"Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation." (S. Jonas, Aug., 2018)
Louis .L'Etat et mois. XIV of France. One of the best known of the absolute monarchs, with, unlike Putin, great costumes.
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Dear reader, please note: This column is a significant revision/update of the one published in this space earlier today (Mar. 22, 2022).
The Soviet Union, from 1917 the first great attempt in world history to establish socialism in one country, fell apart completely in 1992, at the end of what I have termed "The 75 Years War Against the Soviet Union." Putting together the successor states of a multi-national country, was a chaotic process. The central focus was of course on what had been the "Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR or RSFSR)." It quickly came to stand alone as "Russia" (corresponding in very significant part to the old Russia of the Russian Empire). During the 1990s there was a long-drawn-out process as to what would happen to the original 16 constituent republics of the USSR (and in this column we are dealing only with the old RSFSR).
As it happens Russia contained the bulk of the industrial capacity of the old Soviet Union, as well as significant chunk of its natural resources. After much to-ing and fro-ing, in 1991 as the USSR was coming to its final days, a man named Boris Yeltsin was elected President of what would become "Russia," that is he eventually led the establishment of the new "Russian Federation," colloquially "Russia," encompassing much of the old RSFSR. Also, with little opposition, he disbanded the old Communist Party of the USSR.
There was considerable conflict over which direction the "new" sate would follow, both economically and in terms of the governmental form(s). There was an elected parliament, the Duma. Significant chunks of its membership were opposed to the radical free-market (capitalist) policies of Yeltsin. But at the end of 1993, Yeltsin put an end to parliamentary democracy in the new Russia, by force (recall the famous picture of Yeltsin standing beside a tank outside the Duma's Hall, with its cannon pointed directly at it). Much more important for Yeltsin was the use of force against the Duma's membership, dismembering it.
Exactly what happened to Russia and the Russian economy in the 1990's is a subject of great deal of controversy. There was a set of foreign economic advisers involved, at one time or another, some of them known as "The Harvard Boys." However, whatever the processes were or were not, whatever the foreign influences were or were not, and whatever importance the breaking of the original guarantees from NATO that it would not expand eastward (as is well-known those agreements were broken, and it did), the Russian economy did not evolve in the direction that one might have expected it to, given, as noted, the enormous industrial base of the old Soviet Union, as well as its access to immense reserves of natural resources.
And what might that direction have been? The direction that all the capitalist nations in the world have followed as they industrialized, since the early days of capitalist development. The earliest form was one form or another of what, for example, developed in the U.S. in the post-Civil War era of rapid industrialization: the "Age of the Robber Barons:" Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Vanderbilt, Gould, and etc. In the U.S., the broader developing capitalist class, not out of the goodness of their hearts, saw the direction in which following this pathway would take the nation: the dictatorship of the few (who might have been called oligarchs). And so came the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and its successors, the Trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt, and the New Deal of his cousin Franklin, bringing capitalism under control, at least to some extent, while it broadened out in terms of ownership (among capitalists, that is).
I am not here in any way making a case for capitalist development and capitalism as any kind of example for poltico-economic organization of a State, for example having written on "The Suicide of Capitalism." But an industrial economy organized around stock companies, plus a parliamentary system with a central feature being the separation of powers (to a greater or lesser extent) is what has led to the modern successes of capitalism --- such as they are.
The Soviet Union had a well-developed, if poorly managed and organized, industrial sector. It was powerful enough to supply the munitions and equipment necessary for the defeat of what had been one of the most powerful economies in the world before WWII, that of Nazi Germany. But its highly centralized and planned industrial sector was not well-equipped or well-designed to meet the needs of a peacetime economy. For example, if a manufacturing plant were located somewhere near a supplier of raw materials for its product, instead of being able to deal directly with the raw material supplier, its order had to be sent to applicable Ministry in Moscow, which order was then transmitted to the ministry for the raw materials supplier which then went out to the supplier, and ... You get the picture.
As noted, this system dated from World War II when the Soviet Union, which had remarkably industrialized at breakneck speed to prepare for the attacks from the West that Stalin had predicted in the early 30's, when tight central control over resources and productive capacity had to be maintained. For an increasingly consumer-oriented economy, it simply did not work. But it was maintained. And the problems of the retail sector in the latter days of the Soviet Union are well-known, again due to a no longer useful highly centralized control system. Not that the Soviet could not have made the necessary changes (see China now), but they didn't.
For all of its drawbacks for the workers, and other social limitations as well, a capitalist system of production, distribution, and exchange deals much better with a market economy and what markets demand than the socialist economy, as it was organized in the Soviet Union. (And yes, dear reader, once again I know the limitations, injustices, and prejudices of capitalism very well. Here I am simply talking about modern production and a modern market economy.)
With the end of socialism, it should have been converted to some form of capitalism with the kind of government that accompanies most capitalist economies (other than those that are fascist or have another form of highly-centralized political control, e.g., China). Publicly-traded shares companies with management for the most part not owners. With a bourgeois parliamentary system of government, with some degree of separation of powers (Western Europe). This is what could have happened in Russia and indeed what one might have expected it to happen in Russia. But it did not.
