March 8, 2024 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Progressive opposition to fighting Putin in Ukraine undermines progressive goals

If we refuse to help, we aren’t saving funds to create a safety net at home. We’re handing fascists a huge win, writes Noah Berlatsky

Jimmy Dore, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jimmy Dore, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following, delivered today to Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Everything Is Horrible, Noah’s newsletter. Highly recommended. Warning: this essay features salty language. –JS

Asshole rightwingers like Tucker Carlson insist that money to defend Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s imperialist invasion could be better spent on tormenting immigrants and asylum seekers. This is to be expected from asshole rightwingers. They are rightwingers and they are assholes.

What’s disturbing is the way in which purportedly progressive commenters have embraced these same talking points. Erstwhile leftist Glenn Greenwald (on Carlson’s show no less) demanded to know, “How will you or your family’s lives be protected or fostered by sending tens of billions of dollars, now in excess of $100 billion, for the war in Ukraine?” (Greenwald’s numbers, inevitably, are inflated.) Comedian and (supposedly) progressive YouTuber Jimmy Dore declared, “We could have spent that [Ukraine] money saving lives with universal healthcare, but instead, we spend that money taking lives overseas, which is our specialty.”

Encouraging people to believe that we don’t have money to fund the priorities we want is death for progressives, because (a) it is untrue, (b) it puts unnecessary limits on our dreams and (c) it acquiesces in a politics of all against all, which the powerful are best positioned to win.

A lot of people would argue that Greenwald and Dore cultivate a rightwing audience and aren’t really progressive. I would agree. They have leftwing fans, though, and I’ve seen similar opinions circulating in progressive spaces. So I think it’s worth reiterating why these arguments are terrible.

Fighting Putin is important for everyday Americans and will improve their lives. Spending on Ukraine is a cheap, vital way to advance progressive policies, like universal healthcare. Surrendering to fascists will not usher in a progressive utopia — you fucking dopes.

The scarcity mindset
Progressive and reactionary calls to end Ukraine aid are often framed as if spending for Ukraine comes directly out of domestic priorities. “We’re spending billions on Ukraine rather than keeping that money here to torment immigrants/provide universal healthcare.” The assumption is there’s a limited pot of money, and if you send money to defend Ukraine, you have less money to spend on vital domestic priorities. It’s a scarcity argument.

But this is not how government spending works. The US has vast resources. The $75 billion we’ve spent on Ukraine over the course of several years is little more than a rounding error in our $6 trillion a year budget.

More, the US is not a household. It is not limited by what it can take in in revenue, because it can print its own money and borrow on its massive credit. 

We just had a massive experiment with stimulus spending. The US spent some $5 trillion on pandemic relief. This was substantially more than most peer countries. The spending did not bankrupt the US or bottom out US coffers, per scarcity fearmongering. On the contrary, stimulus spending boosted the US economy; the unemployment rate has been below 4 percent for two years. Job growth is booming. After a painful spike, even inflation has fallen drastically over the last year.

When America finds money to battle serious crises, the economy benefits. Deficit spending doesn’t harm the US. In the right circumstances, it helps. The US is a wealthy country with unique financial reserves. Spending on worthwhile programs and priorities is the opposite of a waste. It is a boon for everyone.

Republicans don’t want us to think of the US as a nation of abundance. They love to argue for austerity. For Republicans, any amount of spending on, say, school lunches, is too much. The GOP likes to frame this as “fiscal responsibility.” But the truth is that they just don’t want to spend money to help people. Or, as Jonathan Bernstein puts it, the Republicans engage in a “war on budgeting”: “For most Republicans, ‘deficit’ simply means stuff they don’t like, and what the federal government spends doesn’t have anything to do with what the federal government raises.”

The GOP says they can’t spend on (for example) healthcare, because we lack the money. But “we lack the money” just means “we don’t want people to have healthcare.” The war on budgeting is a way to create the appearance of zero-sum choices and to cultivate a politics of resentment. The GOP wants people to think that helping others hurts you, rather than recognizing that helping each other lifts up everyone.

People on the left sometimes in the past have embraced a scarcity frame too, arguing, for example, that we should scrap bombers to pay for schools. As a rhetorical ploy, it can sometimes be effective in the short term. But ultimately, encouraging people to believe that we don’t have money to fund the priorities we want is death for progressives, because (a) it is untrue, (b) it puts unnecessary limits on our dreams and (c) it acquiesces to a politics of all-against-all, which the powerful are best positioned to win.

Punch Putin in the face, pull a child out of poverty
US policy has few practical fiscal limits. It has political limits. Jimmy Dore, etc., claim we can’t fund Ukraine because we don’t have enough money to do that and fund universal health care. But the truth is that funding Ukraine is an investment in universal healthcare. If we don’t stop Putin, we acquiesce to fascism. And fascists, who hate the poor and marginalized, do not want to fund the social safety net.

It sounds contradictory to argue that spending more to help Ukraine is the best way to ensure funding for progressive priorities like the expanded child tax credit, a public option or student loan forgiveness. But the logic is straightforward. As I noted in a couple of weeks ago, Putin is committed to US election interference to help Republicans.

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Trump has used Putin’s propaganda as his comms network. He does do advertising on television and the internet and so forth, like most politicians. But his not-so-secret weapon, the ace stapled to his forehead, is Russian disinformation. Putin hacks and smears Trump’s enemies. And in return, Trump and the GOP praise Putin and promise to block Ukraine aid and undermine NATO. It’s not bribery or blackmail. It’s quid pro quo.

Republicans vote to cut aid in Ukraine. In return, Putin uses Russian disinformation to boost Trump and the GOP. And when the GOP get into power, what do they do? Do they pass universal healthcare, per Jimmy Dore’s wish? Or do they slash social security and create a national abortion ban? Greenwald says that Ukraine aid doesn’t affect everyday Americans. But if Putin helps the GOP take power, then, yes, Glenn, people’s lives will be much, much worse.

Reactionaries and fascists love to appeal to selfishness, insularity and a cramped resentful entitlement. They want you to say, “I can’t afford to care about suffering over there and fuck you for asking me too.”

But suffering over there and suffering here aren’t so easily divisible. Fascism is a global network, and empowering Putin empowers reactionaries worldwide. That includes the reactionaries next door like Trump and Tucker Carlson and, you know, maybe Greenwald too, who are eager to put their boots on your neck.

Putin badly overextended himself in Ukraine and gave world democracies an easy way to oppose his fascist agenda abroad and at home. If we refuse to help Ukraine, we aren’t saving funds to create a safety net at home. We’re handing the fascists a huge win. They will not use it to pay for a better healthcare system.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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