July 06, 2015

Russia's Leaders: Thieves versus Policemen

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33290421

Yevgeniy Primakov, who has died aged 85, was briefly Russia's prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's early career followed a classic Soviet trajectory: a specialist and postgraduate researcher in foreign afffairs, he became a foreign correspondent, a collaborator with the KGB's foreign service, and an Academician. After the conservatives' failed coup in 1991 he became the last first deputy head of the KGB and then the first head of the SVR, Russia's new foreign intelligence service.

I was in Moscow in September 1998 when President Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister. Primakov took the place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the founder of Gazprom, who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. In the company of friends I asked:

Well, what would you rather: to be governed by a thief or a policeman?

Without pausing for thought my friends responded with one voice:

A thief!

Why? (I asked).

When it's a thief, at least you know what they're up to.

Primakov did not last long in office. A few months later he was succeeded as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. A few months after that, the same Putin succeeded Yeltsin as President of Russia.

As time passed I often remembered this conversation, especially when I had to think about corruption and the rule of law.

Eventually I decided that my initial question was probably based on an error. In law-governed societies, the distinction between thieves and policemen is clear: thieves break the law and policemen enforce it. But there are lots of places around the world, including Russia, where the rule of law does not fully apply. In such situations the lines between thief and policeman become blurred to the point where it's hard to tell them apart.

When personal safety is at risk and property rights are not secure, thieves take on some of the functions of policemen because they need to protect their ill-gotten gains from robbery by others, or they find they can augment their gains by selling "protection" to others. And policemen become thieves by stealing from ordinary citizens while selling exemption from the law to their political masters and criminal friends.

Russia today is a mixed picture. I'm sure there are some honest policemen and honest politicians. But for such people it will be a struggle to survive and a danger to rise too high.


May 26, 2015

Violence or Morality: How Should We Think About Radicalization?

Writing about web page https://www.google.com/search?q=signs+of+radicalization

Our society is worried about radicalization. What is radicalization? Apparently it is all about violence. According to the UK government's Prevent strategy (2011), "radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence." According to the more recent Tackling extremism in the UK (2013) "we must confront the poisonous extremist ideology that can lead people to violence."

Is violence the key? I’m sceptical. Our society is not non-violent. We have armed forces. Most of us are proud of what our soldiers do. Most city centres see minor violence in most weeks of the year—something we are not proud of. Our police forces suppress civil disorder, using violence if necessary (although we expect them to use this violence within the law). We have armed forces that go about the world equipped for violence on a vast scale (although their most important mission is to prevent violence). We’re proud of what our soldiers do. On relevant anniversaries we celebrate, perhaps quietly, our victories in past wars. In church on Sundays some of us sing: “Onward Christian soldiers.”

If we condemn radicalization on the grounds that it sanctions the use of violence for political or religious ends, surely we are hypocrites. We trip ourselves up over simple things like tolerance and openness. Apparently, British society is open and tolerant. But there are limits, so we wish to close our ears to radical messages and we will be intolerant of intolerance.

Detecting radicalization is also a worry. Apparently there are lots of possible signs of radicalization, and at the same time none of them is effective. When I searched yesterday (25 May 2015) for "signs of radicalization" Google came up with “About 240,000 results (0.58 seconds).” Items 1 to 7 and 9 told me that lots of experts are very sure what we should look for:

Know the telltale signs of radicalization - The Province
www.theprovince.com/...signs+radicalization/.../story.html
The Province
Nov 25, 2014 - A couple of dozen school kids from Richmond joined together in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside last week to hand out sandwiches to the ...

Colin Kenny: 10 signs that someone is being radicalized
www.timescolonist.com/.../colin-kenny-10-signs-that-som...
Times Colonist
Dec 14, 2014 - Colin Kenny If there were doubts remaining that Canada has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, the events of this past ...

Opinion: Recognizing the warning signs of radicalization ...
montrealgazette.com › ... › Quebec › World
Montreal Gazette
Jan 5, 2015 - If there were any doubts among Canadians that this country has a problem with domestic radicalization, the events of last year most surely ...

10 Signs Someone Is Becoming Radicalized to Violence ...
www.huffingtonpost.ca/.../radicalized-violence-canada_b_6366114.html
Dec 22, 2014 - If there were any doubts remaining in the minds of Canadians that this country has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, ...

The DOJ to train community leaders to spot 'radicals'
theweek.com/.../doj-train-community-leaders-spot-radicals
The Week
... National Counterterrorism Center that will train "community leaders" like teachers and social workers to monitor their communities for signs of radicalization.

Canada AM: Radicalization warning signs | CTV News
www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=472619
CTV News
Chris Boudreau, Damion Clairmont's mother, reacts to a suspected terror attack in Quebec and reflects on how her son became radicalized.

[PDF]Radicalization of Youth as a Growing Concern for Counter ...
www.globalsecuritystudies.com/Bizina%20Youth-AG.pdf
by M Bizina - ‎Cited by 2 - ‎Related articles
comprehensive approach to the problem of radicalization, including community ..... training to be able to gauge early signs of radicalization in the community.

External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy - ISN
www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591...
Mar 3, 2007 - This paper examines the external signs of jihadist radicalization.

Worryingly, items 8 and 10 suggest that we don’t know what to look for after all.

Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs ...
www.huffingtonpost.com/.../tunisia-museum-attacke...
The Huffington Post
Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs Of Radicalization. Reuters. Posted: 03/20/2015 11:14 am EDT Updated: 05/20/2015 5:59 am EDT ...

Jihadi John's former Jewish teacher saw no signs of ...
www.ynetnews.com › Ynetnews › News
Ynetnews
Mar 3, 2015 - Former head teacher Jo Shuter says no sign of radicalization for ... had spotted signs of radicalization they would have done something about it.

It seems that that our concept of “radicalization to violence” has become ever more complicated. It has become ever more complicated because it does not work. It does not work because it is misconceived.

Many people think of radicalization partly as a choice over lifestyle, partly as a choice over means. Lifestyle involves dress, community, and observance. Violence is the means. Yes, these may well be somewhere in the process. But at the root of radicalization is a moral choice, which we mistakenly ignore.

What is the moral choice underlying radicalization? It is a specific preference for limited morality over universal morality.

