Tag Archives: state capitalism

Covid field tales – Part Two: Unmasking State Capitalism or Capitalist Realism?

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A pharmacy in Omsk with the sign ‘We have no masks or antiseptic gel in stock’.

This is the second of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. There will be 3-4 texts  on different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These will be based on one long text that will appear shortly in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are open access –  so please check it out. Space in those dispatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

The last post chronicled the rise of Moscow as the focal point of the disease and its spread in Russia, not we move on to how City Hall has dealt with lock down and in particular what this reveals about ‘State Capitalism’.

To avoid an official ‘state of emergency’ which would have meant taking on a massive financial burden, City Hall adopted various heuristics to manage quarantine. From March 5, the Moscow had a high-alert mode, from the 26th – self-isolation for those 65+, from the 30thself-isolation for all. The delegation of responsibility for their own health and well-being to citizens, after recent restrictions on freedoms, looked neoliberal. At the same time, the scope of quarantine education addressed to ignorant citizens and belief in its effectiveness, suggested the return of Soviet sanitary propaganda (Shok, Beliakova, 2020). In conditions of lockdown uncertainty, the boundaries of self-isolation were delineated by rituals of taking out garbage, buying food and medicine, dog walking. From April 1, fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles were imposed for each violation. On April 15, quarantine met the control society with digital codes for trips around the city. Since May 12, wearing masks and gloves became mandatory in stores.

When the president empowered regions as responsible for fighting the disease, and the prime minister asked the Moscow mayor “organizationally and methodically” to help colleagues “on the ground”, Sobyanin became the face of the ”virus federalism” and the capital’s protocol “counteracting the spread of coronavirus infection” became a model to follow.

Unmasking state capitalism or capitalist realism?

While the self-isolation regime is gone, the ”glove-mask system” remains. Entering public transport or shops without PPE is prohibited – although it looks like the mask requirement will soon be dropped.  Disposable masks – medical blue, three-layered – are found far beyond pharmacies: at newspaper stands, at the ice cream kiosks, in cheap and expensive grocery chains. At the reopened farmfoods store, half-empty due to supply disruptions, masks are at a discount. In May, they cost from 29 to 70 rubles, in March-April – up to an exorbitant 150 and you could buy them only on the Internet from resellers, thirty-times more expensive than in 2019. Prices began to rise in February. At the peak, the government tried to mandate them, but immediately abandoned this measure. The rhythm of the pandemic in Moscow was not only the appearance or absence of masks, but their price in(de)flation.

In the Russia that imported the bulk of masks from China before Covid-19 there were three domestic manufacturers. City Hall not only took ownership of the largest factory but removed its facilities from the city of Vladimir to the capital, turning the pandemic into a “Moscow state business”. Two thirds of masks from the Moscow government (about 4 million items a week) were sold at cost to hospitals and communal services, 500,000 – for a “standardised price” of 30 rubles in the metro. The rest were put into a city administration reserve.

Compared to the free distribution of mask not only in the Paris metro, but on buses in Russia’s Far East, Moscow’s choices provoked discussion of the political economy of PPE. Vladimirites were disgusted by the capital’s betrayal leaving them not only without protection, but one profitable business less. Their objections to internal colonialism were tempered with racist suggestions that the masks from Moscow – now produced by “immigrants from disadvantaged countries of the near abroad” – were now “less hygienic”. Muscovites discussed the superprofit extracted by City Hall, and supposed that “since they bought the plant, the mask-regime will never end.” Stuck between epidemiological citizenship and city-state paternalism, they claimed that the government had no moral right to demand wearing masks without free distribution. Citizens made a hopeless diagnosis – “it’s all capitalism and they don’t give a shit” – and continued to buy masks.

The nature of state-capital conjunctions in the Russian capital has long been a bone of contention. The question of who can sell masks and gloves and who profits from their production is at the heart of thinking about the paradox of Russia’s political economy Ilya Matveev calls ‘dirigisme and neoliberalism at the same time’ to financially benefit insiders. Matveev has been criticised for this argument – with the riposte mainly about the piecemeal nature of actual liberalising reform since 2000. However in many ways that critique (from 2016) was misplaced, and I think the virus response illustrates Matveev’s view well – state capture by interests does not exclude the market ‘for thee, but not for me’. 

Appropriating profitable PPE businesses, strategically significant in an epidemic, City Hall enters the order of state capitalism. Obliging citizens to wear masks and offering them at commercial prices, they interpret civic responsibility in a neoliberal mode as a personal transaction according to the logic of capitalist realism that anathemizes any alternative to marketised relations (Fisher 2009).

