Thursday, October 15, 2015

Interview With Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog (Part I)

About 100 years ago (give or take 93 years), I wrote a post highlighting other blogs with Sean in the title. Recently, I found another Sean blog, Sean's Russia Blog. The topic itself was intriguing but I also found a connection with the site's author, Sean Guillory, since he was a post-doc at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian & East European Studies. I sent Sean few questions about himself, Russia and Pittsburgh and he was extremely generous in providing excellent and thorough answers. So thorough that I'm dividing this up into two separate posts. This is a little different than my usual posts and topics, and I hope you enjoy this interview.

Plus, this is the first time that "plutocrats" has ever been used on Sean's Ramblings.

Tell me about your background. How did you become interested in Russia and Russian history and decide to get a doctorate in this subject?

I’m originally from California. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles when I was ten. I consider myself a Los Angeleno first and foremost. A Laker fan for life. My entire family is from Louisiana, though. Theirs is an interesting story in and of itself. I learned a few years ago that my family was legally categorized as “black” until they moved to California in 1960s. It was a big secret, and some relatives refuse to talk about it. It’s as if they are living in the closet, so to speak. If you look at the census records of both my mother’s and father’s family going back to the 19th century they are all categorized as “negro” in the race column. My mother likes to say that at some point a “black” person entered our genealogy. I’ve come to wonder when a “white” person did.

The reason why I say they were “categorized” as black is because as far as I know none of them self-identified as black. Rather since Louisiana had the “one drop rule” my family was legally designated as black and had to live according to Jim Crow laws. However, I’ve been told that they didn’t identify as either black or white, though given a preference they identified as white and do so today. Instead, the more culturally conscious of them see themselves as Creole.

Like I said, it’s an interesting story, but by no means an uncommon one. It does show the malleability of race in America, and to some extent even its artificiality. In fact, I recently finished a book by Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: the Soul of Inequality in American Life that makes a very strong argument that when we talk about race we are really talking about racism. Race is a fiction, but the category of race, how we understand it, how it functions institutionally and discursively is based in racist ideology, and specifically on the debunked science of biological racism. When we speak about race in America, we do so by unconsciously invoking assumptions based on the fictitious biology of race. This however is not without its problems. I don’t think we can properly call race a “fiction” when we recognize and people identify themselves as members of say African American culture that is rooted in the historical experience of being black in America. Sure, Fields might say that A-A culture is to variegated to reduce it to one “race,” and that suggesting that there are commonalities in the experience of African Americas is based in racist assumptions. We don’t, after all, speak of a “White American” culture. Instead we tend to associate white Americans with the culture of their ethnicity: Irish, Italian, Jewish (a difficult category considering American Sephardic Jews), etc. I don’t know what Fields would say about the intersection between culture and race/racism. It is certainly one of the questions, if not criticisms, I have.

In regard to Russia, I got interested in Russia in college after taking a class on the history of the Soviet Union. The professor, J. Arch Getty, would become my dissertation advisor. My interest initially was for political reasons—interest in communism and Marxism. That has evolved over the years to include a wide variety of issues and topics like Russian state formation and state craft, social history, and politics and culture of Russian society. Currently, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the history of neoliberalism as a way to form a theory and picture of capitalism in Putin’s Russia.

Why did I decide to get a doctorate in Russian history? That’s a good question, especially considering I’m no longer in academia. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t regret it though I wish things would have turned out differently.

Vladimir Putin is a fascinating person. Despite there being a legislative body in Russia, he seems to run essentially a dictatorship. How was he able to assume total power in Russia and is there any possibility of this changing?

I don’t like the word dictatorship and I wouldn’t call Russia one, though it is fashionable in some quarters—in the West and in Russia—to use this terminology. While I agree it is certainly authoritarian, but the concentration of power in the hands of the presidency is granted by the constitution. The legislature is weak because the Yeltsin constitution of 1993 made it such. That said, Russia has always had a top heavy, authoritarian structure. The legal strictures of the Constitution allow for an easy convergence with traditional Russian statecraft. I call it authoritarian because the legal system and state structure are mechanisms of the Russian elite, upon which Putin sits as the head. Moreover, the structures that would allow a politics independent from the state—political parties and civil society (structures which were always nascent in Russia)—have been neutered over the last 15 years under Putin. More tolerate assessments would call this “managed democracy” in which the space of acceptable political participation (which may expand and contact depending on the domestic and international situations) are defined by the state. This is a contrast with liberal systems where the law theoretically sits above the state, and it is the law that defines the rules of the political game. In liberal societies, the law is constructed to serve a class—the political and financial elite who may wage political battles against each other, but do not wage politics as a zero sum game. There is a more or less shared consensus among liberal elites in terms of class interests. However, we can see in the United States at least that the “rule of law” has increasingly become concentrated in the service of plutocrats and the neoliberal state. This best example of this convergence between law and neoliberalism is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United.

