The anti-social ferocity of Ukraine's neo-liberals


Olena Slobodien

September 28, 2023

Recent statements by Social Policy Minister Oksana Zholnovich about "destroying everything social" and "taking Ukrainians out of their comfort zone" have provoked a major outcry and a wave of criticism. However, this is far from the first time that officials directly involved in social policy have publicly expressed anti-social views.

What does the presence of people like Tretyakova[1] or Zholnovich in government indicate: casting errors or a conscious policy aimed at discrediting ideas of social solidarity and the complete marginalisation of people in need of social assistance?

In her statement to the International Forum for Sustainable Development, Oksana Zholnovich recalled how the management of the Ministry of Social Policy deals with society:

"We have to break up everything that is social today and simply reformat from scratch the new social contract that constitutes the social policy of our State. In general, many citizens are teenagers in a certain sense: "The state owes us: care, help, but I won't participate in my personal development, my personal life, I'm not ready to take responsibility." And it's this philosophy that we need to break down once and for all."

Zholnovich's comments on the "comfort zone" have particularly outraged Ukrainians. Critics rightly wonder who among the people of Ukraine is in a comfort zone after more than a year and a half of full-scale war and several decades of underfunded social policy. Zholnovitch's statement continues the "good" tradition of Ukrainian politicians infantilising welfare recipients, dividing society into "responsible citizens" and individualistic "teenagers".

In addition, the large-scale invasion has intensified negative trends in social policy. The neo-liberal ideology, which assumes that every problem must be solved individually, by one's own efforts, is in danger of losing popularity, even among Ukrainians who are close to these ideas. The massive destruction of homes, the massive physical and psychological injuries, the catastrophic economic consequences of the war and many other things have considerably widened the circle of people who need help to survive and readapt. As a result, the number of people who will read Minister Zholnovich's neo-liberal sermons and think "how good it is to be a worthy representative of the middle class in the face of pensioners, the sick and other profiteers" will rapidly dwindle. But it seems that Ukrainian politicians have not yet understood that their "anarcho-capitalist" fantasies are incompatible with the challenges posed by war and ever-increasing dependence on the European Union, with its less cannibalistic social structure.

In addition to cannibalism, Zholnovich demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the social and historical foundations of inclusive social policy. Although different countries have very different approaches - from the complex private systems of Switzerland to the vast egalitarian systems of Scandinavia - they all share an understanding of the functional importance of social policy. No matter who is in power - conservatives, liberals or left-wing forces - in countries with well- established social institutions, no one (least of all the Minister for Social Policy!) can afford to declare their intention to destroy the 'social'. No one can afford to say that subsidies for parents lead to "poor-quality children", as Galina Tretiakov, chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada [parliament] social policy committee, did; or to complain that people "eat too much", as Andrii Reva, Zholnovych's predecessor, did (referring to Germany, which has one of the most generous social systems). Nobody can afford that, because social policy preserves what sociologists call social cohesion.

If Zholnovich, Tretyakova or Reva had taken first-year sociology courses, they would have known that the question of how to maintain integration in societies was a key issue for the founding fathers of sociology. For Zholnovych and company, I offer a little memo below.

With the development of capitalist relations, new social groups appeared and developed rapidly. Some of them, for various reasons, were unable to integrate into society and solve their problems through purely market mechanisms. These groups included the new class of industrial workers. In addition, workers needed health insurance in the event of accidents at work - which is why, and in response to the trade union movement, health insurance appeared in Germany. Older people and children could no longer always count on help from family members, either, as the different generations increasingly lived apart and women began to work. To avoid the complete disintegration of society during such radical transformations, social assistance mechanisms were introduced to replace the weakened family and community support programmes.

A wave of institutionalisation and expansion of social programmes also took place after the Second World War: following this large-scale disaster, many countries became aware of the need to integrate all members of society. It is no coincidence that, after the Second World War, human rights were systematised in their current form, in which socio-economic rights appeared to be just as important as political rights. The expansion of social programmes and guarantees is almost always an indicator of the democratisation of society, not of "laziness". Each country has its own history, but all the long-standing and relatively effective social support systems are responses to fundamental historical challenges, not the realisation of radical capitalist fantasies.

