Ukraine and the Quagmire of Defending Freedom in the Nuclear Age
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” George Orwell wrote those famous words in his touchstone novel 1984. But does the pursuit of freedom justify the killing of others and the sacrificing of oneself? This has long been the question facing those who sought to resist tyrannical imposition: but in the age of social media, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has confronted us all with this question. What the war has also done, is to slap us in the face with a much deeper existential quagmire. One that is perhaps the deepest philosophical enigma I can think of.
Ukrainian resistance has been more trouble for Putin’s war machine than almost anyone expected. A people who would rather fight to the death in the hope of protecting their independence than surrender to foreign tyranny. Death rattle echoes from the Holodomor ring loud in their ears. Untrained civilians put down their keyboards and shovels to pick up Kalashnikovs and Molotov cocktails. And while we hear reports of relatively small fascist, anti-fascist, religious, and anarchist factions putting aside their differences and uniting to resist the invasion, we mostly hear that Western freedoms—the very decentralized error correcting mechanisms many of us do not know we have, let alone appreciate—are what countless Ukrainians seem willing to give their lives to protect. This fighting spirit stems from the repugnance of subjugation and the sanctity of self-determination. They have so far refused to bend the knee to a wannabe Tzar in Moscow. Ukraine’s President—sitcom thespian turned war time talisman—set the tone: “I need ammunition,” said Volodymyr Zelensky in response to an offer of evacuation by the US, “not a ride.”
In Tribe, long-time war correspondent Sebastien Junger writes: “What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.” A “most profound” question indeed, and one for which many Ukrainians are answering not with words but deeds. However, at a moment of possible catastrophic great power conflict, there is another brain twisting conundrum facing the West: is violence capable of escalating to the nonexistence of humanity justified in trying to resist the expansion of tyrannical imposition? To set the table for this quagmire, we must first acknowledge the implications for escalatory violence during an era of thermonuclear weaponry.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr published some beautiful writing just after the Cuban Missile Crisis stating that humanity’s choice was “either nonviolence or nonexistence.” Recent events in Ukraine have haunted me with a sobering passage from the same piece:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars begetting more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
But is the “dark abyss of annihilation” really a possibility? Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev certainly thought so. When asked in 2019 how ominous things might be between Russia and the West, Gorbachev provided the following response to his BBC interviewer: “As long as weapons of mass destruction exist, primarily nuclear weapons, the danger is colossal. All nations should declare, all nations, that nuclear weapons must be destroyed. This is to save ourselves and our planet.” And what is the risk of such weapons being used in war? Surely nobody would actually push the button? Here I will defer to Yuval Noah Harari. In his 2018 book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century he notes:
“On the one hand, war is definitely not inevitable. The peaceful termination of the Cold War proves that when humans make the right decisions, even superpower conflicts can be resolved peacefully...On the other hand, it would be naïve to assume that war is impossible. Even if war is catastrophic for everyone, no god and no law of nature protect us from human stupidity.”
Stupidity aside, perhaps what is most worrying, is that nuclear powers do not even need to intentionally spark world war to cause nuclear annihilation; all that needs to happen is an accident that sets off a cascade of panic. Think about it, how much cool collected decision making could be expected from a country’s leadership if it suddenly has a mushroom cloud over one of its cities or military installations? The Future of Life Institute have on their website a daunting timeline of the far too many nuclear near misses to permit anything resembling complacency. They write:
“The most devastating military threat arguably comes from a nuclear war started not intentionally but by accident or miscalculation. Accidental nuclear war has almost happened many times already, and with 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide — thousands on hair-trigger alert and ready to launch at a moment’s notice — an accident is bound to occur eventually.”
For many decades now there has been a continued danger to nuclear war. This has been a danger we have functionally ignored in favour of taking nearly all of our already too few existential risk focussed eggs, and piling them into the emission-centric basket. Instead of acknowledging that the radioactive elephant in the room had never left, we put dreamworld blinkers on and got obsessed with overly simplistic arguments around climate change interventions; silly arguments like, for example, that which seeks to lay grossly disproportionate blame for melting icebergs at the feet of burping ruminants. In their book Sacred Cow, Diana Rogers and Robb Wolf note some bizarre consequences of this puritanical hysteria around animal emissions: “moose produce large amounts of methane and the Green Party in Sweden is now proposing that citizens should “shoot as many moose as possible and reduce the number of cattle,” for the sake of climate change.”
