Spontaneous order and social revolution in Ukraine

Lviv Barricades
Protesters at Lviv Regional Administration Building, occupied and barricaded

When Viktor Yanukovych refused to leave office and initiated crackdowns on the four-month-old Maidan protests, resulting in scores killed, Ukrainians lost what little faith they had left in the legitimacy of traditional authority.

Yet with the apparent victory of Maidan in pushing Yanukovych out, traditional political authority is rapidly working to reaffirm public faith, though in this instance in the guise of established opposition parties. This will likely result in a new government being formed, elections being held, and new politicians taking up the posts previously held by the collapsed regime.

Even though this new government may align itself with different political allies, the structures of authority will remain much the same and the state will, in all the important ways, maintain the status quo. This return to “normalcy” will be played out as various political factions jockey for power, and in the end this will mostly cover over and co-opt the revolutionary moment embodied by Maidan. However, before this happens there remains a rare opportunity for the Ukrainian people to try something radically different — a chance to enact a true social revolution — and for us, as outside observers, to examine the social revolution in its emergent form.

Threshold of the social revolution

bolo glyph (click image for a copy of the text)

At present, a kind of anarchy reigns in Ukraine. By anarchy I do not mean pure chaos, but rather the spontaneous order that emerged when traditional structures of authority collapsed. Anarchy is a force of destruction, to be sure, though it is also a creative force, at once deconstructing or subverting authority while at the same time constructing an order in the ensuing power vacuum. These processes of subversion and construction happen at the same time and are essentially inseparable, perhaps better called “substruction,” as the term is used by the author PM in bolo’bolo.

Spontaneous order can be observed, most notably, in the self organization of everyday people in various regions of Ukraine. The tipping point of the conflict was perhaps best encapsulated when the citizens of Lviv rejected established authority and enacted local assemblies and self defense organizations. Government security forces refused to carry out a crackdown on the protesters in Lviv and the governor was expelled. This was a subversion of authority and at the same time the construction of a new, decentralized, bottom-up order in its place. This process of substruction happened in many regions of Ukraine, and though this was precipitated by overt acts of protest and resistance, it was in a significant way also an ideological act, in that everyday people turned their back on the establishment. Traditional authority lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people, but rather than creating chaos this allowed average citizens to enact spontaneous order: anarchy emerged.

Spontaneous order and anarchy are the most terrifying foes for traditional authority because they show the consolidated, centralized state to be unnecessary. It was in the very moment spontaneous order emerged in Ukraine that the state’s legitimacy collapsed and its facade was seen in a true light. This was the sign to political parties (ruling and opposition), to the oligarchs, and to outside actors such as Russia, the EU, and the US, that the breaking point had been reached. All of these various pillars of authority understand all too well that a true social revolution has the potential to sweep them to the dustbin of history, and there is a tacit unspoken agreement that some kind of traditional authority must hold sway. For example, the Russian state fears the social revolution even more than it fears a western-aligned Ukraine. Likewise, the ruling Party of Regions would rather capitulate to its political foes than allow the people of the country to carry out a social revolution. In this way, it was incumbent on the government to step down and hope the opposition is capable of quelling the growing current of anarchy. Any and all concessions are possible to the people’s demands at this moment, short of the end of the traditional authority itself.

Political revolution as reactionary mechanism

A political revolution is when a different party takes over, the constitution is changed, rights are granted, etc. Political revolution, in the current case of Ukraine, is the preferred outcome for various (supposedly) competing  factions of traditional authority when the social revolution rears its head. In this sense, the political revolution is a useful reactionary mechanism against the social revolution, which can potentially overthrow the underlying conditions of power that allow traditional authority to exist at all.

Factions within traditional authority may help spur social revolutionary impulses, often unwittingly. Sometimes opposition parties, such as in the current Ukrainian context, tiptoe to the threshold in a bid to take power. Sometimes ruling parties and governments spur the revolution with crackdowns or other forms of repression intended to disperse protests. But the primary conditions necessary for the social revolution rest within the currents of the everyday life: things like poverty, inequality, corruption, and oppression push people over the edge. All it takes then is a spark, and the revolutionary consciousness of a people can be ignited. Political revolution is one method traditional authority employs to try and put the genie back in the bottle, to calm the flames of revolutionary fervor, and is in that sense reactionary.

However, because a political revolution seldom addresses the social conditions that allowed the revolutionary impulse to emerge in the first place, it can be likened to a form of theater. People must be convinced that some kind of shift has taken place if a new government is to be seen as legitimate and for social unrest to cease, but this is more a matter of the perception of change rather than fundamental change itself. The hope is that people will then go home and go back to their jobs, satisfied that the new government will carry the revolution forward. If and when the political revolution is understood to have betrayed the goals of the social revolution, traditional authority hopes that people will be too tired to head back to the streets. This is also why, in so many cases, political revolutions result in even more authoritarian forms of government, which are essentially preparing for the social revolutionary impulse to return. Because of these various reactionary mechanisms of traditional authority, very few (perhaps no) social revolutions have ever realized their potential.

Rare opportunity

Ukrainians have a chance right now to continue along the path of social revolution. To get to this point has been extremely difficult and there have been sacrifices, and many will justifiably feel those sacrifices were made in vain if there is a return to status quo politics. Furthermore, because of the hangover still felt from the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, Ukrainians are in a unique position to understand the failure of political revolutions to resolve fundamental social issues, since the same issues precipitated the current revolutionary wave (even though the trigger events were different). In truth, for a social revolution to take hold, the most difficult work is yet to begin.

The spontaneous order that emerged throughout Ukraine in recent weeks is a prefiguration of the ends of a social revolution. In order to move forward, the process of substruction must continue and must infiltrate all aspects of social, political, economic, and cultural life. For a social revolution to move forward, the multitude must not turn back to figures of traditional authority, such as the opposition parties, or trust some representative or strong leader to enact the desired change, and Ukrainians must be wary of the mechanisms of reaction in the guise of political revolution co-opting those desires. They must not listen to the voices saying victory is already here, since the struggle has only now begun. It is a rare opportunity indeed, and Ukraine will hopefully make the most of it.

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