Beware of Bad Samaritans*

In the war against Ukraine there is one weapon more frightening than anything in the entire Russian arsenal. Sneakier than “hybrid warfare,” it is a weapon which is designed to be wielded by the Ukrainian people against themselves, and it helps the Putin regime both maintain influence in Ukraine while sustaining itself at home. That weapon is neo-liberal economic theory, and as Sean Guillory points out in this superb article, Ukrainians ought to think twice about heeding the advice of neo-liberal bad Samaritans, in this case Arthur Laffer.

There is an idea among some Ukrainians and Ukraine supporters that Russia is the biggest threat to Ukraine and the be-all, end-all when it comes to survival or defeat of Ukraine as a country. This is woefully incorrect. For one thing, Russia has managed to keep its thumb on Ukraine for so long largely due to the poverty and other effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Russia’s economy soared in the mid-2000’s, plenty of Ukrainian citizens, mainly from the east, could look to Russia and see higher salaries and pensions, so that as one refugee from Donetsk told me, some locals thought annexation by Russia would bring “paradise.” It matters not whether they were wrong because the Russian system wasn’t sustainable, or if those economic benefits came at the cost of losing political freedoms. Poor people with few prospects are likely to embrace any system or regime that appears to be able to reliably put food on the table, and in the case of Russia, put iPhones in pockets.

Hanging out in Kyiv, and particularly in the center, it was always easy to miss the economic reality that faces Ukraine, especially now. It’s obvious when you go out to some place like Donetsk oblast, but in the capital it’s far more subtle. One clue is the increased presence of homeless people and people asking for money in and around Maidan Nezalezhnosti. In my most recent trip this was impossible to ignore. But there were other signs as well.

I don’t mean to sound like Thomas Friedman here, but on my last trip I had a long discussion about the local economy with a cab driver who drove me into the city from the Boryspil airport. The story is the same- lack of work, low wages, etc. I met another expat who explained to me how his friends in Odessa were now living on or below the poverty line. Now I don’t mean to level any accusations against any specific people, but this kind of poverty and desperation is vital for Russia to maintain control over Ukraine by other means. Just as how the Russian government can easily stifle dissent by paying people to support the government in public or harass dissidents, desperate people in Ukraine are a pool of cheap, willing agents for sabotaging progress. If one thinks that some sense of patriotism will keep these people from carrying out the work of the Kremlin, think again. For one, the Kremlin’s motives are not always obvious, nor do they always seem logical from the outside. The origins of the money used to pay these “agents” may be murky, if not totally obscure. Putin’s designs might be carried out by men claiming to be Ukrainian patriots. In fact, bet on it. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, after all.

Getting back to the economy, this is yet another reason why people should be more up in arms about the decommunization law. Proponents of this law essentially preach a sort of voodoo politics, whereby removing symbols and in some cases rewriting history will suddenly make all Ukrainians into patriotic citizens. Patriotic citizens, who, for example, will be less likely to resist in the face of coming austerity. You see, if trade unions and workers band together to protest austerity for them while the rich continue to live in luxury, the oligarch-controlled media can just tar them as Communists or Communist-like. They’ll be accused of wanting a return to the Soviet Union and Moscow rule. A good Ukrainian patriot endures the inequality and poverty, and in return gets flags, slogans, and fairy tales about “national ideas.” Same as the Russian patriot, incidentally.

Does that sound far-fetched? Well it’s already happened in America of all places. Nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of the USSR, America’s Republicans and conservatives have been screaming about Communism, socialism, and Marxism more loudly than ever, lobbing this accusation against a neutered Democratic party which long ago went full-on neo-liberal. Even during the Cold War they were less shrill than they have been since the election of Barack Obama. Take a look at this GOP poster from 1956, for example. That’s a Republican pro-labor union poster. These days the GOP portrays unions as at best, shiftless and lazy, and at worst, “thugs.” If, in America, the idea of requiring private citizens to buy health insurance from private providers can be repeatedly labeled “socialist” or “Communist,” it stands to reason that any significant push back against austerity in Ukraine will inevitably be similarly tarred with the same labels. I guarantee it.

To the people of Ukraine I will make this as blunt as possible. Not everyone in Ukraine is “Ukrainian”, which is to say you are not on the same side. It is not only the top oligarchs you have to suspect either. This has nothing to do with their nationality, their religion, what language they speak, or their sexual orientation, but rather their relation to the means of production and their ownership of capital. These people’s interests are irreconcilable to those of the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens, and they are very reconcilable to those interests of their business counterparts in Russia. Some of them are having a spat at the moment, and their are some minor differences concerning Russia’s neo-feudal incarnation of capitalism, but capitalists are capitalists.

