The deafening silence of intellectuals in the face of growing global conflicts

11:29 17.05.2023 •

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

In the face of growing global conflicts the most incomprehensible silence is that of the intellectuals. Silence is nothing short of complicity with the masters of war, reflects in his notes Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

Europe is witnessing an alarming (re)emergence of two realities that are destructive of the “domains of the spirit”: the destruction of democracy, brought about by the growth of political forces of the far right; and the destruction of peace, brought about by the naturalization of war. Both destructions are legitimized by the very values each of them aims to destroy: ‘fascism’ is promoted in the name of ‘democracy’; ‘war’ is promoted in the name of ‘peace’.

All of this has become possible because the political initiative and presence in the media are being relinquished to conservative forces on the right and far right. Social protection measures aimed at making people feel both in their pockets and their daily existence that democracy is better than dictatorship are becoming ever more rare precisely because of the costs of the war in Ukraine and because the economic sanctions against the “enemy,” which supposedly should be hurting their intended target, are in fact hurting above all the European people whose governments have allied themselves with the US.

The destruction of peace and democracy is mostly affected by the unequal and parallel drawing of two circles of warranted freedoms, i.e., freedoms of expression and freedoms of action endorsed by the political and media powers that be.

The circle of freedoms warranted in the case of progressive positions advocating for just and durable peace and more inclusive democracy is getting smaller and smaller, while the circle of freedoms warranted in the case of conservative positions advocating for war and fascist polarization together with neoliberal economic inequality does not cease to grow.

Progressive commentators are increasingly absent from the major media outlets, while every week conservative ones present us with page after page of staggering mediocrity.

Let us look at some of the main symptoms of this vast process currently underway:

1) The information war over the Russia-Ukraine conflict has so taken hold of published opinion that even commentators with a modicum of conservative common sense have submitted to it with sickening subservience. Here’s one example among many from the European corporate media: during his weekly appearance on a Portuguese TV channel (SIC, January 29, 2023), Luís Marques Mendes, a well-known commentator, usually a voice of common sense within the conservative camp, said something to this effect: “Ukraine has to win the war, because if it doesn’t, Russia will invade other European countries.” This is pretty much what American television viewers hear from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on a daily basis.

Where does such an absurd idea come from, if not from an overdose of misinformation?

Have they forgotten that post-Soviet Russia sought to join NATO and the EU but was rebuffed, and that, contrary to what had been promised to the former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, NATO expansion on Russia’s borders may constitute a legitimate defense concern on the part of Russia?

Don’t they know that it was the US and the United Kingdom who boycotted the first peace negotiations shortly after the war broke out?

Have the commentators not considered, even for a moment, that a nuclear power that finds itself faced with the possibility of defeat in a conventional conflict might resort to using its nuclear weapons, which in turn could lead to nuclear catastrophe?

Don’t they see that the war in Ukraine exploited to force Europe into total dependence on the US and to stop the expansion of China, the country with which the US is really at war?

Don’t the commentators realize that today’s Ukraine is tomorrow’s Taiwan?

2) The anti-communist ideology that dominated the Western world until the 1990s is being surreptitiously recycled to promote anti-Russian hatred to the point of hysteria, even though it is a known fact that Putin is an autocratic leader, a friend of the European right and far right. Russian artists, musicians, and athletes are being banned from events, even as courses on Russian culture and literature — which are no less European than French literature and culture — are being terminated.

3) At the international level, the West unanimously applauded the 2014 events of Kyiv’s Maidan square, which is where the current war truly began. Despite the fact that the flags of Nazi organizations were in plain sight during the protests; despite the fact that popular rage was directed against a democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych then; and despite the fact that, according to wiretaps, Victoria Nuland, the US neoconservative and then-assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, had explicitly named the people who were to wield power in case of victory, including an American citizen, Natalie Jaresko, who later served as Ukraine’s new minister of finance from 2014 to 2016; despite all this, these events, which amounted to a well-orchestrated coup aimed at removing a pro-Russian president and turning Ukraine into a US protectorate, were celebrated throughout the West as a vibrant victory for democracy.  

4) The double standard for assessing what happens in the world is taking on aberrant proportions and is being used in a quasi-automatic fashion to strengthen the war apologists, stigmatize the parties of the left, and normalize fascists. Examples are legion, so the difficulty lies in choosing among them.

There is now a general consensus that the September 2022 explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipelines was the work of the US (and was allegedly “overseen” by President Joe Biden, a claim he denied), which was possibly assisted by allies. An incident of this magnitude should have been immediately investigated by an independent international commission. What seems obvious is that the aggrieved party — Russia — had no interest in destroying an infrastructure that they could make useless by just turning off the tap. On February 8, Seymour Hersh, a respected American journalist, used conclusive information to show that the sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2 had in fact been planned by the US since December 2021.

If that was indeed the case, we have before us a heinous crime that is also an act of state terrorism. The US, which claims to be the ‘champion of global democracy’, should be supremely interested in finding out what happened.

Was this the only way to force Germany to join the war against Russia?

Was the sabotaging of the gas pipelines intended to put an end to Europe’s policy, initiated by former Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt, of being less energy-dependent on the US?

In the context of expensive energy and closed-down businesses, was this not an effective way of putting the brakes on the EU’s economic engine?

Who benefits from the situation?

Heavy silence hangs over this act of state terrorism.

5) Today, we witness a confrontation between US, Russia, and China. There is also the pathological case of the United Kingdom, which, notwithstanding its abysmal social and political decline, has not yet realized that the British Empire has long ended.

What will remain of martyred Ukraine when the war ends (because all wars end eventually)?

What will be the situation in the other European countries, notably Germany and France, which remain dominated by the false notion that the Marshall Plan was the manifestation of self-sacrificing philanthropy on the part of the US, to whom they owe infinite gratitude and unconditional solidarity?

And what about Russia?

What will a final assessment look like, beyond all the death and destruction that come with every war?

Why don’t we witness the emergence, in Europe, of a strong movement in favor of a just and lasting peace?

Could it be that, despite the fact that the war is being fought in Europe, Europeans are waiting for some anti-war movement to emerge in the US, so they can join it with good conscience and without the risk of being viewed as friends of Putin, or even as communists?

Why so much silence about all this?

Perhaps the most incomprehensible silence is that of the intellectuals. It is incomprehensible because intellectuals frequently claim to be more percipient than ordinary mortals.

History has taught us that, in the periods immediately before the outbreak of wars, all politicians declare themselves against the war while contributing to it by virtue of their actions. Silence is nothing short of complicity with the masters of war.

Contrary to what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now no well-known intellectuals making resounding declarations for peace, “independence of spirit,” and democracy.

There are many questions intellectuals have an obligation to address. Why have they stayed silent?

Are there still intellectuals, or have they become weak shadows of what they once stood for? – asks Boaventura de Sousa Santos.


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