Overview:

Cognitive dissonance is strong for us around the role of economic warfare in determining which global conflicts are and aren't moral imperatives. How can we be better humanists, though, if we don't reckon with the often arbitrary wargames playing out in economic spheres?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In recent bouts of economic sanctions against Russia, many average citizens are just now learning about the extent of oil imperialism in their lives. But it’s not simply a matter of countries leveraging energy markets against one another. Oil companies stand gleefully at the ready to boost profits and political positioning even as our governments try to use economic warfare to compel better moral action. Players usually “behind the scenes” in our vague pretense of a still-nation-state-driven world are now coming decidedly to the fore.

And we’re not ready to grapple with what this means.

After all, average citizens enduring inflation pressures are not terribly nuanced analysts. Gas prices were rising even before Russian sanctions, but it’s human nature to blame a phenomenon on the most immediate possible explanation. Instead of criticizing predatory energy companies, then, civilians can easily point to our governments’ choices in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. And that’s where average human beings become susceptible to moral equivocation, especially via cyber-espionage. Will Putin break first, or everyday Westerners?

It wouldn’t even be incoherent for most citizens, struggling to get by in a tight economy, to lose interest in supporting an Eastern European war they see as affecting their bottom line. Class consciousness isn’t great in North America, which has allowed many Westerners to see “war” primarily as a matter of physical combat anyway. Who has the biggest army? Who has the most nukes, the best guns? Whose drone fleet is the most effective? And why should any of that impact an average household just trying to keep up with rising costs?

Because we’ve lost a significant sense of home front solidarity since the “great wars” of the 20th century, we’re largely disconnected from how key battles for human rights—our own, and others in the world—play out financially. And that’s a problem that far surpasses the current Russian war in Ukraine. It’s a critical issue for global humanists, writ large, as we try to develop better public policy for the needs of the coming world.

The background noise of economic warfare

After all, the shape of economic warfare seriously impacts not only everyday lives, but also collective moral leanings. The latter especially plays out in our response to the world’s many active and violent crises, since where and how we choose to intervene is routinely shaped by economic relationships, risks, and opportunities. And to some extent we “know” this. We “know” that U.S. wars in the Middle East, for instance, are highly oil-driven endeavors, even if they haven’t yielded security so much as greater insecurity over all this time.

The cognitive dissonance comes most fiercely into play, though, with our media-hyped insistence that we’re still centrally acting as moral agents. Yes, yes, our security and energy sectors stand to benefit tremendously from this latest conflict, we’ll concede. But look! We’ll also be hailed as brokers for a better “peace” against oppressive regimes and “for freedom”! And isn’t that a good thing?

If we were building domestic and foreign policy primarily as moral agents, we might actually commit to breaking our reliance on hydrocarbons. How can we, though, when our current energy economy is good business? And when war, along with any uneasy peace that average citizens might mistake for war’s absence, is great business?

It’s also shockingly arbitrary, though.

And that fact should give global humanists great pause.

Economic warfare, at its most well-intentioned

There’s a famous story among economists about how the U.S. dollar became the standard for global markets. It involves a hotel near the Canada-U.S. border (Bretton Woods), a famous British economist (John Maynard Keynes), a U.S. state official later pegged for a Soviet spy (Harry Dexter White), and a critical round of 1944 talks that created, among other things, the International Monetary Fund, the “world’s bank”.

It was an important conference for many reasons, not least of which including the clear desire to create a stable world order in the wake of WWII. For better or for worse, those involved understood that gold alone would not provide the kind of security the world needed. They wanted to make trade easier between key global partners so that economic warfare would win out over military aggression. And so, whether or not they also longed to uphold pre-existing orders (British imperialism, for Keynes, and possibly Soviet economic metrics, for White), they did ultimately create a striking new one, with impacts still felt in the world today.

White in particular, for all later theorizing about his possible Soviet connections, made the U.S. dollar the international standard. But he did this in the sneakiest way possible: by leveraging the extreme exhaustion of conference proceedings to slip the U.S. dollar into key documents.

As NPR’s Planet Money describes, drawing from Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods:

Whenever he needed to talk about some form of international trade, [White] referred to gold-convertible currency, as in every country on Earth should peg their currency to some unnamed gold-convertible currency. Of course, what country had the gold? The United States. The U.S. had 80 percent of the gold of the world. Benn Steil told this story in his book.

STEIL: At one of the committee meetings, the Indian delegate got fed up and said that it was high time that the Americans explained what a gold-convertible currency was. At that point, the British delegate who was not Keynes—because Keynes was off dealing with the World Bank—his name was Dennis Robertson—fell into White’s trap.

