Understanding uprisings: a bottom-up approach to unrest in Ukraine

timthumb.phpFollowing news of ongoing unrest in Ukraine, one tends to get the impression it is a matter of various political interests jockeying for power.

There is talk of the United States effectively carrying out a coup by supporting right-wing political parties and of Russia moving to protect its strategic interests in the region. Mainstream media disseminates images of Ukraine’s so-called political divide by showing the distribution of ethnic or linguistic groups, Ukrainian or Russian speaking, to sum up the situation. There is talk of fascists and neo-Nazis, socialists, liberals, and neocons, ethnic conflict and spheres of influence, such that the analysis begins from a perspective of established political discourse. This is a form of analysis that takes what I call a top-down approach to unrest, ignoring the underlying conditions that are the necessary context to understand the uprising in Ukraine.

Ask yourself, have you read any stories that begin by stating the cost of living in Ukraine? Have you read any stories that discuss the far-reaching and ubiquitous nature of corruption in the everyday lives of Ukrainian people? Have you read any stories that focus on the disgust Ukrainians have for the sham that is their political system with respect to all the established political parties? If not, then you have been seeing the situation in Ukraine from a top-down perspective.

An unfortunate outcome of this perspective is that it tends to mask the social conditions that precipitated the revolt, and as a consequence serves to divide and compartmentalize the uprising into reductive camps. This top-down approach provides a discourse that, once bound, can be managed, and keeps revolutionary ideas from spreading. It says, for example, if you support the uprising you are supporting the “coup” against the now-collapsed Ukrainian regime, as though it is not possible to be at once in support of the uprising and also be against the interim government. This top-down approach also says, for example, that if you support the uprising you are supporting American hegemony, or that your support for the uprising has invited and even justified Russian military intervention, as though it is not possible to support the uprising and at the same time be against American hegemony and Russian militarism.

This is the fundamental inconsistency in this top-down approach, since it situates the uprising into mutually exclusive categories. It is a wonder that so many outside observers unquestioningly accept this narrative and dutifully play their part in toeing the line rather than asking why, in the first instance, a society contained enough disaffected people that a mass popular uprising could take place at all. This undermines solidarity with the legitimate grievances of everyday people and provides a degree of dissonance such that those not directly involved in the uprising (outsiders) do not see how the same grievances may exist in their own societies (i.e. forget that the struggle of the Ukrainian people is your struggle as well).

For these reasons it is important to be wary of that discourse that starts out by speaking of geopolitics or the established left-right political landscape. Unfortunately, this post has necessarily begun from that same standpoint, if only to dispel it, since this top-down discourse is so pervasive. Next, I elaborate a bottom-up approach, one that can be applied not only to the current uprising in Ukraine but also to other current and historical uprisings whose social context has been similarly masked, and suggest some reasons why this conversion of social unrest into established top-down political discourse happens so consistently.

Bottom-up approach

FAO-Food-Price-Index-006I will spare you a rehashing of Marxism, anarchism, or other such bottom-up approaches to social unrest (though these are certainly instructive), and skip straight to some contemporary statistical information. The graph presented here (click to enlarge) tracks the world food price index in relation to unrest, such as riots, revolts, and uprisings. This graph is part of research conducted by a group of academics and reported in a paper titled “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East.”

This research points out that social unrest occurs because of specific conditions to do with the everyday lives of people, with the basic premise being that the cost of food can be used as metric for making predictions. In this graph, spikes in food prices can be seen to line up with the Arab Spring and other instances of unrest. The analysis also looks at historical examples, including the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the years following 1848, in similar terms. The report notes,

We can understand the appearance of social unrest in 2011 based upon a hypothesis that widespread unrest does not arise from long-standing political failings of the system, but rather from its sudden perceived failure to provide essential security to the population. In food importing countries with widespread poverty, political organizations may be perceived to have a critical role in food security. Failure to provide security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system. Once this occurs, the resulting protests can reflect the wide range of reasons for dissatisfaction, broadening the scope of the protest, and masking the immediate trigger of the unrest.

Global food prices have remained near the threshold identified in the report as precipitating unrest. Food prices, and other metrics of cost of living, are different in different countries, and since 2011 governments have made concerted efforts to keep costs down, recognizing the potential for widespread social unrest. (You can read more about recent trends in food prices at this link.)

In recent years, the price of food and the general cost of living in Ukraine has dramatically increased. Here are some statistics:

  • Average monthly wages – 3,429 UAH (345 US dollars)
  • Average monthly rent for 1 bedroom apt in city – 3,868 UAH ( 388 US dollars)
  • Average utilities – 644 UAH (65 US dollars)
  • Recommended minimum food for 2000 calories balanced diet – 1,429 UAH (144 US dollars)

I will not list any further associated costs of living, as it must be obvious that the situation is somewhat untenable in terms of simple math. Food costs, according to these numbers, represent ~40% of monthly income. Granted, a large number of Ukrainians own property and are not paying rent, though taking into account mortgage payments, transportation, clothing, etc., the cost of living versus wages paints a stark picture. Ukraine is listed 106 on the list of countries by GDP per capita at 7,295 international dollars, well below the 2012 world average of 11,924.

These somewhat dry statistics do no justice to the real conditions of the everyday lives of Ukrainians. This is also to say nothing of the widespread corruption in institutions, government, education, healthcare, etc. According to various reports, Ukraine is among the most corrupt countries in the world, and getting virtually anything done, from applying for a passport to graduating from high school, requires bribes and other forms of gifts to be exchanged.

Is it any wonder that such a precarious situation of everyday life should foreshadow an uprising? All that is necessary in such a situation is a spark to ignite unrest, and in the current Ukrainian example that spark was a decision by the former regime to second-guess steps toward integration with the EU. But this spark could really have been any number of things. In the example of the Arab Spring, it was Tunisia and the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. In the recent Turkish uprising, the spark was a plan for redevelopment of Gezi Park. In the current Thailand uprising, the spark was a proposed amnesty for politicians implicated of corruption and murder. But underlying all of these various uprisings are a set of untenable social conditions that create the context for revolt.

In a context of widespread disaffection and social injustice, any event that is perceived to be significant can spark an uprising. But these uprisings are not, in the first instance, explicitly about political parties or competing ideologies — the political narrative is always secondary to the seething anger that brings massive numbers of people out onto the streets. A top-down approach to uprisings masks this reality, making it seem as though the political issues are at the forefront, as though the spark itself is the fuel of the fire. And even where there is some recognition of the underlying social conditions, the political narrative quickly takes center stage, even if that narrative does nothing to address the legitimate grievances that set the uprising in motion.

This conversion of popular uprisings into top-down political narratives functions to maintain the structure of top-down politics itself. It attempts to manage the right of revolution in such a way that linkages between apparently disparate uprisings are not made. It says, the uprising in Ukraine is “this sort” of political situation and the uprising in Thailand is “this other sort” of political situation and these two are not the same at all. It is a form of reactionary subterfuge, masking the social conditions at the heart of most any uprising history has recorded. Established political systems disseminate this narrative because for people to understand otherwise is to de-legitimize those systems of authority and to see that their society, as the saying goes, is merely 48 hours and a good meal away from revolt.

Social unrest, uprisings, and revolts are dangerous to all states, and so states take particular trouble to manage unleashed revolutionary energies. One of the most effective means to do so is through discourse, evident in the consistent masking of the social conditions of unrest by converting them into established political narratives. Please, don’t drink the Kool-Aid, and don’t spread it around. By all means, be aware of the co-optation of uprisings by established political systems, but recognize it as co-optation and not as the raison d’être  for the uprising itself.

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