Sunday, 23 March 2014

What kind of regime does Putin head?

The Western mass-media have had for many years the problem of how to characterise the Russian government under Vladimir Putin. The most often characterisation draws upon crude simplifications of Russian history: the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. We're told Putin is a mini-Stalin and a mini-Tsar all in one. This is highly misleading for a number of reasons. Two come to mind immediately.

Firstly, it implies that the possibility of aggressive expansionism by Russia is a plausible likelihood. Putin has no plans to provoke a full-blown conflict with the European powers. He knows how vulnerable Russia is to such opponents. Putin now acts to hold-off encroaching Western influence and NATO outposts from the borders of the Russian Federation. It's not in the Russian interests to have NATO missile systems on its borders so close to major cities. He could live with Ukraine becoming a EU member-state, as long as the gas network is not effected seriously. In this regard, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and de facto annexation of Crimea does not compare to Stalin's 'spreading the revolution' by rifle and bayonet. Even when Stalin acted to build a buffer-zone of satellite states in Eastern and Southern Europe it was not a bid for global domination. It was about the consolidation of Soviet power by securing the country from any future Western intervention. The position Putin has taken is defined by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, the phase of development we currently see in Russia has little precedent in previous historical conditions. The Tsars of the 19th Century presided over a feudal society with an emerging industrial and capitalist base, perching over Orthodox Christendom at home and imperialism abroad. The USSR was defined by the exacerbation of such conditions of scarcity and dislocation in the First World War and Civil War. The mission was not to reproduce the feudal order of the past, nor to build from its remains a capitalist society, it was to establish the material pre-conditions for socialism. That amounted to the industrialisation of Russian society to create the material surplus of a capitalist society by non-capitalist means and ultimately to non-capitalist ends. The promised communist future never arose from this process. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 the whole edifice was then broken down and digested by economic shock therapy. Putin emerges out of this historical conjuncture.

So we find the situation in Russia is a period distinct from preceding epochs. The Russian Federation emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union to be forced through primitive accumulation by the Yeltsin administration. The immense resources were handed over to a small clique around Yeltsin as the Russian state-sector and public assets were dismembered and chucked to these ravenous beasts. The transformation of the material base of Russian society inevitably reverberated throughout its superstructure. The state became so weighed down by its own corruption that the oligarchs around Yeltsin decided to replace him with Putin. The hope was that Putin would deal with the officials looking to crackdown on corruption while simultaneously reinstating authority in the government. The liberalisation of the economy had led to the formation of an internationalising class, which in turn spurred on a recrudescent nationalism.

I've written before that it seem as if the Russian President stands at the apex where anti-political purism and ultra-political nationalism meet. He initially presented himself as a non-political man of action, who will enforce order and stability. Of course, there is nothing 'non-political' about the man at all. He appeals to Soviet nostalgia, particularly with regard to the defeat of German Fascism. Yet only in nationalist terms, the Soviet era was a great era when Russia wielded power on the world stage. The world was not unipolar and Russians did not have to live in fear of Western aggression. The victories in Georgia and Chechnya and now Ukraine can be understood as reactive. Putin wants to fend-off encroachments of non-Russian influence, primarily from the US, but also from independent actors, such as Chechen Islamists and separatists.

Many like to talk about 'Putinism' as if it signifies a clear characterisation of the Russian government. It is certain that the managed democracy in Russia represents a new order. The rapid and chaotic pace of primitive accumulation under Boris Yeltsin has been slowed by Putin, but it is not over by any means. It was Putin who furthered the privatisation of land. The concentration of economic power in the hands of oligarchs sits side-by-side with the state power. 'Putinism' is a very misleading and vague term. It's mainly another way of carrying out the spurious comparison between Putin and Stalin. The phrase 'Stalinism' was really used to signify a deviation from Marxism by the Soviet leadership. Perhaps in a similar vein 'Putinism' refers to a deviation from the Washington consensus which the Yeltsin administration was completely embedded in.

Aleksandr Buzgalin calls it 'jurassic capitalism' where the old state-order, as well as even older feudal structures (i.e. the Church), stand alongside a capitalist economy. We might see this as a developing form of corporatism or 'national' capitalism, rather than the internationalist and liberal variety we are so comfortable with in Western Europe. It's certain that Putin is a part of the right-wing economic consensus that has been ruling Russia since the Soviet Union was dissolved. But it is not the same as it was in the 1990s. The sympathies Putin has drawn from Westerners have been insightful. Among them we find the British journalist Peter Hitchens, a cultural-traditionalist conservative, who sees Putin as taking a stand against neoliberal globalization in defence of national sovereignty. Then there is the fascist Nick Griffin who sees Russia as the last bastion of the "white race".

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