With foreign protection and support, Yeltsin established what was essentially a dictatorship in what became an extended transition period, and then he and his cronies handed over the keys to the economic kingdom, not to stock corporations, but to favored individuals, who became The Oligarchs. A re-formed Duma continued to exist but it essentially had no power. And Russia became, not a modern corporate state, but one stuck in the very earliest stage of capitalism: industry-ownership by individuals. By a somewhat murky process, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in late 1999. He quickly made it clear to certain leaders of the early Oligarchy (e.g., Mikhail Khordovsky) who was in charge. And in one way or another he has remained in charge ever since.
The political economy of contemporary Russia looks remarkably like that of a feudal state. (By definition, by the way, it is not fascist, because a fascist sate serves the interests of a capitalist ruling class.) In Imperial Russia, as in, say, the Prussian Empire (until its collapse at the end of World War I), or the Austro-Hungarian Empire (same), ultimate authority resided with the monarch, even when there was a parliament. Indeed, in modern Russia, there is no independent legislature, no independent judiciary, and very little political opposition (even before the current almost total crack-down on dissent). Indeed, in my view, I think that it can be safely said the Russia has a modern form of feudal government: the King/Emperor, and the nobility surrounding him (and occasionally her) who are totally dependent upon the monarch for both their position and their economic power. And who can be removed just like that.
To the extent that the US and the European powers were responsible in the 1990s for the development of the oligarchic system in Russia, it is to that extent that they are responsible for the War on Ukraine. It's not NATO and its broken promises/Eastward expansion to which he is reacting. It is Putin, who has become the ultimate Plutocrat (government by the rich --- check this), and the ultimate modern feudal Head-of-State/Head-of-Government (combined), with absolutely no challenges to his authority.
To repeat, the system, although thoroughly authoritarian, is not fascist, even it bears many features of fascism (e.g., no independent judiciary or parliament). And then the feudal "Czar," we might say, is surrounded by a set of "Dukes," each of whom personally controls one or more corporations, but each of whom is subject to the rules, roles, and whims of the "Czar," again as in the days of feudalism.
In the invasion of Ukraine, he is exerting the authority of an unchallenged, and unchallengeable Head-of-State/Head-of-Government. He is invading, as I have said previously, not because of any of NATO's broken promises (which, by the way, were mostly broken 20-30 years ago). NATO is already on Russia's border and has been for quite some time (Estonia and Latvia). He is doing so because he was hoping to bring a group of other authoritarian nations along with him, in, as I have said, a drive the make The World Safe for Plutocracy (and autocracy as well).
"NATO" is a side-show. But the Western Powers, especially the United Sates do bear a major responsibility for creating the current situation. They indeed, in the 1990s, in the time-of-Yeltsin, prevented the former Soviet Union from becoming a modern, capitalist, industrial-based state, which led directly to the "Oligarchs," the dukes of modern Russia, and the rise of the single, all-powerful, authoritarian "Czar," who has full control both over the "Dukes" and over national policy.
The bottom line here is that it is clear that whatever the process actually was in the 1990s, following the death of the Soviet Union at the end of The 75 Years War Against It undertaken by the Western Capitalist Powers, the Russian Federated Soviet Republic became what I am describing as a modern feudalist state, not a modern capitalist one. The United States (and presumably other world powers) was apparently very active there at various levels. (See "The Harvard Boys," e.g., Jeffrey Sachs.)
Among other things, to repeat, they did nothing to attempt create --- out of a nation that had an enormous industrial base --- a modern capitalist nation with a bourgeois democratic constitutional government with separation of powers. Yes, yes, (to repeat [again!]) of course that system has many faults, about which I have written myself on numerous occasions (including a whole book on the subject ). But it would have been certainly better for the world, and for the Russian people, than the feudal society in which they live now. And in my view, it is that system, with a "monarch" at the top with absolute powers, surrounded by a set of "dukes" (the oligarchs, whose primary interest is making money, which, judging by the size of their yachts, they seem to do very well) that has led to, among other negative developments, the invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, why would the Western powers, led by the United States, do this (however they actually did it)? Well, just imagine a modern Russia, with all of its natural resources, organized around the capitalist formations for production, distribution, and exchange, with a bourgeois parliamentary system of government with separation-of-powers. OMG. There wouldn't be just one major economic competitor for Western Capitalism (think China). There would be two. That's why.
Footnote of note, Mar. 23, 2022: "Anatoly Chubais was one of the principal architects of Boris Yeltsin's economic reforms of the 1990s and held senior business and political roles under President Vladimir Putin. He had been Putin's special envoy to international organisations since 2020" (click here). Some say that Chubais was THE architect of what has become the Russian feudal state. Yesterday, he departed Russia for parts unknown (at least as of yesterday).
(Article changed on Mar 22, 2022 at 6:23 PM EDT)
(Article changed on Mar 23, 2022 at 5:56 PM EDT)