As these people continue to squeeze you more and more, they will crow more and more loudly about the horrors of “Communism,” and shed mighty rivers of tears for people who died decades ago. They will do this because mourning the dead costs them nothing, whereas actually caring about the Ukrainian people today, and those yet unborn, does cost them. Make no mistake- Ukraine is not a poor country. It possesses the land and resources to provide for the basic needs of every citizen and ensure a positive birth rate as well. Russia is even more endowed with such resources. But what Ukraine cannot do is provide that lifestyle for its citizens while simultaneously providing a life of opulent luxury for a small minority who are unwilling to earn by their own labor, and who use the political system and its monopoly on violence to maintain a system that denies people the means to obtain the necessities of life save for at the mercy of a capitalist.

Those in Ukraine who exploit their fellow Ukrainians have an incentive to keep people’s minds focused on the past and not present, and the effects of this distraction are extremely useful to the Kremlin as well. More equality means a stronger, more inclusive community, and that means a much smaller pool of potential agents for the Kremlin. By contrast, post-Maidan Ukraine’s circus of populism, far-right politics, and patriotic circle-jerks give Putin’s political technologists and intelligence operatives little reason to worry about losing influence in Ukraine.

Finally, it is high time to chuck the politics of opposites, whereby people in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries enthusiastically embrace anything that appears to be the opposite of what they think their enemies represent. Bad Samaritans like Arthur Laffer may seem like the polar opposite of the Kremlin, which presides over a much more restricted capitalist system. Do not be fooled, however. The Kremlin system is capitalist through and through, and what is more it is a system that thrived off of the 90’s and 2000’s amoral neo-liberal, let-the-market-decide mentality. The crisis of 2008 showed much of the West that the capitalist system is inherently flawed and cannot be fixed. Today, there are even progressive capitalists who envision an alternative system, that some are referring to as post-capitalism. There are many flaws in their vision, but they are onto something. With the rest of the modern world waking up to this reality, there is no good reason for Ukraine to listen to outdated dinosaurs like Arthur Laffer and the rest of the neo-liberal cultists.

Alright, I’m stepping down from my soapbox. As a related note though, I think Ukraine can take inspiration from another country that emerged in the 20th century after centuries of domination. I leave you with a key passage from Ireland’s Democratic Programme of the First Dail and a simple question:

“…we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.”

So, people of Ukraine, to whom do your nation’s soil, resources, and wealth producing processes belong to?

*The title of this post is inspired by one of the books of South Korean economist Ha Joon Chang, which can be found here.


11 thoughts on “Beware of Bad Samaritans*

    1. An anonymous expat

      Sadly they are particularly appealing in post-Soviet space, where state institutions do not do a very credible job of acting anywhere near to public interest. They are less “nice cafe you got, but we need to make sure you handle food safely” and more “nice cafe you got, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it…”

  1. A.I.Schmelzer

    It is hardly surprising that the most “offshore” Oligarchs most enthusiasitically backed Maidan. They read the EU association agreement, got a boner when tabulating the damage this agreement would do to their East Ukrainian Industrialist Oligarch competition, got an even bigger boner when they tabulated the damage it would do to the leftist strongholds in the East (poor people dont vote much, make the poor, whose interests are opposed to yours, even poorer and they vote even less) and finally ejaculated because using West vs. Russia as a wedge issue, they could not only steal from everyone below them, but steal particularly much because poor Nationalist people from the west would fight poor leftist people from the East, and they could make an additional buck by providing the infrastructure to do so.

    Russia, pre crisis, was about as interested in a poor divided Ukraine as the EU was interested in a poor and divided Russia and Russia spend some serious money propping up Ukraine.

    For reference, Russian Ukrainian relations were actually better when Kravcuk and Kuchma (both of them were arguably less laughably corrupt and stupid then Yanukovich, Yuschenko, Timoshenko or Poroshenko) were around, and I would seriously suggest reading “Fraternal Rivalry” by Anatol Lieven for an overview of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Its from 1999, but kind of called the current crisis from back there with its conclusion “Russian Ukrainian relations will remain peacefull, unless the economic fortunes of Russia and Ukraine diverge sharply”. This is basically what happened under Putin. Russia got its act somewhat together, while Ukraine is in some parts more “90s Russia” then the actual “90s Russia”.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      While it is true that there was competition between different oligarchs with interests in Russia and the EU(with some switching sides), one must remember that Eurointegration was actually Yanukovych’s project.

