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Week 10: The scary rise of traditionalism
In this issue: ▸ The rise of traditionalism, a the mystical doctrine ▸ Refuge for life ▸ Should Europeans blame themselves? ▸ And much more...
In just two weeks, the world order as we know it is no more.
We are facing multiple systemic eruptions that are hard to comprehend and complex to interpret.
There is a little of what we call logic behind what is going on right now, but in many conversations I have had over the last weeks people utter “this is crazy”, “what does he (Putin) really want”, and “it makes no sense”.
The rise of traditionalism, a mystical doctrine
At the outset it is indeed hard to understand, but there are some explanations worth mentioning in this context. Bear with me, what you are about to read is a different explanation of what is really going on and the ideology behind it.
Many right-wing figures, including elites in Russia, are often characterised as “nationalist” and “populist”, but few realise that many of them are also affiliated with a much more obscure movement, one stranger and more radical than right-wing populism, and one whose cause is greater than that of a single election, greater, in fact, than politics. This fringe spiritual movement bears an inconspicuous name: traditionalism.
Traditionalist sympathisers on the right with significant political influence are to be found in e.g. Russia and Brazil. At its core, traditionalism rejects modernity and its ideals: faith in the ability of human ingenuity to advance living standards and justice; an emphasis on the management of the economy; the coveting of individual liberty; the existence of universal truths equally valid for, and thereby equalising of, all.
Repudiating the Enlightenment, traditionalists instead celebrate what they regard as timeless values. They honour precedence rather than progress, emphasise the spiritual over the material, and advocate surrender to the fundamental disparities – as opposed to equality, between humans and human destinies.
A key inspiration for traditionalists is the French philosopher René Guénon (1886-1951) who wrote about topics ranging from "sacred science" and "traditional studies" to symbolism and initiation.
Two of Guénon’s ideas has gained an unintended legacy in right-wing politics. The first of these was a concept of time as cyclical, generalised from Hinduism: instead of advancing through history in linear fashion, progressing from a beginning toward an end, as Christians, secular humanists, Marxists and libertarians often implicitly believe, humanity is instead engulfed in a cycle, a pattern of eternal return.
This cycle proceeds through four ages, moving from golden to silver to bronze to dark, and then, after a cataclysmic event – back to golden again. Thus, save for that moment of return, time is tantamount to decline. Indeed, decline is the only thing humanity can hope for, since the gradual worsening of the world’s situation indicates that the cycle is advancing, and that darkness will soon burst into gold, when decline will set in again, on and on.
The second concept that has migrated from Guénon’s philosophy into contemporary politics was the idea of social hierarchy. Traditionalists believe the Hindu and Indo-European caste hierarchy corresponds to the turning of the ages. During the golden age, they claim, priests and spiritual values reigned over a social order made up of warriors, merchants and, finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, slaves. As the ages turn, the boundaries between castes disintegrate, culminating in a sprawling slave society infatuated with materiality and hostile to spiritual pursuits.
There is a political dimension to this social disintegration too: theocracy and the reign of a spiritual elite devolve into the reign of the masses, which is to say democracy or communism. Traditionalism thus deals in a series of oppositions: between the spiritual and material, quality and quantity.
When Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, came to the fore a few years ago, the influential Russian political strategist and fellow traditionalist Aleksandr Dugin watched with interest, regarding it as a divine signal that the turning of the dark age was nigh.
Dugin is an intellectual and a writer, but also a political operative who has served in Russian diplomatic missions in obscure ways for decades – advising some members of the Duma (parliament), mediating negotiations between the Russian government, Caucasian warlords and the Turkish state, and agitating for Russian military aggression through media commentary and street protest.
For Dugin, traditionalism is a call to arms, figuratively and literally: it means war between the values of tradition, continuity, the preservation of local particularity, theocracy – and the levelling forces of modernity, free markets, democracy, universal human rights.
But traditionalism is also a war between states: between Russia, flanked by its Eurasian partners, and the West, led by the US.
To traditionalists, a borderless, homogenised Europe represents the dark age; break the continent into smaller units, and sovereignty, order and even divinity might return.
Similar aims drove both men to oppose US military intervention in Syria in 2017 – Bannon from within Trump’s White House, Dugin as an unofficial mediator between Moscow and Ankara. They differed fundamentally in their assessment of China, however, and this disagreement would mar their first interaction.
It is an arresting realisation: that a significant number of world leaders have been advised by individuals with a profoundly unusual and incendiary worldview.
Refuge for life
Seeing horrific war brought upon the Ukrainian people pulls me back, draws me, screams me back to the war I myself experienced 30 years ago. After experiencing humans killing humans, after that, you are never the same person again. Ever. War never leaves you. The eyes of the people you have met, their words, gestures, their faces. It never leaves you at peace.
Yes, life goes on, wounds get buried, packaged, explained, but the pain never leaves you. When you flee you want to survive, you want to live. The amount of energy you possess is enormous, primal. Hunger, thirst, cold, bombs, shootings, dead people lying on the street, some of them from your class in school, some of them you laughed with some weeks ago. Unreal, real.
