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Russia: march to the execution, Or more on Russian capitalism

Alice to Cheshire-Puss: "Would you tell me, please,

which way I ought to go from here"?

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where," said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

The results of the country’s capitalization

 There’s not a single sphere of life in Russia that hasn’t been touched by the breath of death – in the literal sense of the word. Disease, hunger and cold contribute to the continuing depopulation of the land. Utility charges increase by leaps and bounds, which leads to growing numbers of homeless persons. Drug addiction destroys the youth. In many areas of Russia light and tap water are absent, and living conditions resemble those of the early Middle Ages. Natural disasters, such as floods, wipe away towns and villages, leaving thousands of people without shelter. The war in Chechnya drove hundreds of thousands of people into tents and dugouts. The school system has collapsed, leaving millions of teenagers undereducated. The science industry has turned into rubble. The health care system ranks 130th in the world. And so on, and so forth.

 A show is unfurling in the international arena: the Tragedy of Russia. Many observers are jubilating: finally, at long last. Some are commiserating: God forbid - such a culture, such a country! Many are outraged: how can this be happening, who’s to blame?

 So they start digging. Some blame Putin, some Chubais, some Berezovsky. Journalists write defamatory articles about one today, the other tomorrow. The better educated journalists criticize the legal system. The right-wing journalists criticize the political system, saying there are no real liberties, no real democracy - what we have is a “managed democracy”. The ill-luck Mr. Cherepkov is removed from the ballot again – three days before the gubernatorial elections in Primorsky Krai. The radio station Echo of Moscow condemns the President’s office. The left-wing journalists attack the oligarchs and - more and more often - the President himself, for dashing their expectations. They expected him to be better than Yeltsin, and he turned out to be the same, if not worse.

 I have no dice with the journalists. Their professional duty is to respond to current goings-on. They all have to write about something, especially since the current misfortunes usually do involve concrete persons.       But I still can’t get used to similar nonsense being spouted by scholars and analytics, people who are supposed to dig deep and uncover the fundamental sources of the current tragedy. I am no less amazed at the political leaders who, just like the journalists, blame the crisis on concrete persons (Putin, Voloshin, Vyakhirev, Gref, etc.). Or else they pontificate quite seriously on the imperfections of the laws and the legislative branch. The kids from SPS (The Union of Right-Wing Forces) are fixated on the issue of private ownership of land. The Yabloko party is gaga about the imperfections of democracy and the fiscal system. The so-called Communists only care about the social services sphere.

 When you tell them that the root of the tragedy is incompatibility of capitalism with the Russian way of life, you hear in response: what capitalism? we have no capitalism. - So what do we have – socialism? – No, not socialism either. - What then? - They say: we’re in a state of transition. - Okay, transition from what to what? - Some say: from socialism to capitalism. Others say: from totalitarianism to democracy and markets. - But how can there be a transition from something that didn’t exist? And what is totalitarianism? How can anyone claim there was totalitarianism under Brezhnev? Or under Gorbachev? As for democracy and markets, they existed even in slaver societies. Same goes for totalitarianism (recall the ancient Greek tyrant Pisystrates).

Take a closer look at the programs of all the political parties in Russia: not one has a clear description of the current social system in Russia. Almost all of them avoid using the dreaded words capitalism and socialism. Many theoreticians (of different parties) go as far as saying that even in the West there is no capitalism, instead there is a post-industrial society. Who are they trying to fool with this ignorant talk? They think that if they replace the social concept with a description of the economy, capitalism is gone. But for some reason Western theorists – hundreds of them – constantly write about capitalism. Let me mention just two rather popular authors: the American Lestor Thurow (The Future of Capitalism /1996/), and the German Robert Kurz (Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. Ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft /1999/). I could list dozens of authors writing about capitalism - Japanese, European, American, East Asian, African, Indian, etc. Only the Russians are silent on the subject. This silence has a very, very big meaning.

Capitalism means revolution

Should the left-wingers (Communists et al.) recognize in their programs the existence of a capitalist system in Russia, they would have to renounce co-operation with authorities, leave the Duma as an arena of political struggle and mobilize the people to down-throw the current regime. For it’s clear that criticism of this or that person will not improve the system. But the party leaders have no use for such revolutionary attitudes; their own privileges and positions would be threatened, not just in the Duma but in the provinces as well. They’d rather convince themselves with slogans like “Russia has exhausted its limit for revolutions”, “the people are tired of revolutions”, and anyway “the people are not ready”. In other words, the word CAPITALISM immediately gives birth to the word REVOLUTION. The leaders of the Left have no need of revolution – they are already at the feeding trough.

