ essay further describe how Proust’s novel was much more than just a self-indulgent, sentimental tale set in La Belle Époque:
The specter of death and the expiring world of La Belle Époque haunts Proust’s work …
The pedestals the powerful and the famous stand upon — and believe are immovable — disintegrate, leaving them like King Lear, naked on the heath. When Swann denounces the persecution of the Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of treason, he becomes a nonperson and, along with other “Dreyfusards,” is blacklisted. Émile Zola, France’s most famous novelist at the time, was forced into exile because he defended Dreyfus.
“For the instinct of imitation and absence of courage govern society and the mob alike,” Proust notes. “And we all of us laugh as a person at whom we see being made fun of, though it does not prevent us from venerating him ten years later in a circle where he is admired.”
… Proust chronicles the poisonous effects of World War I on French society, embodied by the hostess Mme. Verdurin, who uses the war to elevate her social prestige while the suicidal tactics of French generals lead to six million casualties, including 1.4 million dead and 4.2 million wounded, along with numerous army mutinies. Generals and war ministers are celebrities. Artists are reviled or ignored, unless they produce wartime kitsch. Women adorn themselves in “rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75-millimeter ammunition.” The rich, bursting with patriotism, while sacrificing little, busy themselves with charities for the soldiers at the front, benefit performances and afternoon tea parties. Wartime clichés, amplified by the press, are mindlessly parroted by the public. “For the idiocy of the times caused people to pride themselves on using the expressions of the times,” Proust notes. The war eradicates the demarcation between civilians and the military. It degrades language and culture. It fuels a toxic nationalism. It ushers in the modern era of industrial war where nations turn their resources over to the military and, with it, outsized political and social power. The war, the backdrop of the final chapter, signals the end of La Belle Époque …
Enemies embody evil not solely because of the acts they commit but because of their intrinsic nature. Eradicating evil, therefore, requires the eradication of all those infected with vice. The only way to survive is to renounce and hide your essence … These mutations, Proust warned, turn the blessed and the damned into caricatures easily manipulated by demagogues and the mob …
But because Proust expects so little from us, he extends pity, compassion, and forgiveness to even the most loathsome of his characters, as they fade away at the end of the novel in a danse macabre … Proust reminds us of who we are and who we are to become. Lifting the veil on our pretensions, he calls us to see ourselves in our neighbor. By immortalizing his vanished world, Proust exposes, and makes sacred, the vanishing world around us.9
It is easy to draw parallels between then and now, though it might be difficult to say just when perceptive people started to become like Proust in his “ghost-like stalking throughout Paris” during the war. Some might say the illusions vanished in 2001 when the US launched the War on Terror, but that war had a broad popular consensus behind it, with the two parties differing only on minor details. Life in America went on basically as it did before. The Barack Obama presidency restored illusions of American grandeur and a sense of self-righteousness for a few years. We would place the moment of “change we can believe in” in the year 2014, exactly a century after the outbreak of WWI, when the Obama Administration carried out its overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
The project of turning Ukraine into a virulently anti-Russian American neo-colonial outpost had been in the works for many years, and the coup made it a reality. It would not have happened without American support, and the new regime could not have ruled without recognition by the US as the legitimate government of Ukraine. This was the moment when the war on terror ended and the anti-Russia hysteria took hold and gave the political establishment a mass mental breakdown. Donald Trump demolished the Republican Party, after which his opponents began to suffer from “Trump derangement syndrome” when he actually won the presidency against all expectations. The outrageous conspiracy theories and exaggerations about his presidency proved that the Washington establishment had no desire to offer solutions for the nation’s deep systemic problems.
The next phase of the war involved the destruction of the economy and social bonds through pandemic lockdowns, fearmongering, and the criminal vaccine mandates that turned citizens against one another. Ironically, Chris Hedges (and many other critics of US imperialism) has had nothing to say about these matters, even though he has commented often on the opioid crisis and the corruption of the Food and Drug Administration that led to approval of Purdue Pharma’s opioid OxyContin. Criticism and skepticism were not directed toward Pfizer and Moderna while a massive propaganda campaign for their products was unleashed throughout the world. Chris Hedges has written so emphatically about the crimes of the military industrial complex (MIC), but has failed to see how the bio-terror programs of the security state have merged with the MIC and bred corruption and criminality in the agencies that are supposed to safeguard public health. Interestingly, he also supports the official narrative about what happened in the American version of the Dreyfus Affair, what the French might call l’Affaire Oswald.
Those who didn’t go along with “Russiagate,” the draconian pandemic response, and the Ukraine operation now find themselves feeling like Morel and Proust during the war years. The Proustian danse macabre is now performed by celebrities such as Bono and Sean Penn during their visits to Kiev, and we are aghast to realize the moral hollowness of many of the artistic talents we once revered. A valuable but disappointing lesson has been learned during the abandonment and betrayal by those we thought might defend the wisdom of following the sound, long-established policies for protecting public health during a viral pandemic. We thought that any artist who ever wrote a protest song (Sunday Bloody Sunday, for example) might be able to call out the lie about Russia’s “unprovoked” aggression. Instead, they all kissed the feet of Zelensky.
