Toward deoligarchization?

10 12 2022

The Washington Post‘s article “War has tamed Ukraine’s oligarchs, creating space for democratic change” makes for a useful read, despite some seemingly contradictory premises: i.e., (1) that the war might be bad for Ukrainian oligarchs and good for Ukrainian democracy, and (2) that humanizing Ukrainian oligarchs is good for understanding what oligarchy is. The first of these is very good news, if it turns out to be true; the second is a little ambiguous.

Yes, it helps to know who Rinat Akhmetov, and others like him, are. But the point I would like to see made more clearly is that the “transition from communism to capitalism” (as it’s commonly but inadequately described) presented a massive opportunity for capitalization — the creation of largely unregulated new markets that amounted to a massive “land grab” akin to the opening up of the American frontier — that was taken advantage of by those best positioned for it (the young Communist party managerial class) at the expense of the vast majority of Ukrainians, Russians, et al.

Such moments of “mass capitalization” (or “frontierization”) need to be much better theorized and understood because they are so consequential to the history that follows, and because we are all affected by them.

In the West, the largest such opening up in decades was the capitalization of online behavior and “attention” that enabled the new class of global oligarchs (the owners of Google/Alphabet, Facebook/Meta, Apple, Microsoft, et al) to become the wealthiest people in the world. Capitalism thrives at such moments of “creative destruction,” which extract what’s monetizable from its previous embeddedness within sociocultural, ethical, and cosmological relations that had kept them viable but, from a capitalist viewpoint, “unfree.” (This is why reading Karl Polanyi is still so important. And why understanding capitalism and developing a viable alternative to it – democratic mixed economies that allow for a re-embedding in society and ecology – is the only way forward beyond the climatological apocalypse of extractivist industrialism.)

Just as Ukrainians, Russians, and other post-Soviets are still living with the consequences of the 1990s land/industry grab (that the Post article describes), we are all living the consequences of the 2000s “mind grab” by digital media industries (that Zuboff and others have described). Meanwhile, the global South is still living with the consequences of the 1500s-1800s “land/body/spirit” grab of colonialism. The question is how to (democratically) rein in all of these at the same time, globally.

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Dale: a Leninist defense of Ukraine

19 08 2022

In “Lenin, Ukraine, and the Amnesia of the ‘Anti-War Left‘,” Tom Dale provides an incisive analysis of the contemporary Left’s failure to substantively analyze the war in Ukraine. Writing in the independent socialist magazine New Politics, Dale writes:

The left lacks a unified theory of geopolitics, capitalism, war, and movement strategy to act as a reference point for its internal discussion. It lacks even a range of contending, explicitly articulated theoretical perspectives drawn from within its own ranks, and consistent with its broader world view, that clearly describe the lines of debate.

What it has instead is a mess of half-examined folk-theories, sentiments, and habits of argument. These have been drawn impressionistically from recent history, borrowed selectively from philosophically incompatible traditions—such as realism—or half-excavated from the bedrock of the left’s own past.

The article draws in depth on Vladimir Lenin’s own writings and positions to show that the founding father of the Soviet Union, for all his contradictions, had a much more nuanced understanding of war than today’s “anti-war left” has shown itself capable of. In his conclusion, Dale argues that the war in Ukraine

pits a flawed democracy against a personal autocracy; a social system with the potential for evolution against one hard-cased by a police state; and national self-determination against colonial annexation and cultural annihilation. Whatever one thinks, strategically, of Ukraine’s manner of handling its relations with the West and Russia, these are the matters at stake, and the primary ground on which the question of military support should be decided.

The full article can be read here.

Balibar: on the war’s globalized ‘hybridity’

7 08 2022

It’s rare for a western European left-wing philosopher to be so well informed about Ukraine, and for that alone Etienne Balibar’s article “In the War: Nationalism, Imperialism, Cosmopolitics,” published back in June and translated here on the Spil’ne/Commons web site, deserves reading and sharing.