All moralities tend to have common features: they prohibit killing, stealing, and dishonouring other members of the community. They demand that, in our own choices, we give weight to the interests of others within the same community. They differ in the breadth of the community that benefits from these injunctions. A limited morality protects a limited community. The limit might be fixed by family relationship, or social class, or nation, or religion. Those beyond the limit are strangers, and strangers have no protection. In contrast, a universal morality extends protection to all others, including strangers.

Thus a universal morality requires us to give the same respect to everyone; they are morally equal to us, even when we have never met them and have no prior knowledge of them, when they do not look or sound like us and do not worship as we do. A universal morality might not require us to give other kinds of equality to strangers, such as civic equality, political equality, or financial equality. But it demands that in making our own choices we should always consider the interests of strangers and give them some weight.

A universal morality is not necessarily non-violent and does not preclude the use of violence against strangers. It does impose strict conditions on the use of violence, specifying the actions by strangers—and not only strangers—that can incur a violent response, such as aggression against us. It imposes strict limits on violence against strangers—and not only strangers—such as those written into the international laws of war.

The moral rights of a stranger can have painful implications. If someone close to us unjustly violates the rights of a stranger, a universal morality requires us to vindicate the stranger, even if our relative or neighbour is thereby exposed to a social penalty. A British court will imprison one British citizen for assaulting a refugee, and extradite another to stand trial for a crime committed against foreigners in a foreign country. In contrast a limited morality is more comfortable. It allows us to ignore the interests of strangers and requires us defend the relative or neighbour who has wronged the stranger.

Terrorists who attack civilians and those who sympathise with them or support them invariably see themselves as moral people. They feel they have just grievances and that their grievances justify attacking innocent people. Their morality allows them to define their victims as strangers who are outside the community within which moral rules apply. In their morality, strangers have no entitlement to moral protection. Thus terrorists live within a moral comfort zone. Outside the zone they will freely hurt and kill people who are not of their nation, or not of their religion, or not of their sect, and they will feel no guilt because in their view such people have no rights.

When children and young people are attracted to Hamas or Islamic State the important thing is not the violence these organizations use. Our own society is not non-violent. Many childhood games involve battles between soldiers, between kingdoms, and between interstellar civilizations. This does not turn children towards terrorism. What turns children towards terrorism is being reared in a limited morality that gives strangers no moral weight and tolerates unlimited violence against them.

A universal morality is one of the sources, perhaps the most important source, of the openness, tolerance, and freedoms that British society can celebrate and aspire to, even if we do not always live up to it. A universal morality allows us to live with strangers, learn from strangers, trade with them and travel peacefully among them. It is the great gift to us of the culture that grew up around the north and east Mediterranean two thousand years ago.

A universal morality that gives moral equality to strangers can be hard to live up to. To live up to it, we must defend it. And to defend it we must first recognize it and affirm it for what it is.


May 14, 2015

Terrorism: A Career Choice?

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27963675

Recently the Warwick PPE programme (that's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) put on an event for school students. The idea was to show what each of the three disciplines--Philosophy, Politics, and Economics--can contribute on a topic of current importance. It turned out that philosophy is good at trying to understand the concept of terrorism, and the study of politics helps us to understand how western politics have influenced our concepts of terrorism. I decided to talk about why young people choose to become terrorists in terms of the economics of career choice. Here, roughly, is what I said.

Right now you are probably getting a lot of advice about career choices, so I am going to talk about terrorism as a career choice--the sort of choice that has been made recently by a number of young British people who have gone to Syria to join ISIS. First of all, what is a terrorist? Someone who kills or injures civilians with a particular purpose: to create a violent spectacle, and so to spread terror beyond the immediate victims. The motivation is political: to support political demands--maybe. I say "maybe" because for reasons that will become clear I am less certain on this point.

Where is the economic aspect of terrorism? Terrorists seem to belong to the world of politics. What do they have to do with economics? For today, the point is that the decision to become a terrorist is an occupational choice. To become a terrorist is costly. There are also benefits – but what are they? The choice can be understood using concepts from economics such as cost, benefits, and rational decision making.

Is terrorism a choice (1)?

A first step is to establish that becoming a terrorist is indeed a choice. Do people choose terrorism or are they driven into it by despair (or by voices in their heads)? My answer is that they choose.

How to we know this? From two things. One is that far more people support terrorism than take part in it. Across societies and over time support for terrorism is rarely a majority point of view, but around the world supporters do come in significant numbers that amount to sizeable minorities:

Support for suicide terrorism across countries and time

This table (from PewResearchCenter 2013) shows that support among Muslims for suicide terrorism is highly variable--widespread in some places, quite infrequent in others. (In most countries it shows a tendency to dwindle over the period shown.) But it is worth bearing in mind that the first three countries shown in the table are among the most populous on earth: Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria together account for more than 600 million people. If you apply the percentages for 2013 to the working-age populations (aged 15 to 64) of the 11 countries in the table, you come up with at least 50 million sympathizers. So, support for terrorism is shown by sizeable minorities.

In contrast, those who choose a career in terrorism are tiny minorities. In 2013 there were perhaps as many as 250,000 international terrorists worldwide. I base that on a rough count of members of groups aiming to attack the United States (from U.S. State Department 2014). This is a tiny number. Among 4.3 billion people of working age in the world it is one 1 in 18,000. In the Middle East and North Africa, active terrorists number perhaps 150,000. Relative to the MENA working-age population that is one in 1,500. In short, many people sympathize with terrorists, but hardly anyone becomes one.

Is terrorism a choice (2)?

If fewer people choose to become terrorists than express support for it, the next thing to ask is whether the participants have truly had the opportunity to choose. Do they have the competence to choose? Do they have alternatives from which to choose? To both questions the answer is: Yes. These people are not driven by crazy inner urges they cannot control; study after study has shown that most are psychologically normal (starting from Merari 1998). Moreover these people do not lack alternatives. In every society the people with fewest choices are women, the elderly, the poor, and the uneducated. But the typical terrorist is male, young, relatively affluent, and relatively educated (e.g. Krueger and Maleckova 2003). These are people with more choices, not fewer. They are not compelled by their circumstances.

Is terrorism a rational choice?

