A unit claiming to be Cossack and other citizen pro-Russian volunteers arrive to take up position outside a Ukrainian miltary base in the Crimea. Photo: Getty
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Why Vladimir Putin needs a poor, aggressive Russia

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

During his entire time as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has been trying to solve an unsolvable problem: how to consolidate his personal power, having eliminated all institutions that limit it, while at the same time achieving economic growth?

During the first stage of his presidency – between 2000 and 2007 – he was aided by skyrocketing natural resource prices. Putin concentrated control of all the largest companies in the hands of his clan, increased the state’s role in the economy, slashed political and economic freedoms and strengthened his personal power. The huge incoming flow of oil and gas money helped to raise people’s incomes in spite of everything he did. And, in the minds of many, it formed a false association between authoritarianism and rising living standards.

In 2008, with the onset of the global economic crisis, economic growth stopped. It became clear that in order to jump-start it, the country needed to liberalise. Many believe that Medvedev’s “modernisation” was an attempt to find an alternative to Putin’s vision of Russia’s development. They are mistaken. Medvedev’s modernisation was a false modernisation, like a false grill on a car. It was Putin’s attempt to substitute liberal rhetoric for real liberalisation, while not giving up an ounce of real power to anyone: not to the parliament, not to the courts, not to local governments, and not even to Medvedev himself.

It took Putin three years to understand that a dummy engine can’t make a car go. At the same time it became clear that the goal of doubling the GDP by 2010, which he had set at the beginning of his term, had not been fulfilled, despite an almost tenfold increase in the price of oil. Living standards began to fall, and if earlier Russia’s citizens had been prepared to trade their freedoms for improvements to their quality of life, in 2011, when it became clear that further improvement was a long ways off, some citizens demanded their freedoms back. That’s how the protests of 2011-2012 began, culminating in large clashes with police in the center of Moscow a day before Putin’s inauguration in May 2012.

It was precisely at this moment that Putin sharply altered his strategy of ruling the country and began to rapidly diverge from the model of a Russian Pinochet – an authoritarian leader in a country with a relatively free economy – towards a classical dictatorship, in which people receive orders about what to think, whom to sleep with, and whom to consider an enemy. Unfortunately, personal power in any country requires several elements in order to maintain itself: external and internal enemies, large celebrations demonstrating the unity of the nation, and short, victory-bringing wars.

If you can’t improve people’s living standards, you can try to give them a sense of belonging to a great power. Particularly in Russia, where many people pine for the Soviet era, when poverty and a lack of the most basic freedoms, such as the ability to leave the country, were compensated by the pride of belonging to a superpower that can build atomic submarines, launch spaceships, and win at sports.

There’s nothing better than the model of holding large events for a regime defined by personal power. First of all, the preparation of such events can be done personally, under emergency conditions: so much the better for securing one’s authority. Second, your closest friends can reap big profits from the bloated budgets of such events. For example, Putin’s childhood friend and judo sparring partner Arkady Rotenberg won about $7.5bn worth of contracts just from the preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi – an amount comparable to the total cost of the Vancouver Games.

After the Olympics, the next “event” is the Crimea, as cynical as that may sound. For foreign observers this was a surprise, but not for Russians. In the pro-government media (and in Russia, outlets expressing alternative points of view have been almost entirely eliminated) the rhetoric of living in a besieged fortress has reigned for a long time now. Moreover, the arch enemies the state points to are not countries with which Russia has actual territorial disputes, such as China or Japan, but the European Union countries and the United States. That is, countries that are culturally close to Russia, but with a much higher quality of life. Countries which made Russians realise – once they had seen them with their own eyes – that life in their own country could be very different: that a law-abiding citizen could live without fear of the police, or that the authorities could be accountable to their fellow citizens.

Over the past two months, with the intensification of the opposition movement in Ukraine, the search for internal enemies also became a feature of the Russian media – a sad and frightening throwback to the Stalin era. People who disagreed with the authorities became a “fifth column,” and one began to hear justifications of the repressions of Stalin, who of course “killed a lot of people” but among whose victims were “real enemies of the Soviet government and accomplices of fascism.” The fact that, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, Stalin had himself become an “accomplice of fascism” is delicately omitted in these films and TV shows.

The deployment of troops to the Crimea was not only an opportunity to raise Putin’s own popularity by pandering to national and imperialist sentiment but also an excellent way to crack down on internal enemies. In the midst of these events, Alexei Navalny, who had won second place in the Moscow mayoral elections just this fall, was placed under house arrest. He received about 30 per cent of the vote and almost forced a run-off election. Navalny had become popular by publicising his anti-corruption investigations in his blog. About a million people read him on some form of social media. Not surprisingly, one of the conditions of his house arrest is a ban on internet use.

The west has already begun to threaten Russia with political and economic isolation, but this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Putin’s power. For example, Western analysts say that “Russia will not invade Crimea because Russia’s economy is in bad shape and this would only weaken it further.” They are mistaken. Putin no longer needs economic growth. He has grasped the contradiction between economic growth and the consolidation of his own power, and he has made his choice. He understands very well that in 2011-2012 it was the most economically active and wealthy segments of the population that protested against him. He understands that millions of entrepreneurs and workers of the knowledge economy had already emigrated to the US and European Union during his reign. And he understands that a solution that simultaneously halts economic growth and strengthens the patriotism of the poorest segments of the population is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

“Russia will not invade Crimea because there are insufficient medical units within the army groups which conduct exercises on the border with Ukraine,” write western analysts. Once again, this is western logic, through which it is very difficult to understand that, in order to secure personal power, gain territory and confirm superpower status, the lives of simple soldiers who will die from insufficient medical care can easily be sacrificed.

The same goes for isolation. Isolation is beneficial to Putin. He would gladly introduce exit visas, like the USSR had, in order to prevent the most active citizens from travelling to Europe and the US to see what life is like there. The EU and the US banning Russians from having foreign bank accounts and owning real estate spares him having to adopt unpopular laws to “de-offshore-ise” the elite. What could be better for uniting the offended and the humbled around the leader? Economic sanctions? An excellent way to demonstrate to Russia’s population that the US and EU are enemies who sincerely wish them ill.

Why am I, personally, against the war? Almost every day I see how regular citizens of my country suffer from a lack of rights and from fear of the government and its representatives. Despite a lengthy period of economic growth, Russia’s citizens are still, on the whole, very poor. A decade of boisterous growth has led to fantastic inequality and stratification because for Putin it is easier to manage 200 billionaires who control the entire economy. Which, in turn, creates a lack of opportunities. I understood a long time ago that democracy, freedom of speech, local government, and improving the citizens’ quality of life are in direct conflict with Putin’s desire to endlessly consolidate his own power.

PS None of this changes the fact that in the Crimea and in Ukraine’s south-east, there are real problems concerning the Russian language and people’s self-determination. And the citizens of these regions also have the right to self-determination through a referendum. But it must be held not under the watch of Russian soldiers, or Ukrainian soldiers sent from the new government in Kiev, but in the presence of a large number of international observers and journalists – first and foremost, from Russia. Moreover, the issues of administrative affiliation and language should be solved separately. It is possible, for example, that the citizens of the Donetsk oblast want to remain part of Ukraine while speaking, being educated, and doing business in Russian. And any Ukrainian government should give them this opportunity.

KermlinRussia is a satirical twitter duo that also writes influential columns on politics and the economy in outlets like Russian Forbes. You can read more about them here. Follow them @KermlinRussia

Translated by Ilya Lozovsky

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

 

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times