On the whole I think it is an excellent piece, which analyzes the Russo-Ukrainian war in all its multidimensionality — as a war of independence (for Ukrainians), a continuation of a “long European civil war,” a war that raises important questions about nationalism and neo-imperialism, a globalized and hybrid war involving rival military and economic alliances, and a war that is further “hybridized” by the “environmental catastrophe” that “shifts and subverts all borders in the world, particularly the borders between the habitable and inhabitable regions, and the ‘frontiers’ of exploitable regions at the cost of immense destructions of natural landscapes.”

I have a few minor qualms with the piece. One is that by referring first to the war’s being a “war of independence,” Balibar risks overemphasizing Ukrainians’ agency in causing it. The war is first and foremost a war of attempted colonial (imperial) conquest. That Russian hostility was triggered by the Maidan “revolution” of 2013-14 is not at issue. But that “revolution” did not challenge the boundaries of Ukraine or Russia; Russian incursions (in support of ostensible “separatists”) did. I take this as an oversight of emphasis, since Balibar is well aware that, as he puts it, “We can never forget which armies invaded Ukraine and currently destroy it.”

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‘De-oligarchization’ & more

30 07 2022

While winning and/or stopping the war in and against Ukraine remains paramount to the interests of most Ukrainians, the government included, the anonymously authored Substack and Telegram channels Events in Ukraine provide insightful, English-language coverage of other things going on both within and affecting the country. These include the role of oligarchs in the war, recent “de-oligarchization” reforms, pro-EU and anti-NATO sentiments among Ukrainians, class contradictions, and the unlikelihood of any sort of Marshall Plan for Ukraine’s post-war future.

From what I can tell, the author is an economically astute leftist with insights into the country’s politics that an outsider is unlikely to have. (He or she currently lives in a neighboring country, but that’s all I’ve seen divulged.) The author’s penchant for republishing translations of articles from the reputedly “pro-Russian” site raises questions about their biases (though nowadays “pro-Russian” doesn’t mean the same thing as it did before February, which is why I add the scare quotes). That said, the two sites provide insights that are worth getting despite any question of “balancing” perspectives. I wish their anonymity didn’t muddy the picture.

I found the recent piece on “de-oligarchization” (and its follow-up) particularly interesting; it’s worth reading as a counterpoint to the recent piece on “democratization” that I shared here.

Open Letter to Chomsky

20 05 2022

Since my response to Noam Chomsky elicited quite a flurry of feedback, both pro and con (and occasionally in between), I suspect readers will also be interested in the Open Letter to Noam Chomsky published yesterday by four Ukrainian academic economists.

The authors challenge Chomsky on several premises underlying his arguments concerning Ukraine and Russia. These include his denial of Ukraine’s sovereign territorial integrity (violated by Russia in contravention of several international agreements to which Russia was a signatory), his treatment of Ukraine as a pawn on a geo-political chessboard, the misplaced causality of his argumentation about NATO, and his utter incomprehension of the genocidal and frankly fascist motivations underlying Russia’s invasion. All of these premises are rooted in a selective anti-imperialism that, as I have argued , ignores the multiple forms imperialism can take in order to fight a single imperialism, equated with the U.S.-led West. The risk with such selectivity is that it chooses “strange bedfellows” (since it actually aligns with some fascistic anti-westerners like Dugin and now Putin).

As I argued in my E-Flux piece, the only kind of anti-imperialism that makes ethical and political sense today is a decolonial anti-imperialism, and “Decoloniality is by definition not just an anti-imperialism, but an anti-all-imperialisms. That makes every place in the world an ‘obligatory passage point’ for decolonialism.” Ukraine today is a site for decolonial, anti-imperialist struggle against a force whose cutting edge is the neo-imperial Putin regime, but whose fellow travelers are found around the world (especially, but not exclusively, on the political right).

Read the complete Open Letter here.

