Mykhailo Minakov
June 2014

Disillusion from Wit

Beginning with the Andropov period and continuing through the initial, tentative years of perestroika, Ukrainian society was largely spared any organized government meddling in matters affecting public morality or the private lives of its citizens. Ukrainian liberties found their security in an ineffectual state, where political attention rarely turned to trifles such as individual freedoms. These days, however, politicians and others in the corridors of power are getting a taste for the game. Appearing, as they have, over twenty years of independence, the recent tests of society will have resulted in remarkably little serious opposition, either popular or political.


In order to better grasp what is occurring in Ukraine and our part of the world, it is worth bearing in mind those fundamental civilizing processes of the preceding centuries captured neatly in the term “modernization,” that transitional phase marked by a society’s setting aside its traditional norms for a more contemporary variant. In the modern era, this transition is commonly described as “development” or “progress,” that is, movement away from captivity and towards freedom, away from the domination of traditional modes of social organization (feudalism, class stratification, command economies, theocracies, and the like) and towards the rational administration of the public sector (a move marked by institutional democracy, citizenship, free markets, political pluralities, and secularism). By these criteria, the beginning of the Modern Era in Western Europe may be located in the 16th and 17th centuries, with further expansion – both East and West – in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Wherever modernization has taken root, the rationalization of human society is at its core. In economics, this has led to industrialization and the development of free market principles; in culture, to the development of the sciences as a vital agency of civilizational transformation; in the arts, to a new aesthetic and forms of literary production. No less crucial was the rational restructuring of the socio-political order, where the concepts of individual rights, citizenship, nation, the division of powers, the separation of Church and State, and the introduction of confessional and, later, ethno-cultural tolerance were of a foundational significance. Taken together, we may rightly regard this force as emancipatory and liberating: the abolishment of an “old regime” with its shadowy superstitions and irrational customs, and replacing it with responsible freedom as the highest expression of the public rationality.

In point of fact, rationalism served as a method of establishing the prerogative of social action and interaction stemming from considerations of expediency, sober calculability, performance monitoring, and the efficiency of goal attainment, as opposed to actions motivated by mere tradition, custom, or emotion. This rational approach gave rise to the emergence of modern science and technological ascendancy, free markets, and rational systems of governance. Alongside its beneficial effect on the public sector however, the rationalization of society has also led to its dehumanization; through industrialization, which has disturbed the ecological balance, and social engineering, which has resulted in the loss of incalculable cultural assets and the destruction of human lives. Max Weber coined the term “the disenchantment of the world” to describe the rise of modern scientific rationalism. Jürgen Habermas, moreover, held that, at its core, modernization was merely the dominance of rationality in public discourse. Two key cultural phenomena accompanied rationalism on its road to ascendency: a capitalist system of production and a bureaucratized authority founded on instrumentally rationalized economic and administrative principles. It must be stipulated that the history of modernity is the result of the reciprocal coexistence of an inhumane instrumental rationalism [purposive rationalism, or Zweckrationalität after Weber – Ed.], resulting in the intermingling of means and ends, and a communicative rationality which has greatly facilitated the communicative competence and potential for choice in both the public and private spheres of existence.

For Habermas and many other philosophers, the failures of the Modernity have brought out the difference in rationalization in the East and the West. In his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas outlines the experience of a new era in the creation of a “politically functional public sphere” as constituting a formal guarantee of human autonomy and the freedom of association. In communist societies, no room was afforded for autonomic civil associations that, in the event of their appearance, were forcibly put down. Conversely, in modern societies according to the western model, voluntary associations “formed within the institutional and legal framework of the democratic state.” The rationalization of the Modern era brought to bear a fundamental contradiction between instrumental rationalism and communicative rationalism, and between the differing approaches to modernization in the East and the West. This conflict to a great degree determined the modes of existence of peoples and cultures of the time.

