oDR: Opinion

Middle class populism in Ukraine: looking for the “real people”

What happens when the “people” are, in fact, the privileged section of society?

Denys Gorbach
9 July 2020
Flood in western Ukraine
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Source: YouTube

This June, a massive flood led to the destruction of multiple homes and roads in western Ukraine, as well as the loss of several lives. The disaster elicited a less than empathetic response in Ukraine’s public sphere. A frequent reaction to the news has been to blame the victims, who allegedly provoked the catastrophe by cutting down trees en masse. “They, the locals, have been content with this situation for many years – they have all been active or passive participants of this devastation. In this situation there’s no point in calling on the state in case of new floods, washed away roads and destroyed villages,” says this blog entry, which summarises the attitude of a significant section of the Ukrainian internet.

Indeed, this reaction came on the heels of several similar discussions. The same tone accompanied a recent investigation into how western companies such as IKEA use illegally felled wood from the Carpathians. Many people felt it necessary to absolve the brands - idolised by the Ukrainian middle class as symbols of the European good life - of responsibility. Instead, they emphasised the role of local officials and, importantly, “the simple people” in ironic quotation marks. Likewise, president Volodymyr Zelenskyi, using his talent of striking a resonant chord in public, recently infiltrated a Ukrainian truck drivers’ chat group in order to scold them for using loopholes to avoid paying tolls for overloaded cargo – instead of blaming “the system” and abstract “corrupt officials”. And finally, when northern Ukraine was choking on forest fires earlier this year, a prominent nationalist journalist opined that “it is the population of Ukraine, which does not give a shit about its own country, who is the main saboteur” in the burning of dry grass.

This accent on individual “agency” as opposed to “structure” could be seen as a welcome correction to the default post-Soviet apolitical optics, in which “common people” are powerless in the face of the omnipotent “authorities”. It could be even understood as a healthy antidote to the paranoid search for signs of Russia’s “hybrid war” to explain any problem.

However, the practical consequences of this discourse are far from empowering Ukraine’s dominated classes or promoting critical social analysis. Instead, it leads to consistently vilifying “the people” and inverting the value of this concept, traditionally revered in mainstream narratives.

Rage against the people

Ukrainian public sphere is full of accusations against “the people” who dump their garbage in the wilderness or extend their apartment balconies, distorting the façades of housing blocks. The lower classes are also guilty of “corruption” in this view, i.e. abusing welfare funds.

This position was recently laid out in detail by Halyna Tretyakova, who cut her teeth in the insurance industry before heading the social policy committee in the Ukrainian parliament. Society, according to Tretyakova, has two productive human types - hard-working “patricians” and “warriors”. The rest of society tends to claim resources that it does not necessarily deserve, mistaking the good will of charitable producers for unconditional rights. The national-liberal intelligentsia reacted mostly sympathetically to Tretyakova’s speech, isolating certain “controversial” expressions “taken out of context”, but supporting the general thrust.

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CC BY SA 2.0 spoilt.exile / Flickr. Some rights reserved

The heavy moralist inclination of this elitist discourse, long dominant in the Ukrainian business press, resembles Victorian mores and the libertarian principles of Ayn Rand (who, incidentally, is very popular in Ukraine). The “moralist anarchism” of Ukrainian intelligentsia systematically leads to the justification of the dominant party in each conflict. Thus, Ukrainian discussions of anti-racism protests in the US have had the strange tendency to focus disproportionately on analysing African slave markets in the early modern period. (Conservatives who disapprove of the current social movement feel it is important to make the point that Europeans did not hunt Africans personally, and that it was the local elite and Muslim traders who enslaved them in the first place.) This might seem irrelevant to either side of the debate in the US, but a post-Soviet intellectual feels the utmost need to morally justify the enlightened European/American subject with whom he identifies, and thus to justify himself.

Ukrainian discussions about models of regulating sex work are structured in a comparable manner: the strong emotional rejection of the Nordic model that criminalises the client might have to do precisely with its moral consequences - as it uproots the traditional moral landscape, this approach pathologises the counterparty, which is normally male and dominant.