Kravchuk: Cancel Ukraine’s debt

13 03 2022

Jacobin has also interviewed Commons‘s managing editor and economist Oleksandr Kravchuk, who argues forcefully that western countries hoping to aid Ukraine should begin by canceling its foreign debt. An online petition has been started to make this case more broadly known.

While some on the liberal left (rightfully) lament the fact that Ukrainian refugees are treated better than refugees from Africa or the Middle East, Kravchuk reminds readers that Ukraine is “the northern part of the Global South and the poorest country in Europe, fighting for this place with Moldova.” That doesn’t excuse the evident racial discrimination, but putting it in economic terms at least makes the case more complex than the trope that sees Ukrainians as worthy of support because they are “middle-class like us,” “drive the same cars,” and so on.

In a 2015 article in Spil’ne/Commons, Kravchuk had provided a detailed history of Ukraine’s reliance on external debt, including the mechanisms by which debt dependency encouraged social spending cuts and other austerity measures. As Kravchuk notes in the Jacobin interview, “Sooner or later the war will end,” and the requirement of debt servicing will only mean a massive drain on an economy overstretched by the necessity to rebuild both the bombed infrastructure and the countless lives disrupted and displaced by the wreckage.

Chomsky on Ukraine

6 03 2022

I have great admiration for Noam Chomsky’s intelligence and for his perseverance in presenting a detailed and informed counterpoint to extant media narratives on international affairs. But that perseverance can become bullishness when it insists upon a version of history that is one-sided and out of dialogue with so many other scholars and historians who study these things.

Chomsky’s recent analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. It repeats things that are considered myths or at least half-truths by many who study Ukraine — such as the “Nato expansion” trope, which ignores the reasons why post-Soviet and East European states wanted the protection of NATO, and which in the case of Ukraine become painfully obvious. This becomes a debate over the tail wagging the dog: did Russia invade because NATO expanded? Or did NATO expand because of the fear of Russia invading? And even if the first, is NATO’s expansion really a threat to Russia, or just to Putin’s regime, which fears it (and Ukraine’s capacity for democracy) because it fears democracy?

These arguments should be made with more than just a quick nod to those experiencing the current situation on the ground. One of Chomsky’s Ukrainian translators, author and novelist Artem Chapeye, has penned a brief and somewhat angry response to Chomsky here; Taras Bilous’s piece that I shared recently is another response to this line of thought.

Aside from the fact that Chomsky’s analysis feels a million miles away from the reality that Ukrainians (and those who know them and support them) are feeling, there is something deeper in his writing that I would like to address here. This is that Chomsky writes as if we were still stuck in a (just barely) post Cold War world where the US and its allies are globally hegemonic, and in which they are ultimately responsible for all global ills — which they elicit either through their own acts (e.g., Vietnam, the Iraq War, and countless other misguided episodes) or as “blowback” via the agents that arise in response to them (from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and Isis). This is an “anti-imperialism” that recognizes only one empire across the entirety of the last 150 years or so (and it’s not even Hardt and Negri’s globalized “Empire,” which marked an important advance on this kind of thinking).  

The problem is that the world has moved on. The US is no longer the world’s uncontested global hegemon. It may try to be, but it is not likely to recover that status, especially in the wake of Trump and the social divisions that brought the country close to the point of civil war. Its economic superiority has declined, and with global geopolitics being what they are in the late fossil fuel (becoming early green-energy) era, the economic world is clearly more scrambled and multipolar.

Militarily, the US is still the world’s strongest nation, but it relies for its strength on its allies, who are not as reliable as they used to be. China’s and India’s militaries are larger by personnel, and Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal.

The US’s cultural “superiority” — which, as Gramsci showed, is essential to hegemony — has also declined: Hollywood (with its selling of the “American dream”) is hardly all-powerful, popular music comes from everywhere today, and US-led cultural liberalism finds itself entangled in struggles against variations of a cultural conservatism that are arguably, if somewhat inchoately, finding common cause across “civilizational” boundaries. Russia’s information warfare on this front has indeed been powerful in many countries.