Those who manage to flee, after some time, find themselves in deep despair, in a darker place than in the war itself. A couple of weeks after you finally manage to sleep without the fear of being killed, and you manage to eat properly, it hits you like a train. The feeling that you have lost everything except life itself. That feeling starts tormenting you day and night. A feeling that you don’t belong anymore, anywhere. Not in the place that gave you refugee, not where you come from, not anywhere. A feeling that what was will never been again. Relationships, people, places, all of it just gone. Just like that.
Refugees never stop being refugees. It is for life, like an invisible prison sentence that you carry with you. Marked. Someone once told me that a feeling like that, refuge for life, is a choice. I wish that was true.
We are already witnessing millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine and these numbers are still very low given size of population affected by bombing, killing and atrocities. This is just the beginning. The war will unfortunately go on for some time and we can expect even larger groups of people fleeing Ukraine.
For all the good people in Europe that do what they can to help people flee and accommodate them in other European countries it is good to know that the time after they arrive is as important for these people as the survival itself. The darkness they need to face is still there and even harder to bear since it becomes crystal clear when they no longer need to run for their lives. Be there for them, talk to them. Sorrow and pain have no nationality, no religion, no ethnicity and colour. It feels the same in all languages and it means the same – just as much as hope and love do.
Should Europeans blame themselves?
Europe has a fair share of responsibility in the making of this crisis, because of the decades of economic, financial and moral support for the Russian regime by European political and corporate actors.
Kremlin’s continuous violations of humanitarian, ethical and juridical principles over the past decades did not outweigh the abundant oil, gas and coal reserves it had to offer. Nothing has stopped European companies, banks and investors from financing the Russian fossil fuel sector, the Russian government and, indirectly, the Russian war chest building.
Even Russia’s track record of military interventions abroad did not deter European companies and financiers. Not Russia’s invasion in Georgia in 2008, nor the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, nor the bombing of Syrian civilians by Putin’s aircrafts from 2015 onwards.
That the war in Ukraine had to be the final straw which finally changes European positions is therefore not just encouraging, it is also much overdue. Only now have European governments and consumers started to realize how dependent they are on Russian fossil fuels, especially gas, as prices are skyrocketing.
But it is too easy to blame Kremlin, or the gas-hunger of European gas consumers and companies for this dependency. European governments have failed to lead the way towards investing in a renewable energy infrastructure for Europe. Big European fossil fuel companies supplied their Russian partners the technologies needed to extract oil, gas and coal reserves in the harsh but vulnerable Russian ecosystems, often covered by permafrost, and to transport these fossil fuels to markets in Europe, thousands of kilometres away.
European banks and investors have fuelled the Russian oil and gas industry with billions of euros, financing all steps in the value chain, from exploration and production to pipelines and other infrastructure needed for storage and transportation.
Below are some numbers that could make you fall off your chair…
European loans & underwriting to Russian oil & gas (US$ million, 2016-2021)
European loans & underwriting to Russian coal mining (US$ million, 2016-2021)
European investors in Russian oil & gas companies (US$ million, Dec 2021)
Now, when we know all of this, and when we now know what an ESG failure looks like in practice, some of the lessons learned are the following:
The ESG data you pay for so you can say to your clients that your investment fund is “fully integrated” is not helping. Without proper ESG analysis done by people who know what to look for and understand the context of the information they are analyzing, you are in big trouble. (Spoiler: MSCI upgraded Sberbank to an A rating in December 2021…)
Invading sovereign countries will always have consequences for the people in these countries and for everything else. It can lead to bigger wars and more trouble both for people and your investments. Better safe than sorry, better to bring this to attention than ignore it. It’s better to have hundreds of very uncomfortable discussions in your investment committee than just pretend that it rains. After all, you are an ESG investor, you have signed the UN PRI etc. Or?
Commitments to Human Rights is not a piece of text on your website. If you really mean it, show how you mean it in your investments. Or just take it away from your website, don’t use it and don’t pretend that you do respect Human Rights because you don’t. In this context, the US based investors and asset managers are more honest than the European ones. Many of them don’t mean it and they don’t do it.
We do invest in companies, sovereign and corporate bonds in countries that are totalitarian in one way or the other. The world’s stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that the tables have turned. A relativistic approach does not hold water any more. The next 10 years will be far more binary. Right or wrong. It will impact your investments. China is the next Big Dragon, and we need to have a very, very, very deep look at it.
The current ESG products do not reflect what they are intended to address. This is a BIG problem. Can you explain to your clients why you hold Chinese stocks in your Article 8 and or 9 funds given what is happening in Xian? Oh yes, engagements! With Chinese government. Sure. Integrate human rights due diligence procedures in all financing and investment decisions, to avoid supporting authoritarian regimes and companies which are causing or contributing to human rights abuses.
That’s all for this week. Next week I will write about the latest IIGCC report, about an IEA energy report and about the true CO2 emissions of banks (surprise, surprise!).