Saving the state

I am sometimes reluctant to write on topical events, such as those in Burma/Myanmar, in Venezuela, and North Korea. It’s not that I’m not paying attention, but rather that I’m not satisfied with the quality of information I’m getting. It’s all too easy for an outsider, particularly one whose heritage is that of a colonizer, to say what people who are actually there, who are actually experiencing a situation, should do, and this is, in itself, another manifestation of a colonizer’s attitude.

So I often hold my fire. But there is another mistake, playing out now with the Ukraine, that I would like to highlight:

“My hope is at this point that a truce may hold,” said Obama. “But [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen [Harper] is exactly right; ultimately the government is responsible for making sure that we shift towards some sort of unity government, even if it’s temporary, that allows us to move to fair and free elections so that the will of the Ukrainian people can be rightly expressed without the kinds of chaos we’ve seen on the streets, without the bloodshed that all of us I think strongly condemn.”[1]

For what it’s worth, the truce did not last long.[2] Negotiations leading to it appear not to have included the more radical elements of the opposition,[3] in a conflict that began when Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a promised trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union, accepting aid from Russia instead,[4] and which has increasingly become about Yanukovych, his rule, the violence of his response to the opposition,[5] and about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s colonial attitude toward the country.[6] This is a situation that appears to be escalating toward a bloodbath.[7]

I wish to highlight a particular phrase in Obama’s remarks however: “the will of the Ukrainian people.”[8] Speaking of a country where “a sixth of the population is ethnic Russian and another sixth speaks Russian as its first language,”[9] Obama’s phrase casually assumes a monolithic people with a single will. There are very, very few countries in the world, if any, where this assumption is valid. As Colin Woodard brilliantly demonstrates, it is not even remotely true of the United States.[10] It is, however, a presumption of the elite, in which difference is taken as disloyalty and therefore as something to be suppressed.[11] This becomes particularly acute in the many cases where what is in fact a minority group hangs on to power, initially simply to protect its own interests, and then, to protect itself from reprisals provoked by the abuses of its power against the majority.

There have also been reports in western media that the current crisis could split Ukraine, with one section moving towards even closer ties with Russia and the other looking towards Europe. President Yanukovych’s largest support base is in the eastern half of the country while the West is generally seen as more pro-European and anti-Russian.

However, many local people say this scenario is unlikely as there are no clear fault lines between populations in both parts of the country.[12]

I see no solution for this in the present paradigm. A message I took from David Barash and Charles Webel’s Peace and Conflict Studies, a political science textbook, is that even political scientists see the state itself as tremendously problematic.[13] This is because the state exists not so much for the benefit of the people, but principally for rulers,[14] and a system of governance that may putatively be based on meritocracy will, as in any meritocracy, ultimately function not as a meritocracy, but rather to protect the position of the elites.[15]

Gerhard Lenski argued for the functionalist (conservative) view that, on balance, and despite its costs, the people are better off with a ruling elite.[16] He made this argument in the United States, having earned his Ph.D. at Yale, and as a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, that is, from a position of considerable privilege. He also made it during the 1960s, when inequality among white males in the U.S. was far less severe than it is today, before policies chosen by the elite for the elite decimated the middle class, and introduced a vast majority of the U.S. population to economic insecurity and reduced opportunity.[17] But in fact, his argument rested on severe inequalities that helped to propel the unrest of the era.[18]

It would be ridiculous to place all the blame for this on Lenski; much of the value of his book is that he tells a story of how inequality came to be,[19] a story that dates to the Neolithic.[20] But the events in the Ukraine are a sharp and chilling reminder that people die for the belief that our present system of social organization, a system whose lunacy Erich Fromm persuasively demonstrated,[21] is the only one possible.

We ought to be thinking about that.

