2 years of “this sadistic violence of destruction”

24 02 2024

On the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what more can be said except that the invasion needs to end. For that, Ukraine needs more support. Negotiation cannot happen with someone who wants to eliminate you.

There are many excellent films that have been made to document the Russian war on Ukraine. Among the better post-invasion documentaries are Vitaliy Manskiy and Yevhen Titarenko’s Eastern Front, Oksana Karpovych’s Intercepted, Albina Kovalyova’s Occupied, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters, and the ones described here.

Perhaps the most riveting is Mstyslav Chernov‘s Academy Award nominated 20 Days in Mariupol, currently showing online at the PBS Frontline web site. The line quoted above is taken from the film. In perhaps the film’s climatic scene, Chernov, who wrote, narrated, directed, and produced the film, says, “If someday my daughters ask me ‘What did you do to stop this madness, this sadistic virus of destruction?‘ I want to be able to give them an answer.”

He’s able to give an answer because, against all odds, he survived to tell the tale, staying behind with a small Associated Press crew when all other international film crews had left Mariupol, and successfully getting out of the surrounded city on day 20. The city capitulated on day 86, but 20 days is sufficient for gauging the full horror of the experience for those who stayed behind. (The fall of Azovstal is another story, yet to be told in a suitable feature-length documentary. The same can be said of the bombing of the Mariupol Theatre, though Forensic Architecture’s and the Center for Spatial Technologies’ work on documenting the event has been incredibly valuable.)

The truth is that Chernov could easily have been killed, as other photographers, journalists, and filmmakers have been in the course of documenting this and other wars. Despite his previous experience as a war correspondent, the odds at the time of the filming were better that he wouldn’t have made it out alive, and that his daughters would have asked him, “Why did you leave us? What heroic urge were you pursuing against any odds of surviving the effort?” It’s our collective gain (and not just his daughters’) that Chernov survived to tell this tale.

What all these documentaries have in common is that they activate feelings of empathy and compassion for those who suffer in this war. In some cases they activate anger at those responsible for the suffering. They activate a sense of justice, according to which humans might get angry, might get into conflicts, but would never unleash mass murder on this scale — because it goes against the possibility of building a common world together.

War cheapens human life. It renders us into meat. War for sheer territorial gain cheapens it all the more.

The Putin government is counting on our society — the one that values human life and strives to follow norms that enable coexistence — not outlasting his society: the one in which a single group of people, an ethno-civilizational collectivity (in his twisted imagination) following a top-heavy, imperial script, gets to define what is right and what is wrong, and what story will be told to future generations.

Just as Hitler envisioned a future in which he would be messiah and the Nordic race would rule over humanity’s lesser classes, Putin has envisioned a story of the Russian race (or civilization, in his telling) in a similar position — not ruling over all humanity perhaps, just over its own domain, its “Russkii mir,” yet leading the entire world toward something known only to Putin himself.

Both are abominations — hysterical visions of worlds cleansed of otherness, purified and ordered so that only a certain image of humanity can endure and all others be ground into dust.

Modernity, Enlightenment humanism, cosmopolitan liberalism, or whatever it is that has spread over the planet in the last few centuries, has a very mixed track record of accomplishments. Some of them — colonialism, imperialism, extractive capitalism — have left behind deep scars on the earth and its people. Others — humanism and liberal democracy, for all their flaws — follow the best inclinations of our nature insofar as they see humans as alike and as equally worthy of life and of dignity. (We can continue debating the details, for instance, the virtues of liberalism as opposed to socialism, communitarianism, libertarianism, and so on, without disagreeing on these basic grounding principles.)

Putin’s war negates human dignity. It crushes difference, even — and perhaps all the more — the difference that is closest to one’s own perception of self. The “Russian soul,” so lauded by Russian poets and Russophilic western dreamers, is a dead one in Putin’s grip.

Two years of this full-scale war (and ten years of the war itself) is two years (and ten years) too many.

