Global Capitalism and Post Democracy
Robert Skidelsky
Seminar of the Moscow School of Political Science, Golitsyno | Saturday, July 24, 2010

Here are five commonly accepted propositions about Russia:
1. The roots of Russian authoritarianism lie in the country’s climate, geography, years of serfdom and need for a strong government. This legacy is binding.
2. Russia’s relations with its neighbours are bound to be imperial.
3. Russia is not really a ‘European’ country.
4. Russia’s peculiar features are a big obstacle to its modernization.
5. Because of its history, Russia can never be an ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ country.
The last proposition subsumes all the others. But they all rest on two suppositions, first, that Russia’s past will determine its future; second, that there is an agreed standard of ‘normality’ to which Russia should conform were it able to.
The first argument rests on a common confusion between the past as a constraint and the past as a cause. The truth is that the past will always limit what can be achieved in the future; but the limits are widely enough drawn to allow for the extensive play of human volition. Also, the past is commonly used is an excuse by conservatives to repress forces of change.
The second argument is normative. The correct path of progress, it is claimed, is towards the western ideals of peace, democracy, and free markets. These are superior to any alternative ways of organising social life. This conception of ‘normality’ is a value judgement in favour of western civilization as against all others.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, let us consider the five propositions in turn.
Is Russia doomed to authoritarianism? Yesterday, Igor Mintoussov and Maria Lipman traced some of the roots of Russia’s divergence from liberal norms. Mintoussov said: ‘In America, the state exists to serve individuals. In Russia individuals exist to serve the state’. Maria Lipman pointed out that in Russia newspapers started as the voice of the Tsar, in America as the voice of opposition.
Other writers have argued on similar lines. For example, Dominic Lieven in his book Empire (2000): ‘For almost five hundred years the Russian tsar’s power was unconstrained by a constitution, by laws, and by representative institutions’. Richard Pipes – for example, in Property and Freedom (1995) argues that authoritarianism, derived from the Tartar yoke and serfdom, is so ingrained it can’t be transcended.
There is then the geographical argument. The basis of Russian security lay in geographical extension. This led to empire, and empire required autocracy. The historian Geoffrey Hosking in Russia: People and Empire (1997) has argued that democracy can only develop if Russia becomes a nation, rather than an empire.
Other scholars have pointed to the absence of civic roots of liberal development. Russia lacked a network of rich, self-governing towns. The state always owned the land. If the state has an independent revenue base, it has no incentive to innovate representative institutions. Its heavy reliance today on oil revenues is a contemporary expression of an ancient pattern.
These deterministic theses have been challenged. For example, Martin Malia in Russia under Western Eyes (1999) believes that Russia would have developed a constitutional monarchy but for the First World War. The general argument is that Russia’s economic ‘catch-up’ in the years before the war would have produced a political ‘catch-up’ had the war not supervened. There was a growing middle class which demanded greater political liberty. It was the accidents of history which cut off this favourable development. So authoritarianism is not inevitable.
An interesting variant of the deterministic thesis comes from the Kremlin’s chief ‘politologist’, Vladislav Surkov. Before you can have democracy, Surkov says, you must build ‘democracy in the head’. Surkov thinks that Russian history has made Russians so servile that it will take a long time before they get ‘democracy in the head’. Here is a direct quotation from a speech he made in 2005: ‘I am convinced that the Russian people in the broad sense of the word are fit for democracy. But, apparently, we are talking here of some historic path. You cannot jump off it, or else, you will break your neck’. (‘How Russia should Fight International Conspiracies’ speech to Delovaya Rossiya, Radio Liberty Website, 11 July 2005).
Surkov’s criterion of ‘democracy in the head’ is suggestive, but ambiguous. Two separate issues are being mixed up.
First, one could mean by absence of ‘democracy in the head’ that the Russians do not want democracy. One often hears it said that the Russians don’t want democracy, they just want stability, prosperity, and foreign holidays.
However, what Surkov probably meant was that the Russians are not ready for democracy. They will make a mess of a democratic system. This links up with classic imperial and great power arguments for autocracy. The democratic evolution Surkov has in mind may require a long period of ‘guided democracy’.
The second proposition is that Russia’s relations with its peripheries are bound to be ‘imperial’. This amounts to saying it can’t have ‘normal’ relations with its neighbours.
A traditional view is that a Russia which lost the Ukraine would cease to be a great power.
Dominic Lieven has written: ‘Russia, Belarussia and Ukraine were all parts of Kievan Rus’. The late Tsarist policy of imperial expansion was continued by the Soviets who tried to turn as much as possible of the Tsarist empire into a socialist state.
Lament for lost empire is often heard today –in the conservative nationalism of Zuganov Communists, in Putin’s characterisation of the collapse of Soviet Union as a ‘geopolitical tragedy’.
