Letters from Ukraine: Part 3

by andrew

Has the situation developed in any interesting ways in the last week?

Although the advance has slowed down and the weeks are more alike, one noticeable change has occurred. First, news of the Ukrainian army’s successful counter attacks around Kyiv and that Russia dropped some of its peace talk requirements has bolstered the image of a successful Ukrainian military campaign. After Russia announced that it would scale back military efforts around Kyiv the Ukrainian public began celebrating a war that’s “already won.” It is still unclear how engaged Russia is in the peace talks or whether they’re a temporary distraction, just as the scale of the “retreat” remains to be seen. But we should look to the other side of this matter as well. Ukrainian defence continues to rely on conscripts and volunteers without any military training, while NATO prepares a never-ending supply of weapons. Success on the frontlines will reinforce the image of normality behind them and refugees will have to settle for a catastrophe as aid slowly disappears. People in the encircled cities will still have to hide from daily bombings and Russia will likely use freed-up forces to reinforce other directions of attack. Unlike those eager to defend the false dichotomy between war and peace, we know this isn’t over yet.

We have learned that the Ukrainian government, in the name of a state of emergency and using martial law, has enacted a series of laws that severely restrict employees' rights. Employers can increase the working week from 40 to 60 hours, shorten vacations or cancel extra vacation days. Are you afraid that all this will serve as a basis for a more radical transformation of labour law and trade unions in the name of war?

Prior to the war, Ukraine already had a high unemployment rate floating around 10%, with a labour force participation rate of 65% in 2021. The issues of a highly uncertain future raised by the heavy student presence at Euromaidan have only been exacerbated due to further gutting of the universities, among many other public sector austerity programs. High informal employment rates for all age groups and non-existent pensions meant there was no way out of poverty for most of the population. In a stagnating and hopeless country, you knew your plans wouldn’t materialise, but they collapsed slowly and allowed you to pretend there were options and guarantees. War, however, completely disorients you, making you feel utterly powerless as you are thrown into a sea of new incalculable probabilities, with everything lost and everyone confused. A month in, I am still not sure whether I’ll ever be able to speak of the “after” of this war. It is future-destroying, not only by burning up precious stock market options and millions of careers but on a cosmological scale too. As comrades are swept into the ranks of another patriotic army, not only overwhelmed by the tradition of dead generations but celebrating its repetition, the possibility of liberation seems foreclosed.

That's why I am afraid the “temporary” labour laws have merely formalised already-existing practices. Nobody cares much about proper legal conduct as millions have left their homes and employers have suspended pay. The system was slightly disrupted, but quickly adjusted itself and asserted its reign once again: refugees are trying to find any work whatsoever, and exploitation limits can be dispensed with in such demanding times. It’s difficult to speak to the possibility of these restrictions continuing after the war. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising, considering the need to make the trickle of foreign investment find profitable industries. The unions are unlikely to oppose these laws, as there is almost no independent trade union movement in Ukraine, and official post-Soviet organisations are nothing but hollowed-out conservative structures. There haven’t been any strikes, even during the 2014 uprising, and largely patriotic unions are unlikely to undermine the nation’s war efforts.

How do the events of the last few years in Ukraine fit into the recent wave of uprisings in the countries of the former Soviet Union?

Like any good revolutionaries, we should take our “cue not from the good old things, but from the bad new ones.” Though the development of the historical party is by no means an even and linear process, movements learn from each other. The January uprising in Kazakhstan marked the first occasion of widespread looting in a post-Soviet riot and was the first such uprising not initiated by a political event. Before that, people in Belarus had completely shied away from looting amid protests generally directed towards fair elections. Ukrainian rioters in 2014 looted only the police and government offices and immediately returned the weapons acquired.1 Kyrgyzstan’s post-election riots resulted in looting and the police had to rely on the population to defend the looted stores. The question of the influence that the Kazakh uprising, one of many in a long line of modern riots provoked by rising gas prices, might provide in terms of quick mass coordination and looting for the post-socialist rioters remains open.