Nonetheless the virus’ acceleration of neoliberalism does not completely destroy the legacy of the Soviet social state, instead weakening and transforming it beyond recognition. By sending masks to hospitals at cost price, Moscow combines the logic of minimal profitability and sluggish paternalism. Opting to create a reserve fund instead of free distribution of masks, it reproduces a pattern of deformed care without expenditure, developed by the federal government via the Russian Reserve Fund. State capital accumulation has a perverse obsession with curtailing the circulation – of money, of civic potential, – we call this the political economy of “the untouchable reserve”.

Emergency Reserve

‘Emergency reserve’. The untouchable reserve relates more to a strategic reserve of collected stock for emergency use.

In the next post we will discuss ‘disinfection’ and the ‘smart city’.

Putting in a good word for the Russian bourgeoisie

small shop in Russia

A typical small independent shop in a provincial town now under a lot of pressure from cartel-like supermarket chains.

A shorter version of this post appeared on Ridl.io

As anthropologist James Scott once said, ‘it’s time someone put in a good word for the petite bourgeoisie’. Shopkeeper-owners, small independent professionals and traders fulfil essential social and economic functions in any society but are especially important in modernizing ones. Sooner or later they turn into a middle-class with property rights and economic interests to defend. They are seen, even by Marxists, as a motor of political change.

However, in Russia the growth of a real middle-class and a healthy private sector is hindered at every step, largely in favour of a state-big business nexus. Whole industries – particularly in strategic sectors, are managed by state-owned monopolies, and have preferential access to banking finance, as Ilya Matveev points out.

The idea that the Russian political economy is a hybrid form of ‘state capitalism’ is widely accepted. However, less attention is paid to how these processes affect entrepreneurship generally and the wider implications for society. Coercion to gain access to wealth and the violent form of corporate raiding are also widely studied. However, elite insiders’ appetites for unearned wealth and sources of economic rent mean that even small businesses are subject to ‘taking’, rather than ‘trading’, to use Gerald Easter’s terms. This reflects a ‘maturing’ stage of insider elites and the way natural resources have already been ‘gathered back in’ by the state.

In most societies, the diversity of small and medium sized businesses – made visible in town and city centres – is seen as a key indicator of the health of the economy, and society more generally. If ‘mom and pop’ businesses are driven out of business, goes the logic, it’s because bigger capitalists have preferential access to power or the state, and because taxation and regulations are too burdensome for smaller operators. Russia suffers from both these structural obstacles and things are getting worse rather than better. To explore this we can start from the big picture and progressively narrow our focus to show how entrepreneurs are increasingly squeezed out and how informal ‘micro businesses’ are now one of the only viable alternatives for those without patronage from system insiders.

One way of understanding this is by looking at the share of ‘entrepreneurial incomes’ versus employment wages.  In 2000, it was 15%, but in 2018 it had dropped to 7.5%. Incomes from property are microscopic – 5%. So much for a broad property-owning class. The number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is falling by 6-7% a year. We can also look at the average size of firms as an indicator. Labour researcher Stephen Crowley argues in a forthcoming book that Russia is an extreme case of the privileging of large enterprises. 80% of employment in manufacturing firms is in large companies, only 10% of the country’s workforce is employed in SMEs, versus 70% in the EU. Moreover since the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its economic side effects, consolidation has intensified, with the vast majority of closures in small and medium firms. There is plenty of evidence that monopolies and cartels are growing and competition falling. David Szakony reports that 14% of firms in 2016 reported they had ‘no competition’, a rise from 1% in 2013. Yet the number of ‘unfair competition’ court cases heard has fallen over the same period, while the Federal Monopolies Commission is notorious for pursuing SMEs in bureaucratic actions. Szakony summarises: Since 2014, SMEs have been squeezed by ‘skyrocketing interest rates, unsustainable tax burdens, and uncertain protection for their property rights’.

That the conditions and prognosis for SMEs are so bad is very visible in the Sisyphean efforts of the Minister for Economic Development, Maksim Oreshkin. Today Oreshkin is quoted as saying that preventing the stagnation of small business requires ‘work to increase the confidence of the business community in the state (both in regulation and in the system of enforcement) and reduce administrative costs.’ The report carrying the quote adds, ‘According to him, all these areas are enshrined in the list of key structural reforms.’ The problem is that all the signs are that for good reasons smaller businesses don’t trust the state.

Schemes like low interest loans for restaurants and small shops are a drop in the ocean ($30m), and almost exclusively go to ‘connected’ insiders at regional level. Indeed, this scheme is in fact a policy reversal – a similar scheme was discontinued because it mainly benefited the banks and was abused by businesses with political connections. In Kaluga region in 2017 (where my fieldwork sites are), for example, all the subsidized loans went to four companies owned by a single individual.  But even if the scheme provided fair access, an individual entrepreneur in a low-margin business (which is most shops) would find this a risky proposition.