So, terrorism is a career choice. Is it a rational choice? Economic thinking revolves around the idea of people as rational actors. A rational actor isn’t a good or bad person, just a person whose behaviour follows a consistent logic. A rational actor should compare expected marginal private benefits with marginal private opportunity costs. The word "marginal" emphasizes that each person should ask: What difference will my choice make? The word "private" means: the difference to me. Then, the rational person will choose the option that yields the largest net gain to him or her. The gain does not have to be monetary; it will come in any form that the person concerned values.

Choosing terrorism: marginal costs?

What if the option to be considered is “terrorist”? The young person can make a list of marginal costs and benefits, just like a list of "for" and "against." The marginal costs associated with becoming a terrorist are many and large. You have to make the effort to research the groups that are willing to recruit you and work out the differences among them in order to seek to join one of them (in economics that is called a matching problem: there has to be the right match between the group and you). This effort is a cost. You have to learn occupational skills such as violence and concealment. Learning is costly too. You have to make efforts to adopt and live a new social identity, becoming a warrior or martyr.

Any career choice is likely to present analogous costs of matching, training, and developing a new professional identity. The costs of choosing terrorism that would not arise with other choices are that you have to abandon your home, your family, and a peaceful way of life in order to risk death. And, if you survive, and decide that you made a mistake, there may be no going back. These are all things that go under "against."

Choosing terrorism: marginal benefits?

So the costs are many and large. What goes under "for"? What are the benefits that terrorists seek from their career choice?

One benefit you might think of (assuming these are indeed benefits to you) would be to achieve the declared goals of the group: usually, to unify the homeland, or to drive out foreigners, or to establish religious order. But the economist rules this one out on several grounds, each of which should be decisive on its own. First, on average, attacking civilians does not achieve declared goals (Jones and Libicki 2008; Abrahms 2011). In other words, terrorism is counterproductive.

This is not all. Even if terrorism were productive, one person more or less would make no difference, so the marginal gain from your personal participation is inevitably less than the private marginal cost that you will bear. Finally, terrorists often turn out to be quite uninformed about their own group's declared goals (and not only that; they are usually also fairly clueless about world politics and religion). For all these reasons we cannot put much weight on claims, often made many years later, that "I joined the IRA to bring about a united Ireland" (for example).

Note. A listener reminded me: Maybe people join in terrorism out of anger at Western actions. I understand, and we'll come to the beliefs that are required for participation in terrorism. But all the evidence (Abrahms 2011 again) suggests that international terrorism against civilians moves public opinion to the right and increases the likelihood of Western cross-border intervention against terrorists. In other words, again, it's counterproductive. Even Osama bin Laden could see that. When you see people persisting in very costly courses of action and the actions are known to be counter-productive, you have to ask: Why?

But … But what other benefits might there be? A clue lies in the fact that, while psychologically normal, terrorists are often excluded or isolated (e.g. Pedahzur 2005): they are young unmarried men, or young women who were prematurely widowed, or poorly assimilated migrants. Correspondingly, Max Abrahms has argued, what terrorists value above all is the comradeship and supportive ties they find in the organization they joined.

Here are some examples (from Abrahms 2008). Among 516 Guantanamo Bay detainees, knowing an al-Qaida member was a significantly better predictor than belief in jihad. Among 1,100 detained members of the Kurdish PKK, respondents were ten times more likely to say they were attracted to join “because their friends were members” than by political ideology. There are related findings from Europe based on study of the IRA, ETA, RAF, and Red Brigades.

Moreover, terrorist groups are well placed to supply intense comradeship. They provide shared dangers and extreme experiences that cannot be shared with outsiders.

So terrorism is like ... ?

This suggests a more general model for terrorism. What benefits do young people seek from work? To some, salary and prospects matter most. For others, most important is the kind of work. Suppose you want excitement and risk; you don't want work that is routine or desk-bound. Suppose you want teamwork and comradeship, not isolation. Suppose you want the opportunity for acknowledgement of your personal role; you don't want to disappear into an anonymous mass.

If you are that sort of person, you might consider competitive team sports, or becoming an outdoor adventure leader, or joining the emergency services, for example the fire brigades. Or ... you might become a terrorist.

Radicalization and beliefs

So far I've said nothing about beliefs. Yet in choosing terrorism beliefs do play a role. For only a tiny minority chooses terrorism. Most young people do not want to kill others in order to share excitement and form bonds of affection with co-workers. What can overcome this natural reluctance? Here is where beliefs matter.

As an economist, I note that beliefs shape rational choice. You cannot make a rational career choice without beliefs. Here is a minimum set of beliefs that seem to matter for young people who choose terrorism. There is the choice of identity: the very concept of self-interest is predicated on the existence of a "self" that answers the question: Who am I? (as argued by Harrison 2006). For those that choose terrorism the answer is apparently: —I am a warrior (or: —I am a martyr). Sometimes the choice of identity is fuelled by anger. But this choice alone is not sufficient; you can be a soldier or a martyr without directing your rage against innocent people.

There is also a matter of values: Specifically, when I choose how to behave in society, how much weight should I give the interests of other people, compared to my own self-interest? Here the critical answer is: —People who don’t share my beliefs have no right to be considered and don’t deserve to live. This, and only this, makes it OK for the soldier to kill them.

When some young people look for others with whom they can form social bonds, these beliefs can tip the rational choice towards terrorist groups. So to adopt these two beliefs, the identity of the soldier and the exclusion of others from the right to exist based on different beliefs or culture, must be decisive in what some authorities now call "radicalization."

References

  • Abrahms, Max. 2008. What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105.
  • Abrahms, Max. 2011. Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11. Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6, 583-594.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2006. An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism. World Economics 7:3, pp. 1-15.
  • Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
  • Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. "Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4): 119-144.
  • Merari, Ariel. 1998. “The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 192-207. Edited by Walter Reich. Second edition, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
  • PewResearchCenter. 2013. Muslim Publics Share Concerns About Extremist Groups. Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. Washington, D.C.
  • U.S. State Department. 2014. Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013. Bureau of Counterterrorism.

May 08, 2015

Violent Borders: Will There be Another Great War?

Writing about web page http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/08/05/2015/554c800c9a79473a8f5d6ee2

This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.

This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.

Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.

Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.

A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.

In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.

