The Ukrainian lesson - challenges for a new European peace movement

The Ukrainian lesson – challenges for a new European peace movement

To use this chance means to define the tasks of a renewed, truly Pan-European peace movement; an integral movement reviving the best ideas of former Central European dissidents for healing human interaction on the political, personal and eschatological level and applying them to the Common European Home in its entirety, in both Eastern and Western Europe.

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By Gert Röhrborn

Is it true that – referring to the motto of the Polish struggle for independence – in the current Ukrainian crisis the task of European citizens is to insist “on your and our freedom”? Yes, indeed, but in a totally different, much deeper, more self-conscious meaning. This is not about Ukraine alone, but about Europe at large. We have to realize that the European Union is not – neither was it ever intended to become – the rightful heir of the Central European hallmark of 1989. It just incorporated some of its symbolism and the moral capital of selected leading figures in a superficial way in order to neutralize the transformative power of a heritage that would ultimately challenge its own functional logics. In doing so, the EU took over the position of a reference point of unfulfilled popular craving for a better society characterized by a higher degree of civic solidarity and social equality; a craving that it structurally cannot fulfil.

The Ukrainian case can tell us a lot about the reality of life in the core of corporate “Europe”. The cries for a better life in the EU – for which a surprisingly large number of people were ready to die on the Majdan – meet the addressee of these claims, which is both unwilling and unable to deliver. Those west of Lviv might not exactly know, but they very well feel that also inside the EU something is wrong with a world in which neoliberal utopia meets ruthless oligarchic reality. When exiting from the ecstasy of the relentless pursuit of ultimate possession we wake up in a dire reality in which citizens of all countries can never enter something else than second class. The Majdan is a plea to us to finally start to experience the pornographic character of oligarchic rule that we are all subdued to every day. Although it is taking different forms, it very much exists also inside the old European “heartlands”: not so much in the form of a group malign individuals ransacking the state and taking society hostage, but rather as a hideous, hidden force that is nestling or even fusing with the very source of power.

The populist spin and nepotist drive of our party systems coalescing with the practices of media corporations that create a virtureality serving to restrict our imagination to selling purposes alone have become abound not only in seemingly “pathological” countries like Italy, Romania or Hungary. We are currently witnessing a mainstreaming of popular culture with images of “sex and crime” on a scale still unknown 20 years ago. The underlying, not so much hidden message of the flood of TV “crime investigation scenes”, music songs and video games about “gangsters’ paradise” is clear: life is to be accepted – and ultimately praised – as organized according to the oligarchic procedures of unmitigated commodification. What we are touching upon here – reapplying Hannah Arendt’s insights – is a strife for infinite possession and control of both material goods and human bodies for the ultimate aim of endless growth of profit; a strife that is inherently totalitarian in kind, which is destroying the very social and moral fabric that our societies are built upon.

We are all “second class”

Judging from the systematic devaluation of critical thought in our education systems – the very instrument of evaluating and adjusting human practice that allows for initiating authentic new beginnings beyond closed ideological systems proclaiming (and militantly defending) their infallibility – this totalitarian denial of society has already progressed enormously. We are exposed to yet another attempt to turn us into one-dimensional beings. Let’s not fool ourselves with the convenient assumption that power would be finally disappearing or civilized inside systems of so-called multi-level “governance”; no, it is just taking different forms, and at the moment it is dangerously “going places”. The Majdan, not only in its bloody extremes, neatly showed the war that is going on about the representations of the real which are taking possession of our minds. Allow me a simple test question: Do you consider rank and file members of Yanukovych’s former Berkut riot police to be witches? If you find it odd to ponder on that, ask yourself where the strange, cheerful feeling of forbidden pleasure comes from when seeing them burned in public?

If we would start inclusive and authentic communication between normal people across borders we would rather quickly start to realize that every European society has its own oligarchs. The Germans for example are just not used to see those guys from Goldman Sachs or other global financial players with great connections into all governments as what they really are: envoys of oligarchic structures which are making ordinary citizens pay for the losses of internationally operating banks in the Greek and other crises, neatly covering up their operations by reviving suspicion and hatred among peoples on the good old proven basis of national stereotypes. Although in our imagination exploited under-classes exposed to oligarchic rule are so far rather situated “East of Eden”, they are step by step forming themselves also inside the core regions of the bourgeois empire – based on a legal system enhancing a realm of economic exchange that favours certain groups – which the EU de facto is.

What is at stake here is not just the devaluation of conventional savings or the pressure wider segments of populations of certain countries like Greece, Spain or Portugal are currently exposed to, which are expropriated to pay for losses incurred through outright or hidden criminal behaviour of financial elites trying to maximize their shares on other people’s expense. More general, this is about how much access and impact individuals have on their society’s accumulation processes – a capability which historically was always rather small, but which is at the moment again clearly shrinking all over the continent. It remains to be seen what kind of alternative targets to the traditional scapegoats – Europe’s Roma population – masses full of hate and despair will be offered to burn when also inside EU member states basic human needs of larger groups could no longer be possibly provided without endangering the profit margins of the oligarchic financial institutions and their agents in public administration, media and the education system.

A return to the power of the powerless?