He thought that they were discussing a minor accounting issue and suggested that for the sake of clarity, they might simply say U.S. dollars. White thanked him very much and said that the matter would be referred to a technical committee.

That night, they went through the draft IMF Articles of Agreement, ultimately 96 pages, and changed every reference to gold-convertible currency to U.S. dollar.

Episode 553: The Dollar At The Center Of The World, Planet Money, NPR

Keynes, an overworked and very sick man by the end of the conference, apparently didn’t notice the change until after he was back overseas, and re-reading these working documents in full. He was decidedly displeased, but there was no turning back. The world had been transformed.

The moral schism amid economic warfare

Stories like the above abound in financial histories. (We could spend all day talking about all the manipulative dealings associated with today’s stock markets, for instance. However, I think you might have more fun listening to Jon Stewart’s conversation with SEC commissioner Rob Jackson about some of them). But I’m not an economist. I struggle as much as the next person with all the specialized jargon developed to obfuscate financial proceedings.

As a humanist, though, I’m more interested in the disconnect between financial games and the work of building a more just world. It’s not just that average citizens struggle to understand why their democratically elected governments aren’t “doing more”. It’s also that corporate actors strongly shape which of the world’s crises we’re given to care about at all.

Even when average citizens think they’re fighting corporate influence, they don’t realize how little democratic sway they have. The election of Barack Obama, for instance, was supposed to be transformative because he claimed not to accept donations from registered federal lobbyists or political action groups. In practice, of course, that hard line has always been impossible to maintain. And yet, his presiding over a surge in U.S. domestic fracking, even amid major calls for environmental protections by a wide range of liberals and leftists, still surprised many.

It’s a cruel, if common move to deprive average human beings of the resources they need to be fully informed actors, then throw up one’s hands at the idea of leaving political action to them.

Democratic action in the economic equation

Years on, amid the Russian war in Ukraine, the push for U.S. energy independence from global oil markets now makes a lot more sense to average citizens. With it, after all, the U.S. has more leverage to call for sanctions against a giant in the international oil industry. But was fracking the only possible path to this political end? And why didn’t citizens of a supposedly democratic country get more of a say either way? In a moral landscape that includes many possible approaches to combating oil imperialism, people far removed from direct-democratic process (e.g. Wall Street) keep choosing state strategy for us. Is that really necessary?

Let’s imagine a more informed and democratically empowered Western populace. (I know, I know, not easy to do amid all the attacks on voting and education in the U.S.). But if we could talk openly and maturely about global security issues underpinning energy policy, would we have agreed that ramping up domestic oil production was the right answer? Or would we have been better positioned to muster the civic will to fully embrace green energy? And maybe even with an even greater sense of urgency than climate change already inspires?

Economic warfare creates a vicious cycle of contempt for the average citizen. They “wouldn’t understand” all the intricate financial choices being made in the markets. (And of course not! Especially when so many, like the U.S. dollar as global standard, weren’t made through careful deliberation at all)! And oh, just look at how easily “experts” can manipulate average citizens into believing unevidenced claims about what will definitely bring about inflation! Do you really want to trust everyday chumps with deciding how war should play out in the world at large?

The global humanist leap: Investing in an informed populace

It’s a cruel, if common move to deprive average human beings of the resources they need to be fully informed actors, then throw up one’s hands at the idea of leaving political action to them.

Economic warfare plays out between people who know how to “gamify” the system, not those with the most humanist convictions. And yes, I can certainly appreciate why many would argue that this is still a far cry better than military aggression. However, economic warfare is still violent, especially with respect to the exploitation of natural resources and horrific human rights abuses perpetuated by its industries. We haven’t fixed the problem, so much as changed some of its most obvious parameters.

And so what we have now, in a world where corporate interests get to dictate so very much of our ostensibly democratic policymaking, is at best an uneasy peace. A fragile one, too, as Russia’s actions in Ukraine have recently reminded us all.

Meanwhile, there were other choices that we could have made, years ago, to resist imperialist enterprise by its 21st-century names and players. We could have emancipated ourselves from the current oil system entirely. We could have revisited our international monetary systems with far greater human equity first in mind.

But to do any of that now requires a powerful leap in how we act as global humanists. Because this sweeping, international issue does start closer at home. It starts with recognizing what’s at stake in all our struggles for a better democracy, and attendant education systems.

Often, fellow atheists will focus on getting religion, say, out of politics, out of schools. And that makes sense, because a lot of what’s leading to an uninformed and disempowered populace does indeed come from politicians leveraging local religious divisions to their advantage.

As a humanist, though, over this and the other articles in this series, I’m asking us to think more proactively. It’s not just about what we want out of our systems. It’s also, far more critically, about the kinds of civic engagement that our world so desperately needs brought in.

Avatar photo

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.