Mere Politics

19 July 2012, 16:01 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 


Recently the prominent historian Iaroslav Hrytsak, who specializes in modern Ukrainian political history, called for a renewal of the Left (“Pro potrebu novoi livytsi,”, 15 June 2012). Since the old Left has joined the “party of power,” he reasons, while the opposition does not present a clear alternative, there is no genuine Left left. It is therefore time to create a new Left. Throughout the world, not just in Ukraine, the divide between rich and poor is increasing, while social mobility has stalled. Private interest has triumphed over values. A vigorous Left is needed, he urges, in order to give life some “sense,” some spirit of “solidarity.” Filled with new content, the Left could fill the “spiritual vacuum” of Ukrainian life.

Alas, laments Hrytsak, Ukraine’s current Left has abandoned class discourse for a preoccupation with sexual minorities. The historian recalls Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s advice to leftist writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko a century ago: to turn his attention from the lower parts of the body to the higher. But a truly new Left, notes Hrytsak, would require imagination. Citing Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, he suggests that today’s new revolutionary class is none other than the working bourgeoisie – the world’s most active social force, yet one which in Ukraine is threatened with poverty. He urges Ukraine’s leftists to support this new middle class in its quest for a better quality of life, its commitment to protect Ukrainian historical monuments and natural treasures from greedy developers, and its opposition to the corrupt Old Left.

Odd as it may seem to call on the Left to support the bourgeoisie, Iaroslav Hrytsak’s argument is not without sense. There is a need for some force to represent not so much the vulnerable middle class as society’s “losers,” the new victims of neo-liberalism: farmers, industrial workers, miners, intellectuals, teachers and professors who have sunk to the bottom of society. And the bottom of society is no longer a working class enjoying social guarantees from a nominally socialist state, but a kind of nineteenth-century proletariat with no safety net and  “nothing to lose but their chains.” It also includes the homeless, orphans, the disabled, the diseased, the afflicted and the addicted, and other marginalized groups – the underclass of the twenty-first century.

But is the Left the answer? Surely Ukraine has experienced a certain culmination of leftism in that highly concentrated form known as Stalinism. Of course, diehard leftists would dismiss that as a perversion of their values. But other leftist experiments have not been particularly encouraging: one can cite China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Nor can one say much for temporary experiments like Mexico in the 1920s. What remains, then, is the vague notion of something called “the Left” which persists in the politics of more or less democratic states. But even this force is more destructive than creative. Saddled with the ideological baggage of Marx, it constantly seeks to discredit all human initiatives and institutions as mere covers for aggression and greed. The resulting cynicism and dissolution of ideals have arguably contributed much to the corruption and anomie that Hrytsak decries. 

And what precisely does “the Left” mean today? Does it, in fact, still make sense to cling to the Left/Right paradigm? That, after all, arose during the French Revolution, when the National Assembly was divided between the supporters of throne and altar on the president’s right, and the revolutionaries on his left – rather a dead issue today. With time, the terms “Left” and “Right” came to mean democracy or socialism on the one hand, and conservatism and “reaction” on the other. By the end of the twentieth century, the extreme Left was associated with Marxist internationalist socialism or Soviet communism, while the extreme Right meant fascism or other forms of authoritarianism, often of the nationalist or military type. More moderate variants advocated reform and equality on the Left, stability and order on the Right.

In today’s Ukraine, the dominance of an authoritarian plutocracy with Communist origins and allies suggests that the Left/Right paradigm has outlived its usefulness as a framework for political analysis. Three issues in particular show that this approach obscures more than it clarifies.

Corruption exists in political systems of both the leftist and the rightist variety, though in their extreme forms (fascism and Stalinism) these systems have generally “solved” the problem. It also exists in centrist political systems like those of most Western countries, though in some cases it has been channeled into legal forms such as lobbying. In today’s Ukraine, all parties support a struggle against corruption. There is nothing particularly leftist or rightist about such a position.

Second, there is the question of Ukraine’s orientation between Europe and Russia. Neither the concept of “Europe” nor that of “Russia” has any ideological identity in terms of Left and Right. Russia was a bastion of conservatism in the nineteenth century, a hotbed of radicalism in the twentieth. Today Europe is generally associated with liberalism, but it was also the birthplace of Marxism and fascism. Russia’s future is anybody’s guess. The choice of Russia versus Europe is generally understood to mean a choice between Muscovite autocracy and participatory democracy. Yet either alternative can exist in a leftist or rightist variant, as those terms are understood today.

The third issue that Ukraine faces is how to manage her natural resources, both in the economic and the environmental sense – which are, after all, inextricably intertwined. Neither capitalism nor socialism has come up with a workable formula, for both types of systems tend to mismanage natural resources. The problem is deeper, having to do with the philosophy of development: whether one should opt for growth or sustainability. It is an issue beyond mere politics. It cannot be adequately understood from either a leftist or a rightist perspective, because these viewpoints are limited to questions of social power and do not encompass fundamental questions of humanity and nature.