Now with Putin’s recent warnings about the nuclear option, we have been rudely shaken from our neurotic slumber. “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres recently, “is now back within the realm of possibility.” In 2018 Putin said "…if someone decides to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I'm a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?" And then upon initiating the recent invasion of Ukraine, he issued a rather movie villain flavoured warning: "To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside - if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history." This brings us to back our existential quagmire.
There appears to be three ways that the best possible futures open to humanity could be denied: total annihilation, unrecoverable civilizational collapse, or locked-in techno-tyranny. The first two—going the way of the dinosaurs or post-apocalyptic scavengers—are obvious threats to humanity’s future potential; we would either not exist at all, or some much reduced number of us might get by in a wretched scramble for food and shelter. Locked-in techno-tyranny, however, does warrant a bit of unpacking.
Apart from the consistent ability to facilitate peaceful handovers of political power between megalomaniacal husks who’d rather stay on the throne, some of the strongest evidence for Western freedom exists in the tolerance for minority voices of change which constantly help revivify Western sociocultural norms from within. To provide contrasting examples, go and try be a trans person in Pakistan, a Uyghur Muslim or Falun Gong in China, or a feminist in Saudi Arabia. And so while seriously flawed, fractured, and riddled with imperfection, the post-Enlightenment West still symbolizes freedom from tyranny.
The real superpower of the West, one realizes after getting to first principles, is characterized by a very simple concept: decentralized error correction. Key Western social technologies like Science, Democracy, and Freedom of Expression all function by allowing us to cut away deadwood. Science, as a means of investigating nature, begins from an assumption of human ignorance as endless. Thus it allows us to correct errors in our understanding of nature by systematically asking us to find out where we were wrong in our creative conjecturing, not where we were right. Democracy begins from an assumption that nobody is perfect, and that the human capacity for incompetence and malevolence is ever present in all of us. Thus it allows us the freedom to get rid of political leaders before they could do too much harm through the use of ballots rather than bullets. Freedom of Expression underpins all of what makes the West so great and begins from the assumption that, at best, we each hold only partial truth. Thus it allows us to voice our dissent in order to both contribute to collective intelligence, and acquire from it. After all, “while differing widely in the various little bits we know,” as Karl Popper notes, “in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.”
Hence it was not an assertion of infallible truth, nor an ability to find the perfect leader that makes the West the greatest civilisation ever, but the assumption of inescapable human ignorance and a systematic recognition of animalistic fallibility that does so. A locked-in techno-tyranny, on the other hand, is grounded in an antithetical understanding of the need for decentralized error correction; it is the kind of system that assumes it has sole ownership over what constitutes core reality. It is also, of course, the kind of centralized hubris that Orwell warned us about in 1984 with his “Ministry of Truth” etc.
In a particularly memorable scene from his novel, Orwell describes Winston’s efforts in trying to hide a discovery of state lies from the surveillance apparatus who monitor every move:
“He took his scribbling pad on his knee and pushed back in his chair, so as to get as far away from the telescreen as possible. To keep your face expressionless was not difficult, and even your breathing could be controlled, with an effort: but you could not control the beating of your heart, and the telescreen was quite delicate enough to pick it up.”
What the prophetic Orwell could not have imagined though, was the fact we would each carry a “telescreen” around in our pockets, voluntarily, and choose to wear smart watches that monitor our heart rates alongside an ever growing list of other biomarkers. Moreover, surgical implants that will do the same—and much more—do not seem futuristic for us to imagine. And so, how long will it be until authoritarian or totalitarian regimes gain the capacity to sync up biological feedback with political messaging in order to identify inappropriate thoughts within the mind of the individual? The aforementioned Harari reckons we are not too far from this. In a piece for the Financial Times from around the beginning of the Wuhan Virus pandemic, he writes of this disturbingly easy to envision emergence of “under the skin” surveillance technology:
“As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day…If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry…If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.”
Even Orwell’s nightmare vision of a locked-in techno-tyranny couldn’t go that far; the required technology wasn’t yet within sight. When describing the omnipresence of Big Brother’s gaze he writes: “Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” In this archetypal touchstone for totalitarian dystopia, the contents of one’s mind was still “your own”; in our unfolding reality of “under the skin” surveillance though, even this last island of sovereignty could be lost to a real life Big Brother or Sister. How could serious resistance to tyrannical imposition—or even mildly heterodox dissent of any kind—come up for air in such a world?