James Meek from Kyiv

21 08 2023

Western journalists writing from Kyiv today can at best only provide impressionistic glimpses of a country caught in the passionate everydayness of wartime life. Sometimes these glimpses cohere into a detailed and evocative mosaic. That’s the case with James Meek’s “Every Field, Every Yard,” a piece that takes up six whole pages of the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The glimpses touch on a lot of things — art exhibitions, reconstruction rave/work parties, language politics, trauma, bombings, corruption, LGBTQ+ issues, interviews with philosophers and activists, et al.

A few snippets:

“One​ of the most striking things about Kyiv this summer is the freedom with which people are imagining, and in some cases already making, their own future. There is a recurring motif in recent Ukrainian history in which entities set up as imitations actually become the thing they were only supposed to pretend to be, beginning with Ukraine’s parliament, a fake Soviet legislature that became a democratic body with real powers and destroyed the country that created it. Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor playing the president, who became the actual president. The Ukrainian army, a crumbling façade in 2013, which ten years later fought the Russian military leviathan to a standstill. St Michael’s church is a replica, built from the ground up in the 1990s to replace the original, blown up by Stalin, but it has in a way become the real thing just by being there. There was a plan in Soviet times to build a Lenin Museum on the site, but they ended up building it on Kreshchatik instead; it’s the building that is now the Ukrainian House. The externally imposed cult of Lenin became a centre of actual culture.

“Ukraine, as a country, and Ukrainian as a language, were never fake, but it was awkward for the patriotic tendency that the Russian language was so dominant in the Ukrainian capital. The Putinists’ inability to distinguish between Ukrainians who habitually use Russian in everyday affairs, who were many, and Ukrainians who wanted to be controlled from Moscow, who were vanishingly few, doomed the invasion. Since then, the use of Ukrainian has surged.”

[. . .]

“What are the ‘European values’ Ukraine aspires to, when its staunchest West European ally [the U.K.] has flounced out of the European Union that Ukraine is desperate to join? One obvious aspect of European values is essentially leftist, a welfare-rooted social contract between capital and labour, but socialism, even social democracy, is all but dead in Ukraine. Mention of the executed renaissance [generation of artists and intellectuals decimated in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s] seldom leads to discussion of the nature of the communism under which it flourished. [. . . N]either the Zelensky nor the Poroshenko camp have ideologies in the usual political sense, just a list of tasks: beat Russia, join Nato and the EU, fight corruption. […]

“Tymofii Brik, a sociologist, rector at the [Kyiv School of Economics…] has carried out research showing that while terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t have much meaning for ordinary Ukrainians, the country sits overwhelmingly on the traditional left in terms of what it expects of the state, and by a similarly large margin on the more conservative side of the libertarian-authoritarian axis. ‘Ukrainians tend to be very pro-social, caring about the elderly, caring about children, caring about community, believing the state is important, the state should provide us with health, education,’ he told me. ‘It’s just a big part of who we are, of our history and culture over generations. We should accept this as our reality. If you propose some crazy liberal reform, it will not happen, because Ukrainian society will not accept it.’ The seemingly contradictory message given by the country’s high score on the Cynicism Index, a unique feature of Ukrainian sociology, may be resolved by a reality where Ukrainians are communitarian in respect of people they know, but extremely mistrustful of people they don’t. Brik’s positive spin was that this would at least make the country recoil from a homegrown authoritarian leader.”

[. . .]

“In Kyiv I met Alisa Shampanska, a gender-fluid queer anarchist and member of the Ukrainian feminist group FemSolution, which until the invasion took a pacifist, anti-militarist line; Russia’s limited intervention in eastern Ukraine, starting in 2014, didn’t seem to them worth fighting over. Shampanska was in Odesa in the early days of the Russian assault. Overnight they went from being a pacifist to filling sandbags and trying to enrol in the territorial defence force. Their girlfriend lied that she knew how to weld so she could get a job building tank traps. Gradually Shampanska came to the difficult conclusion that one of the country’s most unpleasant social minorities, the queer-bashing ultra-nationalist racists, had been right about one thing all along. ‘All those years, they told us Russia is the main enemy,’ they said. ‘That Russia will attack us, that the Russians don’t give a shit about us and they will come and kill us and we should prepare … at the time I thought yeah, this is populism. And this is bad populism and they are bad for human rights. But about this, they were correct.’”