But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.

Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.

In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.

Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.

The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.

Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).

How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.

Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.

Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.


March 23, 2015

Group, then Threaten: How Bad Ideas Move Millions

Writing about web page http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2014.0719

I've been thinking: What is it that enables a bad idea suddenly to spread across millions of people? Here are some of the things I have in mind:

  • In France the National Front is reported as leading all other parties in current opinion polls, having won barely 10 percent of the vote in the 2007 presidential election.
  • In January's general election, nearly 40 percent of Greek voters supported Syriza, compared wtih fewer than 5 percent as recently as 2009.
  • Since narrowly rejecting indendence in last year's referendum, Scotland's voters have rallied to the Scottish National Party, support for which is now reported at over than 40 percent compared with less than 20 percent at the last general election.
  • Most spectacularly, more than 80 per cent of Russians are regularly reported as thinking Vladimir Putin is doing a great job as their president, compared with around 60 percent two years ago.

I am hardly the first to ask this question. There is plenty of research (e.g. de Bromhead et al. 2013) on the economic conditions that foster political extremism, for example. But how do we get from economic conditions to wrong persuasion, exactly? There is the famous Goebbels quote about the "big lie," which is fine as far as it goes but always makes me think: surely there's more to it than this?

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

But it can't be true of all lies. Don't some lies work better than others? What is it that defines the ones that work? My best answer so far to this question is an analogy, which I know is less than proof. But it's a thought-provoking analogy; see what you think.

Last year some behavioural scientists (Strõmbom et al. 2014) finally explained how to herd sheep. There is a sheepdog, instructed by a shepherd, that does the running around. It turns out that there are just two stages. First, the dog must gather the sheep in a single compact group. Once that is done, the second step is to threaten the group from one side; as a group, the sheep will move away from the threat in the opposite direction. That's all there is to it.

The reason why the first step must come first is also of interest: If the dog threatens the sheep without first gathering them in a group, they will scatter in all directions, and that's not what the shepherd wants.

Anyway, there's the answer: Group, then threaten.

People are not sheep, and this is only an analogy. Nonetheless you probably already worked out how I would read this. The shepherds are the political leaders. The dogs that run around for them are the campaign managers and activists. The human equivalent of gathering sheep in a group is to polarize people around an identity that defines an in-group and an out-group. So Scots (as opposed to the English), Greeks (as opposed to the Germans), Russian speakers (as opposed to the rest). Group them, then threaten them, and they will move.

To see how the threat sets the group in motion we need one more thing, an insight from Ed Glaeser. Glaeser (2005) wanted to explain the conditions under which politicians become merchants of hate. He began with a community that has suffered some kind of collective setback. When that happens, people demand an explanation: Who has done this to us? "Us" means the in-group. Political entrepreneurs, he argued, will compete to supply satisfying stories. Often the most satisfying account is one that blames the in-group's misfortune on the alleged past crimes of some out-group: the English, the bankers, the Muslims, the Jews, or the West.

Not only past crimes, however; Glaeser uses the phrase "past and future crimes." In other words, he maintains, politicians often transform these stories into powerful threats by giving them a predictive slant: This is what they, the enemy, have done to us in the past and this is what they will do again if we don't mobilize to stop them first.

Remember: Group, then threaten. The result is mobilization.

References


March 09, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

On Friday I read yet another plaudit for Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Sleepwalkers? To judge from the title the great powers went to war in their sleep, without a conscious decision to do so, an interpretation that should let everyone off the hook. At least, the sleepwalking defence has been known to work in a criminal court for defendants accused of murder and rape, so I guess it could also cover the initiation of aggressive wars.

The Sleepwalkers has been sold across the world -- most notably in Germany, where it has been a best seller -- on its title and its great reviews. But the title continues to mystify me, for Clark does not appear to believe it himself. In his introduction (p. xxvii) he writes:

The story this book tells is ... saturated with agency. The key decision makers -- kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders, and a host of lesser officials -- walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps.

So, not asleep at all. And he concludes his book (pp. 561-562):

Did the protagonists understand how high the stakes were? [Yes, at some length]. They knew it ...

Again: not asleep. What's going on? You can't help wondering if this is a case of an author trapped by a working title that was written into the contract with his publisher before he knew what he would say. Maybe Clark felt he could rescue himself at the last moment by adding the words I missed off the end of the sentence that I just quoted:

They knew it, but did they really feel it?

Then, a brief allusion to the horrors of modern warfare, which those protagonists apparently did not "feel"; and the final sentence of the book:

In this sense the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

But the way I read this, Clark's complaint is not that these guys were asleep! It is rather that in the majority they were soldiers, trained (as John Keegan once described in The Face of Battle) to respond to the emergency of combat with military professionalism, not unsoldierly panic. When they foresaw horror and extinction with one part of their brain, they were thinking with the other half about how to manage it. And in that spirit they went to war.

It's an interesting point, and an important one, too, if you want to ask why the professional soldiers had such influence in the secret councils of Berlin, Vienna, and St Petersburg in the summer of 1914. But it has absolutely nothing to do with sleepwalking.

***

Thursday this week will see the Warwick Summit on Protest, which follows some unfortunate events that took place on campus at the end of last term. I wasn't a witness and I don't claim any special insight. I did respond to the survey that followed, along with 578 other staff and students of the university. The survey and responses have now been dissiminated behind the university firewall; here's mine. I don't plan to attend the summit, so this will be the limit of my contribution.

  • Please tell us about any concerns you have in relation to protest on campus, including those relating to recent events?

There is a right to protest within the law. This right needs to be upheld. Protests on campus that go beyond that by involving trespass (occupations) or violence have been quite rare. The Warwick Summit should think carefully before basing general conclusions on things that happen infrequently.

  • Please tell us if there is anything you would like to see done differently in relation to protest in the future?

While occupations and violent protests on campus have been rare, they are also polarizing events. In that setting emotion can override calculation, so that over-reaction on either or both sides is predictable. Those who exercise their right to protest should carefully consider the potential for violence in their actions. An example is occupations, which are always forceful (because they forcefully deny other people legitimate access to a space). Moreover, occupations avoid interpersonal violence only by exploiting surprise.

  • Do you have any questions that you would like to see addressed at the summit?