Now one can at least start to grasp the implications of what a locked-in techno-tyranny could really mean. This technology makes authoritarian regimes of all kinds—from Putin’s faux-democratic Russia to Xi’s Communofascist China—even larger threats to humanity’s future than they already were. As surveillance tech gets more and more powerful, the risk tyrannical power poses to human freedom increases for a very simple reason: dissent gets proportionately more difficult, not only to organize socially, but even to germinate internally inside one’s own skull. Exponentially powerful shackles on human freedom become exponentially harder to break.
All that said, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the possibility that NATO will at some point come into conflict with his forces, has demanded we address the deepest of deep quagmires. A rephrasing of which is as follows: are we willing to risk total annihilation or unrecoverable collapse—which large scale nuclear war would almost certainly cause—in attempting to prevent the spread of a non-democratic tyrannical regime that will become increasingly locked-in as surveillance technology advances? We are playing existential roulette here. And so, we must choose the colour on which we will gamble our chips: all in on red, and we take our chances with tyrannical expansion; all in on black, and we take our chances with violence that could escalate towards summoning the nuclear demon.
The Chinese Communist Party’s threat to Taiwan has also been asking us the same question for some time now. Protecting Taiwan should be of the utmost importance to the free world, if not for humanitarian reasons, then at least for the selfish reason that we can gain hugely from their advances in democratic processes. To those who may doubt the potential threat posed by China’s internal communofascist agenda to human freedom in other countries, including but not limited to Taiwan, I might suggest looking into their domestic tyranny—their horrendous human rights record, their suppression of heroic whistle blowers like Dr Li Wenliang who tried to warn us about the Wuhan Virus as it first emerged, their unwillingness to facilitate proper investigations into the origin of the now endemic virus from Wuhan that has so far killed millions of people worldwide—taken in the context of their growing nuclear weapon capacity and fast expanding naval force.
“Will the man in the street ever feel that freedom of the mind is as important and as much in need of being defended as his daily bread?” Orwell posed this question in a 1946 newspaper piece. The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s tyrannical regime has abruptly ushered us into Cold War 2.0; into an era in which risking total human annihilation is a genuine political option. Thus, an updated way of posing Orwell’s question, considering the above, may be as follows: is fighting to defend the opportunity of freedom worth jeopardising the chance for Homo sapiens to exist at all? The post-1945 nuclear age and the exponential growth of other destructive technologies that have occurred over this time, alongside the growing power and boldness of dictatorial regimes like Russia and China, means this fundamental existential conundrum has been asked of all of us for many years now, whether we are philosophers or not, and whether we realise it or not. It just so happens, that Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling has rudely shoved this question into the face of the multitude.
Should we decide that the answer is yes—that fighting to defend freedom in an era of increasingly likely locked-in techno-tyranny justifies the risk of total annihilation or unrecoverable collapse—then we must be equally on guard when our own society drifts in the direction of enforcing Orwellian Newspeak or Doublethink. Enforced dogmatic conformity is occurring in numerous veiled ways: through naïve hate speech laws that ironically infantilize individuals from minority groups by treating them as if they are so weak and pathetic that they need protection from mean words or name calling; through the slimy creep of anti-scientific ideology into STEM academia—our most robust bastion of error correcting objectivity; through an extravagantly arrogant Big Tech censorship of accurate but ideologically inconvenient facts; through the growing power of a real life Ministry of Truth known as online “fact-checkers.” The list goes on. Continually emerging threats to saying “two plus two makes four” lie not only with foreign excursions by Tsar Putin or Emperor Xi.
Furthermore, there is a relationship between freedom of the mind and preventing catastrophe. The expansion of tyranny or a possibly impending nuclear holocaust aside, a continued movement in the direction of Orwellian suppression of free expression, within the West, means we will merely handicap our capacity to correct errors in a decentralized fashion as new problems inevitably arise. The DRASTIC research group, as but one recent example, did some ground breaking investigative work on the lab leak hypothesis for the Wuhan Virus. And DRASTIC—Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19—did so while our centralized institutions floundered about in a politicized frenzy driven by a fear of being associated with racism or angering the Chinese Communist dictatorship. Alina Chan of MIT and Harvard did similarly important work on the lab leak hypothesis, but outside of her normal job and at much personal and professional risk. Without people like DRASTIC and Chan taking it upon themselves to operate outside of the centralized institutions, who knows how advanced the investigations would be on the origins of the virus. And so, if the freedom to speak and seek truth is something we value to the extent that we are willing to risk everything, quite literally, then we must first and foremost live what we love if we have any hope in succeeding at protecting humanity’s future from the vast suite of threats it faces. Otherwise, we might as well accept two plus two makes five and take our chances on red.