Ukraine is not about territory, it's about identity

Hegel’s politics of recognition explain the war

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This war is not about territory, it is about identity. Putin has made no secret of the fact that he does not recognise Ukraine as an independent nation, with its own history and culture. The war against Ukraine is his attempt to prove that the country is simply part of a greater, unified Russia. Ukraine on the other hand is fighting to have its own identity recognised by Russia, and the world. It sees itself as a European, constitutional democracy, its future belonging to the EU rather than to a satellite of Russia. When it comes to understanding issues of identity, difference and the struggle for recognition, there’s one philosopher we need to turn to: Hegel, writes Paul Giladi.

 

There is perhaps nothing that defines our present moment in geopolitical history more than the brutal war waged on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. This is not so much because the unlawful invasion of a sovereign, post-Soviet democratic constitutional state has inspired, particularly in the Global North, a Eurocentric elegy for an officially now-broken-77-year-long ‘peace’ on the continent. Rather, the multidimensional conflict between Ukraine and Putin’s regime may well be most evocative of the present, insofar as it intensely embodies in radically antithetical ways for Ukraine and for Putin’s Russia, a struggle for recognition.

If there was ever a philosopher whose conceptual toolkit can so powerfully make sense of social conflict in general – let alone the current war with all its particularities – it is not Plato, it is not Thomas Hobbes, it is not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is, most surprisingly, not even Karl Marx. It is G.W.F. Hegel. This is why Theodor W. Adorno, one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and sensitive minds, wrote that the most pressing matter for any thinkers remotely invested in the social world is answering the question ‘What does the present mean in the face of Hegel?’.

I can’t help but think there is a delicious irony now: Hegel’s corpus of work often appears so foreboding, to the extent that it is traditionally held up as a paradigm of abstract, obscure discursive claptrap; but his J.G. Fichte-inspired concept of recognition – especially struggles for recognition – is so intensely concrete, so vividly clear, and so emotionally salient: it goes straight to the intellectual and affective heart of the logic of all social movements – from progressive ones like Black Lives Matter to regressive ones like the Alt-Right and neo-fascism.

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Putin has unleashed the might of the Russian military on the former Soviet Republic to assert the symbolic and material primacy of Russian identity.

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From the recognition theory perspective, on the one side, Putin has unleashed the might of the Russian military on the former Soviet Republic to assert the symbolic and material primacy of Russian identity. On the other side, Ukraine has responded with ferocious symbolic and material resistance that demands recognition for its own territorial, its own economic, and in some sense most importantly, its own cultural integrity and dignity. To really understand the conflict, then, involves shining a light on key aspects of Hegel’s ‘realm of shadows’ – his logic and metaphysics – by viewing the conflict between Putin and Ukraine through the metaphysical lens of the collision between the category of ‘difference’ (i.e., heterogeneity) and the category of ‘universality’ (i.e., homogeneity).

When drives toward difference and drives toward universality collide, the consequent type of socio-political conflict, is not simply a material struggle over redistribution, but a struggle over, as Jürgen Habermas puts it,

“… domains of cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialisation … The issue is not primarily one of compensations that the welfare state can provide, but of defending and restoring endangered ways of life. In short, the new conflicts are not ignited by distribution problems but by questions having to do with the grammar of forms of life.” (The Theory of Communicative Action Volume II: 392)

What Habermas means by a ‘grammar of a form of life’ is not easy to unravel. That being said, I think were one to construe Habermas as deeming political and cultural identity to shine particularly brightly in the constellation of technical concepts here, then such a construal Habermas is far from mistaken. Indeed, it may well be highly apt for making sense of the present. If political and cultural identity are centred in the discussion, then one is in knee-deep in the business of the politics of recognition. By the ‘politics of recognition’, I mean a way of politically organising, campaigning, and governing that is rooted in the affirmations of various social groups individuated by a specific collective identity.

 

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Putin’s notion of unity – his ‘bad Hegelianism’ – is fascistic, insofar as it seeks the erasure of individuality and difference under the blanket of universality and identity.

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One of the most beautifully articulated political theories based on the politics of recognition can be found in Iris Marion Young’s magisterial Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990). In that book – which together with Charles W. Mills' The Racial Contract (1997) started to break the grip of John Rawls’ liberal egalitarianism on the Anglo-American progressive socio-political imagination – Young analyses what she famously termed the ‘five faces of oppression’: marginalisation, exploitation, violence, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism. Focusing on the latter face, for the purpose of this article, is especially instructive for making sense of the current crisis in Ukraine, particularly when one considers Putin’s bellicose July 2021 essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, whose core claims the Russian President repeated in his unsettling and disturbing speech on 21st February 2022.

In the essay and his subsequent speech, Putin’s ‘bad Hegelianism’, namely his desire for sanctifying the whole by overwhelming the parts through a totalising unity, was exposed. His customary phlegmatic physiognomy fell away to reveal a viciousness belying his former mid-level KGB bureaucrat character. Putin is no Adolf Eichmann – he is not the banality of evil. For, unlike Eichmann, he is not a man whose utter mediocrity is difficult to truly square with his moral monstrosity. Putin is the face of late modern capitalist evil: cold, calculating, callous viciousness. His talk of ‘unity’ was ideological code not for re-creating the Soviet Union out of nostalgia for the Marxist-Leninist state. It was code for legitimating his dream of an ethno-nationalist Orthodox Christian mega state, where the category ‘Ukrainian’ is reducible and subsumable all-the-way-down to the category ‘Russian’. Putin’s notion of unity – his ‘bad Hegelianism’ – is fascistic, insofar as it seeks the erasure of individuality and difference under the blanket of universality and identity.

