One of the many lessons shimmering in the sunlight from stars such as Gandhi and Mandela is the possibility that popular political protest really can matter after all. Alternatively, managing (or manipulating) the crowd could be a mere front dwarfed in influence by that of a rich and power elite. Although the Ukraine will serve as our case study, democracy itself is under the microscope here.
As 2013 was losing steam and heading into the history books, the people of the independent state of the Ukraine were poised to turn back east or aim toward statehood in the European Union. The matter of who in the republic would decide was at the time obscured by the appearance of power in the pro-Europe protests in the capital city. Peeling off this veneer, the New York Times provides us with a more revealing look.
"Protesters may be occupying government buildings and staging loud rallies calling for the government to step down, but behind the scenes an equally fierce — and perhaps more decisive — tug of war is being waged among a very small and very rich group of oligarchical clans here, some of whom see their future with Europe and others with Russia. That conflict was ignited, along with the street protests, by Mr. Yanukovich’s decision to halt free trade talks with the European Union” in November, 2013. In other words, very wealthy businessmen were very active politically in setting the course of the ship of state.
Petro Poroshenko is a Ukrainian oligarch who sees more money for his conglomerate and himself in greater ties with the E.U. Does it matter what the majority of the Ukrainian people want? NYT
Although blocking government buildings makes excellent news copy, all that visible strife may have been diverting attention from the dark corridors of power in search of a deal that would set a much larger course. To be an independent state between two contending empires is not the safest place to be. If finally moving one way or the other hinges on a certain constellation of wealthy and business interests coalescing enough to pull the strings of state, what the people think really does not matter. As put by the New York Times, “In this battle of the titans, the street becomes a weapon, but only one of many.” Put another way, what the titans do with their arsenals of wealth and power is the decisive point, not what the people in the streets happen to think.
The implications for representative democracy are stunning, if not dire, and for the illusion, utterly deflating. Does not adulthood involve the recognition that something taken hitherto as real is in actuality an illusion? Perhaps it is high time that Toto pull the curtain open to reveal the Wizard as the person pulling the levers for billowing smoke and bursts of flames to divert our attention from his existence, not to mention his manipulation and power.
1. Andrew Kramer, “Behind Scenes, Ukraine’s Rick and Powerful Battle Over the Future,” The New York Times, December 6, 2013.
2.Ibid., emphasis added.