Despite the special situation of Ukraine – a post-Soviet country still struggling for its independence and confronting a large-scale war – the ongoing presidential election displays unfortunate similarities with political life in “old” democracies. The concept of populism is not fit to grasp this global trend, and much less its unique Ukrainian brand. Ukraine has mad huge steps toward European democracy, yet it is still on the threshold between democratic sovereignty and the legacy of the Soviet empire, that is not only the so called hybrid war waged by Russia, but also the pervasiveness of Soviet forms of life: paternalism, corruption, persistence of Soviet myths in culture and historical consciousness. The presidential competition reveals so to speak a third Ukraine: neither the Euromaidan Ukraine, nor the part of the country living still on Moscow time, but a country at the forefront of the most fashionable flaws of mature democracies: distrust of politics, preference for showmen instead of statesmen, blind indifference to the consistency and feasibility of one’s political agenda and, on the top of it, self-defeating if not disastrous reactions to the perceived problems and threats. This could be named the trumpization of Western societies. Donald Trump began his political career and Nigel Farage (the leader of the Brexit campaign) ends his as TV stars. Zelensky do better than his peers: he is at the same time a TV star and a “real” politician. He even managed to merge TV and reality in his person. In various ways, these leaders as well as the French Yellow Vests are of the same kind: they do not present a program, they express feelings: anger, fear, sometimes hatred. What people value in them is not what they expect them to achieve – efficiency plays no role here. They just want to rock the boat, to destroy what they dislike without bothering about what should be done instead: fuck EU, fuck international trade, fuck migrations, fuck digital economy, fuck political representation, let’s go back to coal and autarchy.
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Or rather they pretend: ultimately, what this is about is to get rid of reality. Therefore the tremendous influence of fake news, therefore the inconsistent aspirations to direct democracy and to authoritarian rulers among Trumpized citizens all over the world. Since 2016, reasonable people expect that voters will soon realize that Trump is a dangerous crook, that Brexit is a disaster for UK, that the populist coalition in Italy is unable to fulfill its promises and is deteriorating Italy’s financial and social situation. But until now, this expectation is constantly frustrated. Trump’s reelection is more than ever plausible, UK cannot or does not want to escape the Brexit’s trap, Berlusconi might make a come-back, and the Yellow Vests, whose program boils down to “Fuck Macron” and “let us fire government and decide on everything by referendums”, have still the favor of 30% to 40% of French electorate. Zelensky’s breakthrough is a festive and friendly version of the angers and fears of Trump and his likes.
“Your anger is legitimate”, said president Macron, without in the least calming down the wrath of Yellow Vests. Whatever the explanations and good reasons of this attitude of the electorate – damages of globalization, powerlessness of governments — it is difficult not to recognize here a kind of childishness, by easy-going children in Ukraine, by angry children elsewhere. In Freudian terms, it is the overflow of the “reality principle” by the “pleasure principle”, a process Freud called sometimes the “death drive”. “Childish” may seem unpolitical and dismissive, but I find no other word to point at the current state of the political mind. It is the ultimate stage of democratic individualism: the individualization of politics. People are increasingly narrowing the scope and scale of legitimate politics: from country to region, from region to neighborhood or other small communities. A French politician, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, gives a perceptive description of this trend: Ultimately the only political authority is the self, Myself cannot accept that decisions concerning me could be made by somebody else than myself. So to speak, Zelensky is popular because his voters believes he is each of them. I do not claim that this is the only dimension of the crisis of Western democracies, which has many causes and many meanings. I just claim that this dimension must be taken seriously.
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That Ukraine is so strongly affected by the disruptive individualization of politics is both appalling and illuminating. Precisely because the usual explanations of this disruption cannot (or not yet) be applied to Ukraine: further integration in globalized economy is more a wish than a threat, Ukraine is completely foreign to the tension between multiculturalism and national identity; it is an emigration not an immigration country; existential threat comes from Russia, not Islamism; issues about employment and purchasing power are mitigated by war and Russian occupation. Now these issues are often mentioned as the main source of populist reactions: EU would be rejected for the sake of national sovereignty and protection of national culture and welfare state, Trump voters, as well as Yellow Vests, would take their revenge against multiculturalist selfish elites. Populism would be the revolt of the rooted “somewhere” against the globalized “anywhere”. I wish Ukrainians understood better their situation, and the rest of the world understood better Ukraine. What is at stake is the freedom and flourishing of our nations threatened by hegemonic empires, Russia, China and, in its non-territorial based way, Islamism. Schemes of cooperation like EU and NATO are not the enemy but the shields of nations. In Europe, Russia is the only beneficiary of the crisis of EU and has more than his share in making it worse. Putin rubs its hands in delight because of our childish blindness.
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