It is not as if celebrities and artists could not have known better. If they can read scripts and write song lyrics, one can assume they have basic intelligence and reading ability. There have been numerous books and feature-length film documentaries describing the way Ukraine has been used by Western powers since the 1920s to weaken Russia.10 The nations of the NATO alliance destabilized Ukraine, overthrew its government in 2014, fomented racial hatred of Russians, backed a civil war against Russian-speaking minorities, armed and trained the Ukraine military — turning it into a de facto NATO member — then finally provoked Russia into neutralizing the threat on its border — which was NATO’s goal all along. NATO did all this without putting itself in a state of war. 2014 is not nearly the same as 1914 when millions of Europeans were being sent to die in trenches. In this century, NATO has pulled off the “magnificent feat” of pursuing its strategic goals (applauded by several American Congressmen) by sending only Ukrainian youth to die in trenches — estimated to be as many as 400,000 as of this writing. The destruction felt within NATO, the hallucinatory twilight of our Belle Époque, is the economic and social self-destruction being imposed to pursue geopolitical goals against Russia and China.
This war has to be a slow, low-intensity war, waged more in the economic and propaganda spheres than on the battlefield, probably because escalation to nuclear war must be avoided. NATO hopes to degrade Russia slowly over many years, perhaps long after its Ukraine project has outlived its usefulness. Those who protest against it face all the derision and isolation felt by Edmund Morel and Bertrand Russell a century earlier.
While the ground war proceeds slowly, the information war moves much faster than it did a century ago, and consequently, NATO may lose control of the narrative much more quickly than the imperial powers did in WWI. Edmund Morel was vindicated after the war, but Jeffrey Sachs, John Mearsheimer, Clare Daly and numerous other high-profile voices of dissent are being vindicated in real time as the war is underway. NATO tried to cripple Russia with sanctions, but the Russian economy proved resilient and, surprisingly, two thirds of the world (Africa, South America, the Middle East and South Asia) have refused to support NATO. Within NATO, there are millions of citizens who, after eighteen months of war, are becoming appalled by the economic devastation at home and balking at the absurd sums of money being sent to Ukraine. Ukraine seems to be the new de facto 51st American state with the exorbitant privilege of having its entire government budget paid by all the other states. Polls show now that more than 50% of Americans are opposed to more money being sent to Ukraine.11 Dissidents quickly interact with their counterparts all over the world, with volunteers reporting and translating across barriers that used to be much higher. Despite the tremendous efforts governments have taken to control social media, they continually fail at this game of whack-a-mole.
The truth may prevail much more quickly than it did a century ago. The emergence of BRICS and a multi-polar order can be conceived as this century’s version of the Bolshevik Revolution — not in terms of its ideological substance but in its impact as a radical change in the balance of power that the US empire did not see coming.
Our collective prejudices and the thorough ideologization of Western society will tend to preclude sensible and balanced approaches to this major process of change. It will take a profound collective metanoia, a fundamental change of mind and reconstruction of our basic outlook on the world and our place in it, to really come to grips with our new reality.
Hopefully, dissident voices employing the structural cognitive dissonance inherent in the fragility of our increasingly obsolete meta-narratives can bring us a part of the way towards this important goal. Nonetheless, there’s a certain sense in which the West’s almost unhinged belief in its own superiority and righteousness, inflamed by the sense of its own impending demise, has already begun pushing the historical processes towards a carnage which certainly would rival that of a century ago.
- Jacques Ellul, Propaganda and the Formation of Men’s Attitudes (Vintage Books, 1962), Chapter 1 Part 3.
- Jean-Denis Bredin, L’Affaire (Plunkett Lake Press, 1993, 2014).
- Pankaj Mishra, “How Colonial Violence Came Home: the Ugly Truth of the First World War,” The Guardian, November 10, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/10/how-colonial-violence-came-home-the-ugly-truth-of-the-first-world-war
- Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Mariner Books, 1999) pages 286-291. The documentary film based on this book is accessible free of cost: https://youtu.be/8tSi4EZn-Kg (1:42:53).
- Catherine Ann Cline, “E. D. Morel and the Crusade against the Foreign Office.” The Journal of Modern History 39, no. 2 (1967): 126–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1877461
- E. D. Morel, “The Foreign Office and the Zinovieff Letter,” Forward, Nov. 15, 1924.
- The Chris Hedges Report with Justin E. H. Smith on Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, 5:05~ https://chrishedges.substack.com/p/the-chris-hedges-report-with-justin#details
- Chris Hedges, “Reading Proust in War,” Scheerpost, November 22, 2022. https://scheerpost.com/2022/11/20/chris-hedges-reading-proust-in-war/
- Douglas Valentine, The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World (Clarity Press, 2016), Chapter 9. See also Benjamin Abelow, How the West Brought War to Ukraine (Siland Press, 2022), Oliver Stone’s Ukraine on Fire (Cinema Libre, 2017), or the following article by French historian Annie Lacroix-Riz: Robin Delobel (Interviewer), « Annie Lacroix-Riz : Il y a un contexte historique qui explique que la Russie était acculée » (“There is a Historical Context that Shows that Russia was Backed into a Corner”), Investig’Action, March 28, 2022. https://www.investigaction.net/fr/annie-lacroix-riz-il-y-a-un-contexte-historique-qui-explique-que-la-russie-etait-acculee/
- Jennifer Agiesta, “CNN Poll: Majority of Americans oppose more US aid for Ukraine in war with Russia,” CNN, August 4, 2023. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/04/politics/cnn-poll-ukraine/index.html
(Featured Image: “Obama Addresses the Crowd” by GoOregonDemocrats is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)