In response to the December events I have heard demands for a self-policing campus (or "police off campus"). This would be a mistake. When crimes are committed, the victims have a right of access to the law. University officials, academics, and students are not trained for crime prevention or investigation, nor should they be. There will always be a need for police on campus.


March 02, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

Writing about web page Nemtsov Putin KGB

According to Putin's spokesman Dmitrii Peskov, the Russian President considers that the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was a contract killing with "all the signs of a provocation." This theory has been echoed faithfully by the chief of the investigative commission Vladimir Markin:

The murder could be a provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country, and the figure of Nemtsov could represent a kind of 'holy sacrifice' for those that don't shrink from any means to achieve their political goals.

(Remember that phrase: "holy sacrifice" (in Russian сакральная жертва).

These officials imply that Russian oppositionists murdered their own leader in order to cause chaos and create an opportunity to seize power. The investigators are also considering other motives, although none of them is the most obvious one, that someone had Nemtsov killed in order to remove the opposition's best known leader and intimidate those that remained.

That interpretation should not come as a surprise. Two years ago almost to the day, prime minister Putin was campaigning for election for Russia's president. At a meeting he addressed the context of public protests over the conduct of the election. Referring to the opposition, he said:

The ones that you mentioned, they want some clashes and are directing everything towards this goal. They are prepared even to put someone forward as a victim and blame the authorities for it ... They've been trying to do this for ten years, especially those that are sitting abroad. I'm telling you this exactly. This is what I know. They are even looking for a 'holy sacrifice' from among the prominent people. They themselves will go 'bang,' if you'll excuse me, and then they will blame the authorities.

And yes, Markin's words "holy sacrifice" are exactly the same as the words that his master used two years before. You have to wonder if they've been talking to each other.

***

The general effect is one more creepy echo from Russia's past. On 4 December 1934 a gunman entered the Leningrad communist party headquarters and assassinated Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief. The circumstances strongly suggest some kind of official collusion: Someone above Kirov, which really means the NKVD or Stalin himself, either ordered the murder or knowingly allowed it to happen, but all those close to the deed were dead within a few days or months, and the documents in the archives have not settled the matter. Most likely we'll never know for sure.

We do know what happened next: Stalin immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Within days an official narrative began to emerge: the murderer was a terrorist acting on behalf of foreign powers and domestic traitors. The opposition had incited and organized the deed. Based on this conclusion, the Kirov murder became the pretext for ever-wdening circles of repression; many of the defendants in the show trials in Moscow and elsewhere in 1936 and 1937 were charged with complicity in Kirov's death, among many other fantastic crimes.

***

Recently I've been trying to learn about underground humour. In the process I came across a very nice paper by Elliott Oring, “Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes,” in Western Folklore 63(3) (2004), pp. 209-236. This paper has some wonderful material from a respondent called Klava, a Jewish woman from Odessa. Here's a story that I particularly liked:

Klava was born in 1948. She remembered growing up with political jokes. ‘It was a national past time.’ Odessans prided themselves on their jokes and on being good jokers, and this reputation was recognized by people from others parts of the country as well … But Klava was always aware that jokes and other kinds of discussions could not be freely shared. ‘It was a given ... You are not to repeat ... Only to your family members and your friends.’ Because there were very strict – though unofficial – quotas for Jews at the university, Klava, like many Jews seeking education and advancement, obtained her degree in engineering. She was employed at a large firm, but she eventually quit her job, and became a manicurist. She planned to apply for permission to emigrate, and she knew that once she applied, she would lose her engineering job. By obtaining a job as a manicurist before submitting her application, she could assure herself a source of income while awaiting permission. Nevertheless, she did not immediately apply as her family did not want her to leave.

In 1974, she was working in the shop and she had several clients who were waiting to have their nails done. One of her customers came in without an appointment. She needed to have her nails done because she was going on vacation. She had been Klava's customer for several years. Klava told her that she would do her nails if she would wait until she had finished with her scheduled customers. So while she worked on the other customers, the woman waited in the shop. 1974 was a celebratory year in the communist calendar – a Lenin anniversary – and Klava and her customers exchanged jokes and witticisms – many about Lenin …

Her unscheduled customer sat there the whole time that the jokes were being told. The rest is in Klava's words:

"After the two girls left and she was in the chair. And as I was working on her, she told me, ‘Klava, do you know who I am?’

"I said, ‘Of course, your name is Ludmilla Ivanovna.’ And she said, ‘Do you know where I work?’ ‘Of course, it's in the municipal hall.’ She said, ‘Do you know what department I work in?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘It's department number one,’ which was KGB. And the joke was said, it was Lenin's hundredth birthday, and so all the jokes were about it. [The customer then told the following joke.] ‘There was a competition for the best joke about Lenin. And the first prize is ten years to where Lenin used to go’ – jail, exile. And she looked at me and the smile disappeared from her face, and she told me, ‘If I did not value you as my manicurist, I would send you for ten years to where Lenin used to go.’ And that was a decisive moment, because I wanted to go [emigrate] like three years ago, and my family did not want me [to]. I was scared. I was very scared, more than in my whole life, before that or after that."

That night Klava called her family together and told them what had happened and that she was going to submit her application to emigrate. It only took her three months to get the permission, and then she had thirty days to leave the country. Her parents also applied to leave but they were refused, and she had to leave without them.


February 27, 2015

Russia Under Sanctions: It's Not Working

Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92c75076-b606-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html

On the evening of Tuesday 24 February I joined a panel discussion on "Russia Now," organized by Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery. My fellow panellists were Peter Ferdinand (Politics and International Studies) and Christoph Mick and Christopher Read (History). The discussion was chaired by Mead Gallery director Sarah Shalgosky, whom I thank for the invitation. Here's what I said, roughly speaking.

Sanctions in history

The Russian economy is subject to Western sanctions. These sanctions are of two kinds. There are "smart" sanctions that aim to limit the international travel and transactions of named persons and corporations. There are also broader sanctions that aim to limit the international trade and borrowing of Russia’s financial, energy, and defence sectors.

In history, advocates of economic sanctions against an adversary have usually claimed two advantages for them. One claimed advantage is speed of action: It has often been predicted that economic sanctions will quickly "starve out" an adversary (metaphorically or literally). The other claimed advantage is cost: By attacking the adversary’s economy we can achieve our goals without the heavy casualties to our own side that would result from a military confrontation.

