Navalny, rights discourses in, and on Russia, and the missing pro-social policy platform

Quick follow-up to this piece on Amnesty and Navalny that I wrote for the Moscow Times last week.

Some people wanted me to clarify this bit:

“the case brings into focus long-standing debates about the outsized role western NGOs play in how Russia is perceived, and whether the retreat of the U.S. as a global hegemon has the effect of rendering “liberal” ideas of human rights less credible. Yet the problems of unequal access to palpable measures of human flourishing with which these same NGOs grapple — be they free elections, the rule of law or decent working conditions — are more pressing than ever.”

others thought I was unfair on Navalny’s programme, or that I was vague:

“As narrow and short-sighted as the dissidents of the Soviet past. The competitive, transparent elections and a “fair” and functioning market economy that Navalny advocates are not the same thing as a truly “universalist” approach to human rights — the right to human flourishing and full and equal development of human potential.”

You can see I repeat the phrase – ‘human flourishing’. I chose this phrase because it’s a way of broadening the rights perspective – to social and cultural conceptions of rights. It’s also a topic I close my book with – a rhetorical question about what we mean when people say Russia lacks something we (in the imagined West) take for granted, or as an ideal good – be it political rights, personal autonomy, social safety nets, or economic freedom. In the book, one of my points is that measuring by comparative yardsticks to say that human development in Russia is ‘lower than it should be’, is important (for example we can argue that many people in Russia lack access to economic security, a clean environment, healthcare and other goods that ensure an adequate life expectancy at birth). However, this metric ignores wider and equally important ways of thinking about human potential via what I call ‘habitability’. In the book, I identify these in concepts like ‘meta-occupational communities’, mutual aid practices, but also communities of craft and labour. There is also what others would call ‘social capital’, but I call local ‘authority’, autonomism, and reciprocal dignity based in webs of social ties of ‘extent, commitment and deep content’.

Similarly, with ‘human rights’, do we focus on trying to establish international public law predicated on an idea of an international order where such rights can be protected, or do we widen the debate to talk about how to defend wider perspectives of ‘human potential’ based on maximising people’s ability to take autonomous action? Now Amnesty already does this by including campaigning on biopolitical rights like the right to abortion, children’s rights, and racial justice. But, there remains a big gap between awareness raising and action that translates into enforceable legal mechanisms. This relates to a debate about the limits of legal positivism that underpins the global human rights industry.

The weakness of this version of ‘universality’ is that it tends to disconnect ‘rights’ from the social context of actual historical development and in particular the role of social movements in altering what we consider ‘rights’, and in moving forward agendas to realise them. We focus on the ‘ends’ of the claims, and not enough on the ‘means’ – in particular the historical non-legal and pre-institutional forms of fights against injustice. Today, the human rights agenda as pursued by organisations like Amnesty, is despite its claim to universalism, mainly focused on ‘negative rights’: political and civil rights rather than ‘positive rights’, like economic and social rights. Amnesty, as an international NGO, is ironically highly state-centric and ‘realist’ (it is the Russian state hailed in the plea to free Navalny and has a ‘duty’ to comply). At the same time, as I hinted in the article, the legalist model also relies on a model of unequal inter-state relations where via realpolitik, offenders are forced to comply. These are not my ideas – but mainstream debates in the social constructivist approach to rights discourses and the turn towards social movements as engines of change, along with the need for institutional democratisation. (Side note) – my current research is interested in the transition from new social movements to ‘social non-movements’. But that’s a post for another day.

How does this relate to Navalny himself? Well, at the back of my mind were various misgivings about his chameleon populist appearance – that his social populism was merely that – convenient rhetoric. What does he himself think about Russians’ social rights? (we know what he thinks about cultural rights – that beyond the ethnic ‘russkie’ they should be limited). My hunch on social rights is that he remains an incorrigible (neo)liberal, which would be understandable given his biography. But is that fair? Well, after writing my piece, I thought I’d better actually review my prejudices! My conclusion is based on a trawl of high-visibility interviews – with Yuri Dud’ and Sergei Guriev, as well as his campaigning materials.