We can see how Russia aims to turn its neighbours into dependent states. It buys their political loyalty by supplying them with cheap energy. Russian policy-makers are open about their wish to restore and maintain Russian primacy in its ‘near abroad’.
This makes the Russians extremely sensitive to what they see as foreign incursions into their ‘space’; hence the hostile Russian reaction to the ‘Orange Revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia, which the Russians saw as being orchestrated and financed from Washington.
It also explains a strong vein of paranoia in Russian foreign policy. Many Russians believe that, following the collapse of communism, Russia was treated as though it had lost a war, rather than as a partner in the building of the post-communist world. The example they most frequently cite is the enlargement of NATO without reference to Russian wishes. Putin’s foreign policy was dominated by the desire to correct the terms on which the Cold War ended. Oil gave him his opportunity for a replay.
Having said this, there is some basis for the Russian belief that the west broke its side of the post-communist bargain. We now know that Gorbachev thought that, in return for allowing the reunification of Germany, he had received an American promise not to extend NATO eastwards. Unfortunately he did not insist on getting this promise in writing.
Then again we may ask: how abnormal are Russia’s relations with its neighbours? How different are they from America’s relations with its neighbours? Has the USA ever repealed the Monroe Doctrine?
The truth is that all big countries treat small neighbours in much the same way, which doesn’t make Russia such an exception to normality. However, the Russians express their views somewhat more crudely. As Surkov said: ‘some countries are destined to be hammers, others anvils’.
It is also a mistake to treat nostalgia as an intention: Russian imperialism not a living force now. This is because there is no present possibility of recreating the empire, whether in its Tsarist or Soviet form. However, imperialism may not be dead, only dormant.
The third proposition is that Russia is as much an Asian as a European power, if not more so. The contemporary expression of this is ‘Eurasianism’. Eurasianism can be seen as a search for a philosophy capable of making sense of Russia’s sprawling geography. It often runs in parallel with Slavophilia.
Dominic Lieven sees it ‘in many ways [as] a spin off of Russia’s difficult relations with Europe, the sense of inferiority and rejection… Russians felt inferior in Europe, confident in Asia’. Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, whereas in Asia we shall go as masters’.
The ultimate goal of Eurasianism is to reconstruct the Russian space as a ‘Eurasian confederation’ or a ‘Eurasian Union’. One attraction of Eurasianism is its inclusive character. Its ideology is necessarily multicultural, stemming from the historical character of the imperial state. Eurasianism legitimises a new synthesis of Russia and Islam.
There is an economic concept behind idea of Eurasia. Nation-states, it is argued, are too small to retain their independence in a globalizing world. Only by being members of a larger union can they preserve their national identities from the universalising thrust of US-led global capitalism. So Eurasianism offers a Russian version of European Union under the label of ‘voluntary empire’. Big Russian multinationals like UES and Gazprom see themselves as integrating the economies of the Eurasian space.
Eurasia fits into the notion of a multipolar world. Russia is too weak to be one of the poles: but a Eurasian Union could be. This question is bound up with demography. Russia’s population is in decline: there are huge empty spaces in the east. Eurasianism at least conceives of the possibility of sharing these spaces with China.
The most attractive aspect of Eurasianism is that it serves as a bridge between Christendom and Islam and between Europe and China. This gives Russia’s foreign policy its distinctive flavour. But it is too vague to be a tangible political project. In practice it means better relations with China, India and Iran.
It is often argued that Russia’s peculiarities cut it off from ‘modernization’. People usually mean by modernization building a ‘modern’ economy and a ‘modern’ society, the two being thought of as interrelated parts of the single process which started in Europe with the Enlightenment. In economic terms, modernization is seen as movement from a traditional extractive and agricultural economy with limited consumption to a manufacturing and service economy, built on technology, and producing for mass consumption. Politically, modernization is loosely defined as the movement from hierarchy to democracy. Given that Russia botched its first modernization drive under the Soviets, it has to start all over again.
Today modernization for Russia is conceived as creating a ‘diversified’, knowledge-based, high-tech industrial economy producing for market demand, and the parallel development of ‘western’ political and economic institutions. With the uncertain future of oil prices, the growing costs of extracting oil, gas, and minerals, and the globalization of economic and cultural life, the political elite now have plenty of incentives to modernize, with the strong Soviet inheritance of science and technology being a powerful booster. In principle all Russian policy-makers are modernizers. But the incentives facing them may be insufficient to cause them to innovate properly modern institutions like secure property rights, independent banks, constitutional politics, and a free media. This is for a number of reasons:
(1) Historically, there has always been a tension between modernization and the retention of autocracy. This is because modernization in its broadest sense requires acceptance of economic and political freedom. Soviet industrialization followed the precedent of Peter the Great in trying to modernize the economy while preserving an all-powerful state. The contradiction between the two, which Soviet central planning magnified, set a definite limit on Russia’s economic and social development. Under Putin, high oil prices offered an escape from both diversification and democratization. It remains doubtful whether the Russian elite has accepted that democratization has to proceed in parallel with diversification.