Are these claims justified by experience? Based on the experience of modern warfare and economic sanctions from the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century to the Cold War, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Cuba, the answer has typically been: "No."

How do sanctions work?

The effects of sanctions on national power have generally been slower and smaller than expected. First, they attack national power indirectly, through the economy, and the economy provides a very complicated and uncertain transmission mechanism. If a country is refused access to something for which it appears to have a vital need, such as oil or food, it generally turns out that there are plenty of alternatives and ways around; nothing is as essential as it seems at first sight. Secondly, external measures will be met by counter-measures. In a country that is blockaded or sanctioned, soldiers will look for ways to use military strength to break ouit and so offset economic weakness. Suffering hardship and feeling unfairly victimized, civilians will become more willing to tighten their belts and fight on.

It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and conclude that sanctions achieve nothing. What have sanctions actually achieved in historical experience? Sanctions do raise the cost of producing national power. They do so gradually, so that immediate effects may not be perceptible. Nonetheless they impose costs on the adversary, and eventually these costs will tell. It is hard to show, however, that sanctions have ever had a decisive effect on their own; at best, they have been shown to have their effect in combination with other factors, such as military force. In those cases, sanctions were a complement to military power, not a substitute or alternative.

Russia: How are Western sanctions supposed to work?

The purpose of Western sanctions is clear: It is to change President Putin’s behaviour, making him more cautious and more accommodating to the demands of Western powers.

What is the mechanism that is supposed to bring this about? Western observers generally see that President Putin's political base is built on the use of energy profits to buy political support. Russia's energy sector, much of it state-owned, has provided major revenues to the Russian government budget. The Russian government uses these revenues to buy support, partly by paying off key persons, partly by subsidizing employment in Russia's inefficient, uncompetitive domestic industries. The result is that many people feel obligated to Putin's regime because without it they would lose their privilege or position in society.

In that context, sanctions have been designed to target those industries and persons that supply resources to the government and those that depend on the government for financial support. By doing so, they aim to deprive President Putin of the resources he needs to retain loyalty.

How have sanctions actually worked? In Russia, real output is falling and inflation is rising. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in recent months sanctions have been only one of three external sources of pressure on the Russian economy.

Three pressures on Russia's economy

Three factors have been at work: sanctions, confidence in the ruble, and energy prices. These factors should be thought of as semi-independent: there are obvious connections among them, but in each case the agency is different.

  • Sanctions. Before the crisis over Crimea, Russian corporations had approximately $650 billion of short-term, low-interest debt denominated in foreign currency. International lenders have reluctant to lend to Russia long term because Russia's lack of protection of property rights leaves them uncertain about the security of their loans. Because this debt is short term, it requires regular refinancing. Russian firms, including organizations and sectors that have not been directly targeted by sanctions, are now unable to borrow abroad. Struggling to cover their credit needs, they have turned to the Russian government to make emergency loans or bail them out.
  • Confidence in the ruble. As lenders have lost confidence in Russia, capital flight has increased. The ruble has lost half its external value in the last year, and this has doubled the real burden of private foreign currency debts of Russian corporations and also wealthy families with housing debts in euros or dollars. This has intensified private sector pressure on the government for bail-outs.
  • Oil prices. The dollar price of oil has halved since this time last year, slashing Russia's energy revenues and plunging the state budget into deficit.

These three pressures all point in the same direction and complement each other. Their cumulative effect is to be seen in the deteriorating outlook for the economy as a whole and for public finance. The government has lost important revenues while spending pressures have multiplied. Arguably, therefore, sanctions have "worked," because they have squeezed the capacity of the Russian administration to satisfy the expectations of its supporters.

A learning opportunity

From a social-science perspective, we should think of this moment as a learning opportunity: How the Russian administration responds in these circumstances should reveal its type.

To benchmark the Russian response today, consider how two Soviet leaders responded to closely similar situations in the past.

  • One benchmark is offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. By the mid-1980s the global energy market had reached a situation not far removed from that of today. A decade of high oil prices was being brought to an end by new non-OPEC suppliers. This put the Soviet economy under a severe squeeze. Faced with this squeeze, Mikhail Gorbachev chose policies of demilitarization and relaxation abroad and at home.
  • Another benchmark is offered by Joseph Stalin in 1930. If anything, the predicament of the Soviet economy in 1930 was even closer to its situation today. Soviet exports were faced with collapsing prices as the world economy entered the Great Depression. The Soviet economy also had considerable short-term debts that suddenly could not be rolled over because international lending dried up. In response, Stalin demanded "the first five year plan in four years!" This involved accelerated mobilization and sacrifice, and ended in the famine deaths of millions of his own citizens (many of them in Ukraine).

These examples illustrate the alternative responses of a ruler under external pressure. When it becomes harder to buy loyalty the ruler can respond like Gorbachev, by moderating demands on supporters; or like Stalin, by cracking the whip over them. In 2015, faced with economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and a falling ruble, which choice has President Putin made? His words and deeds both deserve attention.

  • Before sanctions, President Putin's words were of a Russia encircled by enemies and penetrated by foreign agents. His policies involved accelerated rearmament and frozen conflicts with Moldova and Georgia, capped by the annexation of Crimea.
  • How did things change after Western sanctions were imposed? Putin's rhetoric shifted up a notch with talk of national traitors and a "fifth column" of enemies within. His economists began to discuss ways to shift from a market economy to a "mobilization economy." His foreign policy spokesmen incited tensions in the Baltic region and made nuclear threats against the West. The Russian military embarked on continuous large-scale exercises and increased the frequency of testing NATO defences in the Baltic and the North Sea. Russian forces and heavy weapons were infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine.

The lesson for social science is that under external economic pressure President Putin has revealed his type: He is a power-building authoritarian ruler.

It isn't working

From a policy perspective, the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy is only the tactical outcome of sanctions. Their strategic purpose is to change Russia's behaviour for the better, and that is the only true test of whether they have worked. The lesson for policy is that, despite sanctions, President Putin remains prepared to take risks with peace and to commit aggression. Sanctions are not changing his behaviour.

