The Limits of Moralism. On the War in Ukraine and the Debt Crisis in Argentina

On universal principles

In this article I want to address the phenomenon of “moralism”. In particular, I am interested in moralism in politics and in academic and intellectual life. To articulate my argument, I will use as illustrations the two circumstances I have discussed in my previous articles: the war in Ukraine, and the debt crisis in Argentina today.

Let us begin by defining moralism. I owe the definition to Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in his most recent work, “Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity”, points out that moralism revolves around an understanding of obligation that requires the adoption of an impersonal and universal perspective that challenges everyone equally and is therefore hypothetically inescapable. MacIntyre states:

“The demands imposed by its principles are imperative and consistent, both as principles and in their application to particular cases. To violate them is to incur the guilt of right-minded agents” [1].

Moralism, therefore, is founded on the certainty, in the first place, that there are universal principles, but this is coupled with a characterisation of these principles that is highly problematic: these principles are impersonal, and it follows that no one can escape them. The obligation they impose on agents is absolute. When they are breached, they merit unrestrained reprobation by those who have an aligned (decent) mindset in relation to these impersonal principles.

International law and human rights

The war in Ukraine and the way in which that we call “the West” is reacting is an obvious example of this kind of exacerbated moralism. It is clear that Russian troops are perpetrating enormous and unjustifiable suffering on the Ukrainian population. It is clear that Putin’s decision to invade the neighbouring country violates international law and that the invasion, unsurprisingly, entails the inescapable violation of human rights. That much is clear.

The problem, however, is that Putin’s behaviour, and the way Russian troops have acted on the ground, is in no way different from similar actions by NATO and the United States in other theatres of war in recent history. These actions can also be characterised as systematic violations of international law and human rights.

In this context, the indignant denunciation by the Western press is doubly uncomfortable, because its arguments against Russia call the United States and the European Union itself into question.

By now, we all know that the United States and NATO systematically violate international law and human rights when their geopolitical or economic interests require it and circumstances permit.

The same is true of the principles of “free trade”, the third institutional pillar of the existing order. Through international agencies, or as a result of military interventions, weaker states are forced to open their markets, modify their legal orders to accommodate foreign interests, adjust economies to secure corporate windfall profits achieved through indebtedness and unfair competition.

However, neither the opening of “our markets”, “nor the inviolability of property rights”, “nor the obligation to pay our debts or honour contractual commitments” are imperative when such obligations are not aligned with “our interests”.

It is worth asking what role our moral judgements play when we consider the evident arbitrariness and partiality on which they are based. Moral indignation, as exercised in the Western public sphere, is the privileged weapon we use to disregard the underlying device that explains our present circumstances.

Or, to put it another way, without moral indignation, the United States and Europe must simply recognise that Russia is acting according to the rules of the game that they themselves have imposed on the world since the fall of the Soviet empire, by establishing the then so-called “new order of globalisation”. In that context one could distinguish, on the one hand, “decent” states – those that accepted the written and unwritten rules of the new world order; and on the other hand, “rogue” states, those that gave themselves licence to act in disregard of the “unwritten rules” of the new world order.

What are these unwritten rules? The most important of all in this context is that universal and impersonal rights that hypothetically bind everyone equally can, in certain circumstances (usually defined in terms of geopolitical interests or security) be violated by “us”, without this implying that we can be equated with the so-called “rogue states”.

So, while the rest of humanity must be condemned in the most rigorous terms and subjected to the strictest sanctions, or even legitimately intervened and razed to the ground if the case demands it, the United States, the European Union and its closest partners on five continents can claim exceptions to the absolute obligation imposed by international law, universal human rights principles, and the supposed “natural rights” of free market.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine merely replicates the logic of exceptionality invoked by Western states when acting in their own ‘backyards’. That Russia has broken international law and human rights is beyond doubt. What is surprising is the moralism with which the systematic violators of international law and human rights respond to these facts.

This is explained, however, when we realise that moralism is an effective device for sparing us the difficult and inconvenient task of having to deal with the underlying problem. It is not a question here of deciding who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this film. On the contrary, what we have to decide here is how to explain de facto our international relations.

The truth is that neither international law, arrogantly and violently imposed by the US empire and the European Union since 1991, nor human rights, whose myth has hegemonised our post-modern culture, have succeeded in putting a stop to the hardships caused by the many wars we have waged to ensure our security and well-being, or the “humanitarian wars” we have waged to correct our sins. The crisis of international law and human rights should not be explained as a lack of political will to conform to such principles, but rather the moralistic claim that there are truly universal and impersonal principles on which we can base our relations with others, regardless of the concrete and personal situations of power that articulate those relations.

Beyond liberalism and Peronist “social democracy”.

Something similar is happening in Argentina today. The “liberal model” embodied, strangely enough, by both the neo-liberal right and Argentine social democracy – both Peronism and anti-Peronism – is manifested in the internal crisis that the electoral front that brought Alberto Fernández to the presidency is currently experiencing. The response offered by the actors in this crisis has clearly moralistic characteristics. Both adjust their claims and accusations to the counterpart in the dispute by alluding to opposing universal and impersonal criteria that make understanding impossible. For example, both accept liberal, republican principles of government in universalistic and impersonal terms, and dispute in the public arena on the basis of these criteria how each other’s behaviour conforms to these principles.

