Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?
Thomas Riggins

A kleptocracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Many anti-Russian commentators today have no problem with classifying Vladamir Putin's government as kleptocratic but Richard Sakwa, a Russian expert at the University of Kent, is not one of them. He gives his reasons in "Grey - area Gold," an analysis of Putin's Keleptocracy: Who Owns Russia a book by Karen Dawisha, published in the TLS of February 6, 2015. What follows are some comments and observations on Sakwa's article. I have italicized my own views to avoid confusion.

Dawisha obviously thinks Russia is a kleptocracy. She paints a picture of rampant corruption and abuse of power by those involved in the overthrow of soviet power and the transfer of the collective wealth and property of the soviet people into the hands of private individuals. The security forces of the soviet state played a major role in this betrayal. Sakwa says her arguments are so "incendiary" that Cambridge University Press backed off from publishing the book and it cannot be bought in the UK. It is available in the US from Simon and Schuster.

"The fundamental picture that emerges," Sakwa writes, "is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process." In Marxist terms this would have been a counter-revolution led by elements of the leadership in collusion with the state security apparatus. However, it does not account for the acquiescence of the Red Army nor the passivity of the soviet people.

Dawisha's picture shows that Putin and his circle have certainly taken advantage of the end of soviet power and have enriched themselves at the expense of the general population (''behaviour typical of nouveaux riches throughout the ages") and have supported acts of corruption but her analysis also results "in obscuring complexity and counter trends."

That is to say, Sakwa contends, there is more to Putin's Russia than just the kleptocractic features Dawisha highlights. When then bigger picture is taken into consideration Russia turns out to be, while having some of the kleptocratic features found in many other countries [including the United States ] "not a kleptocracy tout court."

This is because the Putin government plays a much bigger role than just the enrichment of its elite supporters. It maintains social peace at home and is active on the world stage supporting Russian interests and "meets the basic needs of the Russian people" by furthering a "dirigiste" model of capitalism. Instead of hiding its revenues overseas the Russian government invests its tax money and oil revenues in public works projects and investments "for a rainy day."

That day is here, Sakwa says. Since Russia is being run in the interests of the Russians rather than the Germans or Americans this has caused the "west" to over react and initiate policies against Russia with which the Russians cannot possibly  comply. One of these is the "sanctions" regime imposed on "Putin's cronies" (and now the threat of direct involvement in the Ukrainian civil war by arming the Kiev regime). These will have no effect on the Putin leadership but are now "affecting the whole population in a form of collective punishment". As could have been expected (If Obama and the American leadership knew anything about the real history and sentiments of the Russians) these ham fisted reactions have only increased Putin's popularity at home and "the people have rallied around the flag." The US is on a collision course of its own choosing with Russia.

Sakwa lists four reasons why Dawsha’s book as well as the so-called liberal domestic opposition to Putin (and the Western supporters of anti-Putinism allied with them) should not be taken at face value. They are:

1.) The portrait of Putin presented “is often circumstantial, conjectural,
      and partial.” Do we really want to base our foreign policy on this
      kind of evidence?
2.) There is evidence of a “deep state” at work in Russia [we have one 
     too] made up of sections of the military and security operatives (the          
     “siloviki or (‘force-men’)” and “former Party resources” but the 
     evidence given does not prove that it functions simply as a force 
     for “kleptocracy.” It has been used against the Russian “mafia” and
     for the creation of state owned enterprises which “struggle to 
     achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance.” 
     Western sanctions actually thwart the forces that are trying to
     integrate Russia into the international system.
3.) Unlike what is to be expected from kleptomaniacs, the Putin 
     government has “delivered significant public goods” and supported
     “neoclassical liberal nostrums.” Russia followed policies that allowed
      it to get through the  2008-09 world economic downturn and has 
      since begun “to invest in some major infrastructural projects". All
      in all we see “a developmental dynamic” which “does not look like 
      the policies of a kleptocracy” but, Sakwa says, the country might 
      have been in even better shape without the elite skimming off  
      social wealth for itself (this includes Putin) and “the misguided 
      dirigisme.” [Since the alternative to “dirigisme” is unregulated
      privatization I can’t agree with this last suggestion.]
4.) Russian foreign policy is not conducted on the basis of what is good 
      for kleptocrats but rather on the vision that Russia is a “great  
      “power and should be “an equal partner of the West.” Needless to   
       say “the West” [ i.e., basically the  US ] doesn’t want to accord  to
       Russia “equality.” [Russia is treated as a second rate power that
       must comply with US dictates. The Ukraine is a test case and the
       Russians must be seen to give in to American demands. This 
       fully accords with the dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry  which has   
       come to the fore since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has 
       been so well described by Lenin in his work on “Imperialism the
       Highest Stage of Capitalism.” American “over-reach” here could 
       result in Obama’s policies leading to an unprecedented flare up of
       violence and destruction on a continental scale, or worse.]