Politics of resentment

The demophobic attitudes of Ukraine’s intelligentsia can be understood easily in the context of the 2019 elections, which have inflicted a deep collective trauma on this social group. The long nourished claims of “traditional intellectuals” to leadership over and representation of Ukraine’s popular classes were destroyed in a matter of weeks after the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (whom they massively supported) failed miserably in the race against Volodymyr Zelenskyi, who garnered an unprecedented 73% of the vote.

In the aftermath, these resentful “leaders of public opinion” found themselves without a public, and created the collective identity of “the 25%” - a wise and responsible minority which knows better than the gullible crowd. The eschatological perception and ethos of this group was recently summed up by writer Oleksandr Irvanets: “But we have to keep living next to them. To wait, to believe in changes to the better. And to treat them as our brothers and sisters, the unwise and the feeble-minded ones. This is what they are. Having felt that they are a majority, that they currently dominate in the society, our brothers and sisters have become only further convinced of their righteousness, of the infallibility of their choice. This is the situation today.”

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(c) Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Litanies about ignorant masses who have lost the sense of social orientation thus abound in social media and blogs. The Ukrainian intelligentsia mourns its own fate, presenting itself as “civil society” that has become redundant in the new populist social contract. “Suddenly neither the authorities, nor the people need civil society. The authorities don’t need it because of the Maidans and the danger of consistent oversight [by society], the people don’t need it because of a feeling of uncertainty and upheaval in the course of reforms and modernisation which it neither needs, nor understands,” writer Andriy Bondar comments.

Ironically, this elitist stance of Ukrainian nationalists and liberals brings them closer to the proverbially elitist Russian liberal intelligentsia, which has been constituting itself by demonising the popular classes since at least the early 1990s. In Russia, the gradual dissolution of the historic bloc between intelligentsia and “the people” led to the emergence of nationalists, who claimed the populist rhetoric.

In Ukraine, nationalism has always been present in this bloc, cementing rather than splitting it. The notion of people’s sovereignty has been very important, playing a leading role in the justification of the very creation of the independent state in 1991, in the political struggles of the 1990s and early 2000s, in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and, most importantly, in the Euromaidan of 2013-2014. Given the recent intensive romance of the future “25%” with the idea of the free and wise people, as well as the general “populist” instincts traditionally prevalent in Ukrainan public sphere, one is faced with the following question: why and how exactly did this elitist turn take place?

Anti-populist populism

I argue that despite everything above, the turn to elitism has not, in fact, happened, and that “the people'' remains a key source of justification for Ukrainian intelligentsia. What is changing is the meaning of “the people” for different brands of populists.

To understand this demophobic populism, one can read the essay of Ulas Samchuk, a collaborationist writer who edited a newspaper during the German occupation of Ukraine in the 1940s. The text, called “The people or rabble”, was approvingly cited by Ukraine’s “anti-populist” intelligentsia in the early weeks of 2020, as a response to Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s televised New Year speech that cast doubt on the importance of symbolic politics of history and language, so cherished by the intellectuals.

In the 1941 article, Ulas Samchuk draws a distinction between the lowly rabble, which cares for neither its roots, nor identity, and the noble people, whose virtues lie in the opposite. In a similar vein, those who quote Samchuk today do not claim that the Ukrainian people are “vicious” as such. On the contrary, they extol it, but refuse to acknowledge all inhabitants of the country as “the true people”. Hence the ubiquitous quotation marks around the term in such texts.

What allows one to be counted among “the people” in this discourse? First and foremost, what counts is the loyalty to Maidan – the ultimate event during which the Ukrainian people constituted itself and manifested itself to the world, the epiphany of Ukrainian intelligentsia.

Oleksandr Irvanets speaks again: “To create at least some positive counterweight, these days one often remembers moments when the people’s actions made one proud of it. The Orange Maidan of 2004, singing [the national anthem] in a million-strong harmonious choir. The Maidan of 2013-14, covered with smoke and cold darkness, determined and armed with wooden bats and shields against [the riot police] in full gear. Then one really believed that the people know the truth and are choosing the right way. Today this belief has not completely disappeared, but it has been fundamentally shaken.”