      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        Not really, Yanukovich tried to do a multi vector approach like Kuchma, and had simultaneous negotiations with Russia and with the EU. His goal was to become a member of both blocks, ideally monopolizing Ukraines status as a transit area, and get filthy rich in the process.

        His problem was that the EU was not very interested in Ukraine at first, and that their conditions were so bad Yanukovich simply couldnt sign them. He did however continue negotiations with the EU, in order to improve his position for negotiations with Moscow. Moscow bungled by not buying it and sanctioning Ukraine a bit to put pressure on Yanukovich (which was a nice reminder on how sanctions dont work), until they eventually relented and offered Ukraine a pretty good deal. Had they offered the good deal from the start, well, knowing Yanuk, he would have asked for a somewhat better deal, probably have gotten it, and then would have had enough time to convince his electorate that the Russian deal is simply far better (not so difficult because that is actually the case).

        Would have been a lot less expensive and a lot better for Russia (and of course also for Ukraine) then what actually happened.

        There was also an internal angle to this, Yanukovich hoped to gain more EU concessions (Visa free travel in particular) then the actually “pro EU parties” ever managed, and thus prove that “I am corrupt, but I get stuff done, while the EU-tards in Lviv get nothing together”, which was his informal election slogan anyway.

        The people from Donbass I know (not representative subset, typcially university educated, living abroad, scientistsin biology related fields) were pretty mad at the Russian sanctions. They actually prefered Russia over the EU for Donbass (better second in Moscow then last in Brussels, also, Moscow is weaker and thus the preferable boss), but were against yielding to Russian sanctions as a basis of principle, since yielding once to a bully makes you a target for everyone else too.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Moscow was engaging in a “trade war” with Ukraine running up to the planned signing of the agreement, which is most likely not a coincidence.

  2. A.I.Schmelzer

    Yep, and as I said, they majorly derped in this. Trade war vs. Ukraine under Yanukovich was a horribly bad idea which was likely the main reason why the later Moscow backed Kharkov goverment fizzled out completely in less then 24 hours, and it did piss off a lot of people Moscow could have won over (even is simply by doing nothing other then leaking the EU documents, basically waiting for the EU to derp).

    From the pov. of East Ukrainian elites, its totally OK if Russia does “trade wars” against Yuschenko or Timoschenko, it is even good if it requests these elites inputs on how to run these tradewars in a way that hurts predominantly west Ukraine, but when Russia tradewarred Yanukovich made themselfs seen as pretty aggressive. Note, the EU also does tons of tradewars to get its way, but it is something you expect from them. That Russia tradewared her “allies” was pretty new (Lukashenko occassionally got his subsidies cancelled, which is not the same as getting tradewarred), and it was not as if Yanukovich did something unspeakable to cause this.
    Having talks with both sides, Russia and the EU, was completely legitimate.

  3. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Spot on Jim. Agree with every word (which is rare). This is why solidarity from the labour movement everywhere else is so important, we need to have the back of the unions and the left in Ukraine, which are both terribly weak. Today I read of miners going on hunger strike over unpaid wages. I will publicise this but I know precious few others will, either in UK or rest of Europe. This is scandalous, or should be.

  4. Admin

    If, in America, the idea of requiring private citizens to buy health insurance from private providers can be repeatedly labeled “socialist”

    If its demanded by law for individual just because he breath air to buy a specific product – than yes its like living in USSR. There we were forced to buy lottery tickets.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      In the USSR people wore pants. In America people wear pants- SOCIALISM!

      Seriously, PRIVATE companies lobbying the government to create a bill forcing people to purchase their service is not socialism. It’s more akin to the company town style capitalism of the Gilded Age and early 20th century America.

      There was a really simple way to avoid this ACA- single payer healthcare. But this was also labeled socialism.

      To give you an example of how ridiculous this hysteria became, there’s this insane book called Arguing With Idiots by Glenn Beck. In it, one chapter opens up with a quote from Sarkozy, where he talked about how the government had a responsibility to regulate in order to smooth over problems in the capitalist system, or words to this effect. Beck’s response was to refer to Sarkozy as “Stalin.”

      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        Sometimes I want to have Glenn Beck explain to a Red Army Guards Tank Division how Sarkozy is a communist, and then get shot for badmouthing communism by claiming that Sarkozy (who, on economic terms, is leading the most right wing party in France. LePen is more right wing socially but economically populist, while Sarkozy is pretty much a neoliberal with some very slight statecapitalist leanings) is a communist.

        The USA has, at least if viewed from across the pond, went so far to the right that it fell off a cliff.

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