Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Society and authorities: is dialog possible?

Philosophers on why, in spite of all revolutions, there is no change of elites in Ukraine
28 March, 2016 - 17:40
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY from The Day’s archives, 1996

What is “elite” in general and does it exist in this country? In what way can civil society influence it? Under what conditions can the demand for changes be satisfied in the institutional dimension? Political scientists, journalists, and representatives of civil society proper are seeking answers to these questions. The participants of a high-profile roundtable, “The Powers that Be and Civil Society: Challenges to Ukraine,” held recently at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Hryhorii Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, tried to find out new, broader, prospects and the role of academia at the present time.

According to the forum’s moderator Oleh BILY, Doctor of Letters, Senior Fellow at the Culture, Ethics, and Esthetics Department of the Institute of Philosophy, an abyss of distrust is growing between civil society and volunteers, on the one hand, and political leaders, on the other. The new level of communication reached on the Maidan has in fact been lost today. The root cause is that the old ways of governance and political thinking in general are coming into conflict with new realities and changes in society. In Professor Bily’s opinion, bureaucratic attitude of the authorities to academia, particularly to the National Academy of Sciences, is an illustrative example of these tendencies. Searching for the ways to ward off a new confrontation between the authorities and society, which can have fatal consequences for the very existence of Ukraine, was one of the forum’s leitmotifs.


The roundtable’s keynote speaker, Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy) Anatolii Loy, emphasized that now, especially in Ukrainian realities, it is worthwhile to speak about the political class rather than the political elite. In his words, typical of Western political thinking is the model of a social contract, which sets out that the individual enjoys certain natural rights, some of which they delegate to their representatives in the government. Indispensable in this kind of political order is transparency and responsibility of political entities. It is not only politicians as such who make decisions – their milieu, which now includes political journalists, political scientists, sociologists, etc., also plays a considerable role. Therefore, Western politics is now closely linked with intellectual circles. For example, US President Barack Obama was shaped as a political figure, to a large extent, under the influence of Chicago University and a local newspaper, The Chicago Tribune.

However, this cannot be said about the Ukrainian political class. In Loy’s view, the root cause is in its history. For it is a successor to the Soviet “elite” – the party nomenklatura that merged with business circles in the early 1990s. And it is from the nomeklatura that it borrowed its key features, such as closeness, corruption, and bureaucratism. Representatives of the Ukrainian post-Soviet business and political “elite” receive superprofits via the access they have to state-owned capitals and resources. Naturally, they remain indifferent to all kinds of innovations. Also untypical of European political reality is the social structure of the Ukrainian “elite,” which, for some reason, traditionally includes bureaucrats, public prosecutors, and judges. “We wonder after each Maidan why no new elite emerges. We seem to ‘reshuffle’ it, but there are no structural changes. The point is that there is sort of an internal solidarity in this circle, which does not depend on belonging to one party or another – they never betray those of their own ilk,” Loy explains. One of the latest shining examples is the Yanukovych team whose members, with a few exceptions, are still holding their positions in Ukraine. In Loy’s view, it is worthwhile in this context to speak of (after Karl Marx) the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of the political class’s activity. The Ukrainian “elite” seems to be living a dual life: on the one hand, there is a rule-of-law state, laws, and the Constitution to be obeyed and, on the other, certain inner rules of the game. This duality ruins state institutions and provokes a face-off between the authorities and society. The Maidan showed that it is impossible to change the political class by way of revolution in the present-day realities. Nevertheless, Loy is convinced that there should be incessant public pressure.


The possibility of this pressure depends on many factors. One of them is an effective communication, particularly between the authorities and society. Otherwise, any search for responses to the challenges Ukraine is facing is just impossible. In the opinion of Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy) Yevhen Bystrytsky, chief of the Culture, Ethics, and Esthetics Department of the Institute of Philosophy, one can see now, also owing to social websites, a radical diminution of the individual’s private sphere and increase of their public sphere. Every “like” is a public opinion that influences, directly or indirectly, political decision-making.

In Bystrytsky’s view, civil society is an amalgam of sorts between legal and moral prescripts, traditions, and various forms of symbolization and the living world (after Edmund Husserl and Juergen Habermas) as a certain horizon of sense-formation, which makes any awareness or action possible. In other words, in spite of technological progress and other historical circumstances, the level of identity remains fundamental for the existence and development of civil society and political culture. A certain “pro-Ukrainian sensation” and the awareness of Ukraine as a cultural value was the identity basis, the ultimate foundation, and the motive force of the Maidan, Bystrytsky believes. What led to the current delegitimization of power were not only such obvious factors as economic slump and absence of reforms but, above all, the absence of a consolidated political will which underlies any political decision. In addition to egoistic motives of the powers that be and the everlasting conflict of interests, lack of a common identity is the key obstacle here. While this disunity is just unavoidable at the level of civil society, it is different at the level of elites and the authorities – it hinders the effective performance of governmental institutions, a thing that must be fought against. Obviously, this often raises the question: is the Ukrainian elite really Ukrainian, i.e., is Ukraine the highest value for it? Professor Bystrytsky is convinced that one of the dangers of the current situation is that an elite that is situational by its nature and does not reflect interests of the whole society is taking up fundamental issues, such as amending the Constitution.