Despite an abundance of common characteristics, modern rationalization bears features, modes of duration, and consequences peculiar to the region in which it manifests itself. The Russian Empire, for example, resulted from the earliest attempts of modernization of Eastern Europe and Northern Eurasia. Likewise, its decline closely followed the logic of further modernization, namely, the logic of greater legitimacy of civil and ethno-national rights. In contrast to Western European modernization, the Russian provinces at the turn of the 20th century did not follow a path of emerging nationhood, but stalled in the grip of the totalitarian-communist project. Eastern Europe had its own path to political modernization.

It is important to stress that the modernization of the political leads inevitably to a clear delineation of the public and private spheres. Political processes are held as those that must exist between institutions and their agents in the public sector. State agencies are further charged, through the application of appropriate resources, with safeguarding the function of the private sector without encroaching upon its core purpose. The integrity and unity of “the public” and “the private” ensures a solid, and mutually legitimized foundation. The Western and Eastern European modernization projects have interpreted the method of legitimization differently. Western and (to some extent) Central Europe have taken the path of the national project, where a particular ethno-cultural community has served as the focal point for statehood development, adhering to the principle that both limits and balances a rationalized world-view with the preservation of tradition, the rights of the individual with the common good. This manner of development largely disregarded social conflicts and led to further cross-cultural tensions. Its applied logic provoked imperial conflict, in particular World War I, while laying the groundwork for World War II.

The reaction to Western European modernization was the establishment of European totalitarianism in the forms of German Nazism and Italian fascism, characterized by the gradual erosion of modern public institutions and regard for the separation of the public and private spheres.

At the core of the Eastern European modernization project was a modern emancipatory ideology as manifested in Marxism. This ideology asserted itself in the first two decades of the Soviet Union as follows: in its stated anti-traditional cultural policies (the eradication of traditional modes of culture such as the calendar and religious life, and the standardization of Russian language orthography and grammar); in a rapid industrialization and collectivization resulting in the deaths of untold numbers (dekulakization and the Holodomor in Ukraine, the man-made famines in Russia and Kazakhstan, and other, varying forms of repression); in radical alterations to community life (the obliteration of traditional rural modes of living, the rise of urban communal apartments and the resulting elimination of private living space). This process was assisted by a Soviet approach to modernization, which in form and function arose from a concept of social justice and not that of a national idea. The result was an imbalance between “private” and “public” that tilted significantly towards the public sphere, finally erasing the line of demarcation entirely. Soviet totalitarianism, which placed society in control of the individual, took various forms during various periods in the history of the USSR, but inevitably produced anti-individualistic consequences. Anti-modernist, conservative tendencies were already well-established in Soviet domestic policy by the 1940s, with the subsequent clash between modern and anti-modern form and content leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet scheme.

The newly separate republics occupying the now-fractured USSR remained largely intact despite the contingency of their borders and blurred “Soviet” national identity. Internal political consensus regarding development took the form of the national modernization strategy, held together with an amalgam of nationalism and liberalism. In 1989, Romanian historian Vladimir Tismaneanu neatly articulated the credo of the modernizers when he observed that liberal-democratic regimes may be constructed exclusively in nation states. Modern Ukraine was founded on this principle.

The Evolution of Ukraine

Ukraine emerged at a time when its success as a nation was dependent upon rapid modernization according to the Western model; a modernization that was, nonetheless, delayed, and forced to play “catch up” in the organization of its public sphere. In addition, it featured a consensus view of an independent Ukraine as something formulated from a mixture of 19th century nationalistic ideas and neoliberal economic strategies. The political project of independent Ukraine would reflect a consensus between so-called “nationalist-communists”, “nationalist-patriots”, and freshly-minted big business interests. Cultural policy fell to the “patriots,” social policy to the “communists,” and economic policy to the business moguls. From its genesis Ukrainian state-building included an ideological conflict between an outward liberal orientation towards European integration combined with the remnants of socialism manifested in great numbers of public institutions, and a nationalistic rationale. If the former pair of ideologies served a more or less modernizing purpose, more or less, the latter, nationalism, would play a growing role in anti-modernization.

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