Žižek: on Russia’s “nazification” & Ukraine’s popular resistance

13 01 2023

Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek has always been easy to agree and disagree with, his elliptically insightful arguments often leaving readers puzzled and exhilarated in equal measure (but rarely simply comforted; for some of my own agreements and disagreements with him, see my book Shadowing the Anthropocene).

On Ukraine, I have found him both insightful and consistent. In June, in a Guardian piece entitled “Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine,” he astutely assessed Russia’s “strategic plan” as being

to profit from global warming: control the world’s main transport route, plus develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream.

And he saw in Ukraine’s defense “the greatness of Ukrainian resistance: they risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support, and to do this, we need a stronger Nato – but not as a prolongation of […] US politics,” but rather as a fully European strategy. He criticized the war’s “strange bedfellows like Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky,” both of whom have, at least by implication, advocated Ukrainian surrender. And even as he noted that Putin’s attack on Ukraine was little different from George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq, he argued that “Today, one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine.” 

This past week, in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Vasha Tavberidze (“Denazification Should Begin at Home, in Russia“), Žižek argued that while fascism, “horrible” as it is, has often limited itself to countries attempting to “maintain order in their own land,” Nazism represented a more expansionist and imperialist form of fascism. Today, he suggests, with Putin’s embrace of a vision inspired by fascist thinker Ivan Ilyin and with materially backed rhetoric about the necessary “de-Satanization” of Europe, Russia is the country that is most “dangerously approaching a new version of Nazism.”

The global risk, as he sees it, is that of “a silent pact between Western alt-right neoconservatives, aggressive populists from France to England to Germany, [and] the United States and Russia” pursuing a “new vision of sovereign neofascist states.” In this situation, he defends the social-democratic vision of a Europe that is “a corporation of states in a global emergency situation based on basic social democratic values [… of] global health care, solidarity, free education, and so on,” and argues that it is this Europe that needs to support the Ukraine that today counts as “one of the few examples [of] authentic popular resistance — they did the impossible, every leftist should be glad.” 

RFE/RL’s interview with Zizek can be read here.





Explaining Russia

23 11 2022

It’s trite to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine these days evil. In their goal of bringing an entire country to its knees through military firepower, battered infrastructure, and a decimated power grid (in time for the cold winter ahead), they are certainly that. But they are an evil that calls for analysis and explanation.

That analysis, however, would have to cover a great deal.

For starters, it would have to explain how it is that Russians allowed their country to succumb to the belligerent authoritarianism of Putinism, and how enough of them came to either support Putin or to consider it imprudent or too costly to resist him. And how Putin himself transformed from the (seeming) pragmatic realism of his early presidency to the neo-imperial fantasies of today. And how the late Soviet power elite finessed its way into an oligarchic capitalism amenable to the consolidation of Putin’s power vertykal (and, conversely, how Putin coldly disemboweled any rival sources of power). And how his rise was built, from the get go, on the creation of external threats (Chechens, Georgians, “Nazis,” the “liberal” West) and assertive displays of disciplinary power to eliminate or neuter them.

And how Russians who were poised to follow in the footsteps of their fellow East Europeans by threading the needle (challenging as it was everywhere) between democracy and neoliberal entrepreneurialism on the one side, and the social safety net of socialism on the other, came to lose all faith in the former two and accept what scraps of the third were offered them. And how decades of Sovietization, the economic traumas of the 1990s, and the creeping authoritarianism of Putinism exorcised away any capacity among Russians to act collectively and politically in the face of any challenge (so unlike Ukrainians in that).

And of how Russia’s essential conservatism bounced back after 1990 with a vengeance, led by an apocalyptic church beholden both to its own hierarchic religiosity and to its deep historical entanglement with power (in this case, Putin’s). And of the unquestioned imperialism and colonialism at the heart of the Russian imaginary, in which Ukraine functioned only as a lesser, weaker brother liable to forget his allegiance to the imperial center and needing to thereby be reined in, repeatedly and by force if necessary. And of how the West, with its wealth, its progress, and its freedoms, became the ultimate foil for the Russian project and the ultimate object of its ressentiment.

And of how challenging the liberal West has become Russia’s modus operandi on the world stage, allowing it to find supporters (tacit or otherwise) in nearly every country in the world, and to repurpose its Soviet era security apparatus toward global informational warfare. And of how Russia’s oil and gas reserves — its only source of economic strength — has made it an attractive partner to other states with reason to distrust the U.S.-led West (such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea these days, but also China and India).

And of how all this leads to a situation where colossal miscalculations — such as the dubious assumption of a three-day military victory and an overwhelmingly welcoming Ukrainian population — will naturally arise, and where the internal logic of strongman authoritarianism, with its blinded judgment and its to-the-death dependence on victory, can only lead to the gory intensification of military might that we are seeing now, people’s lives be damned.

That’s for starters.





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.”

Read the rest of this entry »




Bilous: It’s about self-determination

27 07 2022

Taras Bilous got sick and took a few days off from his work with the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine, and wrote two articles. Here’s one of them, published in Jacobin, entitled “I’m a Ukrainian Socialist. Here’s why I Resist the Russian Invasion.”