In concluding his review, Sakwa says Dawisha’s book “is one of many books that contribute to a misleading paradigm of how Russia actually works.” The reality is more complex. Dawisha’s book will give you a good insight into the elite and how their wealth was acquired but there is much more going on in Putin’s Russia than you will find in this book, so “when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.” Well, it seems this is not the book to read if you really want the dope on what’s going on in Russia. I will nose around and try to to find a better guide to post to this blog.


Sunday, February 08, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" (Part 5 & last)

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger’s World Order (Part Five)
Thomas Riggins

We conclude with Ferguson’s opinions considering Kissinger’s views on what the real lessons are concerning world order that we have learned from the practice of American foreign policy since 1945. Basically we learn that American idealism + traditional balance of power = world order (as far as possible). Kissinger writes:

“Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend towards either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.”

This is a rather garbled mess and it is difficult to understand what Kissinger is trying to say.  Ferguson , explicating Kissinger, comments that America’s “bloodiest failures” [bloodiest for the victims not for us by the way] resulted from the US putting moral considerations “above the balance of power.”  The defeats he refers to are those of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Can this be what Kissinger or Ferguson really believe?  If so they do not even have the simplest idea of what morality is. What was "moral" about dropping Napalm, Agent Orange and other chemicals on Vietnamese children?

I can believe that Kissinger is totally amoral and I hope Ferguson has a shred or two of the moral sense here and there.The mass slaughter of the civilian population in both Korea and Vietnam carried out by the US in truly Hitlerian proportions, the war of choice waged by Bush in Iraq and the current droning of women and children in the fields, at wedding parties and funeral processions, the obscene ratio of “collateral damage’’—i.e., murder of innocent civilians, perpetrated by the US in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen where children were deliberately targeted) is the morality of the SS and the Wehrmacht of WW II— it is not an example of “American idealism.”  

I can’t think of any instance in which, since 1945 (or even before)  the US has put moral considerations above realpolitik considerations concerning the “balance of power.” It’s not  just the US. I can’t think of any nation, with the exception of Cuba since 1959, that has done so.

To protect US interests Kissinger proposes a secret treaty with China and uses nineteenth century models (the Treaty of 1839 on the neutrality of Belgium) to put forth deals with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep it it from being controlled by “jihadists.”

For someone influenced by Kant’s Perpetual Peace Kissinger seems to forget that Kant rejected secret treaties as a violation of the rights of the citizens of a state to have sufficient knowledge of their constitution to be able act as free citizens and participate in the social life of their country rather than be used as means instead of as ends by their rulers. No treaty that needs secrecy to succeed is moral for Kant.

Anyway, Ferguson points out these suggestions would only be workable in a broader context both realistic (a workable balance of power) and idealistic. The ideal of preventing a third world war may be more important than avoiding climate change, we are told. There are two things wrong with this. First, even contemplating the need to prevent a third world war is to reveal a subtext that sees China, and perhaps Russia as well, as existential threats to US interests and that the balance of power the US aims at will be weighted in its favor. This is the same old imperialist junk Kissinger has always pushed. Second, climate change poses an existential threat to the whole planet which is just as threatening as a third world war, maybe more so as climate change is happening now and a third world war is a future speculation based on viewing the world through nineteenth and twentieth century lenses by which we can only see the world as dark and blurred.

