Friday, December 27, 2013

The groundlessness of revolution

Adrian Ivakhiv
University of Vermont
Every violent suppression of dissent is violence against the humanity that is being born. The world to come is at stake in these encounters.
That's what I tweeted two nights ago while watching what looked like the squashing of a revolution, when riot police appeared by the thousands and began moving in on the territory held by Ukrainian protesters in downtown Kyiv (Kiev, pronounced "kay-eev" in Ukrainian). Watching these events on the multiple live video feeds available to a global audience was transfixing. Together with the constant stream of commentary in social media -- I followed Facebook, Twitter, and the feeds on the streaming TV sites, but there were other options available -- made it seem like a genuinely global insurrectionary event.

But what is this event?
The faces, maneuvers, weapons -- shields and truncheons versus hardhats, flowers, megaphones, and makeshift barricades -- all look pretty similar to the pictures we have seen from Greece, Spain, and other internal peripheries of the EU. But these protestors are protesting for Europe, not against it.
There’s one narrative – let’s call it the anti-authoritarian one – that says it's all the same thing. And that is what most Ukrainian protestors will tell you: they are not protesting for the EU, or for a particular economic policy, so much as they’re against authoritarianism, corruption, disregard for popular desires, and the crony capitalism of a coterie of oligarchs aligned with Russia, Ukraine's centuries-old imperial overlord.
Having little experience with the economic challenges of actual EU integration, Europe is seen by these Ukrainians as the side of the angels. Authoritarianism sucks (for these people), while democracy, pluralism, an open media, and a kind of national dignity -- seen as likelier in Greater Europe than in a Greater Russia -- are objects of intense desire. These had been held out as possibilities for months and then whisked away at the last minute, with every indication that it was under pressure from Russia.
Another narrative -- the cabal narrative -- comes in two opposed variants. In one, the protestors are dupes supported and encouraged by Europe, the U.S., global capitalism, or some Jewish-masonic-homosexual cabal. These pictures of Russian Orthodox counter-protestors -- with signs reading "No to integration with EuroSodom!", "Revolution is the Devil's tool," and the timeless "Grant us, God, such a leader who would free us from the Jews" -- tell the story well.
"No! to integration into the EuroSodom!"
Sentiments like these make up a growing part of Russian president Putin's patriotic-authoritarian hegemonic strategy, aimed to re-establish a Russian-dominated Eurasian counterforce to the West. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has appealed to the same Russophone traditionalists in Ukraine's south and east to prop up his faltering power base.
On the other side are conspiracy narratives that place Russia at the base of all sorts of moves to curtail Ukrainian sovereignty and bring the former Soviet republic back into the imperial fold.
If, as the saying goes, just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me, both these paranoid narratives are largely correct. Russia under Putin is maneuvering -- via economic blackmail at least, but there's a long history of cloak-and-dagger and backroom strategies too -- to keep Ukraine tightly economically and culturally confined within a Russian orbit.
And vice versa: Ukraine’s pro-western activists have their supporters in the west, and these – like George Soros's NGOs, advisors from both U.S. political parties, Gene Sharp’s nonviolent revolution folks and other pro-democracy groups -- have sometimes provided money and tools for their activism. (Some of those lessons in nonviolent resistance continue to serve the activists well.) 
And it's undeniable that entry into the Eurozone would lead to cultural changes including more support for such western institutions as rights for gays and religious minorities, media freedoms (which include the freedom of Hollywood to dominate movie screens), and the like. However you parse it, Europe really is the devil, if you believe in that particular devil.
To western eyes, we'd seen all this before in the Orange Revolution of 2004. Then, pro-western protestors demonstrated across the country and brought down a president-elect who was widely seen as falsifying election results to take power.
Not even the villain has changed since then: the president today is the same Viktor Yanukovich, who staged a comeback following the collapse of the Orange Revolution coalition, which faltered after president Viktor Yushchenko's falling out with his Orange ally, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yushchenko's perceived ineptitude fragmented the Orange bloc, and Yanukovich, upon his reelection, quickly moved to sideline and jail Tymoshenko on trumped-up corruption charges. She is two years into a seven-year sentence, and western pressure to release her has been an important condition for closer EU integration.
What has changed since 2004 is that things have gotten worse economically and the country is at risk of economic default.
As with political leaders in other divided countries, campaigning is always more colorful than governing, which typically results in a shift to the center. Geopolitically, for Ukraine, finding that center means playing East and West -- Russia and Europe – against each other. Both Yanukovich's months-long creep toward Europe and his quick slide back can be interpreted as moves to obtain better offers from either geopolitical partner.  