The numbers of the people, i.e. those who “know the truth”, have shrunk dramatically in Irvanets’ view, but this is a reversible process. The long-awaited news about the falling popular approval of Zelenskyi prompted a popular blogger to interpret it as proof of the people’s wisdom, after all.

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Former president Petro Poroshenko | (c) SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

A recent study has analysed the logic of Ukrainian nationalism after the 2013-2014 Maidan, which combines “civic” and “ethnic” traits thanks to the floating definition of “the nation” in Ukraine. But behind the declarations of civic inclusiveness, one sees new exclusive distinctions between “conscious active citizens” and “passive slaves”.

These distinctions permeate the “progressive” agenda of Ukraine’s national liberals, e.g. making inclusion of the LGBT+ conditioned by exclusionary political criteria. A fresh example of this attitude can be found in the blog of Uliana Suprun, Ukraine’s US-born former health minister who has gained an iconic status of reformer among “progressive democrats”. In her post, she paints an idyllic picture of “two fathers [living in the US], who take their child to the church, teach her Ukrainian language and culture, are a part of the community where everyone accepts their family”. This patriotic disclaimer is not enough for Suprun, and she explains that this family is loved and cared for by her grandmother, who was born in interwar Galicia, participated in the Ukrainian nationalist armed struggle during the war, risked her life at the hands of the Soviet security services and had to flee from the USSR. LGBT+ people who are politically neutral or who, for example, support the pro-Russian opposition can hardly count on the support of this “far liberal” sector of Ukrainian civil society.

Often language is stressed as an important criterion, but in many cases it stands in as a proxy for class and “civilisational” belonging, rather than as an autonomous value. This attitude is exemplified in a recent text by showman Antin Mukharskyi, who “has chosen the Ukrainian way consciously in adulthood”. He explains this choice by his life-long preference for the self-reliant “high-quality minority” over “the intellectually degraded majority”, with its “infantile and dependent psychological type of slave”. Mukharskyi concludes that Ukrainianness is not granted, it is a privilege to be won, which is defined by “spirit, upbringing and education”, rather than by formal citizenship. These vague criteria make the boundaries of “the people'' extremely flexible and dependent on political conjuncture, allowing the intelligentsia to stay populist all the while preaching “anti-populism”.

Characteristically, even critics of the “25%” tendency share their fundamental criteria of political distinction. Vasyl Rasevych, a liberal historian from Lviv, criticises the narcissistic elite that has not been able to overcome its existential crisis of 2019 and explains its failures by its genetic “post-Soviet” nature: the members of today’s intellectual elite are essentially the continuation of the Soviet nomenklatura, hence their ultimately reactionary character.

Flaunting the high

Scholarly studies of populism operate within three traditions. The most popular school, represented by Cas Mudde, understands populism as a “thin ideology” that divides society into the vicious elite, the pure people, the active defenders of the people, and sinister “others”. In our case, the distribution of roles is obvious: the national-liberal intellectuals struggle against oppressors from different spaces and times (Russia as the imperial metropoly and the remnants of the “Soviet” inside Ukrainian society) on behalf of the virtual people. The part of the racialised “others” is played by the politically cynical, non-patriotic population who do not live up to the expectations of the champions of the true people.

Another influential concept of populism is provided by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who traced the alignment of different subjects’ claims and interests into an “equivalential chain”, which then congeals around an empty signifier into an oppositional popular identity. The latter only exists in antagonist relations with a hostile camp beyond the frontier discursively drawn across the society.

From this point of view, one can notice the strikingly small number of “interests” integrated into the national-liberal intelligentsia’s “equivalential chain” today. It hardly extends beyond nationalists, Euro-enthusiasts, Donbas war veterans, NGO activists and the national-liberal intelligentsia themselves. These identities are not fixed, and they can cover varying numbers of people depending on the material conjunctures that are outside of Laclau and Mouffe’s purview. But at the moment “the people” behind this populism seem to be quite limited, hence the marginal position of this camp in Ukrainian party politics today.

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(c) Sadak Souici / Le Pictorium/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

It is the third school of populism studies that yields the most interesting insights about Ukraine’s “25%” populism. Pierre Ostiguy and Stephen Moffitt define populism as a political style characterised by “flaunting the culturally low”. Populists cultivate “rude” attitudes and mannerisms that are normally associated with lower classes, thus scandalising the refined world of high politics.