Kissinger advocates, as he says, “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary reality.” But the contemporary reality is an ├╝ber-powerful US which basically does what it wants and only gives lip service to the idea of a World Order in which it is not the dominant and all determining power. No “Westphalian” system can be so based. World Order is only possible by a strengthened United Nations in which the US is willing to share power with the rest of the world  and submit itself to universal rules to which all are subject. What could induce the US to do this— to actually put moral considerations on the same level as brute power considerations? 

Kissinger says the next president must answer this basic question; “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?”  But this is a question for the American people to answer. Right now they are so divided and kept ignorant of the realty of the world they live in (state secrets, rotten education, semi-literacy, news networks that only spew forth propaganda, crazy religious illusions, you name it) they are incapable of arriving at a consensus. In reality the 1% will continue to answer the question with a president that represents their interests primarily.

But this is the fundamental question. Until the American people unite around their interests, the interests of the 99% (metaphorically speaking) and arrive at a consensus about the sort of country and world they want to live in— one that fosters the well being of all working and laboring peoples and not just the tiny group at the top of society, until then the US will have a foreign policy geared towards war and domination as it has at least since 1945, and the Kissingers of the future  will ensure that there will be no chances of a world order based on human dignity and peace.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Lenin State and Revolution Today (Part 7 and last)

Lenin State and Revolution Today Chapter Six  (Part Seven and final of the series)
Thomas Riggins

3. Kautsky's Polemic Against Pannekoek

The Pannekoek in question was Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) a Dutch Marxist who in later life became one of the leaders of "Council Communism" a tendency which developed out of the "Left Wing Communism" considered by Lenin to be an infantile disorder.  However, long before this, in 1912, he published an article in Neue Zeit  called "Mass Action and Revolution."  In this article he criticized Karl Kautsky's views on the nature of the state in relation to the coming revolution. He pointed out that workers have to overthrow both the ruling class and their state. "The struggle will not end until, as its final result, the entire state organization is destroyed."

Lenin says Pannekoek's article has defects, is imprecise, and not very concrete  but is clear enough in advocating both the overthrow of the ruling class and the state that it controls replacing it with a working class state. But Lenin is really interested in Kautsky's reply which, he says, betrays Marxism on this issue -- i.e., the fate of the bourgeois state.

Kautsky wrote: "Up till now the difference between Social Democrats and Anarchists has consisted in this: the former wished to conquer the state power while the latter wished to destroy it. Pannekoek wants to do both." Lenin says this distinction is a vulgar distortion of Marxism. Lenin was not always very subtle in his critiques.

Pannekoek is the one who is correct, not Kautsky and for the following three reasons which differentiate Marxists (M) from Anarchists (A):
1. M- the state withers away after the revolution and the creation of Socialism: A- the   
    state is abolished immediately and permanently after the revolution .
2. M- the state that withers away is the new form of the state. based on the Paris   
    Commune, which the workers create after the revolution to replace the bourgeois 
    state: A- the old state is abolished and nothing is put in its place to direct and
    channel the newly won power of the working class-- the dictatorship of the
    proletariat (the necessary first form of worker's power after the fall of the working  
    class) is rejected.
3. M- use the currently existing state (as far as is possible) to educate and train the 
    working people for revolutionary activity: A- reject this notion.

Lenin also objects to Kautsky’s taking quotes out of context from Marx and using them against Pannekoek when they are not at all germane to the argument (a fate all too soon to befall quotes from Lenin himself).

Kautsky talks about the party being in opposition to the capitalist state now and wants to put off discussions about the nature of the state until after the workers come to power. He doesn’t want to talk about the nature of the revolution— which is one of the main features of opportunism.

It’'s all well and good to make general comments about opposition and democratic struggle but we must always be clear about how this struggle must eventuate.  “A revolution must not consist in a new class ruling, governing with the help of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing by means of new machinery.”