A more significant factor is that the oligarchs who have supported Yanukovich all along are slipping out from under him. 
It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which Ukraine is an oligarchic system. The leaders of its capital-owning class are billionaires, most of them former nominal Communists (or Communist Youth leaders) who positioned themselves skillfully at the end of the Soviet era to carve up the country's capital among themselves. Joined by their children and friends now, they align themselves along a series of fractures and internecine squabbles that require a skillful manager to balance one group against another whilst keeping them all happy enough.
No Ukrainian president since Independence has ruled without the support of some, if not most, of the oligarchs. Yanukovich's backers have included Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest man (47th on the Forbes list of billionnaires, down from 39th a year ago), but he, Dmytro Firtash, Viktor Pinchuk (son-in-law of former president Kuchma), and others have reportedly abandoned Yanukovich. That's why the protests have been so widely televised in Ukraine -- many of these oligarchs control their own media empires -- and why they have been effective.
One of the observers of Yanukovich’s recent round table meeting with his three presidential predecessors, noted that all four, along with the opposition party leaders, are victims of a mentality the protestors reject: the presumption that their power was granted them in recognition of their talents. The protests, Yevhen Hlibovetskyi wrote, “are a bell ringing not only for Yanukovich. The ground is falling out from under the feet of the whole political class.” 
It is this groundlessness that has always been both revolution's greatest appeal and its gravest danger. That sense of not knowing what is to come next, and of the future being suddenly wide open.
But even if that ground were to open wide enough to swallow Yanukovich, and a few oligarchs with him, it is not yet wide enough to swallow oligarchy itself.
For one thing, it’s not clear who can mediate between the power class and “the people.” The Kyiv demonstrations have featured opposition politicians as well as musicians (like Ruslana, one-time winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and later a member of parliament), priests and church leaders, academics, and others. None of the oppositionists, save perhaps World Boxing champion Vitaliy Klichko, are thought to have the clout and personality to win a presidential election. With the charismatic, if divisive, Tymoshenko still in jail, it's hard to see who will step into the void to bring activists and the political class together. 
The country is likely to muddle through without much change at the top. (And arguably, it's change in the middle -- in the balance between parliamentary and presidential governance -- where changes are most needed.) The oligarchs will survive, handily. Without them the protest movement is likely as doomed as is Yanukovich. If anyone is threatening all the oligarchs at once, it is the extremes -- the far left and far right -- who are likely to remain marginal within either a European or Greater Russian scenario. 
Abolishing oligarchy is not even on the books of what's possible right now. But that's no reason not to work in that direction, one revolution at a time.
But it's at ground level -- and at the level of mediated public culture -- where the most interesting things may be happening.
Watching Tim Pool's Revolt in Kiev livestream two nights ago -- one of the streaming video feeds with English language commentary (see for others) -- felt to me like watching a sports match. The commentary described what each side was doing: "now they appear to be taking apart the barricades with some large tools..." etc. Layers of commentary were churned out by viewers around the world, whose numbers were tabulated as we went: so many thousands viewing now, so many million total views.
Social media have created a second layer to political action, a second nature to the first nature of urban resistance. The two natures need each other and multiply each other: without social media, the streets are silent, but without the streets, social media are ineffective and somehow wildly unreal.
But if this is, in part, a media revolution, it also depends on traditional media – which means on some of the tycoons who control it. More importantly, it depends on the takeover of public squares and buildings, the barricading of roads and entryways, and courageous decisions made by several hundred thousand Ukrainians placing their bodies on the line. 
Democratization requires passionate revolts as well as painstaking groundwork and institution building. Yanukovich may be brought down, but the hard work will lie ahead.
What will have been gained is that there will be a generation of Ukrainians who'll have experienced the power of self-organization -- twice now. Having been disillusioned once by the political order's taming of the Orange Revolution, they now realize it takes more than fiery speeches and the adrenaline rush of mass action for real change to take place. 
But the visceral experience of that action sinks into one’s loins and stays there for good. As shown in these events of the last few weeks, disillusionment is never permanent. But revolution – the need for it and the skills to bring it about -- may be.
A longer version of this essay can be read at Immanence 



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