e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

In Defense of Society: An Open Platform

Editorial note: This manifesto was penned by a group of Russian activists and intellectuals about the current political situation in Russia, and what must be done to change it. The manifesto was originally published in Russian on Colta.ru

The ruling elite has made full use of the apathy and fragmentation of our society. The state media bursts with loyalist propaganda, presenting all protests as the result of manipulation by foreign enemies, while its main opposition is dominated by right-wing liberals: apologists of the free market and privatization. A position that would connect the left with democratic agendas is virtually never expressed. We believe that the only alternative to poverty, barbarism and the disintegration of society is an alliance for the development of common political positions and programs for collective action.

Today in Russia everyone is talking about the crisis. However, its causes are much deeper than the foreign policy of the government, corruption and pressure from the West. The causes can be found in the exhaustion of the post-Soviet capitalist model established in the 1990s. This is the foundation on which the current regime has grown. In this model, the privatization of Soviet property has been inextricably linked with the privatization of political power. Economic violence was an inevitable consequence of the turn towards authoritarian presidential power that began in 1993. Defined by nationwide de-industrialization and the predatory exploitation of natural resources in the interests of the elite, the Putin regime is simply a natural evolution of Yeltsin’s. The irony of this situation is that Russia, with its vast natural resources, is fully capable of generating sufficient revenue from the export of raw materials to strengthen its collective economic and social wellbeing. Instead, the Russian government has introduced a domestic policy of austerity, similar to what EU has forced on Greece.

Degradation—political, intellectual, and social—has become the essence of this system. The result is not only the fragmentation of society, but also its helplessness in the face of repression, religious obscurantism and, most importantly, the continuous attack on social rights.

In the early 2000s, the authorities opted for “de-politicization” proclaiming stability to be the main objective. The conflict in Ukraine and the active complicity of Russian authorities have contributed to the simulation of a new patriotic consensus. But this is based on a dishonest and unsustainable ideology. The declared unity of the people is false. Official propaganda pursues a strategy of constant distraction as developments in foreign policy have become the justification for anti-social policies and the suppression of basic civil liberties.

The “anti-crisis” plan of the government is effectively identical to the prescriptions of the so-called austerity policies that have been implemented in Greece, Spain and Italy since the late 2000s. These policies have led to increasing impoverishment and unemployment in these countries. The government’s plan includes financial support of big banks and corporations, permanent extraction of funds from the population through an increase in direct and indirect taxes, the raising of retirement age, cuts in social programs, and the increasing privatization of the public sector.

In Russia, such measures are combined with the sharp devaluation of the ruble, the government’s refusal of salary and pension indexation, in addition to corruption and the embezzlement of the national budget. But if the European elites expropriate their wealth from the population in the name of economic growth, the Russian government does not even offer this pretense. It has no clear plans or prospects and lives only for the moment. Instead of a long-term strategy, it has resorted to filling the holes in the budget by implementing massive cuts to education and health care. Next on the agenda is an increase in retirement age.

The government is pursuing two short-term goals: first, it seeks to satisfy the elite’s appetite for profit, developed during more fortunate times, and so the state continues to bail out corporations and large banks using public funds. Second, it tries to avoid a social catastrophe by controlling the growth of unemployment and by demagogically demanding that the regional authorities “avoid reducing the income of the population.” This policy only postpones inevitable catastrophe. Meanwhile, the elite have begun searching for scapegoats, including some from within their own ranks. The “anti-crisis” mode of the current regime in no way represents an alternative to the sovereignty of the ruling class; the change of some officials and even the head of state does not alter its basic hostility to the interests of the majority.

Unlike European countries in which austerity policies are actively resisted by unions and mass social movements, most of Russia’s citizens remain as passive victims. Nevertheless, at the end of last year, new protest groups, committed to the defense of their interests, started to appear. Most of these actions, such as a national protest by truckers, rallies against paid parking or work-to-rule strike of doctors in some regions, are directed against some of the most obvious aspects of the authorities’ anti-social policy, which directly threatens jobs and living standards.

We believe that the new civic nation in Russia may appear only as a result of the common struggle of these movements and trade unions, rather than by political engineering or insane nationalist projects of any stripe.

