[Without cotton] . . . Old England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her . . . No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on Earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king. — Senator James Hammond of South Carolina
The famine will start now and they will lift the sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realize that it’s impossible not to be friends with us. — Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today
Since I live in Europe and find myself on the political Right, this past week or two (who the hell even counts anymore?) I’ve found myself completely inundated with dire warnings that I’m going to freeze to death this coming winter because our governments have angered The Gas Gods, or because I’ve refused to accede to the erasure of the Ukrainian nation by a post-Communist multiethnic empire falsely claiming to be Russian. There’ll be no respite from the cold, no warmth, no life, because we’ve dared anger The Gas Gods by supporting “ukro-fascism” and “hohols.”
Personally, I’m usually fascinated by every freaky cult I encounter, but this one seems less freaky and more reeking of desperation. Even more than desperation (which I can understand, having stared down despair and spat in his face more than once), it reeks of shallow thinking about destabilizing equilibria.
The prophets of doom foresee a dark and cold winter for Europe until it pleases The Gas Gods by discontinuing its blasphemous “sanctions” and “weapon deliveries to the UkroReich.” Then, if Europe does that, The Gas Gods, and more specifically the head Gas Deity, a bald godhead known only as “Based Putin,” would condescend to turn their blessed flatulence Europe-ward, thus putting an end to our cruel, cold winter through their strange multipolar magicks.
In truth, we’d been hearing a lot about how gas exports to Europe make the Russian Federation geopolitically unstoppable for many years now, both in the form of warnings from people who foresaw (or know from bitter experience) that Moscow would use energy exports as a weapon, and in the form of boasts from Russian or pro-Russian trumpeters, but it is only now that the pro-Russian side’s pronouncements have taken on a febrile pitch, screamed — insofar as one can scream while typing over the Internet — in a mad cacophony that seems more designed to reassure the pronouncer than discomfort the European listener. That this coincides with the Russian armed forces getting a bloody nose on the Kherson front and a ten-foot barge pole up the rear on the Kharkiv front is probably not of any significance, or so the Gas Cultists tell me. But let’s leave them by the wayside for a while and talk about cotton.
It’s the late 1850s in America, and it is obvious that the country is a house divided. The issue of slavery, unresolved at the country’s founding, seems less likely to be resolved peacefully and amicably between the North and South. There are other issues between the North and the South as well, each quite pressing to those concerned and all pertaining to a very old conflict between Yankees and Quakers on the one hand and Virginia gentlemen and Scotch-Irish hillbillies on the other. This is a war as old as the English people themselves, a war between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, between Lancaster and York, and between Alfred the Great and Guthrum of East Anglia. Indeed, it seems that all is not well in the happy land of America, and the great gentlemen of the South are now seeking to secede from that Union which has become for them a prison.
When cooler heads raise the warning of the proposed new country’s economic viability, the great gentlemen of Virginia slam their fists on the table and cry, like Senator Hammond, that King Cotton will see them true. What will the industrial economies of Britain, France, or indeed the accursed Yankees do without King Cotton? The textile industry, the workhorse of the mid-nineteenth century industrial machine, will not be denied its cotton — and what joy, Old Dixie has completely structured her economy to serve and export King Cotton. Having done that, Old Dixie believes King Cotton will condescend to help her in her hour of need. Who makes war on Dixie, makes war on King Cotton, and he’ll rouse his dependents in England and France to rush to Dixie’s aid and destroy the damned Yankees.
Old Dixie puts her faith in King Cotton, but King Cotton has other plans. In the first year of the War of Northern Aggression, Dixie ceases all exports of raw cotton in an effort to rouse England and France into action, but finds them roused to action in a direction Old Dixie hasn’t predicted. England begins aggressively importing cotton from India and Egypt. Brazil and Argentina develop their own cotton-growing capacities to feed the voracious European industrial economies. The Russian Empire invades the Bukhara and Tashkent khanates in what is today called Uzbekistan, in part to establish itself as a cotton producer, both for export and its own industrial needs. The world has one lean year in which textile mills work at reduced capacity, but adapt the very next year. Dixie loses her source of revenue. King Cotton found other mistresses — Egyptian, Bukharan, Indian, Brazilian — leaving her alone to be ravaged by Lincoln’s marauding hordes.