(2) The energy economy has structural features which tend towards its self-perpetuation. The best known of these is the ‘oil curse’, in which cash inflows from energy exports weaken the competitiveness of the non-energy sectors by strengthening the exchange rate. But more importantly, reliance on extractive industries tends to create a neo-patrimonial form of political economy in which wealth and power are fused at all levels of the society, and economic life is dominated by the struggle for rents, as well as for control of territory.
(3) The neo-patrimonial economy is a huge barrier to the emergence of a competitive political system, since the transfer of power inescapably means a redistribution of property rights. It also encourages autocracy by giving the government a revenue base independent of income tax.
(4) More speculatively, there seems to be little demand for modernization from below. Russians want a high consumption economy, but not the economic system which produces it. Compared to Chinese, Indians, Jews and Armenians, Russians have not been conspicuous for entrepreneurial energy or commercial flair. That’s why Russia was a natural locus for Bolshevik attempt to construct an economic and social system which condemned personal enrichment as an end and made it impossible for anyone to pursue it seriously. Today most Russian oligarchs rely on political connections to procure and maintain their wealth and are more interested in wealth acquisition than wealth creation.
In short, modernization can’t all be done from the top. It requires what Surkov might call ‘modernization in the head’. It requires breaking with the neo-patrimonial system, the symbiosis of power and wealth in the Kremlin, for which the oil economy was ideal instrument; that is, from an economy based on the distribution of rents to rather than the creation of new resources.
Finally, and including all the others, can Russia be an ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ country? What do these words mean?
For Michael Mandelbaum: ‘The definition of success is quite straightforward. A successful Russia would be a country with a functioning democratic political system and effective free markets’. (National Intelligence Council, Conference Report 21-23 February 2001).
John Vinocur, writing in IHT 27 Feb 2006, described Russian lapses from ‘normality’. ‘There’s not much dispute about the current Russian trajectory: declining or vanishing democracy coupled with a statist economy run by a network of KGB old boys; and confrontational international relations marked by attempts to push the United States out of its central Asian staging points for Afghanistan, threats to Ukraine’s new democracy, and the use of Russia’s oil and gas supplies to intimidate its neighbours’.
Other signs of ‘abnormality’ are the Russian elite’s preference for autocratic leaders in its subordinate regions; the absence of a rule of law binding on its own leadership, corruption, and the use of assassination as instrument of state policy (Litvinenko, Politkovskaya).
However, the words ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’, ‘modern’ beg too many questions to be wholly useful as benchmarks. They suggest a linear progress of history along western European lines. There is a certain paradox here: Russia is being urged to adopt western models of ‘normality’ at the precise moment when power to shape world is slipping away from Europe and America to Asia. Are Asian values the same as western values? I suspect that Chinese interpret ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’, ‘modern’ and even ‘democratic’ in different ways from the west.
Yuri Senokossov has often reminded us that Russia did not experience the ‘Enlightenment’. But neither did China.
In his fascinating talk, Hairong Lai reminded us how significantly Chinese values diverge from Western values. His example of the Chinese philosophy of ‘forgive and forget’ leaves little place for the idea of justice, so central to western political philosophy, and coming from Greek as well as Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Is western democracy the path of the world? As long as America is the world’s guru and hegemon it will continue to be. But large chunks of world are not committed to democracy in the western sense.
There is no single model of capitalism. Large parts of the world practice state capitalism – a system in which the state directs economic enterprise for national ends or its own profit without owning all (or even most of) the instruments of production. This is the predominant pattern in Russia, China, and the Middle East. European capitalism is more ‘corporatist’ than American, with the interests of ‘stakeholders’ or ‘social partners’ given equal weight to those of entrepreneurs and consumers. The recent economic slump has reinserted the state into the direction of economic affairs. A recent book by Ian Bremmer, The End of the Free Market (2010), claims that state, not market, capitalism is the wave of the future.
Also what do we mean by progress? There is no clear pattern in the evolution of international relations. The orthodox doctrine of a world of sovereign states is in decay. Some nations are more sovereign than others. The vision of a single world with a single set of values is challenged not just by the re-appearance of tribalism in the Balkans and elsewhere, but by emergence of big blocs of regional power which have some characteristics of empire.
Because there is no single concept of ‘normality’ there can be no single path to it. History is not like a tapeworm winding its way to the future, with different societies positioned at different points along its length. The historian sees a number of different civilisational paths which converge and cross in many respects, diverge in many others, and don’t point to a single future. Large tasks of synthesis lie ahead before we can talk of a convergence of civilizations.