Now we know this, what should we conclude? A clear implication is that things could get worse. Some worry (or threaten) that, if the pressure on him grows, President Putin might became more confrontational and take additional risks rather than back down and look for compromise. It has also been suggested that, if unseated, Putin might be replaced by someone worse -- a role for which there are several candidates.

Why isn't it working?

This leads to me to a sombre conclusion. It's not a conclusion that I much like; I have thought about it a lot and I wish I could see another way out of the situation. To sum it up, I'll quote in full a letter that I wrote to the Financial Times recently in response to an article by Gideon Rachman ("Russian hearts, minds, and refrigerators," February 16). My letter appeared on 19 February:

Gideon Rachman ... writes : “Rather than engage the Putin government where it is relatively strong, on the battlefield, it makes more sense to hit Russia at its weak point: the economy.” But this neglects the incentives that arise from the time factor.

If the West plays to its strength, which is economic, President Putin will play to Russia’s strength, which is military. But the action of Western financial and trade measures is slow and cannot be accelerated. Meanwhile, Russia can accelerate its military action at will.

In playing the sanctions card while neglecting defence, the West is encouraging President Putin to raise the tempo on the battlefield and change realities quickly and irrevocably through warfare, before the Russian economy can be weakened further.

For the West, therefore, economic sanctions are not an alternative to a military confrontation that is already under way. To avoid disaster, the West must support financial and trade measures with a credible defence.


February 23, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

One of the first statements by Greece's new prime minister Alexis Tsipras called on Germany to pay more reparations to Greece for losses arising from the Nazi occupation in World War II. Some commentators added that, if Germany could have its debts and damages mostly forgiven after World War II, Greece could be forgiven its debts today. Back in June 2012 my LSE colleague Albrecht Ritschl had an interesting column on The Economist websiteabout the magnitudes. Anyway, the implication is that if Germany got away with it; why not Greece?

Maybe a few aspects of how the war ended have been forgotten. At the end of the war, Germany was placed under military occupation. Its territory was divided, and permanently stripped of East Prussia and Alsace-Lorraine in the West. The German leaders responsible for the damages caused in the war were killed or hanged, and punishment was meted out to many other Germans with lesser responsibility. Eastern Germany paid large reparations to the Soviet Union. In both East and West Germany the constitution and economic and social order were comprehensively refashioned by external powers. In both East and West Germany young people were systematically educated to feell shame about their country's recent past.

If you ignore all that, then yes, Germany got away with it. If Greek leaders want to argue for debt forgiveness on that precedent, then let them go for it. I'm not against an element of debt forgiveness for Greece, by the way. I'm just against misusing history and invoking the Nazis to get opinion on your side.

***

Is austerity self-defeating? Lots of people seem to think so, and many of these seem to hold that view with great certainty. Relevant to this is a column by Benjamin Born, Gernot Müller, and Johannes Pfeifer that appeared on VoxEU over the weekend. They study the effects of temporary budget austerity using data from 38 emerging and advanced economies from 1990 to 2014. They distinguish between a budget cut in normal times and in times of financial stress (when the default premium on public debt is initially high). For countries that are initially stressed they find that in the short term austerity is indeed self-defeating: in the first year, GDP falls and the default premium rises. But the adverse scenario does not persist. Within five or so years GDP recovers and fiscal adjustment opens the way to lower interest rates than before.

Of course, this is just one study among many that are under way or recently published. A measure of wait-and-see is usually recommended. But it does contribute one more piece to the case for spending less if it was a problem to spend more. It also suggests we should give some provisional credit to the politicians that adopt it. Maybe they're just taking a longer view, something we don't usually associate with politics.

***

As driverless cars come nearer, there's bound to be public debate on the safety issues. On BBC CWR the other day I heard an interviewee: "But how safe will they be? If something goes wrong, who can we hold to account? We can't have them on the road until they're perfect!" I thought to myself: "Nooooo!" We shouldn't have driverless cars on the roads until they are clearly better at getting passengers safely to their destinations than the typical human driver. Bearing in mind that at 3AM the typical driver is likely to be either a night clubber on the way home or a taxi driver, that standard could be variable and, at times, not very demanding.

I do see the problem though. When the average driverless car is safer than the average driver, so that the total number of traffic fatalities is reduced, the driverless cars will still kill some people, for which they will be blamed. Moreover, driverless cars will be made by a few easily identifiable large corporations, who will make clear targets for the anger of mourning friends and relatives. If a few thousand people are rightly angry with drunk drivers, that's a hopeless cause. If the same number are angry at Toyota, say, it's a campaign. The likely result: driverless cars will be slower to catch on, and the safety gains will be harder to realize. I don't see a solution.

***

You may have already guessed that the title of this column is a tribute to Zack Weiner's fantastic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I'll try to put some Monday Morning Muesli on the table once a week ... or once a month ... or whenever.


February 18, 2015

Russia's Improbable Futures and the Lure of the Past

Writing about web page http://rbctv.rbc.ru/polls/list

On 27 January I was asked to join a panel on Russia's Future within the University of Warwick One World Week. (The other panel members were Richard Connolly, co-director of the University of Birmingham Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies, and the journalist Oliver Bullough.) I decided to talk about how Russians are looking to the past in order to understand their uncertain future. Here, roughly, is what I said:

Russia has many possible futures; all of them are improbable. The economy must do better, stay the same, or do worse. Relations with the West must improve, remain as they are, or deteriorate further. Adding them up, there are nine possible combinations. The probability of any particular combination is small, so each is improbable. But one of them must happen because, taken together, the sum of the probabilities is one. One of them must happen, but we have no idea which one.

Faced with an uncertain future, we often look to the past for guidance and reassurance. What was the outcome when we were previously in a situation that felt the same? At New Year, many Russians were looking to the past. I found this out when I stumbled on the website of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel. Every day the RBC website polls its fans on a different multiple-choice question. On 30 December, the question of the day, with answers (and votes in parentheses), was:

What should Father Frost bring for Russia?

