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Dishing Russian Liberalism

I knew that calling Vladimir Putin a liberal would make liberals shutter.  After all, they’ve been convinced that the only liberals in Russia are the hapless oppositionists who are the frequent targets of Putinist “repression.” What I didn’t expect is that the objection would come from a prominent blog like Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish.”  For that, I am truely honored.

In a short post, Zach Beauchamp accuses me of “playing word games” in calling Putin a liberal.  He writes:

Liberals believe broadly in three things: political democracy, individual rights, and capitalism.  If “Russian liberalism” accepts the latter and reject the former two, isn’t it really just “authoritarian capitalism” with good branding?

Indeed, liberals do believe this things. However, since the 1970s it has been harder and harder to reconcile them in practice.  If anything, capitalism has proved to be the sacred mantra that the other two must kowtow.  So in response to whether Russia is really just “authoritarian capitalism” with good branding, I would say that the only thing liberalism has left is good branding. Because when the veneer is rubbed away, neoliberalism is making a mockery of democracy and individual rights on a global scale.

That said, Beauchamp left one very important tenet of liberalism out: the sovereignty of the law. It is upon the sovereignty of law that democracy, individual rights, and capitalism ideally rests. I say ideally because, again, the sanctity of the law, like the other principles, has come under increasing threat as it has become another weapon in neoliberal capitalist accumulation.

But on to liberalism, Putin and Russia. I don’t know how much Beauchamp knows about Russia. (I assume the Rainbow Stalin video (which, I admit, is hilarious) accompanying his post is supposed to suggest that Putin is merely Stalin with good branding.  If so, then I venture that Beauchamp knows little about Russia, and even less about Stalin and Putin.) But one common mistake Beauchamp makes is evaluating Russia’s political traditions according to how they do or don’t mirror the (imagined) West. Russia has its own history, and while ideologies like liberalism were originally imported from abroad, their Russian practitioners adapted them to their nation’s particular conditions.  Liberalism means many things in Russia as its Russian wikipedia page suggests. And if the Russians consider Mikhail Speransky and the Reforms of Alexander II part of the Russian liberal tradition, then by god, so is Putin.

I have no doubt in my mind that Putin also believes broadly in political democracy, individual rights, capitalism and the sovereignty of the law. The extent he practices what he preaches is another thing entirely. But for Putin the sovereignty of law is fundamental, in concert with the Russian tradition, he also views a strong centralized state as vital to its security. In Putin’s Russia this has meant elevating the state to its own raison d’état. The belief, rightly or wrongly, is that without a strong state, instituting the rule of law is merely a pipe dream. This is at least the lesson Putin and his people took from the 1990s.

Still one must be careful by what one means by the sovereignty of law in the Russian context.  In Russia, as I said in my post, this means a Rechsttaat or legal state. The concept of the legal state has a long history, beginning with Catherine II, to Speransky, and to its transformation into a political program by the Russian liberal V. A. Maklakov. It also has conservative and radical variants. Conservatives want legality to facilitate state power. Radicals want the state’s interests to be subordinated to the rule of law. After a 70 year communist interlude, the conservative variant (which has always been the dominant one) has reemerged to define what the President of the Russia Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin called in 2003 the “ultimate goal.” He wrote:

Becoming a legal state has long been our ultimate goal, and we have certainly made serious progress in this direction over the past several years. However, no one can say now that we have reached this destination. Such a legal state simply cannot exist without a lawful and just society. Here, as in no other sphere of our life, the state reflects the level of maturity reached by society.

I believe that for Putin and his ilk, there is a sincere and wholly naive belief that a legal state will ultimately bequeath a Russia that respects democracy and individual rights. It is this belief that for me places Putin squarely in the Russian liberal tradition, albeit on the conservative end.  In a way, one might think of Putin’s relationship to liberalism the same way Russian communists regarded communism.  The CPSU never declared Soviet Russia communist; communism was always in becoming.  Granted, Putin doesn’t call himself a liberal, but this is because liberalism is a dirty word in Russian politics.  But when you look at what Putin (and Medvedev) ultimately aspire to it is a liberal Russia. They regard it as a historical necessity. They are just going to manage its development. This is why Putin, and Medvedev for that matter, speak of Russia’s modernization as a process. This is not to excuse all the truly horrible and disturbing things that happen in Russia in regard to human rights, etc. An honest engagement with these problems will only supplement Russia’s positive development.  I’m sure most will see Putin and Medvedev as cynical. While a dose of cynicism is healthy, I would also urge that their rhetoric should nevertheless be taken seriously if we really want to understand what is going on there.

Whatever the plan is for Russia’s modernization, Zorkin’s statement contains an inner contradiction that has made the “ultimate goal” elusive for 300 years. As Zorkin rightly states, “a legal state simply cannot exist without a lawful and just society.” However, a society can’t be lawful and just without a legal state already in place. The problem is that in Russia sovereignty rests in two contradictory, and often arbitrarily interchangeable and sometimes overlapping places: the individual sovereign–a Tsar, general secretary, and now a president–and the law. Given that Russians believe, for a number of historical and cultural reasons, that the law is violable, the person of the sovereign has had to serve as the chief guarantor of a lawful and just society.  Guarantor because only he has power to curb the arbitrariness and feudalism of what Alexander Radishchev called the “hundred headed monster,” i.e. the bureaucracy. However, being the sole guarantor of the law easily slips into also becoming its chief violator. Because the sovereign can’t rely on anyone to follow the rule of law, he often has exercise his personal power and influence in order to run the damn country. This inevitably undermines the very legal procedure he desires. Moreover, the more the sovereign centralizes the state as a means to control it, he neuters any nascent local legal and independent political structures that would facilitate liberal development.

Every Russian ruler has been a victim to this conundrum, even if they play a key role in their own victimization. Hell, regional secretaries even thumbed their nose at Stalin. Given this, does anyone honestly think that it wouldn’t happen to Putin?  Despite all of Putin’s supposed godlike power, regional bureaucrats still flout his orders. So what does Putin do in response? Exactly what his forefathers did: reaffirm the vertical power of the state, squash independent political initiative, and manage reform from above.

Like it or not, such a reality turns even the most sincere liberal into an autocrat.

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