How do we think about truth in relation to this war? The first thing is the hard data: the lives cut short, the deaths, the refugees, the fear, the hostilities, that which we call “objective reality” in its “superficial”, apparent, immediate dimension.
Then we have the “subjective reality”, that which we think is happening when we observe reality in its superficial dimension, that which, we interpret, is hidden under the immediacy of the bare facts.
Now, what is the link between objective reality and subjective reality? In our age of marketing, propaganda, post-truth, as some call it, this link seems to be broken. For that reason, there is an urgency to think once again about truth, to be able to tell reality and act in it. That is the genuine vocation of the philosopher. As Marx taught us, it is not about interpreting the world, but about transforming it.
In this article I want to explore briefly four dimensions of reality, from which it is possible to formulate four approaches to truth that, together, offer us a path or itinerary for its full realisation.
Let us begin with the “superficial” dimension of reality to which we referred in the introduction. The term “superficial” should not confuse us. Here superficiality refers to that which is immediately accessible through our senses and our consciousness, that which presents itself in an unambiguous way before us and which we call, in general, the “objective facts”.
Therefore, we do not speak of superficiality in a derogatory way. Here “superficial” is not synonymous with “frivolous”. The superficial is the concrete-immediate, that which is undeniably the starting and finishing point of any serious reflection on what is real in itself. Here, war is, before anything else, “that great and merciless monster” that eats human lives, destroying everything in its path.
However, the immediate-concrete demands explanations if we are to have genuine understanding. We need to know, for example, how we got here, how we went from what we call “peace” to that other thing we call the abominable “war”. It is not easy to decide.
When did the conflict start, when Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border? But then, what was there before the invasion – peace? It does not seem serious to put it that way if one looks at recent history.
On the other hand, who are the ones fighting on the battlefield? The Russians, of course, also the Ukrainians. But what role do other powers or organisations play? For example, the United States, the European Union, NATO, China, India, Iran, and the rest of the world’s states, who, through their governments, have not been able and cannot remain oblivious to the danger that threatens us all.
But, in addition, these names are said or established on the basis of often antagonistic diversities. It is said and expected, for example, that the Russian opposition will confront Putin’s government, and even force its overthrow. In the United States, Trump’s words are calling into question Biden’s Democratic government, and dissenting voices are multiplying, although the vast majority would support a new warlike enterprise. There is not one European Union, but many, and they are at odds with each other. Germany and Poland have conflicting interests, as does France with its Eastern European members. The same is true for each and every one of the other configurations we call states.
Thus, when serious political and international analysts focus on war, they “quarter” our immediate perception of the conflict. At this level, if we are not engaging in propaganda, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are unevenly distributed on the political stage.
Behind the battlefield where real people suffer the miseries of war, there is a complexity of particularities and competing interests that makes the problem intractable and explains the outcome of hostilities. It is precisely the impossibility of resolving the contradictions between the many parties that ultimately lead to a violent resolution. It is to this dimension of reality that a type of truth I will call “relative” refers.
The third dimension I will call “deep”. Here the key is not to be found in the discriminative analysis of what con-forms that apparently chaotic mass that war is when we learn it superficially. As we have seen, there are competing blocs, which in turn articulate or mesh in complex and contradictory ways. In the early days, for example, everything was odes to the unity of the “free” against the new expression of the “evil empire”. After ten days, the contradictions and the clashes of interests between the allied powers have become transparent.
What we focus on in this third dimension, however, is the energy or power (Kraft) that mobilises the causal process that crystallises in the war. That is, the background, usually tacit, unnamed in the official narrative, that ultimately explains all these movements leading to the eruption of hostilities.
Obviously, behind it is life itself, the will to live, pathologically converted into the will to dominate. However, in our time, this will to domination manifests itself in its most extreme and hegemonic form in the will to exploitation and domination by capital, which establishes the system of social and ecological relations within which we live our concrete and immediate existence: capitalism. Let me quote David Foster Wallace’s text to illustrate my point:
Two fish are swimming alongside each other when they come across an older fish swimming in the opposite direction, who greets them and says, “Good morning boys How’s the water?” The fish keep swimming until after a while one turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is the water?”