In this sense, populism can be understood as “symbolic class struggle”, which imposes distinctions and classifications favourable to certain groups. The difference from Brexiteers or Donald Trump is that Ukrainian intellectuals do the opposite: their populism consists of flaunting the culturally high. “The people” constructed by them are politically committed, civil and educated, unlike the ignorant and deplorable “masses”. And while the intellectual elite pretends to represent this virtuous collectivity, everyone else is invited to pretend to be a part of it. The inclusivity of “the people”, the open access into its ranks, is balanced by strict criteria of political behaviour imposed on the members of the community. Thus, promotion in the symbolic hierarchy comes at the price of aligning with the political agenda of the “25%”.

My ethnographic field experience among popular classes living in a largely Russophone province shows that this bargain is attractive for many. Certain members of dominated social groups internalise the logic of “elitist populism”, and join the imagined community of “the true Ukrainian people”, adjusting their views and habits accordingly. Switching to Ukrainian in a Russian-speaking city, expressing support for the locally unpopular policies of “decommunisation” and similar steps put one in a conflictual position within one’s social circles. But they also serve as tools of social distinction. This constructs atoms of “the true people”, marked by higher symbolic capital, dispersed in the midst of the uneducated masses.

Liberal elitist populism of the middle classes is not an exclusively Ukrainian phenomenon. There are studies of a similar political church in Bulgaria, where the “social” anti-government protests in the winter of 2013 were condemned as gatherings of materialist, lazy, crypto-communist masses. By comparison, the “moral” protests in the summer of 2013, animated by Bulgarian liberal intelligentsia and the middle class, were portrayed as the struggle of idealist capitalist producers demanding the rule of law. This dualist view of “citizens and anti-citizens”, promoted by the intellectuals, finds its continuation in the social practices of those who want to join the ranks of “true citizens”: economic losers actively “retrain” themselves to adopt middle class world-views and dispositions.

A similar set of binaries characterises Romanian politics, whose middle classes have embarked on an anti-corruption crusade that rests on the following oppositions: “anti-corruption and rule of law versus corruption and cronyism; apolitical expertise and technocracy versus political dilettantism; philo-Europeanism versus anti-European populism; West versus East; the forward-looking modernizers versus the backward-looking inheritors of communism; the democrats versus the non-democrats; the freedom-loving versus the captive electorate; those who attract investors versus those who harry them away; modernization versus stagnation; the active citizens versus those living on welfare; the civilized versus the plebs; civil society versus the state; good (or perhaps the lesser evil) versus evil”.

In all three cases, traditional intellectuals react to a crisis of legitimacy by launching a populist appeal to the “deserving” people, formulating their criteria of deservingness in a highly charged moralising fashion. In all three cases, this populism “flaunts the culturally high”, reacting to the decades of “conventional” populism, which has dominated the region for decades. Finally, in all three cases the content of this appeal is determined by the dependent position of the post-socialist region in global capitalism: the charged distinction between “the West and the East”, or “Europe and Asia” structures the populism of intelligentsia.

Can this kind of populism be found beyond the post-socialist area? On the one hand, it can be compared to the centrist populism of Emmanuel Macron, with his inclusive appeal conditioned by exclusive demands to embrace the neoliberal spirit of “startup nation”. Similarly to Ukraine, Macronist intellectuals “flaunt the high” and draw symbolic hierarchies, at the bottom of which there are unreformed lazy people, used to handouts and unable to find a job by simply crossing the street. However, this discourse hardly features any significant geopolitical binaries. On the other hand, the politics of neoliberal “third way” parties in the western world, from the US Democratic party and UK New Labour to the German SPD, have the characteristic progressivist middle-class oriented agenda which brings them closer to the middle-class “anti-populists” from Ukraine.

The discursive construction that opposes “populism” to “democracy” and insists on the necessity of technocratic governance, appealing to the culturally privileged layers of the population while speaking in the name of the people, can be productively grasped as a specific form of populism in its own right. Ukraine’s intelligentsia is a single case among many, rather than an isolated exotic pathology to be explained by its “troubled past”.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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