Most pernicious, unacceptable and socially racist is the division of the population into the “civilized people” and Homo Sovieticus. Reanimating the lines of confrontation from 1991 and 1993 plays into the hands of the government and can only result in future conflicts. Instead, we need a program of civil consensus based on a common social and democratic agenda. At stake here is the economic interest of the majority, which is inseparable from political and civic liberties. We propose a union of everyone who shares our view of this situation and all who are convinced of the need to implement the following basic steps:

• A stop to austerity policies. We demand an end to the cuts in social spending, tax increases and introduction of new taxes, as well as ensuring effective functioning of the social programs to be paid for by cuts to the income of big business and senior officials.

• An annual indexation of salaries, pensions, stipends and allowances at the current rate of inflation through a legally established, unified procedure of mandatory indexation of wages at all commercial as well as non-profit organizations.

• Implementation of a progressive income tax. Reasonable unemployment benefits, the revision of the method for calculating the minimum subsistence level and a corresponding increase in the minimum wage. An adoption of a minimum hourly wage law. Tax holidays and affordable loans for small businesses. Expansion of the list of taxable luxury goods.

• A three-year freeze on loan payments that exceed 10% of monthly income. A ban on collection agencies: any penalties shall be governed and conducted by public authorities following court decisions. Limitation of the maximum rate for loans of microfinance organizations.

• The nationalization of basic industries. Large state-owned companies must be managed on the basis of a democratically organized system of planning in the interest of the public.

• The moratorium on the privatization of all socially important industries: health, education and culture. Cancellation of the so-called “new remuneration system,” which allows manipulation of workers’ salaries by the management. Public sector organizations must be required to pay the base sum of at least 80% of the total salary.

• Labor law reform: a guaranteed right to form trade unions and strike. Limitation of the so-called “trade secrets,” access of trade union representatives to bookkeeping and institutional financial records. Provision for workers’ collectives to control the administration of the company. Guaranteed labor rights for all workers in the Russian Federation, regardless of nationality.

• Optimization of the police and bureaucratic apparatus. Reduction of government spending at the executive level for the benefit of ordinary workers. The introduction of criminal liability for illegal enrichment of government officials.

• Reduction of spending on military and law enforcement agency budgets in favor of education, health and culture.

• The universal right to free pre-school, primary, secondary and higher education.

• The universal right to free qualified medical care and essential medication, regardless of age, social status and other factors.

• The universal right to pension benefits that exceed the minimum cost of living in the region of residence, totaling at least 50% of the final salary.

• State support for science, art and culture, ensuring the widest possible public access to these areas and free of censorship and other restrictions.

• Unconditional compliance to stricter environmental standards, including absolute adherence to the maximum permissible concentrations of harmful substances. Increased penalties for the misappropriation and transfer of funds reserved for the development of clean technologies, energy-saving and environmentally friendly housing construction. A moratorium on deforestation without fully compensatory reforestation.

• Transparency in foreign policy. An end to “secret diplomacy” and to the unconstitutional, “hybrid” presence of Russian troops on the territory of other states. Official recognition of all combat deaths among the Russian military.

• A guarantee of the secular character of the state. Abolition of all discriminatory laws based on “morality” and “traditional values,” which are determined not by society, but by clerics from all religions. Elimination of the concept of “traditional faiths” from legal code. Completely secularize the character of school education.

• Free elections at all levels of government for any party other than those inciting ethnic or religious hatred. A notification procedure for the registration of parties. An expansion of the list of topics allowed for submission to a referendum, and a simplification of its procedure.

• Decentralization of authority, an expansion of the budgetary powers of local self-government and the establishment of mechanisms of public control over the use of land resources. Gradual redistribution of state revenue at the regional and local levels.

• Emancipation of the judicial system from the executive branch’s control. The strict compliance of legislation with the constitution. Repeal of the prohibitive laws passed by the 6th Duma (2011-2016).

• Full enforcement of the freedom of expression. Termination of any government pressure on the media, freedom of expression for journalists in all media outlets, regardless the identity of its founder, as well as their organizational and legal structure and ownership. The state is obliged not to interfere in editorial work and to guarantee the protection of journalists from harassment. The prohibition of extrajudicial blocking of electronic resources.

• Guaranteed right to freedom of assembly, meetings and demonstrations.