In Western eyes the centralisation trend in the accumulation of profits corresponded so far with the colonial exportation of poverty towards the East – plainly speaking: we send them our used Mercedes, they send us their bodies to be used in any kind of dirty business, be it agriculture, construction sites or prostitution. Yet the longer the single market with its free movement of goods and services, capital and persons functions, the more it becomes obvious that even in its core regions “borderless Europe” as a sphere of real, unmitigated free choice exists only for certain social strata. Exposed to the direct threat of economic marginalisation and social exclusion the rest of us is forced to be potentially ready to be mobile any time without regard to the harder, lasting bonds of our moral, material and social base.

Although understandably Ukrainians want to live like in Poland or Germany, I would rather recommend them to visit Warsaw, Poznan or Wroclaw, Munich, Cologne or Berlin only in order to understand and experience these places in respect to the enormous and rather growing canyon of socio-economic differences that divides these centres from the decaying, lagging behind provincial areas in Mazovia, Swietokrzyska and Lubelska, Eastern Brandenburg, the Erzgebirge mountains or the formerly proud Ruhr region. The post-communist realities are part of a wider, continuous process of corporatisation of life: the fulfillment of the – totalitarian by tendency – neoliberal project which uses cooperation not in order to create uninterrupted prosperity for all, but to bring about uninterrupted insecurity and inequality for those who are supposed to produce unlimited wealth for a small and secluded, territorially untouchable and pornographically disguised oligarchic elite.

Common wisdom has it that crisis always bears the chance to become a catalyst of change. To use this chance means to define the tasks of a renewed, truly Pan-European peace movement; an integral movement reviving the best ideas of former Central European dissidents for healing human interaction on the political, personal and eschatological level and applying them to the Common European Home in its entirety, in both Eastern and Western Europe. The neoliberal spin of the current great transformation – recalling some of the symbolism of 1989 but in fact promoting oligarchic globalisation that contradicts social peace – has seduced us to become “friends” in anti-communitarian “social networks” of efficient power instead of effectively controlling power through a community of active citizens. We cannot spare neither Ukrainians nor the rest of Europe the age-old lesson that economic self-sufficiency is the key to political independence; provided they will honestly want to learn it, they will find the necessary cultural and social resources to do that.

Creating a moment of truth

It is citizens, not politicians who are equipped to imagine and evoke new spheres of common understanding, respect and interaction. Central European societies, first of all in the Visegrad countries, have a great responsibility today. Situated between Russia and Germany, the old geopolitical poles of the magnetic field of continental conflict, they have been both among the initiators and the main gainers of geopolitical change during the last quarter of a century. Now it is time that citizens reassess the results of the transformation processes in the mirror of a reactivated humanist heritage of the revolutions of 1989. We have to rediscover the dissident insight that there can be no substantial freedom without a practical concept of inclusive, indivisible peace, which has first of all a social dimension and acknowledges economic interdependence. What we would need to conceive of and implement is something like a civic commission of truth, or a civic clearing house, to use financial terminology, on a continental scale – a vehicle by which to revisit and investigate the gains and losses of the past 25 years that would help us to commonly establish what value we ascribe to this transformational balance sheet.

Thereby we would create a chance to civilize any future activities for comprehensive systematic reforms by binding them to inclusive civic change. A prerequisite of success would be that all groups connected to a given problem need to be equally and symmetrically involved. Ukrainian requests should always be heard by Belarusians, Russians, Moldavians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles etc. The participation in open civic fora where Eastern European populations could authentically express what they are actually aspiring to would foster sober expectations concerning existing tasks and help to overcome stereotypes concerning “the barbaric East” which is finally revealed as an integral part of all of us. Also for Central and Western European societies participation would be worthwhile. For a minimum of 10-15 years already they have been increasingly fond of conservative ideology and quick solutions taken by strong states(men), too, in a way that although different in extent is somewhat comparable to the social cravings in Russia.

The upcoming elections to the European parliament will give us an account of the current state of this development, yet I have my doubts whether the self-proclaimed democratic camp – partially and already in advance implicitly questioning the accountability and competence of an electorate voting for “eurosceptical” parties – will be able to find the appropriate answers to this serious challenge, as they would have to question their own policies and normative assumptions that legitimate neoliberal rule. What for Europeans remains to be discovered is whether and what they actually seem to have lost in the process of European integration: the writing of a social account that might disclose the image of Europe as a form of nostalgia – the craving for a place that never was but continuously insists upon its existence; or, in other words: a community we never realized while absorbing our resources by trying to deal with the detrimental consequences of its tied potentiality.

We would be naïve not be aware of the severe problems such a pan-European peace movement would face in its necessary double opposition to both relentless powers and reluctant populations infected with the oligarchic dreams of fast money through domination and exploitation of others. Imperial competition between the EU and Russia will rather enhance than restrict the tendency towards oligarchic conversion. In this situation we have to be conscious that a generation or two ago dissidents like Václav Havel or Jacek Kuroń could count on Western state support due to converging strategical aims of defeating a common enemy. Oligarchic conversion leaves us alone to ourselves. Dire as this prospect might seem, nevertheless this might be exactly the reason while this time an authentic new beginning could really have a chance.

Gert Röhrborn ( is a political scientist, project coordinator and certified EU fundraiser. Studied politics, European Union studies and history in Leipzig , Newcastle upon Tyne and Berlin. Previously reseach assistant at Dresden Technical University, academic teacher at Protestant College Berlin and executive officer of the network Citizens of Europe since 2010 he has been a member of the team of Polish Robert Schuman Foundation in Warsaw. Gert is interested in civic engagement in social space, politics of memory and education. He regularly publishes articles concerning European and Eastern matters.

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