Read the whole article here.

‘Stand with Ukraine’ book

19 08 2023

An excellent collection of resources and documents called Stand with Ukraine: Debunking the Propaganda has been published by Bastille Press and is available as a Kindle e-book for $2.99 (or for free with a 30-day Kindle trial) here.

The book is edited by J. D. Everhard (a.k.a. Geof Bard) “et al.” and credited to the Ukraine Resistance Support Archives. Its 23 chapters and five appendices provide a variety of left-progressive responses to Putinist and “Campist” (Russia-justifying) claims made by people like Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer, Chris Hedges, Medea Benjamin, the late Stephen Cohen, musician Roger Waters, Marxist journal The Monthly Review, as well as the “red-brown” and “multipolar ideology” views that are influencing some of the Campist discourse.

Of the many insightful chapters, I found Michael Karadjis’s effort to tease apart elite and popular views on the war in the global South (chapter 16, “Behind the Neutrality of Reactionary Elites in the Global South”) and Vladyslav Starodubtsev’s analysis of the role of Russian money and the Wagner Group in Africa (chapter 17, “Africa and the War in Ukraine”) especially interesting.

Many of the pieces have been published before and are readily available online, but their collection into a single book of analytical pieces as well as documents — including statements and manifestos from the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign, the Ukraine Solidarity Network, the Feminist Initiative Group, and the Anarchist Black Cross of St. Petersburg — makes this a very handy reference and excellent “first stop” for correctives to misinformation about the Russo-Ukrainian war and the events leading up to it, including the 2013-14 Maidan revolution and its aftermath. It even includes a useful glossary that defines various acronyms, organizational names, agreements (such as the Budapest Memorandum and Minsk I and II), and (most entertainingly) terms like “Bothsidesism,” “Campist,” “Tankie,” “Kremlinsplaining,” and “Whataboutism.”

The book can be purchased and read on its Amazon site.

Another peace is possible

9 06 2023

When one country invades another, with clear intent to take over the other’s territory and end its existence as an independent nation, you don’t ask “both sides” to lay down their arms and negotiate. You ask the invader to leave. This is especially the case when it’s clear thаt the invading force has no intent to leave, and that if the victim country lays down its arms, it will get slaughtered.

At least that is the position taken, rightfully (in my view), by most Ukrainians.

The International Summit for Peace in Ukraine (program here), scheduled to take place in Vienna this weekend, includes elements that are essential to global peace-building, which is a responsibility not only of governments, but of civil society organizations. Co-organizer Werner Wintersteiner’s statement, for instance, which accompanies the proposal for a “Vienna Appeal for Peace in Ukraine,” includes many points that defenders of Ukraine’s freedom should be able to agree with. In this it should be welcomed.

But the event also includes elements that are detrimental to the building of peace, because those elements attempt to blame “both sides” — that is, either Ukraine or the U.S. and NATO, as much as they blame Russia — and to prevent Ukrainians from getting the support they need to protect themselves. Recent comments by Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Medea Benjamin, and others involved, for all their acknowledgments of Ukrainian suffering, repeat Russian talking points that at the very least obfuscate, and at worst try to justify, Russia’s responsibility. In this, the Vienna peace summit should be criticized. (Here’s one version of such a critique.)

The latest development is that activists working to support Ukraine have succeeded in convincing the Austrian Trade Union Federation, or ÖGB, to cancel the conference venue just two days before the conference was scheduled to take place. Summit organizers are angry about this — they accuse the ÖGB of censorship — and are seeking an alternative venue.

How does one make sense of this conflict over how to approach peace in Ukraine?

There are two criteria that are essential to answering this: the question of representation (whose perspectives are represented, and whose aren’t?), and the question of appeasement (whose interests are best served by what’s being proposed?).