Where do such valuable specialists as Zholnovich and company come from? Such rhetoric is not specifically Ukrainian, but has its roots in neo-liberal economic thinking. Its main features are hostility to social solidarity and the social function of the state, economism (which focuses exclusively on macroeconomic indicators such as GDP), radical individualism and an understanding of market forces as the basis of social relations. This doctrine has been around for a long time, but its practical implementation began in the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, probably the most famous exponents of neoliberal policy, carried out their reforms in the 1980s. This means that Western countries have long known the (mostly negative) consequences of neoliberalism.

Thatcher and Reagan were political leaders in Britain and the United States, countries historically known for their less generous social systems than most European countries. The social policy situation in Britain and the United States is not as "rosy" as it might seem to Boris Johnson's Ukrainian supporters. The housing crisis continues in both countries. Medical care in Britain is expected to collapse - but Ukrainian health reformers claim that this is the best example to follow. American medicine is notoriously expensive, both for patients and the state. At the same time, it is inaccessible as never before for a country with this level of economic development. However, in both countries there has been a corresponding reaction: in Great Britain there are strikes and demonstrations because of the health care situation, and in the United States in recent years there have been successful processes of teacher unionisation.

Neoliberal policies have also been felt in other European countries - for example, there has been much criticism of unemployment policies in France and Germany. After all, their reforms of support systems for the unemployed marginalise people: the state only covers basic needs, rather than tackling the structural causes of unemployment. Or another example from the medical field: Germany has long had a difficult situation when it comes to recruiting new medical staff, a situation that has worsened with the pandemic. However, this problem has not gone unnoticed, leading to the organisation of young medical staff to fight for their rights - an area in which they have already achieved some success.

All these countries have their own social policy "reapers" (albeit less "ferocious") and "zholnovichi" who infantilise people who show solidarity. Like their Ukrainian

counterparts, they propagate false and populist myths that social support leads to "laziness" and "irresponsibility". But they are not popular or strong enough to be able to "destroy everything social", and they certainly don't hold positions in the Ministry of Social Policy.

Today, many Ukrainians are integrated into European social systems. If we take the example of Ukrainian refugees, we can be sure of two things. Firstly, that institutions guarantee the existence of generous social support mechanisms, even when European experts appeal to social chauvinism, calling for savings at the expense of the non-citizens of the country in question. Secondly, that support in crisis situations has led to faster and better integration into society, not "irresponsibility". This is borne out by the statistics on the employment of Ukrainian refugees, which, unfortunately, are often used in Ukrainian society to show that "responsible" Ukrainian women do not want to "live on welfare" and are therefore much better off than other refugees. At the same time, of course, the conditions in which refugees from other countries find themselves are ignored: the intellectual thinkers of the Ukrainian neoliberals do not understand the role of the "social" in the achievements of their refugee compatriots.

It remains an open question why anti-social, primitive libertarian rhetoric remains so prevalent among Ukrainian officials and in mainstream debate. There may be many explanations. For example, because of the political and ideological battles that give Tretyakov and others like her carte blanche to call anything they don't like "socialist". Ukraine's peripheral status - dependent on strong countries - unable to deviate from the global trend of cutting social programmes and costs - may also have an impact.

However, none of these arguments is convincing enough to sacrifice social solidarity by copying the worst failed models.

When Zholnovich tries to give her admonitions an intellectual touch and says that she will "reformat the social contract", she does not explain what the essence of that contract will be if the social function of the state self-destructs thanks to her efforts and colleagues. It does not explain why those who left the country because of the war should leave functional European systems and return to post-war Ukraine, where conditions will be difficult anyway and where the efforts of the "reformers" may simply become anti-human. It does not explain what place is given to the military and all the victims of the war in an "agreement" with the state, which only knows how to appeal to "personal responsibility" in solving mass social problems. According to the scenario of Zholnovych and company, Ukraine would face a catastrophic polarisation of society if the "reformers" made concessions. Yet we risk total disintegration if even those who save Ukrainian society from occupation receive nothing in return for what they have achieved. By "destroying everything social" with his famous "agreement",

Zholnovych will destroy not only social programmes, but also the possibility of a harmonious existence for Ukrainian society.

Translation Patrick Le Tréhondat


[1] Member of Parliament for Servant of the People, the party of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Editor's note.