Where the US does still maintain a clear edge is with its tech giants — Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, et al. — but these are less American than they are global, and they compete within a global mix in which Chinese (Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, et al), Russian (Yandex, VK), and other companies carve out large swaths of territory, just as China’s Belt and Road Initiative is doing that for infrastructure.

Chomsky and others writing in the classic “anti-imperialist” mode are aware of these things, but they tend to relegate them to the sidelines. This means that they miss the ways in which new alliances, and potential new hegemonies, are emerging. The fact that the populations of China and India alone account for nearly 3 of the world’s 8 billion people, that their economies now make up nearly one quarter of the world’s, and that their relationship to the US-led world order is somewhat uncertain, tells us that things are shifting. The Global South is no longer a pawn and a battlefield for the superpowers of the North. Europe’s role in all of this is also complex and becoming more autonomous from the US’s.

And if the bigger picture is more complicated than Chomsky’s view suggests, the view from the ground is all the more so. Chapeye writes:

“I beg you to listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves.”

Analyzing geopolitics is essential to understanding the world, but it is also a tricky game if it becomes disconnected from the ethics of real-world events. Chomsky follows the political-economic realist’s playbook: What are the material and strategic interests of the powers that be? How have they come to be this way? But that misses the possibilities of the moment and ignores the agency and desire of everyday people, whose actions can reshape the possibilities for tomorrow’s world.

Geopolitics: The Ukraine conflict in the multipolar world order

30 07 2014

Here are some recent pieces, from a variety of political perspectives, helpful for understanding the geopolitical implications of the Russia-Ukraine (and effectively Russia-U.S.) conflict.

Most of these focus on the recent Russia-China gas deal, and together they underscore the importance of the Russia-China relationship in the unfolding multi-polar geopolitics of the post-2008 world economy.

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The Nation, sanctions, & following the money

25 07 2014

Readers of The Nation and listeners of Democracy Now — two of the leading U.S. venues for left-wing thought — have been subjected to a somewhat incessant drumbeat of views sympathetic to the official Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As I’ve written here before, both Stephen Cohen and, more recently, his wife (and Nation editor/publisher) Katrina Vanden Heuvel have argued that the entire conflict should be blamed on the West — the U.S., its European and NATO allies, and pro-western and ostensibly right-wing Ukrainians.

In “Putin’s Pal,Slate‘s Cathy Young summarizes the case against Cohen’s (and Vanden Heuvel’s) views, while astutely contextualizing it within Cohen’s history of scholarship and commentary on the Soviet Union and Russia. While some of Cohen’s and Vanden Heuvel’s worries cannot be brushed away — war has its casualties and some of these will be civilians, on both sides or on no side — their narrative of U.S. and Ukrainian responsibility and Russian victimhood is unfair and their assessment of western media coverage also inaccurate.

And there’s little point in casting that conflict as merely a Ukrainian civil war, as Vanden Heuvel does. Any analyst of Russian (and Ukrainian) media ought to see that it is clearly a war — something between a cold war and a hot one — between Russia and Ukraine.

While The Nation itself continues its one-sided coverage, Nation Institute fellow Lee Fang writes, in “How Putin’s American Fixers Keep America’s Sanctions Toothless,” about how US-Russian economic ties create an effective lobby against sanctions, rather like the Israel lobby does the same with US relations with that country and its neighbor, Palestine.

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PolitiFact: Did U.S. spend $5 billion on Ukraine?

1 04 2014

One of the memes circulating in the information war over Ukraine and Crimea is the claim that the U.S. has spent $5 billion on regime change in Ukraine.

In a report published today, the nonprofit-owned Tampa Bay Times‘ Pulitzer Prize winning, a fact-checking site with a long record of nonpartisan evaluation of claims from all sides of the political spectrum, gave this claim its worst judgment, “Pants on Fire.”

Their report can be read here.

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