Many people think politics is really a branch of economics. When the United States invaded Iraq in 1991, the common cry was that it was all about oil. On the same thinking, rich countries were indifferent to the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which has cost 5.4 million lives, according to the International Rescue Committee – because the economic stakes were too low to matter. This economic reductionism goes on in developed countries too. Pundits and pollsters argue that elections are won and lost above all else on the economy.
Such ideas can be traced back to the philosopher Karl Marx. He believed that material considerations motivated everything people do, including how they are governed. In modern surveys, people routinely say that the desire for better jobs or higher incomes is not what drives their voting behaviour. On Marx’s view, these respondents are either lying, or in denial. They may not realise that economic discontents and aspirations drive their action – and all of history.
Followers of this dialectic should be disconcerted by current events. Only a die-hard Trotskyite could see economic issues behind the conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq.
Economic explanations are inapplicable to the strategy of Vladimir Putin, even if the president of Russia is trying to reconstruct the glory of the supposedly Marxist Soviet Union. Putin treats narrow economic motivations with disdain. His creeping invasions are not cheap, the occupied areas are mostly in dire economic straits, and retaliatory sanctions will create economic hardship for all of Russia.
For Putin, power is clearly more important than prosperity. His propaganda machine is trying to persuade the Russian people to think the same way. That creates a good test for the neo-Marxist reading of history. Russia is sufficiently rich and large to tough out widespread foreign hostility, especially with some help from China and other sympathetic governments. However, tight sanctions will make the Russian people poorer. Will they put up with the required economic sacrifices, or will they eventually prefer greater prosperity to national pride?