The decision to oppose the Russian occupation was not made by Joe Biden, nor by Zelensky, but by the Ukrainian people, who rose en masse in the first days of the invasion and lined up for weapons. [. . .]

Instead of seeing the world as being composed solely of geopolitical camps, socialist internationalists must evaluate every conflict based on the interests of working people and their struggle for freedom and equality. [. . .]

The world will become even more unjust and dangerous if non-Western imperialist predators take advantage of American decline to normalize their aggressive policies. Ukraine and Syria are examples of what a “multipolar world” will be like if the appetites of non-Western imperialisms are not reduced.





Feminist Initiative: Right to Resist

20 07 2022

The Feminist Initiative Group’s “Right to Resist” Manifesto takes issue with the Feminist Resistance Against War manifesto, arguing that the latter denies Ukrainian women the right to resist.

We, feminists from Ukraine, call on feminists around the world to stand in solidarity with the resistance movement of the Ukrainian people against the predatory, imperialist war unleashed by the Russian Federation. War narratives often portray women* as victims. However, in reality, women* also play a key role in resistance movements, both at the frontline and on the home front: from Algeria to Vietnam, from Syria to Palestine, from Kurdistan to Ukraine.

Its signatories, numbering in the hundreds, call “for an informed assessment of a specific situation instead of abstract geopolitical analysis which ignores the historical, social and political context,” and argue that “Russian aggression undermines the achievements of Ukrainian feminists in the struggle against political and social oppression.”

It’s worth noting that the Feminist Resistance Against War, which was published on March 17, has been signed by 151 signatories as of today. Not a single one of them is based in Ukraine. In contrast, the “Right to Resist” manifesto, as of July 20, is signed by 629 people and 56 organizations, of which at least a few hundred appear to be Ukrainian (judging by names or affiliations).  

The entire manifesto can be read on Spil’ne/Commons.





Dutchak: 10 frustrations

20 07 2022

The excellent Ukrainian left journal Spil’ne/Commons has shared Oksana Dutchak’s “10 Terrible Leftist Arguments against Ukrainian Resistance.” They perfectly capture a lot of the frustrations I’ve heard expressed by Ukrainian leftist activists and scholars engaging with their western and “internationalist” colleagues.

They are recommended reading for all left-leaning westerners. (There is, of course, no implication that right-wing westerners do any better. In the current situation, that idea would be easy to disprove.)





Understanding Russia

10 07 2022

Understanding how things got to this point — with a full-scale war waged on a country of 45 million and threats of nuclear escalation toward a possible third world war — requires understanding how Russia got to this point. This post aims to introduce a short set of recent readings that help us understand Russian attitudes today and their deeper history.

State propaganda

Perhaps the best place to start is with a flavor of the state propaganda machine. Julia Davis’s “Putin’s Stooges: He May Nuke Us All, But We Are Ready to Die” (Daily Beast, April 28) captures many of the dominant voices in Russian state media articulating the message the Kremlin intended for its audience of 145 million part-way through the current invasion. A few quotes should be sufficient to give the flavor here (in case the article is paywalled for you):

“World War III, no longer just a special operation, with 40 countries against us. They declared a war.” (Olga Skabeeva, host, 60 Minutes)

“The representatives of those 40 different countries are today’s collective Hitler.” (Mikhail Markelov, 60 Minutes)

“Personally, I think that the most realistic way is the way of World War III, based on knowing us and our leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, knowing how everything works around here, it’s impossible—there is no chance—that we will give up” [. . .] “That everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.” (RT director Margarita Simonyan, on The Evening with Vladimir Solovyov)

“But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” (Solovyov responding to Simonyan)

“If we decide to strike the U.K., we should rather decide to strike the United States… Final decisions are being made not in London, but in Washington. If we want to hit the real center of the West, then we need to strike Washington.” (Andrey Sidorov, deputy dean of world politics at Moscow State University, same TV program) 

Read the rest of this entry »




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.





Denazification, or “the solution to the Ukrainian question”

4 04 2022

The turns of phrase one finds in the echo chambers of the internet can be puzzling to newcomers. (Think of walking into a QAnon forum and hearing about the Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic, pedophilic babykillers of the U.S. Democratic Party.) That a state government might come to create its own alternate reality should, therefore, be not as shocking.

In the case of the current Russian invasion, the term “denazification” has played a puzzling role that some, like Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley, have tried to demystify. But Russian neo-imperialist (and former Yanukovych advisor) Tymofei Sergeitsev, in his new RIA Novosti piece “Что Россия должна сделать с Украиной” (“What Russia Should Do to Ukraine”), has just provided a pretty clear demonstration that it is really just a Russian code word for “de-Ukrainization” — in other words, for what may simply be called genocide. The Ukraine Crisis Media Center has helpfully translated the piece here.

Sergei Sumlenny’s Twitter thread from a couple of days ago suggests that mass executions, of the kind found these last few days in places like Bucha and Trostyanets, seem to have been part of Russia’s “solution to the Ukrainian question” all along. (Russian responses to these revelations have of course involved further mystification.)

Adding together the mass production of “unreality” by Russian state media with Putin’s now explicit targeting of “the West” as its enemy means that war — informational, and therefore hybrid war, that is, the kind of war that is native to the twenty-first century — is already upon not only Ukraine, but all of us.








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