Breaking out of hollow rhetoric

26 February 2016, 17:20

Populism is traditionally understood as the rhetoric appealing to the dissatisfaction with life, fears and hopes of large social groups, the counterpositioning of their interests to those of the elites or the social, ethnic and other minorities that are less attractive from the electoral point of view. The core of populism is the desire to gain as much support as possible by any means, usually to convert it to power during elections, or to keep it when already at the helm.

The true motives and intentions of populists are usually very different from their rhetoric. As a result, when they get into the high offices, their promises are fulfilled minimally or for show.

Inherited vs acquired

The breeding ground for the blooming social populism in post-Soviet Ukraine was provided, on the one hand, by the Soviet legacy in the form of its anti-individualist, anti-middle-class, paternalistic philosophy and the communist propaganda deeply rooted in the minds of most of the society, combined with more radical brain washing methods and the physical selection of the population. It was supported by the lumpenization and the miserable living conditions of the bulk of the population, the delayed piecemeal reforms, and the slow social restructuring.

The Ukrainian society remains profoundly paternalistic. A survey of the Institute of Sociology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences "Ukrainian Society: Social Change Monitoring" for 2014 shows that two years ago, only 9% of the citizens older than 55 (i.e., born in 1959 or earlier) believed that people should improve their living conditions on their own, rather than relying on the government. However, among the young people under 30 (who were born after 1984 and grew up in independent Ukraine) this figure was only 24%, and 17.3% among the middle-aged people. Instead, 76.8% of the unemployed, 73.4% of those employed in the public sector and even 71.7% of those working in the private sector believe that the state must protect the population from the economic hardships.

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Only a small share of the respondents agree that the significant social stratification was inevitable in a free market society (as a result of differences in incomes), while the overwhelming majority believe only an insignificant differentiation to be justified. A clear majority of Ukrainians do not understand the difference between the social equality and the equality of opportunity, since 73.8% of the respondents said the absence of social stratification was important, while 72.6% want equal conditions for all. However, the one excludes the other, because under equal conditions, the more successful citizens are bound to be much richer than the less successful ones.

Most paternalistically minded are the residents of small towns and medium-sized cities, where the share of the public sector and the government sector in general is the highest (only 12.7% of them believe that people should improve their living conditions independently)

The least paternalistic are village dwellers (18.1%) and Kyiv residents (18.9%). But even in the latter two cases, it is an extremely small share of those relying primarily on themselves.

The social structure of the Ukrainian society is also extremely conducive of social populism. The welfare of the lion's share of voters depends on the centralized redistribution of the national output through the budget, pension fund and other social funds. For example, Ukraine has 11.4 million pensioners and another 3.6 million people receiving salaries from the budgets of different levels. These categories of the population are the most vulnerable to social populism, together accounting for about 15 million people. Most of them are eligible to vote and are the most active voters.

The number of the unemployed, according to the methodology used by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is 1.85 million; another 0.25 million are those who, despite their working age, are not counted among the unemployed, but they "gave up hope" and are not looking for a job because of the "unavailability of the right one"; 2.4 million farmers formally involved in subsidiary farming can be considered to be rather conventionally employed, as well as 3.3 million employed in other sectors. Most of these 7.8 million citizens are also extremely susceptible to populism through their living conditions and volatile earnings.

At the same time, only 8.8 million Ukrainians are today officially employed in the private sector (including sole proprietors and microbusinesses), including 7.1 million hired employees and 1.7 million owners. However, a number of small business representatives also tend to social populism, needless to mention its popularity with the employees working in most sectors of the economy.

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In 2014, only 20.1% of the population had the official average per capita income exceeding UAH 2,640. The State Statistics Service has not yet published the 2015 data, but given only a slight increase in nominal income last year, it is safe to say that as of the end of 2015, the same 20% had average income per person exceeding the official subsistence level, which the Ministry of Social Policy set in December 2015 at UAH 2,878-2,951 for the able-bodied and children aged over six, and at UAH 2,060 for the retirees. At the same time, the average pension is UAH 1,700, while the minimum one is the meager UAH 1,074.