Firstly – his ‘social programme’. People talk about his shift to focus on inequality, but really, I’m quite shocked they are so easily satisfied by pretty sparse detail and empty rhetoric (in fact, as empty of the ‘social guarantees’ rhetoric of the state itself). While many laud his anti-corruption campaign, his message of ‘better social equality via higher living standards’ relies on a kind of magical thinking related almost exclusively to removing corrupt elites. This will supposedly allowing lowering taxes and raising the minimum wage to… a paltry 25000rb. Navalny was fast to attempt to co-opt the pension protests from 2018, but as critics point out, prior to that he was quite consistent on the need to raise the retirement age.

As we dig a bit we find some unguarded comments about Singapore as a model (!) and the merits of ‘complete deregulation’ – whatever that means. Again, if he wasn’t so prominent an opposition figure his naïve voluntarism married to his moist-eyed belief in markets might even be charming. He’s learned the word ‘deregulation’, but it doesn’t appear he’s thought of what the end point looks like for a country like Russia (that, by the way, isn’t a city-state in South Asia – followers of the Brexit debate on Britain’s future may be getting déjà vu here).

Should a future Russian leader revisit the corrupt and deeply flawed privatisation processes from the 90s? Largely, the answer is no. Yes, he talks about the fundamental problem the ‘loans-for-shares auctions’ of being that its injustice meant that the institution of private property does not exist (because the illegitimacy of the process meant that later state confiscation could always be justified). But, Navalny’s answer is mainly about windfall taxes on privatised companies ‘like in the UK’. So we get a good idea that his ideas about public goods are horribly atrophied. He’s a ‘realist’: you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube – which is fair enough on one level. However, again it’s kind of funny that the rhetoric of his support and his own message is ‘idealist’ (We can change Russia), yet the policy is somewhere economically to the right of Rishi Sunak (UK’s finance minister). It is telling that his talk about privatisation – probably the one issue that still encapsulates unfairness, corruption and inequality in Russia today– even shocks the orthodox economist Sergei Guriev. (Here’s an old evaluation by Guriev of Navalny’s economic policy positions).

De-monopolize the media in Russia? Firewalls of ownership. Impartial judges? Pay them a lot (and professionalise them). Taxes up, taxes down. Taxes to pay for this and that. ‘It’s easy in the world now’ – as if even the state of California hadn’t failed to address monopolies (this time Uber). As if off-shoring would stop after Putin. Everything is either a technical-legal solution or…. you guessed it: ‘taxes’ (sometimes up, sometimes down). ‘Vot etogo byt ne dolzno’, – ‘that shouldn’t happen’! I had to laugh when this was his response about quasi monopolies in new tech as if one could flick a regulatory switch. What to do with Oligarchs? ‘Get him to pay a tax, not confiscate or shoot him’.

Now this is mean of me. Who am I to criticise? Well on the one hand, yes it is unfair to carp like this. (Although I am by no means the first to view the programme as wafer thin). Navalny remains a ‘not-yet’ politician – untried, with limited resources to develop a detailed policy position. On the other, my point is not about politics or politicians in Russia, but instead about how skewed to the right the ‘Overton window’ is –especially when it comes to the idea of social and economic rights. Outsiders forget that, as Olga Shevchenko has investigated – especially among better off Russians there’s a brand of common sense in matters economic that align with ‘neoliberal rhetoric’, or at least right libertarianism and often extreme forms of social Darwinism. If you want another illustration of this with reference to Navalny, check out the rebuke to him from a patriotic right libertarian perspective from Yuri Dud’: “I get the feeling you don’t respect capitalism – all these demands that people make restitution payments for privatisation.”  Cue, Navalny spluttering that Russia has many good capitalists. The point is the Navalny is wholly unexceptional with regard to views among the tiny group of ‘winners’ in Russia. As I keep pointing out, that also means there is a reasonable objection to his politics from the left, and from the majority of Russians who have experienced economic stagnation for the last ten years.

1 thought on “Navalny, rights discourses in, and on Russia, and the missing pro-social policy platform

  1. Pingback: Russian activism through a micro-scale and social media lens | Postsocialism

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