Archive for April, 2019

Ukrainian politics as Reality-FB

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2019 by Adrian J Ivakhiv

A few days I ago I posted about how Ukraine’s election of comedian Ze as its president will put them at the forefront of the trend for “politics as reality-TV,” and how that may not be entirely a bad thing. (For one thing, it’s democracy at work; for another, Ze’s hologrammatic persona will become real and Ukrainians will then be able to respond to reality instead of to an empty signifier of ‘change’; for a third, it would make, and has now made, Ukraine the second country in the world with both a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister, which incidentally would disprove all those Russian propaganda memes about Ukraine’s “fascism” and “anti-Semitism” for anyone who still needs to have them disproven.)

I missed one crucial element then: the extent to which Ukrainian politics had already been Facebookized, i.e., to which social media have spun Ukrainians into polar extremes, both of which seem to have fallen off one or another edge of consensus reality. Ukrainians have long been polarized, which has accounted for their revolutions and political oscillations, but the pro-western cultural nationalists and the left-liberal progressives (among the intellectuals I connect with) have usually had significant overlap between them. Now they seem to have departed into separate realities. (And that’s not to speak of larger cultural divides.)

(I could offer a couple of dozen posts and comments from friends to display these divergences in pretty stark terms. Reading them is difficult, because I know and respect some of these people. They are at least my “friends.”)

That social media would be so powerful among the population at large no longer surprises me (see Brazil, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Brexit, Trump). That it’s so powerful among intellectuals still does. This development deserves a new term: not politics not as reality-TV but politics as “reality-FB.”

More for us media scholars to keep up with, I guess. Happy Earth Day, Україна.

Four theses on Ukrainian politics

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2019 by Adrian J Ivakhiv

1. Ukraine is on the verge of overtaking all rivals in the race to equate politics with reality-TV. (The leading presidential contender is a comedian and entertainer who played president on a TV show.) Whether they cross over that verge will be decided in a runoff election on April 21.

2. Ukrainians are more savvy than most about their politicians. The majority of Ukrainians are well aware that oligarchic interests control most political parties and media outlets. They know who these oligarchs are, and they have at least a vague idea of how they became oligarchs. (Being young and forward-looking party insiders, they cleverly positioned themselves to carve out the spoils of industry and commerce among themselves in the transition from Soviet Ukraine to independent Ukraine.) This compares favorably to a country like the United States, where partisans on one side or the other have a vague idea that George Soros or the Koch Brothers might be responsible for something or other, but have only the vaguest fantasy of how the ultra-rich got that way or of how they continue to dominate politics. This means that Ukrainians are more sophisticated consumers of their own political systems than most, and that, in principle, they could eliminate oligarchy more easily than could the citizens of most countries.

As Vlad Davidzon writes in The Tablet,

The Ukrainian people have been conditioned into political cynicism—or let’s call it sophistication—by a Byzantine political system of ever-shifting alliances ruled by parties led by oligarchs and charismatic characters. Characters who are made for television. They have similarly been trained by the many hours they spend watching oligarch owned television shows to know exactly which politician belongs to which oligarch. Even the most ordinary television viewers seems to intuitively grasp the literary stratagem that the smirking Kolomoyski is exploring with his television show about a show about a political novice entering politics through a television show funded by a caricature of an evil Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch [editor’s note: Kolomoisky, and Zelenskyi, are Jewish-Ukrainians.]

The entire phenomenon is like a television show about a television show about a television show which suddenly transforms into freakish reality. Except for the fact that the auto-fictional demarcation line between fact and fiction is glaringly obvious to everyone.

3. For a political system dominated by oligarchic interests, Ukraine’s is surprisingly pluralistic. Leading politicians know how to play the oligarchs against each other. Ukraine has in fact made more progress, in the last five years, at reforming its oligarchic and dysfunctional tendencies than have most countries. If its president is its oligarch-in-chief, the fact that his own wealth has diminished over his reign (by nearly half) is a positive sign. (He is down to 11th position among wealthiest Ukrainians.) If he is replaced by the comedian-in-chief (backed by oligarch number 2, who lives in exile in Israel), there appears little chance that that individual would bring all the rival oligarchic interests together into a loving community. Since rival oligarchs own rival media chains, a certain measure of pluralism is built into the system.

4. As with all oligarchic or plutocratic “democracies,” this pluralism is restricted to issues that don’t threaten the overriding interests of the oligarchic class. The question, for Ukrainian reformers and radicals, is not how to challenge authority per se (as it is, say, in Russia) so much as it is how to find the cracks between authorities so as to create spaces where democratic reforms and rule of law can take root and grow. This makes Ukraine more akin to the US, Canada, western European countries, or India than to Russia, China, or the more centralized authoritarian states.

I guess all of that is why I’m not fretting too much over the upcoming presidential runoff election. I have good friends who are fretting, for cultural or geopolitical reasons (due to the presence of seemingly pro-Russian voices in the circles around him, or to a distrust of that oligarch number 2, or for a certain lightness in his treatment of topics they take seriously — he is, after all, a comedian). But I don’t see this election through those lenses, and haven’t seen in Zelenskyi the kind of reflexive authoritarianism that worries me in some other candidates. A certain balancing out has to occur in a pluralistic nation, and as long as there are checks and balances to prevent consolidation of authority, there are more important things to fight for than the presidency. There may even be gains to be made with a shifting of the prospects for reform.

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