 

His essay’s discourse – as well as the content of his speech before launching the military invasion of Ukraine – are hallmarks of cultural imperialism. For, he aims to not only decry, what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze respectively called, the local and minor knowledges and lifeworlds of Ukraine (as a fully defined and determinate legal-cultural-political entity with its own linguistic heritage, its own institutional design, and its own self-directed interests), but also swamp, smother, and replace these with the mythopoetic cultural framework of the Great Rus. The violence comprising Putin’s framework here has much in common with Antun Saadeh’s pseudo-anti-colonial and pseudo-anti-imperialist enthusiasm for Greater, ‘Natural’ Syria: what is common to both ‘visions’ is the centrality of an aggressive Orthodox nationalism pathologically obsessed with the mythical restoration of glory and hegemony.

 

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Ukraine’s self-conception as a democratic constitutional state that self-identifies as having more kinship with the European Union than with Russia is not accorded due recognition from Putin’s regime.

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Cultural imperialism, because it is a defining feature of authoritarian and fascistic praxis, serves to create psychosocially crippling and dissonant self-esteem in the targeted group: what Putin hopes is that Ukrainians no longer think of themselves as heterogeneous with their own unique cultural lifeworld, but that they start to, as Cora Diamond would put it, ‘lose their concepts’ through the derealising effects of cultural imperialism. When expressed in the language of contemporary recognition theory, two key insights are revealed.

First, Ukraine’s own local self-conception as a democratic constitutional state that self-identifies as having more kinship with the European Union than with Russia, and that is trying to fully emerge from the shadows and scars of the 20th-century geopolitical architecture, is not accorded due recognition from Putin’s regime. There is, as such, a radical asymmetry of recognition relations: Ukraine sees Russia as culturally autonomous, as having its own unique practices, histories and the like; Russia’s heterogeneity is deemed as no obstacle to Ukraine’s flourishing – indeed, convivial and intersubjectively warm diplomatic and economic relations between states (not mediated by globalised capitalism’s ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’) is precisely a necessary condition for each individual state’s self-realisation. Simply put, the evaluative perception of Russia with respect to its form of life here is a positive, respectful, and amicable one. However, Ukraine does not experience such reciprocity from Putin – the evaluative perception of Ukraine by Putin is deleterious and deeply alienating to Ukrainian identity: the straightforward denial of the Ukrainian lifeworld renders Ukraine invisible to the point of having its cultural uniqueness and points of differentiation looked through by the Russian President, whose assertions are no different in tone or content to the 1863 Tsarist Valuev Circular’s terrifying proclamation that “[a] separate Ukrainian language has never existed, does not exist, and cannot exist”. Equally evocative of virulent fascism is labelling Ukraine a zone of corruption, treachery, decadence, deviancy, and hostility, whose litany of normative deficiencies call out for regime change to i) save Ukraine from anomie and barbarity, and ii) ensure the dignity and security of the Russian state. This is most ironic considering Putin’s well-known critique of the G.W. Bush neo-conservative US administration and Western state-building realpolitik.

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The asserting of pride in the Ukrainian language as a marker of Ukraine’s heterogeneity is a practice of self-empowerment and dignity.

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Second, recognition theory also can helpfully explain the powerful logic behind the intense revival of the #KyivnotKiev campaign. This was first launched online by the Ukraininan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ‘StratCom Ukraine’ in October 2018 as a consciousness-raising progressive initiative to correct the standard Western spelling of Ukraine’s capital city. Contrary to Nancy Fraser’s objection that recognition theory worryingly displaces material struggles in favour of ‘merely symbolic’ struggles, there is something deeply symbolically important and materially significant about the name change: #KyivnotKiev is geared toward centring local and minor ways of being at home in the world against the cultural imperialist effort to Russify Ukraine, to regard Ukraine as subsumable into the Great Rus, to deem Ukrainian lifeworlds as inherently violable.

#KyivnotKiev, as a political speech act, also brings Hegel’s predecessor at Berlin – Fichte – firmly into view now: the asserting of pride in the Ukrainian language as a marker of Ukraine’s heterogeneity is a practice of self-empowerment and dignity. It is emblematic of a progressive nationalism that is structured as a response to cultural oppression, whether such oppression is committed by mega states and/or colonial empires. Specifically, #KyivnotKiev is not so different in some sense with #BlackLivesMatter: both declarative sentences are types of ‘summons’ (Aufforderung), to use Fichte’s famous term, moral demands that one’s uniqueness, vulnerability, and sui generis lifeworld constellation is explicitly acknowledged through non-coercively forcing a potential aggressor to engage in a process of ‘self-limitation’ (Selbstbeschränkung). The emotional quality of the summons functions as a radical check on any and all forms of privilege through its communicative function: to always respect; to never hurt; to never abuse.

Not only has a separate Ukraine existed, not only does a separate Ukraine continue to exist, a separate Ukraine must always be allowed to exist. That is the message of Ukraine’s response – its demand to be cared for, its demand to be recognised, its demand to live a liveable life on its own.

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