According to Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy) Anatolii Yermolenko, head of the Social Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy, traditional inability of the Ukrainian authorities to have a dialog with society is the problem of a still incomplete modernization in Ukraine. “In this country, catch-up modernization always alternates with certain regression,” Yermolenko says. “Demodernization was in general characteristic for the Soviet era. I mean, above all, modernization of sociopolitical institutions, not a technological or scientific modernization. In this context, Soviet power was a period of what may be called refeudalization. Today, we are continuing this tendency to a large extent – as is known, history develops in a spiral, but, unfortunately, it is sometimes a spiral of barbed wire.” In his words, one of the manifestations of the authorities’ closeness, monologic nature, and irresponsibility is the nature of the current constitutional process. While there was such a particular form of quasi-openness as Constitutional Assembly in the Yanukovych era, even this is absent today.

In Professor Yermolenko’s view, civil society’s chief post-Maidan task is to work out the forms of pressure that would force the authorities to move towards modernization and finally lead to a true revolution, namely, transformation of the institutional system. In his words, Ukraine’s civil society is now going through the stages of development similar to the ones the West has gone through before. The Revolution of Dignity brought about some qualitative changes in the civic sphere – while the vast majority of organizations were previously of foreign origin and funded by Western foundations, today we can see a growing impact of initiatives that show a true self-organization of people. Professor Yermolenko believes that this gives us every reason to hope that mechanisms will be eventually worked out to change not only individual officials, but also the system as a whole and, what is more, without resorting to Maidan methods.


But can we say that the impact of civil society on the state always promotes the development of the latter? “The newborn institutions of civil society are often assuming the functions of the state, which the state does not object to,” reflects Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy) Vakhtang Kebuladze, an associate professor at Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University and the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. “The impression is that civil society is betraying itself – instead of pressuring the state, it just performs the latter’s functions, thus slowing down its development. Incorporating volunteers into state structures seems to be the way out, but can we say then that it is a civil society?”

In his words, both Maidans were an attempt to re-conclude a social contract. This failed during the Orange Revolution because it began with John Locke’s liberal model and ended with the authoritarian one of Thomas Hobbes. The latter admitted that citizens might renounce their rights and powers in favor of the sovereign (in this case Viktor Yushchenko) who would personally solve all the societal problems. Hence is the disappointment which the former protesters felt soon.

But does society as a whole, not only activists and volunteers, remain in need of development and reforms not only during Maidans, but also in a longer term? The answer to the question does not seem to be obvious. A shining example in this case is society’s attitude to higher education. “What does the ordinary Ukrainian want from a university?” Kebuladze asks. “Research, education? No, today it is not even a degree, as was the case before. In my opinion, today’s university is a low-security prison camp of sorts. There are three ways of socialization for a 17-year-old Ukrainian today: university, army, or prison. For if you fail to enter a university and do not go to the army, dodging the draft or a mobilization, you finally end up as a delegitimized person, in the gray economy zone, or potentially in prison. Every person who has a conscription-age son will be ready to place him in any higher educational institution so he does not end up on the street or at the front.” In Kebuladze’s view, universities are unfortunately ready to meet this kind of public demand for higher education.

Obviously, the formation of an adequate public demand for development and reforms is also a top-priority task for the elite – the true intellectual elite, not only the part of it in ministries. According to Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy) Vitalii Liakh, head of the Foreign Philosophy History Department at the Institute of Philosophy, a new society can only emerge by way of developing a new mentality, i.e., profoundly understanding the new values and social patterns as well as their correlation with our own history. But if we come under the influence of our European partners and just copy their rhetoric and some of the external manifestations, this will only weaken our state and will always cause reproduction of the previous state of affairs. Figuratively speaking, whoever might defeat Yanukovych will become the same “Yanukovych” in the course of time.

The Institute of Philosophy roundtable can undoubtedly be called a right step in this direction. Clearly, this kind of forums also perform another important function – addressing the urgent problems of society, academia justifies to the latter the necessity of its own existence. The point is that too many people, particularly those in power, are trying to call this axiom into question.

By Roman HRYVINSKY, The Day