Capitalism is the water we live in. It is a class system, which is also articulated through racial, sexual, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, based on the exploitation of the immense majorities of the planetary population, and the systematic dispossession and appropriation of the common goods of humanity by a minority, which is also indifferent to the perverse effects that the indiscriminate extraction of natural resources and the free disposal of the waste produced by its productive activity has on the collective well-being of humanity and the rest of the beings that inhabit the planet. The result of the capitalist system is there for all to see. Its emblems are war, poverty and environmental destruction.
A few days ago, in the city of Buenos Aires, in one of its wealthy neighbourhoods, Palermo, six young men raped a 20-year-old girl in a car, in broad daylight. The Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, referred to the accused gang rapes in a tweet as follows:
It’s your brother, your neighbour, your dad, your son, your friend, your co-worker. He’s not a beast, he’s not an animal, he’s not a herd and his instincts are not irrepressible. None of the events that horrify us are isolated. Each and every one responds to the same cultural matrix.
And hours later, in a television interview, she pointed out:
These are not isolated facts, nor are they facts that are linked to people, men, with any particular problem […] We grew up and were socialised on the basis of a masculinity that teaches us that men have the right to decide, alone or in groups, over the bodies of women and LGBTI+ people like someone who disposes of a property or a thing.
The president of the main opposition political party immediately called for the minister’s resignation, accusing her of justifying the crime. According to Patricia Bullrich, establishing a link between the macho cultural background and gang rape necessarily implies undermining our moral order based on individual autonomy, in which each person responds freely, rather than predetermined by culture.
The conclusion is transparent. There is no connection or link between the rape of young people and our macho culture. So the only explanatory alternative left is “monstrosity”, in the sense of anomaly and exceptionality. The crime must not call into question our current course, our existing order. The conservative perspective, in this sense, prevents any systemic transformation.
Let us return to the war in Ukraine. On the subjective, superficial level, the war is reduced to its immediate consequences: pain, death, destruction, and its perpetrator: Vladimir Putin, whom the Western political and media establishment labels a “monster”. This explains the widespread dissemination of biographical and psychological portraits of the Russian leader as the ultimate explanation for the hostilities.
On the objective, relative level, the war can be explained in a complex geopolitical context that precedes it: a commercial, technological, financial, cultural and territorial war involving a declining empire, the United States, a rising power, China, a repeatedly humiliated and cornered one, Russia, and a European Union imprisoned by its past vacillations, an internationally inoperative institutional bureaucracy, and a cross-dependence on the United States (military dependence) and Russia (energy and trade dependence). Ukraine is the arena where one battle of this global war is being fought.
Obviously, at this level of analysis, the war cannot be understood as the capricious outcome of the character of a political leader like Putin. What is at stake here are structural logics of the current global geopolitical order, in which powers run up against limits that are finally settled violently, producing all sorts of consequences in the existing order, just as the financial crisis is the result of inherent contradictions that end, at the climax of their evolution, in instances of mass destruction that push entire peoples into misery in order to reconfigure new orders of accumulation.
As various analysts have pointed out, the model we are leaving behind is the one announced by George Bush in 1991 – the unipolar world order in which the United States had an undisputed hegemonic place. First Donald Trump, and now Vladimir Putin are the heralds of the new multipolar world order in which rising powers claim recognition and try to fix their zones of influence.
In this case, we can no longer speak of war as an anomaly. There is, as Žižek would say, no such thing as a zero degree of violence, peace, which is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary action of an agent, which takes us into a war scenario. Only in the landscape offered by the subjective perspective is the transition between peace and war perceived in absolute terms, as a radical break. From the objective perspective, there is a palpable continuity, in a process whose milestones are visible and documented. In the case we are analysing, the chronology of events shows that the start of hostilities was not only long foretold, but long preceded the moment of the invasion, as evidenced by the events of 2014 and the civil war within the country between pro-western Ukraine and Russian separatist regions.
However detailed and comprehensive these explanations may be, they require, as we have said, clarification of a key element of the framework: the force, power or energy that mobilises geopolitical struggles until they reach the superficial crystallisation that we see in the form of war. Beyond Russian nationalism or US imperialism, as we have said, the background is the inherent logic of global capitalism that manifests itself at its limits by crystallising wars, socio-economic and political crises and destroying the environment.
In this last section I want to address the problem of truth, and respond to two possible objections.