Read the rest of this entry »

Matviyenko & the war’s ‘colonial-imperial vector’

15 03 2023

Critical media theorist Svitlana Matviyenko’s recent Marshall McLuhan Lecture, delivered at Berlin’s Transmediale conference, has now been turned into an online article in E-Flux. Titled “Speeds and Vectors of Energy Terrorism,” the article provides both a deeply personal perspective (from one who has been in Ukraine during much of Russia’s full-scale invasion) and a rigorously theorized one covering the continuities and discontinuities between the Russian-Ukrainian war and previous wars going back to world wars one and two.

As has been the case with her “Dispatches from the Place of Imminence” (written for the Institute of Network Cultures), and familiar to previous readers of her writing, Matviyenko focuses especially on the more innovative fronts of this particular war, including cyberwar and disinformation; the role of nuclear power plants, including the occupation of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia complexes; the “irreversible militarization of life” with its “epidemic” proliferation of “martial assemblages”; the mythical nature of the concept of “victory”; and the production of “terror environments” centering around “necropolitical data-subjects.” Regarding the latter, Matviyenko notes how the Russian government’s justification for the full-scale invasion, and its refusal to call it a “war,” fully marks it as a “state of exception”:

In this regard, the Russian state’s description of its war as a “special operation” is accurate: it declares its intention to transgress the laws of war by opening space for unregulated war crimes, for creating multiple terror environments marked by extreme suppression and violence.

Her reference to the “necropolitical ‘death-worlds'” produced by the use of pollution as a weapon of war — a form of “vertical occupation” that is different from the “horizontal occupation” of territory — is especially sobering:

In war, however, pollution spreads—and violence occurs—at various speeds. In addition to the fast, or extremely fast, violence of rocket strikes, bombs, and other explosions that also release toxic chemicals, other forms of pollution spread “gradually and out of sight,” whether as a consequence of these faster forms, or independently. [. . .] This war will stay with us as a sequence of heavy losses for the entire earthly community.

This is a topic I intend to come back to in future posts. But I want to focus a little more here on a line of thinking connected to the colonial/decolonial question.

Matviyenko identifies two “vectors” of the “ongoing, complex, asymmetrical warfare.” The first is “interimperial,” and it “unfolds according to the logic of deterrence.” While this vector “is extremely aggressive,” it is a “communicative exchange” that largely follows the transactional pursuit of national interests. In this case, Russia’s “extreme extractivism and exploitation” has served “the fossil-fuelled capitalist interests of the so-called West and its simultaneously ‘oil-soaked and coal-dusted’ democracy,” as Cara Daggett has called it. Alongside the global South’s similar reliance on Russian fossil fuels (which Matviyenko doesn’t get into, but in which India is a key actor), this means that “the list of countries that retain economic relations with Russia after a year of genocidal war remains long” and that “fossil-fuel fascism” is sustained, not fundamentally challenged.

The second vector Matviyenko identifies is “colonial-imperial,” which follows “a trajectory of noncommunication.” This is a vector that “sets the direction for relations of suppression, subsumption, annihilation, and erasure,” such that “[a]ll negotiations are suspended indefinitely”: “‘Ukraine does not exist’ for the Russian state as a party in negotiations, except as an imagined subaltern who must submit to the invader’s will.” Matviyenko continues:

The Russian Federation claimed that they “had no choice” but to invade Ukraine and kill its people, which constitutes a complex and contradictory epistemological landscape that could probably only be deciphered through psychoanalysis. This urge, ever embittered by an extreme resentment that will only grow in the future, is particularly strong in those citizens of the Russian Federation who already feel—or will feel very soon—that whatever future they thought they had in Russia has been stolen from them. This mass vision of a stolen future will remain one of the many dangerous consequences of this war, no matter what awaits the Russian Federation in the years to come. It will also serve as a resource for future fascist mobilizations.

This same noncommunication sustains colonial relations between the Russian state and underdeveloped communities in its jurisdiction. This noncommunication also extends to peoples who self-identify as Indigenous, but remain unrecognized. Russian legislation only acknowledges forty-seven peoples across the vast landmass. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, after the annexation of Crimea the list of unrecognized but self-identified Indigenous peoples grew to include the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks, and the Karaim. The empire only acknowledges the existence of a form of life when it is deemed useful, when the empire sees its potential for resourcification.

