The Eiffel Tower was plunged into darkness a couple of days ago, as a mark of mourning for the dead of Aleppo. A striking act, compared to previous such Eiffelings of world events, in which the colours of various flags, including the rainbow one, have been projected onto the structure. The tower just disappeared into the night. Which is probably why it attracted no world attention. Nobody noticed what wasn’t there for a while.

One other reason it went largely unremarked upon may be that we have passed out of that period in which every — hahaha some — horrific events were marked with global acts of performance art. These tended to be events — the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Orlando LGBTIQ nightclub massacre — which more directly affected the sort of people responsible for designing performance art spectacles, but still.

The enthusiasm for this sort of thing appears to have dimmed. It appears to have been a phenomenon at the tail end of the Obama era, when the idea of “representing” as an act in itself was at its most popular. Now, after Brexit, Trump, Duterte, Turkey’s counter-coup coup, and with more on the horizon, the notion of a world conscience, and politics as an arena for it, has come to grief. Politics has slipped its mask, and revealed itself, once again, as raw power, and no one feels like projecting a flag onto the Warracknabeal War Memorial anymore.

Besides, how would you know what flag to project? Not the Syrian flag, since Syrian forces have now triumphed in Aleppo. Since quite a few of the east Aleppo rebels were extreme Salafist Islamists, the most effective form of virtue-signalling would have been to project the ISIS flag onto the shells of the Sydney Opera House.

Though the Eiffeling appears to have ceased, the waffling and throat-clearing continues. Unbelievably, we are still getting the “we said ‘never again’ and we have failed” from politicians and pundits across the world, especially those attached to military intervention at any and every given situation.* The purpose of this “we failed”-ism, on the part of politicians, has nothing to do with Syria.

There was never any serious proposal for Western intervention, with actual Western forces, against Assad (and nor should there have been). The involvement consisted in the funding, training and arming of groups constructed as pro-“democracy” and pro-West — even though they were known to be Islamist to varying degrees. As the war dragged on, even that fig-leaf slipped; support was extended to groups that were clearly just rebranded forms of al-Qaeda.

For all the hand-wringing, the purpose seems clear: to bog down Assad, Russia’s ally, with the hope of forcing the Assad regime to the negotiating table, and gaining some form of power-sharing, Balkanisation or the like. Bad faith has been exhibited on both sides: from those who want to attach some “progressive” meaning to the Assad regime, and talk of the “liberation” of Aleppo; from the other side, those who deny that the slaughter would have ended a lot earlier if the rebels had taken safe passage out earlier, from what was a lost cause.

The dimming of public moralising on events like the crushing of Aleppo has other causes, too. Everyone is starting to realise that global events are going to have to be assessed in terms of old-fashioned power politics and power blocs, in a world that appears to be on a post-liberal trajectory. Crucially, this means taking greater responsibility to sift the evidence available, rather than simply take a side based solely on reacting to the more absurd arguments of the other side. Crucially, that means a sober assessment of the actions of nations other than the US.

That we now have a multi-polar world, in which the US is no longer the incontestable, overarching superpower — something sought, after all, and something that renders many people around the world safer than they were — also means attending to the imperialism, or power plays, of other nations. Russia may well be being blamed for any number of absurd things, but arch comments on Twitter blaming them for the plot holes in Rogue One is hardly the best response. This is an authoritarian government that has murdered dozens, perhaps, hundreds of journalists and dissidents, and has no compunction about doing so on foreign soil. The Chinese militarisation of the Spratly Islands — in part, of course, in response to the US determination to drive whole navies through there, and create an Asian alliance (using instruments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership) to encircle them.

And so on. Every statement about a non-US/UK power demands a balancing assertion of US and West European perfidy, of which examples there are many. But as other nations flex their muscles, some of us are in the novel and uncomfortable position of having to take our “own” side. Quelle horreur! That is not only in recognition of the geopolitical facts on the ground, but also in terms of the international alliances that domestic political groups are making. If many on the right are suddenly willing to give Russia a free pass, it’s because Russia represents a “mothership” of political reaction that can be counterposed to Europe and the Obama-era US.

This is unquestionably racialised and masculinised; Russia is led by a white Christian Big Daddy, guaranteeing eternal verities against the collapsing peninsula of Europe, with its gaggle of women leaders, and the identity-politics raddled US, in which people are afraid to say the simplest things. Or so the story goes. Putin represents the ur-Trump, and his government something along the lines that a lot of people would like — something in which sovereignty guarantees the order of knowledge, in which the power defines what is real and what is nonsense.

For many, it’s a beguiling notion, likely to catch on in many places, fuelled no doubt by the snobbery, elitism and indifference to suffering, of many free-marketeers/progressives, which make it all the more plausible. The proximate struggle for many of us — taking in Eiffelings, virtual signallings and much more — is thus against the latter, because they are doing the work of the reactionaries for them: undermining the legitimacy of what remains of a pluralist society and “actually existing” parliamentary/electoral rule, by ensuring that it has even less power to improve people’s lives than it currently does. In waging that struggle that there is no admirable other elsewhere to compare it to. The fall of Aleppo was no liberation, the rebel hold-out no triumph. We are faced with the difficult task of moving forward without the binaries that comforted us for the better part of a century.

*which does not rule out all involvement, or advocacy of it from the left. Your correspondent supported western involvement in Libya, a position he still holds. And practically everyone supported US air support for the YPG Kurds in northern Syria/Rojava, though few were willing to say so, for fear of damaging “anti-imperialist” credentials.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey