12 May 2014

Slavoj Zizek on Ukraine

While Russian propaganda portrays the Maidan revolution in Ukraine as a neo-fascist conspiracy, Slavoj Zizek observes in the London Review of Books that actual neo-fascist parties (as described by Zizek) throughout Europe take Russia's side in the dispute between Moscow and Kiev. Zizek seems sadly amused by the fact that the international "anti-imperialist left" and the European far-right are on the same side on this subject. They're united by hostility toward the European Union, the right seeing it as a threat to their traditional national cultures, the left seeing it as the enforcer of neoliberal austerity at the expense of the working class. Zizek takes what may be an exceptional position by urging the left to support Ukraine on the Maidan, so long as they understand what they're supporting and why. He sees Ukraine as a battleground between the legacy of Lenin and the legacy of Stalin. Lenin, in Zizek's view, was the champion of national autonomy, Stalin the champion, ironically as an ethnic Georgian, of Russian imperialism in the guise of rational centralization. Zizek finds it telling that Stalin is more popular with Russians now than Lenin; that tips him off that the Russians are the bad guys, more interested in national greatness at other people's expense than in any vision of equality or emancipation. Ukrainians, meanwhile, have no naive illusions about the unconditional benefits of the EU. "They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities," Zizek writes, "their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems." He doesn't believe that Putin or Russia can solve a poor man's problems, but neither, arguably, can the EU. The point for him, however, isn't what Ukraine sees in Europe but what Europe sees in Ukraine. He hopes that the Maidan's protest against oligarchic corruption, tainted though it may be by neo-fascist or Ukrainian chauvinist elements, can revive the ideal of Europe that should motivate the left:

What, exactly, does the ‘Europe’ the Ukrainian protesters are referring to stand for? It can’t be reduced to a single idea: it spans nationalist and even fascist elements but extends also to the idea of what Etienne Balibar calls √©galibert√©, freedom-in-equality, the unique contribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even if it is in practice today mostly betrayed by European institutions and citizens themselves. Between these two poles, there is also a naive trust in the value of European liberal-democratic capitalism. Europe can see in the Ukrainian protests its own best and worst sides, its emancipatory universalism as well as its dark xenophobia.

Zizek calls on the European left, as well as the leftist opposition to Putin in Russia, to engage with the Maidan and give the Ukrainian revolution "a truly emancipatory dimension." In short, instead of treating Ukrainians like suckers falling for an EU con job, the left should take inspiration from the Maidan to the extent that its expresses a vision of an ideal Europe -- presumably including Russia -- that Europe should be made to live up to. Zizek acknowledges that this would be hard work, and that may be why European leftists have kept their distance from the Maidan. There may be irony at work here. The western liberal media constantly claims that Putin wants to crush the Maidan because he is afraid of some example it might set for dissidents in his own country. It would be ironic, then, if the international left, whom Zizek considers the Maidan's rightful allies, should let it die because they're afraid of the example it sets.

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