First of all, the generational change is still underway, and secondly, it only has a limited effect through the unreformed system. Everything is clear with those who retired during the Soviet era or in the early post-Soviet years (born before 1940). Their active life entirely coincided with the heyday and the collapse of the USSR, before the new social relationships were formed. The same goes for citizens born before 1970, whose minds were formed in the Soviet Union or during the Perestroika era in a broad sense (i.e., in 1985-1995).

It has to be admitted that only a small share of them saw the transition to market economy as the logic behind the changing social and economic relations. For most, even those who more or less actively supported the changes, it was primarily about the Western standards, and not the principles of life. They would go perfectly well for the social and economic model of the Soviet Union, if it could ensure the income levels and other outward attributes that lured the average Soviets and especially the young people during the Perestroika years.

Market economy, with its inevitable social stratification and the need to constantly compete for a place under the sun, was not on the list of what was expected from a market democracy. Even among those who were quite successful in 1990-2000s, many still have at the back of their minds the notions of the socio-economic relations and "social justice" acquired during the late years of the Soviet regime. Little can be added about the citizens who lost the fight or simply lived by inertia to their retirement in the same social niche that they occupied in the Soviet or the first post-Soviet years.

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The survey of the Institute of Sociology shows that 35.2% were satisfied with their life in Ukraine in 2014, and 37.6% were dissatisfied, including just 3.8% of those entirely satisfied and 10.1% of those completely dissatisfied. Among those "actively building their future," 58.8% vs 22.5% were satisfied with their lives, while among those "looking for their place in the world" and those "not wishing to adapt," the dissatisfied (40.9% vs 44.6%, respectively) largely outnumbered those satisfied (32.9% vs 27.5%).

However, the younger generation, especially those who grew up during the relatively "fat" 2000s and aspire to the European standards of life "here and now" (taken as a given, and not as the results of decades of efforts), is also prone to populism. Similarly, by the way, to many of their peers in today's EU countries, young Ukrainians aspire to high living standards and are ready to demand them (or, as a maximum, to fight for them during mass rallies), but not to achieve them through routine gradual efforts.

The social class resistant to populism is not only small in numbers, but also grows slowly

In this situation, politicians, community leaders and opinion makers, instead of encouraging immunity to populism, often use it as a vehicle for their own purposes. They try to convince people that the problem is not populism as such, but only the non-compliance of certain political forces and leaders with their slogans and promises, which in fact they could not and did not plan to do.

Populism as the keynote of the political process

The political structuring of the society, that is, the segregation between the supporters of the center-right and the center-left that is characteristic of a capitalist society, has still not taken place in Ukraine. In the world, the above political forces promise and at least try to implement the policies supported by their voters and criticized by their opponents. When the government is rotated, the representatives of the opposition camp are given a chance to demonstrate the advantages of their program.

In Ukraine, this until recently was prevented by the electoral split along the geopolitical and civilizational divide, resulting in the constant need to mobilize supporters. Therefore, while declaring their adherence to the centre-right policy, most national political parties actively use the social populist rhetoric, giving conflicting promises that could never be fulfilled.

Rather than focusing on the interests of specific social groups, they promise everything to everyone: to increase spending and reduce taxes; to ensure fiscal preferences to the core sectors of the economy, while encouraging the development of the new sectors; to ensure tax benefits and reduce social expenditures for the categories of employees constituting the majority of the country's workforce, at the same time preserving free healthcare and education and improving social protection of the vulnerable groups.

The result is the failure to live up to the promises (and the luck of intensions to do so). According to sociological surveys, those dissatisfied with the party system existing in the country often say that the political forces do not adhere to their programs and goals stated before the elections, defending the interests not of the voters, but of their leaders and sponsors from the financial and economic clans.

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Their attempts to fulfill at least a part of their conflicting and contradictory promises undermined the economy and drove the country into a debt trap, destroying the incentives to produce, save, work and upgrade, focusing the attention and the energy of the most active part of the society on new inadequate requirements, and resulting in demands for more populism.

For decades, Ukrainian politics were characterized by the constant change of the "facade" (leaders, political parties, and governments) combined with the intact corrupt oligarchic system of government and business. In the political area, these sentiments are reflected in the drastic fluctuations in the levels of support for certain politicians and their political parties. The massive credit of confidence results in inflated ratings, followed by deep disappointment and even hatred. The only chance to avoid this for populist politicians is not to come to power to be able to continue parasitizing on irresponsible rhetoric. After all, even getting to the helm would not help them live up to their expressed or implied conflicting promises.