The gentlemen of Old Dixie are stumped. They were proud, they were noble and of ancient blood, and they allowed themselves to be stupid. They were blinded by liberal ideology and its lure. They did not listen to their countryman George Fitzhugh when he counselled that the South in general and Virginia in particular should industrialize its economy, and do so by utilizing the state’s immense power working in concert with local interests while safeguarding the working class’ well-being, as is being done in Germany. His warnings went unheeded and Dixie has thus retained her old agrarian economy, unwilling or perhaps unable to industrialize, naïvely believing that it can dictate terms to England, France and even the damned Yankees due to its control of cotton. Old Dixie then loses the war with the damned Yankees and suffers all the woes of the vanquished.
The year is now 2022, and once again a resource-extracting country is attempting to use resource exports as a cudgel in international politics. Having supplied relatively cheap gas to Europe for the better part of the past 20 years, Russia has now ceased deliveries through Nord Stream 1 and will likely end all gas deliveries until its demands are met: Europe and America must end all sanctions against Russia and stop supplying Ukraine with weapons and resources. It has done so not expecting that the countries it supplies with gas — indeed, the countries its entire economy is structured around supplying with gas — will seek out alternative sources of gas and energy. While it is true that there will be an adjustment period where Europe will have less gas and will pay more for it, this is only until the infrastructure of the new trade routes is further developed. Gas from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Canada, Cyprus, Israel, and America will rush into Europe to fill the gap, locking Russia out of the industry and bringing the Western coalition closer together.
Before the Russo-Ukrainian War, my friend John Morgan penned an article claiming that Putin would gain far more from not invading Ukraine than from invading. While Washington and London were sounding the alarm for rooskies on the horizon, such cries were dismissed as dangerous paranoia in Paris, Berlin, and even Kyiv. In not attacking, Russia would have dispelled the American narrative about itself. Instead, when it attacked Ukraine and followed up by threatening to withhold gas sales from Europe, it confirmed every aspect of that narrative. When it failed to break the Ukrainian resistance and bogged itself down in an inadequate offensive, it even managed to confirm the McCain/Obama consensus that it is nowhere near as tough as it appeared. In attacking Ukraine and failing to defeat it quickly, whilst simultaneously threatening to stop the flow of gas to Europe, Russia painted itself in the very unenviable role of a bully who is nevertheless weak, and everybody loves a weak bully, since it means you can easily beat on him while facing no moral sanction for it.
What’s curious to me is that it seems intuitive, and one would say self-evident from the facts at hand, that Russia has far more to lose if the Europe-Russia relationship is severed. Europe may need gas, but Russia needs the European market. It lacks the infrastructure to deliver gas or even oil to its new trading partners in Asia, and these trading partners are not exactly paying fair market value for the oil they are purchasing. They can’t even purchase gas, due to the fact that the vast Russian pipeline infrastructure runs to Europe and therefore new pipelines, over rough terrain and without the aid of European technology under the sanction regime, would have to be built to service Asia. Europe has options; Russia’s main rival in the gas and geopolitical game, for one. Russia hasn’t got much in the way of options. Where Old Dixie put its faith in King Cotton, Russia now clings to President Gas, as Mark Gullick so eloquently put it. I love our good Mr. Gullick; he’s a philosopher and a poet (though he knows it not), but he gets it wrong there. Systems move when exposed to stress.