The first is to note that the subjective dimension is the one where our rationality is at its lowest level, and therefore most prone to emotional manipulation by propaganda. It is a place where truths are compromised, for that very reason, because of the bias to which our affections and passions incline us.
That does not mean, as we have already said, that the subjective level should be discarded. I am not proposing that we remove our moral feelings from the equation. What I am saying is that those moral feelings (such as indignation, for example), must make a dialectical journey whose goal is the coupling of emotions with reason. At the purely subjective level, either emotions are completely detached from reason, or rationality is at the service of the justification of the spontaneous emotional experience that occurs in the circumstances we live in.
This dialectical journey indeed begins with the “subjective-superficial truth”, which leads us spontaneously to the visceral moral rejection of war, our natural sympathy for the victims, and the spontaneous apprehension of the primary harmful agent as “evil” or “monstrous”. However, it does not stop there. The next step is to analyse the causal plot that makes the crime or violent act possible. In this framework, the agent discovers that the “monster”, far from being such a thing (an anomaly), is the crystallised effect of certain causal processes, of certain acts that took place in the past, which voluntarily or involuntarily precipitated the present effect.
Two objections can be raised here, analogous to those articulated by PRO president Patricia Bullrich to Argentina’s Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity.
The first objection is that such an explanation could lead to an exculpation of the criminal. The answer is negative. The point is to extend the sense of responsibility to other agents who directly or indirectly, voluntarily or involuntarily, are accomplices to the crime.
The second objection is more difficult to answer: are we all guilty? The answer is, however, a resounding “no”, because there are victims, who express in their skin the injustice of certain specific causal relationships and frameworks. In the specific case we are analysing, in addition to Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the Ukrainian government itself, are responsible, to varying degrees, for the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding. None of these actors is an innocent bystander, despite the feigned indignation they express and the humanitarian hustle and bustle on display. One need only recall the flight and abandonment of civilians by NATO’s forces in Afghanistan a few months ago to know that the central concern, beyond the geopolitical challenge posed by the invasion and the devastating socio-economic consequences it will bring, is to protect the legitimacy of bureaucratic-political power in the face of the crisis.
The journey, however, is not over. The next step is to recognise the ultimate background, the energy or power, that explains these crystallised appearances and configurations of levels 1 and 2. As we have already indicated in passing, this energy, which in our time is crystallised in the institutional forms and ways of life imposed by capitalism, can be universally understood in relation to our finite condition, and thus to our struggle for survival and power, which translates into exploitation, appropriation, wars and conquests that we have experienced throughout our history, and whose roots can surely be traced back to our biology.
All the world’s religious traditions, all the world’s humanist philosophies and ethics have formulated articulations aimed at disciplining individuals to curb the pernicious effects of this will to life, pathologically converted into a will to power.
Buddhists, for example, speak of a basic confusion, which makes us apprehend ourselves as self-sufficient entities, endowed with an inherent existence, separate from the rest of the cosmos. This, Buddhists tell us, is what underlies our drive for appropriation and mastery: the objectification, fetishisation of people and things, and our negative emotions.
Or, as theists say, the origin of pain, of war, of injustice, is to be sought in our forgetfulness of our filial bond with God, our father, our common origin, our brotherhood as creatures, with all of human and non-human creation.
Now, this universal tendency to primordial confusion or forgetfulness of our common origin leads us to perceive our individual fate as decoupled from the fate of all other creatures. However, the way in which this tendency is articulated historically is peculiar to each epoch. In our time, this tendency takes the form of neoliberal capitalism, on its way to becoming, according to some thinkers, a kind of digital, militarised and financialised corporate neo-feudalism.
What distinguishes capitalism from previous orders and systems of social and ecological relations is the fact that basic ignorance, forgetfulness, is the foundation of the system, and practices of systematic competition, appropriation and dispossession the key to its functioning. Human and non-human lives are at the service of capital, which has become a kind of evil genius that has transformed our existences into illusory images on our computer screens, or numerical data in its Excel documents.
With this vision as a background, we take the last step on our way to the truth, where it coincides, at last, with reality. We return to level 1, to the superficial experience of war, of refugees, of death. The moral sentiments are still there, but we now know that a solution requires much more than emotivist condemnation, emblems, emoticons or flags on our Instagram accounts. We need a revolution, a radical transformation, a new beginning, another world possible.