The coloniality of the latter is especially evident in Russia’s “reliance on an unrestricted supply of cheap, disposable human resources drawn from colonized first-nation communities and many strategically underdeveloped ethnic and social groups within the Russian Federation.”

It’s worth pointing out here that there are multiple imperial-colonial vectors at play in today’s situation. In a recent piece in New Eastern Europe, Milosz Cordes notes this colonial disparity writ large across Russia — where “[r]evenues from oil and gas from the non-ethnic Russian Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrugs [provinces] fuel investments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and prevent regions like Novgorod, Bryansk or Pskov from economic collapse. This is a typical model of economic exploitation,” he writes, “known from the Congo, Egypt or Latin America,” which qualifies the Russian regions east of the Urals as “part of the Global South.”

This “colonial-imperial vector” works differently in relation to the Buryats, Dagestanis, Tatars, or South Ossetians who have been among the primary “cannon fodder” for the Russian military, than to Ukraine or Belarus, the “brotherly peoples” of the “Great Russian race.” In imperial thinking, the latter have been more valued as the “backbone” of Great Russia, but are (as is clear today) also to be punished more vehemently when they reject their fate as “inner colonies.”

Ukraine’s long dance in relation to Russia and away from it has been going on for over a century and a half (and in some places since the 17th century state-building of Bohdan Khmelnytsky), with even leaders of Ukraine’s first independence movement — among them Mykhailo Hrushevsky, pivotal historian and first president of the Central Council of the 1917-20 Ukrainian People’s Republic — uncertain of whether Ukraine’s future lay with Russia or apart from it. If Stalin could destroy an entire generation to crush Ukraine’s independentist aspirations, however, Putin cannot. And so today we find Ukrainians in their culminating national-liberationist moment.

What this means for Ukraine is pretty clear: political self-determination accompanied by some measure of civic and cultural revitalization (the details of which have become clearer over time, but which still remain to be determined in post-war Ukraine). What it may mean for Russia — especially as Russia risks imploding from the neo-imperialist overextension of its capacities, and as calls for Russia to decolonize increase — is something I will explore in upcoming posts.

Please stay tuned for more on this topic.

Decolonialism divided against itself…

1 03 2023

Ukrainian anti-colonialists can continue to be disappointed by the leading postcolonial/decolonial intellectuals from the Global South whose views on the Russian invasion have reiterated Russia’s main propaganda narratives.

Writing in the French-language Lundi Matin, Pierre Madelin, in “Des pensés décoloniales à l’épreuve de la guerre en Ukraine” (“Decolonial Thinking Put to the Test by the War in Ukraine”), finds such views being spread not only by politicians like Lula and Evo Morales (respectively, the president of Brazil and former president of Bolivia) and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but also decolonialist intellectuals par excellence Walter Mignolo, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Ramon Grosfoguel.

Madelin writes (in Google’s English translation, which I’ve modified for readability and meaning),

Suffice to say that I was surprised when I discovered these [Grosfoguel’s] speeches, which reproduced the Kremlin’s discourse down to its most delirious aspects, as it seemed obvious to me that the war of annexation waged by Russia, an old imperial and colonial power, should have oriented the solidarity of these authors towards Ukraine. The logic of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism would in fact require the countries or peoples who suffer from it to show solidarity with those who suffer from it elsewhere, even if it is under the boot of a rival power to the one that oppresses them. 

The problem, as Madelin points out, is a lack of reflection in the Latin American decolonialists’ view on behalf of a “dialectical vision of Europe” that is characterized by its own internal tensions and contradictions. Europe is, instead, “presented as a unity, as a malignant substance spreading throughout the world” (quoting Daniel Inclan).

Yet this framework, within which the analysis of concrete situations seems to give way to a metaphysics of history where an all-powerful hyper-subject holds the quasi-monopoly of evil in the world, is obviously ineffective for grasping the specificity and complexity of the war in Ukraine, just as it was hardly conclusive to understand the revolution and civil war in Syria.