Russia has some elements of this, but there are important divergences. The law is merely reduced to an instrument of elite power and is exercised selectively to not only subordinate the masses, but more importantly as a disciplinary mechanism against the elite. Therefore I would argue that in Russia the elite lacks class consciousness as such. Rather, a small faction of the elite rules for its own benefit and demands that other elites fall in line if they want to maintain the wealth and privileges. The leader, in this case, Putin, maneuvers between these various factions, playing one against the other, ensuring divisions between them, and making sure his indispensability. Here, how Russia is ruled has more in common with feudal relations than modern class relations. Putin sets the rules for the elite: steal but only within certain parameters, understand that your wealth and privileges are in exchange for loyalty, and be ready to mobilize your wealth in service of the state when called upon. Corruption has been both the means for the elite and other bureaucrats to gain wealth at the same time it is a mechanism of discipline.

Now looking at both of these, the United States and Russia, you might see some convergence occurring as wealth and power are concentrated in few hands. There is something to this. I think the main difference is in the relationship between force and consent.

In many ways, this power dynamic within today’s Russian elite reproduces centuries old relations between Tsar and the nobility. In fact, some historians have argued that there is a strong continuum in Russian elite relations along these lines. I think it is too presumptuous to suggest that 17th century Russian elite relations continue virtually unaltered to this day. However, the analysis certainly gives deserves reflection.

Putin was able to become the dominant force in Russian politics through his adept manipulation of this system. He did this in several ways: 1) he broke independent oligarchic power and subordinated Russia’s elite to the state; 2) Utilized the flood of petrodollars in the 2000s to raise Russians’ standard of living; 3) Consolidated the political system by delegitimizing the non-systemic opposition on the one hand and taming the loyal opposition on the other; 4) Returned Russia into a global player capable of defending and prosecuting its geopolitical interests, a process in which we are seeing at the moment in Syria.

At the same time, Russia is a terribly under governed country. The concentration of power into few hands, if not solely into Putin’s, has resulted in micromanagement (in Russian ruchnoi kontrol or manual control) at the top and, as a result, subterfuge below. The centralization of power has resulted in the permanent atrophy of local state structures. The whole system is top heavy and as you burrow down the rung is actually quite fragile. This is why I say, to borrow a slogan from the preeminent Indian historian Ranagit Guha, Putin and his circle have dominance without hegemony. Dominance remains because the consensual apparatus of Russia is so weak. This is why I think the system relies so heavily on state controlled propaganda.

In many respects Putin rules over a country with chronic historical problems: the weakness of law—not in a liberal sense—but in a state sense. There is an absent of a rechtsstaat where the system operates on automatic control. While the bureaucracy is massive and the state bloated, governance is rather weak. The elite, to put it in Marxist terms, is a class in itself, but not for itself. That is too say, that the Russian elite sees itself as a distinct class vis-à-vis the masses, and at times, will even consolidate when faced with threats from within and without. But it doesn’t possess the consciousness to press for its collective class interests, and do so without cannibalizing itself. This is why it still requires a Putin to maintain the balance.

Finally, there exists very little political flow between the elite and citizens. While Putin and his circle are obsessed with the mass opinion of the population—Russians are some of the most polled people on the planet and the government is very mindful of maintaining Putin’s astronomical approval ratings. At the same time there are very few mechanisms for the masses to have any influence on governance. Hence there is a tendency toward the political stagnation we’ve been witnessing since Putin returned for a third term. There is just little dynamism in the system to perpetuate it or, more importantly, renew it.

As for the possibility of Russia changing, the question is in what direction. The hollowing out of popular politics in Russia has left a space where only Putin dominates. Once he’s gone there will be a vacuum, and who will occupy it is anyone’s guess. The problem is, and this is another one of Russia’s chronic historical problems, is that there is no mechanism for transition. Every succession produces crisis and every one of them has, except for a brief period in the 19th century from Alexander II to Nicholas II. Every other instance has led to conflict, palace intrigue, palace coups, state disintegration, civil war, and revolution.

Substantive political change in Russia has historically occurred in two ways: the rise of a modernizing or reformist leadership that is from above, or through revolution, that is from below. I, as well as others, thought that the Medvedev experiment of 2008-2012 was going to be the beginning of evolutionary process, particularly in terms of leadership transition, but, for whatever reasons, and people have various theories, that didn’t happen. Just the opposite actually.

This may be an odd question, but does Putin care about what the world thinks of him and Russia? He invaded Crimea and the Ukraine with little repercussions and recently delivered weapons to Assad, not at the top of the most popular world leader list, helping him maintain power in Syria. Conversely, he has spent billions of dollars on the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup, two major events to showcase Russia.

Why should he care? He is not a president subject to an election by the world nor is he or should he be in a global popularity contest. He leads according to what he perceives are the interests of the Russian state. Now whether those perceptions are actually in the interests of the state, let alone the Russian people, is another question.

Meanwhile, we're not going to see a Putin-Elton John summit on gay rights anytime soon, are we?

No, and the one that supposedly happened was a prank.

Tomorrow, we'll cover Ukraine, Pittsburgh, The Original Hot Dog and more. (Part II is now available here.)

In the meantime, check out Sean's Russia Blog, follow the other Sean on Twitter, and check him out on iTunes.

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