Tag Archives: class

Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU’s] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.

[…]

Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

Donetsk_Ukraine_map
(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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Working in an era of turbulence

This Veteran’s Day (also called Armistice Day), I think it’s important to recall what I said last year at this time: that the conversations about and even by veterans in US politics are often detached from reality. In light of that, I think it’s useful to talk about an often overlooked group of current and former military service members, who we not only don’t use in combat but ideally hope to never need to call on. While admittedly far from the risks of combat, the members of the US military that manage our nuclear stockpiles shouldn’t be overlooked. Today of all days it seems worth asking whether our society is meeting their needs.

If Rachel Maddow’s still intriguing 2012 book on the emerging issues within the US military is to be believed, we aren’t successfully supporting those service members, and consequently are leaving our entire society vulnerable to accidents and other nuclear hazards. The problems noted by Maddow are various, but she focuses on one key issue for those that guard the nukes. New recruits assigned to managing nuclear weapons systems generally left the service at their first chance because, as one officer explained, “standing alert duty in missile silos is not considered ‘deployed,’ and ‘if you are not a ‘deployer,’ you do not get promoted.'”

In essence, as one 2008 military self-assessment noted, “We need a nuclear career field”. The lack of an established meritocratic ladder for the military members who control our nation’s vast (I’d argue too vast) reserves of weapons of mass destruction isn’t just a simple matter of not giving these service members stability and security – it impacts our military’s know-how. As Maddow reported, we as a country have multiple 1970s-era nuclear weapons that need a special chemical component (code name: Fogbank) replaced in its trigger. The unique chemical mixture was classified at the time of its development and due to the constant coming-and-going of nuclear technicians “no one today remembers the exact formula for making it.” Our institutional memory is shot and we’re paying the price for it.

Ultimately, this isn’t an issue that’s really restricted to the military, although the risky outcomes there are quite dramatic. As the Digital Arts Service Corps – one of the many smaller subsidiaries of the Americorps program – notes on their website that the new and by most measures modestly successful Americorps system is “not a career path” but “a one year commitment that you can re-up for a few years, but that’s about it”. The situation is even less rose-y if you realize that these subdivided parts within Americorps aren’t even directly connected to the work many volunteers do as a part of getting established in the public sector. They’re more analogous to the obamacare insurance exchanges – as sites where volunteers can connect with projects, rather than the institutions directly hiring them and ostensibly trying to pass down their knowledge about their position. The current system does work fairly well, but it has a weakness in how it fails to efficiently retain useful information.

Arguably, this failure to invest in these positions as even potentially long term positions is reflective of a growing trend that Al Jazeera covered at the beginning of this month. Jobs that last for a few years are something of a dying breed in the US, which is reflective of a number of factors, not least among them the comparative privilege of a well-educated workforce and the less wholesome growing disinterest within powerful corporations and even government to provide both job security and the possibility for at least mild advancement or accruing of seniority.

This common cause among military, public sector, and even private sector workers seems like the elephant in the room that few corporate media sources or powerful people will acknowledge. This experience of finding advancement out of positions that barely qualify as employment difficult seems to be widespread. Within the context of various minimum wage workers protesting for better working conditions, it’s even begun to crop up. Most recently, a protest last week among Walmart employees interested in addressing a number of concerns prioritized three demands: “a living wage, higher and more frequent merit raises, and clear path to career advancement free of favoritism and based on merit and not personality tests.”


In other words, yes underemployment is increasingly its own phenomenon, separate from unemployment, from here.

The spate of protests against a number of fast food franchises and the similar on-going rebukes of Walmart and other corporate stores have attracted most of their media attention with the focus firmly fixed on changes to the minimum wage or greater union rights (with the aim of then negotiating higher wages). That’s ultimately just one part of a larger problem – that most wages are stagnant and that accessing stable and secure employment is increasingly difficult.

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Turkey’s May Day

TW: violence against protesters, class inequality, 1980 Turkish coup, 1977 Taksim Square massacre

In light of what I’ve written about previously as being part of the political situation in Turkey, the government’s response to May Day protests in İstanbul suggests just how much of a pitfall it is to have broad political reforms without constitutional backing. As others have reported, May Day has unique significance in Turkey, where it is also the anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1977. As a result of that date holding such importance for activists in Turkey, the undemocratic government in 1980 banned protests on May 1 in İstanbul’s Taksim Square, a restriction which was only just lifted in 2010.

Without a right to protest or free speech terribly well protected within the current constitution, the right to protest in that place on this day has seemed a fragile privilege, which the government could easily re-revoke. That’s precisely what the explanation that Turkish protesters wouldn’t be permitted to use the square this year, because of a distant construction project, was read as by many activists – an excuse to strip people of their right to participate in arguably the symbol of protest and freedom in Turkey.

There was a bit of immovable object meeting up with an irresistible force, today in Turkey.


(Electrical engineer union members walked into the neighborhood of the Taksim Square in protest of both the government’s protest policies as well as the economic conditions in the country. From here.)

This is actually something an established tendency in protest. While what initially motivates mass protest are often economic concerns (the bread and butter of May Day protests), movements in many countries become fixated on how the political process isolates, trivializes, and undermines their protests. Turkish protesters at the moment seem to be doing quite well at balancing both sides of the issue – why they want to go out in the street in the first place and how disastrous it is for their country that there’s restrictions placed on even that.

That said, there are limits to what they can accomplish with their protests – so it would be useful to consider in the days ahead, not only whether Turkish mass movements can enact change, but whether they’ll prioritize the immediate reforms that so far have only watered down the problem or systemic changes (namely to the constitution) that haven’t yet been enacted in the country.


(Water canons and tear gas were used to clear the protesters of Taksim and the surrounding area, from here.)

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The GOP: we alienate everyone because we almost can

You may have heard some the talk recently in the US about how the blowout re-election of President Obama was due to the Republican Party alienating every voter they could, and there’s a lot to say on that issue. Election night was full of animated analysis of the gender gap, and particularly the marital dimension of it. The past few weeks, discussion of how that occurred for Black and Latin@ voters has been a common theme in political media. In more recent days, analysis of the stark movement of Asian electoral support from the Republican to Democratic Party has been the newest item of the on-going discussion.


(Various Asian voters historically favored Republicans, but the past twenty years of neo-nativist rhetoric have stunningly reversed that, making other shifts, like Bush’s gains with Latin@s look inconsequential in comparison. From here.)

The last bastion of Republicans strength outside of a narrow subculture of straight, cisgendered, White, Christian, wealthy patriarchs seems to be among the middle class, as Romney’s campaign strategist recently wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. The facts are, however, that Romney only won the range of voters with yearly personal incomes greater than $50,000 when viewed all together. There isn’t data specific the “middle class” segment of that, however we might define it.

But of course, it comes as no great shock to note, as Paul Krugman has, that the Republicans have tried to push through a compromise on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts that would have sacrificed the current rates of many of those making between  the not-really-middle-class-anymore-right? $250,000 and a shocking $400,000 yearly, to keep the current low rates on income greater than that bracket. So, for those with income within that bracket, the message from Republicans is clear: the political demands of even the rich are irrelevant compared to those with those of the astounding wealthy.


(From Krugman’s article.)

How long will those who fit into the Republic pigeonhole in every way other than class keep voting for them? Did we just see the straw that broke the camel’s back?

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