Navalny and Neoliberalism


My latest for Russia! Magazine, “Navalny’s Neoliberalism,”

It’s no surprise that Alexei Navalny has come under the political microscope since his mayoral bid took off. Little is known of Navalny’s actual politics, and what is, has driven a wedge into the Russian opposition. There is universal support for Navalny the anti-corruption crusader, the victim of political repression, and street and internet activist. But Navalny as an electoral candidate? That is something else entirely. Can he be trusted as a politician? What dangers do his growing cult of personality present? Is Navalny part of a larger movement or is the movement merely Navalny? What about his nationalism? This last question has generated the most reticence toward Navalny. Even some Western commentators are urging caution. Recently, Anatol Lieven warned that Navalny’s “Russian ethnic chauvinism,” “anti-immigrant sentiment” with its “distinctly anti-Muslim edge,” and his connections to extreme right-wing Russian groups make him “closer to Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist, than to the hero of some western imaginings.”

Navalny is a right-wing populist. No doubt. But I would submit he’s more of an American variety than a European facsimile. His xenophobia comes with an anti-elitist élan tinged with a libertarian distrust of big government. If Navalny ran in a US election, he’d find common cause with the Tea Party. He’d make an excellent Fox News pundit if he added flamboyancy to his abrasiveness. And this greater affinity with American rather than European rightwing populism is visible in another, but much less discussed, aspect of Navalny’s politics: his neoliberalism. Navalny’s terse statements about social and economic policy speak to a faith in a world in which individuals with unfettered access to information set in a marketplace will allocate resources rationally and efficiently. Peppered throughout this base philosophy is a litany of neoliberal buzzwords: transparency, competition, openness, accountability, choice, and access. In sum, markets are the most efficient mechanism for governing social life.

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