Critics from the Global South have latched onto the legitimate critique of Europeans’ “double standard” in welcoming Ukrainians but not darker-skinned refugees from the South, to seemingly, and less legitimately, justify their “absence of unfailing support for the resistance and the massive mobilization of Ukrainian society.”

Madelin cites the analyses of Pierre Gaussens and Gaya Makaran, who critique the Latin American Modernity/Coloniality scholars for “historiographical oversimplification,” “permanent Manichaeism,” “cultural essentialism,” “Latin American provincialism,” and an “apparent criticism of Eurocentrism that in reality hides a tenacious Westernism.” He continues,

The paradox indeed is that the thought of these authors, one of whose first vocations, perfectly legitimate, was to criticize “Eurocentrism” and to “provincialize Europe,” is often deeply Eurocentric and Western-centric when it sets out to understand the present, the blissful celebration of the West and its “civilizing mission” having given way to the endless denunciation of its misdeeds but without ever losing its centrality, even when it no longer fully corresponds to developments in the contemporary world. There is something like an unthought-out political theology in there: a primary cause (in this case the United States/the West) and secondary causes which are always its derived and reactive product, or even its passive object. (emphases added)

The result is an “inverted occidentalocentrism” that, in the author’s view, is little better than the “campism” that sees no difference between Ukrainians today fighting for their national self-determination and U.S. militaries squashing third world liberation movements of the past. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then Putin, for all his faults, must be a friend to these thinkers. The contradictions of such “anti-imperialism” are profound:

If the long history of American interventions in the world, from the coup d’etat in Guatemala in 1954 to the war in Iraq in 2003, passing through the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, the war in Vietnam, Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s and the Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s, is relatively well known and constantly recalled, a strange amnesia seems to surround the equally long history of Soviet interventions in many of its peripheries: in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 or Warsaw in 1980, without even mentioning, in the specific case of Ukraine, the Holodomor or the deportation of Crimean Tatars, even though these different events are the subject of a large number of works by historians. […]

Certainly, unlike the Spanish, British or French colonial empires, which essentially developed “overseas”, Russian colonialism was […] less easily discernible, since the territories conquered from the 17th century until the end of the Second World War were conquered, in successive layers, on the immediate periphery of the initial core territory. And if some of these territories were emancipated from Soviet tutelage after the fall of the Union, the consequences of this long colonial history remain strong, especially in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, where the populations suffer from persistent racism. To that should be added that in the first months of the war, it was the ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation, in particular Buryats or Yakuts, who paid the heaviest price on the Ukrainian battlefield, while the white middle classes of Moscow or Saint-Petersburg were relatively spared.

The risk the cited authors take is that they end up supporting the quasi-multilateralism that Indian feminist Kavita Krishnan calls “the mantra of authoritarianism.” This “multipolarity” is, in Madelin’s words, “a rallying cry for the despots” — in Krishnan’s analysis, it is authoritarians like Putin, Modi, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Trump, leading “far-right, white-supremacist, racist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic political movements” — “which serves to disguise their war against democracy as a war against imperialism.”

In contrast, Madelin points for inspiration to Mexico’s Zapatistas: “Long engaged in a struggle with decolonial overtones against capitalism and the Mexican state,” he writes, “they gave in nothing to campism, and on March 13, 2022, they marched by the thousands in the cities of Chiapas in support of the Ukrainian resistance with cries of ‘Putin get out!'” 

For all those reasons, Madelin calls for a “polycentric decolonialism,” or, as I’ve referred to it (which he cites in his conclusion), an anti-imperialism that is against all imperialisms — an anti-all-imperialisms.

The entire article by Madelin can be read in the original here.

Reflections on a year of full-scale war

24 02 2023

Here are a few quick thoughts on the anniversary of Russia’s tragic decision to fully invade Ukraine.

1) The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a full-scale atrocity, with tragic consequences for millions, and indicative of the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Putin regime. Everything I’ve said and written about it before, including the way it has been a “turning point” in world affairs, remains true, but mostly on the negative side of the ledger. The positive — such as its potential for reorienting Europe away from dependence on Russian fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, and its potential for strengthening democratic movements around the world — remains only partially attained, if at all.