 

In addition, for retail businesses there will be a broadening of the ‘compulsory barcoding’ of products to allow the state a real-time assessment of turnover.   While the idea behind these changes is to simultaneously prevent tax fraud and help small businesses by taxing their actual turnover, it is expensive for small shops to install and service. An online ‘cash register’ requires much more work in marking stock and inventory control . Finally, proposals like ‘inspection holidays’ to protect ‘conscientious’ business from excessive regulatory attention, only underline how much predatory and corrupt power bureaucrats have over small businesses. While the rate of some inspections is falling, there has been a sharp rise in ‘unplanned’ visits by regulators – up 74%). Regulatory inspection in Russia remains  a key area where bribe-taking can occur.

These dynamics are most observable in the changing patterns of shops and SME employment in small and medium sized towns. In the town of 20,000 people where I conduct field research, only two independent grocers remains, down from more than a dozen in the early 2000s. Three chains of mini-markets have taken their place – very convenient, but a classic example of cartel-like behaviour. One is owned by a state bank, the other two by oligarchic interests. This pattern is mirrored more widely – around 40% of trade is controlled by large retailers and the trend is increasing. The poorest areas do without the chains completely but even here a genuine local entrepreneur will struggle.  A vocal observer in this has been the controversial business commentator Dmitrii Potapenko, who in 2017 offered a stark analysis – ‘a seven rouble difference in the price of a loaf of bread is a critically significant sum’ (then around 10 US cents) illustrating the extreme price sensitivity of consumers. Potapenko has been in the limelight again just recently, commenting on cryptocurrencies. This was against the backdrop of discussions about the self employed ‘going into the shadows of cash only’, [ушли в кэш], the merits of employees demanding the option of payroll in cash, and the use and abuse of the Federal Law 115-F3 on money laundering that allows banks to freeze business accounts. While there’s more heat than light in the discussion, it highlights how trust of the banking system is still highly relative, and, as we’ve seen with even high-ranking politicians, cash is king!

But back to the suffering of small business under insurmountable pressures…

A similar trend to that seen among small shops is observable in employment, whether in services or manufacturing. In my town, small producers of steel, building materials, and plastic manufactures have either gone to the wall or sold up in the last ten years. Some of this is a natural process as many of these businesses were left-overs of large and outdated Soviet-era enterprises. A few with very special niches will hang on, but most are dying out. The local owner of a steel fabricators employing around 100 people, recently sold out to a conglomerate, tired of bureaucratic sword of Damocles, fed up with competing with Chinese imports, but mostly exhausted by the experience of being an entrepreneur in Russia: ‘in business you need to know when it’s time to leave,’ he told me. Another more optimistic entrepreneur had just opened a high tech laser-cutting materials workshop with around 20 employees – just the kind of business Russia needs, making good use of its still impressive human and technical capital. However, it turns out this venture was more out of necessity than choice. His prefabricated building business had been ‘taken over’ by competitors, against his will, and another side-line in printing merchandising materials and school textbooks was frozen due to a seemingly endless tax inspection.

However, this doleful picture is not the whole story. There has been a statistically measurable rise in start ups – in micro-businesses – defined as having 15 employees or less. While starting small is typical the world over, in Russia it has specific connotations. The smaller the business, the more potential there is for it to disappear into the informal economy and escape taxation and regulation partly or entirely, especially as the law on self-employment is unclear, as discussed in a previous blog post. Indeed, one informal fix to burdensome and predatory state regulation is spinning off part of a business into the underground, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed first-hand. A large proportion of the informal economy is connected to micro-businesses – largely made up of sole-traders.

If the state wants to support legal micro business, one way would be to bring back their most visible incarnation – the street kiosk – typically selling newspapers and magazines, hot food and beverages, or even clothes, domestic goods and toys. While long bedevilled by issues like mafia extortion and high rents, these micro-retailers are making a comeback outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. While the demand is clearly, there is a long way to go, and many municipalities are not keen on these small businesses. There are some 16,000 kiosks nationally, down from 42,000 some years ago. Certainly though, the resurrection of the kiosk, along with the high number of informal sole traders shows that entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Russia. However, that this is limited to the niche of individual self-exploitation – whether in street kiosk or shadow economy self-employment – is far from the dream of popular ownership of the means of production that James Scott lauds for its emphasis on autonomy, civic society potential and self-reliance. We’re back to the argument about Russia’s ‘missing’ middle-class (Balzer’s phrase)- or at least the entrepreneurial conception of it.