To be sure, Leftists have accused Rightists of trying to eliminate the Left/Right frame of analysis for reasons of their own – to obscure the existence of class divisions, for example. That, of course, begs the question of whether “class divisions” are a significant reality or an ideological construct. It also avoids the question of why the Left is so wedded to that paradigm. The Left/Right paradigm serves the interests of a Left that draws its legitimacy from the notion of perpetual conflict. Moreover, every dominant paradigm obscures other, possibly more revealing ones. Shifting to a different paradigm might reveal that there are deeper issues that merit our attention, and which can be addressed by more effective tools than class struggle and revolution. The three issues outlined above exemplify matters that call for a different approach.

If the Left/Right paradigm is inadequate, then, in what terms should we frame our political desiderata? As it happens, Professor Hrytsak provides some clues. He writes of Ukraine’s “spiritual vacuum,” and the need for a movement that would provide some “sense” to life. He mentions the need for “solidarity.” He notes the growing divide between the rich and the poor, the decreasing chances for people to bridge that gap, and the prevalence of private interests over values. He thus appears to be calling for (1) a spiritual content for political life, (2) social solidarity, and (3) an ethical commitment to the common good as a counterweight to individual self-interest and socio-economic stratification.

To these principles, let us add some approaches that might resolve the three issues mentioned above. First, corruption is at base a problem of individual ethics. Second, Ukraine’s foreign-affairs orientation is a matter of culture in the sense of historical experience and political values – “political culture,” if you will. The conflict between the Russian centralist-authoritarian impulse and the European participatory tendency can only be resolved by some principle determining how much power must be exercised at the top and how much can be distributed among the people. A useful approach is the idea of subsidiarity, which holds that matters should be resolved at the lowest (or most local) effective level. The third issue, that of natural resources, is at base a matter of humanity’s attitude towards the natural world. Between the radical approaches of reckless exploitation at one extreme, and abdication of all preference for human beings at the other, lies the principle of stewardship, by which humanity takes responsibility for the sustainable use of natural resources.

Thus, one can conclude that an adequate approach to Ukraine’s contemporary problems would include spiritual values, social solidarity, a commitment to the common good, individual ethics, the principle of subsidiarity, and stewardship of nature. Others principles could be added to address major problems, and a general framework developed, regardless of whether or not these ideas would be expressed in  a specific party platform or program.

Does anything unite these ideas? It should be noted that spiritual and ethical norms must be derived from some religious or philosophical foundation. As it happens, the other four principles listed above are elaborated in a series of social encyclicals promulgated by the Catholic Church in the last century and a quarter, from “Rerum Novarum” (1891) to “Centesimus Annus” (1991) and beyond.

The immediate objection from any Leftist or liberal, and from many conservatives, would be that this points to theocracy. The response to this objection depends on what one means by “theocracy.” Certainly the above approach does not imply rule by Church or clergy. It is even consistent with a separation of church and state. It does, however, imply “theocracy” in the literal sense – that is, a recognition of divine sovereignty. That, at least, provides a basis for these principles. But secularists who reject that concept would have no reason to object, as all these principles can be understood, and justified, in secular terms by deriving them from classical philosophy and natural law.

And yet one might ask, even if a “new Left” is not the answer to Ukraine’s problems, why look to religion and philosophy? Why not choose liberal democracy of the American or European type? The short answer to the first part of the question is that US democracy could only have grown out of a combination of the English common-law tradition, Enlightenment philosophy, Protestantism, and the historical experience of an isolated continent. Ukraine has nothing even resembling these traditions. As for European liberal democracy, one response is given by Slavoj Zizek, whom Hrytsak cites in his article, and who has suggested that liberalism cut off from its cultural and spiritual roots (as in today’s Europe) ultimately negates the very freedom it espouses (Slavoj Zizek, “Liberalism as Politics for a Race of Devils” This is no model for Ukraine.

But could Ukraine’s non-Catholic and non-Christian believers accept such an approach to contemporary politics? Since this approach is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, neither Orthodox nor Protestants nor Jews should object. And there are surely principles in the diverse theology of Islam that correspond to them, particularly as concerns social justice. It is likely, in any case, that non-Christian believers would be more comfortable with a religiously derived set of principles than with one having no coherent basis at all. (Similar considerations evidently motivate many American Jews to send their children to Catholic rather than public schools.) For all its talk about tolerance, a liberal democracy that bans Muslim headscarves (as in France) or outlaws circumcision (as in one German region) may be less appealing to Muslims and Jews than a Catholic state.

Finally, one might object that an approach consisting of the above principles (and, of course, an array of others addressing other current issues) would be too vague. But sometimes generality is a virtue. The world has seen enough of political ideologies that pretend to have the answer to every question. It is far wiser to begin with principles, then work out their applications case by case. The important thing is to determine the right principles. The ones proposed here may seem broad, but they differ markedly from those of the Left and the Right. The notions of subsidiarity and the common good, for example, were advanced in opposition to socialism. The idea of solidarity challenged the national-socialist priority of the Nation, and opposes today’s neo-liberal idolization of private profit.

Who, then, could possibly advance this kind of program in today’s Ukrainian political arena? The idea of a Christian-Democratic Party comes to mind. This has been tried, it seems, without success. But that is a matter for the future. What must come first is a realization that the Left/Right paradigm is exhausted and needs to be replaced. The above points are only intended as a point of departure. The rest, as Iaroslav Hrytsak has suggested, requires imagination.

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