2) Like Ukrainians in general, whose resistance to the Russian onslaught has been remarkable, President Volodymyr Zelensky has done wonders in so many ways. But one thing neither he nor his western supporters have succeeded at — as this New York Times analysis shows — is convincing the global South to support Ukraine in its struggle. Wartime emergencies call for military support, but diplomatic pressure on Russia also needs to increase, which means that Ukraine’s foreign policy must broaden.

There are no good reasons for postcolonial democracies like Lula’s Brazil and the ANC’s South Africa to remainneutral” in an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggle. (Pressure on them to do better should increase.) Zelensky and western supporters, however, also need to make clear that that’s what this is (an anti-colonial struggle), and that no “tradition” of cold war “nonalignment” makes sense any more. We’re in a new world with new allies and new enemies, whose contours will increasingly be shaped by new conflicts. One of these — and one whose “war ecology” (to use Pierre Charbonnier’s astute phrase) shapes the nature of this conflict already — is that between fossil-fuel authoritarians (the likes of Putin and Trump) and climate-transitioning democracies (of whom the EU, Biden’s US, and Lula’s Brazil can be leaders).

It’s high time to shed the old lenses and shape a new global reality. In that, Ukraine can stand at the forefront.

3) I recently argued that the cultural dimensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict cannot be denied. As shown in this excellent New York Times investigation and photo-essay (“A Culture in the Crosshairs,” Dec. 19, 2022), cultural sites have sometimes been deliberately targeted by Russia, and otherwise have simply been part of an indiscriminate barrage of terror against the Ukrainian population.

If Putin’s goal of geopolitical power has long been supported by a complementary goal of strengthening Russian imperial culture — the “Russkiy mir” he regularly touts — and of denying Ukraine’s (the largest non-Russian post-Soviet republic’s) longstanding resistance to it, Ukrainians have also risen to the level of successfully resisting Russian cultural imperialism through defending their own culture and nationhood. As cultural nationalists have long argued, cultural promotion — including the revival and strengthening of the Ukrainian language — can be an essential part of national self-determination.

But the same idea of broadening Ukraine’s foreign policy can apply to internal policy, including cultural and economic policy. What this implies, for me, is an intentional turn toward seeing national self-determination as part of a wider global struggle for democracy, social justice, and climate transition. I have no illusions that Ukrainians can move forward in building anything when missiles are still targeting Ukrainian cities, so the details of any such shift will remain to be determined (and fought for) once the war is over.

But the vision can be articulated now. And it is one that can encompass much more than the Europhilia, Ukrainophilia, and pro-Western orientations that are often expressed. It can encompass democracy as a global project of social justice and climate justice, resistance to all manner of geopolitical imperialisms (most of them based on carbon capitalism and authoritarian conservative resistance to change), and transition to a renewable and sustainable society.

In all these respects, Ukraine could become a global leader. But first we must stop Russian aggression and end this war.

Economics vs. culture: Ishchenko & his critics

6 02 2023

This is intended as the first in a series of more in-depth posts discussing scholarly perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It reflects thinking-in-progress, shared for the sake of open discussion and not for scholarly exactitude. (I practice the latter elsewhere.) Responses and corrections are welcome.

Volodymyr Ishchenko has carved out a unique niche as one of the western Left’s go-to voices on all things Ukrainian. His list of articles and interviews in popular venues like Jacobin, New Left Review, Democracy Now, The Guardian, Open Democracy, Socialist Project, PONARS Eurasia, and The Dig runs into the dozens. These appearances in the popular press aren’t undeserved, as his longstanding scholarship on Ukrainian social movements (see this and this) has made him a perceptive and nuanced observer of Ukraine. His perspective has been consistent, and his generous engagement with critics has been noteworthy.

The mixed response to Ishchenko’s recent New Left Review article “Ukrainian Voices?” caps what appears to be a growing rift between Ishchenko and some others on the Ukrainian academic Left, which I attempt to make sense of in this post, as I see important issues at stake in it. (For a few examples of that rift, see here, here, here, and here.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Skip to toolbar