Apopheosis of War

Be kind to your children, the old saw goes, because they will pick your nursing home.

The adage encourages attentive regard to longer-term consequences when addressing immediate conditions and is as relevant to urban policy as it is to recent global events.

The title image is well known to many Russians.

Rather pompously titled The Apotheosis of War it was painted almost exactly 150 years ago by Vasily Vereshchagin, who dedicated it “to all conquerors past, present, and to come”. Its ironic prescience of Russia’s current foreign policy is all too obvious.

This and many of his other anti-war paintings now hang in The State Tretyakov Gallery, less than a mile’s walk south across the river from the Kremlin in Moscow.

An aside; as Robert Horvath observes, we must remember that expression of these views has as long a pedigree in Russia as anywhere else, though the stakes there are far greater, as well illustrated in the current exhibition of Pyotr Belov’s paintings in the State GULAG Museum.

The shocking imagery and painter’s dedication draws attention to the long view; to the consequences of obsessive regard of short-term objectives.

With rising Pacific tensions, rapidly advancing climate change, growing intergenerational inequity, and during the last month a new hot and cold War with creepy Nazi overtones, it is tempting to believe that we are all going to hell in a handbasket, driven by twits and thugs interested only on the ride, not the destination.

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Michael Beckley takes a longer view and detects in the reactions to the growing belligerence of contemporary autocracies a new more virtuous liberal world order could be emerging.

Broadly, he notes that inter-state alliances developed historically in response to jointly perceived threats rather than through enlightened commitment to noble causes.

He sees these patterns emerging from China’s recent muscle flexing, as many other states with sometimes conflicting interests have since banded together in opposition. 

An additional feature of present alliances originates in post-WW2 attempts to prevent the re-emergence of fascism by the development of a new liberal world order, broadly comprising economic liberalism (free markets) and a mostly secular moral order centred on democracy and human rights.

For the first half century or so, the moral dimension took a back seat to economic liberalism, which frequently featured support for otherwise illiberal regimes that simply pursued open market policies.

Implicit in these kinds of support was a belief that open markets would eventually lead to more open societies in the longer term.

According to Beckley, reactions to China’s growth have challenged these assumptions. The particular flavour of Chinese mercantilism has combined strident economic liberalism with increased autocratic oppression internally and aggressive international expansionism.

What to do, or more precisely, how and on what basis should new alliances be formed that would retain post WW2 liberal features yet effectively counter those aspects of emerging Chinese power deemed threatening to its neighbours and others.

The answer, according to Beckley, is that whether by intention or accidentally, new alliances were formed, the foundational features of which when viewed together appear to emphasise human rights above economic interests. If this pattern intensifies it could mark the emergence of a new, more virtuous world order, albeit originating in reaction to a common threat.

We may be able to discern similar patterns emerging from the current conflict in the Ukraine.

Before the event, many analysts sieved through the dry ash of mutual self-interests to favour success of the Russian adventurism, abetted by yet more economically pragmatic western accommodation.

However, subsequent recent news stories are dominated by accounts of plucky Ukrainian resistance and the white-heat of swift and broad scale economic and cultural isolation of Russia.

Despite its embrace of strident capitalism over the last three decades, contemporary Russians are again being sold nationalism and a return to state psychological serfdom as the only reliable foundation for their stability and security.

Many now realise they live in a totalitarian state where access to accurate news is diminishing daily and the last vestiges of press freedom are being snuffed out.

Returning to Beckley’s observations, unless its citizens can displace their president and his minders very quickly, the long-term prospects for Russia now look very bleak.

Its economy is likely to crash further under the weight of escalating sanctions, international companies flee, and its seizure of foreign leased aircraft all lead to increasing isolation more broadly.

The cost of its Ukrainian occupation continues to mount. The prospect that inevitable Ukrainian reparations will exceed the value of assets seized from pro-invasion oligarchs will impose a further burden on the Russian state.

Prompted by Russian aggression, NATO’s expansion now looks more certain and rapid, which will further add to the cost of Russia’s militarisation in response.

Russia’s energy markets will be lost for ever as the world pivots more rapidly away from fossil fuels (no bad thing).

Its young and highly educated population continue to leave, while those that remain slowly revert to the unproductive, paranoid, credulous, infantilism of Masha Gessen’s “Homo Sovieticus”, leaving its increasingly aged population as a further and growing burden on the state.

Self-interest is the primary driver of collaboration against existential threats, so let’s organise that for better urban and climate policies

But what has all this to do with Australian urban policy?

It may seem an odious contrast with the horrible events in the Ukraine, but Beckley’s point is that underlying motivations for virtuous policy change spring mainly from unity against existential threats, not from some collective moral awakening.

To illustrate, intergenerational inequity – housing affordability, climate change, job insecurity, increasing education costs, lower wealth overall – is looming as a significant multifaceted urban policy threat.

One facet, the current housing crisis, continues unabated yet still receives little more than lip service from law makers of both hues.

Sydney, Melbourne, and of all places Adelaide, are amongst the top 20 most expensive places to buy a house in the world.

The young can no longer anticipate being the next generation of Menzies’ homeowners.

It might be expected that a democratic government keen to define its superior virtue over autocracies might set about resolving these problems urgently.

It might also be expected that a forward-thinking for-profit industry would relish the prospect of new homeowner markets emerging in the next generation, and therefore work hard with government to lower housing costs in the longer term.

Yet, the Victorian government has abandoned attempts to introduce inclusionary zoning provisions in order to fund more affordable housing across the state, mainly due to strong pushback from the for-profit housing industry and others.

Clearly, more virtuous policy reform will likely emerge only if threats are more existential, though it is difficult to imagine what they might be, short of the young rioting in the streets.

Clearly though, the following culinary prospect in the Boomer generation’s dotage is unlikely to be sufficient motivation.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.