The right-wingers (the Nemtsov bunch, the Yavlinsky bunch) deny the existence of a capitalism system for a different reason. If capitalism has indeed taken root in Russia, where are the promised goodies? Where is universal prosperity? Where is the good life promised by those capitalist reformers – Yegor Gaidar and other bastards? Instead we have a universal catastrophe. So let us instead talk of markets and democracy that are still undeveloped, still in their infancy. Both need to be developed, deepened. Only when these things are the same here as in the West shall we have real capitalism with its prosperity for all.

The Centrists (the Medved and Unity parties) have no problems with the notion of capitalism. They don’t care what the system is called, the important thing is that it work well. If it doesn’t work, it has to be the fault of Messrs. Tutkin and Mitkin, who must be fired and replaced, say, with Lapkin and Tapkin.

In short, they all have in common fear before the word CAPITALISM. It is a well-founded fear, for let me repeat: capitalism is pregnant with REVOLUTION. In Russian conditions, a revolution can only be anti-capitalist, i.e. socialist, for the mass conscience preserves the image of capitalism as a society of exploitation, of a minority lording it over a majority. These Soviet propaganda cliches are gradually coming back to life against the background of universal pauperization of the vast majority of the population. The present Russian capitalism is in essence little different from the early 20th century capitalism, except that the scope of destruction is more universal, more fatal. This time around, the intelligentsia gets clobbered along with the workers and peasants. Most importantly, the state itself is being destroyed.

Some wise guy might see a contradiction here: how can the capitalist state be destroying itself? Actually, there is no paradox here at all.

The state and the oligarchs

 In the early stage, under Yeltsin, the state-oligarchic capitalism was formed (SOC, analogous to SMC – state-monopolistic capitalism). The state and the oligarchs were as one. That’s the reason the latter arranged a second presidential term for Yeltsin. In that period under a constantly sick President the oligarchs shoved aside the state itself, establishing control not just over the economy, but over many areas of politics as well. This excessive influence of the oligarchs over all the aspects of the country’s life came to contradict the interests of the state, i.e. the government bureaucracy, especially the enforcement agencies. A new team came to power that decided to push the oligarchs back a step and instill some fear in them. Two particularly vocal oligarchs were even forced to leave the country. But then interesting things started coming to light. The oligarchs, removed from the sphere of government, mounted an attack in the sphere of economy. They created an energy crisis in the land by switching of power supply to cities and factories. Never mind that the action was accomplished by RAO UES – a monopoly where the controlling stake is formally owned by the state. In reality the state controls nothing (this goes for Gazprom, too). Real control is exercised by the oligarchs, exemplified by the oft-mentioned Chubais. Mr. Chubais plays by the classical rules of capitalism. Light is a commodity; you get it if you pay for it. No money – no commodity. How can you complain?   

 The state can do nothing against these rules. Especially since it constantly confirms itself in the persons of Putin and Gref its “course to develop a market economy”. Yet it is also powerless to solve economic problems. It’s not just because of the market capitalist ideology of this state. The main thing is, it has real control (and a shaky one at that) only over the budget – a sum of about $30 billion. For a country of 145 million people, that’s a trifling amount. It’s only half the personal fortune of one American called Bill Gates. Keep in mind that $30 billion amounts to just about 1/10th of the Russian economy (Russia’s GDP at the current exchange rate is about $300 billion). The other 9/10 is controlled by the private sector, that is, the same oligarchs. This is a far cry from any of the advanced capitalist countries. Even in the USA, the most liberal country of the lot, the state’s budget exceeds 30% of GDP (the average figure is 46%). In other words, Russia is miles ahead of all capitalist countries as concerns its degree of capitalization. Therefore it is comical to watch the Attorney General’s office chase first one, then another oligarch.

 After a while, the state realized its weakness and engaged the business world in a “constructive dialogue”. As a result, decisions were made about privatizing utilities and public transit, making steps toward introducing private ownership of land. Handing over property into private hands, the state intends to influence them through over means, such as taxes – a plan doomed to failure.