  1. [1]Dan Roberts, “Ukraine crisis: Obama attacks Putin over Russia’s role,” Guardian, February 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/20/ukraine-crisis-obama-attacks-putin-over-russias-role
  2. [2]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Ukraine unrest: At least 21 protesters dead in clashes,” February 20, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26268620
  3. [3]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Ukraine president ‘agrees truce’ with opposition,” February 19, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26267220
  4. [4]Voice of America News, “Ashton: Ukraine ‘Intends to Sign’ Agreement with EU,” December 12, 2013, http://www.voanews.com/content/ashton-ukraine-intends-to-sign-agreement-with-eu/1808673.html
  5. [5]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Ukraine unrest: At least 21 protesters dead in clashes,” February 20, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26268620; Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer, “Kiev Protesters Set Square Ablaze to Thwart Police,” New York Times, February 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/19/world/europe/ukraine.html; Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine Leader Strains for Grip as Chaos Spreads,” New York Times, February 19, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/world/europe/ukraine.html; Pavol Stracansky, “‘No Way Back’ for Kiev Protesters,” InterPress Service, February 19, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/way-back-kiev-protesters/
  6. [6]Julia Ioffe, “What’s Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare,” New Republic, February 18, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116655/kiev-ukraine-protests-are-vladimir-putins-worst-nightmare; Julian Pecquet, “Obama official: ‘F–k the EU’,” Hill, February 6, 2014, http://thehill.com/blogs/global-affairs/europe/197649-obama-official-f-the-eu; Fred Weir, “Russia tells West it’s time for common ground on Ukraine – or else,” Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/2014/0213/Russia-tells-West-it-s-time-for-common-ground-on-Ukraine-or-else
  7. [7]Pavol Stracansky, “‘No Way Back’ for Kiev Protesters,” InterPress Service, February 19, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/way-back-kiev-protesters/
  8. [8]Dan Roberts, “Ukraine crisis: Obama attacks Putin over Russia’s role,” Guardian, February 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/20/ukraine-crisis-obama-attacks-putin-over-russias-role
  9. [9]Pavol Stracansky, “‘No Way Back’ for Kiev Protesters,” InterPress Service, February 19, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/way-back-kiev-protesters/
  10. [10]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  11. [11]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).
  12. [12]Pavol Stracansky, “‘No Way Back’ for Kiev Protesters,” InterPress Service, February 19, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/way-back-kiev-protesters/
  13. [13]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).
  14. [14]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  15. [15]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  16. [16]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  17. [17]Associated Press, “80 percent of U.S. adults face near-poverty, unemployment, survey finds,” CBS News, July 28, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57595861/80-percent-of-u.s-adults-face-near-poverty-unemployment-survey-finds/; Emily Badger, “Political Polarization Grows as Job Security Falls,” Pacific Standard, July 19, 2011, http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/political-polarization-grows-as-job-security-falls-33968/; Anna Bernasek, “Income Gap Grows Wider (and Faster),” New York Times, August 31, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/business/income-gap-grows-wider-and-faster.html; Michael W. Clune, “What Was Neoliberalism?” review of Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, by  Daniel Stedman Jones, Los Angeles Review of Books, February 26, 2013, http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1445; Jason, DeParle, “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs,” New York Times, January 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html; Democracy Now!, “NAFTA at 20: Lori Wallach on U.S. Job Losses, Record Income Inequality, Mass Displacement in Mexico,” January 3, 2014, http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/3/nafta_at_20_lori_wallach_on; Richard Florida, “The 66%: America’s Growing Underclass,” Atlantic Cities, October 29, 2012, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/10/66-americas-growing-underclass/3618/; Andrew Hacker, “We’re More Unequal Than You Think,” review of The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, by Robert H. Frank, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, and Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, by James Gilligan, New York Review of Books, February 23, 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/feb/23/were-more-unequal-you-think/; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Patrice Hill, “Top 1 percent reaps 90 percent of income gains since Obama took office,” Washington Times, January 13, 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/13/obama-economic-policies-fail-to-turn-trends-hurtin/; Dave Johnson, “NAFTA At 20: 1 Million Lost Jobs, 580% Increase In Trade Deficit,” Campaign for America’s Future, December 30, 2013, http://ourfuture.org/20131230/nafta-at-20-1-million-lost-jobs-580-increase-in-trade-deficit; Paul Krugman, “Rich Man’s Recovery,” New York Times, September 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/13/opinion/krugman-rich-mans-recovery.html; Paul Krugman, “Plutocrats Feeling Persecuted,” New York Times, September 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/27/opinion/krugman-plutocrats-feeling-persecuted.html; Paul Krugman, “Rage of the Privileged,” New York Times, September 26, 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/26/rage-of-the-privileged/; Stewart Lansley, “The Hourglass Society,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 28, 2013, http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1708; Frank Levy, “A Half Century of Incomes,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 19-22; Annie Lowrey, “The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery,” New York Times, September 10, 2013, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/the-rich-get-richer-through-the-recovery/; Sean McElwee, “Sorry, neoliberals: Inequality is driven by greed, not technology,” Salon, November 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/sorry_neoliberals_inequality_is_driven_by_greed_not_technology/; Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, November 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/technology-inequality-dont-blame-the-robots/; Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, “NAFTA at 20,” Public Citizen, January, 2014, http://www.citizen.org/documents/NAFTA-at-20.pdf; Mark R. Rank, “Poverty in America Is Mainstream,” New York Times, November 2, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/02/poverty-in-america-is-mainstream/; Barry Ritholtz, “Economic Inequality Is Not An Accident, It Was Created,” Big Picture, July 9, 2013, http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2013/07/economic-inequality-is-not-an-accident-it-was-created/; Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Some Are More Unequal Than Others,” New York Times, October 26, 2012, http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/stiglitz-some-are-more-unequal-than-others/; Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth,” New York Times, February 16, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/equal-opportunity-our-national-myth/; Peter Whoriskey, “Growing wealth widens distance between lawmakers and constituents,” Washington Post, December 5, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/growing-wealth-widens-distance-between-lawmakers-and-constituents/2011/12/05/gIQAR7D6IP_story.html; Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, “Economic Restructuring and Systems of Inequality,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 16-19.
  18. [18]Charles Lemert, “Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 371-381.
  19. [19]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  20. [20]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008); Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  21. [21]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).

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