Kautsky ignores this because he maintains there must be officials and experts just as much after the change of power as before. Lenin agrees but insists, based on the lessons of the Commune, that the officials and experts will be under the direction of the working class and not be responsible to the bureaucratic structures of the old capitalist state which is kept around and is supposedly supervised by the working class.

Capitalism has enslaved the working people and bourgeois democracy, which we may now live under, is, Lenin says, crushed and mutilated by the wages system, poverty and “the misery of the masses.” This fake mutilated pseudo-democracy is the reason why, in our day the Tea Party has such influence and the Republican party can take control of the levers of power in the US.  And, Lenin says, it is the source of corruption in the political parties and the trade unions, and fuels the tendency for the “leaders” of the people to turn into bureaucrats— “i.e., privileged persons detached from the masses, and standing above the masses.” This is just the nature of democracy under capitalism and until capitalism is overthrown even the leaders of the working people “will inevitably be to some extent ‘bureaucratized.’” 

In attacking Pannekoek, Lenin says, Kautsky is only repeating the views of Bernstein (“the ‘old’ views”) as expressed in Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein had rejected many of Marx’'s positions concerning workers democracy versus bourgeois democracy on the idea that after 70 years or so “in complete freedom” the British union movement had given up on the idea  as “worthless” and had settled on a model based on bureaucracy  and regular parliamentary practice. 

As against this Bernstein-Kautsky assertion Lenin says it is not the case that the British unions have developed “in complete freedom,” but they had rather developed in an atmosphere of “complete capitalist enslavement.”  Of course, in such an atmosphere, it made no sense to try to create a working class democracy  along Marxist lines that had presumed a post- revolutionary environment in which the working class was the new ruling class.

The two great errors we must avoid are: First, thinking we have to just take over the presently existing state machinery by means democratic elections or parliamentary procedures and then employe it to build socialism, and Second, to take the Anarchist position of just smashing the presently existing state and then letting the working people decide what happens next (i.e., no pre-planning for a temporary worker’s state until conditions of socialism are firmly established.)

The Anarchist view is not really taken very seriously within the working class, but Kautsky’s view (or some modern day descendent ) still has its supposititious appeal. Lenin quotes Kautsky: “never, under any conditions can it [a working class victory] lead to the destruction of the state power; it can lead only to a certain shifting of forces within the state power....
 The aim of our political struggle then, remains as before, the conquest of state power by means of gaining a majority in parliament and a conversion of parliament into the master of the government.”''

Lenin says this is an example of “vulgar opportunism” i.e., of abandoning the principles of  Marxism and the real long term interests of the working people and tailoring your program to take ephemeral advantages of historically temporary social and economic conditions. It is a confusion between strategy  [the what, the goal, the end result, socialism] and tactics [the how, what must be done, the present step in the democratic struggle]. 

Of course in the present day and in the non revolutionary conditions temporally instantiated in the US and most of Europe there is no sense in calling for the destruction of bourgeois democracy, of coining a lot of "revolutionary" slogans about the dictatorship of the proletariat, of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalists by the armed workers, etc.  "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

Our current struggle is to defeat the ultra-right politically and work with progressive groups and others to build a meaningful coalition of forces able to protect already existing democratic rights and to extend them, and fight for new ones, for the benefit of the working people and their allies.

Nevertheless, in the realm of theory we should not forget the ultimate destiny of the capitalist system and become so blinded by the present transient stage in history that we become as those "socialists," condemned by Lenin, who rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat in theory because it "contradicted" democracy. Lenin thought that ridiculous; it contradicted only the pseudo-democracy used by the ruling class to befool the workers, and of those so-called "socialists," he said there "is really no essential difference between them and the petty-bourgeois democrats."  This may have no sting today, but it may in the nearer than we think future.

State and Revolution ends here and chapter seven, the last ("Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917") was never written. The October Revolution broke out and Lenin wrote: "It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it."

I hope people will find this commentary useful.


New York, January 31, 2015