However, the new generation of politicians successfully exploits the propensity for social populism of the considerable part of the population that is not really interested in the true intentions of the politicians or their willingness to fulfill their promises. "Punishing" just another political project to replace it with an identical "new" one only results in the loss of time for the country and the voters. The authors and sponsors of these short-lived projects are aware from the very start of the need to prepare a backup, while recovering their investments during the short time that they might keep at the helm.

The rule of populism in politics is accompanied by the increasingly manifest economic gap between Ukraine and not only the developed countries, but also the growing number of countries in Asia and Africa. If this trend continues, it will entail the further decrease of the remaining national wealth that could be redistributed to the poisonous sweet promises of solving all the problems at the account of the "bad guys." All this is happening at the time when the country badly needs the bitter truth and a constructive ideology.

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The deep logic behind social populism is based on the point-blank rejection of the possibility that others who are "no better" than I can live "much better while I can't have enough of what I want/need." Since the poor always outnumber the rich, it is destructive in nature and purpose. The redistribution of the national income, according to this logic, should follow not natural (earning based on consent of the parties), but unnatural patterns (redistribution through coercion).

The exaggerated version of this logic is embodied in the pushing over the edge experiments of the Bolshevist regimes, but it is present in its soft form in any populist society, where masses believe that their situation could be improved not by looking for more efficient ways, but by receiving "manna" from the "right" politician, president, government, or state.

However, since redistribution requires no constructive efforts, but rather ensures a discouraging lack of confidence in using the fruits of one's labors, it hinders the country's development. A person may be motivated to earn and save for himself and the loved ones, but not for "the man." In this case, it is better to earn, save and invest as little as possible in order not to excite envy. At least, officially. Hence the opposition to legalizing incomes and the trend to conceal property and siphon assets abroad at the first opportunity.

The populists themselves increasingly often fall prey to their own populism, because someone with a monthly income of US $1,000 (UAH 20,000-30,000), believing himself to be part of the middle class and wanting the "blood" of oligarchs and multimillionaires, will be surprised to learn that a compatriot with an income of UAH 8,000-12,000 might, in turn, want his blood, while being considered too wealthy by someone earning UAH 2,000-4,000.

The solution

The problem is rooted in the society which keeps generating demand for irresponsible populism and forgetting that there is no such thing as a free lunch

Therefore, the only way for people to overcome populism is to learn from their own mistakes. However, the price might be too high, and the consequences irreversible and fatal, if the country's opinion leaders fail to take responsibility. Instead of continuing to play populist games, they should openly and actively explain to the citizens the real cost of nice promises, and generate alternative pragmatic policies based on the realistic perception of the complex reality and the ways to improve it.

The long-term improvement of the living standards should only be based on self-perfection, knowledge, skills and qualifications gained, increased productivity, more effective investment of efforts (e.g., through professional retraining), and the ability to constructively defend own interests before the representatives of other social groups, employers, or authorities.

As many people as possible in Ukraine should understand the fact that miracles do not happen, and that in order to increase spending it is necessary to raise taxes, and in order to ease the fiscal burden, it is necessary to cut costs. However, when budget spending on a sector is cut, citizens should be prepared to increase its financing either directly or through alternative public mechanisms (insurance, etc.).

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In a democracy, the society dictates the decisions. But it should understand their consequences and costs, and be ready to pay a price, both literally and figuratively. Otherwise, high expectations from populists competing in empty rhetoric will only deteriorate the situation in the country, degrade the living standards, and lead to the degeneration of the increasing number of crucial systems, from education and medicine to public administration, administrative services, the law enforcement and the judiciary, housing, and environment.

In the political arena, overcoming populism will hardly be possible without the real self-organization of citizens into grassroots movements, financed through membership fees and mass donations of their members or supporters, including the representatives of small and medium businesses. Once they win elections, first at the local, then at the regional and national levels, their members and supporters will understand the difference between cheap populism and promises to "solve all your problems for you" and the real programs capable to really change the situation in the country.

This social stratum of citizens who have no illusions or excessive expectations can be strong enough to ensure a necessary margin of support for the pragmatic public policies and the fundamental reform of the country. The people prepared by this bottom-up system will be able to fill the talent pool necessary to change the existing political and bureaucratic systems.

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