From capitalism to feudalism

 The next stage of Russia’s tragedy is unfurling before our eyes: the transition from state-oligarchic capitalism to classical capitalism in its first stage – the state is by itself, the capitalists are by themselves. The state retains political power, the oligarchs hold economic power. This situation was described in some detail by Karl Marx in his “Louis Bonaparte’s Brumer Eighteenth”.

  Modern Russian history presents a unique phenomenon: a transition from feudal socialism to state-oligarchic capitalism to classical early capitalism to feudalism with elements of capitalism, such as existed in Europe in the 15th-16th centuries. Why is this course inevitable? The reason is this: capitalism will not take root in Russia. Russia can only be feudal or socialist, due to the mind-frame of the Russian people, shaped by climate and vast territory.        

The country’s harsh climate will never allow the development of individualistic thought, since it necessitates communal forms of survival, i.e. communal economic activity. The vastness of the land necessitates centralized management, otherwise the land will divide into independent fiefdoms. Thus are two things perpetuated: collectivist labor practices and strong central power. That’s how the people developed perpetual faith in the ruler, be it the czar or the Secretary General. That’s how deference to authorities developed, as the symbol and guarantee of the nation’s unity. That’s how Russians acquired their serf mentality. The climate and the vastness of the land predetermine a relatively low standard of living, therefore Russians have in their genes a hatred of wealth and the wealthy. That means hatred of capitalism, where the system perpetuates co-existence of wealth and poverty.

 Keep in mind one important thing. I keep talking about capitalism, but in reality Russia only has the carcass of capitalism – its basic structure of political and economic institutes. This carcass was put together at the top and installed on the hostile foundation of the Russian people. In philosophical terms this can be called an attempt to attach one phenomenon’s form to another’s substance. In plain parlance, it can be compared to an attempt to put a tuxedo, designed for slim British bodies, on the torso of a Russian muzhik who is used to a spacious caftan. Or we can compare it to shipping Vancouver-built homes to Siberia. These kind of contradictions are usually resolved in favor of the substance. For instance, the bourgeois revolution of February 1917 (a capitalist form) lost out to the socialist revolution of October 1917, since the latter represented a Russian substance (the community factor). Reverse cases are rare and unnatural; they normally result in mutual destruction of both form and substance.

  Today’s architects of capitalism somehow managed to build the structural carcass with no regard to geography and climate of the land. That means no regard to the communal mindframe of most Russians. So now a process of destruction is underway; the capitalist forms work almost nowhere, the spirit of feudal socialism is alive everywhere. I sense it myself in my dealings with each and every organization (in particular publishing houses, including the private ones). The privatized enterprises, even with Western equipment, operate at a loss or don’t operate at all. Gone are almost 90% of industries such as food processing, textile and apparel, machine-building; the steel and coal industries are collapsing. The only surviving industries are fuel and power, mining, forestry and part of the military-industrial complex, i.e. export industries. All of these are gradually falling under foreign control, same as in the early 20th century Russia (when almost 90% of industry was European-owned).

  Further privatization of transportation and utilities will contribute to further decline of the economy. The Western owners will only keep alive the industries needed by the West: fuel and resource extraction, plus the military-industrial complex. After privatization of land, most peasants will become hired hands. Private farming will not take hold, due to absence of state subsidies and proper equipment. The population of Russia is doomed to die out, regions will become more and more autonomous, until finally a feudal society is re-established. Perhaps even the monarchy will be restored, just as the popular cine-entrepreneur Nikita Mikhalkov wants it.

The blind leading the blind

 Everything I listed above is not perceived as a tragedy, since the people do not realize that capitalization of the land is underway. The people go on believing that they only need to survive some more hardships, and eventually the bright future will arrive. That is precisely the tragedy. It is also tragic that neither the intelligentsia or the political elite realize what is going on. They are too busy trying to survive, too engaged in day-to-day struggles within the framework of the capitalist system.

It is also tragic that the capitalization of the land gives resurgence to religious obscurantism. Driven to despair by current living conditions, more and more people start believing in God, becoming a herd of sheep, led by fat, well-fed priests into the Kingdom of God. Blind lead the Blind, with bells ringing and choirs singing.

What my mind hears is the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz, namely Part four – March to the Execution.

By Alex Battler

Published in Russian Vancouver, no. 61 (2001), 7-11. Also in a book  "Russia: land of slaves, land of masters (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003).