• Limitation of presidential power, the transfer of powers to the parliament and strengthening of the role of representative bodies on all government levels. Formation of a government accountable to parliament, on the basis of a parliamentary majority.

Our platform is open for signatures. Only the public can speak in its own defense. We hope that this document will be the first step towards dialogue and a basis for further research into new forms of action.

Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorin, writer, journalist
Evgeniy Babushkin, writer, journalist
Svetlana Baskov, director
Love Belyatskaya “All Free” book store
Ilya Budraitskis, writer, lecturer, editor of the website “Open Left”
Sergey Vasilyev, singer, film director
Sergey Vilkov, a journalist, “Public Opinion”
Tatiana Volkova, curator
Anna Gaskarova journalist, “Snob. Ru”
Igor Gulin, novelist, critic, columnist “Kommersant- Weekend”
Andrey Demidov, the union “Teacher”
Catherine Tar, curator
Igor Dmitriev, journalist
Oleg Zhuravlev, Laboratory of Public Sociology
Carine Clément, Smolny College, Institute “Collective Action”
Andrei Konoval, Organizational Secretary of the Interregional Trade Union of Health Workers “Action”
Matthew Krylov, artist
Paul Kudyukin, Co-trade union “Solidarity University”, the chief editor of “Democracy and Socialism”
Vasily Kuzmin, activist, “Left Bloc”
Boris Kupriyanov, “phalanx” book store
Ekaterina Lazareva, Ph.D., artist
Arseny Levinson, a human rights activist, lawyer
Ilya Matveev, Doctor of Political Sciences, Lecturer
Kirill Medvedev, poet, musician, Russian Socialist Movement
Anton Morvan, journalist, “Public Opinion”
Gleb Napreenko, chief editor of “Disagreements”
Sergey Nevsky, composer
Andrey Oleynikov, associate professor of Russian State Humanitarian University, the trade union “Solidarity University”
Alexander Resnick, Ph.D.
Galina Rymbu, poet, Russian Socialist Movement
Alexander Skidan, poet, critic
Vladislav Sofronov, an independent researcher, RSD
Nikita Sutyrin, director
Oksana Timofeeva, philosopher, art. EUSP teacher, art. Researcher IF RAN
Artem Faust “All Free” book store
Alexei Tsvetkov, writer
Keti Chukhrov, associate professor of the Higher School of Economics
Konstantin Shavlovsky, poet, critic, “Word Order”
Yan Shenkman, journalist at “Novaya Gazeta”
Alexander Shubin, Doctor of Historical Sciences, member of the working group of the community “Informatsional”
Alexei Yurchak, anthropologist, professor at the University of California at Berkeley


Translated by Anton Vidokle for e-flux

*Image translation: “You are blocking the future. Move!” © Молодой дальневосточник


Support for “In Defense of Society: An Open Platform”

Moving forward hand in hand

[Corrected version of earlier post]

This is an excellent Open Platform, and we in the United States should stand together with its signatories. Parts of the Platform are applicable to the US as well as to Russia. Despite clear differences between the two countries, the US too, has extraordinarily wealthy elites who have received vast government bailouts and corporate welfare at the expense of the great majority. The US too has recently seen renewed grassroots activity, while at the same time our wealthiest elites have also had tremendous influence over the belief systems of broad swathes of the population. To quote the amazon blurb for Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right:

"Why is America living in an age of profound economic inequality? Why, despite the desperate need to address climate change, have even modest environmental efforts been defeated again and again? Why have protections for employees been decimated?..
"The conventional answer is that a popular uprising against ‘big government’ led to the ascendancy of a broad-based conservative movement. But as Jane Mayer shows…, a network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system.
"The network has brought together some of the richest people on the planet… When libertarian ideas proved decidedly unpopular with voters, the Koch brothers and their allies [realized that if] they pooled their vast resources, they could fund an interlocking array of organizations that could work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and, they hoped the presidency, [and] most of their political activities could be written off as tax-deductible ‘philanthropy.’
“These organizations were given innocuous names such as Americans for Prosperity. Funding sources were hidden whenever possible. This process reached its apotheosis with the allegedly populist Tea Party movement…”

These American billionaires succeeded in moving the country’s entire political discourse far to the right, using what the Open Platform calls “a strategy of constant distraction.” I would argue that Trump’s recent hair-raising ascent is due to popular confusion resulting from the failure of far right-wing ideology to actually produce the fantasized improvements in people’s lives. We can only hope that this confusion will settle out with more Americans coming to realize that the democratic left is more likely to provide solutions than the xenophobic right. Though sadly the US media has found it far more profitable to give Trump the lion’s share of broadcast time than to cover Bernie Sanders.