To this lack of understanding, and to the electoral implications that it implies, the pro-government media (aligned with the current government) responds with a demand similar to the one that the newspapers La Nación and Clarín imposed on the governing force presided over by Mauricio Macri: “Come to an agreement”. This implies that what divides the waters are exclusively issues of a “personal” nature, in the pejorative sense of the term, when the agreement should be on universal and impersonal issues that moralism imposes as the real thing.

The problem, however, is that we are not talking about a purely circumstantial aspect. The contradiction is not merely rhetorical, but is a contradiction in res, in the thing itself. The liberal-social-democratic model has come to an end. It can no longer be renewed in the imaginary terms that previous crises still made it possible to articulate by means of ad hoc corrections. We are facing a terminal crisis of the governance model in all dimensions of our social, political and ecological life.

However, beyond these conflicting models, what is at stake is the alternative between two positions which, although blurred in the visible political debate, are what determine the real background of the current dispute.

On the one hand, we observe a growing tendency of the citizenry towards authoritarian imaginaries, based, (1) either on the defence at all costs of the inherent logic imposed by capital, i.e. guaranteeing in this way the already acquired privileges of the well-off sectors of society, (2) or through the belligerent attack by a citizenry that expresses the weariness and frustration of the multiple crises experienced in recent years by adopting an anti-political drift (against political representation in use) and opting instead for an apparent oxymoron: “an anarchism with an iron fist”.

The confluence of these two tendencies in the universe represented by Juntos por el Cambio achieves the longed-for effect of right-wing populism: uniting the rich and the poor in a crusade that will make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer, but with the compensatory satisfaction of being able to crush those who are closest to them in the current class stratification, and who therefore represent the mirror that frightens them: the mirror of exclusion.

This explains, to a large extent, the insistence, on the part of those who resist this neoliberal and neo-fascist drift, that it is indispensable for a genuine and sustainable transformation to modify the “hardware” on which the “software” of cultural and political life is articulated. This hardware is composed, as Hayek or von Mises, in the transparency of their militant writings, as well as Marx in his political work, taught us, of a legal-institutional structure based on the hyper-individualistic and instrumentalist moral order that is the background of modernity. This is accompanied by a bellicose rejection of any substantive notion of community. Or, in other words, by the defence of an atomistic conception of the social order that prevents the introduction, even in a corrective way, of a horizon in which the “common good” can be considered. This is for the simple reason that the aim is to avoid any obstacle to the flow of capital through its cycles of production, circulation and realisation.

In the face of this complex and schizophrenic alternative, which brings together the staunch defenders of capitalism and the most radicalised sectors that embody authoritarianism and an iron fist, there are other sectors of the population that nurture the hope of a genuine democracy, that is, a people’s democracy that is not continually undermined by the “democracy of the markets” (in which decisions are not made by the voters, but by the combined will of the big shareholders and speculators) [2]. This sector of the population imagines, in one way or another, that it is possible to recover what we call “the commons”.

The so-called dispute for “the table of the Argentines”, that is, for the bread, the land and the work of the Argentines, is the way in which this hope to recover what is considered to belong to everyone is expressed in our country.

In this context, the Frente de todos, like Juntos por el Cambio, face the same irresolvable tension that saw their birth. If Resolution 125/08 (Draft Law on Retentions and Creation of the Social Redistribution Fund, presented in 2008) symbolised the high point of this dispute during the government of Cristina Fernández, the mediocre response of Alberto Fernández’s government to the social crisis that Argentina is currently experiencing, and its unconditional surrender to the IMF and the corporations operating in the country, show where the crux of the problem we face lies.

In this framework, the important thing is to leave moralism aside and see clearly the scenario in which we are moving. If we do so, we will discover that, under the charade of the struggle over possibilism, political will, or governability, we are faced with circumstances that can have a tragic outcome.

In the present framework there is no longer room for compromise. We need a new framework so that a “genuine democratic compromise” can be established. We are now facing a fratricidal, multidimensional war, the outcome of which, according to the inherent logic of the present dispensation, will only lead to the life and plus-life of the victors and the sub-life or death of the defeated. It is all or nothing. The alternative to this ominous scenario, of which we already had a foretaste during the previous government of Mauricio Macri, is to build a new framework and live under the logic of a new design.

There are those who will argue, perhaps sardonically, that it is time for political realism, and therefore defend the national government tooth and nail, despite its inefficiency and mannerisms. Others rightly point out that objective conditions do not allow such an alternative to be imagined. The problem with this “defeatism of the imagination” is that neither official biology nor orthodox economics are on our side. We live in a Darwinist and neoliberal order that laughs at our egalitarian aspirations and our yearnings to move towards the common good [3].

Now, beyond the discussion about the viability or otherwise of a genuinely alternative project, based on a “radicalisation of democracy” and the “vindication of the commons”, there is only nothingness. An immense nothingness. Death and nothingness.

This nothingness must be countered by more than mere hope. We cannot sit back and wait for time to prove us right. We must have faith. Faith, unlike hope, is action: that which moves mountains.