  • End of sanctions (6%)
  • End of the war in Ukraine (27%)
  • A stable ruble (7%)
  • Return of the Soviet Union (59%)

It's disconcerting to be reminded of the strength of nostalgia among Russians for the time when their country was a global superpower. The Soviet Union united all the Russias -- if anyone's not sure what that means, that's Great Russia, Little Russia and New Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus) -- with the countries of the Baltic, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. The Soviet Union stood for strong centralized rule, with a powerful secret police and thermonuclear weapons. The nostalgia is shared by President Putin, who said (on 25 April 2005): “The collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century.”

Here's a question that RBC asked its supporters on 25 December:

Can direct controls and a price freeze save Russia’s economy?

  • Yes, the free market is not up to the job (55%)
  • No, that would cause insecurity and panic (40%)
  • No need – no crisis (5%)

Again, the strength of support for the backward-looking answer is disconcerting. I tried to think of the last time the Russian economy was in a squeeze like today's. The last time the oil price price came down like this was the mid-1980s when North Sea and Alaskan oil broke the power of the OPEC cartel for a few years (that's the analysis of Anatole Kaletsky). The disappearance of oil rents probably contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy.

But a closer parallel to today is 1930, when two things happened at once. The global market for Soviet exports shrank in the Great Depression. And international lending dried up, meaning that the Soviet economy could not roll over its debts. The Soviet import capacity collapsed almost overnight. Stalin responded by forcing the pace of import substitution through rapid industrialization. He demanded "The five plan in four years!" The result was a crisis of excessive mobilization that claimed millions of lives in the famine of 1932 and 1933.

Prominent in calling for an economic breakthrough today is President Putin, who responded to Western sanctions on 18 September 2014: “In the next 18 to 24 months we need to make a real breakthrough in making the Russian real sector more competitive, something that in the past would have taken us years.” Government-friendly Russian economists are talking about the need to go from a market economy back to a mobilization economy. In case the foreigners aren't getting the message, first deputy prime minister Shuvalov told those assembled in Davos on 23 January: “We will survive any hardship in the country – eat less food, use less electricity.”

A third question that RBC asked its viewers was on 19 December:

What matters most for the country right now?

  • The foreign exchange rate (33%)
  • Who is a true patriot and who is fifth column (56%)
  • “Vyatskii kvas” (11%)

(The English equivalent of "Vyatskii kvas" would probably be Devon cider. For the reasons why it was being talked up as a solution to Russia's problems last December, click here.)

Here the strength of support for the backward looking answer is shocking. What is the "fifth column" and how does it resonate in Russian history? In 1937, Stalin saw Moscow surrounded and penetrated by enemies. This coincided with the siege of Madrid in Spain’s Civil War. In 1936 the nationalist General Mola was asked which of his four columns would take Madrid. He replied, famously: “My fifth column” (of undercover nationalist agents already in the city). In Madrid the Republicans responded by executing 4,000 nationalist sympathisers. In the Soviet Union Stalin, who was also watching, ordered the execution of 700,000 “enemies of the people.”

In recent times, the spectre of a "fifth column" was first reawakened by President Putin on 18 March 2014, when he remarked: "Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?"

Putin took up this theme again on 18 December 2014: "The line that separates opposition activists from the fifth column is hard to see from the outside. What’s the difference? Opposition activists may be very harsh in their criticism, but at the end of the day they are defending the interests of the motherland. And the fifth column is those who serve the interests of other countries, and who are only tools for others’ political goals."

Here you can see that Putin did affirm the possibility that opposition can be loyal. But is it possible for Russia to have a loyal opposition today? The only example of loyal opposition that Putin could bring himself to mention was the poet Lermontov -- who died in 1841.

These echoes of the Soviet past in Russian opinion today are disconcerting and even frightening. At the same time it is important to remember that, even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union. From today's vantage point it is nearly impossible to imagine how closed, stifling, claustrophobic, and isolated was everyday life even in late Soviet times. Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves. In all these ways, the transition from communism has not been a failure.

As Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman (2014) wrote recently: "Putin’s authoritarian turn clearly makes Russia more dangerous. But it does not, thus far, make the country politically abnormal. In fact, on a plot of different states’ Polity [i.e. democracy] scores against their incomes, Russia still deviates only slightly from the overall pattern. For a country with Russia’s national income, the predicted Polity score [a measure of democracy] in 2013 was 76 on the 100-point scale. Russia’s actual score was 70, on a par with Sri Lanka and Venezuela."

To see Russia as just another middle income country helps us to identify Russia's underlying problem. In Russia, just like in Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and most countries outside “the West,” wealth and power are fused in a small, closed elite, and that is how it has always been. The fusion of wealth and power was and remains normal. Before the revolution Russia was governed by a landowning Tsar, aristocracy, and church. After the revolution Russia was governed by a communist elite that monopolized all productive property plus media, science, and education. Today Russia is governed by an ex-communist, ex-KGB elite that has once again gathered control of energy resources and the media. This fusion of wealth and power is neither new nor is it unusual among middle and low income countries.

In societies where wealth and power are fused, particular people are powerful because they control wealth and the same people are wealthy if and only if they are powerful. This is what gives politics in such societies its life-and-death immediacy. To lose power means to lose everything; when power change hands there is often violence. “All politics is real politics," write Douglas North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (2009); "people risk death when they make political mistakes.”

Several times in history, liberal reformers have tried to separate wealth and power in Russia and make space for public opinion. Here are some examples from the last 150 years:

  • In 1864 a reform brought elected local governments – but within an absolute monarchy.
  • Shaken by military defeats and popular insurrections, in 1906 the Russian monarchy introduced an elected parliament, although with few powers, and ndividual peasant landownership, although (as it turned out) with little time for implementation.
  • In 1992 and 1995 Russia saw voucher privatization and "loans-for-shares," creating a class of corporate shareholders – but the outcome was crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
  • In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovskii tried to separate the governance of Yukos from the "power vertical," but he went to prison for it.

All these efforts have so far achieved only partial or temporary success. Russia has not yet found a solution to the problem of the fusion of wealth and power. Here, at last, is an aspect of Russia's future that is certain: If Russia is ever to find a solution to this problem, it will be there.

Note: I updated this column after publication to correct a date -- 2014, which appeared as 1914.

References

  • North, Douglas, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shleifer, Andrei, and Daniel Triesman. 2014. "Normal Countries: The East 25 Years after Communism." Foreign Affairs, November-December.

Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is also a research fellow of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.



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