There are of course differences between the US and Russia. Many Americans erroneously attribute our relatively freer system to our “better ideas,” generated by our venerated Founding Fathers. I would argue instead that our different social and political systems arose from the pure happenstance of our very different geographies; that is, our differing material bases. There’s nothing more basic or foundational than the shape and disposition of the land on which a given society organizes and sustains itself.

The US’s vast Great Plains happen to have a unique co-location: some of the richest temperate-climate farmland in the world, through which passes the longest the longest navigable river network on earth. The Mississippi - alone in the world - has six major navigable tributaries, and empties into a protected warm water port with year-round access to other ports around the US coast and the world. “Collectively, all of [the United States] temperate-zone rivers are 14,650 miles long. China and Germany each have about 2000 miles, France about 1000.” (Peter Zeihan, The Accidental Superpower). So from early on, American farmers could grow more crops than they needed for themselves and transport them to market easily via nearby rivers. This in turn created opportunities for the rise of American industry and cities based on the processing and sale of various commodities.

Many of Russia’s rivers run north into the Arctic ocean. The ones that flow south empty into the landlocked Caspian Sea or the Black Sea, whose exit to other domestic and international ports Russia does not control. Russia has its own vast, fertile plains. But most cities in the Russian plains did not originally arise as trading centers. They were created as military garrisons by tsarist order in the endless struggle to protect Russia from invasion and annual slave raids that plagued the country for centuries. Military garrisons must be subordinate to their commander in chief. Urbanization based on trade and manufacture, in contrast, can generate multiple wealth-based power centers across the length and breadth of a country.

Russia encompasses the largest flat landscape on earth without natural defensive barriers (e. g. mountains or oceans). Across the centuries, on the other side of its flat frontier lived the most powerful enemies of the day. Of necessity, Russia’s social system developed as a military chain of command whose nobility was required to spend half of each summer patrolling the endless frontier watching for slave raiders. For prior to the black African slave trade, more Slaves were enslaved than any other population on earth (“Slav” is the origin of our word “slave”). From Europe’s galley slaves to the slaves who built Istanbul, the labor was provided by Russians abducted in raids and sold in Crimean and other slave markets.

With this yearly threat to Russia’s cities all the way to Moscow, capitalism could not possibly develop organically over centuries in Russia as it did in the West. The defensive problem created by the vast flat steppes extended into the 20th century, when the Germans swept rapidly across them, causing a death rate of the Soviet population many times greater than any other country on earth has ever experienced. The US, meanwhile, is protected by two vast oceans and less powerful neighbors to the north and south.

When the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, the population was overwhelmingly peasant, mostly illiterate, with a tiny proportion of industry (still largely under the tsarist government’s thumb). If Russia was to defend itself and compete on the world stage, it needed to industrialize fast. But as Marx accurately observed, the period of capital accumulation that enables nation-wide industrialization is inherently exploitative, no matter what social system it occurs under. Unlike the US centuries-long process of industrialization at the initiative of elites scattered across the country, Soviet Russia industrialized by fiat from Moscow, within several decades. It was truly a superhuman feat.

When the grotesquely-misnamed “Communism” fell at the end of the 20th century, what occurred in Russia was not capitalism. It was the collapse of government ownership of the economy; oligarchs’ grand theft of what had been created over decades by the Soviet population; and massive transfer of wealth out of the country - with likely some amount of real value created. I believe the rise of Putin isn’t a fluke of the superstructure, but is a continuation of the centralized social structure that has existed in Russia from the rise of Muscovy. The mechanisms by which centralization keeps recurring in Russia are undoubtedly a complex inter-relationship of multiple factors which I continue to sort through and try to understand.

What do these different geographies and histories mean for genuinely democratic movements’ strategies in Russia and in the US? I’m not sure. But I do think we should try to figure it out together, moving forward hand in hand.