But if a retired philosophy professor can be forgiven for being naïve and thinking one-dimensionally about global energy trade, the Russian government cannot. Surely they must have known what would happen. Surely they didn’t all believe, as the lunch-stealing Mx. Simonyan does, that Europe will elect to be friends with a country that thinks it can dictate European foreign policy by withholding energy exports. It boggles the mind, but it bears repeating that modern government is not particularly well-staffed. The Russian government, consisting as it does of FSB thugs and organized crime figures, may not have the best and brightest Russians in its employ; many of them are probably part of the hated pro-Western liberal class, Moscow/St. Petersburg hipsters, or one of the Rodina’s many expatriates. Hey, they tried going against the empire-killer, what can I say? There’s a lesson there for would-be imperialists: You can’t out-empire liberalism.
Let’s be charitable and outline three scenarios here. Scenario A: The Kremlin believed Ukraine would break quickly enough so that sanctions could be avoided. Scenario B: The Kremlin believed Europe would not respond to the invasion. Scenario C: The Kremlin actually believes it can break European resolve by withholding gas. None of these scenarios is particularly charitable to the great, bald heads of the Russian Federation, but let’s consider them nonetheless. Personally, I believe that Scenario A is the one they are following, and that everything that has happened since the February/March Kyiv offensive stalled out has been the result of the Russian state flying by the seat of its pants. Of course, I could be wrong, since this is the course I would have taken if I were in charge of the Russian government, but then again I would not have attacked Ukraine if I were in charge of the Russian government. Scenario B is less likely, but let me address it along with scenario C, because they derive from the same root assumption.
If Moscow’s gamble was that Europe would not respond to the invasion, then it’s safe to assume that Moscow considers Europe too selfish and provincial to make sacrifices for Ukraine. Similarly, if Moscow believes it can break European resolve by withholding gas, it means that Moscow assumes Europeans are too dependent on material comfort and will therefore break if pain is applied. This, of course, is a fundamental underestimation of the Northwestern European character, whose first instinct when exposed to pain is to counterattack. Russians think themselves tough and capable of great endurance, but they are little children compared to Northwestern Europeans in the full throes of moral outrage, and as we have already pointed out, by invading Ukraine and failing to break it, Russia has shown itself to be both morally reprehensible (in both the prevailing moral paradigm and in the nationalist paradigm as well) and weak enough to retaliate against without significant pushback.
Contrary to Russian narratives about them, Europeans are neither provincial nor weak. Russia’s Europe-facing propaganda has made appeals to provincialism (why should you suffer for Ukraine?) and to weakness (you will freeze and starve; yield now). But it is trying to propagandize a people who has a vast world-consciousness, even among its common folk, as well as vast strength of moral conviction. We may not like the moral paradigm currently in place, but we must not underestimate the great power that moral conviction arouses in European people.
So, what started as a question of economics has become a question of will. Does Europe have what it takes to keep refusing Russia’s demands, and does Russia have what it takes to survive long enough without the European energy market? That remains to be seen, although my money is on Europe. Historical precedent shows that the European spirit doesn’t break easily and that Europeans do not respond well to blackmail. Distasteful though I may find the absolute demonization of Russia and Russians, I understand that it is being done to activate the powerful European moral instinct in service of this struggle. As for Russia, for all the chest-beating, its will to fight is so low that it’s not even willing to call its war in Ukraine a war, insisting that it’s waging a “special military operation” and denying itself a bevy of foreign policy options as a result of such a stance, to say nothing of solving its chronic manpower problems with mobilization or putting its economy on a war footing.
Man has always been in awe of the fruits of the Earth. We ascribe magical powers to them and revere them as minor or major gods. The gentlemen of Virginia spoke of King Cotton — but cotton was never a king. The neo-Chekists in charge of the Russian government thought themselves possessed of great power in the form of gas, but they forgot that markets are a two-way street and that Europeans are made of sterner stuff than old Soviet propaganda would have them believe. Ultimately, the fate of the world is not decided by resources or by inanimate objects, but by men and their will to fight, live, build, die, and kill. Moscow greatly underestimated the flexibility of Europe’s economy, but more importantly it underestimated European and Ukrainian resolve. They did that because they refused to take either Europeans or Ukrainians seriously — but that’s a story for another day.
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