In Ukraine, since independence in 1991, internal territorial differences have fueled a conflict that has been exploited by Vladimir Putin during the 22 years he has been in power, with the intention of keeping the country under direct Russian control. Thus, in the western part, secularly under the influence of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Poland, it has more Central European roots, and the eastern part, traditionally within the Russian empire, is largely Russophone and Russophile and therefore aspires to maintain the preferential relationship with Russia.

Putin achieved his purpose at different times mainly through the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych and the support of the ex-Soviet elites, but in 2014, after the revolution known as Euromaidan, they had to give in and Russia’s response was to quickly annex Crimea and support more or less covertly to the pro-Russian regions of the Donbass. Precisely the drastic decision of February 2022 to invade the entire country has used as a justification the dynamics of the conflict within Ukraine between pro-Russians and “anti-Russians”, as it was clearly stated in an article Putin published last July.

This dynamic of the conflict in Ukraine, and also the one that has been rampant between this country and Russia due to the invasion, can be defined as processes of SCHISMOGENESIS. For those who do not know it, this concept was invented more than 80 years ago by the Anglo-American anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson to analyze and describe chronic conflicts when they suffer a considerable increase in aggressiveness between the opposing parties.

Gradual and unconscious processes

According to this concept, these processes are gradual and sustained over time, so that there comes a time when it is not clear when the conflict began. Usually, the parties also accuse each other of being the initiators and the only ones responsible, and they do so by isolating and magnifying the details and arguments that prove them right and minimizing the importance of the facts and equivalent arguments used by the other party.

Due to the gradual nature, it also often happens that, until the process is very advanced, the people involved do not become aware of the seriousness of the situation or of the deep changes they are undergoing as subjects, changes caused by the escalation of aggressiveness. Using the concept of schismogenesis makes it possible to realize that many serious individual and collective conflicts begin this way, for example, traumatic marital separations and also many wars.

In the dynamics of schismogenesis, two opposing paradigms are configured that mutually deny each other legitimacy and make communication almost totally impossible. And the worst thing is that the members of both sides have less and less respect for those of the opposite party, because they consider their position and beliefs illegitimate, which leads to an increasingly crude dehumanization of the «other.» This polarization ends up affecting everybody, and with each passing day more people are forced to position themselves in favor of one of the parties.

«We and them»

In these processes, the «other» becomes an obsession, and things end up happening and situations are reached that those affected considered impossible and unimaginable. And the motivations for all this, no matter how many analyzes are done a posteriori, very often do not find a possible «rational» explanation. Because what most defines the processes of schismogenesis is the feedback that each party finds in what the other says and does, and that leads to acting in an increasingly aggressive and purely emotional chain of action/reaction.

I exposed and developed the concept devised by Bateson in this article to analyze the political conflict between the Spanish and Catalan identities that has existed in Spain for decades, in fact centuries, but as I have already said, it can be applied to many conflicts that drag on in the time, as is the case involving Russia and Ukraine.

Complementary and symmetric schismogenesis

Gregory Bateson created the concept of schismogenesis by defining two variants: complementary and symmetrical. In the first case, the two parties confront each other from unequal positions and the worsening of the conflict reinforces the dominant role of the stronger and the dominated role of the weaker. In this variant, therefore, there are two clearly differentiated roles, with one of the parties that claims to be hegemonic at all times and the other that is forced to assume its subalternity.

Thus, the resulting dynamic tends to reinforce the complementarity between the two roles, so that although there are times when it seems that the conflict is unrestrained, the truth is that it tends towards stability. It is a conceptual scheme that can be applied to many human situations, for example, to cases of workplace or school bullying, or also to conflicting relationships within a macho scheme. The fact that some of them end as they do, with the woman dead, does not mean that the vast majority can remain fairly stable over time.

In a symmetrical schismogenesis, on the other hand, the roles of the two parties are equivalent, so that the conflict has a much greater tendency to get out of control, in a dynamic of progressive escalation, because neither of the two parties accepts a subordinate role. This variant of the concept is very useful for analyzing the origin of wars, whether civil or between countries. Precisely Bateson conceived it by looking at the pre-war processes underway in Europe in the 1930s.

The conflict that concerns us Ukraine presents it as a symmetrical schismogenesis, equal to equal with Russia, while the Russian side faces it as complementary, in which the other party must submit because it conceives it as inferior and subordinate to it. That is why Putin justifies the invasion as an act of “protection” not only for pro-Russian Ukrainians, but for all Ukrainians, to “save” them from a political project that is harmful to them.

The Russian president and his associates, who now have almost absolute control of all the levers of power in Russia, have thus fueled for years an internal Ukrainian schismogenesis to end up turning it into a much larger one between Ukraine and Russia as a whole, greatly expanding their margins and, consequently, their potential destructive effects.

All this opens up a whole series of possibilities for widening the conflict, including more and more countries activating and strengthening other latent conflicts, turning them into new schismogenesis that are fueled by the one that has been rampant between Russia and Ukraine.

Using the concept of schismogenesis can allow preventive analysis of this possibility, and avoid a generalization of the conflict. This is precisely what happened in the First World War, in which a relatively “local” political assassination led to widespread conflict in Europe and beyond that ripped open the history of the 20th century.

Josep Maria Camps


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