Looking at the post-Maidan events in Ukraine, it is difficult not to be swallowed up by depression. Nationalist marches and law-correcting2 riots have attracted more liberal crowds, and even Covid restrictions haven’t provoked any significant mobilisation. The only protests that dared to come out amid the state gutting the hospitals and abandoning any virus containment efforts were a few entrepreneurs demanding the lifting of the latest restrictions. As much as we’d love to proclaim the contradictions to have finally shown themselves, reality quickly sets in. You’re riding the bus and listening to a radio report on the sudden outbreak of Covid among bus drivers. Sometimes you see old German ads, still plastered on windows in the second hand buses. Complete silence is only interrupted by sudden screams when the next person discovers that the stop button is no longer working. For several hours at night, though, when the cop-conductor shift is over, you can drive the tram for free.

Belarusian railway line sabotages and occasional Russian desertions show the strength of disruption that is disinterested in democratic mobilisation. The question posed by radicals was never the right question: “should we be sabotaging the death machine?”, as if a radical endorsement would immediately mobilise the population. But the question always had an answer: “life wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t interruptions in the circuits of generalised commodity production.” Ukrainian draft evasion remains atomised for now, unable, with its natural silence, to destroy the patriotic nation massacring the population in its name.

The process of that generalised war that we call the real movement might be difficult to discern before the rupture, but we still can see the reverberations of the silenced revolt. Atomised looting in cities all across Ukraine are met for now with self-policing opposition of the citizenry. But in breaking into vending machines and kiosks those excluded from the process of capital valorisation show the scale of their hatred. The kiosks symbolise capital’s total domination of our landscapes: an optimised vehicle for commerce that limits any movement of the person inside, often located in the middle of a Soviet boulevard, the scale of which Haussmann couldn’t have dreamed of. The vending machines are the dream of automation denied: free time is nothing but a curse. For now, the image of Ukrainian politics is that of the production of social democrats without a social democracy, although the fault lines are already showing themselves.

Taking this social democratic view at its face value, Mike Davis’ description of the blindness of the ruling class is useful.3 Given his apocalyptic picture of billionaires destroying “all the good things of the earth,” with greed no longer needing the long-winded justifications of the spectacle, it is hardly surprising that the political class, forced to maintain a global system destroying their own domestic economy, is disorganised and confused. Although it suggests that individual policies or politicians are the cause of increasingly visionless imperialism caught in the storm of progress, his analysis identifies the present problem. It is our own times that Benjamin had in mind, citing Fuchs, as he looked through the dead remains of the workers’ movement for signs of materialist thought:

Decadent times and sick brains also incline toward gro­tesque representations. In such cases the grotesque is a shocking reflection of the fact that for the times and individuals in question, the problems of the world and of existence appear insoluble.4

Davis’ depressing alternative to the unsuccessful “channelling” of “energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns” is to call for a 21st-century propaganda of the deed, as if they could blunt the repression or abolish war.5 We refuse to resign ourselves to imagining the redemption of the Jewish people in the assassination of a long-retired Petliura. Nor are we satisfied with a slight rebalancing of financial power on top of a radicalised nationalist movement as a solution to Ukrainian suffering. Instead, starting with hopelessness as the basic descriptor of our era, we must try to map the dark way out of it.

The remnants of the workers’ movement obscure our view. Instead of trying to reanimate its corpse, we have to look toward the manifestations of negativity around us. If a society of employed workers, each at the mercy of individual capital, called forth the strategy of the strike and self-management, in the end only producing a society of generalised unemployment, what does the revolution look like for us? Through the elimination of jobs, increased labour-power mobility, and various forms of pseudo-employment, exploitation is now a function of total social capital and the fragile capillaries of its circulation are what we will see targeted in the future. The same dialectical movement follows the recent history of citizenship: those who placed hopes in its universality have missed the rapid extension of the condition of the non-citizen. Even if every citizen is always a citizen-to-be, always suspected of the incompleteness of their status which they must constantly prove anew through continual examinations, one of the principal faces of the non-citizen remains the refugee. As the familiar national environment erupts into the very war it was supposed to protect them from, how could a refugee possibly trust the newly emerging political order that already rejects them? No longer subjected to the government and its taxes, the refugee starts to despise every border and the language of every product label, which both ask for a drop of their blood.

As we are drawing up plans, making connections within the volcano of war, and calling for the storm of an uprising, only one question waits, as always, for a practical solution:

What experience could ever match that of hiding together in the basement, when they shared their last drops of water and their last morsels of bread with each other? Will they be able to main­tain the solidarity they demonstrated during the natural catastrophe as they undergo the societal catastrophe?

Interview conducted by Tous Dehors